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The Goose Girl

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Just after midnight, the Princess Euphemia of Walhoffen, Keeper of the Chalice of Gullveig, daughter of the deceased king Alvarr Hárfagra, felt her down-feather mattress dip under new weight.  A body cold from the early spring night reached her beneath the linen sheets and woolen blankets, pressing along her naked back; one hand pushed into her unbound hair, shifting it to expose the back of her neck, and the other arm wrapped around her middle.  The face that settled against her was wet and chilled, a counterpoint to the moist, hot breath against her nape.

"Fia," Ingrid said, voice thick and strange-sounding.  

There was nothing Fia could offer her, so she said nothing.  The stewards and servants were long in bed, fortifying themselves for the fanfare that would begin at dawn. She tangled her hand with Ingrid's, pushing them hard together into her stomach.

"You could stay here," Ingrid said, pulling her closer.  "It's not too late to stop this."

Fia brought Ingrid's hand up to her mouth, kissing the tips of those deft fingers.  "Yes, it is."

In the morning, Fia's long, golden hair was brushed and bound in ornate braids that curled around her head-- then all of it was tucked beneath a linen veil, over which was placed a golden diadem set with jewels in sky-colors: cabochons of sapphire and tourmaline and opal, glittering facets of blue topaz and diamond.  Fia kept her eyes downcast as the servants worked, occasionally flicking her gaze up to look at Ingrid, who sat on Fia's bed, grim-faced and mute.  

Neither of them made any attempt to disguise the fact that Ingrid had slept there.  Fia was a princess-- and magic besides, in theory-- and so she was forgiven all sorts of eccentricities, and Ingrid carried herself with a brutal self-assuredness that discouraged questions.  And soon enough the gossip about what did or didn't happen between the princess and the stable-master's daughter wouldn't matter.

In three days, Fia would fulfill the betrothal contract that had been made nearly sixteen years ago.  She would be the princess of a foreign land, never again to cross the enchanted boundary between that land and this one, and Ingrid would do whatever a handsome commoner did when not half-courted by a magical princess.  She would likewise marry, Fia supposed. She lifted her eyes again.

Ingrid gazed steadily back at her, arms resting on her knees, slumped forward with an inert, exhausted sort of grief.  

She watched as the servants pulled tight the beaded cords of Fia's yellow overdress, buckled around her hips a girdle of filigreed leather, laced up her fur-trimmed boots.  Normally the maids chatted, and Ingrid with them, but today they worked in silence, either sensing the gloom or else knowing the truth of it, the five-year love that was ending.

When they settled the dark blue mantle over Fia's shoulders, Ingrid rose from the bed and belted her own surcoat, slipped on her own boots.

They left Fia's chambers in a silent train until the end of the hallway.  To the right was the Great Hall where Fia's mother waited, and to the left were the bailey and the stables, where Ingrid would perhaps help with preparing Fia's steed for the long journey and then wait for the festivities to begin.  Fia hung there, and her retinue stopped as well, half-watching from a few steps away as Ingrid slowed and looked expectantly, resignedly at Fia.  

It wasn't private, but it was the last of their privacy; they would not be alone again, but the next time they would see each other-- the last time they would see each other-- would be at the parade after the dowry ceremony, in front of all the castle's residents and half the city.

"I'll see you outside," Fia said finally.

Ingrid nodded, gaze sliding down to the carpeted stone floor.  "Yeah."

 

+

 

The Queen Guðrún of Walhoffen was a small woman whose presence nevertheless filled every corner of the room, drew every eye, recorded in all of its sights and sounds the splendor and mystery of their family line.  Her red hair was piled high on her head, bound with silken cords, and her neck was wreathed in gold and iridescent beads. With her council of ministers, the Queen had maintained sole rulership of the kingdom since her husband died, a privilege of autonomy that had relied largely on the sense of otherworldliness that the Queen cultivated.  One part widow and matron, one part warlord and druidess.

"My daughter," she said to Fia, lifting her sweet-smelling palms to Fia's cheeks.  "You are as beautiful as the sun." It was a standard greeting. Fia bowed her head and curtseyed low at her feet in the Great Hall, where the courtiers and the kingdom's nobles and their attendants were gathered.

A table had been placed in front of the royal dais, and several of the Queen's splendidly-arrayed servants helped Fia to kneel beside it, billowing her skirts out around her, facing outward toward the assembly.  The Queen moved to the table and picked up a wooden box ornately carved and set with a single ruby in its center; she opened it to reveal a small dagger, with another ruby in its pommel, resting in a bed of red velvet.

"Your father the King would grieve, as I do, to lose his heart's treasure," said the Queen, loud enough to be heard at the back of the Great Hall.  "But your beauty and obedience have done great honor to him, as to me and to the kingdom of Walhoffen."

From within a fold of her mantle the Queen pulled a simple white handkerchief, and she spread it out on the table.  

"Now, we do honor to you with these endowments, to keep you in majesty and worthy renown for the rest of your days.  You will take with you chests of gold and silver and jewels and rolls of the finest cloth."

With the ruby-hilted dagger, she pricked her finger and then squeezed a drop of blood onto the kerchief.  

"In addition to these riches, we impart to you the ear of the wind; the voice to summon gales and squalls and gentle breezes, to stoke fires and fill sails as you wish it; in accord with your birthright as a daughter of the line of Heiðr and a völva of Vanaheim."

From where she knelt before the dais, Fia felt a warmth spread over her, a shivering contraction of muscle radiating outward from her chest.  She breathed through it, keeping her expression impassive.

"We impart also two companions to help keep you and tend to your every need, in your long journey and your new life--"

The Queen squeezed another drop of blood onto the white cloth.

"The noble steed Falada, sired by Meherzaad of the Golden Voice on the dam Hulda; a treasure gained by your father the King for his valor in Alfheim and over whom you shall have governance."

Ingrid would be sad for that, Fia thought, for Falada was the stable-master's pride and joy.  Still, it would be nice to have the company: Falada was from a line of horses that could speak, though Fia had only ever heard him speak in rhymed couplets, and not very often.  It was possible that he had little to say, or that speaking with humans was simply not worth the bother of rhyming.

The Queen pinched her finger until a final drop of blood landed on the kerchief.

"Likewise," she said, "you shall have governance over your cherished maid-servant, as an attendant in distant lands, a stable-girl to do honor to Falada, and a chambermaid to tend you in your new home."

Fia's face went a little slack, looking out over the crowd.  The Queen was not privy to all the details of the princess's personal undertakings, but she knew well enough who Ingrid was, as they had been playmates for many years before they became lovers. The Queen always referred to Ingrid as Fia's servant, although Ingrid had no official capacity.  Beyond a few now-elderly nannies, there was no one else the Queen would have referred to as cherished by the princess.

Fia's thoughts swirled, breath coming a little fast, even as the Queen dipped her hand into a bowl of scented water, and the servants helped Fia stand again.

Fia and Ingrid had never broached the idea of Ingrid leaving with her, for they both knew it wasn't possible: even if Fia weren't traveling to marry, to become a wife and mother, Ingrid's mother had died when Ingrid was young, and her father had no sons, only Ingrid and her sister to help him.  Ingrid's sister, who was ten years old and of ill-health.

The Queen stepped up onto the royal dais, and Fia to stand near her on the lower step, and together they faced the assembly.  The Queen held up her hand and proclaimed, "Walhoffen gives all honor and blessing to its daughter the Princess Euphemia!"  

The Great Hall erupted in cheers, and there was a shower of rose petals from servants on either side of the dais, and music began to play.

The Queen touched Fia's arm.  "Attend me," she murmured.

A procession of servants accompanied the two out of the Hall and into a side chamber before the Queen dismissed them; the last of the servants poured wine into two goblets before closing the heavy oak door behind him.  Fia took a sip of her wine but remained standing, as her mother did.

In private, The Queen was quieter, and more frank and more wry, but no less imposing a figure.  

She handed Fia the bloody kerchief.  "Keep this close to you at all times."  Fia took the cloth and carefully tucked it into the low collar of her gown, between her breasts, near her heart.  The Queen nodded approvingly.  

"Your maid's horse will draw the rest of your dowry in a cart," she said.  Fia's throat tightened at the thought of Ingrid pulling Fia's wedding presents behind her.  Her pulse was a nauseous throbbing in her chest and temples, but she kept her face free of expression.  "Falada will protect you, and you can call the wind, as you have seen me do."

Fia had seen her mother call wind and rain, and summon moles out of the earth, at various state functions and military exercises.  In secret she had hoped to be bequeathed the power over moles, because Fia had never harbored the hope or even desire to match her mother's talent for spectacle-- and she quite liked the moles-- but clearly her mother had thought better for her safety.

"Yes, your Majesty," she said, eyes fixed on her mother's torque.  

"There are maps and food in your maid's saddle bags, and a wineskin.  In your own saddle bags are a few books for your amusement and some coin."

"Thank you, your Majesty."

There was a long silence, and after a moment Fia raised her eyes to see the Queen watching her.  "Are you ready to be a wife?" Her gaze was assessing but not concerned, and certainly not sympathetic.  

Fia bowed her head.  "Yes, your Majesty."

The Queen hummed.  "Allow men to think what they will," she said.  "Be sparing with your counsel and keep your duty in your heart.  Save your blessings for your daughters."

"Yes, your Majesty."

She stepped closer, then, and raised her hand to Fia's face.  She trailed her fingertips up the line of Fia's nose, then brushed her thumb over Fia's forehead beneath the veil.  Her skin was powder-soft and smelled like rosewater.

"Your mother loves you," she said.

Fia nodded.  For all that dynasty did strange things to love, just as love did strange things to dynasties, it was likely true that her mother loved her.  "As I love and honor my Queen."  When the Queen stepped back and held out her fingers, Fia clasped them; she brought them to her mouth, bending forward, and pressed a last kiss to that fragrant hand.

 

+

 

Falada was a blue dun stallion with a white mane, sixteen hands tall, broad and strong.  He waited at the mouth of the stables, draped in a caparison of blue-grey linen and golden thread, decked in the crest of Walhoffen.  The sacred Chalice of Gullveig dangled like a trinket from one of his saddle strings. Beside him was a sorrel mare named Anika, similarly caparisoned, and beside her stood Ingrid, her hand on Anika's bridle, looking confused and uneasy.  She wore a gown that was finer than the one she'd worn this morning, and she clutched a pair of riding gloves uncertainly in her hand.

Fia watched her as she and her attendants walked toward the parade line.  Assembled around Ingrid and the horses were the other members of the parade who would accompany Fia and Ingrid out of the castle gates and to the bridge that led to the forest: musicians and acrobats and banner-bearers on foot, dignitaries on horseback, a man atop a royal coach who would throw baubles to the crowd.  

Fia let love fill up her chest, then folded it like a piece of silk and tucked it into a deep, safe recess, like the bloody kerchief at her breast.  

Ingrid looked up when Fia reached them, and her shoulders slumped with relief.  "Your Highness--"  

Fia walked past her, to Falada, and Ingrid followed her.  "Do you know what's going on?" she murmured. She ducked forward into Fia's space, seeking Fia's eyes in vain.  "They had me dress a second horse."

"You're going with me," Fia said.  

She flipped open Falada's saddlebag, though she already knew what it would contain.  In her peripheral vision, she watched Ingrid's face go blank with surprise before it folded in lines of remorse.

"Your Highness--" she said, grimacing.  "You know I can't," she whispered. "I'm sorry.  I, I have Ilse, and the stables--"  

Fia shook her head.  She moved away, to Falada's other side, tightening the strap of Falada's saddle for something to do with her hands.

"It's already decided."

Ingrid's face smoothed in new confusion.  "I don't..." She turned to look at her father, who stood at one the stable gates, quiet in his dread.  Ingrid shook her head. There was no space inside her to understand. Ingrid had never taken public liberties or aspired to titles, but it had always been easy between them, riding together on the castle grounds, sneaking through the hallways, hiding in the hayloft: Ingrid brazen as a shield-maiden, Fia curious and mild as a foal.

Fia gathered the train of her gown and, with the help of two stablehands, hoisted herself onto Falada's saddle.  She arrayed her skirts around her and then looked blank-faced down at Ingrid, who stared back.

"I'm sorry.  We have to go."  

"I'm not going, Fia," Ingrid said, and still her voice held an apology.

Fia nodded.  Her fingers found the blood-stained kerchief inside the collar of her gown.  This was worse than the heartbreak she had planned on, unimaginably worse, but there was nothing for it.  "Get on the horse," she said.

A jolt when through Ingrid's frame, then a slackening, and then she moved toward Anika, took hold of her saddle and swung herself expertly onto the mare's back.  She gazed forward, eyes wide; mouth a pinched, horrified line. Her hands grasped her pommel white-knuckled.  

Fia turned to the royal seneschal, a man in stately dress who had watched the exchange expressionlessly.  "We're ready," said the princess.

Near the front of the parade, they rode together out of the bailey and through the town.  The music and cheers washed over them, along with the coach-driver's cries of "honor to Her Highness!" and "blessings for the bride!" and "ayup!" as he tossed coins and candies and scented satchets into the teeming crowd.  Fia kept her eyes fixed on the horizon with perfect poise while Ingrid rode silently behind.

 

+

 

Walhoffen ended in a valley that sloped down to a beech forest, and at the treeline Ingrid and Fia crossed over the border.  A shiver ran through Fia's frame, a near lightheadedness as when stretching after a prolonged period of sitting. If Ingrid felt their homeland closing behind them, she made no sign.

They rode in silence.  Fia had expected to make the journey alone, but she had comforted herself with thoughts of new sights, new flora and fauna, the sounds of strange birds in the trees.  Instead, her focus was hooked uncomfortably to the sliver of Ingrid in her peripheral vision and the sound of Anika's footfalls. It didn't help that she could imagine what filled Ingrid's thoughts in the quiet.

After another half-hour, the forest path met a burbling stream.  "We should stop for water," Fia said.

Ingrid pulled her mount up to the stream and slipped off.  She walked up to the water's edge and looked over it, hands on her hips, while the mare lowered her head to drink.  

The princess untied the golden chalice from Falada's saddle.  "Um--" Ingrid turned to look at her. Reflections on the water sent sunlight dancing over her tight shoulders and her blank face.  "Can you help me? It's hard for me to get up and down from here in this dress."

"Fuck you," Ingrid said, turning back to the water.

So Fia shifted her skirts and dismounted.  She knelt by the stream, careful of her gown near the wet ground, and dipped her chalice into the current-- but where water should have run into the mouth of the cup, it rushed over, as with a river stone.  Fia frowned and put her fingers into the chalice, then set it again into the water, and again the chalice sealed itself. She tried pooling the water in her hand and then pouring it into the chalice, but the water merely spilled over the sides.

In the meantime, Ingrid had pulled a wooden cup from her own saddlebag and filled it easily.  She stood nearby, drinking, saying nothing.  

After her third try, Fia sighed and set the golden chalice on the streambank.  She rucked her gown up along her thighs to keep it dry, her bare knees digging into the mossy ground, and leaned forward.  Suddenly Falada's deep, sonorous voice filled the quiet around them.

"Oh, if your mother only knew,
Her loving heart would break in two."

Ingrid made a choked, scoffing noise-- but Fia stilled where she was bent over the stream, suddenly filled with shame.  She felt a strange frisson of panic, too, like a child being caught-out-- but there was nothing to be caught-out in, really, and no one to catch her out except Falada, who could report to no one.

And Fia was no longer a child, and she needed to drink, and her stupid magical cup wasn't cooperating, and whatever shame she felt at the indignity forced upon her royal personage was less-- less by a hundred fold-- than the shame she would have felt in ordering Ingrid to fetch her water.  So she bent to the stream and drank from her own palm.

When both women and both horses had drunk their fill, Fia turned to the task of mounting her horse.  She took hold of her skirts and Falada's saddle and threw herself over his back until she could get her foot in the stirrup, then wriggled like a fish while Falada snorted and huffed, lending credence to the idea that Falada was limited in what he could communicate in human speech, or at least his ignorance of swear words.  Finally she managed to pull herself upright on his back and tug her skirts from between her legs, adjusting them around her, and she looked up, red-faced with exertion, to see Ingrid watching her from Anika's back. Her expression was a nightmare version of the amusement that Ingrid had gentled over Fia the first few times they'd gone riding together: smug, knowing, but now cold.

"Ready?" she asked.  Fia nodded.  

They rode in silence for hours more.  Ingrid ate some dried meat and a roll from her saddlebag-- but whoever had furnished their bags clearly hadn't foreseen these exact circumstances, so they hadn't bothered to supply Fia's with any food, and she didn't dare ask Ingrid for any-- so by the time they stopped again for water, her stomach hurt from stress and hunger.  

They pulled off next to the rushing creek, and this time Fia didn't bother with the chalice.  She dismounted, then pulled off her diadem and veil and stuffed them unceremoniously into her saddlebag.  The roads were empty, and Ingrid had seen her naked hair thousands of times-- had lain with it strewn around her, had helped her brush hay out of it, had pressed her face into it, breathing deeply.  

This ravine was deeper than the stream's had been, and Fia bent low, bracing herself against an outcroping of tree roots before she again heard Falada's voice behind her.

"Oh, if your mother only knew,
her loving heart would break in two."

Fia's perch was more precarious this time, and as she knelt she had a vision of Falada charging her suddenly-- or of Ingrid charging her, which was probably likelier, Ingrid driving her knee into the back of Fia's leg, hands fisting in Fia's cloak and tossing her forward.  She could imagine the shock of cold as she fell into the river, the sharp stones cutting into her arms as she grappled for purchase, her desperate gasps for air as she was tossed and shredded in those currents.

She was so lost in these thoughts that at the sudden chittering of a squirrel in the trees, she startled, and she stumbled, her one hand slipping as her other hand dipped into the water.  Her elbow slammed against a tree root, but before she could fall any further, Ingrid grabbed her by the back of the cloak. Her other hand darted out to grab a cloth from the water-- the kerchief, dislodged from Fia's gown.  Fia dangled there, eyes wide.

Ingrid pulled her back from the water.  "Are you okay?"

Fia nodded, clutching again at the knot of tree roots, and Ingrid seemed to remember herself.  She let go of Fia's mantle and stepped back. Fia steadied herself, catching her breath.  When she looked up, Ingrid was gazing at the wet cloth in her hands.

"What is this?" Ingrid asked.  "Is this blood?"  She unfolded it, frowning.  "Are you bleeding?" 

When she held it up, the whole cloth was grey with water.  Fia pushed herself up, staring at it.  She could clearly see two dots of smeared blood and one blotch of faded pink. 

"It doesn't matter."

"Is this your blood?"

"No," Fia said.  She sighed and set to trying to dry her hands on the inside of her mantle without getting further dirt on her gown.  Her heart was racing. "It's my mother's blood."

Ingrid glanced up at Falada, then back at Fia.  "Tell me what the fuck this is, Fia."

Fia looked down at the rushing water of the creek, watching it curve around a bend, into the forest.  Departing, as Ingrid soon would. They could split the coin and the food, maybe some of the jewelry from the cart.  Surely Ingrid wouldn't leave her starving and penniless--

"Fia," Ingrid ground out.

"It's my dowry," she answered.

"Your dowry," Ingrid said blankly.  

Fia pushed herself to her feet and nodded, holding Ingrid's gaze.  After a protracted moment, Ingrid let the blood-stained kerchief fall to the ground.  

"Order to me to do something," she said.

"No."

"You can't anymore."

"No."

Ingrid nodded and crossed to the horses.  "I'm going back home."

"You can't," said Fia.  "The door is closed."

Ingrid turned back from Anika's saddle, eyes narrowed.  "What do you mean the door is closed?  What door?"

"Between the realms," Fia said softly, shaking her head.  "Neither of us can go back. Not ever. I'm sorry."

Ingrid stared at her for a long moment, seemingly frozen in a shaft of sunlight while woodlarks in the nearby trees chirped heedlessly.  She opened her mouth, then closed it again. After a long moment, she paced a few steps and then turned back.

"You're sorry," she said finally, voice strangled.  "You weren't sorry ten minutes ago. You weren't sorry this morning."

"Yes, I was."

"No," Ingrid said.  She shook her head, eyes bright.  "No, that's not sorry. If you'd been sorry, you would have left me with my family.  My home, my whole life."

"That wasn't an option," Fia said.  "You're one of my endowments."

"I'm..."  Ingrid lapsed into another long silence.  Finally, she swallowed, and her hands went to the girdle at her waist.  "Take off your dress."

Fia blinked.  "What?"

"I said take off your dress.  Now."

Fia watched blankly as Ingrid pulled off her girdle and cloak and draped them over Anika's saddle.  She bent to unknot her boots. After a moment, she straightened with a shoe in her hand and met Fia's gaze.  "Take off your dress, or I'll take it off of you." Her mouth twisted. "You know I can do that."

It seemed strange that this was the treasure Ingrid would start with-- there was extraordinary wealth in Anika's cart, and Fia had demonstrated today that the fine gown she wore was mostly a burden-- but Fia moved mutely to unclasp her mantle and set it on the cart, then began to pull at the delicate beaded cords of her overdress.  The two women dressed down to their chemises, and Ingrid put on Fia's boots, and Fia pulled on hers. 

They dressed in silence until Ingird, in her agitation, tangled the cords of Fia's gown. 

"How the fuck does this even work," she snarled, tugging on them.

"Here-- you're--"  Fia stepped toward her, hands lifted slightly, as she had seen Ingrid do with frightened horses.  "You're going to tear it."

Ingrid let her approach, and Fia unknotted the cords, then retied them, Ingrid's warm nearness so familiar-- except for the rigidness of her frame, how she leaned away from Fia's touch when it came too close to her skin.  Fia didn't dare to look at her face.

When the overdress was pulled tight and fastened, Fia stepped away to let Ingrid finish with the girdle and mantle.  She picked up the soiled kerchief from the creekbank, squeezing water from it. It was covered with leaf litter now, and wet and frigid from the March air, but she tucked it back into its place against her skin.  She shivered and pulled Ingrid's cloak closer over her shoulders. It smelled like her.

Once Ingrid was fully dressed, she moved to Falada and tapped him firmly on the shoulder two times.  He knelt down on his front legs, and Ingrid easily swung herself into his saddle before Falada stood to his full height again.  Fia stood next to Anika, holding Anika's bridle, feeling too numb for confusion.

In all truth, the gown that Ingrid had been wearing was a fine one, even if it wasn't as fine as a princess's-- the woolen parts didn't touch Fia's skin through the linen chemise, and the neck and hem were lined with embroidered satin-- but Ingrid looked down at her from Falada's back, mouth twisted with contempt, and said, "You look like a peasant."

 

+

 

Backsteinberg was a sprawling campus of red brick situated at the top of a hill, its torch-lit turrets visible for miles away.  It was on the Southern border of the Kingdom of Langebrück, and by the time the two women approached the gatehouse, it was long past nightfall.  Ingrid rode in front astride Falada, with Fia and Anika pulling the cart behind. She wore Fia's diadem over her loose hair. The gate-keeper greeted them politely.  

"Good evening," Ingrid told him.  "Tell the king that the Princess Euphemia, his son's betrothed, has arrived with gifts for him."

"Yes, Your Highness," the gate-keeper said, face excited, bowing low.

On the road together, they had had many hours to discuss what would happen, now that Ingrid had the power to do as she would, but Fia had been afraid to hear the answer.  She had thought they would perhaps travel to the nearest city, identify themselves as anonymous nobles, and seek lodging until the next morning, when they would divide their resources and part ways-- but they had stayed the road to Backsteinberg, Fia with her head low, nibbling cautiously from a roll from Anika's saddlebag.

She waited until the gate-keeper had ridden through the gates before pulling alongside Falada.  "What are you doing," she murmured.  

"Get away from me," Ingrid said.  She tugged on Falada's bridle so that he jostled sideways, into Anika's space, startling the mare.  Anika snorted and jolted away, her cart rocking on its axles. Two of the gate soldiers exchanged looks.  Fia grimaced.  

She rode back and a little ahead of Falada so that she could face away from the guards.  "You're going to get yourself killed," she said lowly.

Ingrid sneered at her, but at least she had the good sense to lower her voice before she said, "Not if you keep your fucking mouth shut."  Fia heard the beat of horse-hooves coming from the castle, and Ingrid's eyes flicked past her. "Stay behind me."

The horses belonged to a retinue led by a young man in resplendent dress, most likely the Prince Heinrich of Langebrück , with a golden circlet on his head.  He dismounted in a hurry, handing his bridle to one of the guards, and came over to stare up at Ingrid.

"My lady," he said, beaming.

Ingrid had ridden ahead of Fia, but she could hear the charming smile in Ingrid's voice when she answered, "My lord."

The prince reached up to take Ingrid's hand in his.  Ingrid's skin was darker and stronger than a noblewoman's, but the prince and everyone else in this land would likely take that for a peculiarity of Walhoffen, a land none of them had ever visited and from which texts and artworks were likely rare.

"You are as beautiful as I have imagined, these many years," the prince said.  It was true; Ingrid was beautiful. Fia watched fixedly as the prince leaned forward to press his lips to her knuckles.  "I welcome you to Backsteinberg, where you shall have your every desire seen to."

Possibly at the prince's nearness, or possibly due to his understanding of events as they were unfolding, Falada shifted his weight restlessly, making a strange sound in the back of his throat.  Ingrid tangled her free hand in his mane.  

"Lord," she said, "my primary desire of the moment is for a soft bed, as the journey has been long and taxing."

To Fia's ears, the formality of Ingrid's speech sounded strange.  They'd been friends in secret before they'd interacted in any formal capacity, in front of onlookers, so Ingrid's submissive politeness had always sounded a little sardonic to Fia, like a private joke between them; it was unsettling to hear Ingrid speak in formal tones without that hint of amusement.

"Of course, my princess," the prince said.  He looked past Ingrid at Fia, an attentive, grim-faced, somewhat finely-dressed figure hovering nearby on a royal steed.  "Do, ah--"

"Yes," said Ingrid, looking over her shoulder.  "She can sleep anywhere you have available. She is some lesser noble, whom her parents could not support."

Ingrid, of course, had had half the journey to devise her explanations, thoughts of her own well-being commingled with thoughts that likely ran in angry, incredulous circles.  

"I picked her up on my way as a companion," said Ingrid, "but she has been--"  Ingrid stared at Fia for a moment, her expression hard to read in silhouette against the torchlight.  Ingrid shook her head. "A disappointment."