As promised, the morning the Beast of Ländle was dragged into the courtyard of the palace the engagement of Princess Khadija Fozhan of Parsa and Lady Waltraud Anselmssohn of Alemannia was announced.
In curiosity Fozhan had descended into the courtyard from her high perch in the east wing to look upon the great corpse. She even allowed her women to trail behind, though she strictly forbade them to make an unseemly fuss at seeing such a large and grotesque creature. They still grimaced upon seeing the great stinking body upon the cobblestone, but beyond pulling their veils tighter to their faces they kept their repulsion and horror hidden.
Fozhan carefully adjusted her own veil as she stepped forward to look upon the frozen snarl of the wolf. It was an honor now accorded her as a potential member of the family of the prince this monster had murdered in his bed. The jaws were certainly large enough to crush a human neck. Indeed this wolf seemed far larger than most of its kin, perhaps a hybrid with some breed of large dog. In death it was still possible to see the powerful muscles in its shoulders and haunches, the width and sharpness of its teeth, its large paws and great eyes. It was easy to see how this beast had terrified an entire countryside and how its legends would frighten generations after.
Nevertheless those eyes were now clouded, murky, the gums were pale and soon those fearsome teeth would fall out, the muscles would wither away and collapse as the body decayed. All that would remain were memories of the beast and its victims, forever tied together by the same terrible thread. The slain monster was pitiful in its repose; no peace had been given at its violent end. Fozhan looked away from the sight and caught Waltraud's golden eyes, eyes so like a wolf's she realized for the very first time, and the other woman turned away, also apparently taking no pleasure in the demise of such a creature, though she had chased after it for years. Fozhan wondered briefly if Waltraud had been the one to kill her quarry if the death would not have held such a lasting horror.
The man who had killed the beast proudly put a foot upon its neck and began regaling the crowd with the tale of how it had been at last killed. He was a large shouldered man with a mane of red hair; it was easy to believe he had managed to pierce the heart of the creature with a spear. With his large hands he mimicked the stabbing motion that had saved his life when the wolf had leapt at him. Fozhan turned away as he began boasting of the tattoo he would commission to commemorate the battle, lifting up his shirt to indicate that he would place it above his left nipple. And to him, Gilbert the Bear, possessor of an impressive coat of hair, an estate would be surely given by King Ludwig.
Fozhan spent the rest of the day preparing for the engagement feast. She let her ladies bathe her in hot water, wash every inch of her, and braid her hair. They cleaned her fingernails and rubbed her skin with pungent oil. They spent hours debating what outfit she was to wear for her first public appearance with her bride, the formal acknowledgement of their pending union. It would be her introduction to the Alemannian nobility. The first step towards infamy.
She had yet to write her father to inform him that her quest was over. It was not from shame, but it was from apprehension. A female husband was unexpected, unprecedented; it would be the greatest challenge of Fozhan's life. She dared not inform him until the union was secure, unbreakable. She could not convince him of the righteousness of her decision from afar, and her father could send an army on word alone. She knew he would hear of the match before the marriage was complete, but it would remain a rumor until he received her letter.
And after then, she would face whatever came.
When the hour for dinner finally came she met her bridegroom before the doors of the great hall. She was flanked by Roozbeh, Waltraud was by Lady Röselein. For once, however, Fozhan thought, they had eyes for each other alone. Waltraud was dressed splendidly, in a man's red silk tunic and delicately embroidered golden mantle. Fozhan recalled the kiss to her cheek only two nights before and blushed beneath her brocade veil. She was dressed in sumptuous silks of green and blue in the dress of her homeland, in a flowing tunic gathered at the waist with a wide and embroidered girdle. She took Waltraud's hand and with heads held up high they walked to face the king at the head of all the tables of the hall.
They turned to be announced to the clamoring crowd of nobles, all of whom had already heard of the notorious couple. They cheered appropriately, whatever they privately thought of their king legalizing such a union. Hand in hand Parsa stood with Alemannia and perhaps that was the only thing that mattered.
Those hands were wrapped with a flower wreath by an old godi, her tattoos well faded by age but still giving her skin an unfortunate look of being full of veins. The crone was apparently the spiritual advisor of the king, a distant relation of the late queen brought all the way from Oland. After apparently invoking the god of marriage with a sonorous chant the priestess informed them a cow would be slaughtered in their honor. Fozhan thanked her politely and Waltraud nodded, and with a smile the old woman untied their hands.
"May you be married in two weeks; I have divined that as the most beneficial time for the ceremony." She told them and she was thanked again for her services. She bowed and with some gravity she moved away to take her place amongst the family of the late queen. She sat beside a young woman with a pointed face that Fozhan noticed never stopped staring at Waltraud.
The couple was allowed to take their seats and perhaps for the first time Waltraud was allowed to sit at the king's table. It was not without a glower from Prince Franz and Fozhan let herself smirk at him as Waltraud ignored him. Waltraud chose to remain silent during most of the dinner and Fozhan realized it was not because of the sulky resentment of the private supper with the king. By her tense shoulders and averted gaze; she was simply uncomfortable eating in front of so many people, raised upon a platform for all to see. Fozhan sat back, amused at the observation Waltraud had some shyness to her, but also regretful such a thing would be a regular part of their lives.
She was taking the Beast out of the wilderness and into civilization.
Below the table, where none could see, Fozhan kept a hand on Waltraud's arm. The other woman flinched at first, but slowly relaxed beneath the touch. Roozbeh spoke indulgently of Fozhan as a child; for though he didn't approve of the union he was a sentimental man and still struck by the idea of his charge becoming a bride. In particular he explained why she had been named "Fozhan", for she always had had a loud voice, even as an infant squalling to be fed. Waltraud snickered at such a description but her face was blank when Fozhan turned to look at her. Lady Röselein was far more discreet in her nostalgia but she did share that she "never thought this day would come".
After the meal there was music, dancing and the riddles of the court jester. Roozbeh made a disapproving sound when Fozhan pulled on Waltraud's arm to join the forming lines. She ignored him as Waltraud slowly stood up and stared forward like a cornered deer. Roozbeh stood as well.
"Your injury," he reminded her. Fozhan beamed, it was a very weak excuse indeed!
"I won't raise my arms." She reassured him and before he could find another one Fozhan pulled Waltraud down to the dance floor.
"I don't know any of your dances; you'll have to show me." Fozhan informed Waltraud as they took their places opposite of each within the two lines; she on the women's side, Waltraud on the men's for she was at least dressed for such a thing. Waltraud raised her eyebrows at her admission.
"They are nothing like what your ladies did. You may not enjoy them."
"It matters not what the steps are, I never get to dance in public at home. That is given to servants alone." Fozhan told her and Waltraud sighed.
"I have not danced the man's role before; Lady Röselein did so when she taught me." Waltraud frowned.
"It is more experience than what I have." Fozhan encouraged and raised on her tiptoes as the music began. It was a simple melody played upon a lute and a few pipes.
"Men lead, follow me." Was Waltraud's last instruction before the first step began. Despite Fozhan's expectation it proved to be a simple, even rigid affair of turns, skips, and bows. Waltraud had been astute in her observation that the two modes of dancing were so unalike they may as well been two different activities entirely.
Yet the unique aspect of men and women dancing together, something that was never seen at the Parsi court, thrilled Fozhan even as she remained at her bride's side. To watch the difference in the movement of male and female bodies side by side was a joyful novelty, so much so that it was almost exciting when Prince Franz asked to be her partner after two dances.
There was some trepidation when he approached, he held Waltraud's gaze a little too long after he had asked, but Fozhan decided to accept him. Small sacrifices often had to be made for diplomacy, and King Ludwig was watching all closely from his throne, rather like the one eyed god that headed the Alemannian pantheon. He took her hands into his slender ones, nothing like his father in all his bulk, perhaps more like his mother with her more willowy kinfolk sitting at their table near that of the king. He shook his dark hair from his face and blinked at her with his usual stupid expression.
After a few seconds Waltraud stepped away from her place on the sideline and Fozhan's sight. She reappeared as the partner of Gilbert the Bear, the man was still shirtless. His hairy chest was enflamed around one shaven point above his left breast where the outline of a wolf leered. By his thorough intoxication he had enjoyed the ceremony that had anointed him as the newest lord of the kingdom earlier that evening. Perhaps even the same godi that had authenticated Fozhan and Waltraud's union had traced the animal upon Lord Gilbert.
The air was permeated by the phantom traces of the strange culture of the Alemannians, far more fascinating than the prattle of their crowned prince. Fozhan gathered them in her mind's eye and wondered how many of the heavily dressed nobility had azure lines craved into their bodies, a mural of all they had accomplished in life. Did even her beloved wear such bright marks? What tale did she carry upon her very skin?
"Hey," Fozhan interrupted Prince Franz's explanation of the dance as he led her down a line and into a tight circle of four other couples. "Does Lady Waltraud have any tattoos?"
"Huh?" he was startled, obviously not one who was used to being asked anything but what he already had an answer for. He blinked, obviously wondering why she had not asked what foot came after her right instead. Fozhan smiled indulgently, pretending as if she had actually been listening until the random, unpredicted thought had crossed her mind. When he finally processed what was being asked of him the prince frowned and glanced at where Waltraud was making more of an effort to keep her partner on his feet than anything else.
"Oh, no. She always refuses such a thing when offered." He shrugged. "She's very unusual, suspicious I suppose is the word."
"Oh, how so?" Fozhan lightly asked. She glanced at Waltraud again, now being dragged about by her bulky companion in a way Fozhan never thought the reserved woman allow. Fozhan realized however by her indulgent smile and gentle hands that this was someone Waltraud was comfortable with; a friend surely for there was no tenderness in her gaze as much as exasperated amusement. A boisterous and uncouth warrior; that was someone Waltraud would hold in her confidence? Yet Fozhan recalled that Gilbert the Bear was also from that southern land and had hunted a beast alongside Waltraud.
Fozhan felt uncomfortable wincing in her chest, had she truly assigned Waltraud such a shallow existence? Had she really never contemplated before the depth of a life spent in blood? For though she had never known battle she knew the intricate twining of the noble class was based upon the spoils of war. Her grandfather had carved his empire from the ruins of civil war. The other families of the regime were the descendants of those that had pledged their loyalty and blood to him. Her father esteemed his generals and had ridden at the head of his armies before.
Waltraud had been raised in such a world. While Fozhan had spent nearly all of her life in the comfortable expanses of the harem, surrounded by women and their complex world, Waltraud had lived in the chaotic expanses of a civil war and the unyielding world of conflict. Had Fozhan not even known she had been a war orphan? From the time she had been a young child Waltraud had been fighting, to appease Lady Röselein, to survive, and in loyalty to her allies, such as Gilbert the Bear. Though she was reticent she would have always needed people to be devoted to, and be devoted to.
Waltraud had never been alone; she could have never survived if she had been. Within her was that ability to form complex relationships of give and take. In short she already had capability to make people love her.
And Fozhan had seen it from the moment they had first met; her heralding beacon of destiny. Yes that had been it all along. She had always known Waltraud must have that talent of charisma that she could bring a man as forceful as Gilbert the Bear to heel. She had only been surprised to see that forte worked with such subtle grace. Waltraud who could kill you with her look of hatred could coax you eat from her hand with her gentle warmth.
"Let me speak to you, my lady," Franz clumsily interrupted her ecstasy of contemplation, but Fozhan nodded. Waltraud was still preoccupied by her friend who was vomiting ingloriously in a corner. Waltraud stroked his shoulder as Ernst stood with a water pitcher in hand, apparently used to such a scene by his bored expression. Gilbert the Bear after all was far from alone in painting the floor with the dull colors of his meal. Westerners apparently didn't place too much value in moderation in their drunken merriment.
Franz led her to a secluded corner, though Fozhan knew Lady Röselein was surely watching through whatever allies dotted the great expanse of the feast and the king still reigned from above. Prince Franz still look surreptitiously about, missing Roozbeh's presence entirely at a nearby table, even with his slender shoulders encased in the hold of a very buxom and very drunk blonde woman. The young man, perhaps only a year younger than Fozhan but with all the look of an earnest child who was about to reveal a great secret by his pouting lip, looked back at her.
"I don't hold any personal dislike for you, Princess Khadija. I can understand if you simply found me unsuitable." he began and Fozhan couldn't help but to feel some surprise at such bald candor. Most men would have taken a woman's rejection as an insult to his pride and Fozhan couldn't help to feel, perhaps ungenerously, that the reason why Prince Franz had not taken offense was not because he was actually a worldly individual who knew better than conventional social customs. His good will was an unfortunate symptom of the plain fact he had no pride at all.
"Nevertheless, I think you should know something about Lady Waltraud." His eyes narrowed. "Some think she is the true Beast of Ländle."
Fozhan spared him only an incredulous look and suppressed her urge to laugh in his face.
"Really?" she prodded coolly and Franz shook his head at her.
"Do not think me superstitious! I know you don't believe in our gods but in our land they hold power and I must believe that sometimes true monsters are allowed to walk this earth." He swallowed and lowered his voice. "There are stories of those who wear a second skin of fur beneath their human one. They shed their human skin as suits them and become a beast as they wish. My brother used to write me about Lady Waltraud's peculiar behavior. She never allowed anyone but Lady Röselein to tend her wounds. She never allowed herself to be tattooed or pierced for any reason."
His voice hit a hysterical note as he described the horror within. "It is because she can shed her human skin! She isn't really human at all, but a great wolf!"
Fozhan decided that she'd had enough at his dramatics. Pagan nonsense! And this fool had expected her to believe him!
"Prince Franz, please excuse me." She began to step away but was caught by his pleading hand.
"You don't believe me…but I can only expect you wouldn't." He sighed. "If you won't believe me that she is a shapeshifter, can you dismiss what happened to my older brother? She killed him, I am sure of it! He was Lady Röselein's husband and his throat was torn out in his own bed."
Fozhan paused. She had heard the horrid story before and had immediately linked the Beast of Ländle to the murder. She had never before contemplated that Waltraud had been the killer. Her golden eyes that were so like a wolf's, her oversized canines, could she have really crushed a man's throat with her jaws? No, it would have been impossible for a human being to commit that sort of mutilation.
Yet perhaps the tale had been warped by the fearful and perhaps what Prince Lars had really suffered was a slit throat or a brutal garroting.
"Why would she have killed your brother?" Fozhan asked lowly, letting the seed of suspicion grow in painful blooms in her heart.
"Because Lady Röselein wished it," Franz scoffed. "Is that not reason enough?"
And Fozhan knew even a fool would know this. She jerked her arm away from him but did not flee from him.
"If Lady Röselein wishes it, she'll kill you too." Franz was the one to step away first in the end. "Take my advice and leave this country. I would not like to see you die like my brother did, in his bridal bed."
The prince turned away and Fozhan was left to stand in an apoplexy. The noise of the crowd became a distant din as death crawled over her. For the first time she realized Waltraud may mean to kill her. The truth was a terrible thing, and she must never turn away from it, this had been her very first lesson as the heir to the Parsi empire.
She knew Waltraud was capable of such cruelty; war was not the endeavor of the brave and noble but of the ambitious and unsympathetic. Waltraud fought Lady Röselein's war, not her own. And what use did Lady Röselein have for her ward to be taken from her? Fozhan raised her hands to her mouth in terror; she had never before had to ask for her life from anyone. How could she ask another what the worth of her existence was?
She lowered her hands and looked towards Waltraud, standing with Gilbert the Bear likely at her feet. Ernst was gone leaving the woman alone to contemplate the flow of life around her. They called her "Beast", perhaps after the wolf this land feared, who would eat the very sun at the end of the world. Yet in the tumult of merriment, of a perceived triumph over the deathly wolf that still rotted in the courtyard, she seemed a creature of the light, not of the darkness that would consume the entire world. After all, she could have only survived such a strained existence upon complex threads of loyalty, devotion and love. These wove the light, not the darkness.
Waltraud caught her eye and smiled at her, showing her the fangs that may have once been painted by a prince's blood.
Fozhan walked to her. If her life must be given meaning to be saved, she would give significance to Waltraud's life beyond that of bloodshed. She would show the Beast her existence was not of darkness alone, for she possessed already all that she needed to walk in the light. There she stood in the midst of a celebration given for her looking after a drunk for no reason other than a genuine devotion to the concept of loyalty. War bred despair but it also bred true bonds of trust. It was only through great fortitude that one lived at all in the face of all human suffering, one so great it surely surpassed the hold of any darkness.
Fozhan would save herself, but in doing so she would also save Waltraud.