A bell rang from the kitchen, and the maids returned.
Soon the table was piled high with delights.
There were several plates on the table itself, and two extensions brought in and attached to the table to hold more plates. Lunch was the largest meal of the day in Imperial culture, but Elena had never seen a lunch quite like this. Bethany smiled proudly while introducing the spread.
Even Gertrude looked mesmerized by the amount and variety of foods available.
At the center of the table there were plates of meat.
First was Elena’s favorite, fatty salmon belly, lightly pan-fried, topped with a drizzle of lemon butter and sliced thinly on the plate. There was also a plate of crispy pork belly cut into cubes and rubbed with cinnamon and dried fruits; as well as a rare ribeye steak served au jus.
Arrayed around the meats were a variety of vegetable dishes.
There was fresh potato salad with vinegar and oil, pickled baby onions with dill, tiny potato dumplings, creamed cabbage in three different colors, and roast beet slices with oil and handpicked herbs. A loaf of freshly sliced black bread rounded out the table, along with three different drinks served in small pitchers on the side of the table: berry milk, hops soda and a noticeably light beer.
Once every dish was set in its proper place, Bethany led the maids in a synchronized bow before their guests, and the group departed, leaving Gertrude and Elena alone with the mountain of food. Gertrude stared at the dishes with eyes so wide, as if she were not sure of her senses.
“This is so far removed from how we eat on the ship. I barely know where to start.”
“Then, let me guide you.”
Elena forked a piece of salmon belly and leaned lightly over the table, reaching her arms across. Gertrude played along and leaned forward, opening her mouth for the princess to feed her.
“How is it?” Elena asked, ever so slightly embarrassed to be playfully feeding her friend.
Gertrude’s cheeks flushed slightly. “It’s incredible. I had no idea fish could be so soft.”
“It’s nice, isn’t it? It almost melts in your mouth doesn’t it? Fatty and sliced thin.”
Elena took a bite of salmon belly herself and felt a thrill. For a moment, she felt a sharp sensation on her lower jaw, as if it were overwhelmed by the oily, rich flavor of the salmon belly. It was the first bite of real food she had in the day, and there was nothing else she would have rather put in her mouth. Bethany and the lasses had outdone themselves with this serving.
Gertrude finally took initiative and speared a juicy slice of steak.
She brought it up to her lips, surprised that it was dripping all the way to her mouth.
“You really start to forget the taste of real meat after a long voyage.” Gertrude said.
Elena tipped her head. “Hmm? Then what is lunch like on the Iron Lady?”
“We have some freeze-dried chicken or thawed beef grounds, usually in stews or in dumplings, but most of our day-to-day meat consumption is sausages. And most of the sausage is half buckwheat, blood and lard, and half ground pork. Steak like this is unfathomable there.”
Eating her salmon belly, from fish caught as fresh as possible in the Empire, dressed in creamy butter and real lemon juice; Elena felt suddenly ashamed when she heard of what a soldier ate in its place. She had never done anything for this country other than to be born to its ruler. Gertrude ate slaw, hardtack and sausages on long voyages through the Imbrium to protect her from possible danger. Every day Elena had proper tea, delicious food, and precious peace and silence. She had greater privileges.
Gertrude, with the open, innocent wonder she exhibited at the food on the table, had been deprived of those things. For her sake– for Elena’s sake– for the sake of the Imperial Princess. She took those lonesome voyages, suffered injuries, ate terrible food that just barely kept her alive. For her sake.
Elena shook her head.
She had said to herself to focus on the positive.
“You know, someday, when I run this place, I’ll make sure every soldier gets a good steak whenever possible. We can probably dry age them for the long trip, or something like that!”
Elena was relieved when Gertrude beamed happily at her suggestion.
“Fulfill that promise and the men will worship you as a goddess.”
Gertrude reached out for the pitcher of beer and poured herself a tall glass.
She took one sip and seemed to want to laugh as she drank it.
“This is so weak! We have hard liquor on the ships at least. I guess the maids want you to be just a little adventurous. Just a teeny tiny bit.” Gertrude downed almost half the glass she poured in an instant. Elena was left briefly speechless at this very stereotypically soldier-like behavior.
“Have you ever drunk before, actually?” Gertrude asked.
“Why I– Of course I have!” Elena said. She had wine every so often.
“Cheers then. To the Princess’ 25th Birthday!”
Gertrude held aloft her half-empty glass of beer.
Elena quickly poured herself some and gently struck Gertrude’s glass with her own.
She took what she considered an ambitious sip. Gertrude emptied her own glass.
For a light beer, it was still bitter and unpleasant. Elena was unprepared for the flavor.
It went down her throat harder than she had envisioned, and she had a light cough.
Gertrude had a small laugh at her expense. “We should have started with apple cider then!”
Under the circumstances, Elena couldn’t help but laugh at herself a little also.
Being able to play around with Gertrude again was just that much of a blessing.
They sampled a little bit of everything, and then filled their plates with their favorites. Elena staked a claim on the salmon and filled her plate, while Gertrude made herself an exemplary plate with all kinds of vegetables and a modest amount of the pork belly. When she had her food organized, she ate quickly, but in an orderly fashion. Elena liked to savor every bite.
“You should have some vegetables. I wouldn’t want you to die of undernourishment.”
Gertrude picked up a plate of the creamed cabbage and slid a big glob of leaves and sauce onto the side of Elena’s place. The princess gave it a dismal stare and turned the same stare over to her erstwhile protector. Gertrude then picked up a few baby onions and dropped them in as well.
In open disdain of her friend’s selections, Elena reached across the table and speared a single roasted beet from the serving plate with her fork. She brought it back, avoiding her plate, and started to munch on it instead, while the cabbage looked ever sadder in its white sauce.
“I’m eating my vegetables.” Elena grumbled.
“That’s a good girl.” Gertrude said.
“Quit teasing me; as you can see, I keep an exemplary figure. I’ve nothing to worry about.”
“Indeed. I could never overlook it, and I’ve certainly gotten an eyeful of you since I arrived. But you can be the perfect beauty on the outside and have bones full of holes on the inside.”
“Shut up.” Elena responded to the teasing by turning almost as red as beet she was eating.
There was so much food that it was not possible for two young women to eat it all. Elena wondered whether the maids cooked as much as they did, with the knowledge that there would be quite a few of these beautiful plates left for themselves. Whatever their intentions, once Elena and Gertrude slowed down and eventually ceased to pick at their food, Bethany arrived with a proud smile, and ushered in the rest of the maids to take the empty and partially empty plates away.
“We’ll serve a light supper and some sweets later in the afternoon, milady.” She said.
“Enjoy the steaks.” Elena said, staring at her.
“Why I never– at any rate, may I ask what the two of you plan to do now?”
Elena began to admonish the maid. “None of your–”
Gertrude raised her hand amicably. “I’d like to take a look around. I haven’t been around real trees and flowers in so long. Is it alright if I escort the Princess around Vogelheim?”
Her tone resembled that of a boy asking a girl’s parents if they could go out, more than it resembled that of a veteran officer at the highest ranks of the Imperial Security Service.
Bethany reached into the pockets of her apron and withdrew a single, weathered key.
She handed the little key to Gertrude.
“I’ll do you one better. The stables are out back. You can take the horses out for a ride.”
Gertrude was momentarily speechless. Elena watched her with a confused expression.
“Horses?” She finally blurted out. “Real horses? You have real horses here?”
“We sure do! Such a steed befits your knightly stature, milady. Have fun!”
Bethany lifted the hem of her skirt in a curtsy and took her leave of the two.
Elena shot her a suspicious glare as she left, and then turned back to Gertrude, who was still captivated with the old key and the concept of a terrestrial mammal meant for riding upon.
“Gertrude, are you sure you can ride a horse? You’re still recovering from an injury.”
“Milady, I have never been more ready for anything! Worry not; I’m built quite sturdy.”
Her friend’s smile convinced her; Elena took Gertrude by the hand and led her down from the deck, along a gated-off series of steps down into the gardens. They climbed down into the flowers, careful not to stomp, and then they ran hand in hand past the beds of red and yellow.
Around the side of the villa, past the massive flower garden and hidden behind tall hedges, there was a tiny wooden stable where four horses stood in separate, locked enclosures, with hay and grains, a water basin for each, and a closet for tools used by the maids to keep them clean.
To Elena, the horses were enormous animals, but she understood that as far as horses historically had been these were below average in size. It was tough to grow a full-size horse, even for them.
Gertrude was delighted with them nonetheless. She must have thought they were huge too.
“Elena, they are beautiful! So gallant, so charismatic! Look at their manes! Their muscles!”
“Gross, why are you looking at their weird veiny necks? Just pick one and let’s ride it.”
“Ride it? You want us to ride together?”
Gertrude gave Elena a dumbfounded, almost childish look, pointing at herself.
It reminded Elena of when they used to play together as kids.
For her to see such an expression from a woman fully dressed in military gear was comical.
Elena giggled. “I’m no good at riding. You need to be my knight and escort me.”
Gertrude’s eyes lit up, with understanding and perhaps anticipation.
“Your Knight–? I mean– Yes of course. Of course, milady!”
Gertrude approached the stables, clearly still flustered by the idea but definitely trying harder to seem gentlemanly. She grabbed a head collar that was hung up near the entrance to a horse’s enclosure and grabbed a slightly old carrot from a basket of horse treats propped up near the enclosure. She made friends with her chosen horse quickly, a brown beast with a perfectly trimmed black mane. It accepted the carrot, and happily munched away while Gertrude leashed it.
Gently, she led the horse out of the enclosure, and fitted it with its designated saddle.
All throughout, the horse was perfectly well behaved, and seemed quite friendly.
Elena watched from afar, the practiced care with which Gertrude equipped the animal.
“It should be ready. I think its name is Glanz, judging by the enclosure.”
At the sound of its name, the horse bent its head toward Gertrude and nuzzled her hat.
“Ah! He’s an affectionate guy. Steady Glanz! You’ll be carrying a princess today.”
Elena laughed. She wondered what her subordinates would think, watching Gertrude playing around with horses like a giddy teen at an aristocratic school. Come to think of it, she did not really know what Gertrude’s reputation was as a soldier. She knew what Inquisitors did, which was to keep the peace within the country. But was Gertrude dark, brooding and severe to her men? With her outfit and appearance, she certainly looked like a woman who could be mean to you.
To the princess, however, she had never been anything but her sweet, chivalrous knight.
Gertrude climbed atop the horse, behind the saddle, and reached her hand out to Elena.
“I’ll help you up.”
Elena took her hand and started to climb on the saddle. She found herself feeling strangely comforted as Gertrude helped her up, first with one hand and then with her other arm, pulling her up and onto the saddle, and then nestling behind her. Her grip was strong; Elena settled against Gertrude’s chest, close enough for warmth to transfer between them. It was comforting. Elena almost felt like she could sleep in Gertrude’s bosom. She almost wanted to ask if Gertrude could just swing her arms around her waist and hold her tightly. But horseback was not the place for that.
“Are you comfortable?” Gertrude asked.
“It’s marvelous.” Elena said. “I hope you are feeling well yourself.”
“I’m splendid, milady. But the saddle is a bit ratty. I’m glad you’re not put off by it.”
“Let’s just head out. How about we go to the forest first, and then ride into town?”
“As you wish, milady.”
Gertrude led the horse into a gentle trot out of the stables and down the side of the hill.
Elena sighed. “I’m not a child! You can speed up!”
“It’s not about you being a child. Inexperienced riders can hurt themselves; you know?”
At Elena’s request, Gertrude loosened her grip on the reins and kicked her legs gently on the sides of the horse. Glanz worked itself up from its polite trot to a quicker, but still manageable gait. Not exactly the wild, blazing gallop that Elena envisioned, but perhaps more practical for their circumstances. Fully off the grounds of the villa, the pair rode over the rolling fields.
“Still doing ok?” Gertrude asked.
Elena looked up and over her shoulder at her.
“I’ll let you know if I’m unwell; just keep quiet and look cool in the meantime, deal?”
She reached behind herself and stroked her knight’s cheek.
“As you command, milady.”
True to her word, Gertrude rode with her, looking handsome, saying no more.
Just trusting her, and letting the princess experience the moment.
Elena felt slowly overcome with emotion as they rode.
Far overhead, the sun occupied the center of the sky. A cooling breeze blew through the fields, causing the tall grasses and the flowers to sway. Elena felt the wind caressing her cheeks and hair. Felt the sunlight warming her face. She could see it, touch it, feel it. As far as the eyes could see, the beautiful green field, the forest of tall, clustered oak trees near a little brook, the port town and the sea it straddled, and the farms that supplied the villa with fresh produce and meat.
They were nearing the forest. It was maybe a few kilometers away from the villa.
Those few kilometers that the horse easily put behind them, encompassed Elena’s universe.
Everything she knew; so much of her life. All of it was flying past her on horseback.
Vogelheim was her home. It was beautiful and comfortable. She had spent all of the past seven years in Vogelheim and knew from the moment she grew cognizant of the ways of living, that beside school and any official journeys she had to undertake, Vogelheim would be her four walls and ceiling. She was not unhappy about this, not always. There were always things that surprised her. She had never really ridden horses. She had barely gone out into the waters of the town. Elena was a homebody, a reader, a technology enthusiast, and fawned over by nosy maids.
Elena was not naïve. She knew that everything in the landscape around her was fake.
Everything was organic. Those trees grew; the flowers bloomed; the birds were alive.
But this world was only possible as a feat of the Imbrium Empire’s engineering.
She knew that Vogelheim was a pillar of metal and glass situated 1100 meters beneath the Imbrium Ocean. Outside, everything was dark. There was no sun, there was no sky, there was no wind. There were no beautiful grasses. There was nowhere that horses could live and roam. There was no place where humans could exist without the protection of inventions such as this.
Elena knew all of this. In that moment, she chose to immerse herself in this fantasy. She and her promised protector riding through the fields for a blissful, storybook afternoon.