Gertrude tied Glanz’ leash to an old tree and sat down beside the princess, staring out into the gaps between the trees. The pair had ridden at speed up to the forest and then slowed again to a trot, taking in the atmosphere. Tree canopies formed a ceiling that was unbroken enough to dim the artificial sunlight down to the barest rays peering through the leaves. The pair stopped at a big blue pond that had formed owing to a little brook which ran through it. (Which is to say, it was contrived to appear formed by this brook, itself contrived by whoever designed this piece of Vogelheim.)
There was a sullen atmosphere to the forest. Elena wondered if it was always like this, or if she was only grown enough now to realize the emptiness here. There were no animals in the forest like squirrels or game, only birds. Birds were the only animal introduced into Vogelheim, and they lived exclusively off grain that the people of the station gave to them. The paltry few insects that existed were tiny flies that seemed almost to blossom as if from out of the dirt itself wherever humans happened to live.
As such, the forest was silent save for the errant noises Glanz made as it chewed on grass or stretched its legs, and the sound of the wind blowing through the trees. It was peaceful, but without Gertrude at her side, Elena would have felt so alone with herself that it would have been eerie. She thought to herself she would never come here solely for her own pleasure.
“What’s on your mind?” Gertrude asked.
Elena leaned closer to her, resting her head against Gertrude’s shoulder.
“It’s a beautiful sight.”
“Ah, the forest? It’s quite unique. I’m so used to metal hallways, or arcology streets.”
Sighing, Elena looked up at Gertrude, as the latter gazed upon the trees.
“Yes, the forest,” she said, cryptically.
Gertrude perhaps caught the interesting tone that Elena’s voice had taken.
She said nothing about it, but she was smiling.
“What are your plans for tonight? Am I invited to your party?” Gertrude asked.
“Of course you are!” Elena shouted suddenly. “Don’t be ridiculous. I didn’t even want to have a party. It’s my brother who is sending a bunch of people here. I only wanted to see you.”
“You should be more social. I shouldn’t be the only one you want to have fun with.”
She said that, but Gertrude’s hopelessly flushed face seemed to speak differently.
“Okay! Maybe you shouldn’t be, but you are, so bear your responsibility.”
Elena leaned her head harder into Gertrude’s shoulder and chest.
“Then I’ll come to your party, but you must only dance with me.” Gertrude said.
“Simple enough! Because I don’t want to dance with anyone else!”
Gertrude stared out ahead at the trees again, her lips wearing the gentlest, most subtle smile.
Her eyes were distant. As if she was gazing upon something far, far away in space or time.
“Elena, thank you. Being able to come back to you for a day keeps me alive for years.”
“Thank you. I love you, so much.”
Her arms extended around Elena and held her tightly.
She felt warm, comforted in embrace. She felt safe, even though their fates were uncertain.
Gertrude’s arms, both her own arms, and the arms at her command, would protect her.
Elena’s father had died. The Emperor had died.
No matter how the nobles or her brother reacted, the Ocean he ruled would change forever.
Because the shadow that Konstantin von Fueller cast was now gone.
And so Elena’s isolated little world was thrown into some uncertainty.
Held tight against Gertrude’s breast, cheek to cheek with her, all of that felt so distant.
Elena wanted to say, ‘I love you’ back. But at that moment her tongue was held in its place.
There was a lot she wanted to say that she could not. Perhaps that was ultimately fine.
They quietly, gently held each other for some time, long enough for Glanz to get antsy.
Gertrude was the first to begin to move away from the embrace. She loosened her grip on Elena and helped her to stand up from the grass. The two of them walked around the pond on foot, Gertrude taking Glanz’s reins in hand and leading him. There was nothing to see in the forest, and far less whimsical faerie mischief than Elena had envisioned she might feel, but there was still a fun, fond feeling of walking with someone precious. They led the horse through the trees, taking in the heady smell of moist earth. Once they were out in the fields, they climbed on Glanz again.
“Honestly, I thought we would be able to have a bit more fun in there.” Elena said.
Gertrude laughed. “I loved walking with you. Having good company is enough.”
“I thought we’d roll in the grass or eat fresh-picked berries or something whimsical.”
“Even when we were little we didn’t really do those things, and they sound like kids’ stuff.”
Elena grumbled for a moment, now even more disappointed at her squashed fantasies.
“Let’s go into town then! There’s more to do; but don’t get too excited.” She said.
“I have no illusions of being in an arcology here, don’t worry!” Gertrude replied.
This time, Gertrude kicked against Glanz’ flanks a few times in succession.
She loosened the reins to give the horse free reign to thunder forward.
Elena backed up against Gertrude, who crossed her arms under Elena’s own to hold her. The Princess felt her heart accelerate with both the horse’s incredible charge and her knight’s arms so closely supporting her. After the initial moment of surprise, she stabilized and got used to the speed. This was what she wanted; the romantic sprint through the fields, at full gallop!
Glanz’ feet lifted so high, it seemed like the creature would jump or take off in flight. Elena’s hair blew back behind her with the wind, and Gertrude had her head against Elena’s shoulder, cheek to cheek, to see where Glanz was going. They crossed the hills descending from the forest, crossed the grasses and flowers, and hit the seaside road that led to the town.
On one side, they had the rising green of the hills, dotted with yellow and red flowers; and on the other, the seemingly endless blue sea, shimmering in the light of the sun overhead. Gulls soared overhead. There were boats going out into the water, some bedecked with colorful sails and flags, and others were rowboats fit only for two. There was no substantial fishing to do, not even as a diversion. But it was pleasant to be out with a loved one in the gentle waves, she thought.
Gertrude gently pulled back on the reins, and Glanz slowed.
Such a clean transition from a gallop to a trot could only have been accomplished by a well-trained horse and a skilled rider. Elena was impressed, and she clapped for the two of them.
“Gertrude, that was magnificent! Thank you! I didn’t know you were such a rider!”
“I did not know either.” Gertrude smiled nervously. “I was just going with the flow.”
“It made you excited, so it was well worth it.”
Vogelheim was the name of the station. Elena knew the Villa had some kind of antiquated name that no one hardly ever said — after all it was the only villa in this isolated place, so she could certainly just call it ‘the Villa.’
But she knew the little port town was called Blumehafen.
It was a small town with maybe four or five blocks of waterfront businesses and entertainments that all shared a few streets. There were eateries, a bar, a hotel, one apartment building, an old theater; an arcade full of mechanical tables; tour centers for birdwatching, horseback lessons, watercraft rentals; and a few tourist traps. Vogelheim was not popular. Only a few people knew that the villa housed Princess Elena. So those who came here wanted to go to the most isolated station in the Empire to run away from their troubles. Everything had an old, lived-in, rustic aesthetic that played to the rural fantasies of those who retreated here.
Business would probably boom if Elena became the star attraction.
And she would hate to endure that, so she was glad for the secrecy.
Most Imperial citizens did not even know what she looked like.
Whenever she attended ceremonies, she was so dressed up in fancy clothes, hair and makeup, to the point that she looked nothing like the simple self she saw in the mirror. And she and the royal family were always off in their own booth or otherwise separated from the rest of the people there. Elena’s aristocratic schoolmates could recognize her in her current garb, but they would not know to find her in Vogelheim, and the people of Vogelheim would not know that she was Elena von Fueller.
She looked nothing like the Emperor; or even her popular brother Erich.
Her mother’s elfin blood had clearly expressed itself, over that of the Men of the North.
And she had never really been involved in politics. Her face wasn’t on any propaganda.
Therefore, functionally, nobody knew who she was or where she lived her days.
They knew about an Imperial princess, living out her days as a potential pawn to bring this or that noble into line with the rule of the Palatinate state through marriage. They knew of Konstantin’s scandalous remarriage. They knew his second wife had made no more appearances, while his only daughter did clearly remain in the inventory of the royal family.
Except for Gertrude, the villa’s staff, her brother, and few trusted confidants, however, nobody knew Elena von Fueller. Nobody could fill that name with what it contained. It was this fact that allowed Elena to simply ride into town with Gertrude with a light heart.
They would not have to hide anything.
There were few people to even hide from anyway.
At the edge of town, they tied Glanz up near a trough full of water for horses and went on their way together on foot. There was no sense in running through the town in a hurry; they wouldn’t be able to experience anything that way. So they walked through the town streets instead, attracting what little attention there was. Elena spotted a few women she recognized as servants at the villa, but they were on their days off, some with lads, and therefore they did not acknowledge one another. Elena was walking through town with her own date: there was mutual understanding.
“We’re having supper later, but would you like a treat?” Gertrude asked.
She pointed to a parlor nearby which was advertising shaved ice and cream cones.
“I’d love to! Those bossy maids never let me have junk food like this.”
There was a certain simplicity to a cardboard cup of shaved ice with sweet red syrup that Elena truly loved. She was excited when Gertrude led them up to the little wooden parlor, and out one of the side windows a man dressed in overalls handed them their snacks. Elena immediately took the little spoon and scarfed down the peak of the little icy mountain in her cup. So quickly did she devour it, that the roof of her mouth and the floor of her brain turned painfully cold. Elena closed her eyes, spoon still in her mouth.
“Are you okay there?” Gertrude asked, giggling. “Slow down a little.”
Strolling through town, the two of them took in the salty breeze on the edge of the artificial sea, watching the gulls land on the edges of the pier and waddling around the small strip of sandy beach they could see between gaps on the concrete seafront. They followed the street up a hill, where there stood no more buildings between them and the sea, so it felt like an actual seafront stroll. Instead of the beach, there was a slight cliff, and the waves beating up to it rose almost as high as the steel guardrails protecting visitors from falling down into the waters.
“I want to go surfing sometime. Have you ever done that?” Elena said.
“Since when did you become interested in sport?” Gertrude asked, poking her.
The Inquisitor’s strong finger easily sank Elena’s marshmallow soft bicep.
Elena grumbled at her. “I’m done being a homebody! I want to have adventures too!”
“Oh if the maids could hear you. You really do mortify those women with your whims.”
“To hell with them! It’s your fault for that thrilling horse ride. Now all I want is speed!”
Elena put on a devilish face, and it looked like Gertrude truly believed her teasing.
One part of the beach was calm as could be, while another was rocky; there was a lone windsurfer out in the water taking advantage of this. All of it signaled to the artifice with which Vogelheim had been crafted. Elena almost felt the little illusion of her world breaking, but she did not concern herself with it. For a cage, Vogelheim was beautiful in a way the rest of the Imbrium Ocean was not. Disagreeable as she found Imperial politics, at least they could build these things. Her mind started to wander off.
Gertrude was here, and those days were always pleasant.
Before, they would just spend time indoors.
Now Elena was grown-up. She and Gertrude could have all of Vogelheim for themselves. But not anywhere else; and who knows for how long.
Despite everything, she could not keep her anxieties suppressed forever.
“What’s on your mind, Elena?” Gertrude asked as they walked slowly downhill.
Up ahead, the town started to come to an end. They would have to turn back for Glanz.
“What will you be doing next? Do you have another mission?” Elena asked.
“There’s always another mission. But don’t fret. I’ll be back before you know it.”
“Hey, don’t treat me like a kid, okay? I want to know what you’re going through.”
Gertrude sighed a bit. She smiled at Elena again. But it was a strained smile.
“There’ll be unrest. Due to the current events.” She was sidestepping the death of Elena’s father. Maybe it was her duty as a soldier to her liege, or maybe she just didn’t know how little Elena really felt about the Emperor’s passing. Whatever it was, Elena didn’t like the tone, but she would say nothing as Gertrude continued. “It’s the Inquisition’s job to keep the peace. Hopefully, there’ll be a smooth transition of power to Prince Erich and we can all calm down.”
“You think something will happen?”
Elena found herself indulging in a similar set of ambiguities as Gertrude.
She hardly wanted to say aloud what the “something” she spoke of truly meant.
Gertrude smiled. “Don’t worry. It’s just uncertainty; everyone’s tense in the interregnum. I’m sure once Prince Erich returns to the Palatinate and is able to meet with the Dukes and Duchesses formally, they will quickly settle matters and the mood in the Empire will calm down.”
Elena knew that was wishful thinking.
Veka, Lehner, Buren, Pontiff Skarsgaard– there were too many carnivores who had taken power in the Duchies. And her father had done nothing but punish, humiliate and alienate them all. None of them were people she would consider good or noble in their aspirations, but they were in their ordained places and did their duties. If everyone wanted to fight, they would definitely deserve the pain they would receive. That it would be justified did nothing to allay Elena’s fears.
“You know, I thought you didn’t want to talk about this stuff?” Gertrude asked.
She spoke in a tone that said she was trying to make light of things, to change the mood.
It bothered the Princess to be treated that way at that moment.
“Please. Don’t act so false about this. I’m not a child, ‘Trude.”
Elena said this with a voice that was a bit petulant, but also deadly serious.
“I need to know about these things. I can’t keep hiding here and expecting that despite my powerlessness and uselessness, I’ll keep being cared for and kept like a pet. I don’t even know what my own brother plans to do with me. You’re my knight, Gertrude; I need your help.”
A lot of emotions came pouring out of her. She was finally able to voice her worries.
Gertrude stopped walking, and she turned around and immediately pulled Elena into an embrace. Her strong arms wrapping around the Princess, pulling her into her warm chest. It gave Elena that same sense of comfort and protection she felt in the forest. But this time it hadn’t been her who sought it out. It was freely given, forging the second link in their compact together.
Elena’s fair cheeks flushed red. Her face and body were overtaken with warmth.
“I’ll always protect you. No matter what happens. I’m not being dishonest. I don’t know what will happen in ten cycles, five cycles, or even tomorrow. But no one will touch you, Elena.”
Standing by the seaside, in the arms of her knight, Elena sank her head against that warm bosom and began to cry. She thought she was pathetic, unable to do anything herself, completely defeated by the moment. And yet she was also filled with love for Gertrude, the faithful servant, earnest guard, and now, her accomplished knight, who had never deserted her through the years. Her chest was gripped with pain, but she treasured that moment nonetheless.