Her Queen didn’t sleep. That was one of the first things Ebba realized in her early weeks in the service of the lion of the north’s daughter. After a frightening ten or eleven hours of fencing, state matters, scholarly discussion, studying, court matters and more studying Kristina of Sweden would barge into her quarters with a brimming energy that swept over the room like a Kraken wave and would startle Ebba from whatever embroidering or cleaning she did.
This evening she was startled so much the needle punched her finger and she gave a soft gasp.
Pressing her lips together and a hand over her injury she quickly stood and curtsied.
“Your majesty,” she greeted her queen with lowered eyes.
Her mother had stressed very much that her eyes always needed be lowered in the presence of the monarch. Ebba did not think it would present a problem; she had excelled all her life in dutiful obedience and even did so elegantly, as she had often heard in praise.
But from the moment she met the wild and strange thing that was her new queen it had proved a herculean effort. Not to look at the wonder of this woman who seemed to speak all the tongues of the world, carried herself not like a man but like something even more and at the cold fire in her eyes – one might as well be told not to look at the northern lights when they graced one with their luminous power.
The queen came to halt in front of her and did not stir for a while. Ebba blamed the pulsing pain in her finger for her weakness, but eventually she looked up and met her queen’s gaze.
Kristina looked at her as she always did: with jarring intensity and yet immense shyness.
“Ebba,”, she said and Ebba didn’t think she ever heard her name until the queen had spoken it. Each letter enunciated with the same care the monarch wrote her letters and wielded her sword with.
Suddenly the queen’s brow creased.
“You’re injured,”, she said, clearly unpleased and approached her rapidly.
Ebba hid her bleeding hand beneath her back in instinct.
“Oh, it’s nothing my queen, really, I – I let the needle slip – “
She gasped again, this time much louder when the queen promptly took her injured hand in hers.
Her skin rough and calloused, Ebba could feel all the fighting, writing and riding in her own weak hand.
Yet what really shook her was the gentleness with which Kristina now cradled her hand in her hers, studying her bleeding finger like one of her books.
She looked up sharply and her eyes hushed over Ebba’s face, unreadable.
“Come,” she then said simply and before Ebba knew it she was pushed onto the royal bed and watched her majesty the queen produce an alarming stock of bandages form her night stand. When the queen caught her the confusion in her eyes she chuckled and smiled that devilish grin she had sometimes.
“I got so many injuries from hunting and fighting as a child that my aunt threatened to forbid me training. So, I learned to dress my lesser wounds myself. Here…” with a softness that belied all the fierceness she had seen in her so far, she dunk a piece of cloth in a bottle and dabbed at her finger. Ebba hissed at the feeling – it must have been alcohol. Then the queen proceeded to wrap the cleaned wound up in a shining white bandage.
“There,” the queen smiled happily and watched her.
Ebba, still overwhelmed with the whole situation, could do nothing but smile back abashedly.
The queen continued to study her and Ebba continued to completely fail at lowering her gaze.
“Does it happen often?”, Kristina asked finally. “That you stab yourself while embroidering?”
Ebba opened her mouth but hesitated.
“I mean… it did a lot when I first learned but – did it never happen to you, your majesty?”
Kristina laughed at that. “I never learned. These things are not for me.” There was a strange pride swinging in her voice at that.
Ebba had a thousand questions. Everyone heard the stories of the princess being raised like a prince but still she had supposed she would also learn the womanly arts. But of course it wasn’t her place to question that.
“But tell me” Kristina insisted. “Does it happen often?” She asked with curiosity, considering her with the same earnest with which she asked the men around her about questions of state and fighting.
“I… no, it hardly does anymore, your majesty. Only when I get distract-“
She quickly cut herself of and looked down worryingly.
The queen raised her chin and her smile vanished.
“I startled you. I startled you when I came through the door.”
All Ebba could do was to look down and shake her head.
Hear heart stilled when the queen put two fingers under her chin and forced her to look at her.
There was an ice fire in Kristina’s eyes as they grazed over her.
“When I cause you pain,” she announced firmly “I want you to tell me. It is my duty to protect my subjects. When I accidently harm them, I have to know.”
It was said so earnestly and yet the gentleness and the power of it jarred Ebba and she didn’t know what to make it of it, of her queen who startled her every day, when she commanded, when she read, when she bared her muscled back, drenched in sweat after long hours of fencing, when she breathed.
Finally, she dared to look up at Kristina. The glowing eyes in her pale face looked like a fire in snow to her.
“Yes, my queen”, she whispered.
And she tried not to, but she felt how admiration ran into her eyes and the queen shifted in her assurance to the strange shyness she never saw her display around anyone else and not for the first time she wondered why with all the wise and powerful men around the queen every day it could be that she would startle this extraordinary creature.
Kristina let go of her chin slowly and her mouth opened, closed, opened again.
“Good,” she said hoarsely and slowly sat back in her bed.
Ebba was quick to busy herself to remove the riding boots from her queen, opening the various buckles and straps and softly pulling them of. When she removed the bindings of her feet she marvelled at them, at how soft and white and small they were and wondered how they carried this lioness of a person. She heard Kristina’s breath hitch when she brushed them. She looked up and saw her watching her with an open mouth, her eyes hooded with a painful longing and confusion.
And she gasped again as she suddenly understood the shyness and the breathing and the longing for what it was, for what she had seen in men and what couldn’t be. But wasn’t it so that queen Kristina took things that couldn’t be and made them?
Softly she lingered, brushed a gentle hand over the bare feed over to her bare calves.
Kristina closed her eyes forcefully and Ebba couldn’t help but smile.
“Your muscles are tense, your majesty. You should try to sleep more.”
“I have no time for sleeping.”
It sounded indignant, as if the mere thought offended her.
Softly Ebba let her fingertips brush over the queen’s legs again before she withdrew them.
She watched the young woman on her royal bed, whose body was so clearly exhausted but whose mind wouldn’t allow it.
Her eyes roamed over her lithe form and her proud and tired face and her wild unkempt hair and she felt a warmth flood her heart and it clenched with worry.
“I wish you would grant it yourself”, she whispered before she could check herself. She froze and the queen raised her chin again.
“Do you wish to command me, Comtesse?”, she asked, her eyebrows raised, voice challenging.
Ebba hesitated but then squared her shoulders.
“I would never, your majesty. But as it is your duty to protect your subjects it is my duty to care for you.”
A strange vulnerability flickered in the queen’s eyes then, and they darkened and clouded as if she were not here suddenly, but in a dark memory.
Ebba watched in concern but finally Kristina shook her head and looked at her with a new form of longing before it vanished from her eyes.
“And so, you shall”, she managed finally, before she averted her gaze. “Good night, Comtesse.”
Kristina curled herself together and blindly reached for a book, her eyes everywhere but on her. It was a dismal and Ebba had had along day and her body should rejoice but instead all she felt was an overwhelming need to tuck the queen into her sheets, throw of the countless scrolls in various languages from her nightstand that she sure intended to read now and to sing her to the sleep she denied herself.
But of course she couldn’t.
So, she curtsied deeply and threw one last longing look at the queen.
“Good night, your majesty.”
And with that she slowly walked out of the room, feeling the queen’s eyes burning on her, like ice cold water on her naked skin. The alarming thing was she shuddered with something else than cold.