“I hate waste. The second gold mark buys her bond.”

Wilhelm protested, “But Highness, if you buy her who will dye and spin for me?”

Beatriz startled. The prinzessin was buying her bond? She stared. Hope flared. The lady seemed to be a reasonable person. What sort of owner would she be?

“I suppose that you will have to go back to your vats and wheels then, dyemaster. But understand me, if you don’t sell me her bond, I will simply take her with me now. Unless she’s insane enough to want to stay with such a lazy boor and drunkard.” The tall aristo lady looked over at Beatriz who shook her head in a tiny, hesitant movement. The great lady continued, “I’ll send my Guard Captain before the courts to charge you with abuse of your bondswoman outside the law of such contracts. I will win. Then, you will have neither the second gold mark nor your bondswoman.”

This time Beatriz didn’t hold back her response. She snorted. Even with two gold marks, it wouldn’t be long before Wilhelm would have to work or starve. He’d drink through it fast enough.  Maybe he’d have some sense and buy another bond worker.  Beatriz wouldn’t bet on it though. These days, he acted addled most of the time.

One side of the prinzessin’s mouth lifted in a dry, appreciative smile.

Wilhelm whined, “Highness….”

The lady pitched the second mark at Wilhelm. It landed exactly where the first had. Wilhelm hesitated. Then he bent back down and grabbed the mark. He shoved it into his pocket.

“Now the bond token.”

Wilhelm pulled out a leather thong from around his neck. A copper coin, etched with symbols magically binding the contract between Wilhelm and Beatriz, hung from it. He yanked it over his head and started towards the prinzessin. Beatriz could tell that he wanted to throw it at the prinzessin as she had thrown the coins to him but didn’t dare.

Prinzessin Philomena said, “Don’t.” She nodded at the young bodyguard, still shadowing her. It was the young man who walked towards Wilhelm and took the medallion from his unresisting hand. Carefully, he handed the prinzessin the token. She tilted her head at Wilhelm.

He said, reluctantly, “Sold. By my hand to the Prinzessin Philomena.”

The prinzessin said, “Received into my hand from…” She looked down, reading the symbols on the medallion, “…Wilhelm Braun, dyemaster.”

There was a hum and a pop that Beatriz felt more than heard as if the air exploded just a little. Prinzessin Philomena handed the token to Beatriz. “Here, it’s yours. You belong to yourself.” There was another pop and the copper medallion in Beatriz’s hand was blank.

Wilhelm made an inarticulate noise of rage and protest. The prinzessin turned her back, clearly done with him. Smiling at Beatriz, she asked, “What do you want to do now?”

Beatriz stood still thinking. Behind her was the teetering shack that had been her home and her work for more than three years. Around them were endless fields of woad and equally endless dusty roads. Despite the quality of what she made, Wilhelm’s drunkeness had landed them here, on the edge of their world. It was a big world.

“May I come with you?” Beatriz was unsure of what this would entail but it was a solid support in a suddenly wobbly reality.

“I’d rather hoped you would,” the prinzessin said. And her voice was understanding, and warm, and welcoming. All at once, Beatriz felt happy. She had not been so comforted by anyone since her mother had died, long years before.

So, forgetting her aches and her hunger and the smuts on her face and the stink of her body, Beatriz smiled back at the prinzessin, as if she’d known her forever and told her, “I think I will.”

Maybe even prinzessins needed a friend now and again.

*****

Mallory Beauclerk must have projected a whisper on the breeze because Philomena could hear the captain’s voice hissing in her ears. If sibilant whispers could be outraged, then Mallory’s voice was utterly aggrieved. “What the hell are you doing, Phil?”

She couldn’t project in the same way because projection that precise required an ability to manipulate magic in terms of the offensive–of war magic rather than rudeness. So Philomena raised an eyebrow and said aloud, “Avoiding waste. My lady’s maid didn’t want to emigrate.” She looked over at the newly freed woman and hesitated. “She…um….Mistress…um…”

“Beatriz,” the woman supplied.

“Yes. Well. Beatriz can help with all the details of clothing and such until she decides what to do next. There you are, Captain. Every thing all sorted out.” Philomena grinned at Mal, aware that Mal was now stuck with the rest of the details. Despite their public formality, it wasn’t like they didn’t know each other well. Mal would cope. She’d just quietly let Philomena know that she was being a pain in the butt. Later.

Philomena was acutely aware that the poor ex-bondswoman was standing rigidly still. Damn it, she’d just gone to some trouble to make the woman feel welcome and Mal had to be a pain about it. Admittedly, Phil’s new foible complicated Mallory’s life but that was one of the few benefits that Philomena had ever found in being a princess.

“Well. She’s not riding at the back of me and we’ve no wagon. All your gear was portalled to the Dowry Camp.” Mallory snorted. “She’s probably crawling with lice too, from the looks of her.”

Philomena threw Mallory a hard glance. She was making this all much more difficult than it needed to be. She turned towards Beatriz. The woman was visibly red even beneath the dirt. Clearly, her current state of cleanliness was not her choice. So Philomena said as casually and cheerfully as she could manage, “You have so little faith in me, Captain.” However cheerfully said, it was a dig because Mal knew that Philomena hated that lack from her family.

Philomena fished into one of her pockets for a particular pouch of powdered herbs.

She asked Beatriz, “May I?” It was always better to ask a person before you dumped magic into their personal space after all. The upper classes tended not to, but Philomena had always thought that was incredibly rude.

The tall, dark woman nodded.

Philomena spooled up her own tenuous thread of magic and dumped a large pile of the dust into the palm of her hand. Turning towards Beatriz, she blew the herbs into Beatriz’s face. Effectively, she was blowing her magic, her intent, the intent and the magic she’d layered into the herbs when she grew and processed them onto Beatriz’s aura and into the woman’s own magic. She watched as the woman’s magic accepted Phil’s pesticide mix.

Philomena didn’t know how the others saw it but to her, the herbs sparked and flared into gorgeous colors and then became a glittering dust that poured over Beatriz’s body. The color settled over her for a moment or two and then puffed into a gleaming explosion that obscured Beatriz to Philomena’s vision for a moment or two and then dissipated slowly. Poor Beatriz must really want to be clean. That helped the whole process along. There was a moment of quiet where the only sound was the stamping of restless horses and the quiet jingle of metal tack.

Pleasantly, Philomena said, “All taken care of. Traveling can be rather an issue that way, can’t it?”

After a moment of silence, Mal said, “Can I get some of that powder from you, Highness?” Poor Mallory. She’d been brought up by the Order of the Father’s Daughters, one of the many illegitimate children the Order raised. The Father’s Daughters were very particular about matters of cleanliness. Mal had taken their hygiene rules deeply to heart. She hated pests. Well, so did Phil or she wouldn’t have created her pesticide powder. It ought to work for Mal. There was a level of projection and focused will required, both of which Mal was more than capable of. Philomena’s intent hadn’t been specific only to herself but generalized.  So she nodded and said, “There’s more in my personal things. I’ll be glad to give you a pouch or two.”

“When we get to the Dowry Camp,” Mal said. “Now, I think we’ve tarried here long enough, don’t you Highness?”

Philomena smiled at Beatriz. “Are you ready? Do you have some personal items you might like to bring with you?”

The woman looked down and then up. Flushed again, she murmured, “No, Highness. I own nothing.”

Captain Mallory said, “You can ride pillory behind my second.”

Carl, the young guard Mal had assigned as Phil’s immediate protection earlier, walked back to his horse, mounted and held down a hand towards Beatriz. Philomena watched Beatriz head towards him without any hesitation. Whoever she’d been before she’d fallen on hard times, she’d some experience with horses.

Once Beatriz was mounted, Philomena stuffed her hanks of blue threads and yarns into the corners of her saddlebags somewhat ruefully. As usual, all her bags and pockets were overfull. She got herself back up on Maisie and they took their place in the middle of the guard troop. As they left the little stand behind, Philomena watched to see if Beatriz looked back. Phil wasn’t surprised to see that the tall woman’s back and shoulders were straight. Her head never turned.

Phil didn’t bother to see if that squat toad of man had moved from where she’d left him either. He wasn’t worth her attention. Her mind moved forward to the Dowry Camp–the place where she would finally have to deal with her coming marriage and her soon-to-be husband.

*****

“What’s a Dowry Camp?” Beatriz was bored. They’d been riding for two or so hours and her bottom already hurt. It had been a long time since she’d ridden.

Carl spoke softly, “I’ve never seen one. The Captain says it’s an elaborate temporary encampment, like in the old days. They set it up to make the dowry transfer between royals. In olden times, it was gold and jewels and spices and magical artifacts all sitting there, guarded. The other royal family would come through and verify that it was all real and not an illusion or under a ‘go-home’ spell or something. Then they’d transfer it to the groom’s treasury by portal. Nowadays, it’s all money, of course. Transfers are done the usual way. But they still do the Camp and a simplified version of the viewing. It’s tradition. The aristos like their traditions, you know?”

“Why are we riding? Is that the tradition too?”

The young guardsman lowered his voice a bit more, just avoiding a betraying whisper, “No. The Prinzessin doesn’t have enough magic to portal herself, let alone all of us.”

“So why didn’t the Furst Prinz or the Furst Prinzessin make the portal?”

The guardsman hesitated. Finally, he said, “Royals don’t do favors like that.”

Beatriz was astonished. Her father hadn’t been much of a father after the drink got to him, but before he would have done the best that he could for Beatriz. “But they’re her parents!” she exclaimed softly, matching young Carl’s voice.

“Royals aren’t the same as us low folk. They think helping each other makes them look weak. Weak aristos don’t live long if they are playing the Great Game. And they all play the Great Game. So they sideline the weak ones if they want them to survive.”

“The Great Game?”

“I don’t really understand it. It’s complicated. I’ve only been in the royal guard for a year or so. But it’s all about power. Our Fursts are pretty good at it, according to Captain Beauclerk. So nobody tries to invade us and things like that,” Carl said solemnly.

A thought struck Beatriz. “So is this marriage a way of sidelining Prinzessin Philomena?” She thought over the things that the prinzessin had done.  There was that lens that saw things that other people didn’t see and the powder that killed pests. The prinzessin didn’t seem weak to Beatriz. She seemed awfully clever.

Carl nodded, still serious. “I like the prinzessin. She thinks about things–and people too. She’s pretty decent, for a royal anyway. Most of them would as soon ride you down as give you a hand up unless you’re useful to them. Fortunately for us common born, our small magicks are useful to them. That way they don’t have to burn power for ‘little things’ we can do,” he said, in the slightly bitter tone of someone who didn’t like the pill they’ve been told to swallow.

Beatrice responded to what was important to her. “Prinzessin Philomena has been kind to me.”

She watched the guardsman’s shoulders lift up and drop in a shrug. “As the royal brats go, she’s pretty decent. Still, it was dangerous for her to just pick you up like that. It’s counter-protocol and she knows it. She’s making the Captain deal with it even though Captain Beauclerk will probably catch hell for it from the Guard Commander.”

“Oh,” said Beatriz, slightly deflated.

“It’s not your fault,” Carl said calmly. “That’s just how it goes even when you’re dealing with the best intentioned royals.”

“Doesn’t it bother you? It does me, sometimes. They get the best of everything without having done anything but be born into the right family,” Beatriz said.

“Hah! Haven’t you been listening? I suppose when you’ve been cold and hungry and tired, it would look that way. But it’s not quite so simple. You know, Princess Philomena isn’t all that fond of men. But there weren’t any useless spare prinzessins available for a marriage. So she’s stuck with a prinz. And she gets nothing to say about it.”

“Oh,” said Beatriz again. She wasn’t all that fond of men either, at least from a sexual point of view. Relations with Wilhelm hadn’t helped. He pushed his way in, grunted a little, moved a little more, moaned and rolled off of her. Mostly, she just felt bruised and vaguely violated. She knew a few women who preferred other women for both sex and close relationships. It had occurred to her that she might prefer a woman if she were allowed a preference but bond-sworn weren’t allowed to say no to their bond-holder unless what their owner wanted was against the law. There was a magical contract binding them both to that. She literally wasn’t allowed to think about saying no. Except that now–she realized with some satisfaction—now, she could. She could think whatever she wanted. And Beatriz owed that to the Prinzessin Philomena.

Captain Beauclerk shouted, “Shut up over there!”

Beatriz’s belly rumbled audibly and she stared down at the back of young Carl’s blue uniform jacket. The Captain yelled again, “And somebody give that woman some travel bread and cheese or something. I can hear her stomach growling all the way over here!”

As Beatriz munched the folded flat bread wrapped around a chunk of cheese, she decided that Prinzessin Philomena wasn’t the only decent person in the party. Despite her gruff exterior, the captain wasn’t all that bad. And Carl had patiently answered her questions too. Sore arse or not, the back of this horse was a pretty good place to be.

*****

Philomena’s heart sank into her shoes as they rode up to the Dowry Camp. Situated just at the border between her parent’s Little Kingdom, Marche Saxon-Hohenzollern and her putative bridegroom’s parent’s Marche, the Dowry Camp was set up in a field as a quasi-medieval tourney encampment. It looked just like the descriptions popular in two hundred year old epic poems. Gaily painted and gilded tents were arranged in an orderly perimeter around an enormous circular tent done up in Hohenzollern blue. Pennants snapped in perfect, magically constructed breezes. Since it was at the edge of twilight and a fae encampment, everywhere fairy lights winked and blinked in pleasing patterns.

The enormous circular tent was actually the ceremonial tent where the traditional Viewing of the Dowry would take place. The tent Philomena would be using to dress and to sleep in overnight was much smaller and tucked in the back of the cluster of tents. Phil knew that most of the tents were actually empty and had been set up just for show. Her parents and those siblings who were too young to be ‘too busy’ would show up just before the viewing, leave, and return just before the processional to the other side of the border to witness the actual marriage ceremony in the morning.

Like a mirror, on the opposite side of the invisible border, the Marche Saxburg-Blackwood’s traditional gate and fairy ring of standing stones loomed. There were a couple of tents done up in the Saxburg-Blackwood colors of black and green. But they hadn’t bothered with fairy lights or pennants or any of the other details. The tents even looked a bit faded and worn.

On both sides, people strode about looking busy, ants in a human hill. Phil sighed, already tired of the fuss. Her stomach knotted and soured too. She’d need some mint tea to settle her belly before the evening was done. But first she had to get dressed. At least tradition allowed for several hours to prepare for that first meeting.

They got everyone settled in, including Maisie and the rest of the horses. Phil’s tent had two anterooms to it. One was the bath. The other was a tiny bedroom with a collapsible four poster draped in blue and white. Phil’s trunks had been dumped in a haphazard pile to one side of the main part of the tent. A gilded chair of state had been set up on a rug in the middle of the tent. There were obvious chips in the gilt, showing the dark wood underneath. A trestle table with a mismatched set of wooden pins sat next to the old chair. A full-length mirror rested at an angle on a tent pole. A folding tri-legged stool with a suspicious mend completed the visible furnishings. Beneath the scent of clove and apples, Phil detected the faint odor of mothballs emanating from the rug.

Phil did have to make it clear to her parents’ major domo that a second bath would be set up for Beatriz or there would be hell to pay. While Beatriz bathed in the little anteroom chamber of the tent, complete with a tapestry curtain, Phil trawled through her old wardrobe looking for reasonably suitable clothes for her new employee. Beatriz would fit into Phil’s clothes without any problem.

Phil had a new wardrobe suspiciously full of black and green formal wear stacked carefully in another tent. She suspected she’d avoid most of it once all the festivities were over. Her mother and sisters taste ran to pretty over practical and they hadn’t actually consulted with Phil on the subject. She wondered how long she could decently wait to make most of it over into something more useful.

She found some new underclothes and a linen shirt worn soft but without any obvious patches or darns. A pair of tailored blue trousers and a matching jacket would do nicely. Phil decided to hand off her second best set of boots too. No doubt the new wardrobe contained a nice set of new black boots to replace them. She tucked the lot just inside the dividing tapestry and waited. Beatriz made a fabulous diversion from Phil’s current problems.

Noises told her that Beatriz was dressing. Eventually, the woman pushed the tapestry aside. She peeked out, saw Phil and walked slowly and hesitantly into the main room.

Phil took breath. “Don’t be inappropriate, Philomena. She’s a dependent, Philomena. An abused dependent.” Aloud, she said, “You look wonderful, Beatriz.”

The woman shook her head but she stroked her fingers along the jacket. She said, “I can’t thank you enough, Highness. I’ve never had such beautiful clothes. Even before my father died. He was a guard and we could afford nice things, but not this nice.” Phil tried not to notice the sensual trail of Beatriz’s elegant hands as they again traced along the seams that ran down the front of the jacket. Beatriz continued, “It’s a bit like dressing a mule like a war horse, I think.”

Appalled, Phil said, “No. Not so.” She walked over to stand a little ways in front of the mirror. “Come here for a minute.” Gently she put her hands on Beatriz’s shoulders and tugged her until she stood in between Phil and the mirror. Then she turned Beatriz until she faced the mirror. She was rewarded by Beatriz’s indrawn breath.

“I’ve never seen a mirror so large! It must have cost a fortune.”

Beatriz’s remark was a reminder of the gulf between them. Phil decided to more or less let it go. She said, “It probably did–but the ancestor who bought it or conjured it didn’t leave a record. It doesn’t matter.  I just want you to look at yourself in it. I don’t see anything or anyone that looks like a mule.” She grinned at Beatrice, her reflection smiling back at them both. “Of course, I don’t see a war horse either.” Phil’s smile exploded into a delighted grin when Beatriz’s hand covered her mouth to hide her giggle. “No, no. I meant to make you laugh,” she told her.

“I’m too tall for a woman,” Beatriz said.

Phil rested her chin on Beatriz’s shoulder. She had to stoop to do it. “So am I. And my shoulders are too broad. My nose is too long. I look like a bad combination of my Hohenzollern and Wellesley ancestors. I would make a very handsome man. I make a ‘distinguished’ woman. I do have wonderful hair though. It’s nice and thick with a wave. And my eyes are a pleasant brown. I really like my cheekbones and my mouth.” She straightened up again. “You have beautiful hair too. Your eyes are darker and larger than mine. You have the most elegant hands. Truly, you are far prettier than I will ever be. Who cares that we are taller than average? We have deeper bosoms too!” She stared at the two of them in the mirror, flicking her hand to one side in a dismissive gesture. “See? We might not be sisters but if I introduced you as my cousin, I would bet you a mark or two that not one person would think to disbelieve me.”

Beatriz’s eyelids swept closed and then opened. “There’s nothing wrong with the way you look!”

“Then there’s nothing wrong with your looks either,” Phil told her firmly. “You need a couple of things to finish you off for the festivities though.” She found the trunk she wanted. She fished out a couple of smaller boxes and dropped them onto the trestle table. She took a pair of gloves out of one and a narrow length of white silk from the other. “Gloves. All the best body servants wear them, in public. My hands are a little larger than yours but that works out to our benefit. Ill-fitting gloves are a misery. Don’t bother to put them on now. They’re for when we go out. Tuck them into your belt.”

Beatriz asked, “What’s the white silk for?”

“It’s a cravat. Here let me show you.” Phil turned them so that Beatriz could watch in the mirror as Phil tied the cloth into a tidy and fashionable knot for her. Phil silently schooled herself to breathe evenly as she pulled the length around Beatriz’s swan neck, sliding the cravat under her collar, tying the knot. She was close enough to Beatriz to feel the warmth of Beatriz’s body under her fingers and to smell the heather scent of the soap she’d used during her bath. It was all Phil could do to not let her fingers tremble or to stop herself from caressing the line of Beatriz’s jaw down to her collarbone. She must have been successful because Beatriz seemed unaware of Phil’s inner fight for self-discipline.

“So, I’m to be your body servant?” Beatriz asked.

Phil plucked at the ends of the cravat, neatening the knot. “If you want to be. For now. Until you find something else you’d rather do. You’ll get paid what I used to pay my previous body servant. The going rate is 5 silver marks a year and all the hand-me-down garments I’ve got. I supply your personal clothing as well.”

“I don’t know how to be a body servant,” Beatriz pointed out. “You are currently doing all the work.”

Phil stood back and took a look at her handiwork. “I’m not worried. I’m sure you’ll learn it all quickly enough. I do need to tell you that it’s not all that easy a job though.” She watched Beatriz lift her chin in a silent query. Phil sighed and leaned against the trestle table, taking a second to make sure that it would hold her up without falling apart. It gave her a minute to find a way to explain things. She said, “You get to follow me around like a duckling after her mama. Royals of my generation take their body servants everywhere with them. I mean EVERYWHERE. If I’m targeted, you are too. It’s not always healthy to be a royal body servant–even a useless royal like me.”

Phil could see Beatriz’s internal wheels turning. Her teeth worked on her lower lip for a moment. She asked, “Does everywhere include the bedchamber?”

Of course the clever wench would hone on in to difficult territory and ignore the dangerous part of the map.

Phil looked away, then forced herself to look back at Beatriz. “Sometimes. It’s not a requirement. Not for me. But it does happen.” Often, in fact. That Phil didn’t say aloud. She truly had never slept with her body servants. It felt too much like abuse to Phil because she was the one with all the power in that relationship. In addition, duty made for a cold bed. Phil would rather her bed partners actually want to be in her bed, not just there because they had no choice.

Hesitantly, astonishingly, Beatriz said, “What if I decide that I want to?”

Shocked, Phil jerked back. “No. Just no. I have no desire to replace that sotted toad in your life.”

Beatriz made a noise that could only be called a snort. Her eyebrows lifted derisively. “Who said you could? You are not a drunken arse. Highness.”

“How would you know? We’ve known each other all of half a day.” Philomena was not about to give in to temptation.

Beatriz strode the three or four steps over towards Phil. Phil realized that she had made the cardinal mistake of not ensuring a route of retreat. Hell. She stood up and squared her shoulders. Beatriz was close enough that Phil caught the faint, driftng scent of heather again. Leaning forward, Beatriz said, “What? I’m supposed to put my life on hold because an ugly sot misused me? That gives him far too much power over my life.”

Not to be outdone, Phil leaned forward too, touching her forehead to Beatriz’s gently. She said, “I think you need time to heal.”

Beatriz made another of those inarticulate but explicative noises. “How long, Highness? When do I get to be the one to make the decisions in my life?”

Phil winced. “Ouch. That’s fair.” She grimaced. “All right. Would you accept a compromise? We go slowly? We have only known each other a few hours. That hasn’t changed.”

“Maybe.” Beatriz’s tone made no promises.

Phil had never felt so dismissed by a social inferior in her life. She wasn’t quite sure what to do or say. Before Phil could decide, Beatriz shifted and pressed her mouth to Phil’s. Phil couldn’t have moved away to save her life. Bea’s lips were ragged and chapped but soft. For all that she’d begun the kiss, the caress of Bea’s mouth against Phil’s was tentative. Phil rubbed her lips gently over Bea’s, tracing the contours of her mouth tenderly.

A soft breath and the whisper of heather and suddenly Phil’s hands were full of sable hair and the fragile curves of Bea’s skull. Dark eyes, midnight dark, promised a curious and wary joy. The salt and sweet musk of arousal drifted around them, creating a metaphoric bubble. Bea’s arousal? Phil shifted, trying at once to ease the sweet ache between her legs and also heightening it. Bea moaned under Phil’s mouth. Phil stroked open that full mouth, learning Bea’s interior, sharing Bea’s breath. A soft touch of tongue and Bea was mirror-dancing, learning Phil too.

Phil could feel Bea’s hands, gripping Phil’s shoulders spasmodically. Just as frantically, Bea was pushing herself against Phil’s body searching for something to rub her clit against. Phil braced herself against the table and gave her a knee. Bea was whimpering and moaning into Phil’s mouth. Her non-verbal sounds drove Phil into frenzy, desperate to please her.

Just as she was figuring out how to get them both onto the rug, from outside the tent, Phil heard Mallory’s rueful voice rap out, “Highness, the feast will begin in less than a half glass!”

“Shit!” Phil sucked in some air.

“Mother Goddess!” Bea was panting too, so it came out in stammered syllables. The two of them tumbled down onto the rug in a pile.

Phil swore, “Fuck!”

“Not quite,” Bea said. A little raggedly, they laughed together. Phil ran her finger along Bea’s jaw, stopping at the linen collar of her shirt, just above the knot she’d tied earlier. It was not nearly so tidy now.

“We have to stop.” Phil choked. Pulled the well-trained prinzessin up like armor. “I need your help getting into that ridiculous costume hanging in the other room,” Phil said, hanging her head in the general direction of the open tapestry and the bathing alcove.

“The green and black one? The one that looks like it should be in a 200 year old portrait?”

It was Phil’s turn to snort. “Yes. That would be the one.”

Bea touched Phil’s hand, moving it to cup Bea’s cheek in a move like butterfly wings. Her eyes were wide. She said softly, “Mother Goddess, Phil! You’re getting married tomorrow morning!”

Her armor shattered, Phil leaned towards Bea, touching foreheads again, looking into those night eyes, now almost horrified. “Yes. I know.”

“What are we going to do?”

Phil shook her head in a tiny movement so as not to disrupt their connection. “I don’t know, Bea. I really don’t.” Her throat hurt trying to get any sound out. “The next thing I guess. Help me get that damned dress on.” She shook her head again in another of those painful little movements. Everything she’d ever depended on had betrayed her. She had no ideas, no clever plans. Prinzessin don’t cry, she told herself. “Help me get that fucking ridiculous dress on. There isn’t anything else to do.”

*****

Half an hour later, Beatriz found herself following her new mistress down a carpeted walkway in the large bower tent. A large table set was with more glass, silver and china that Bea had seen in her entire life. Next to her was a handsome man, dressed like a noble. Next to him was an auburn-haired woman. They were following their royal, the young Prinz Albrecht Juan-Carlos de la Vega Saxe-Blackwood, Phil’s putative soon-to-be husband. While she had not yet spoken to the couple, it was clear that they were the Prinz’s body servants so she copied their movements.

She could hear the Prinz Albrecht speaking to Phil as they walked. His voice was loud and slightly flat as if he were tone deaf. His voice might have been irritating but the prinz himself was a vision. He was a beautiful man, with long carefully curled corkscrew blond ringlets. His eyes were a striking shade of cerulean blue. He looked like the human notion of an angel.

He’d have been a beautiful woman too had things worked out that way. He was dressed in the latest fashion for very tailored pants and coats in exquisitely dyed shades of turquoise. His cravat and sleeve edges were dripping gray lace. Beatrice wondered how he’d manage to eat without destroying the lace at his cuffs. The prinz’s shoes shone in pearly gray, the toes painfully pointed to match the extreme points of his jacket’s shoulder epaulettes. His formal cummerbund matched his shoes. Even his gloves were gray with beautiful matching silk and pearl embroidery.

Dress, accessories, fabric, shoes and current styles seemed to be the whole of his conversation too. He waved his hands about expressing endless opinions on the clothing of his companions. Finally, as they were seated at the head table, he turned his attention to Phil. Bea tried not to wince, assuming that would be some sort of social solecism. All the other servants standing behind the high table wore stony blank expressions on their faces.

“That dress does you no justice, Prinzessin Philomena. Why on earth did you choose it? All that old fashioned rigging and all those skirts. The bodice…” he gave a swift glance that clearly took in Phil’s cleavage. “The bodice is actually quite becoming. But the rest of the outfit makes you look like a wagon rolling down a road.”

“Personally, I decided that I resembled nothing so much as a laden river barge,” Phil said calmly. But the corners of her mouth were just a little tight.

She had said it too, under her breath and between curses after Bea had pulled the petticoats over her head and hooked the wide pannier frame to a belt around Phil’s waist. Much to Bea’s amusement, the corset under the bodice had elicited the most extreme language. Things were so serious and sad and frantic all at once that Phil’s reaction to the garments in question had broken the tension.

“Ahhh….” The prinz’s mouth opened. He didn’t quite know what to say, Bea realized. He was used to being the arbiter of fashion amongst his friends. She looked at his empty bright blue eyes. He was not very bright. He had no set path of behavior to dictate a civil answer to an overly truthful lady. He didn’t know what to do. That seemed to be going around this evening, Bea thought grimly.

Prinz Albrecht’s male body servant bent forward and murmured something in his ear. “Yes. More wine, my dear?” Albrecht lifted the pitcher and offered it to Phil.

Phil smiled tightly and said, “I think so, this evening.”

Phil had told Bea that all the food and the drink would have been vetted by Captain Beauclerk once it reached the table so Bea would have no responsibilities but to stand blandly behind Phil, wearing her white gloves and looking at nothing. Instead, Bea looked over her surroundings.

The feasting tent had been designed for a much larger party. It echoed. There were no family members from either side attending the feast. The only guests were a few of the prinz’s hangers on. Someone had the sense to split his friends up so that there were more or less an even number of diners on either side of the bride and groom. But a sense of the vast and gloomy space surrounding the pool of light was inescapable.

The sole table sat in the center of empty tent, lit by a ring of gas torches and a few decorative candelabras running down the center of the table. There were more guardsman, if she counted the ones dressed in green and black along with the ones dressed in blue and white, than there were non-guardsmen. While the company certainly glittered with metal and jewels and silk, the contrast of their bright, artificial gaiety with silent gray twilight of the unlit portion the tent left Bea with a feeling of isolation. This whole exercise was false.

Servants ran back and forth. Bea watched Phil push her food around her plate in a pretense of eating. She didn’t drink the wine she’d accepted from the Prinz. Nor did she sip the water, sweating in a crystal goblet full of expensive ice, either. Beneath the maquillage she’d tersely instructed Bea to layer on her face, Bea thought her skin had gone gray. Suddenly, after an interminable array of courses, Phil stood up. Bea whisked her chair out of the way so that the broad panniers didn’t knock anything nearby over.

“I’m afraid, ladies and gentlemen, that my day traveling in the sun has given me a headache. I shall withdraw briefly before the Viewing.” Phil didn’t ask any sort of permission. She just gestured at Bea and swept out, somehow moving from awkwardly laden barge to graceful, fully rigged frigate in a moment.

The shocked and amused mutterings of the guests and the prinz rose like the swell of a wave behind them. The two guardsmen stationed at the door of the tent, one from each of the two local kingdoms, expressionlessly opened the doorway of the tent and then held the flap open. Like a duckling following its mama, Bea followed after Phil helplessly as she sailed by without even looking at the two men holding the heavy canvas curtains in their hands. The canvas door dropped shut, choking off both the light and any remaining sound.

It was full dark now. The fairy lights twinkled and glittered, holding back the very real night and marking their way. Marking all the ways to all the tents and all the paths back to the central tent, an enormous squatting round psuedo-cathedral in the center of a faux encampment. Phil didn’t speak and didn’t stop, stalking away from the large feast tent around any obstacle, servant or tent, until they reached her sleeping tent.

As they stepped inside Phil’s tent, the fairy lights lit themselves on some sort of autospell fueled by goddess knew who or what. Bea had never seen fairy lights except from a distance at royal birthday holidays and processions. It was all beyond her and she was, even under her concern for Phil, thrilled and curious and a tiny bit ashamed of her ignorance in her new world. Then she got sight of Phil and forgot all about complicated emotions.

Phil was gray under the camouflaging cosmetics. Bea grabbed her hands and saw that they were shaking. “What’s the matter, Phil?”

Phil shook her head frantically. She tried to speak and couldn’t. She tried again and couldn’t. Finally, she croaked out, “I can’t. I need to breathe.”

Bea just nodded and unhooked the green and black bodice and untied the ribbons of the heavy green and black overskirt. She let them fall onto the vaguely chemical rug. She pulled the top petticoat over Phil’s head. She unbuckled the brass buckles holding the leather pannier frame onto Phil’s belt and let that drop too. Standing in the middle of the heap of clothing, Bea asked, “Better?”

Phil shook her head. “I just can’t do this right now. I just need a moment. To breathe.” Her voice was still harsh and half strangled.

Bea spread her hands. “What can I do for you? What do you need?”

Phil exploded. “He’s a popinjay. He’s worse than the rumors. I… we… need to find a way to run. Run somewhere where the Furst’s men and the Kaisers Seers can’t Find or see us! Except that there’s no way to do that. My blood will always find me! Magic is made of growth and life, beauty, death, sex and violence. Blood will always find a way to me! There’s no way out of this!”

Oh, yes. Bea knew all about this. She’d been here–in this very spot. Well, one very like it anyway. She had only one answer and it was the very bitter one that Phil was rejecting. She wrapped her arms around Phil and pulled her into a hug. “Then, whether you want to or not, all you can do is the next thing. Take the next breath, walk the next step. Make it through the next moment. And then the next one. Then the one after that. That’s all there is to it. Just like earlier, when all there was left was to put on the dress and meet the prinz.”

Phil leaned into Bea’s hug, sighed and said, “This sounds like the voice of experience.”

“It is. When my father died and the priests bound me for his debts to the town, all I could do was keep going. When they put my bond up for auction and I stood there in the silence because no one wanted to take a chance on me because my mother’s blood was foreign, I endured. My heart sank at the sound of Wilhelm’s voice as the only bid for my bond. Every day with Wilhelm, I took minute by minute, because I could endure no longer amount of time without going mad. Control is an illusion. Tomorrow, you must walk across the border and through the gate and marry the prinz. It doesn’t matter what we want or think. Those in power will not let our wants and needs matter.”

“I know. I’ve always known. I suppose I hoped that I could find a clever way around this marriage. Even if I had found such a loophole, my parents would have simply made it impossible for me to do anything but what they want me to do.” She shrugged under Bea’s arms. They were silent for a moment together standing in the pretty fairy light in the pile of Phil’s traditional formal dress. Then Phil said, “I couldn’t breath though, sitting at that table, listening to that fribble babble on about nothing. My heart beat hard and there was no air and my belly soured. I had to leave. I felt as if I would die if I didn’t leave right then.”

Bea kissed her. “I wish I could help you tonight. Be you tonight so that you could have this time to pull yourself together.”

“Wait. That’s actually possible. For just a few hours.” Phil’s voice sounded terrible and hopeful at the same time.

*****

Phil stared at the reflection of the two of them in the mirror. In the wavering fairy light, and with the help of the cosmetics, the dress and a tiny bit of glamour magic, they could switch places. Phil’s small store of magic wouldn’t last long, nor would the glamour hold up to the full light of day, but if she could get through the Viewing and have the night to get herself in order, that would be a gift.

“I’m not marrying the Prinz tomorrow,” Bea said trenchantly.

“I’m not asking you to. I’m asking for tonight. Just a few hours, that’s all. It’s my contract, my bond if you like, and it would be a cheat to have you fulfill it. That’s not my way.” Phil was mildly offended.

In a conciliatory tone, Bea said, “I believe you. It’s just–you were right. We only have known each other for a few hours. You are under a great deal of pressure, you know?”

“Have we tripped over our first stone then?” Phil threw her a weak grin. Relationships were hard.

The corners of Bea’s mouth lifted. “Yes.”

She let Phil go. Reluctantly, Phil thought.

Bea bent down and picked up the petticoats, tossing them onto the trestle table. She said pragmatically, “If we are going to switch places, we need to get started. The time for the Viewing has to be soon.”

“If we can laugh, we’ll do all right,” Phil told her. Phil had thought that the formal dressing earlier had been fast. This redressing went even more quickly. They had to redress the both of them and time was short.

After she hooked the green and black bodice up on Bea, Phil put the two of them back in front of the mirror. She’d already found the carrier powder for her glamour spell that she’d known she would need. She took a bit of Bea’s indigo thread and burnt it to add the ashes of Bea’s magic to the powder.

She looked at them both. She’d already started associating the blue suit with Bea not herself so that helped. Bea looked very much like her even without the spell. That was even better. “We’ll use our breath together to blow the carrier powder above us so that it falls down on us both. Picture yourself as me and I’ll do the same for me as you.”

“This is going to be very strange,” Bea said. “I’m excited and terrified at the same time. It’s going to be odd being you.”

Phil held up her palm with the powder in it. “I expect that we’ll both learn a thing or two.” Then she added, “On three then. One. Two. Three.” Phil tossed the powder over their heads and spun out her store of magic. She and Bea mingled breath blowing the powder higher over them both.

It was silver and blue and it flashed and disappeared as it passed through the odd fairy light. As the blue and silver glitter floated back down and over their mingled and mutual auras, it fizzed and spun until Phil felt locked in a bubble with Bea. She grinned at her near-lover and Bea grinned back, draped together in light. There was a tug somewhere in her gut and her heart swelled. Suddenly, she scented heather. The mirror bubble of light popped audibly and she was staring at the two of them in the mirror.

“It worked,” she said unnecessarily and started as Bea’s voice spoke.

Bea’s hair and eyes had lightened up a shade or two. Her nose appeared more aquiline. She looked like Phil. The ridiculous traditional rig out her mother had insisted upon was as silly as Phil had thought it would be. Poor Bea. Looking at Bea being Phil was somehow different than looking at herself in the mirror. Phil was able to be more dispassionate somehow.

She looked at herself in mirror and Bea looked back. “Goddess, you are gorgeous, Bea.” There was Bea’s voice again.

Bea’s fingers, visually Phil’s hand–and wasn’t that a little weird–trailed over Phil’s aquiline nose as she stared at her temporary self in the mirror. “So are you,” she said.

“I’m handsome at best,” Phil told her. “You truly are beautiful.”

Bea was still touching her face. “Weren’t you the one who was showing me the best of both of us earlier?” She added, “This IS as strange as I thought it would be. As I’m wearing your face, I get to tell you that you are beautiful too. But this is still odd.”

“I was and it is.” Phil hesitated. “Maybe this wasn’t my best idea.”

“Too late now,” Bea said in Phil’s voice. That was very disorienting.

It was too because they heard Captain Beauclerk at the door. In her official tone, she said, “Highness, it’s time for the Viewing.”

Phil opened her mouth to respond but Bea spoke first.

“We are coming, Captain,” Bea said. Phil jumped a little because, of course, Bea sounded like Phil. In a distant and commanding tone, Bea said, “Come along Beatriz. Let us get this over with.” She strode through the tent door, swinging the wide skirts very nearly as if they were a weapon. Did Phil actually walk like she owned the earth? A little disturbed, Phil followed her, consciously trying to make her face–Bea’s face–bland.

*****

As they walked towards the Viewing tent, Mallory bent towards the woman she thought was Phil. Since only “Bea” was nearby, Mal dropped out of formal mode. She said, “Phil, I need to warn you. The Furst Prinz and Furst Prinzessin have already been, did a cursory Viewing, signed the contracts and left. Neither set of parents stayed. Only Prinz Albrecht, his body servants and his friends are waiting for you at the Viewing tent.”

With Phil’s voice and with a note of betrayal that brought the real Phil right back to the moment hiding in the pantry and listening to her parents three years before, Bea said, “They didn’t stay? They didn’t come to speak with… me?”

Phil heard the break but it was tiny. And cathartic. Yes. This was how she felt. Hurt.

Mal put a hand on “Phil’s” shoulder. “I’m sorry. They said that they heard you weren’t feeling well. They decided not to bother you.”

“They said that. Hm.” There was real anger in that not-word. It was more Bea than Phil but Phil doubted Mal would notice. Mal hadn’t spent any time with Beatriz.

Besides, Bea was expressing Phil’s rage without raging. Somehow, she knew how Phil really felt. No, her parents were avoiding her. Worse, this arrangement of Phil’s life was for their convenience, not for Phil’s own good, even. They hadn’t done much more than pay perfect lip service to the social conventions with their traditions done on the cheap. Bea was expressing the anger that Phil had never let herself feel until this moment. Thank you, Bea, Phil thought.

With that, Phil let her parents go. From here on out, as best she could, fairy princess or not, she’d pilot her life to for herself and Bea. If Phil survived this marriage, she was done trying to please others uselessly.

Albrecht waved at them. He left his hangers-on behind and hurried towards Phil and Bea. Mallory stepped discretely away. He bowed to Bea-as-Phil. “I was sorry that our dinner ended so abruptly this evening. You are feeling better?”

Bea-as-Phil said, “Yes. I’m much better now. I had a long day traveling. A little quiet did wonders.”

That was a lie. They hadn’t been any quiet. Phil would like some quiet. She’d like to get to know Bea better. She’d like to see what could happen between them. Bea was so strong in her own way. Watching her blossom would be a privilege. But first they had to get through this farce. Phil would need to survive being married too. There were no guarantees in royal fae marriages. But that was a problem for tomorrow.

Albrecht leaned in towards Bea-as-Phil’s ear, much as Mal had done a few minutes earlier. He said, “They have told you that our parents have already left, yes?”

Bea-as-Phil nodded solemnly to Albrecht. Her eyes flashed over to Phil-as-Bea. Phil-as-Bea smiled reassuringly back at her and then dropped all expression from ‘her’ face again like a good body servant. She was already finding this requirement for an endless null expression annoying.

“Good,” he said. “I think their absence will make this evening go more smoothly.” He took Bea-as-Phil’s hand and escorted her towards the giant round Viewing tent. Everyone bowed deeply as the royal party went by them.

As they passed his coterie, Phil-as-Bea heard him speak smoothly to Bea-as-Phil in a low voice that wasn’t a whisper. Whispering was always dangerous as it implied secrets and secrets could get a person killed in any fae court. Low but normal tones were much safer. Albrecht might be an idiot but he was a well-schooled idiot with some sense of survival. Phil-as-Bea flicked her gaze over to the couple who served as Albrecht’s body servants. Or perhaps he had excellent minders.

Albrecht was saying, “Don’t ignore them but also do not smile too warmly at that couple. They belong to a faction at court who support my aunt rather than my mother.” He nodded pleasantly to the two men in question. He smiled at a woman with gold hair and blue eyes to compliment his own. The woman’s maquillage was perfect enough to be a mask. “That woman will bring up our previous liaison with her to see if she can create issues between us. I’m not sure who her master or mistress is.” Albrecht nodded towards his male body servant, “But Kern says that it is better keep an eye on the spy you know. Eventually, we will find out.”

“I see.” Bea-as-Phil sounded just a tad panicked. Phil-as-Bea was reminded of how much she hated court. It was always a snake pit. Poor Bea wouldn’t have much experience with the high stakes of a fae court. Before Phil could think of a way to publicly reassure Bea, they’d reached the framed wooden doors of the Viewing Tent.

Albrecht let go of Bea-as-Phil’s hand. He waved at the courtiers and ordered them away. “Go, go, all of you. I wish to speak to my affianced alone.” He rolled his eyes as they passively resisted, moving slowly away from him. “I’m sure that you can find something to do this evening without dancing attendance on me!” Reluctantly, they drifted away.

Albrecht nodded at the guardsmen standing by the doors of the Viewing Tent. They threw open the doors and bowed the party in. Albrecht tucked Bea-as-Phil’s arm under his and led her towards the doors.

Phil-as-Bea lifted an eyebrow as Albrecht took control. She wouldn’t have let him but Bea hadn’t been raised royal. That was something Phil hadn’t anticipated. Albrecht’s failure at the feast became more interesting. What was he up to? An assassination attempt was unlikely. The dowry transfer didn’t happen until after the legal wedding ceremony. Traditionally, that was the earliest that hostilities broke out.

As they came to edge of the frame for the doors, Phil-as-Bea suddenly remembered something. Sweat broke out on her forehead as she realized that the Viewing Tent was under the Pact of Peace. In fact, the Pact was woven into the very fabric of the tent. Only the truth, as the speaker knew it, existed inside the tent. Frantically, she tried to think of some way to stop them from going inside the tent. But it was too late. Albrecht led Bea over the doorway. Phil followed closely behind. Albrecht’s body servants were behind her, close enough that she could smell his cologne and her perfume, complimentary scents of sandalwood and ginger and citrus.

Then the guardsmen closed the doors and the circle was unbroken. The five of them were alone together for the first time. Phil couldn’t see the arc and sphere of the spell forming but she could feel it, a wave breaking over them all. As all the points on the sphere connected, the fairy lights in the dome above them lit dramatically. And the glamour spell broke.

Phil was Philomena in Beatriz’s clothes. Bea was Beatriz in Philomena’s clothes. Albrecht dropped Bea’s arm in wide-eyed astonishment. Phil stepped forward and swept a bow. Bea looked down and at Phil, realizing that the glamour was gone. Phil shrugged at her and said, generally, “I forgot about the Pact of Peace.”

Albrecht nodded. “Ah.”

Phil squared her shoulders, straightened her spine and lifted her chin, ready to take her hits. She said, “I need to apologize to you both.” She took Bea’s hand. “I shouldn’t have pushed you to do this. It was idiotic.” Then she bowed towards Albrecht, “And I shouldn’t have tried to pull this with you. It wasn’t a prank. I just needed a moment and I couldn’t seem to find one.”

“You looked ill when you left the feast. I believed that. That was you, wasn’t it?”

Phil said, “Yes. It was. I did feel ill at that moment. I wasn’t dissembling. In fact, that led to this.” She touched the blue suit she was wearing and flipped her hand at Bea standing stock still in the green and black dress.

“I see, I think,” Albrecht said hesitantly. Then, “I wanted to talk to you without all of them around anyway.” A jerk of his head indicated that he was talking about the absent courtiers and perhaps the absent parents too.

The golden prinz looked down at his pearly shoes and then back up at Phil and Bea. “I was talking to Kern, after the feast, and it occurred to us that we don’t have to do this the traditional way.”

Bea asked, “What do you mean by the traditional way?”

Phil said, “Traditionally, young royal fae get around these arranged marriages by killing each other off, collecting the dowry goods, and moving on as a widow or widower. Winner takes all. Everyone looks the other way and it’s done with a wink and a nod.”

“I’ve never heard that,” Bea was wide-eyed.

“You wouldn’t, sweetheart. It’s not legal. It’s just acceptable. And then only as long as you don’t get caught,” Phil said.

“I don’t want to murder you,” Albrecht said. “I’m no good at that sort of thing anyway. And I don’t want to be dead either. Kern says that you are very straightforward as royal fae go. He thinks we should try to make a deal.” He ran a hand through his curls, disarranging them. “Look. I don’t have any brains. I know it. My mother knows it. Everyone knows it. I’m not pretending to be a bit on the light side to protect m’self or anything complicated like that. I’m not all interested in books or ideas or politics or business or magic or power or any of that. I just like beautiful things and beautiful people.”

“I am clever and I do like a lot of those things but not all of them. Politics isn’t interesting to me beyond staying alive. I’m more scholar than player of the Great Game. I don’t want to be murdered nor do I particularly want to be a murderer. I think that we can come to a mutually beneficial agreement,” Phil said. She grinned at Albrecht. “What do you have in mind?”

“Can we be friends, do you think?”

“I think we can manage that.” Phil gripped Bea’s hand. Her excitement mounted. A way out of this mess had presented itself. They just had to grasp it successfully. All three of them–or was that five? Albrecht was checking in with Kern. His female body servant was smiling at him reassuringly. Yes, probably all five of them would be involved. The auburn haired woman spoke in a soft tone so skillfully done that even in the enhanced tent, Phil couldn’t hear exactly what was said.

Albrecht nodded. He said to Phil, “We both know that we have to get married tomorrow. I think that we should make the best of things. I have my interests.” He tilted his head at both of his body servants. “And you have yours.” He nodded at Phil and Bea’s clasped hands. “After we are married, we adjourn to one of my properties. It’s an older castle near here. It’s not one of my favorites but it’s small and cozy as castles go. I’ll settle it on you, Philomena, as your dower property. Outside of whatever our parents have gotten up to, I mean. It’s as sure as the seasons change that their contract will benefit them without much thought to us. Eventually, we’ll separate to attend to our various interests. No one will be surprised. They’ll just be surprised that we are both alive.”

“What do you get?” Phil was mildly suspicious. He couldn’t lie under the Pact of Peace. But that didn’t mean he had to tell all the truth either.

“I get the increased income and estates my mother has settled on me, contingent on my marriage. I get left alone a bit more but still have a lot of my freedom. Maybe, if we can be friendly, I get a place to visit away from court sometimes. I need that. All the ducking and dodging wears on me. A little peace would be a good thing. And you won’t mind Kern and Marta. I won’t mind your…”

Bea said, “Beatriz. My name is Beatriz.”

Albrecht finished, “I won’t mind about your Beatriz.”

Bea asked, “Does your castle have a garden, Highness?”

He nodded. “It does. Though I don’t have any idea what shape it’s in.” He added immediately at a twitch from Marta, “It has a library too, Philomena. Though, again, I have no idea what’s in it. Not bookish, you know.”

Phil decided to grab the chance. She held out her other hand. “Let’s bind our contract, Prinz Albrecht, here under Pact of Peace.”

He clasped her hand. He was a little too gentle but it the handshake itself was enough to be binding. He stated his terms. “I, Prinz Albrecht Saxe-Blackwood do agree to marry Prinzessin Philomena Wellesley de la Vega y Mendoza, von und zu Hohenzollern under the terms of our parental contracts with the addition of Castle Wecksburg as her dowry property. I also hereby agree to not assassinate or cause to be assassinated by myself or by others, said Prinzessin Philomena Wellesley de la Vega y Mendoza, von und zu Hohenzollern either before or after our marriage.”

Philomena repeated the terms, changing the names and details slightly. “I, Prinzessin Philomena Wellesley de la Vega y Mendoza, von und zu Hohenzollern do agree to marry Prinz Albrecht Saxe-Blackwood under the terms of our parental contracts with the addition of providing a peaceful haven for said Prinz. I also hereby agree to not assassinate or cause to be assassinated by myself or by others, said Prinz Albrecht Saxe-Blackwood either before or after our marriage.”

The sound of a bell being struck rung over the sphere of the tent, filling it with a pure note. It shivered over them, filling their ears until they let go hands. It dissipated into the aether leaving a ghost of itself whispering around the dome of the tent.

“I’d say we’ve bound ourselves pretty completely,” Phil said, shaking her head to stop her ears from ringing.

Albrecht tugged at an earlobe. “I think that you are correct, Philomena.”

“I’ll see you tomorrow morning, Albrecht.”

“Indeed, Philomena.”

As they walked towards the door, Bea asked, “Do you think that you’ve set a course to change things for other royals? Less murder sounds like a good thing to me.”

“We have changed things, I think. The five of us have created another path for anyone caught in same dilemma, should they choose to take it,” Kern said, speaking aloud.

As they exited the Viewing Tent, Bea said, “I’m glad that the glamour spell didn’t last very long. This dress was getting very heavy. It’s difficult to wear.”

“It is,” Phil said, understanding what Bea wasn’t saying.  “But I’m not sure that your servant’s suit is any easier, sweetheart.”

“I hear you, beloved,” Bea said, “I hear you.”

*****

Six months later, Captain Mallory Beauclerk walked into her office to find a small package wrapped in brown paper carefully placed on her desk. It had both the von und zu Hohenzollern seal as well as the Saxe-Blackwood seals in wax over the string. After checking for dangerous magics, she carefully slit the package open. Inside she found a drawing, a note, and silver disc stamped with the official state version of the Saxeburg-Blackwood seal.

The drawing was a simple sketch of two women, done by an unfamiliar and feminine hand. The women were seated in a garden. One woman was working a spinning wheel. The other was reading a book, booted feet stretched comfortably out. Both were smiling. The subjects of the sketch exuded an air of contentment and happiness. It was so real that Mal felt the need to smile in response.

The note said:

Dear Mal,

Enclosed please find a border pass. We are both well and happy. The next time you have some leave to spend with friends, consider visiting us. We would love to see you. Sometimes, things do work out.

Phil and Bea

Phil’s signature was as precise as it had ever been. Beatriz’s was a little unpracticed. But then she probably hadn’t been writing long.

Mal felt that smile again. She would visit them, she thought. It would be nice to see them happy.

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