To my dearest friend Louise,
Have you ever done something and gotten that feeling that it is something you only just recently did, even though in truth it was something you had done long ago or perhaps even not at all? Well, as I pen these words I find myself struck by the exact opposite feeling. You will no doubt think me strange for saying so, but it feels as if I have not written to you in many years, though our last correspondence was but a month ago. It is oft enough to make me feel a nostalgic, impatient fool, an epithet I cannot rightly disagree with.
In any case, by now you have surely heard of my return from Germania and the troubles I faced there. I do not yet know what exactly you may have heard, but I will tell you now that most of it is likely to be true, if in the broad strokes and not the finer details. I shan't delve too deeply into the matter here or else I'd be writing until we are old and grey, and also I wish to save as much conversation as I can for when we finally see each other again, face-to-face. I do not doubt that I am not the only one with stories to share either, given what I have heard of your own adventures whilst I was away.
Please come to Tristania as soon as you are able. There is so much I wish to discuss that I am liable to burst at any moment. If you must use this letter to excuse your absence from the Academy, then please do so. I await your presence eagerly.
With greatest love,
Henrietta looked herself over in the full length mirror in her room, pirouetting on the ball of her foot so that her dress could twirl about her ankles freely. It was not woven of the fine silk and samite she was accustomed to; it had no sequins or precious jewels. It was only a plain cotton dress, painted in a cheap blue dye, that she had bought off a palace servant who just so happened to be of similar size as her. When coupled with the faded leather boots she wore on her feet, the small purse about her waist, and the total lack of makeup or fine jewelry, she looked every part the commoner she was pretending to be. It was the perfect disguise.
Satisfied with her outfit, Henrietta stepped out of the room. Alex had been waiting for her outside, leaning against the wall next to the door. The bored expression on his face spoke of his impatience, but Henrietta could not fault him for that. She was just as restless as he was, if not more so.
"Ready?" he asked.
"Yes. Let's go."
They left the palace and went out to the yard, striding boldly past the gates. The guards stationed there stared at them as they passed, but otherwise made no effort to stop them. Henrietta had to work hard not to smirk. It would be unbecoming of her. But even so, unable to repress that soaring sense of liberation in her heart, she allowed her lips to twist upward just a hint.
Mere weeks ago, the entire palace would have been in an uproar had she attempted a stunt such as this. No one around her would have permitted her to leave without at least a full contingent of mage-knights to escort her. The memory of that alone was stifling beyond belief. But now they could do nothing but watch with a sour look on their faces as she left their concerns behind.
Henrietta recalled something Cardinal Mazarin once said to her, during one of her lessons as a child. "The foundation of every monarch's rule comes not from good morals or ideals, but from strength. Such things as morals and ideals are useful only insofar as they maintain or acquire more power."
At the time she refused to accept his words. They were dyed in such cynicism that she rejected them at a visceral level. Did not the Founder not bestow upon them the gift of magic so that they might rule over the common people wisely and in accordance with the gods? Was their power not meant to protect and nurture those without this gift? Surely it had to be, for these were the teachings of Brimir. These were the duties of the crown.
Mazarin's answer was no. "Though the Founder's intent may have been pure, it is an unfortunate fact of life that we do not live in a world that abides by his good intentions. A king may speak of all the virtues he wishes, but if he is weak and unwise, if he cannot read the hearts of men and nation alike and bend their will to his own, then will soon find himself to be a deposed king, and then a dead king. Understand, Your Highness, I am not encouraging you to become a tyrant. I am not saying that it is permissible for you to indulge in whatever cruelty that might lay deep within your heart. For tyranny breeds discontent; discontent births rebellions; and a rebellion may cost you your life. All I ask is that you recognize what it is that allows you to hold onto the crown."
It had been a bitter pill to swallow. Blasphemous, even. But here at last Henrietta was starting to understand what the Cardinal meant. Power was nothing more than the ability to exert one's will upon the world, and it came in many forms. It was the gold that built castles and cities. The muskets and wands that formed armies. It was the beauty that beguiled the hearts of men and poisoned whispers that could suborn even the most loyal of servants. It was all of these things and so much more.
And all the morals in the world were nothing without the power to enforce them.
When Emperor Albrecht attempted to establish his line as Germania's ruling dynasty, he faced rebellion because he overestimated the reach of his power. And it was because of her own weakness that Henrietta had never been able to flout courtly customs like this before. The king and queen would not allow it. And when the king died and Queen Marianne sequestered herself, Cardinal Mazarin would not allow it. And even when he was not around, her own knights would not allow it. She was less a bird trapped in a cage and more a puppet dancing to their strings.
But things were different now. With Alex by her side, what protest could anyone raise that would not ring hollow?
She needed guards to keep her safe? Who in this world could keep her safer than one who possessed the power to face entire armies on his own?
It was improper for a princess to dress as a commoner? Well, that much might be true. But so what? What could anyone do now if she decided that she simply no longer cared? Stop her by force? They would have to get through Alex first to do that.
Henrietta did feel a not insignificant amount of guilt for exploiting Alex in this way, and she couldn't help but to laugh bitterly at herself for it. She had given him her oath that she would not use him as a mere tool of convenience, yet here she was breaking that promise in the blink of an eye. And though her guilt was somewhat assuaged by the cheerful mood Alex was in, she couldn't help but wonder if that was how little her words were actually worth.
Henrietta cast a sidelong glance at Alex.
Perhaps saying that he was cheerful wasn't the right word for it. Looking at him again, Henrietta wasn't so sure that he knew what that word truly meant. He did seem pleased, however. Yes, that was it. Pleased. Like her, he had grown irritated being cooped up in the palace upon their return from Germania. This was as much a welcome break for him as it was for her. Maybe even more so, given that he did not have her long years of experience dealing with this boredom.
As they walked to the city proper, Henrietta slipped her arm around Alex's and hummed a little song. It was not a tune that had ever been played by an orchestra or even a bard or street singer, but all the same it held a dearer place in her heart than any other. It was the lullaby that Cattleya used to sing for her whenever she had difficulties falling asleep, back when she had been fostering at the Valliere household in her youth.
She wondered how Cattleya was doing now. Henrietta hoped that she was doing well, but the second daughter of the Valliere family had never had the most robust of health. She had struggled for years with chronic illnesses that more often than not left her bedridden. When it became apparent that she would never be truly cured, sighs were heard throughout all the kingdoms. For some, especially those within Tristain, these were sighs of lament. For others, mostly those of the neighboring kingdoms, they were sighs of great relief.
It was often said that of the Valliere daughters, the first had inherited their mother's force of will; the second received all of her talent; and the third was left with absolutely nothing at all.
The jibe rankled Henrietta fiercely, but she could not argue against the first two parts at least. Cattleya of the Flowing Earth, she had once been called: a prodigy without equal. At the tender age of twelve, before she even enrolled at the Academy of Magic, she had already been a square-class mage – an unprecedented feat that not even her mother could claim to match. And though in the end she never officially graduated due to her weak health, it made little difference. By that point, it was common knowledge that the school simply had nothing left to teach her.
It was this raw talent, coupled with her renowned beauty, grace, and lineage, that made her a prize that every noble son fought tooth and nail for. The only way she could have been even more desirable was if she had been born as the eldest daughter and heiress to the Valliere family, rather than merely the second daughter.
When Henrietta sent a letter inviting the Valliere family to the ceremony celebrating the capture of Fouquet at the end of the month, she had not been able to inquire after Cattleya's health on account of it being an official, formal invitation. Perhaps when Louise came to visit, she could question her more then.
Tristania in the bright of day was an altogether different beast than at night, Henrietta found. There was no sense of that lurking danger hidden behind every shadow of every alley. To the contrary, it was so lively and chaotic that it felt as if a small festival was taking place. For someone more accustomed to the ordered structure of the court, it was enough to dizzy Henrietta. She laughed loudly, joyfully, and spun around Alex as if they were dancing. For his part, he bore through her antics with almost grandfatherly patience.
Here, the peddlers loudly advertised their goods. Here, the blacksmiths forged their steel, while their apprentices carried buckets of water or shoveled coal into the flames. Here, the smell of fresh food wafted through the air, a scent so rich and sweet that Henrietta's stomach immediately growled upon catching a whiff of it. Fortunately, she had brought money with her this time. Soon she and Alex were sitting on a bench by the fountain in the city square, feasting upon cinnamon spiced bread glazed with melted brown sugar, butter, and vanilla.
"I may have to give that baker a royal patronage." Henrietta smacked her lips as she finished the last morsel of her treat.
"Hm," Alex grunted. He ate his bread more slowly than her, taking very deliberate bites out of it. It was hard to tell if he was simply savoring the meal or if he found it distasteful, but given that he hadn't stopped yet, she assumed the former.
"So?" Henrietta pressed him, as he reached the end of his own bread. "What do you think?"
"It was good."
She laughed. "Try not to sound so excited," she said dryly.
Henrietta glanced around the square. Her fingers were sticky from the glazed cinnamon, so when she thought that no one was paying attention, she dipped her hands into the fountain to wash them off. Smiling mischievously, she stood up and dried her hands off against her dress.
"Where shall we go next?"
Alex paused to consider the question. He looked around the square, then turned back to her. "Where do you want to go?"
"I'm willing to go wherever you want to go," Henrietta teased, grinning widely.
"Wherever is fine, then, I guess."
"Is that so? Then how about the Tristanian Royal Theater? There is a very famous opera troupe performing there this month."
"Oh? Are you sure? I thought you said it didn't matter where we go." Had Henrietta spoken with any more feigned innocence, her words would have dripped with even more sugar than their cinnamon bread. Alex glared at her until she could no longer maintain the facade, at which point she finally broke down laughing. "Come now, Alex. It was merely a jest, nothing more. Truth be told, I despise the opera. Too boring to sit through, too loud to sleep through. Why don't we visit a friend? I have been thinking that I should go see her again anyway."
"A friend?" Alex tilted her head, puzzled for a moment before he realized who she meant. "Ah."
They set off for the western part of the city. Henrietta was certain that the Charming Fairies Inn lay somewhere in this direction, but that night when they met Jessica had been so hectic that she scarcely remembered the way. She might have asked Alex if he knew, but decided against it. They were in no rush, after all, and she decided to take the opportunity to further enjoy being yet another face in the crowd.
When they eventually found the inn, it was largely empty. The doors were open, and there were a few girls sweeping outside, but it was apparent that the place was still closed this early in the day. Henrietta couldn't help but wonder what Mazarin would have thought if he knew she was here. He would most likely have a heart attack. While the Charming Fairies Inn wasn't a brothel, it was still no place for a proper young woman to be. On the off chance her disguise was seen through and her true identity revealed, the ensuing scandal could be disastrous.
But Henrietta was convinced in her disguise. When people looked for the Princess of Tristain, they searched for the silk dresses, the glittering jewels, and the enormous entourage that must needs follow; not a brown-haired, bright-eyed girl, whose like could be found anywhere in the city. More, if meeting one of those precious few people whom she could call friend meant that she needed to take a chance, then she decided she would no longer begrudge that risk. She could consider the consequences later.
Heart pounding loudly in her ears, and a grin spreading more and more across her face, Henrietta entered the inn.
There were a few more girls inside, wiping down the tables and preparing the inn for later that evening. When they saw her and Alex enter, they told them that the inn was closed. But one of them – it was the girl who once had willow legs. Anna, if she recalled correctly – recognized the pair, greeted them, and went to fetch Jessica from the back.
The innkeeper's daughter came out to the floor, drying her hands on a small rag. Her eyes quickly scanned the room before settling on the two of them. Henrietta smiled and waved, and Jessica smiled back.
"Well, well." Jessica swept into an exaggerated curtsy. "Welcome back to our humble little abode, m'lady."
"Now, now. None of that, please, I beg." Henrietta laughed pleasantly. "It has been a while, hasn't it? Have you been well, Jessica?"
"As well as can be." Jessica tucked her rag into a pocket on her apron. "Luckily I haven't had any more nasty run ins since then. But what of you? The last time you were here..."
"... I was feeling troubled, yes." Henrietta's smile became a little strained, but she forcibly mastered her mien. "I cannot claim that my issues have been resolved, but I do feel better. Thank you for asking."
"Huh. Can't say I really get how that works, but if that's how it is, then good." Jessica gestured over to an empty table. "Go on and sit. I'll fetch us something to drink. Would you like some food as well?"
"Oh, no. Thank you, but we already ate on the way here. There was a vendor selling the most amazing cinnamon bread over on Baker's Street."
"You mean the one made by Michael? He's the best."
"I was telling Alex that I might have to hire him as my own personal baker."
"Careful now. Commoners have risen up in revolt for less."
Henrietta let out an exaggerated sigh. "To have been defeated by the common masses yet again. Pity." She tried to hold onto the somber atmosphere, but quickly found herself breaking out into a fit of giggles. Jessica began chuckling, too, before leaving them for a few minutes to go bring the wine. She poured out a cup for each of them, then raised one one into the air. "Cheers," she said. Henrietta reciprocated the gesture, then they both turned to stare at Alex. After a moment, he sighed and followed suit.
"Cheers," he grunted, before tilting his head back and downing the entire drink in one go.
"So what brings the two of you out here again?" Jessica said. "Not that I'm unhappy to see you both, but I didn't think you'd come back."
"You say that as if I do not value your company," Henrietta said, feeling slightly hurt. "The only reason why I haven't come sooner is because I had some personal matters to attend to."
"Ah, well. If you say it like that, I'll start to feel embarrassed." Jessica scratched her chin sheepishly. "Actually, I'm glad you came. There's something I needed to give to you."
"And what would that be?"
"Just wait here."
Jessica went up the stairs and returned a few minutes later, carrying a large, hefty bag that jingled loudly as she walked over her shoulder. With a great show of effort, she set it down onto the table and some of its contents spilled out. Letting out a breath, she shook her hands off and sat back down. Henrietta stared at the gold coins that remained between them.
"This," Jessica said. "It's yours, isn't it?"
Henrietta's flicked briefly up at the black-haired girl, then back down at the bag. "I'm afraid I don't know what you are talking about," she said. "That is not mine."
"Oh, please." Jessica rolled her eyes. "A noble like you shows up one night, then immediately the next morning we find a huge pile of gold right on our front steps? That is not a coincidence."
"Regardless, I did not place that money there," Henrietta insisted. "But if I may ask, why have you spent so little of it?"
"We haven't spent any of it. At all. It was too suspicious."
"Suspicious? A turn of good fortune such as this, and you refuse it?"
"Finding a single coin or perhaps a small purse on the streets is good fortune. This?" Jessica tapped the bag with her knuckles, shaking it slightly. "No matter how you look at it, this isn't normal. Some of the girls wanted to split the money, but my dad and I agreed that until we could verify where it came from and what its intentions were, it wasn't to be touched. It could have been a trap."
"A trap?" Henrietta was bewildered. "What in the Founder's name would make you think that?"
Jessica shrugged. "You hear about it sometimes. Not often, but on occasions. A nobleman will give a large amount of gold or land or some other gift to a commoner family, but it's never mere charity with them. They're always looking to buy something. Might be a pretty daughter or a family heirloom or whatever else, but once they accept the gift, they can't say no anymore. How can they? If they refuse, the noble will accuse them of being thieves, and then not only will he take what he wants by force, the rest of the family could be sent to the dungeons. Or worse."
"That is disheartening to hear." Henrietta sighed. "Very well. In that case, know that this was a gift I gave to you freely, with no expectations of anything in return."
"Even then we'd still have to say no. You might be uniquely charitable, but what about the rest of your house? Do they even know what you did here? How do we know we'll be okay if they find out? And, correct me if I'm wrong, but you're not just any noblewoman, are you, Ann?"
"I suppose that depends on what you mean," Henrietta said stiffly. "Who do you think I am?"
"I think you're Henrietta de Tristain, princess of this kingdom."
"That is an interesting guess. But Princess Henrietta is known for rarely leaving the palace, and always in large company. What makes you think I am her? Have you perhaps seen her before?"
"No," Jessica admitted. "But it's not that hard to figure out if you pay enough attention. They say that the princess has a monster for a familiar. Something obscene and unnatural. Some say it is a creature of many horns and fangs. Others say it is a creature of darkness, and that it lurks in the shadows of men. It's all a load of nonsense, if you ask me, but there are many more rumors like them. One of them claims that her familiar is a demon that walks in human skin. And, no offense or anything" – she nodded over at Alex, who arched an eyebrow back at her – "but I can definitely see how he might qualify as that."
"So you would name me based on mere rumors, then?"
"Of course not. That's why the first time we met, I didn't actually think you were the princess. There's no way that the actual heir to the throne would come to a place like... well... like this." She gestured at the room around them. "But then there was the news about how the princess left for Germania, and then mere days after her return, you show back up?" Jessica leaned back in her chair, crossed her arms over her chest, and smiled triumphantly. "That can't be a coincidence either."
"Have you ever thought that perhaps you are in the wrong line of business?" Henrietta rested her elbows on the table, slowly swirling her wine around by the rim of the cup.
"Well, it's not like you put that much effort into hiding your identity."
"Excuse me?" Henrietta huffed. "I'll have you know that I put quite the effort into this disguise."
Jessica arched an eyebrow. "You call that a disguise?"
"Yes." Henrietta narrowed her eyes. "Why? What's wrong with it?"
"Nothing. It's just... the point of wearing a disguise isn't to dress down; it's to try to change who you are. You're not using any makeup or jewelry, and you're wearing a dress that anyone could afford, but that's all. You haven't dyed your hair, changed your posture, worked on the way you speak. You haven't really done anything to make it seem like you're not who you really are."
"Alex, what do you think?" Henrietta turned to him, knowing he, at least, would support her.
He shrugged in response. "She's not wrong. It's pretty mediocre."
His words were a knife to the heart. "Then why didn't you say anything before we left?" Henrietta demanded.
"Why bother?" Alex shrugged again. "It's not like it matters."
"Treason," Henrietta groused. "I am surrounded by treasonous traitors on all sides."
"Don't be too hard on us," Jessica said, still chuckling. "Look, I'm probably being overly cautious, is all. It may not be a very good disguise, but you're probably still safe. Even if someone did manage to recognize you, I doubt they'd think that the princess is out on a date like a common girl. They'd probably just assume you're someone who looks like her."
"How very reassuring." Henrietta sank in her seat and pulled the wine cup to her lips.
"In any case, I think you should take this back." Jessica pushed the bag of gold across the table, closer to Henrietta. "We're grateful for your kindness, truly, but I hope you understand why we don't want that kind of attention from a noble house, let alone from the royal house. We just don't want that kind of risk."
Henrietta did not accept the gold right away. Instead she frowned, as the wheels in her mind slowly began to turn.
"You will not accept it as charity. I understand," she said deliberately. "In that case, what if it were in payment of services rendered?"
Jessica tilted her head. "Well, in that case, I think that would be fine. What did you have in mind?"
"It has become clear to me as of late that I am far removed from the people whom I am meant to one day rule, and how dangerous that oversight can be," Henrietta said. "I want to change that, both for my own sake and everyone else's. I want to meet the people. Speak with them. Listen to their troubles and share in their joy. And I want your help organizing such an event."
"You want to throw a festival?"
"Nothing so grand, but essentially, yes."
Jessica stroked her chin thoughtfully. "Something like that wouldn't be cheap."
"Consider that" – Henrietta nodded at the bag – "your war funds."
"Oh, that'll definitely be good enough." Jessica chuckled, shaking her head in disbelief. "Though, I'll be honest with you, this is probably something me and my dad would do for free. Do you know how much of a crowd your appearance will draw? We're going to make a killing just from selling food and drinks to everyone."
"In that case, perhaps you'll agree to one more task," Henrietta said. "You and your girls must hear many things here, yes?"
"Sure. Pretty girls, strong wine, and some decent food mean a lot of loose lips."
"Then I would like you to report to me what people say. Nothing that may violate your integrity, mind you. Just what the prevailing opinion of the royalty, nobility, and Tristain as a whole is. I will pay you five gold pieces every month for this, with more should you report anything of particular value."
"Don't you have your own people who already do that, though?"
"My adviser has people." Henrietta made a gesture with her hand and rolled her eyes. "And he in turn shares with me that which he deems important. He is a reliable man, do not mistake me, but I do not know his people. I do not know where or how they are obtaining their information. And so I cannot know if I can trust them. But more than that, I want to decide for myself what is and is not important enough to warrant my attention, even if it's only in this small way."
"We can do that." Jessica hummed and drummed her fingers across the table. "Could we get our payment in silver instead? Silver raises fewer eyebrows, and I'd like to have enough coins to split among all the girls."
"Then for the festival, when do you want it to happen?"
"How soon can you make it happen?"
"Well, let's see. We'd have to make sure that our involvement isn't too well known. I don't like it, but our inn has a certain sort of reputation, and it wouldn't be good for your name to be attached to ours. We'd have to be subtle. But if you don't mind anything fancy... maybe two days to let the rumors spread and make sure all the merchants have their stocks ready? Will that be good enough?"
"Yes." Henrietta smiled. "I think that will more than suffice."