Emma took a deep breath and tried to contain her anger yet again. She kept repeating that it was servants’ duty to follow a queen’s orders, but that wasn’t quite working. Not when her plans to help peasants everywhere were foiled at least for now. She walked out of her mother’s office yet again, fuming. Helping the peasants would only lead to her downfall as a ruler she said. The peasants were fine as they were, she said. She was wrong. The peasants managed to live as they were, but they could thrive if only the monarchs would let them.
But her mother wouldn’t let them. Wouldn’t even let Emma ask them what suggestions for improvement they had. Now on their trip with the royal record keepers they were to stay well away from the peasants, back at camp if there was one, with the main caravan if there wasn’t. She felt like screaming. It was always one step forward and two steps back anymore. It was maddening.
She needed to go outside. She needed it more than she could articulate. But there was no way that she could. Servants were everywhere that would run straight to her mother and there was no way that she was giving away the secret passage to the garden. Her mother didn’t know about it and she planned to keep it that way. So instead she went straight for the next best thing.
Regina was on their floor in a loose white shirt and black tights doing a set of sit ups. She stopped and grabbed her knees when Emma walked in. Sweat covered her brow and the rest of her body in a thin sheen and she was just a little breathless.
Emma stopped and swallowed for a moment. Oh. Something stirred in the pit of her stomach seeing Regina like this, but she shook it off. Now was not the time.
“Being banned from being outside in the practice yards is affecting my endurance,” Regina said to break the small silence. “I’m not quite a fan, thus this.” She waved to herself.
“Makes sense.” She sighed.
Regina was off the floor in a second and at her side. “Your mother did something.” It wasn’t even a question anymore, but a statement.
Emma walked to the cart of refreshments that was always kept in her chambers and poured herself a glass of wine. “Of course. Some servants reported our conversation about asking the peasants what needed fixed and of course she forbade it.”
Regina let out a slow breath. “Of course.”
“We’re to stay at camp or with the caravan at all times.”
“Times like these I quite miss the punching bag down in the yards.”
Emma snorted. “I think I would too if I knew how to fight.”
“You’d have beaten it to dust by now if you did.”
Emma laughed despite the anger. “Yeah, I guess I would’ve.” She turned back to Regina. “What now?”
Regina walked over to the sideboard and fixed herself a drink as well, wiping the sweat on her brow off with the back of her hand. She took a long sip before pulling back and frowning. Her free hand found Emma’s and pulled her towards the couch. Once she settled them both down, Regina wrapped around Emma this time she stared contemplatively into the fire.
Emma enjoyed threading her fingers through Regina’s hair in this position. Usually it was her wrapped around the other woman, and that was just as good as this position was, but it was good in different ways. She felt like for once she was the one protecting Regina instead of the other way around. She loved the feeling. She loved resting her chin on the other woman’s head, loved the way Regina nestled into her. It was lovelier than words could describe.
Regina spoke slowly after a long while. “Your mother has us confined to camp…but I don’t necessarily think that that ends our little side mission. It limits it, but there should be a way to continue.”
Emma’s brow scrunched, confused. “How? We won’t be there to ask the questions, how can we possibly continue?”
Regina sat silent for another few seconds. “You didn’t go through and interview every candidate for the tournament, did you?”
“Well, no, of course not.” Emma pulled back and looked at the other woman. Wherever this was going she had no idea what it had to do with the tournament. “It wasn’t exactly the ideal situation, but it worked well enough in the end.” She squeezed Regina a little tighter to her.
Regina sunk into her that much more and went on. “We don’t have to be there either, we just have to make a list of questions to ferret out the information we need.”
“What information do we need though? We just wanted suggestions for improvement of the kingdom in regard to the peasants. There’s not much specific to that that we can come up with a list of questions for. Everyone is going to have a different answer. A farmer is going to want a lower portion of his crop taken by the crown, a cobbler is going to want to pay less taxes, a cart driver is going to want a standardized road system. How do we come up with something that covers all of those people when we’re only talking to one type of person? Not that farmers don’t make up a majority of our population, but in order for us to grow as a kingdom that might not always need to be true. We need more people in trades and more scholars, inventors, doctors. We need better farming methods to make sure that even with all these people leaving the world of farming there’s enough to feed the kingdom. How does this boil down to one question?”
“It needn’t be just one question.”
Emma shook her head. “No, it has to be. The farmers will already be irritated at all the other questions, they won’t want to answer more. Make it too long and we won’t get thoughtful answers. I say three at most, but one would be better.”
Regina bit her lip in thought. “Fair enough.”
“And besides, how are we going to get this question out to the peasants anyway? We aren’t going with the record keepers, we won’t see the people, how are we going to trick them into doing it for us?”
Regina smirked and looked up at Emma. “They have a set list of questions they must ask, right?”
Emma nodded. “Of course, it keeps the information they get consistent as possible.”
“They aren’t coming to the palace are they?”
Emma shrugged, jostling Regina just slightly. She frowned at her carelessness and went back to combing her fingers through Regina’s hair. It was still slightly damp from her workout, but it smelled of jasmine so Emma wasn’t quite worried about it. “I’m not sure, I don’t think so, but mother hasn’t confirmed the details about our trip yet.”
“If they don’t who’s to say that your mother didn’t send a new set of questions, completely the same except our questions will be at the end. We’ll get our answers as we’re analyzing the data and just keep them for our own personal record instead of letting them be logged into the kingdom’s records.”
“But what if they do come to the palace? Then they’ll know that my mother sent no such thing to them.”
Regina rubbed the back of her neck. “I can think of a few ways that might work, but they all involve getting servants in on our plan in one way or another, and we cannot have that. They don’t have the protection that you or even I do.”
“Of course.” Emma cocked her head to the side. “But she will have to give them some sort of missive. Regina, you said a while back that you managed to steal for food before you found the witch who trained you, do you think you could put those old skills to use? You could slip the paper into whatever folio my mother gives them and they’d never be any the wiser.”
Regina hummed, face scrunched. “It could work, but it’s been years since I actually stole anything. An attempt now might be clumsy enough to get noticed. I wasn’t exactly so good at stealing when I had to all those years ago.”
Emma sighed. “Last resort then? We still have time to think of another plan, but let’s just hope they don’t come to the palace, but we come to them. I know my mother will call me into her office before we leave if that’s the case to pound the rules of the trip that much harder and lay down the consequences if I don’t follow them. It wouldn’t be unbelievable that she’d give me something for the record keepers at the end of such a meeting.”
Regina nodded into Emma’s side, chin digging in just a little painfully. “True enough, let’s just hope your mother doesn’t tell them that any orders from you are invalid. She shouldn’t, but she’s done more foolish things than that in the past few weeks.”
Emma snorted. “You can say that again. On this downward trajectory she’s been on, gods only know what her next move will be.”
“Yes, well, let’s hope her trajectory stabilizes out sometime soon.”
“You can say that again.” Emma took a deep breath. “But that still leaves us with what the question will be?”
Regina pursed her lips. “With only one question there’s the dilemma of do you make it broad or specific. Specific could address the problems of the farmers, and thus most of the population, but broad could address many people but the suggestions might not be as well thought out. People know about specific details about problems to be fixed when they encounter them in their everyday lives. They may even have solutions if that’s the case. And while peasants don’t know much about governing, all it takes is a seed of a good idea to spark something great.” Regina made a frustrated sound. “It’s a ridiculous choice to make.”
“Is there any way to put it somewhere in the middle of specific and broad?”
“There may be, yes, but questions on both extremes are easier to come up with.”
“Of course.” Emma fell silent for a short moment. “If we have to go for one of the two extremes then I vote for broad. We may get less specific stuff, but like you said all it takes is a seed of a good idea to set something off. We only need seeds, we don’t need the whole plant just yet. It should be our job to grow it anyway. We’re the ones who know how to govern and how to get around the obstacles that go with that. Well, sort of.” Emma rubbed her hands over her face.
“Your reasoning makes sense, darling.” Regina started to make absentminded circles on Emma’s stomach with her thumb. “Something like what would you change about the kingdom, then?”
Emma’s face scrunched. “I don’t know, of course that’s what first comes to mind, but it doesn’t really click with me. Everyone has petty grievances about how the kingdom is run and that’s just a wide open opportunity to complain about them. While some of them are well founded I think many of them would just be ridiculous. You can’t keep cutting taxes while wanting to increase spending on law enforcement in the kingdom. It’s absurd.”
“We’ll get complaints like that no matter what question we ask, darling.” Regina looked up at Emma from the blonde’s chest.
“I know, but that one somehow seems like it would be worse for some reason. I have no idea why. It just, something just seems off to me.”
“What do you propose then?”
Emma brought her hand up to her chin, tracing her lips absently. “We have to get people to think beyond themselves somehow. How to do it though…” she trailed off.
They both sat in silence for a while, curled around each other. The warm weight of Regina was both distracting and focusing. Emma didn’t mind at all. It was nice just being. Moments like this made her feel like they were a real married couple who had married out of love and not out almost obligation. Emma gave into the urge to kiss the woman below her, restraining herself to a kiss on the head for now. She pulled her lips away from Regina’s sweet smelling hair and gasped.
“What?” Regina asked, sitting up immediately, looking around the room. She looked back and Emma confused when she didn’t see anything out of the ordinary.
“Sorry, I just, I had an idea.”
Regina raised her eyebrow in question, but didn’t say anything.
“It’s just, to get someone to think beyond themselves there’s usually one sure fire way, to ask about their kids. What if the question was what would you change about the kingdom to make it better for your children? I mean, it’s not perfect, but.”
The brunette tilted her head slightly. “I think it will do.”
Emma smiled brightly, refusing to bounce up and down like a small child no matter how much she truly wanted to. Regina was on top of her and she didn’t want to jostle the other woman. She might move then and Emma really didn’t want that either.
“Alright then, we have our question. Now how do we get the list of questions we have to add it to and the royal stationary it’s on? Mother’s is different than mine and fathers.” A thought occurred to her. “Oh, a stationary should probably be crafted for you as well now that you’re an official part of the royal family. I’ll go to Clarice in the next couple of days.”
A slow smile spread across Regina’s face. “And that’s how you’ll get your mother’s stationary. She’ll surely have some somewhere.”
Emma could have slapped herself on the forehead. Of course. “But I’ll have to dig around for it probably. You can’t just keep royal stationary out in the open.”
“No, but perhaps you could persuade her that since you’re already there you can take the latest box back to your mother.”
Emma bit her lip. “I can try. It may not work, though, she’s good at what she does. Anything written on royal stationary is much like a law, or at least very binding.”
“As it should be, but you as Princess will have less trouble than anyone else.”
Emma nodded. “Yeah, but we’ll have to come up with something else as a backup. I’ll go tomorrow after I drop off our report on trade tariffs. Or no, before, that way I’ll have some sort of proof that I’m going straight to mother’s office. It won’t be much, but something to back up the story is better than nothing. And since I’m going on an official errand, mother can’t very well stop me, an excuse about going to pick up stationary so I can get more work done should suffice nicely.”
“Of course. And perhaps the library has old copies of what the questions for the record keepers were. If not we could perhaps reverse engineer the questions from the information gathered.”
“That will take time. We leave in less than a week, how are we going to manage all of this?” Worry started to buzz in the back of Emma’s head. This plan depended on quite a few things going right, and while there were always contingency plans, they might not have time to come up with one, let alone execute one. If only her mother had cooperated this would be so much easier.
“We have quite a bit of free time if you remember. If we start tomorrow and work until it’s time to leave we should be able to pull everything together.”
“Are you sure?” Emma looked into Regina’s eyes and hoped she’d see the right answer in them.
“Not at all, but it’s rather better to try, don’t you think?”
Regina pulled herself out of Emma’s arms and stood from the couch. “Good, then we should be well rested for the days ahead. I have a feeling sleep will not be easy to come by in the next few days.” She pulled Emma up with her and led them both towards their bedroom.
Emma walked into Clarice’s shop, head held high. She’d need to sell this with confidence for everything to work in their favor. Clarice was a clever woman, she had to be to maintain a business in such a hostile climate towards women. But she was the best at what she did and was smarter than she ever let on, it was what had gotten her into her mother’s good graces and had allowed her business to thrive.
The middle aged woman emerged from the back as the bell over the door stopped ringing. She smiled widely at Emma, brushing the wrinkles out of her apron and dress. She stepped around the counter and curtsied before drawling Emma into a hug.
“Good afternoon, princess, what brings you here?” Clarice asked, drawling back.
Emma smiled back at the other woman. Of all the craftsmen and women who came to the palace, Clarice had always been her favorite. She really did feel bad about having to do this to her, but it would help people in the long run. Her mother would never miss one single piece. She would never be the wiser if this went off without a hitch.
“Regina, my wife, needs her own stationary now that she’s a princess of the kingdom. I heard that you might be the place to come for such things.”
The older woman’s face lit up. She swept her graying light brown hair from her face and bustled back behind the counter. She rustled around for a moment before pulling out a piece of paper and setting it down and went back to digging again.
Emma walked over at looked at the paper she’d set down. It was her own personal stationary. A swan replaced where her mother had a cluster of the snow drops from which she’d gotten her name and her father had a lion in the top left hand corner. The rest of the paper was the same for all of them, the top covered in swirls of white and gold, the colors of the kingdom, and the royal crest in the white corner. She traced the swirls lightly. She always had liked the look of it. Clarice was truly good at her job.
Clarice came back to the counter with a blank piece of rather plain paper. “So tell me about your wife then. Perhaps something will strike my fancy for a design. She was the Black Knight in the tournament, yes?”
“Yes, she was.” Emma smiled warmly at the memory now. It had been such a shock, but all she felt now at the image of Regina fighting for her was warmth.
“I heard it was a good fight, her last one, wasn’t there myself, but word does travel quickly. The man she was fighting gets bigger every time, I swear.”
Emma laughed. She was sure he was at least nine feet tall by now in all the time that had passed since the tournament. “Well, Regina is quite strong, but I bet even she would have quite the tough time with a nine foot man. I can’t imagine, though, that such a large man would be very coordinated.”
“No, I suppose not.” The woman’s eyes were dancing merrily. “Tell me more, I know of the brave knight, but there must be much more to a woman like that. It’s not every day that someone enters a contest knowing her life might be at risk.”
Emma scrunched her eyes. She thought that no one outside the palace knew that Regina was ever in danger of death.
“It’s not hard to figure out, Princess. Your mother is a kind woman, to a point. You are that point. And besides, word does travel even if you think it won’t.”
Emma nodded. “Yeah, well, she did it so I could choose my own suitor instead of having one forced on me. I chose her. She’s an amazing woman, Clarice.”
“I’ll meet her when I bring her her stationary, see if she passes muster.”
“She will. She’s brave, cunning, kind, everything a good princess should be and everything that a good knight should be as well and somehow it works for her even though those two things are so wholly different.”
“Tell me, her sword, where did she get it? I’ve heard stories about it as well.”
“It was a gift from her father. He’s the one who advocated for her first sword lessons back in her old kingdom.”
“The Dark Kingdom.”
Emma nodded even though it wasn’t a question.
“Important to her?”
“Extremely. It’s the one thing she’s managed to keep from childhood.”
Clarice nodded. “What does she do in her free time?”
“Read, exercise in the yards, ride horses, go on walks with me in the garden. She’s always teaching me about politics even when we aren’t in council meetings. She draws a little, but she always puts it away when I come in, so I don’t think I’m really supposed to know about that.”
“Well, I did just give her a horse. Well, not really give so much as just took him off the roster of horses available to anyone. She named him Fierro.”
“On your walks in the garden, does she have a favorite flower?”
Emma titled her head. She couldn’t quite place if Regina had gravitated towards any flower out of the mass that made up the garden proper, or her own private garden.
“Not that I can remember, but she always uses the soap made out of jasmine, so that may be it.”
The woman started to sketch immediately. Quickly lines appeared on the paper and Emma watched entranced as a sword started to form. That had been obvious to her, Regina should have a sword on her stationary, but since she wasn’t the one making it she wasn’t going to dictate. She was glad that Clarice had agreed with her silent assessment, though. Around the now fully formed sword a garland of flowers was weaving around it. Emma waited for a few seconds before smiling. Jasmine flowers now wrapped around the hilt and blade loosely.
Clarice pushed the design forward. “Something like this?”
“I think that will do just nicely.”
Clarice smiled. “Good, good, give me a few days. I’ll bring it to her.”
“Alright.” She paused for a second, wondering just how to launch into her proposal. She couldn’t launch into it by pointing out that she didn’t usually let anyone else deliver her stationary, that would plant the seed of denial before she had even begun. Perhaps just a casual mention of her taking it would be best. The less she said the better.
“Clarice, I’m heading right to my mother’s office right after this if you have any stationary that needs delivered to my mother. I’d be glad to take it with me.”
The woman smiled, but her eyes gone much cooler. “No, Princess, thank you for the offer, but I’ll be at the palace in a few days to deliver your mother’s next shipment of stationary along with the rest of the nobles in the palace.”
Emma nodded immediately. She could fight the decision she knew, but it would look suspicious. If such things got back to her mother she would only increase the amount of eyes on her and make the plan that much more difficult.
“Ok, just thought I’d offer.” She shrugged and took a step back from the counter.
“Kind of you, your highness, but stationary is a sensitive thing, as you well know.”
“Of course, of course, you wouldn’t be where you are today if you had lax practices.” She nodded again.
Emma stared at the woman awkwardly for a second before clearing her throat. “I’ll look forward to seeing you in a few days then with Regina’s paper.” She turned slightly towards the door.
“Will you be needing any of your own stationary, your highness?”
Emma shook her head. “No, mother doesn’t exactly give me many occasions for which I would need to use my stationary for any official capacity and personal doesn’t quite use much. The only person I’d write to lives with me.”
The woman’s smile had a little more warmth to it this time. “I understand. In a few days’ time then.”
Emma inclined her head and exited the shop at what she hoped was a normal pace. Damn. That had not gone to plan at all. They had nothing now, nothing at all. She only hoped that Regina had had more luck finding the questions than she had getting the stationary. If Regina got the questions then at least they would be somewhere. If not, it was back to square one and Emma didn’t like that a bit. A little less than a week and their time ran out. She walked a little quicker back to the palace.