It was Febblekeck's fault.
After their late-night reminiscence session, Talia and Gerta had been growing closer: spending their time together, getting to know each other, teasing and laughing and figuring out how they fit together. Talia was starting to smile again. Gerta was starting to feel like she was wanted.
And then that obnoxious pixie ruined everything. He had been far more subdued in the weeks since Danielle had threatened him with the prospect of becoming a meal for one of her animal friends, but he clearly resented working with Gerta, or even being near her. And with the Duchess's six-month deadline hanging over Jakob's head, they didn't have much of a choice.
There were five of them sitting around the table that evening: Febblekeck, Trittibar, Danielle, Talia, and Gerta herself. "Even if we find a way out of this contract, that will never be the end of it," Gerta argued. "She'll never stop; she'll find a way to get to him. We have to find a way to get rid of her once and for all."
Febblekeck bristled, flashing brightly and fluttering his wings. "Are you really suggesting assassinating a Fairytown citizen?"
"An outlaw," Talia interjected.
"That would be a heinous breach of Malindar's Treaty! How dare you even suggest it!"
"I never said anything about assassination. There might be some form of magical binding-"
Febblekeck barked out a laugh, shooting into the air and trailing pixie dust behind him. "Your magic? Against the Duchess? You really think a, a golem like you could-"
"Febblekeck," Danielle said sharply, but Febblekeck was undeterred.
"She is one of Fairytown's most powerful and devious denizens," he said hotly. "You are a pile of junk tied together with the magical equivalent of cotton thread. We-"
Talia shot out of her chair. "Don't you dare talk to her like that, you little-"
"Of course you'd defend her," he sneered, darting forward to hover in front of Talia's face. "We all know what your stake is here. After all, that one fairly reeks of roses!"
Gerta felt the color drain from her face. Talia went absolutely still.
"Febblekeck." Danielle's voice was steel. "Leave this room at once."
When the fairy ambassador failed to move, Danielle nodded at Trittibar, who with surprising deftness plucked Febblekeck out of the air and carried the struggling pixie out into the hall, closing the door firmly behind him.
Silence reigned for a long moment. Then Talia whirled and headed for the door. Gerta tried to reach out for her, but she was already gone.
"Forgive me," Danielle said gently, "but just what was he implying?"
Gerta's fists clenched. "The various parts of the rose are commonly used in love potions."
Danielle's eyebrows rose, but she said nothing, waiting for Gerta to continue.
"They have other uses, as well," she said. "I don't know the exact magical means Snow used to create this body and the binding spell, but roses could easily have been a part of the process -- used for conducting emotion, for example."
"So Febblekeck was implying that Talia was only defending you because she was being swayed by a love spell."
"Yes." Gerta bit her lip. "But that's ridiculous. We know she's not."
"So why did Talia run off?"
"Talia thinks that the only reason I love her is because I'm being swayed by a love spell." Suddenly Gerta stood. "I need to find her. If you'll excuse me, my Queen?" At Danielle's nod, she swept out of the room.
Gerta didn't have nearly as sophisticated a monitoring system as Snow had, but she managed to track Talia down on the palace wall. It was dark, the moonlight and the torches the only illumination. Gerta shivered a little in the cold.
"Talia," she said quietly, but stopped, unsure of how to begin.
"You said Snow had thought about taking a love potion for… for me." Talia didn't turn to look at her.
"Yes." Gerta took a cautious step closer. "But I really doubt she used it on me. I don't think she ever actually brewed it at all."
"That doesn't matter." Talia sighed. "She wanted you to love me, didn't she? Because she couldn't."
"…Yes, I suppose so."
Finally Talia turned. She seemed to search for something in Gerta's face. "I think I need some time alone," she said. She passed Gerta without another glance, and Gerta made no move to stop her.
Both of them were a little tipsy. These girls' nights weren't quite a regular thing, but they were fast becoming one. This time Danielle had begged off early, citing an early meeting with a few of the coastal nobles about fishing rights. It sounded dreadfully boring. Talia and Gerta were left alone together in the drawing room, finishing off a bottle of wine and watching the fire burn down.
Things hadn't been the same since the incident with Febblekeck. Talia had closed herself off again. And for her own part, Gerta was beginning to doubt herself. Her very memories were lies, of a sort. Were her emotions lies too?
"You look good in green." Gerta looked up to find Talia staring at her.
She smiled. "I always thought so," she said, tugging a little at her eye-patch. Talia's hair was disheveled, and her cheeks had a light blush to them. She was close enough to touch, and after a moment, Gerta did so, laying her hand lightly over Talia's.
Talia stared down at their hands, then looked back up at Gerta, eyes unreadable. Then she was leaning in, her breath whispering across Gerta's skin, and suddenly their lips were touching. Gerta held her breath as the moment stretched out in front of her.
Abruptly Talia pulled back. "No," she said. "No, I can't." She stood and began to pace.
"I'm sorry," Gerta said. She didn't know what she was apologizing for.
"Don't…" Talia stopped. "I'm sorry. It's not fair, and I can't do it. Not if you don't have any choice but to love me."
Gerta said nothing.
"I know Snow was just trying to give me some happiness. I don't think she meant to hurt anyone. But I know what it's like to have someone take something you have no choice not to give, and this… I can't do this to you."
Silence fell once more.
Then quietly, almost inaudibly, Gerta spoke. "I do love you."
"But is that your choice, or is it Snow's?" Talia said. Her voice was gentle, but the words bit anyway. "You don't know, do you?"
Gerta didn't respond. When Talia saw that there would be no answer forthcoming, she turned and quietly left the room.
Gerta stared at the dying fire. Eventually she lifted a hand to her cheek and found that it was wet.
Gerta sat in one of Snow's favorite pubs, nursing a drink from a corner table. Snow had liked it because there were plenty of handsome men to drink and joke and flirt with, which wasn't much of an enticement to Gerta, but there were… other attractions.
Her eyes followed one of the barmaids as she threaded through the tables, smiling pleasantly but deftly avoiding any grabby hands and never lingering with the men the way the others would. Her name was Anna, Gerta knew, though she'd never asked. It was one of the odds and ends of Snow's memories she retained. Anna was pretty, with dark hair and dark eyes, and her smile was sweet and guileless.
Could she fall in love with someone like that? Gerta wondered. Could she fall in love with anyone other than Talia? She found Anna attractive, certainly. It wasn't so hard to imagine kissing her, making love to her… Could she imagine coming home to her? Her heart ached at the thought. But maybe she could learn to be happy. Maybe someday it might seem as natural as the thought of coming home to Talia.
"Is there anything I can do for you?"
Evidently Anna had become aware she was being watched. She stood in front of Gerta, hair framing her face, even lovelier up close. Her expression was inviting.
"You just… seemed a little lonely over here." Anna set her hand casually on the table, close enough to Gerta's that if she so much as twitched they would touch.
Anna was flirting with her. Gerta had her opening, her chance to find out if her heart was really her own to give. Maybe she could find happiness here.
Talia's face flashed unbidden in her mind, the grief in her eyes after Snow's death, the anger that flashed after Febblekeck's insult, the unreadable expression from that night in the drawing room, just before their lips brushed.
"Thank you," Gerta said, "but I was just leaving."
Gerta rapped on Talia's door.
"I need to talk to you." There was no answer. Gerta rolled her good eye to the ceiling. "I know you're in there, Talia. I can always burn the latch off again!"
Gerta heard something that sounded suspiciously like an Arathean curse, but a short moment later the door opened just enough for Talia to lean against the doorframe.
No point in dragging it out. "You were right," Gerta said, staring at the floor. "I don't know whether I love you because I love you or because Snow wanted me to love you. But I do love you." She took a deep breath, and then she looked Talia straight in the eye.
"Maybe my choice is different from everyone else's, but it's still a choice. And I've made it. I choose to believe that I love you because I love you. I want to love you, Talia. And I want you to love me. But that's your choice, not mine."
Talia was silent. She looked lost.
"You don't have to say anything now," Gerta said, dropping her gaze once more. "Just… think about it." She turned and walked away, not daring to look back.
The sun spilled over the battlement, warming Gerta's face. She ran her fingers carefully along the stem of the glass rose she held, watching the last few rays of the sunrise seep into its petals.
"So Jakob finally made an honest woman of you."
Gerta smiled and turned to face Talia. "We couldn't bear to be apart a moment longer," she said. "He is my one and only, and not another day could pass without us vowing our love to the heavens. I don't even care how short he is!"
Talia snorted. "Ah, but then why," she countered, stepping up to join Gerta, "are you not wearing his ring?"
Gerta blinked and looked down at her hand. "Oh, that." She fished the ring out of her pocket. "The gold interferes with the magic." She tilted her head toward the rose.
"Well, you'd better put it back on, then. Wouldn't want your husband getting the wrong idea." Before Gerta could move Talia had plucked the ring from her grasp. Her breath caught as Talia gently took her hand and slid the ring smoothly onto her finger. "There." She didn't let go.
They were standing so close Gerta could feel the heat from Talia's body. She could just tilt her head and… "Have you thought about what I said?" she asked instead.
Talia nodded. Her eyes were serious. "It's going to take me some time," she said quietly. "But… I want to try this, with you. I could see myself falling in love with you."
"Would that make you happy?" Gerta asked.
Talia smiled, just slightly, but genuine. "It would." And then Talia leaned in and kissed her, sweet but firm, and Gerta felt like her heart might burst.
After they pulled apart, Gerta laid her head on Talia's shoulder, and they stood together for a long moment.
Finally, Talia broke the silence. "Come on," she said. "Let's go give that evil old biddy a sunrise to remember." Gerta grinned. They left the tower together, hands brushing all the way to the courtyard.