When she was lead in by a maidservant she was doused in the heady aroma of something like frankincense, but lighter, spicier, some fragrance she had never smelled before; it was like dissolved summer sunlight. She chased after the scent as she followed the girl into the dim room, only lit by the fireplace. Her hunt was interrupted as a woman stood up at her appearance. She rose up above the smoke like a slim phantom, her veil following the flutter of her body across the hazy expanse. Waltraud stepped back into Ernst at the rush, but found her hands captured all the same.
“Oh Lady Waltraud, how happy I am to see you!” she cried and Waltraud at last knew her as the Parsi princess. The woman’s quick eyes glanced behind Waltraud. “And Sir Ernst.”
She blinked at the silence of both of them. “What?”
“I just didn’t expect…your face…” Waltraud swallowed. “To be so…plain.”
It was circular with high cheekbones and a weak chin. The mouth was too wide and the nose too large to compliment such a small space. The princess blinked again at the assessment and then laughed. At that moment, with her eyes shining and her cheeks flushed, Waltraud felt as though she had perhaps spoken too soon.
“I cover my face in public to be modest, but I reveal it in intimacy only to be humbled again.” She snorted and tilted her head. “But my dear Lady Waltraud you too know how little beauty matters.”
Waltraud, who indeed had never been vain about her looks, didn’t take any offense by the force of the princess’ smile. She found herself chuckling at the turn of wit and ignored Ernst’s surprised glance. The princess leaned forward eagerly, her hips gently brushing Waltraud’s thighs, an unintentional intimacy, and one Waltraud could barely stand.
“Come, sit.” She began to pull on Waltraud’s hands but was stopped.
“I lost your horse,” Waltraud informed her. The princess deflated slightly, as if, for a second, reality had not mattered here.
“Oh, I know. But Sheba found her way back. They’re quite a smart sort of horse, the Gharab breed.” She looked up at Waltraud with some gravity. “You were unseated?”
“Only by my own distraction. Your horse turns faster than I am used to.” Waltraud shrugged. “So I fell.”
The princess raised her eyebrows at such an explanation. “And you didn’t find that man’s accomplices?”
“No, they planted a false trail by letting their horses loose.” Waltraud brushed past the princess and towards the fire. She looked into the light as she absorbed its warmth. “Are you afraid for yourself?”
“No, only that you may have been hurt.” She heard a flutter of footfall behind her as the princess whipped into her crowd of attendants and pulled out a rotund little man. She shoved the unfortunate attendant towards Waltraud. Their eyes met and the Alemannian could see by his proud, even haughty look, this was no submissive eunuch but a chosen free man.
“This is Mehrab the Khorasani, our physician. Please let him look at any injuries you incurred during your chase.”
“There were none,” Waltraud pronounced and stepped away from the man, her wrist surreptitiously hidden in the folds of her mantle. The Khorasani, for his part, seemed relieved to not have to lay his hands on the Alemannian woman.
“Then would you let him look at your wrist?” The princess pressed again.
“It is healing fine.” Waltraud turned away. “How is your shoulder after you tore open the stitches?”
“Oh Mehrab reclosed the front of the wound. He has the most interesting technique of not closing both sides of an impalement wound but leaving one side open to drain.” Waltraud glanced over her shoulder at this sundry information. The princess seemed happy to further show her knowledge of healing. “That is why I am also bandaged. That way the wound fills in from one side to the other and will not abscess. It is a most successful technique for these kind of wounds.”
“My lady dressed my wound and I have always healed under her care,” Waltraud answered in a warning tone that could have easily been interpreted as pride. The princess seemed to deflate and the physician seemed disgusted by what he gleaned from the conversation in Alemannish. The princess left the subject alone and came to stand by Waltraud’s side again.
“Sit. I have a dinner prepared.” She insisted. Waltraud relented as she was indeed hungry and had a debt to fulfill besides.
As after all the princess had saved her life this day.
Waltraud found herself and Ernst sitting on the floor with the princess, her man and the doctor. The food was served on the elaborate, woven rug they sat upon, for Parsa must not have as many cold floors as Alemannia. It was a great variety of dishes served in silver containers, smelling as heady as the incense that curled in the corner. Waltraud and Ernst both watched to see how the princess ate, and it was with dainty bits plucked with precision from the dishes. The handmaidens sat with bowed heads in a half circle behind their mistress, but readily served drinks when a glass was raised. The wine tasted of roses, a light variety Waltraud recognized from the Rheine Valley. The food was also Alemannian but spiced and served in ways that Waltraud could only assume were native to Parsa.
She nearly choked when she tasted lamb flavored with something like pepper, but was much more sharp and burning. Thankfully she kept to the apparent rule of small portions at a time and tasted everything else with a reserved curiosity. The princess smiled indulgently at her tears and Waltraud ignored her. She let the conversation flow around her and stay between the princess and the man Roozbeh and even Ernst at times as he slowly lost his habitual shyness with strangers. The conversation remained superficial, never too deep. Waltraud was sure however she would soon be plucked for a more private conversation about what had happened in the morning.
After the dinner was taken away and all were asked how they enjoyed it, a select few of the handmaidens began to dance. They wore bells upon their wrists and ankles that didn’t at all hinder their graceful and powerful movements. Ernst’s mouth fell slightly open to watch a woman’s hips move that way. They kept in time with nothing but the joyous noise of their dance, the delicate chiming of one another’s bracelets and anklets. In the interplay of movement, music, and light the maidens seemed to assume forms never before seen by any eyes, larger and more fearsome than any monster, and more beautiful and charming than any faerie. It was at the height of this fury that the princess pulled Waltraud away.
She pulled her towards a window, in the corner farthest from the firelight. She carried a candle and placed it in a holder so that they alone could see one another. Waltraud inhaled, knowing the questions coming and hoping she was clever enough to baffle this woman. She would not be surprised if Roozbeh was looming within the huddled darkness, even despite seeing his slender form by the fire still. Devoted eyes saw further than anyone else’s.
“Is the entertainment pleasing to you Lady Waltraud?” the princess asked softly.
“Yes.” Waltraud rocked back on her heels, wondering how many superficial questions she was going to be asked before she was pierced to the core. The princess accepted the taciturn with a generous smile.
“I am glad,” the princess continued. “My girls are wearing the traditional costume of our court and I wished for them to perform a popular dance. I would like to show you all the beauty of my homeland.”
“It was lovely.” Waltraud reassured her and the princess stepped closer, leaning in close for the attack.
“And you know nothing of who attacked you?” she asked softly.
“It was likely the people we’ve been fighting in the south for years.” Waltraud began her well rehearsed lie. “Those who resent King Ludwig’s rule, the last survivors of the dynasty that ruled before. I have assisted Lady Röselein for years in putting down their rebellions, and this is far from the first time they’ve tried this.”
Waltraud smirked. “And they will fail again and again.”
“You know if you need any help, I can offer my own people.” Waltraud resisted rolling her eyes, imagining just how eager Roozbeh and that doctor would be to investigate such a thing. She likely wake up with a knife in her back first! She patted one of the princess’ hands.
“The king will handle it; I trust my life to him.” She smiled and tried to not let the corners of her mouth quiver in mirth. The princess looked at her for a long time, doubtful, but she at last nodded, accepting only perhaps that Waltraud was lying to her. She turned away and Waltraud let herself breathe a sigh of relief that for now she had survived.
The princess suddenly clapped her hands together and a serving girl moved away from her charge of wine. Waltraud tensed as she heard the girl walk away into the bedroom, ruffle about, and then re-enter the parlor. She let no anxiety play upon her face however. After all it would be as strange for her to know trajectory of the girl by ear alone as it would be for her to know her skirt was dusted with rose pollen and her feet clotted with dirt from the stables.
“Please be careful,” was all the princess said to conclude their conversation about the assassination attempt. Waltraud blinked, not daring to hope that was the end of the discussion. She straightened her stance as the princess turned back towards her. At her smile Waltraud knew she was only preparing for the next strike.
Waltraud let herself smile before she glanced behind her as the girl at last came upon them. She was holding something wrapped in a few silk scarves. She carefully deposited the bundle into the arms of her mistress, as carefully as one would an infant. Waltraud inhaled; another bauble then? It smelled of fur and dirt. She stepped back as the small pile cried out.
“I know my other gifts were unwanted, but I feel as though this is something else you need, my lady.” The princess smiled and dismissed her handmaiden. She pulled back a scarf to reveal a small black kitten. It looked up at Waltraud with the milky blue eyes of infancy, and yawned, far less perturbed by the Beast than most of her kin.
You have already lived with humans too long, was her severe judgment of the kitten, if she had already adopted their complacency with what they couldn’t see. The princess suddenly pushed the miniscule creature at Waltraud and she had to accept it into her hands.
“In one village I traveled through they had killed all their cats because they thought the creatures had ushered in a recent plague. I found her alone and took her into my care. For I believe cats are the sort of creatures who reward kindness.” The princess waved a piquant finger in the face of the kitten that just blinked at it. Waltraud sighed; perhaps you are just stupid then.
“So, name her.” The princess said. Waltraud blinked and she frowned at her confused expression. “Name her.”
“I…” Waltraud started to protest. I have never done such a thing. The princess made an impatient motion with her hands.
“For an entire week I have had her unnamed, waiting for someone to name her. It won’t do for her to remain nameless!”
“Why can’t you?” Waltraud snapped and the princess shook her head.
“Because once you name a cat you own it forever. She is waiting to give her gift to someone and I have waited for someone to give her to.” The princess sighed. “So name her!”
“Why didn’t you take the gift for yourself?” Waltraud frowned.
“Because I have enough in this world. I have love, wealth, power…and generosity.” She looked up at Waltraud with a smile that could devour the night itself; it illuminated the space between them brilliantly. “So I will give her to someone who needs more kindness in her world.”
Waltraud felt her innards quiver in an urge to reject that light reaching out towards her. Is this really all you want? Her heart hid behind the wall rising up from deep within. No, once I accept this, then she’ll ask me. How I heard the arrow. How I could have possibly lost her horse.
“Then her name will be…” Waltraud looked down at the small beast sleeping in her hands as she charged at her opponent. She hesitated; she really hadn’t done this before. “B-blackie. Blackie. Her name will be Blackie.”
“Blackie.” The princess repeated and giggled. Waltraud snorted in humiliation as she had, after all, said the first thing that had come to mind upon looking at the kitten.
“Blackie then,” she stroked the kitten’s head, laying the name upon her like a mantle. Waltraud exhaled and found the tension gone from her body. Somehow she felt a little at peace to be holding the slumbering creature in her hands, even as she realized she had just accepted a gift from the princess.
“You saved my life today,” The princess looked up at her in surprise. Waltraud bowed her head. “Is there not something you want?”
“A kiss, a smile, and I’ll let you on your way Lady Waltraud.” The princess said grandly and offered a cheek. Waltraud watched her for a few seconds, wondering if perhaps she was being mocked. The princess cleared her throat in impatience after seconds had passed. With no further explanation given, or possible, Waltraud found herself obliging her request. Her lips brushed soft skin smelling of rose water and the traces of pungent oil and sweat from her hair. When they parted Waltraud remembered her request to smile, and she did, one of perhaps bewilderment, and perhaps even pleasure as the princess seemed to soak in some delight by the curl of her lips.
“Good night.” She was let go.
“Good night.” She was left to drown in confusion. Is this all you really wanted? She looked down at the kitten. My happiness?
As she left the room Waltraud carefully pulled along Ernst who was earnestly courting a handmaiden who couldn’t want less than anything to do with him. Sex sapped the warrior’s spirit, and the heart was the most vulnerable part of the body. She would like her page to be in better condition than herself.
“What’s that?”He pointed at the scarves cradled in one hand and against her chest as they walked back towards Lady Röselein’s room.
“A gift of kindness,” Waltraud told him and he fell silent. He after all would know from surely whom, and in accepting it, must know Waltraud no longer hated the princess of Parsa. Perhaps he was even impressed in her bold stance of bringing the kitten along with her as she guarded her mistress. Lady Röselein accepted the small intruder with a shrug, perhaps ignoring the threat to her singularity in Waltraud’s world.
After all, she never did ask where the cat had come from.