It was the wedding of the century.
Weiss’s stomach roiled, and not from the alcohol. Her father entered the room beside the queen on the dias, accepting praise and applause from the gathered nobles on their union. Jacques’ ring finger only held one band- the band Weiss’ mother placed there had mysteriously disappeared when he and the queen began courting. Weiss took a deeper sip from her wine than was polite. Perhaps if she was drunk, she would not have to remember tonight.
An elbow surreptitiously dug into her side, and Weiss nearly choked. Daintily, she brought her handkerchief to her mouth to cough, looking to her right. Whitley smiled back, his eyebrows raised, and he inclined his head slightly to her wine glass as he clapped politely.
Weiss fought back the urge to smack her brother. Not only was Jacques only a few feet away, but she and Whitley were standing behind their seats to the right of the head of the dining table, a place reserved for honored guests. All others in in attendance had their eyes not only on the queen and her new king, but also on the queen’s new step-children. ‘Grace and poise, Weiss,’ she told herself as she gave Whitley as demure a smile as she could manage. ‘Grace and poise.’
Winter’s absence didn’t help. Before they had left Atlas, before the accident with their mother, before everything had started turning rotten, Winter left. She gave up her place as the heiress to the Schnee Dust Company, instead enlisting in Atlas’ mighty military.
“I have a duty to my country,” Winter had said solemnly, “and that duty is not running this company.”
Jacques had negotiated, threatened, pleaded, anything to make Winter change her mind. Weiss hadn’t tried, she knew her sister. She wasn’t surprised when Winter left despite Jacques, nor was she shocked when he disowned her, writing her out of his will and naming Weiss heiress.
Winter was present, of course, but not with Weiss and Whitley. Instead, she was seated with rest of the Atlesian dignitaries, on the other side of the table, just past the previous queen’s inner circle. She was seated beside Führer Ironwood himself, Weiss noted. Had she become so important in the Atlesian military in the past decade? Or was she there simply because it was Jacques getting married? Either way, Winter either avoided Weiss’ gaze, or didn’t notice her about to rip their brother’s head from his neck.
The applause died down as Jacques pulled the queen’s seat out from the head of the table, but she stayed standing for a moment, drawing everyone’s attention.
“Thank you, everyone, for attending this auspicious day,” the queen said graciously, spreading her arms out wide. “The Ash Queendom thanks you for your presence and kind words.”
With her speech given, she sat down in her chair, and the rest of the guests were allowed to follow suit. Weiss sat, and after a moment, Jacques took a seat to her left- she was trapped by her own family.
Weiss closed her eyes, taking a deep breath. It was nothing new. She would survive this, as she had survived life in Atlas after her mother’s death. She sat quietly, resigning herself to becoming a doll to make it through the night. Emotions would only ruin things.
The hors d'oeuvres were cleared away, and the second course, in a nod to the Schnee’s Atlesian origin, was Hochzeitssuppe. Weiss looked down to where the Atlesians sat; stern as ever, Führer Ironwood tried a spoonful of the soup, but seemed unimpressed. Winter still did not look to the head of the table.
Back straight, pretending to be unhurt, Weiss tried the soup. An attempt had been made, but it was quite watery, and the noodles were clearly of Ash origin. A paltry imitation, but she’d have to adjust. Weiss forced down more of the soup.
The next course passed quickly; an Ash fish dish, then came the more familiar Hochzeitnudeln. The Atlesians didn’t even try the noodles, Führer Ironwood waving it away before the servers even set it down before him. The rest followed suit, Winter included, and the queen stared with narrowed eyes at the bold rudeness of her Northern guests. Weiss kept her head low, waiting for the floor beneath her to open up and swallow her whole.
“Weiss.” Weiss looked up, alarmed. The queen was looking at her. Weiss’ heart began to speed up. Had she done something wrong? Was she going to be berated for the Atlesians’ lack of manners? Instead, the queen leaned forward, her dark hair gently falling to cover her left eye. “How do you find the noodles?”
“Ah, they’re not like in Atlas, but they’re still good,” Weiss answered honestly. A pause. “Your Majesty.” She inclined her head.
The queen laughed, her earrings catching the light, briefly blinding Weiss. “We’re family now, Weiss,” the queen purred, placing a hand on Jacques’. “You can just call me Cinder.”
Weiss stared at their hands for a moment, remembering her mother’s hands. “Cinder.” The name felt awkward in Weiss’ mouth, like the Ash versions of Atlesian dishes. It would take adjusting to.
The noodles were taken away, replaced with citrus sorbet, followed by an extravagant roast of lamb and beef with stuffed quail. Weiss wasn’t set to take over the Schnee Dust Company until her 21st birthday, but from what she had seen of her family’s bookkeeping, the wedding had been almost entirely funded by Jacques. She took a bite of the quail- delicate, delicious, but clearly expensive, meant to impress. Whose idea was this?
To Weiss’ left, Jacques spoke cordially with his new wife- there was no love here, Weiss had gathered, as there had not been with her mother. It was Cinder Weiss watched, chewing thoughtfully as she pretended to listen to Jacques, whose golden eyes were roaming the gathered nobles.
Ah. Weiss noted Cinder’s gaze, then turned to look. Down the table, way down- must be from Vale, to be seated so far- a young blonde boy, blue eyes and a bright smile. Weiss knew him, what was his name? John? He laughed, then turned, looking to the head of the table, catching Weiss staring.
Weiss turned, but she felt his eyes still on her. Heat crept to her cheeks. Foolish! She chided herself. A Valen boy. Who was this John? Was he the one Cinder was trying to impress?
“I see you’ve found yourself a handsome young man,” Cinder’s voice drew Weiss from her thoughts. Weiss looked to her new step mother, mouth open slightly. Her face, she was sure, was now beet red. Great, the queen saw that too.
“I wasn’t… I don’t even know him…” Weiss stammered.
Cinder laced her fingers together, setting her chin atop them as she gave Weiss a coy smile. “Jaune Arc. Crown prince of the Kingdom of Vale.” She tilted her head, raising a single eyebrow. “He would be a good match for you.”
Jaune! Of course! Weiss remembered now- the youngest of seven sisters, the only son of the late King Miles of Vale. His grandfather, King Ozpin, was no friend of Cinder, or of the Ash Queendom- but a political marriage might solve that.
Weiss pushed her plate away, appetite gone. Atlas had been a military state, but at least there had been gender equality. Winter’s rank in the military was proof of that. Now, she was the princess of the Ash Queendom, the second most powerful woman in the nation. To go from these places to the wife of a man in a Kingdom? To be subservient to a man for the rest of her days? Queen Cinder’s words wrapped like a snake around Weiss’ throat and gut, trapping her.
“I don’t know if he’s my type,” Weiss replied placidly.
Cinder held Weiss’ gaze as the roast was removed. “You should take the opportunity to get to know him, then,” she said finally. Slices of pure white wedding cake were set down before the guests, not the rich chocolate cake of Atlesian weddings. Everything was different here.
Weiss inclined her head. “Of course, as you wish.” Then I’ll be out of your way, your queendom without an heir once more, leaving you to be Ash’s monarch for life. Bitterness swelled in Weiss’ mouth, where the thought of cake should have left sweetness. You can’t want me to learn from you, can you? To become like you? That would mean that you actually might...
The queen stood, pulling Weiss from her thoughts and drawing attention once more. “Friends,” she said, her voice resonant, “I have a special treat for you. Emerald has agreed to perform for us during dessert. Please, direct your attention to the floor,” she gestured past the foot of table, to where the dancing would soon take place.
Weiss saw nothing.
A feather-light touch traced along Weiss’ left arm. Weiss whirled, but no one was there. She turned back to her right, and sure enough, Emerald was spilling over the back of her chair, reaching out to caress Weiss’ cheek.
“E-Emerald!” Weiss gasped, pushing the woman away. Her hands flew through air, dispelling the illusion, and revealing a smirking Emerald standing at the center of the dance floor, the guests looking to the head of the table.
“Weiss!” Jacques coughed. The cough of disapproval, the cough of ‘people-are-staring’.
Weiss flushed, angrily taking a sip of her wine. Arguing was pointless with Jacques, she had learned that the hard way. Even in the queendom, where women held status over men, she was still under her father’s thumb. Weiss looked into her wine glass, and Willow looked back.
Weiss squeezed her eyes shut. It was an accident. She was drunk. Weiss set down her glass. She wouldn’t die like her mother.
Emerald started whatever show she had choreographed, drawing gasps of delight from the guests. Weiss didn’t bother to watch. She’d seen enough, even before the night had begun. Instead, she looked down the table, watching her sister.
Winter sat straight-backed, eyes firmly on Emerald’s show. There was a chance she was just avoiding Jacques. Yet Weiss couldn’t ignore the possibility that Winter might be ignoring her, too.
Weiss took a bite of her cake. Sickly sweet. One bite was enough, even too much as Weiss’ teeth ached from the sugar. The guests around her began to clap, and Weiss looked down to the ballroom floor.
Three Emeralds twirled together, their scarves arcing out behind them, the light coming through the sheer fabric turning green. Their ornate mint dresses cinched at the waist with brown embroidered scarves in traditional Vacuan fashion; how their gold-trimmed veils stayed in place during the dance, Weiss could only guess. The three Emeralds spun together, coming in such close proximity that any others would fall; but the Emeralds simply melded together, shimmering with green dust as they collided, their bodies fading to light. At the center stood what Weiss assumed was the real Emerald, clad in a long, pleated olive green skirt and matching cropped top embroidered with gold, a gorgeous scalloped-edged length of fabric draped elegantly from around her waist to over her left shoulder. She lifted her right hand, accepting applause, her golden jewelry sparking in the light, and the Vacuan designs she had painted from her hand to her elbow for the occasion were deep and ruddy against her tan skin.
Weiss clapped politely. She may have found the illusionist vexing, but she had to admit, Emerald had talent. Emerald’s red eyes caught Weiss’, and she blew the princess a kiss. Weiss felt heat rising to her face, imagining how red her cheeks must be on her pale face.
She looked away, and her eyes involuntarily sought her sister once more. To her surprise, Winter looked back. As the queen stood, leading Jacques to the floor to begin the dancing, Winter subtly nodded her head away, toward the shadows beside the dias. She wanted to talk. Privately.
Weiss politely scooted her chair away, as quietly as possible. Whitley turned, giving her and odd look. “I need to refresh myself before the dancing begins,” Weiss lied, gesturing to her wine glass. Whitley gave her an odd look. She had expected understanding, maybe disinterest, but this look was new. She wasn’t sure what the crease in his brow meant, or why the corner of his mouth dipped so slightly. Disappointment, already?
Weiss turned away. Winter’s opinion was more important that Whitley’s. She stepped away, not too hurriedly as to draw attention to herself, and stayed in the shadows. Looking down, she cursed her gown- of course her pale blue wouldn’t blend in to the dark. She should have gone for the darker blue, the one with the small sapphires embedded in the bodice-
A hand gripped her shoulder, and Weiss spun, her heart nearly pounding from her chest. It was Winter’s gloved hand that had spooked her, the other neatly at parade rest behind her crisp white uniform. Even now, she kept her weapon belt on, holding both their grandfather’s rapier and the sword she had trained with before leaving the Schnee household.
“Winter!” Weiss gasped, and the woman quickly moved her hand from Weiss’ shoulder to her mouth. Winter looked to the left, icy eyes scanning the table. After a moment, she seemed satisfied, and removed her hand, looking back to Weiss.
“Weiss. It’s wonderful to see you again.” She gave Weiss a tight hug, her lips brushing Weiss’ ear.
“If you want to live, we need to leave. Now.”
Weiss pulled away from her sister’s embrace, eyes wide. “Winter?”
Winter’s grip on Weiss’ arms shook, her pale eyes steady. “It’s not safe for you here, for either of us.” She began to pull at Weiss’ arms. “We need to leave, now.”
Her brows were knitted together, her voice uncharacteristically panicked. Weiss let Winter take her, watching her sister’s agitated stride. Her rather agitated stride. Weiss stopped, and Winter turned.
Weiss stared hard at Winter. They held each other’s gaze for a long moment, Winter confused, Weiss suspicious. Finally, Weiss stepped away with an irritated sigh.
“This is getting to be quite unprofessional,” she said, crossing her arms.
“Weiss, we don’t have time for this!” Winter hissed, grabbing at Weiss’s arm once more.
Weiss pushed her away. “Please, enough. It’s insulting. As if a Schnee would ever act in such a manner.” She turned her head, ponytail flipping purposefully. “Besides, weapons? Here?” Weiss scoffed, nodding to Winter’s hips.
Winter waited, hand outstretched, then slowly grinned. “Damn, and we almost had you!” she said, her voice deep and silvery. She shimmered green, seemingly made of water. Her white hair began to grey, changing from neat bun to shaggy and slick. Her clothes darkened, the crisp white lines of the Atlas military uniform giving way for the blacks and greys of Ash’s elite guards. Weiss knew even before non-regulation boots replaced Winter’s spotless grey heels who it was that stood before her.
“Valiant effort, Mercury,” she said, giving him the satisfaction of two claps. “If you had any sense of poise, I might have actually believed you.”
Mercury bowed mockingly. “Always a pleasure, princess.”
Emerald strutted up behind him, a smug smile planted on her face. “So you’re saying next time, not use Mercury as my illusion’s puppet?”
Weiss mentally cursed herself. Of course she would find a way to turn this against me. She smiled sweetly. “Oh, darling, I doubt there’s anyone who can match my sister for stance and elegance.”
Emerald tilted her head thoughtfully, turning to regard Winter. The first dance had finished, and the hall was open for all guests. Many took to the floor, but the majority of the Atlesians stood to the side, standing at parade rest. A young gentleman with a faded blue undercut and a maroon and black suit attempted to court Winter for a dance, but she sternly shooed him away. Even from the distance Weiss could see her waist held no weapons.
“The devil’s in the details, Emerald,” Weiss said. “You’ll never match her outfit perfectly.”
Emerald didn’t look away, her red eyes focusing on Winter, memorizing each lock of hair, every medal, the way her clothes folded as she stood at attention. “No,” she said finally, “I suppose my illusions never will be perfect.”
Weiss smiled, lifting her chin, and returned to her seat. Whitley looked up at her approach, giving her a nod as he finished his cake.
“Not dancing?” Weiss asked, taking a sip of her wine.
Whitley watched her, the corner of his mouth twitching down. “I was waiting for you,” he said. “We should dance together, before we’re paired with whichever available dignitaries the queen’s thinking of marrying us off to.”
Weiss involuntarily looked to where Jaune had been sitting, but Vale’s crown prince had made his way to the dance floor already. Her stomach clenched uncomfortably, and she took another, deeper drink from her wine glass.
“Come on now, let’s not keep them waiting,” Whitley laughed nervously, jerking Weiss’ arm. His normally cool facade was cracking ever so slightly, only enough that someone who knew him would notice- the tremor in his voice, the tapping of his fingers against his thigh, how he clenched his teeth when he smiled. Something was bothering him.
Weiss set down her wine, allowing him to lead her, and he visibly relaxed while she searched the crowd. Yes, there- not just Jacques, but Cinder too, watching them with judging eyes. What had they said to him to scare him so?
The music slowed, the quick Ash waltz fading to Tanz der Schneeflocke. Weiss had heard it many times in her life, even sang along to it back when mother was still- Back when they lived in Atlas. Weiss placed her left hand down to Whitley’s shoulder, and he took her right hand, leading her in the dance.
They fell into the rhythm immediately, the three-step dance as familiar to them as snow and disappointment. Weiss had grown so used to dancing with partners her height or taller, dancing with her brother was a change of pace. Not a bad one, however. Just something else she’d have to adjust to, however short lived.
All eyes were on the siblings as they twirled together, circling the floor, and Weiss could feel the stares of the bachelors boring into her. She was being judged, from her hair and her dress to her poise and grace, objectified like a piece of meat. Her hand tightened around Whitley’s.
Whitley gave her a knowing stare, his smile forlorn- there were young ladies in attendance as well. He was already fourteen, and in two years time, he would likely be married off, just as Weiss would soon be. The music faded, the song ending, but Weiss and Whitley held each other for a moment longer. He was certainly arrogant, often times grating on Weiss’ nerves, but he was the only one who understood.
She gave his hand a gentle squeeze, flashing a reassuring smile, then parted, turning toward the gathered nobles.
Several bachelors were far too old for her, and Weiss ignored their hungry stares. She held her head high, and her eyes met another blue pair. She sighed inwardly, her expression demure, and took a deep breath as Jaune Arc took a step toward her.
“Um, hello,” he began awkwardly, one hand scratching behind his head as he offered his other to Weiss. “Would you like to dance?”
No, I would not. Weiss gracefully took his hand, her smile betraying none of her thoughts. “I would be delighted,” she lied.
The poor fool believed her, looking both relieved and excited. The next song started, and Weiss’ heart dropped as the jazzy tune began to play. A foxtrot? She turned, looking to the musicians. Cinder. The queen smirked at Weiss, gesturing for her to dance.
Weiss gritted her teeth, suppressing a groan, letting Jaune wrap his arm about her waist, bringing their chests flush. Jaune’s cheeks took a pink tinge as he stumbled through the steps, his hand sweaty and clammy around Weiss’. The music swelled, and Weiss prepared for a spin. It never came. Jaune cursed under his breath as the couples around them spun, and in his confusion, stepped directly on Weiss’ left foot.
Weiss stifled a scream, jerking in Jaune’s arms. Jaune moved his offending foot immediately, apologizing profusely. Dancers around them paused, staring.
“I’m so, so, so sorry, Weiss! Er, Princess Schnee? Princess Fall?” Jaune blundered through the apology as well as he had the steps of the dance. He caught himself mid-word-vomit, and shook his head. “Can I get you anything?”
Yes, you can get away from me, you oaf! Weiss clenched her jaw muscles. “I’ll be alright, if you could help me to a seat.”
She smiled politely, letting Jaune assist her to a plush chaise in the corner, waving away concerned glances. Grace and poise. She sat gently, hiking up the hem of her dress only enough to get a look at her foot. The toes were scuffed slightly, the bridge of her foot reddening, but otherwise she was unscathed.
“Are you sure you don’t need anything?” Jaune asked again. “Do you want me to take off your shoe? Get you a drink?”
Weiss gave him a strained smile. “A drink would be lovely.”
The prince quickly headed off to find drinks, giving Weiss a moment to herself. She let out a breath, releasing her pent-up stress. How many more hours of this? She looked around, searching for her sister once more. The dance floor was busy, and the Atlesians were on the other side, far from Weiss. She sighed.
A few guests still gave Weiss concerned gazes. One girl, about Weiss’ age, with a long red ponytail and an elegant chiton in gold and crimson of North Mistral, was staring at Weiss with an odd look. Jealousy? Weiss looked away.
“Is this seat taken?”
Weiss started at the voice, smooth and attractive. She looked up, half expecting Jaune, but no- his voice had been rough and slightly nasally. The man who stood before her now was much more suave, his eyes a deeper blue, his suit not as expensive though no less impressive with its gold trim. His most impressive feature, drawing Weiss’ eyes, was his hair- an undercut of light blue.
She smiled shyly, gesturing for the gentleman to take a seat beside her. He obliged, flashing Weiss a handsome smile, and she nearly swooned. This was a man she could get behind.
And get under.
Weiss mentally reprimanded herself. No need to get ahead of herself; courting first, pleasure later.
The man extended a hand. “Neptune,” he said.
Weiss gave him her most charming smile. “Weiss. Weiss Schnee.”
Neptune was, Weiss found, not only handsome, but quite charming. With each smile, every bold and clear laugh, she found herself not detesting arranged marriages quite as much. He ran a hand through his hair, and Weiss couldn’t help but note the strain of the fabric against his biceps.
“So,” she asked, tilting her head to an attractive angle, “Which country are you from?”
“Who, me?” Neptune laughed, his eyes darting to the side. “I’m uh, I’m from Mistral.”
“Mistral.” Weiss pondered the nation. A rich history, good trading routes, but across the sea from the Ash Queendom. “Which province?”
Neptune didn’t meet her eyes. “West.”
Western Mistral. Not as martial as Atlas or Northern Mistral, for sure, but Haven academy was located on their shores. There was a good chance this young man was an intellectual, then. “Forgive me, I’m not too familiar with the houses of Western Mistral; which are you from?”
Neptune looked at Weiss briefly, opening his mouth, then looked away, smiling awkwardly. “Does it matter?” He laughed, standing. “How about a dance? I mean, if your foot’s recovered from the royal pain.”
Weiss snorted involuntarily, then quickly covered her mouth. Really? A snort? Are you a pig? Neptune only grinned wider, and Weiss relaxed. She looked down at her foot; the redness had faded, and it wasn’t throbbing in pain. She looked back up to Neptune, who offered a hand. Heart racing, she took it.
As they came to the dance floor, the music changed, swiftly taking on the upbeat tempo of a tango. Neptune flashed Weiss a coy smile, pulling her close, leaving her breathless for that instant. The dance began, and they held each other’s gaze, letting the music guide them. The song calmed briefly, and Weiss prepared for a spin. She caught a look from Neptune, his eyebrows raised suggestively, and he spun her out far quicker than she was used to, only to pull her back with a hand on her lower back, leading her into a dip. He held her there for a brief moment, their eyes locked, and it seemed to Weiss they were the only two people in the ballroom- no, in the world.
He brought her back up, gentle yet firm, until her face was beside his, noses nearly touching, his breath warm on her lips. All too quickly, another spin turned her around, Neptune directly behind her with a hand on her hip, using his left hand to guide hers. He maneuvered purposefully, steering Weiss gracefully through the steps, and she felt herself melting against him. He let Weiss out into another spin, and when she turned back, his face was questioning, his hand at her hip’s height. She nodded, almost imperceptibly, and he grinned, bringing her in. At the last second, he let go, bringing both hands to her hips, and Weiss soared.
As he brought her down from the lift, he risked tracing a hand down her leg, raising her thigh. He leaned over her, their lips dangerously close. She brought a hand up to his neck, but he took it as an invitation to continue the dance, his hand sliding back up from her thigh to take her hand once more, wrapping his other hand about her waist. He kept her close, her world solely his body- the touch of his hands, the feel of his chest against hers, the scent of his cologne. Then, as quickly as it began, it ended, Neptune twirling Weiss into one final dip, their eyes locked.
Her heart pounded, and from more than just the dance. Neptune brought her back up to a standing position, his hand lingering on her waist, and Weiss found herself not ready to part.
“You’re an excellent dancer,” Weiss murmured.
Neptune smiled. “As are you.”
Weiss’ hand tightened in his grip. “Shall we go again?”
Neptune’s eyes flicked away. “I think that would be unwise.”
Weiss followed his gaze. Her stomach immediately dropped under Cinder’s scathing glare. The queen’s arms were crossed, her bangs fallen over her left eye, but even only her right eye showed her fury. Beside her, Jacques scowled. That seemed to be the only expression he wore when regarding his children. Weiss swallowed the knot in her throat, releasing Neptune’s hand. “Until next time,” she said with a nod.
Neptune nodded back, a sympathetic smile tugging at his lips.
Weiss turned back to her step mother, fists tight enough to leave half moons in her palms, and headed toward the queen.
Cinder regarded her as one might regard an insect, her lips curled angrily. “I told you the Valen prince would be a good match.” It wasn’t a question.
“I danced with him, but he stepped-” Weiss wasn’t allowed to finish.
“We don’t want excuses, Weiss, we want results.” Jacques cut her off. “Bear through it, whatever it takes. Do you believe I enjoy everything I’ve had to do for my company?”
Your company? The words almost slipped out. Did you enjoy marrying my mother? Raising me? Instead, Weiss lowered her head. “I apologize. I was not aware he was the only available bachelor.”
Jacques became even more furious, his face becoming dangerously red. “Giving me cheek, after this? After dancing like a dirne with that- that-!”
“That is enough, both of you.” Cinder’s words silenced her father, but Weiss didn’t have time to be grateful. “The prince is the only one you are to be dancing with for the rest of the night.” She did not smile as she stared Weiss down. “Have I made myself clear?”
Weiss shrank under her cold gaze. “Yes, your majesty,” she whispered.
Cinder let out a breath, rubbing her temple. “Good. Now go apologize; you seem to have hurt his feelings with your harlotous way.”
Weiss looked away, searching, and found Jaune sitting back in the same seat he had taken during dinner. She gave a quick bow, and hurried off, acutely aware of the eyes around her.
None of them matter. Bitterness rose in her throat. He’s the only one that does, apparently.
She slowed as she approached, watching him. He was sitting alone, holding a glass of chardonnay, staring into an untouched glass of Atlesian riesling. Guilt gnawed at her stomach, and she plastered a fake smile on her face to hide it.
“There you are!” she took the seat next to him, and Jaune looked up in surprise. “My, that Neptune came out of nowhere, didn’t he? At least he only wanted one dance!”
Jaune blinked, staring at Weiss. “You mean… You didn’t…?” He shook his head, closing his eyes. “No. I’m not a fool. I saw the way you two were looking at each other.”
Weiss’ mind raced, a possible solution flashing through her memories of the evening. “Well, what about that red haired girl?” she asked accusingly, crossing her arms.
Jaune’s eyebrows flew up, creasing in the center. “What? A red haired girl?” He looked around, and Weiss followed suit. They found her at the same time, staring forlornly in their direction. Realizing she had been caught, she flushed, quickly shuffling away to hide on the balcony.
“See?” Weiss said, turning back to Jaune. “Don’t try to tell me you two haven’t courted! The way she looks at you, the way she’s been staring at me when I’m with you?”
Jaune mouthed a name- Lyra? Meera? Weiss didn’t know, but the distraction had borne fruit. She began to press. “I accepted your offer to dance because I thought a marriage between us would be a smart political move. Had I known you already had a wife in mind, I wouldn’t have made a fool of myself, acting like a hussy in your arms!” Weiss tossed her ponytail for effect.
“N-no! I’ts not like that, I didn’t…” Jaune stammered, eyes flickering between Weiss and the balcony. Es geht um die Wurst. It’s now or never. Weiss pressed her thumbs for luck.
“I’ve resigned myself to an arranged marriage, with as little love as was between my parents,” Weiss explained. “But her? That red haired girl from North Mistral? If what you have with her is real…” Weiss shook her head. “Why would you settle for anything less?”
Jaune considered her words, staring to where the Mistrali girl had gone. Finally, he turned back to Weiss. “Do you really…” he swallowed. “Do you truly think she has those feelings for me?”
Weiss feigned shock. “You mean you’re not courting?” She whipped her head back to the balcony, then looked back to Jaune. “You should go to her, before she gets the wrong idea about us.”
Jaune nodded, smiling. “You’re right. Thank you, princess… er…”
Weiss smiled, this one genuine. “Weiss.”
Jaune took her hand, giving her a polite kiss on its back before heading toward the balcony. Weiss watched him go, wishing him as much luck as he could get- not just out of self-preservation, but because the young woman truly seemed to be eyeing him for him rather than for his crown.
He had taken his glass of wine with him, but Weiss noted he left the riesling on the table. Oh, the poor fool. She sighed inwardly. I do hope she’s more forgiving than I. Weiss took the glass, sipping delicately.
She surveyed the dance floor. Not that I have permission to dance with anyone. She didn’t see Neptune, but she did see Whitley with a young Atlesian girl. She was all freckles and auburn curls, her mint dress reminiscent of the ones Weiss had worn as a girl. There were no nobles or royalty in Atlas, but Weiss had seen her before- a relative of Führer Ironwood’s, if she recalled correctly.
The girl jabbered on, and they laughed together. Whitley’s smile seemed forced. Weiss’ finger twitched; she nearly leapt up from her seat to rescue him from the awkwardness, but restrained herself. She took another sip of wine, watching the pair spin together, when something the girl said took him by surprise. Whitley laughed, genuinely this time, and Weiss relaxed.
Her gaze drifted around the room once more. Jacques was speaking with the heads of powerful Mistrali merchant clans, likely organizing some sort of trade deal. Cinder had taken a seat beside the chief adviser on the chaise Weiss vacated earlier, nodding thoughtfully as the Atlas-born scientist pointed animatedly to several papers. Not too far from them, the queen’s hand seemed to be berating Emerald, the bear-like man crossing his arms over his barrel chest as shook his head.
Weiss smiled to herself. I hope Hazel can talk some respectability into you, Emerald. Out of habit, she looked to where the Atlesians had gathered once more.
Like Penny - Yes! Penny! That’s the Führer’s neice’s name! - many had finally begun to dance. Perhaps it was due to boredom, though the empty steins told Weiss the kitchen’s stocks of Atlesian beer had a hand. Among those who were not dancing were the Führer, of course, and Winter. Weiss looked to Jacques and Cinder; both were still occupied.
She drained her glass, swallowed her nerves, and went to her countrymen.
Weiss kept her eyes on Winter as she walked past foreign dignitaries, thoughts racing through her mind. How do I approach her? What do I say? They hadn’t even been apart for an entire decade, yet with the five years between their births already separating them, Weiss had only felt the distance grow as Winter’s service bore on. The last time she had seen Winter was- it couldn’t have been seven years ago, could it? Had the last time been the funeral?
Weiss swallowed her nerves as Winter turned, spotting her. Beside Winter, the Führer ceased whatever conversation they had been having, narrowing his eyes. Weiss curtsied formally to the pair, bowing her head to her sister. “Winter. Your presence honors us.”
Winter bent her head in return, offering a stiff military bow. “Weiss. It’s been a long time.”
Winter did not smile. Weiss’ heart sank. She had never been outwardly emotional, even when they were young, but she had hoped… A foolish hope, she now realized. She plastered on a fake smile and continued. “How are you liking the military? What have you been doing?”
“Klassifiziert,” Winter said cooly.
“Äh,” Weiss stumbled back into Atlesian, off-guard. She hadn’t anticipated Winter being quite so distant. Then again, Führer Ironwood still stood beside her, eyeing Weiss suspiciously as he sipped from a frothy stein. “Well, äh, how are you, then?”
“After watching this performance of a wedding, followed by my own sister make an Affe of herself?” Winter scoffed. Weiss’ cheeks tingled with heat, yet she was unable to defend herself- Winter was right. Winter merely sighed, giving a brief nod to the Führer, then taking Weiss by the arm and leading her to the balcony.
Jaune and the red-haired girl were long gone, and Weiss was alone with Winter. The moon was waxing overhead, shattered pieces beginning to peek through the shadows, stars twinkling. A chill wind ferried the scent of magnolia trees and winter jasmine, still soon enough either after winter or after sunset to send a shiver down Weiss’ spine. Weiss traced a hand along the marble guard rail, the stone like ice beneath her fingertips.
“How have you been?” Winter asked finally, leaning over the rail beside her.
“Oh, splendid!” Weiss lied. “My studies are going well, and I even have a private tutor now! I even started lessons in-”
Weiss didn’t see the hand coming until it was too late. Jacques? Weiss looked back, reeling, but no, there was only Winter. She rubbed the side of her head, Winter’s hand having slapped directly where it would hurt most.
“I don’t recall asking after your studies,” Winter said sternly, returning her hand behind her waist to rest. “I asked how you have been. How has the transition to Ash gone? Have you made any friends? How has Jacques been treating you?”
Weiss turned back to the balcony, her knuckles whitening as she gripped the cold railing. “I… Well… How honest do you want me to be?” Weiss laughed, the sound strangled.
Winter took her spot beside Weiss once more, leaning over the rails, her hands clasped together. “That bad.”
A simple statement, but it held so much. Weiss nodded once, her eyes suddenly wet. “Yes,” she said. “It’s been very bad.”
Winter paused. “You should come back to Atlas,” she said finally. “Enlist. I won’t get you Extrawurst, but I can promise that you’ll be safer there.”
Weiss turned, surprised. “You want me… to leave?”
Winter nodded. “There is… much happening here, in the Ash Queendom. You would be safer in Atlas.”
Weiss’ mind whirled. “But… what about Whitley?” her throat was dry. “We can’t leave him here, not with Jacques in this den of snakes.”
“Whitely’s not…” Winter seemed to struggle for words. “There’s a very specific danger that you’re in, and that danger does not extend to Whitley.”
Weiss regarded her sister. They locked eyes, and Winter’s appeared stormier than usual. The space between her brows was faintly creased, the corners of her mouth slightly turned.
“You feel guilty.” The realization came to Weiss suddenly, and Winter’s eyes widened almost imperceptibly. It was true, then. Weiss shook her head. “What happened seven years ago, what happened to mother-”
“Nicht.” Winter looked away, closing her eyes. “Fang nicht an, Weiss.”
“We were both children, Winter. There was nothing you could have done for me, for Whitley.” Weiss pressed on, taking her sister’s arm. “I don’t blame you for leaving, for not taking me with you. If this is guilt for then-”
Winter pulled her arm back, her gaze piercing as she looked back to Weiss. “You have no idea the danger you’re in. If you won’t come home to Atlas with me, do yourself a favor and marry one of these bachelors as quickly as possible.” Winter turned away. “Get out of this castle, Weiss. Get out of Ash.”
Weiss watched her go, a cold sweat raising the hairs on the back of her neck. What danger could make her so angry? And why doesn’t she want to take Whitley back to Atlas? Weiss gripped the railing, taking deep breaths, begging her composure to return. Does this have to do with Emerald? With Jacques?
Her heart rate stable once more, Weiss slunk quietly from the balcony, trying to attract as little attention as possible. The ball finally seemed to be winding down, several guests having left. She found herself scanning the crowd for Neptune, but she didn’t see his blue hair- he must have been among those to retire early. Looking back to the chaise in the corner, luckily, it seemed the bride and groom were also in those numbers. Weiss let out a sigh of relief she hadn’t realized she was holding.
A shift of fabric sounded beside her, and she turned, hoping for Neptune. Instead, she was met with a gentleman about the same age, his black hair streaked with a single line of pink, matching his eyes. He dressed in traditional Southern Mistral fashion, with a green robe and hakama, with a grey-black jacket over top, a pink lotus on each breast, tied in the center with a white ball. Rather than a stemmed wineglass, he held a stemmless one, resting it on the palm of his hand, offering a stemmed glass to Weiss.
“Playing matchmaker?” he asked, nodding to the dance floor.
Weiss looked to where he gestured, and saw Jaune dancing with the red-haired girl from Mistral. She looked back to the gentleman. “Äh… Do you know them?”
He turned his gaze to Weiss, a slight smile tugging at his lips. “I’m a childhood friend of Pyrrha’s.” Pyrrha. That must be the girl. “She’s been head over heels for Jaune since the day they met.”
Weiss smiled back and took the offered wine, taking a victorious sip. She had done something good, for once in her life. “I should have guessed, the way she was staring at him…” she sighed wistfully. “I can only hope to love like that one day.”
The boy looked away forlornly. “Love like that isn’t always meant to be.” He took a sip of his wine.
Weiss tilted her head. “Love is love, is it not? Pursue whom your heart desires.”
“Even the help?” the young man held her gaze.
Oh. Weiss swirled her wine thoughtfully. “Do you love her?”
“More than anything.” the gentleman’s smile returned. “She’s the shidaiqu to my yayue, the sun to my moon…” he chuckled to himself. “The storm to my calm.”
Weiss quirked an eyebrow at the obvious inside joke, but didn’t press. “Then marry her.”
He sighed. “You’re a princess now, you should understand as well as Jaune and I. A prince cannot simply marry whomever he wishes.”
A prince. Weiss looked to his jacket once more, the lotus insignias jumping out at her. South Mistral. Lotus family crest. The Ren family. The empress’ son? Lie Ren? Weiss’ mind raced to recall details of the southern province of the country across the sea. “I thought the emperors and empresses of South Mistral historically had multiple consorts?” Weiss said, remembering. “Are none of them allowed to be commoners?”
Ren snorted. “Many centuries ago, my ancestors had multiple consorts; yes. In more recent generations, however, this has not been the case. My own mother only has one husband, after all,” he explained. “My father was a noble, from a large clan. His wasn’t the wealthiest, but since he was still of noble blood, their union was blessed by my grandparents.” He sighed, shaking his head. “Nora… The one I love… she is not of noble blood. She is not even from a merchant family. She’s an orphan, with no title and no inheritance. Our union would never be approved.”
Weiss considered, tapping her fingers on her glass. An idea struck her. Well, he is also a prince. She raised a single eyebrow. “What if you had two wives- one a political bride, saving her from an undesirable circumstance, and the second your true love?” She posed.
Ren tilted his head, one eyebrow drawn up while the other furrowed down close to the eye.
“I’m sure that if you were to find, say, a princess in the Ash Queendom, set to be married off to the most well-connected bachelor, she would appreciate your marriage, even knowing she’s second best,” Weiss explained.
Ren blinked, then broke into a laugh. “Well, I won’t make any promises,” he said, “but I’m sure my mother would approve of you.”
“Well, I need to marry a prince, apparently,” Weiss shrugged. “And my sister told me to leave the Ash Queendom as quickly as possible.”
Ren smiled, raising his glass. “Well, it’s a deal then. You help me out, I’ll help you.”
Weiss smiled back, clinking her glass to his. Sure, he was no Neptune, but if she was forced to marry a prince, she could do worse. She looked back out to the dance floor, where Jaune and Pyrrha danced together, genuinely happy. And he could do better. Weiss sipped her wine.
Perhaps things weren’t all bad.
Weiss blinked lazily as she awoke, pulling the pillow closer. Her blanket was warm, the air cold, and she felt she finally understood why cats always snuck into the Schnee manor to curl up before fireplaces during Atlas winters. An arm wrapped around her waist, pulling her body close, and she sighed in contentment. Neptune. Lips traced down her neck, placing gentle, light kisses along the way, and Weiss involuntarily curled in on herself, the sensation tickling her. Neptune’s short blue hair brushed her ear, and she turned, gazing into his eyes.
“Good morning, beautiful,” he smiled, charming in the morning light, before leaning down to grace her with a soft kiss.
She returned the kiss eagerly, her hand moving to his undercut. It was longer now. He pulled back swiftly, black hair falling in Weiss’ eyes.
“Weiss?” Ren asked, pulling away, his cheeks turning the pink of his family’s crest. “This was just going to be a political marriage, you said!”
“W-wait!” Weiss reached out, but Ren was gone, leaving Jaune behind.
“Well…” Jaune scratched behind his head awkwardly, placing the other over Weiss’. “Our heir won’t make himself...”
Weiss bolted upward, the blanket flying from the bed. She gasped as she looked about her room─ to the open window, the dress she had worn the night before, the the letter of introduction Ren had written for her─ but no suitors. A dream. Her shoulders heaved in relief. She lay back down, eyes closed and taking measured breaths, and her heart finally calmed.
Jaune’s face fashed in her mind once more, and she stopped herself from releasing a shriek, containing the sound by holding a pillow over her face until the urge passed. She opened her eyes blearily. Clearly, even laying back down to bed like this, she wouldn’t be able to fall back to sleep. Weiss grudgingly scooted herself from the bed, making her way to the window for the chill morning air to help wake herself up. Not much had changed outside from last night, though that was how that Ash Queendom’s capital was- the sky remained red and overcast, the sun never breaking through the dense clouds, the surrounding area a barren land of rock and violet crystals. There was nothing in Ash’s Evernight, save Evernight Palace.
Weiss turned away from the window, opening her armoire to select an outfit for the day. The white dress, she decided, with the red-lined bolero and boots. After tying the sash and pinning her hair up in the usual ponytail, she looked in the mirror of her vanity, touching blush to her cheeks. Could still use a little something. She eyed her mother’s jewelry box, Winter having passed it over for the austere Atlas military uniforms. She pulled the box close, opening it reverentially with a dainty click. Precious little was left of her mother, and this was the only keepsake that was hers alone. Some of the jewels and gems had been in the family for generations, while others were Willow’s own choices- those sapphire teardrops, Weiss remembered, Willow had purchased only three years before-
Weiss swallowed, lowering the lid. They still smell like her perfume. She stared at herself in the mirror, watching tears form and fall. She closed her eyes, taking a deep breath and wiping the tears away, then opened the jewelry box once more. Something simple. Something of grandmother’s. She rummaged through, trying her best to convince herself she wasn’t a child playing at dress up as she found delicate sterling silver dangle earrings and a tiny apple charm necklace.
Outfit complete, she headed to the library. The halls, dusky lilac, somewhere between grey and violet, were always so dark, even during the day. The only light came form candles, lining the tops of wainscotting thay may have once been white. The deep purple reflective tiles were polished to a shine, lined by black carpet runners. The symbol of the Ash Queendom followed Weiss as she walked, placed every other panel on the walls, the eye in the magic circle giving her the impression she was always being watched.
Luckily, the grand library wasn’t too far from Weiss’ room, and she quickly slipped in. Once again, Klein had beat her. The butler sat on the sofa, reading glasses perched near the tip of his nose. He did not look up as Weiss approached, engrossed in his book as he was, the teacup on the table before him cold and forgotten.
Weiss smiled, waiting until she was an arm’s reach away from the man. “Guten Morgen, Klein.” she said quietly.
The butler jumped, spinning around. “Weiss!” his moustache twitched. “I didn’t even hear you come in! How long have you been there?”
“I just got here,” Weiss reassured with a chuckle, taking a seat opposite him. “What’s for breakfast today?”
“The cooks had readied an Ash breakfast for you: a pastry and an espresso,” Klein said, setting his book down. Weiss’ heart- and stomach- sank. “...But, I snuck a plate that had been prepared for the Atlesians.” He pushed a covered plate to Weiss, and she lifted the cloche hungrily.
The mouthwatering scent of Wurst drifted up to her nose, followed by fresh-baked bread. She slathered the strawberry preserves onto the Hörnchen, giving Klein her most appreciative smile. “You’re a lifesaver, Klein,” she said before digging in to the sweet roll.
Klein smiled back, then pushed himself up slowly from his seat, joints popping with effort. “You enjoy your breakfast, Adelige, I’ll go get the books for today’s lesson.” He puttered off, perusing the shelves, and Weiss gladly dug into her food. As with the night before, the Ash cooks hadn’t managed to completely capture the flavor of Altas cuisine, but at least it wasn’t the light Ash breakfast she had had to endure for so many mornings.
Her eyes wandered as she ate, and after a moment, they fell on Klein’s book. Weiss turned her head to read the cover, but it was an old and faded tome. Curious, she brought the book closer, examining it. The bindings were frayed, the pages yellowed, the cover threadbare. She opened the book to the title page, and a letter fell out- ‘The Four Maidens’, the page read, crusty and ancient. Weiss looked down to her lap. The letter was much newer. She set the book down, looking up to find Klein; he had found two books, and was on the second floor to find another. She looked back to the letter, gently opening it.
The letter was addressed to S. K., and from a V. N. Scanning the document quickly, it appeared that V. N. was worried about F. C. finding spring. Klein’s initials are K. S., and backward… Weiss tilted her head. Who are these other two? What does this have to do with spring?
The sound of footsteps on stairs alerted Weiss, and she quickly replaced he letter and the book, returning to her breakfast. Klein set the books he selected down on the table between them, pouring fresh cups of coffee for them both.
“Alright, kleine schneeflocke, tell me what you learned last night.” Klein said after he settled back into his seat.
Weiss snorted. “That Winter and Whitley are disappointed in me too? That Queen Cinder doesn’t want me here? That Jacques should never have left the Ash Queendom to marry my mother in Atlas 25 years ago?”
Klein’s expression softened. “I meant in regards to our lessons,” he clarified. “Who did you meet? What did you learn of the other nations?”
“Well, I met the son of Empress Ren, of South Mistral,” Weiss started on a good note. “Lie Ren. A nice young man, very cool and collected. If Queen Cinder is set on having me marry a prince, I think I’d choose him.”
Klein perked up at this. “Ah, so you’ve chosen a man to court?”
“Not quite,” Weiss admitted. “I mean... I do like him; I think he and I could be great friends, but…” She sighed, looking into her cup, thinking of Neptune’s hand on her waist. “I need Queen’s Cinder’s approval first, then a dowry from Jacques, after which I would be able to meet with the Empress. It all depends on what they think of the idea.”
Klein nodded. “I see. Well, for what it’s worth, from what little I know of the boy, I think you would be a good match.”
A good match, perhaps, but will I be happy? Weiss pushed her thoughts along. “Aside from Prince Ren, there were two others from Mistral my age. The girl was from North Mistral, Pyrrha, and apparently she has her sights set on Jaune Arc.”
“Ah, Lady Nikos,” Klein nodded his head. “I spent so much time teaching you about the Ash and the Vale nobility that I was only able to gloss over the higher Mistral houses. The Nikos family isn’t a merchant family, but rather a military family. They are powerful in North Mistral, in their own way.” He seemed pleased. “And you’ve made friends with her? This Pyrrha?”
“Well… No, not quite,” Weiss admitted. “You see, Queen Cinder was rather set on me courting Jaune, and I hadn’t known that they had feelings for each other. I know the queen’s trying to ease tensions between Ash and Vale, but I don’t think that will happen with Jaune and I.”
“Hmmm.” Klein leaned back in his chair taking a sip of his coffee. “And how do you feel about Jaune?”
Weiss restrained a grimace. “I much prefer Prince Ren.”
Klein hmmed again, taking another sip. “What do you know of his sisters?”
“His sisters?” Weiss tilted her head with a shrug. “Äh… He has seven of them, if I’m not mistaken? All older than him?”
Klein nodded. “What do you know of his eldest sister?”
Weiss’ brow furrowed as she thought back to her lessons. The oldest Arc sister? She shrugged, at a loss.
“Her name is Saphron Arc,” Klein said, setting down his empty cup. “And when she was born, she was the crown prince of Vale.”
“The crown..?!?” Weiss jerked forward, nearly spilling her coffee.
“She is a woman, believe me; but up until six years ago, she lived as a man, as she was born with the reproductive organs as myself rather than yours,” Klein explained. “She wanted to do her best for Vale, and even married Lady Terra Cotta of West Mistral, but she couldn’t pretend to be a man. Six years ago, when her wife encouraged her to be true to herself...”
“...That left Jaune as the only male heir,” Weiss realized, remembering the vague bits of gossip that had reached Atlas.
“Before then, he had been training to pursue a career in the military. He’s only had six years to adjust to becoming the crown prince.” Klein poured himself another cup of coffee. “You two have more in common than you think.”
Weiss involuntarily scrunched up her nose. “I’ve only been an official princess for one day, and I’ve adjusted much quicker in these last few months leading up to the wedding,” she argued.
“Perhaps, though it seems you could still learn humility,” Klein stated matter-of-factly. Weiss blushed, then quickly drained the last of her coffee. “Now, who else did you meet from Mistral? And which province where they from?”
“Oh, the last one…” Weiss’ heart soared. “He’s from West Mistral, though he didn’t say where, or from what family. His name is Neptune, and-”
Klein sputtered, coffee dripping from his moustache as he coughed. Weiss blinked in surprise, offering him a handkerchief. The butler graciously took the cloth, wiping his now-red face, before eyeing Weiss.
“I’m sorry, what did you say this lad’s name was?”
This is where those squicky tags start rearing their ugly heads. TW on this chapter for mentions of genocide, murder, slavery, racism, and TW for emetophobia.
Thank you Helihi for beta reading!
"His name was… Äh… Neptune?” Weiss repeated.
Klein frowned. “What did this… Neptune look like?”
“He was very handsome,” Weiss said unhelpfully, and Klein simply stared over the brim of his glasses. Weiss blushed. “Well, äh— he had blue hair, and blue eyes, and muscular arms…” that could hold me tight at night...
Klein seemed to deflate, considering Weiss’ description suspiciously as he sipped at his coffee.
“Is something wrong?” Weiss asked. “Do you know him?”
“I know a Neptune,” Klein responded. “Might be the one you met last night, though I doubt that would be the case. He lives in Patch, if I recall.”
“Patch?” The town didn’t sound like a Mistral name to Weiss, and it even sounded vaguely familiar.
“Yes, Patch,” Klein pulled a book from his stack, flipping through the pages. “It’s a small town here in the Ash Queendom, at the southern edge of the Grimm Wood. They’re a port town, though there are a few Mistrali immigrants living there.”
Klein handed Weiss the book to study, open to a map of the Ash Queendom. Evernight dominated the western portion of the nation, while the ominous Grimm Woods stretched across the page to the east. After a moment, she found it- a tiny dot near the bottom of the woods, labelled ‘Patch’.
“Isn’t that dangerous?” Weiss asked, setting the book down in her lap. “To be so close to the Grimm woods? Don’t they get attacked?”
Klein nodded. “Many citizens of the towns and cities surrounding the woods become hunters. There are still incidents, but for the most part, the hunters keep the towns safe.”
Weiss looked back to the map, the Mantle mountain range forming the top of the border, leaving only the smallest fraction of Atlas visible. Absently, she ran her fingers across the country.
It’s not home any more.
She swallowed, looking around the rest of the map. Cities and towns dotted the land, most keeping a safe berth from the Grimm Woods, while a bold few struck dangerously close. Clearly, this map was old- it still had ‘Mountain Glenn’ labelled near Ash’s southern border on Vale territory. As Evernight faded into the Red Desert in the east, leading to Vacuo, the map had labelled the area ‘The Barrens’. Weiss tilted her head.
“Why is The Red Desert called ‘The Barrens’ in this book?” Weiss asked, looking up.
Klein sighed deeply. “That is a long story, beginning with the previous queen’s rule,” he started. “Queen Cinder’s mother, Queen Salem.”
Weiss nodded. She had heard of Queen Salem before. “What happened?”
“When Queen Salem was younger, she and King Ozpin were close friends, and as such, Ash and Vale were political allies,” Klein explained. “But something happened between them- you know of the war, and of the loss of Mountain Glenn?”
Weiss nodded once more. The great war had started between Vale and Ash, but had escalated to quickly involve multiple countries. “Of course. That’s the war that brought Atlas and the Ash Queendom so close.”
“Correct.” Klein took a sip of his coffee. “Needless to say, Ash and Vale have been on tense political terms since the war ended, even after Queen Salem’s death. Only King Ozpin and Queen Salem know why the war began, but we all know why it ended.”
A chill ran down Weiss’ spine. “The Vacuan assassin.”
“The faunus Vacuan assassin,” Klein clarified.
“Faunus? In Vacuo?” Weiss shook her head. “I thought faunus only lived in Vale?”
“You’ll understand soon enough,” Klein said. “The assassin’s superior hearing and heightened senses allowed him to slip into Evernight undetected, killing Queen Salem in her own court. It was revenge, for Queen Salem had killed thousands of Vacuan faunus, and many more Ash faunus during the war, though some Vacuans argue that it was revenge for his wife’s murder.”
“There were faunus in the Ash Queendom, too?” Weiss’ mouth went dry. “She killed… Ash faunus? The people of her own nation?”
“She never considered them people, I suppose,” Klein said bitterly. “Even before the war had begun, faunus in the Ash Queendom had been treated as second-class citizens, with segregation and indentured servitude being common. Once the war began, she ordered the female faunus between the ages of 13 and 50 to be rounded up, and she murdered them all herself. The rest of the nation followed suit with the remaining faunus population, turning to slavery and genocide.”
“But…” Weiss stopped. Her own father was of Ash blood- he very well may have partaken in this atrocity. Guilt soured in the pit of her stomach, bile rising to the back of her mouth, and the breakfast she had eaten earlier suddenly pushed up against her throat. “...Why?” was all she could ask.
“That’s not the end.” Klein took a book from his stack, flipping open to an early chapter. Finding the paragraph he wanted, he began to read aloud: “During the ten years of the Great War, it is estimated that nearly the entire faunus population of the Ash Queendom was killed, one third of both the Atlas and Vale faunus populations were killed, and two thirds or the Vacuo faunus population was killed, in the name of Queen Salem. After Queen Salem was assassinated by a faunus assassin, Queen Cinder took up arms to wipe out the rest of the faunus in both the Ash Queendom and Atlas, and attempted to extend to Vacuo as well.” Klein gently set the book down to his lap. “The area between our nations, once known as ‘The Barrens’, became known as ‘The Red Desert’, for the blood of the faunus spilled in the name of Queen Cinder.”
“So the reason faunus no longer live in Atlas…” Weiss clenched her fingers tightly into fists.
“Is due to the Ash Queendom,” Klein finished. “Cinder took her revenge for her mother’s life out on all faunus, regardless of origin. She even travelled to Atlas several years ago to murder them with her own hands.”
Weiss slumped. She remembered that trip. It was fuzzy, like perhaps she’d dreamt it. That visit was the same one as the accident, the same one when her mother-
Weiss squeezed her eyes shut, trembling. Breathe, Weiss. Breathe.
“Weiss?” Klein set his book down, reaching his hand across the table.
Weiss’ breath came faster. The trip. The accident. It all happened at the same time. That’s why I pushed it away, forgot about it. Her chest moved too quickly, her lungs not fully taking in the breath before releasing, causing more panic. A burning sensation tickled the bottom of her ribs, and she clutched her chest. Did Winter know? Did Jacques know? Did Jacques do this, did he plan this?
Klein reached for the cloche, turning it up-side-down just in time to thrust into Weiss’ hands. She retched awfully, tears stinging her eyes as everything she had eaten made its way back up. She set the cloche down momentarily, then the thought of what happened seven years ago returned, and she pulled it back up once more. She heaved, emptying her stomach until nothing was left was bile, then heaved a few more times for good measure.
Finally, she set the cloche to the side, her eyes closed, and felt Klein place the handkerchief he had borrowed earlier back into her hand. She dabbed at her mouth, removing the detribus, and took calming breaths. Focus on your breathing. She hugged herself. Listen to the sound of your breath. The sound of a pen writing. The sound of water pouring.
When she finally opened her eyes, Klein had poured a glass of water for her. She eagerly took a sip, swishing it about her mouth before spitting into the cloche, then took another sip to drink.
“Are you alright?” Klein asked after a moment.
Weiss wiped the tear-stained corners of her eyes with sweaty fingers. “Ja, I’m fine.”
Klein took a moment to regard her, then nodded, taking his books back. He considered them, then set one back down on the table. “I think we should end lessons here for today,” he said, “But you should open this book if you get a chance.”
He scooted the book toward her: The same book he had been reading earlier, ‘The Four Maidens’. Not wanting to admit to her snooping, Weiss nodded. “I shall, if I have a moment,” she promised.
Klein bowed, taking the cloche and the breakfast tray away. Weiss lingered, waiting until she heard the click of the library door to move. She rubbed her face, not caring if she ruined her makeup at this point, and let out a deep sigh, releasing tension from her shoulders. It was an accident. She rubbed her eyes and looked up.
‘The Four Maidens’ looked back at her.
Weiss sighed. Schoolwork was the last thing she wanted to do, but perhaps it would help ease her mind. She picked up the heavy tome, curling around on the couch to lay her legs on the seat beside her, propping her back up against the arm and cushion. As she opened the book, it naturally opened to a page toward the middle, where a crisp letter had been hidden.
Weiss looked back to the door- Klein had not returned, and she was alone. She drew her knees up close, blocking the view from the door- Just in case - and unfolded the letter as quietly as possible.
The faunus in the Ash Queendom were murdered for a reason.
Queen Salem sought the powers of the maidens, and a faunus
held the power of the summer maiden when the genocide began.
She found the summer maiden, ate her heart, and stole her power.
When she died, the summer maiden’s power left her, but Queen
Cinder has already found and eaten the heart of the fall maiden,
and is now seeking the spring maiden. When she went to Atlas, she
was not there to kill faunus, but to kill the winter maiden.
Your mother’s death was no accident.
Burn this after reading, or we will both burn.
Weiss’ hand shook, the note crinkling in her grasp. Then, sense came to her, and she leapt from her seat. She bolted to the fireplace, throwing the letter into the flames, and watched with wide eyes as the paper was consumed. As the warning burnt into nothingness, Weiss began to shake, slowly sinking to her heels and rear, bringing her arms around her knees.
The summer maiden, murdered by Queen Salem, her heart consumed for her powers. The fall maiden, meeting the same fate to Queen Cinder. The winter maiden, her mother, the accident-
Weiss choked, a sob breaking from her throat. Her lips quivered, ash leaves before a storm. Every repressed thought she had had for the last seven years, every tear held back when thinking of what happened to her mother- it all welled up inside of her until she was so full that it leaked from her eyes, the tears salty as they fell down to her lips. The trembling started slowly, a slight bob of the shoulders with a soft cry; then grew in intensity, her back shaking with each uncontrollable sob as she wailed. She sat like that, huddled before the fireplace, and cried until her tears were spent.
“Wow,” a voice shook her from her reverie. Weiss whipped her head up- Emerald had found her. “I was going to tease you or play a prank on you, but now I’d just feel bad doing that.”
“Go away, Emerald,” Weiss croaked, wiping her nose.
Emerald held up her hands, palms out, in a gesture of peace. “Hey, like I said, I’m not here to bother you. Queen Cinder just wants to talk.” She moved her hands down to her hips. “What’s with you, any way?”
“I just…” Weiss racked her mind for a lie, but couldn’t come up with one. “I thought about my mother.”
“Yeah, well, at least you’ve got a mother,” Emerald snorted, rolling her eyes.
Weiss bit her lip. “I’m sorry.”
“For what?” Emerald cocked a brow.
Emerald’s nostrils flared, and she crossed her arms defensively. “See, this is why I pick on you.” She spun on her heel, storming off. “Make yourself presentable before you go see the queen.”
“Wait, Emerald!” Weiss called out, shakily coming to her feet.
Emerald paused with her hand on the doorknob.
“Why do you serve her?” Weiss asked. “She killed your mother.”
Emerald faltered, turning slightly. Then, as suddenly as she paused, she threw the door open, slamming it behind her after she left.
Weiss cringed. I’ll never get through to her.
Still, she had said Queen Cinder wanted to speak with her. Emerald was probably right; chances are she didn’t look too princess-like at the moment. She thanked the gods for allowing her room to be so close to the library. She picked up the book Klein had left for her, slipping out from the door.
She hoofed it down the hall as quickly as her heeled boots would take her, keeping her eyes glued to the floor, hoping no one would notice her before she made it to her room. As she approached her door, the door down the hall opened, and Whitley stepped out.
Weiss cursed inwardly. Please don’t notice me, she begged. Not right now. As though hearing her thoughts, he turned, spying her immediately.
Whitley’s face went through a series of emotions- surprise, confusion, disappointment. Weiss groaned, leaning against the wall as he marched toward her.
“Weiss, what is the meaning of this?” Whitley demanded.
“The meaning of what, Whitley?” Weiss sighed, exasperated.
Whitley sighed back, rolling his eyes, and opened the door to Weiss’ room, ushering her in.
Whitley closed the door behind them as Weiss sat down at her vanity. Oof, that’s rough. Weiss took a small rag from her clean water basin and scrubbed at her face. No wonder Emerald was so judgemental.
A hand on Weiss’ arm stopped her. She looked up, and Whitley stared down her, genuinely worried. “Weiss, are you drunk?”
“Am I…?” Weiss sputtered, laughing. “Whitley, it’s not even noon!”
Whitley held both her arm and her gaze. “You remember what happened to mother?”
Weiss paused. No, now I know what happened to mother. “I’m not drunk, Whitley.”
He narrowed his eyes. “Hungover, then? How much did you drink last night?”
“Gods, Whitley!” Weiss wrenched her arm free. “You’re not Jacques!”
“I know I’m not!” Whitley shouted back. “He wants this; wants you to end up like her! They both do! Can’t you see that?”
Weiss turned, looking her brother in the eye. Whitley stood, shaking, almost a full head shorter than Weiss in her boots. Yet so grown. Weiss softened, slowly taking him in her arms. “I’m sorry for worrying you,” she said softly. “It’s just…” She squeezed him tightly. “The wedding made me think of her, and before I knew it, all tears I’d been holding back suddenly came rushing out.”
Whitley nodded against her chest, squeezing her back. “Just… promise me, Weiss.”
Weiss pulled back with a small sniff, wiping away a tear from her eye. “Promise you what?”
“Don’t drink,” he begged, his eyes pleading. “Please. I can’t lose you too.”
Weiss’ heart sank, remembering each glance she had taken for disappointment the night before. She clutched his hands in hers. “I promise,” she said with a smile. “For you.”
Whitley smiled back, falteringly- he didn’t believe her.
She’d just have to prove it to him.
“Alright, get out,” Weiss ushered him from her room. “I’ve got to go speak with our stepmother now, and I can’t go with my face like this.”
Whitley laughed, but stuck his foot in the door before Weiss could close it. “Weiss… Just…” He chewed his bottom lip, searching for words. “Be careful, okay?”
Weiss waved him away. “Come on, I’m the older sibling here! Shouldn’t I be looking out for you?”
Whitley shrugged. “Someone’s gotta be the man of the house.” He smiled at the implication, then walked away.
Weiss closed the door, smiling to herself. Maybe this whole ordeal would bring the two of them closer. She turned around, walking back to the vanity. ‘The Four Maidens’ lay on the edge, untouched. Weiss frowned, a pang of despair clawing at her gut. Should I tell him? She rested a hand on the worn cover.
Guilt wrapped around her heart painfully, the staccato rhythm loud in her ears. Jacques had been alive during Queen Salem’s reign, had been in the Ash Queendom during that part of history. And after being an Atlas citizen for a mere eighteen years-
No, Weiss decided. I’ll tell him when he’s older. I can’t put this on him right now.
Weiss finished washing her face, then re-applied her makeup more carefully than before. She let her hair down, gave it a quick brush, and pulled it back up again, tightly re-tying the sash around her waist. On the vanity lay the letter Ren had written for her. Well, now’s as good a time as any. Weiss tucked it into her sash at the small of her back.
She gave herself a final glance in the mirror before leaving once more. She passed by the library with her head held high, summoning years of posture drilled into her by her mother and Jacques. No one saw it; it never happened. Weiss kept her face steeled in a genteelly blank expression.
Before entering, she placed an ear to the throne room door. Jacques shouting. Her palms became slick despite herself as she pushed the creaking wood open. Inside, the room was nearly deserted- only Jacques and the man that was getting an earful stood inside, Queen Cinder nowhere to be seen.
Jacques turned about at the sound of the door, dashing Weiss’ hopes of bolting before they noticed her. “Weiss! What are you doing, barging in here unannounced?” he barked.
Weiss quietly clicked the door shut behind her, taking in a steadying breath as she cursed her luck for the second time that morning. “Queen Cinder invited me to tea, I thought she would be here.”
The man Jacques had been shouting at slipped out from the shadows. A shudder ran through Weiss’ gut as Tyrian, the Queen’s Hand, cocked his head at her. “Well, as you can see, your little queen isn’t here,” he said. “Now why don’t you run along, before something chases you out, hmm?”
His creepy laughter was cut off by Jacques. “Excuse me, she is my daughter! You have no right to say such things to her!”
Tyrian paused, considering Jacques as a cat might consider a mouse. “You are no more royalty than I am. The difference between us is that when your money runs out, and you are no longer useful to the little queen, I will still be alive.”
The air took on a palpable chill as the Queen’s Hand left, seeming to vanish into thin air as he took a hidden exit known only to the castle’s long time residents. Jacques stood silently for a moment, and Weiss steeled herself as he rounded on her. “Weiss,” Jacques said icily, “you made me look bad. Made me look weak.”
I didn’t do anything! Weiss bowed her head. “I’m sorry, father.”
Jacques straightened his tie with a hrumph, walking away briskly. Weiss relaxed, letting out a breath she hadn’t realized she was holding. She had gotten off easy. This time.
She carefully backed out from the throne room, heading up the spiral staircase to the third floor, where the queen’s and Jacques’ quarters were located. As she came onto the landing, she instinctively looked around, hoping to see Neptune once more. Instead, her heart sank as her eyes landed on the rooms to her left. When Queen Salem had been alive, they had been Cinder’s quarters, dressing room, and childhood playroom, then became Mercury and Emerald’s quarters after Cinder took the Queen’s quarters. Traditionally, they would have become Weiss’ and Whitley’s quarters, and yet…
Even the nicest guest quarters are still temporary. Weiss pivoted on her toes, marching through the corridor to the queen’s sitting room. The door was cracked open, a dim light shining from within, and Weiss knocked gently. “Hello?” She called out. “Queen Cinder?”
The door eased open further at her rapping, and Weiss peered inside. The room was warmed and lighted by the fireplace, fending off the last of the early spring chill, but the queen wasn’t in her usual seat. Weiss entered uneasily, looking about for signs of her stepmother. A half-eaten croissant, cold coffee, and a few scattered letters lay on the end table beside the chair. Weiss looked around the room, only to see herself.
She jumped, then settled, realizing the looming figure that had always been draped the few times she had been in the room was an antique mirror. The oval shape was edged with twisting silver braids, a knotted pattern not unlike those of northern Atlas’ ancient raiders, grand designs spiraling as serpents swallowed their tails and grimm stared Weiss down with eyes of carnelian.
Weiss smiled to herself, meeting her reflection’s palm with her own. Back when she was a little girl, she had always wanted mirror like this one, especially when her mother read the tale of Schneewitten to her. She would steal Willow’s hand mirror instead, loudly asking ‘Spieglein, Spieglein an der Wand, Wer ist die Schönste im ganzen Land?’. She chuckled to herself, but when she looked up, a tear had slowly begun to fall down her cheek.
“Mirror, mirror, on the wall,” she whispered, her hand curling into a fist.
Her reflection’s hand remained the same, staring back with uncaring eyes.
Weiss blinked, lowering her hand. Her reflection remained the same, those crystal eyes frigid and merciless. Weiss took a step back as the mirror’s surface darkened, ichor spreading and blackening the reflection of the room and changing Weiss’ image. Instead of Weiss, a grotesque version of Queen Salem stood inside the mirror. Her eyes were red inside black sclera, her once-blonde hair and fair skin had become bone-white, and the veins of her face were bruised and distended. She stared Weiss down in contempt.
“How is it that’s you’re still alive, Winter Maiden?” she asked, her voice smooth and sinister. “I thought Cinder said you’d put an end to yourself.”
Weiss’ heart rose to her throat, and she stumbled backward, tripping over herself. Is she talking about mother? She stared at the apparition in the mirror in horror, unable to speak.
The dark version of Queen Salem leaned forward, and the mirror’s surface bent with her as she inspected Weiss. “I see… You’re not her, you’re her child.” The ghost of Queen Salem crossed her arms, and the mirror’s surface levelled once more. “Such strange company Cinder is keeping these days.”
Weiss righted herself, coming back to stand before the mirror. “Are you… real?” she asked hesitantly. “Are you Queen Salem?”
The queen’s reflection barked out a laugh. “The last remnant of her.”
“Then why?” Weiss’ hands balled into fists. “Why did you kill all those faunus? All those women, all those Ash citizens?”
Queen Salem’s reflection narrowed her eyes. “They were of my kingdom; as their queen, their lives were mine to take. It never would have come to such extremes if he hadn’t forced my hand.”
“Ozpin,” the queen hissed. “He can never right the wrongs of Mountain Glenn.”
Before she could question the queen further, the ichor faded, Queen Salem becoming Weiss once more as the room came back into view. Weiss set a tentative hand up to the surface, and her reflection followed.
She was gone.
The door creaked open behind her, and Weiss whirled. Queen Cinder seemed surprised as well, then suspicious as she entered the sitting room.
“Weiss.” A nod.
“Stepmother.” A curt bow.
Queen Cinder looked over Weiss’ shoulder. “Did you… see anything in that mirror?”
“No,” Weiss answered quickly. Scheiße. “I mean, I saw myself, and the room. Why, what else would I have seen?”
Queen Cinder hmmmed as she took her usual seat, and Weiss mentally cursed herself. Think before you speak, you dolt! She took her seat across from the queen.
“So,” Queen Cinder picked up the letters on her table, rifling through them. “What did you think of Prince Jaune?”
“Well, he is a lovely boy,” Weiss said honestly. “And I’m sure the girl who marries him will be quite happy.”
“I’m glad to hear that.” The queen handed Weiss an unopened envelope. “This is a letter of introduction. When Prince Jaune leaves for Vale, I would like you to accompany him, and present this to his grandfather, King Ozpin.”
“Oh, actually… I think he’s in love with someone else?”
“...I beg your pardon?” Queen Cinder’s hand faltered.
“Äh… Well… There’s this girl, Pyrrha, and I think they’re childhood friends-”
“Pyrrha? Pyrrha Nikos?”
“Äh, yes, that’s her- but, if it’s so important that I marry a prince…” Weiss reached into her sash behind her, taking out the letter from Ren. “...I do have a letter of introduction from Prince Ren, the son of Empress An Ren?”
Weiss held the letter out, and Cinder snatched it. “Prince Ren? From Southern Mistral?” She laughed as she tossed the letter into the fire. Weiss cried out, extending a hand, but it was too late- the hungry flames eagerly consumed the letter, taking with them Weiss’ last hope of escaping Cinder’s grasp. In Weiss’ open hand, Queen Cinder placed the letter to King Ozpin. “If he does not love you, then make him love you,” she hissed.
Weiss reluctantly took the letter. It was sealed with the emblem of the Ash Queendom- the single eye in a magic circle, always watching. Weiss shivered, and a knot formed in her throat. “I…” Weiss’ hand shook. “I can’t.”
The queen’s eyes flashed. “You will.”
“But…” Weiss looked up into unforgiving golden eyes, the left shaded by ash-black bangs, and lowered her head. “As you wish, your majesty.”
“Good.” Queen Cinder straightened, either not noticing or ignoring how Weiss trembled, the envelope in her hand stained by a single teardrop. “Now, this Nikos girl wasn’t expected, but you’ll overcome her in courtly manner and grace. She’s the daughter of a military family, and you the heiress of a business empire- she shall pose no threat to you in terms of intrigue, as her breed is much too straightforward. Start separating the two of them as quickly as possible, and not just with Jaune; be sure to become friends with this girl, acting as though you’re her friend; get her to trust you. If they both see you as an ally, it will be easier for you to wedge them-”
“Queen Cinder!” The door burst open, and Mercury hustled inside, waving a letter. “It’s Spring!”
The queen narrowed her eyes, giving a brief nod to Weiss. Mercury’s cheeks tinged pink as he noticed the princess slouched in her seat. “Oh... Well, I meant… Um, of course it’s spring, winter ended a few weeks ago…” He rubbed the back of his head awkwardly as he handed the letter to the queen.
Wait, Spring? Weiss kept her face steeled as she pretended to focus on her own letter.
“Thank you, Mercury,” Queen Cinder seethed, ripping the envelope open and giving the letter a quick read. After a moment she smiled to herself, leaning her chin on one delicately curled fist as she crossed her ankles, raising her brows. “Excellent news, Mercury,” she purred. “Most excellent news.” She set the letter down on the stack beside her. “Have Hazel and Watts been made aware?”
“Not yet; I came to you first,” Mercury replied.
Weiss’ heart began to race, and she snuck a glance at the letter. Think, Weiss! You have to do something! She looked back down to the letter in her hand, and a horrible, dreadful idea came to her.
It’s the only way.
She swallowed her nerves, rising on shaky legs, drawing the attention of the Queen and her guard. “It seems you have other business to attend to,” she said cordially. “I shall go prepare for my journey to Vale.”
“Of course,” Queen Cinder waved her away with a flick of the wrist.
Weiss bowed, beginning to sweat as her heart raced, and turned in her heels. She feigned imbalance, letting out a cry as she fell to the floor, landing on the tea table and knocking the queen’s stack of letters from their stack.
“Oh!” Weiss flushed, and began to feverishly pick up the fallen letters. “I’m so sorry, I must be nervous for the trip!” She organized the stack, setting the queen's letter's back onto her side table, then stood once more, dusting herself off, and gave a final, awkward bow.
Weiss’ blood froze, her heart hammering in her chest. She knows.
“Show me the envelope.”
Weiss obliged, holding the envelope out for her stepmother to inspect. Her fingers kept the flap closed, where the Ash Queendom seal had been carefully lifted to appear intact. If one didn’t look too closely, she might think the same letter was inside.
“...Carry on.” Queen Cinder waved her away once more, standing from her seat.
Weiss turned, ready to leave, when Mercury called out behind her: “Hey, princess!” She turned, hesitantly, and he grinned maliciously. “Don’t forget to pack everything; this is a one-way trip!”
Weiss scrunched up her nose, ready to give a scathing retort, but caught a glance of her reflection in the mirror. No, she decided, spinning and bustling away as she tucked the envelope into her sash. Some things are more important. She headed back to the spiral staircase, pausing at the second floor landing, not too far from her room. Should I? All the things she held dear- her favorite books, her treasured gowns, her mother’s jewelry box, all in one place. If she left them behind, she might never see them again.
And yet… They’ll just weigh me down. With a heavy heart, she continued down the stairs to the castle’s first floor. Passing by the Queen’s council room where Queen Cinder frequently held meetings with Watts, Tyrian, and Hazel, Weiss came to the armory with a pause. When guests were in the castle, their weapons were stored here as well. Including the Atlesians.
I shouldn’t, Weiss thought even as she opened the door. It’s not mine. She walked among the swords and shields, passing bows and arrows and spears and clubs as though under a spell. Her eyes were drawn to it naturally- the rapier and gauche were framed by a ray of light, sparkling in the afternoon sun. A proud relic of the Schnee family name, forged for Nicholas Schnee himself before the Schnee Dust Company had even been founded, the rapier had seen many battles through the years.
Weiss’ chest tightened painfully. Seven years ago, expecting to find her mother tipsy in the garden, rushing to tell her about the visitors from the Ash Queendom- the sword; the blood. So much blood from one small, neat wound. Tears came unbidden, and Weiss shook her head. She took the rapier’s belt resolutely, positioning it beneath her sash. It’s light, she realized, and she looked back to the gauche. I should probably only take the one, though.
She stole from the armory, sneaking through the deserted castle corridors and heading to the stables. Each eye on the paneling seemed to be watching Weiss, and her pulse quickened.
Finally, she came to the servant’s corridor, and flung open the door. She took in a deep breath of the fresh air, letting it fill her lungs, then continued to the stables. The servants were busy with work thanks to the influx of guests from the wedding, and no one seemed to notice as Weiss slipped in to find her horse.
The dappled grey mare was drinking water peacefully in her stall as Weiss approached. “Atle Spitze,” she called softly, and the mare looked up. Weiss gently stroked her nose and the horse nickered, flicking her tail. “It’s good to see you too, young lady.” Weiss looked about, but Spitze wasn’t saddled and bridled, and Weiss had no clue how to do so herself. She sighed in irritation, flagging down a passing stablehand.
“Excuse me, sorry, can you please saddle this horse for me?” she asked politely.
The young man looked at her, then at the nameplate above Spitze’s stall. “Er, I’m sorry miss, but this is the princess’ steed. We can’t just let anyone ride her-”
“Excuse me?” Weiss huffed. “I am the princess! Weiss Schnee? You don’t recognize me?”
He shook his head. “Sorry, I’ve never met her- well, you, I suppose, if you are her-”
I don’t have time for this, I’m going to get caught! Weiss pulled the envelope from her sash, flashing the Ash Queendom seal. “Look, I’m on important business for my stepmother, your queen, and I don’t have time to dally. Can you please saddle my horse?”
The stablehand took in the envelope, then looked at Weiss, his face flushing. “Ah, yes your highness! Right away!” He dashed away.
Weiss eased for a brief moment, leaning back against the stall. She looked down to the envelope. Well, I'd better find out where I’m going. Carefully re-opening the seal, Weiss pulled out the letter and gave it a quick once-over:
We have located the Spring Maiden.
She appears to be harbored by the Branwen
Tribe in the east, within the Grimm Woods
themselves. Be warned, she is under the
protection of Raven Branwen, though the
young maiden should give you little
I await my royal payment.
Your loyal servant,
The Grimm Woods. Weiss’ blood chilled, a shiver running down her spine. Of all the places for this maiden to be, it had to be in the Grimm Woods? With a bandit tribe? She shoved the letter back into the envelope, cursing inwardly. This is too much for one person. I can’t do this. She rested a hand on the rapier’s hilt. I need help. I need her.
The stablehand returned with a saddle blanket, saddle, and reins. “All right your highness, I’ve got everything for you right here.” He slid the stall door open, taking the gear in with him.
Well, too late now, I guess. Weiss put the envelope safely back into her sash. It’s just me. I can do this. I have to do this.
The young man finished saddling Spitze and led her out of the barn. Weiss followed behind slowly, trying to mentally prepare herself. The stablehand seemed to notice her hesitation, and offered his hand to help her to her saddle. Weiss obliged with a sigh. I guess this is it. I’m really doing this.
“Would you like me to inform your stepmo- the queen- that you left all right?” he asked politely.
“No!” Weiss said quickly, catching the young man by surprise. “Äh, no, she doesn’t need to be bothered with such trivial matters,” Weiss explained.
“I see,” he murmured, then looked about. “You’re not taking any guards with you?”
Weiss caught the suspicious look in his eye he hadn’t been trained enough to hide. She smiled sweetly, tucking a bit of hair behind her ear. “I’ll be fine, I’m not going far” she said, turning her head and batting her eyes slightly. The effect was instant- the man’s cheeks began to flush once more. “Oh, I didn’t catch your name- who are you?”
“C-Cardin. Cardin Winchester.”
“Cardin.” Weiss gave the name a silky tone as she said it, and the stablehand flustered further. “Thank you so much for all your help, Cardin, I appreciate it. When I come back, I’ll be sure to leave Spitze with you. Just be sure not to bother anyone about me leaving, alright?”
“Oh, well, of course. I look forward to your return.” Cardin stammered.
Weiss gave him a grateful smile, nodding regally, then spurred Spitze into action.