Woad to Paradise

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Prinzessin Philomena Wellesley de la Vega y Mendoza, von und zu Hohenzollern was very, very annoyed. Her horse curvetted. With a sigh, Philomena disciplined herself. Maisie Greylocks calmed as Philomena relaxed and sank back into her seat. Phil’s nose wrinkled. “It stinks.” Even she could hear the flatness in her voice.

Captain Mallory Beauclerk reined in. “You have delayed too long, Highness. We must travel through the Woad Towns to reach Marche Saxburg-Blackwood by the designated day,” she admonished.

And wasn’t that the problem, then? She didn’t want to reach Marche Saxburg-Blackwood by the designated day. Who wanted to marry some princeling sight unseen? The gossip about said princeling hadn’t been very reassuring either. ‘Fribble’ had been the kindest designation that she’d overheard. ‘Vapid’ was the close second. Besides, men were…. well, men.

Being a fairy princess was often just awful.  Being a fairy princess with an absolute minimum of magic was worse. And then, duty and responsibility made for endless and annoying taskmistresses. And there was just no point to the whole get married to cement alliances routine here! In fact, Philomena was fairly sure that this marriage was more like “set up two of our inconvenient spares for adulthood with a minimum of investment for the rest of us royals”.

“It’s true that the processing of woad is odiferous, my lady. But–”

“Oh stop, Captain. I’m not fourteen anymore. I know that our state’s economy depends heavily upon the indigo dyestuffs we sell to those who cannot conjure themselves clothing of their own choice. It still stinks like a set of jakes that needed liming a hundred years ago.”

“So it does.” The captain spoke in an annoyingly cheery tone of voice that heavily implied ‘you’ve made your bed, Highness. Now lie in it.’ Mallory Beauclerk had been Philomena’s chief bodyguard for the last ten years, they knew each other well. That was as snippy as Mal could be, in public.

She rolled her eyes. “You’ve made your point, Captain.” She tapped her horse gently with her heels and clucked. If she’d had more magic, she could have portalled herself to the Marche Saxburg-Blackwood without all this dreary going on and on over dusty roads and through smelly important dye-producing towns. She turned and pulled a glass tube from her bandolier of accessories.  Popping the tube open, she brushed a little on her finger and then under her nose. The noisome smells vanished under the scent of vanilla and clove, augmented by her little magicks.

“Here,” she said as she capped and pitched the little tube towards the Captain. “As long as no one is allergic to either vanilla or clove, this should work for everyone.”

The captain caught it one-handed and smiled appreciatively. She worked the cap and tried the oil. Grinning in relief, she handed it off to the rest of Philomena’s guard.

The captain didn’t ask why Philomena hadn’t had one of her more gifted siblings conjure a portal for her.  She didn’t need to. The Fairy aristocracy had more than a little dog-eat-dog feel. No Fairy admitted weakness–especially in magic. It would be like setting the bulls eye of an archery target to one’s back. The slow slog of traveling by horse was possibly admission enough, but many a Fairy avoided the obvious use of magic, husbanding it for more dire times.

Phil had always been different. She’d known it long before the night she’d overheard her father and mother. She’d never slept well, even as a child. She had apparently inherited insomnia from her parents, just not their near inexhaustible wells of magic. She’d never been able to let go of that night and all the marriage negotiations and attendant contracts had made the memory all the more immediate.

“We know that it happens sometimes,” her father said to her mother in the soft tone he used when he didn’t want anyone else to pay attention to what he was saying. “We can breed for magic all we want but…spots happen.”

Phil’s stomach twisted. Hiding in the pantry, she could only hear her parents talking. They were talking about her, she knew it. Of all seven children, only Phil, stuck in the middle of the pack, had barely enough magic to qualify as Fae.

Phil couldn’t see her mother’s shrug but she knew her mother would. She did hear her mother say, “Both the de la Vega y Mendoza and Hohenzollern lines run to domestic magicks. Those tend to show themselves later in adolescence. We should wait a little longer before we make any decisions.”

There was a long silence. Then her father said, “For now.” But there was a finality to his voice that made Phil’s chest hurt. He had already given up on her. But even as her chest tightened, a burn of resentment twisted up her gut. She’d show them. She might have only the small magicks but she would figure out how to make those work for her so well and so efficiently that her parents would find some value for her.

And Philomena had studied and worked hard. She’d done what she set out to do. In the end, her success at making her tiny bit of magic work hadn’t mattered. Her parents had discarded her all the same. Apparently, it was the depth of the well of magic that mattered–and the attendant flash and glitter–over efficiency and substance. This still struck Philomena as a very limited view of things.

The view between the Woad Towns was boring. Field after field of the green plants, as far as Philomena ‘s eyes could see. As she and her guards rode to the edge of each town, they passed the white washed buildings that held the vats of urine where the blue dye was activated. The stench of rot and urine would have burned her eyes and nose if she hadn’t used that bit of magic in her oil.

The larger businesses had big buildings with rows of racks of spun wool yarns for sale hanging off their white sides. The yarns also served to show off the abilities of the dyers. Blues in every shade from midnight to pastel hung in the rank air. But there were plenty of little roadside stands too, small crofters trying to take advantage of the trade routes. Most of them looked prosperous. If there was blue dye everywhere on their clothes and even their arms and hands, the proprietors still looked well fed and reasonably clean. Well, most of them looked reasonably prosperous anyway.

At the far edge of the last Woad Town, after their party had passed the large buildings and the smaller stands, a tiny, teetering shack squatted precariously at the crossroads before the border. A thin, tall woman, hair dark and lank, dressed in faded blue-gray rags, stood just outside of the three-sided, gray stand.  She wore a leather bondwoman’s collar, signifying her status as an indentured person. Long stained fingers held large hanks of beautifully spun and dyed dark indigo wool thread out towards Philomena.

The woman called out, “Pretty threads for a pretty prinzessin, Highness!”

It was the note of desperation in the poor bondwoman’s voice that caught Philomena’s attention. She’d never particularly been fond of that policy either.  People should not be able to sell other people, even temporarily. Or seize them as property to pay a debt. And, as it happened, Philomena did use thread in some of her magic. She reined her horse in and dismounted to walk over and look at the woman’s wares.

Captain Beauclerk yelped “Highness!” Then the captain jerked her chin at her second. The young man dismounted and ran over to stand next to Philomena. Phil could feel the subtle hum of defensive and protective magic buzz at her from both the Captain and his aide. Her lips twitched. Protecting her was their job, after all. She was a little sorry for making her temporary guardian’s job more difficult–but not all that sorry. Their assumption that she couldn’t protect herself from a low-born commoner with minimal magic was infuriating. She handed the young lieutenant Maisie’s reins.

*****

Beatriz sucked a breath to steady herself as the prinzessin dismounted and walked over to look at her yarns and threads. She was a little dizzy from hunger and the ache in her back, arse, and thighs from that last beating. If the great lady bought some of her wares, Wilhelm might let her eat some dinner. Her master’s policy meant that if she brought in no money then she ate nothing.

The prinzessin said, “Is this your work?” She fingered several hanks of various thicknesses and shades. She pulled a lens from her pouch and looked carefully at each hank of fiber, her nose nearly buried in the yarns and the threads.

Carefully standing a little bit away from the Prinzessin but staying just close enough to answer the great lady’s questions, Beatriz said, “Yes, Highness.” She didn’t want to upset the lady’s bodyguards but she did want to be able to sell her wares. Nor did she want to offend the aristocrats. Beatriz’s stench offended herself. She could hardly not offend anyone with a working nose.

Wilhelm didn’t appreciate either the time or effort it would take for Beatriz to maintain the most basic levels of cleanliness. He didn’t care whether either of them were clean. Time to bathe was time away from the dye vats, the combs and the spinning wheel. She could feel a heated wave of shame redden her cheeks. Not that anyone could tell under the dirt caking her face.

Beatriz looked at the great lady. The prinzessin’s head was bent so low over the fiber hanks that Beatriz couldn’t really see her face. Beatriz has guessed that this must be the Prinzessin Philomena. Gossip at the wells had been that the middle prinzessin would travel this way to go to her marriage to some young prinz from the next Marche over.

“You’re very good. You did both the dyeing and the spinning? I see both a tight left and a tight right twist to different threads. And the dye–you have such deep and consistent shading. There’s quite a bit of magic here too. You have talent. I’m very impressed. How much for the entire lot?”

The prinzessin’s tone was admiring. Beatriz felt the heat in her cheeks mount higher. She opened her mouth to start the bargain.

Wilhelm charged round the corner of their shack. Beatriz had thought he was completely insensible from drink. Apparently, the prinzessin’s last sentence had penetrated his stupor. Beatriz should have known better. Generally speaking, profit was the only thing that got through to Wilhelm–other than his dinner or a full stein of beer.

“Great Lady,” he said in a high, wheedling tone that dripped oil. He sounded ridiculous, all that unctuousness exuding from his broad framed, big-bellied, squat form. The royal straightened up, her lens in one hand. The young guard standing next to the lady had raised his hand. Beatriz could feel the high hum of magic pooling around it. The atmosphere thickened around them. Wilhelm skidded to a sudden stop.

“I’d stop there were I you,” the Captain of the lady’s guard said from her horse. There was both a warning and a note of casual and arrogant boredom in her tone. Her accent was flat and there was a mild drawl. She was from one of the other fae lands. Some place where German was not her first language.

“Great Lady,” Wilhelm said again in voice closer to normal. He bowed low, grunting as his belly protested. Beatriz bit back a laugh that would get her a taste of those big fists of his later if he heard her. He was practically flattening himself for these aristos. Wilhelm was a bully, Beatriz knew. He lay down for his superiors and acted the brute to his inferiors. How he treated his peers depended on whether or not he thought they could do something for him. But a prinzessin showed up, and Wilhelm–who nightly slammed his fists on tavern tables complaining about his taxes over that beer stein of his–was practically crawling on the ground before her.

The prinzessin ignored him. She lifted her lens to one eye and looked at Beatriz. Beatriz swallowed. She was so hungry and so tired. Dizzy too. Why was the lady staring at Beatriz so? The lens made her brown eye enormous. Did the lady have weak eyes? Beatriz had never heard that in the gossip about the ruling family at the wells. There was another hum of magic. The prinzessin tucked the lens back into the pocket of a remarkably plain and useful pair of riding trousers.

Beatriz looked again. In fact, the royal fae woman’s clothes were all like that, trousers with pockets, boots that were well-broken in, a broad brimmed straw hat with a pretty indigo silk scarf, a linen shirt and a tailored jacket. She wore an odd bandolier of tubes and pouches and all her clothes contained a number of extra pockets. Beatriz had never seen so many pockets on one person. And they all seemed to be bulging.

Prinzessin Philomena was not precisely pretty. In fact, for a high-born fae, she was rather plain. Her features were too large and too strong for the current fashion in feminine attractiveness. She was dark and sallow with a pile of elaborately braided dark hair under her hat. She stood as tall as Beatriz did, so that the two women looked at each other eye to eye. The great lady’s nose was noble enough to stand credit for any of her male ancestors. Her cheekbones could hold that designation as well. But her mouth was full and curved in good humor. All in all, her attitude seemed to indicate a sort of dry amusement that Beatriz felt she could understand. She dared to smile at the prinzessin. The prinzessin smiled back at Beatriz. Beatriz caught her breath. The lady’s smile made her, not beautiful maybe, but very striking, warming her harsh features.

The guard captain coughed. Then in her flat drawl, she said, “Prinzessin, we are late already. We need to make it to the border before nightfall.”

The prinzessin’s smile didn’t disappear, so much as become distant. Noble hauteur smoothed out the angles of her face. She said, “As you say, Captain.” Then she slid her hand in her pocket and pulled out a small leather wallet. From that she took two coins. Holding out her hand, palm up, the coins glittered gold in the afternoon sun.

Beatriz couldn’t pull her eyes off the gold coins in the prinzessin’s hand. Gold. Beatriz had never actually seen one gold coin. Let alone two. Silver coins were reasonably common. Copper pfennigs were more usual for purchases among the low-born. Beatriz’s bond had been just shy of a silver mark.

Wilhelm had gotten a bargain too. The great lady had been correct. Beatriz’s threads and yarns did hold magic. It was a sort of blank slate magic, supporting the best use of the fibers that Beatriz dyed and spun. Beatriz’s magic was rare and subtle. Her mother had warned her that it took a certain amount of imagination to understand, and that she was going to be considered odd and suspicious.

No one but Drunk Wilhelm had wanted to purchase Beatriz’s bond because her mother had come as a war bride from some foreign land. Her father had been a city guard recruited by the Furst Prinz for a distant war. When the priests evaluated Beatriz—as they did all children—they hadn’t recognized her magic, so they’d considered it minor and worthless.

Beatriz’s father had been of a higher caste than Wilhelm, but beer made for a sort of unlikely brotherhood sometimes. Beatriz’s father had spent most of his time face-down in a stein after her mother had died. He’d mourned Beatriz’s “lesser magic” often enough so Wilhelm had some idea of it. Beatriz’s father could have married her off inside his own caste with a “better magic” to serve as a dowry for her. As it was, the town council had sold her bond to Wilhelm to pay her father’s debts after he died. When he was sober, Wilhelm was an excellent dyer. She’d learned to be a good dyer too, from him. But as she got better with the spinning wheel, dyes and vats, Wilhelm drank more and dyed less.

Prinzessin Philomena held up one gold coin in her right hand. She flicked it up in the air. The coin spun, glittering. The lady caught it, folding it through long fingers. Beatriz saw that Wilhelm’s eyes followed every gleam. If he’d been a dog, he’d have panted and drooled.

“One gold coin buys all the thread dyed and spun by your bondswoman,” she said.

Wilhelm nodded, his jowls shaking in his haste to say yes. “Of course, Highness. Whatever you like.”

The prinzessin tossed the coin into the dirt at Wilhelm’s feet. He bent down, scrabbling in the dust of the roadside to find the coin and pocket it.

Beatriz thought about being warm and having a full belly. Maybe. Surely. It was a GOLD mark, after all!

“I’m glad to hear you say so, ” the great lady said. Beatriz thought she sounded cold as if she didn’t care for Wilhelm. Perhaps she didn’t. The prinzessin had good taste. She liked Beatriz’s work, after all.

Then, in a tone that was nearly conversational though still on the distant side, Beatriz heard the prinzessin add, “I can see where all the food’s been going in your household, dyemaster.”

“Highness?” Wilhelm sounded confused.

“Did you know that your bondswoman dyes and weaves with magic as well as indigo and fiber?” The prinzessin didn’t sound angry, exactly. More, it was as if she wanted some information imperatively.

Wilhelm swallowed nervously. Legally, there was nothing wrong with the addition of magic to hanks of yarn and thread as long as it was disclosed to the buyer. Sometimes, Wilhelm mentioned it. Sometimes, he didn’t. Beatriz always mentioned it.

He did know that people liked her fibers. Some of them seemed drawn to it as if they could feel her magic and liked it. But sometimes, if he told customers, they wouldn’t believe him because they had never heard of such magic. Several had accused him of attempting to defraud them by claiming virtues that didn’t exist.  He stammered, “Yes. It sells well. But not everyone understands it.”

The lady tilted her head. “Ah. I see. Well, not everyone has that much imagination, I suppose.” Then she added icily, “Focusing magic takes energy. It burns a lot of energy. You’re killing your golden goose, dyemaster.” The second gold mark jumped into the air, glittering as the first one had. The lady caught it again and then held it up, turning it so that it caught the light.

Softly, but with an edged precision, the prinzessin said, “I hate waste. The second gold mark buys her bond.”

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