It may have all happened because the princess grew bored with her escort.
He had been an affable young man, but stale with coached manners and no intrinsic charm. He was a goose strutting about as a peacock, and his dull feathers peeked out from beneath his splendid coat. It was not his fault he was vapid, he had been born that way, it was only unfortunate for his bloodline as he was a rumored rival heir to Alemannia's throne. Fozhan, the first daughter of the Shah and princess of Parsa, could only smile in pity at him. If this empire fell into his hands she would all the more be in need of a capable mate. She mentally crossed Alemannia off the list with its indifferent princes.
She left Prince Franz and her chaperone to discuss the topic of wall fortification. It was a subject Fozhan had exhausted several hours upon with her people's on-going preparations for the oncoming onslaught of the Horde. She would have paid attention if she could not see the young fool was just parroting the words of engineers with none of his own insight into the necessity of defense. He was, in short, an idiot, and Fozhan let her mind and body wander. Rose gardens are stale in the winter, even with their tightly closed buds promising magnificent blooms in Spring. She left behind Roozbeh to continue his polite intercourse, trying to mend the situation in his intrinsic good will, and totally distracted from his actual charge.
It was rare that the Shah's daughter walked alone without some sort of attendant chasing after her ankles. The young woman clicked the heels of the boots she had been forced to wear with the change in climate and fluttered down the great stone halls of the Castle of the Bear, the very center of Alemannian government. She flew down from the second story rose garden and down towards the bustling courtyard. She passed by servants and various lower nobles who all stopped and stared at the veiled young woman but sensing she was far above any of them stayed away. Fozhan raised her eyes up, what the drafty castle lacked in refinements it made up for in the great tapestries that lined the walls. Stories of betrayal, love, and mourning played out across the vaulted halls and chased after her as she headed back towards the light. As she approached the sun the sound of battle reached her ears.
It was faint at first, a distant clanging sound, possibly a far off smithy. As she walked towards the noise she realized this was not the rhythmic banging of a hammer against iron but of two blades slicing against one another. Fozhan went still as light flooded her vision, temporarily obscuring her sight as she passed through the great doors that opened into the courtyard. She raised an arm and took timorous steps forward as she followed the furious sounds of combat.
When she could lower her arm she found a crowd standing before her and all other activity suspended as people cheered or jeered at some pair of contenders in the center of the yard. Fozhan tried to push her way through the crush of bodies but found it impenetrable with everyone distracted with whatever spectacle was occurring. With a huff Fozhan looked about and saw a small smattering of children perched upon a wagon and by the awed looks on their faces perfectly able to see what was going on. Carefully gathering up her skirts and veil Fozhan climbed up a wheel and precariously stood above the heads of the seated children.
It was a duel between two men, red faced, heaving, with swords in hand. They had obviously been battling for some time, they were both now on opposite sides of their intimate arena, glowering at one another as each one contemplated his next move. Fozhan's eyes swept between the two of them, one fair, muscular, with his cheek cut open and blood running down his blond beard. The other was tall, slender, with lovely wavy black hair and golden eyes. Her breath stopped, in fact the taller man, this svelte fighter who had brought that blond brute nearly to his knees, he was beautiful.
"Child," she addressed one of her neighbors in her precise but heavily accented Alemannish, "what is happening here?"
"Someone asked for the Beast's hand again," he snickered gleefully without fully turning towards Fozhan. When he did the boy made a terrified expression and looked at his feet. He quickly tried to amend what he had just said. "What I mean is-! Someone asked for the hand of Lady Waltraud, the most honorable daughter of our dear Lady Röselein."
"So this is a duel for a woman's hand? With who, her brother?" Fozhan asked.
"Oh no, that is Lady Waltraud," he indicated the dark haired combatant with a wave of his hand. "She fights for her own hand. She'll only marry someone who can defeat her."
"She'll only…" Fozhan repeated in shock but lost her breath again as the lady at last struck. She unfurled herself from her corner, lunging with her neck extended forward and her sword tucked in by her waist. It was a feint, her opponent stepped back to avoid a blow to the gut and as he faltered she turned sideways to bring herself close to him while avoiding his blade. She grasped his holding wrist and twisted harshly to force him to release his weapon. She dipped under his arm, yanked it back and with a sickening crack dislocated the man's shoulder. He screamed and fell to his knees. As he heaved in agony she coolly brought her own blade against his neck while still holding his wrenched arm.
It had only taken her a few seconds to disarm a man who probably weighed twice as much as she did. Fozhan realized for her to be able to pull and tear bone and muscle as she had, this Waltraud, this "Beast" as she had been called, must be as strong as he as well. Who was this woman?
And what she must do to have her?
"Will you surrender to me, Lord Markus?" her voice was soft, but husky, deep like a dark well with the cadence of flowing water. The man turned his face away and she pulled on his mutilated joint once again.
"Yes!" he at last acquiesced in a scream. She dropped the arm and stepped away from the man. Someone handed her a piece of cloth to wipe her face with as she caught her breath and the defeated Lord Markus was carried away.
"Oh ho, ho, it is always so great to watch the Beast fight!" The boy enthusiastically leapt up, forgetting himself once again. "There is nothing like her!"
Fozhan could only agree as she climbed down from her perch. With the crowd dispersing it was far easier to find a path to the champion; she still stood in the center, taking a drink of water from the same page as before. Coming closer Fozhan could now see the face she had thought of as attractive had been the haze of infatuation. Waltraud's face was long, with a pointed nose and thin lips that could scarcely conceal her oversized teeth. Indeed, Fozhan could at time see the points of four canines peeking through those smudges of pink flesh. The champion's face was plain at best with unusual angles and features. Yet she magnificent with her waves of dark hair flowing around her flushed cheeks and the incline of her slender back as she leaned against her sword driven into the ground. She could see above everyone else and even with her large nose didn't appear to be looking down upon them, only forward, into the future.
And she was beautiful all the same, as breath-taking as before and forever.
"You must fight me!" Fozhan cried out, already knowing she was in love. Waltraud raised her face and gave her a startled look. Fozhan raised her chin and glared up at the champion. "I will win your hand."
There was a few more seconds of silence as Waltraud looked like she was attempting to figure out if the woman standing before her was serious. She at last gave a helpless shrug, obviously not wishing to get too upset if this was some sort of joke.
"You are a woman." She scoffed.
"And so are you," Fozhan countered and Waltraud glowered.
"And you are a foreigner; I would not wish to injure a guest of his majesty." She turned away but Fozhan would not allow the dismissal.
"Don't make such an assumption!" Waltraud looked back at her incredulously and Fozhan knew then the only way to convince the other woman to allow her this chance was to prove herself. She removed her outer robe and removed her head covering, exposing her own dark locks to the dull sunlight of northern Alemannia. She stripped down to her undershirt and tucked the ends of her skirt into her girdle. She kept her face veiled however in the heat of being so immodest. Waltraud opened her mouth to protest again and Fozhan removed her sword from its sheath at her side. All her years of training would not go to waste for she would win her empire a bride worthy of it!
Waltraud had barely pulled her sword out of the ground before she raised it to counteract Fozhan's opening lunge. The taller woman glared down as she braced against all of Fozhan's strength.
"I don't wish to hurt you, my lady but if I must-!" with a grunt she threw her arm forward, opening her body up to a strike. It was impossible for Fozhan to take that opportunity however as she was thrown back. She hit the ground painfully and barely had time to roll away from a follow-up strike aimed at her head. As Waltraud landed however her sword point became embedded in the ground. In the few seconds it took her to dislodge the blade Fozhan was up and aiming for her exposed side. The other woman's body swung back and away from the blade as she lifted hers to meet Fozhan's swing. The blades shrieked as they met, a wake of sparks following their embrace as each slid down to rest against the other's hilt.
"Still worried about hurting me?" Fozhan smiled, even knowing it was lost, as her knees wavered against the brunt of Waltraud's weight bearing down on her. Her hands shook to hold the sword against her opponent's. Yet she continued to smile, as Waltraud's face remained blank, devoid of all emotion. They were both veiled in their own ways, unknowable to each other. Yet she received an answer as Waltraud's sword wrenched back, breaking the stalemate, and using her superior height to strike at Fozhan's shoulder. Fozhan stepped back as the wave of blood crashed across her neck and the pain followed in a surge afterwards.
Waltraud didn't follow up her attack immediately however with a killing strike aimed at the unprotected abdomen, she hesitated even with her dagger in hand, keeping her blade embedded in the flesh of Fozhan's shoulder. Fozhan's other hand fell for her dagger at her waist and in a violent upswing forced it into the Waltraud's wrist. She wrenched it and forced the tendons to twist and open the other woman's wrist.
Fozhan gave a shuddering laugh as Waltraud gasped, not in pain but surprise.
"You let go first, you lost." And knowing that let herself collapse before the stunned loser, and with a cry she removed the blade from her shoulder. All she could see was Waltraud's bloodied hand, running red at her waist, painting the dirt with her and Fozhan's blood.
"How…?" Waltraud stepped back and looked around, as if the answer was on the horizon. Fozhan couldn't answer with her head swimming from blood loss and pain twisting her innards.
Roozbeh appeared overhead, shrieking and pulling his charge to her feet.
"Why, oh god, why?" he demanded when he could form words in Parsi at least.
"Because…I need her…" Fozhan fainted with a smile on her face.
It was Lady Röselein's opinion Waltraud had allowed it to happen.
Waltraud had retreated to her mistress' quarters in an apoplexy after the duel in a stunned horror. She had sequestered herself amongst the cushions and flowers that her lady was named after. She fell onto her side upon a daybed and tried to settle her stomach. She found no respite however even in the bower where she had always found in such comfort. How had this happened? She looked at her right wrist still leaking blood from the angry gouge where the blade had sliced through it. She quickly wrapped it with her discarded coat. With a moan she rolled onto her back and found no more answers here in the soft delight of her lady's chamber than amongst the sharp jeers of the crowd. She contemplated the soft light of the lamps above and the shadows growing longer as the rumor mill turned around and around the Castle of the Bear.
Waltraud had never known such a feeling in her life, this hot and throbbing swell of regret. It was bitter and choking, and she could still not understand how it had happened. All her life she had been undefeated, she had always been the strongest, the quickest, and the winner. She had always been her lady's champion. The thought of disappointing her mentor stripped her of all intelligence and returned her to a childish state of terror. Yet she remained within the lair of the one who could execute her and waited for judgment even in her fear.
Lady Röselein Sabine Charlotte Anselmssohn eventually retired to her chambers in a fluster of red and pink. She removed her riding habit and pulled out the ties that had kept her blonde braids piled atop her head. Her heavy bosom heaved in indignation and her hips moved in an agitated sway as she contemplated her crestfallen knight. She would have never thought visiting her mother's kin sequestered in their minor mansion at the east end of Berlin would have tempted such disaster. Her fine blue eyes raked over Waltraud's crumpled figure and looked disgusted at her defeat.
"You hesitated." Röselein pronounced deftly and Waltraud at last raised her head. The older woman raised her delicate chin. "I heard what happened, you hesitated and she was able to put the dagger through your wrist."
Waltraud sat back, unable to deny the charge, and unable to explain why she had. She avoided killing unnecessarily, but she had also already killed one of her suitors in a similar gambit. She looked away, unable to give reason for her actions. As always however Röselein could explain them.
"It's because she is a woman! That's why you hesitated. You don't like to kill women, do you? Ah, but it's the same mistake others make with you! And you make them pay don't you?" She cried and Waltraud kept her gaze turned pointedly away. Röselein crouched over her however in a crush of pink silk. She flicked the younger woman's forehead with a scowl and Waltraud flinched.
"You started thinking like a man and that's why you got caught! You must always, always think like a woman!" Röselein huffed and tapped her temple with a knowing finger.
"I'm sorry," Waltraud at last sighed and the lady clicked her tongue. She grasped Waltraud's wrist to look blood soaked coat. She dropped the limb in disgust and bustled away to fetch some bandages. Years on the battlefield had long since taught both of them how to dress wounds.
"Idiot girl, if you weren't what you are she could have easily maimed you from ever holding a sword again. Was that really her intention?" Röselein huffed as she looked upon the wound for the first time. With a snort she poured alcohol onto the gouge and began to dress it. She made eye contact with Waltraud at the same pernicious thought.
"She cannot know. She only got here yesterday and since that time has been assigned to Prince Franz. He would have never allowed her to even know those rumors." Waltraud said confidently, yet that troubling possibility of exposure remained. Röselein shook her head.
"It doesn't matter anyway! We cannot possibly be married! Two women! Whoever heard of such a thing!" Waltraud argued. Röselein turned away however leaving the dressed wound and contemplating the situation at hand. Waltraud sat back, for the last eighteen years the woman before her had been her life. This noblewoman of exquisite beauty and figure had taken in a young wolf cub upon a whim and raised her by her own hand, she had even adopted her and given her the name of "Anselmssohn", that of the royal family.
Yet this affection had been Waltraud's noose. Given the family name King Ludwig had claimed her as a grandniece and demanded she marry. It had been a subtle way to separate the mother and daughter, and foiled so far by Waltraud's demand she only belong to someone who could defeat her in battle.
And now, like her lady, she was to be subjugated by that institution. Röselein had been married five years ago to her oldest cousin, the king's first son. She was mother to the king's only grandchild, Prince Jakob.
Röselein however had been freed of her spouse; Waltraud hadn't found the courage to murder hers even when she'd had the perfect chance.
"This is what you get for dressing like a man you know," Röselein sighed as she put her cheek in a palm with an indulgent expression. "I told you to give that up when we came to court but you insisted! Now you have been caught as any man can be. Oh, what are we to do?"
Waltraud stood as they at last came back to familiar ground.
"I can right this." She told Röselein fiercely, looking to regain her dignity after such a humiliating afternoon. She was only to find herself torn down further however.
"You couldn't kill her the first time, my dear, what makes you think you could a second?" Röselein asked and Waltraud felt her heart rip open. The older woman turned away and stood to leave her behind, drowning in indignation.
"You are a Beast Waltraud, but this girl may already be your weakness." Röselein mused at the window, looking across the dark city where every citizen was surely shivering at the cold.
"She is not! I only didn't kill her because, because…" she still didn't know why.
"Leave me, child, I need to think this over. You'll have your orders in the morning." Röselein closed her eyes, denying Waltraud even that comfort. Waltraud felt the tear grow bigger and left the chamber quite convinced she had never hated anyone as much as she did the Shah of Parsa's daughter.
Roozbeh Abdul-al-Malik was of the opinion Fozhan's impulsiveness had just led the entire Imitiyazid dynasty into disaster.
When his charge had been tended to, awoke from her swoon, and taken to her chambers with countless apologies from the Alemannians, it was only then he could scold her. He chased away her hysterical handmaidens and made them wait outside in the hall until they had silenced their sniffling. He could see the cause of their alarm however. Fozhan's cheeks were usually full of bright color and life, but now they were ashen. Her left arm remained still, her shoulder painfully wrapped in tight bandages. Beneath that tight weaving were stitches, placed by their own physician, the bumbling Alemannian had been left to fume at the door. Her bloodstained shirt was in a heap on the floor still, forgotten in the alarm.
His mistress' pitiful state was not going to spare her from a tongue lashing from her advisor however.
He railed for the idea of common sense, of the pride of her ancestors, for the safety of her kingdom, and of the very dignity of her sex. He pleaded for her to remember as a lowly eunuch he would summarily be executed if anything happened to her if she would not spare his heart in his affection for her, his charge and pupil. He asked her to remember her father and the faith he had in her. He begged her to leave Alemannia immediately and forget all of this had ever happened.
She appeared to have not even heard his words and continued to look at the stark ceiling above her bed. He panted while she blinked at an apparent spider racing across the stone. He pinched her side as he would have when she was a child and she at last looked into his reddened face.
"My lady. Please explain yourself," he gasped.
"I want her, what more is there to need to know?" she shrugged her uninjured shoulder, which made him fear she had suffered a permanent injury in the left one. Thank Allah she was right handed!
"She is a woman. Do you really think your father will allow this?" Roozbeh pressed.
"He told me to bring home a husband that would be worthy of Parsa. I have found one. I have not disobeyed him." She turned her face away.
"How will you have children? Do you think your people will rally around a female husband? Do you think this is pleasing to Allah?"
"When she defeats the Horde, they will all love her." Fozhan turned her face upwards, her dark eyes gleaming with voluptuous dreams. "If you had only seen her Roozbeh! I am sure you would have fallen in love with her too. She is magnificent, brave, fierce. No one can help but love her, I am sure."
"My lady…" he groaned. She really is in love! How could such a thing happen? "What about your soul-"
"The prophet only ever spoke about men. He knew better than to inquire about women. I think he knew what Allah does; women know what is best and act accordingly."
Roozbeh pursed his lips as he contemplated how well such an idea would go over with the imams. He tried to tear away her veil again.
"We will have them. No one needs to worry about it beyond that." Fozhan said airily and Roozbeh threw up his hands. Well surely the Alemannians would not allow it anyway. He shouldn't worry so much. The lady may weep for a few days about her failed engagement but she would forget all about this Waltraud soon enough. And it was just as this comforting thought that there was a knock on the door. Roozbeh opened it and received two messages. He opened first the one closed with the Alemannian royal seal.
"The King wishes to discuss your engagement at a private dinner tomorrow night." He announced and Fozhan seemed to glow at the very thought of such public acknowledgement. With a frown at her delighted expression he opened the second message.
"And Lady Waltraud Anselmssohn requests you to take back all of the gifts you left in her chamber and to not bother her ever again with such a display." Though he disapproved of his lady's courtship of this woman he couldn't help but to feel offended by such a rude request. He gave his charge a penetrating look; did she think someone with such a lack of manners still deserved a throne besides her?
The idea didn't seem to sink in however and the shah's daughter only blinked at the information.
"Anselmssohn, she's one of the royal family then."
"Apparently so." Roozbeh shrugged.
"Ah, that makes it easier I think." Her advisor however was not so certain. She raised her good wrist limply towards the nightstand. "Give me some of that medicine, Roozbeh, I feel like resting."
He drew out the dose for his lady and ushered her away to sleep. It was the best thing for her now. Perhaps in the morning she would even come to her senses. He drew the curtains shut and put a few more logs onto the fire. He called her ladies back in to attend her over the night. He would not yet sleep however. He drew up the collar of the heavy coat he had been forced to wear in this northern country and began to walk down the dark halls of the Castle of the Bear.
His lady knew nothing of the woman she had given her heart to, but he would learn everything he could about her. Why must one duel for her? Why was she called the "Beast"? Why had she been adopted into the royal family?
He had looked after Fozhan since she had been a small girl. To a court eunuch this was as close as he could ever come to having a child. There was pride in his position, won by inches since the time he had been sold as a young boy. Yet he also truly loved his mistress, though he would never infringe upon her dignity with such an admission.
He knew from years at court it was dangerous to dig into any noble family's secrets. He must protect his charge, but he must also obscure his trail of information. He filled his coin purse to the brim to ease tongues. He put a long hood over his head to obscure his identity. With a dagger in his belt he assaulted the night and all its mysteries.
The gifts had felt like a backhanded slap to Waltraud. It was not enough to defeat her, but to imply her affections could be won by such gifts after such an indignity! It became clear then she was nothing but a prize to the Shah's daughter. Damn this Princess Khadija Fozhan bin Midhat bin Imitiyaz of Parsa! What was she to her but a splendid dog to keep on a leash! She had surely been won to further some political agenda! She only fought for her lady who had brought her up in affection and had even made her a member of her family! That Parsi bitch was the same as all her other suitors!
She had at first only wished to remain with Lady Röselein, to see her wish through to the very end. At first she had pitied the men who had pitted themselves against her, until their intentions had become clear. None wanted her to be the mother of their children, their wife, not even their lover. They wanted a slobbering mad bitch they could boast they had at the end of their leash. Some had been goaded by family members, and those cowards she had tried to spare, but she had never regretted the blood she had spilled in those duels.
The princess at least would always wear her scar, when hers would soon be gone.
It had taken the earlier memory of acting so shamefully like a child with Lady Röselein that kept her from tearing up the flowers, jewelry, silks and brocades. Instead she only penned an angry message and had left alone the hated reminders of her subjugation. They would be gone by morning and she ordered her page to remain gone until daybreak as well. She shut the door to her bedroom against the rankling view in the parlor.
She was tempted to run free tonight, but knew to not risk angering Lady Röselein further, even if such a thing would heal her throbbing wound. The itching ran across her skin, every inch, in every intimate place. She bit down and ignored it and the indignant pain in her wrist. She crawled into bed and shut her eyes. Perhaps, somehow, she would find this had all been a terrible dream by morning. She ignored the knock at her chamber door and knew it had only been some messenger at the single knock. The letter would be there still in the morning, and she would speak to none right now.
She found no dreams in her sleep however, only frustrated memories of the battle. She recalled the princess' first heady charge at her and the color of her eyes, like black pearls. She had kept her face hidden so she may be impenetrable to her! That Parsi woman, she had played with her from the start! Why hadn't she driven the blade into her heart when she'd had the chance?
Earlier memories surfaced, of Röselein's warm lap and smile. Of the smell of blood and the shinning of swords in battle. Of a long time ago when she had been very small, of standing before a great war horse and reaching up. They dissolved into phantasmagorical imprints of dark woods, cold snow, and crying out against a gaping void. It was at this deepest depth she was pulled up from by Ernst the page announcing from behind her bedroom door that Lady Röselein was here to see her. She quickly dressed, pulling on only a robe and boots. She pulled her hair and shoulders back.
She was ready to receive the orders for execution.
Röselein, dressed hours ago in sumptuous black brocade, sat before her heavily in an armchair as Waltraud remained perched upon the bed. Her hand clenched, she would correct this mistake!
"You will," the lady began carefully after Ernst had been dismissed, "marry the Parsi princess."
Waltraud felt the ground open up and swallow her.
"What?" was all she could gasp.
"You will marry her." Röselein held up the unopened message from last night, an order from the king. She must have received it as well. "The wheels are turning, and we can't be crushed by them. You will marry that girl, and by that marriage I will at last be queen."
Waltraud blinked and sat forward. "How?"
"Because…at your wedding, you are going to kill that damned pretender." She caught Waltraud's chin between her fingers and held the girl's face gently as she gave abeaming grin. "So then it won't matter if she takes you away, I will be queen, and we will have achieved all we have dreamed of for all these years."
She let Waltraud's face go and raised her eyebrows. "Of course if you wish to remain with me, all you have to do is kill your bride as well. It will be the perfect opportunity, I promise."
"I will," Waltraud promised. "I will never leave your side!"
And with that conviction of loyalty, Lady Röselein outlined the plot of how they would at last overthrow her uncle who had stolen the throne so many years before. As Waltraud listened she became more and more convinced she must free herself to her burden, as she had relieved Röselein of hers.
With wide jaws, dripping with blood.
I am the Beast. I belong to no one but whom I wish to belong to. And reconciled, Röselein stroked Waltraud's hair as the young woman sat with her head in her lap, as she had done when she was a child. Thus comforted she could only dream of sweet murder.
For this chain had been placed years before, and she would wear no other.