Supper was a relaxed and refreshing affair that evening.
There were small bowls of tomato and beef consommé, perfectly clear and a rich auburn color, with a superbly clean taste. To accompany the soup they had fresh-baked, airy crackers. For the entree, they had perfectly round potato dumplings filled with crumbly cheese and bits of pork, on a bed of cabbage and vinegar and lemon juice. A comparatively light spread that nonetheless filled with the belly.
Gertrude and Elena got to enjoy it together within the Villa’s tearoom.
“I apologize that we couldn’t use the deck again milady.” Bethany said. “We’ve moved some unneeded furniture out onto it and turned the lodge into a ballroom for tonight’s event.”
“Right. Tonight’s event. Happening without my consent, on my birthday.”
Elena made narrow, evil eyes at Bethany.
For her part, the maid returned a disappointed gaze back at the unruly Princess.
“You must attend! Your brother arranged for many wonderful people to meet you; it would be a great opportunity to make some connections. Furthermore, the Prince himself will join you!”
“What? My brother is coming here? Tonight? How? I heard none of this!”
Elena stood up from the table in outrage. Gertrude was briefly taken aback.
Bethany looked confused and concerned by the response.
“Goodness. I thought you’d be overjoyed.”
“If my brother invited a bunch of his friends here, do you not think that this means he has designs towards me, and perhaps those friends, Bethany?”
Elena threw her an accusatory glare.
Bethany withered under that royal gaze.
“I’m only a maid! If you’re insinuating I can do anything about your brother trying to match you up with someone for political gain, then you vastly overestimate my power and ability. All I can tell you is to try to endure!”
“You may have no power and ability, but I do.”
Gertrude interrupted at that point, standing up from the table herself.
“Whatever do you mean, Inquisitor?” Bethany said, suddenly scandalized.
“Grand Inquisitor.” Gertrude corrected. “I will be attending this party. I will go get changed into something suitable at the Iron Lady. I will accompany the Princess to the ballroom when the time comes.” Gertrude gave Elena a look that was filled with determination — and perhaps even danger.
“Of course you may. I’ll wait for you.” Elena said, preempting objections.
“We can’t delay her long!” Bethany said.
She was exasperated with this scheme already.
Elena however understood Gertrude’s aim, and she beamed with joy.
Gertrude left. The artificial skies beginning to dim to simulate the terrestrial night, Elena had to get ready for the party. Dressing up like a princess was a task she had wanted to do personally, in the best-case scenario. Instead, however, it ended up something Bethany swore to do for her, and the maid shadowed her from the tearoom, up the stairs and into her room.
“I can dress myself you know.”
“You don’t have the special attire I prepared for you for this evening.”
“Special attire? How special could a dress be?”
“As a matter of fact, I have something sublime prepared for this occasion.”
Bethany tittered with a bizarre excitement that caused Elena to feel imperiled.
After leading Elena back to her room, Bethany disappeared out into the halls again, bidding her to wait a few minutes while she returned with the dress. Elena had a half a mind to dress herself up and make all this nonsense moot, but then Bethany returned with the dress in her hands. Though it was hard to determine the fit from looking at it in the bundled-up way that it was, the rich purple and gold colors drew Elena’s eyes.
“This is really very special. Give me a moment here.” Bethany said.
The Maid took the dress into the wardrobe, where there was a slot in front of the walls with a warm press that would get all the wrinkles out and straighten up a bundle of clothes. When she returned, Elena got a good look at the style of the dress, and she was stunned. Bold was certainly one way to describe it. It had a tight, slimming fit, and the neckline was cut low and square such that displayed a lot of collarbone, and with the proper support perhaps some other things. The skirt was split along the sides with the hem at the level of the knee, and the sleeves were connected by two strips of fabric with gaps that exposed the upper arm. It had a provocative style.
Elena gave her chief maid a long look. “Bethany, I don’t know what to say. It’s a beautiful dress. But when you hand a maiden such as myself, something of this nature, I can’t help but feel maybe your eyes are going–”
“PLEASE, please, please don’t pursue that thought any further Princess. It was your mother’s dress.” Bethany sighed with exasperation.
Elena’s impish grin instantly faded away.
“Really? It belonged to my mother? You’ve been keeping it this whole time?”
“She wanted you to wear this on the night of your debut. She had worn it herself when she was a teenager, in her own entry into high society. But then– well, of course, unfortunately, she passed, and you didn’t debut.” Bethany looked conflicted. Elena could not quite understand the feelings that seemed to pass across the features of her face, so fleetingly.
“I’ll be honest Beth, I didn’t think you knew so much about my mother. I might’ve asked you more about her if I’d known.” Elena said. She took the dress from Bethany and held it in front of herself, trying to imagine herself in it. It was uncanny how well it fit. She resembled her mother much more than her father, obviously, but to think the measurements were so close!
It made her wonder: had her mother stood here in Vogelheim, in this room, in this dress? Bethany smiled softly as she watched Elena sizing the dress.
“You could say– I admired your mother. Her wishes informed some of my decisions. But enough about that. We must get you ready.” Bethany said.
This mysterious declaration brought a lot of possibilities to Elena’s mind.
Many of which she wanted to discard immediately. She knew how she felt and where her own sensibilities lay, and to try to project that onto others– Bethany had to be a normal woman with an ordinary affection for her long-passed mother. A lot of people had told her they admired her mother before. Her mother had been amazing: it had been no wonder that Emperor von Fueller sought her as his second wife from among all of the court. Beautiful, a bold dancer, a magnificent singer, a sharp wit and boundless intellect. She had been a prodigy at everything that excited her.
Of course Bethany admired her. That being said, they appeared to have been closer than merely an object of admiration and a pair of eyes that watched her from afar. For her mother to entrust personal effects to her to such a degree, they must have been friends. Close friends even. Elena did not know too much about Bethany personally, she had never been curious. Bethany was a servant, a helpful and sometimes doting and sometimes overbearing caretaker. That was all. Now that she was curious, however, it was in a setting where there was no time to ask her to tell the tale.
So rather than press further, or demand an explanation, Elena merely spread her arms. This was out of her sense of respect for Bethany.
“Help me dress, Bethany. Let’s see how much like my mother I look in this.”
“It’d be an honor, Princess.”
Bethany’s past could wait until morning.
Gertrude’s visit to the party could not.
Her maid had dressed her before, many times.
Elena had been fearful that there would be something odd or off about this particular instance, but there was not. Bethany disrobed her, even helped her out of her suit layer, with the exact same care, attention and detached professionalism with which she always worked. For the party, Elena would not be wearing a full or half suit beneath her clothes. It was seen as provincial to wear swim suits under one’s clothes at formal occasions.
Once she was fully in the nude, she donned a pair of black tights and elbow gloves, and Bethany helped her gently into the dress and zipped up the back. It was surprisingly lighter and simpler than it seemed to wear.
Elena had wondered if any part of the design would necessitate double-sided tape or some other secret tool of truly fashionable upper-class ladies; but in fact, it clung to her well. All of the skin the designer wanted to highlight with the gaps was visible in appropriate quantity, the bodice left no room for the dress to slide, and the skirt reached to the knee perfectly.
Dressed for the party, Elena thought she would now go– but her maid stopped her.
“Not without a touch-up on your face! Sit down.”
At Bethany’s command, Elena sat.
Her maid produced a makeup kit. A layer of foundation, pearl-pink concealer, and the slightest hint of blush touched up Elena’s cheeks. A gentle shadow around her eyes and a coat of glossy lipstick just a touch darker than the natural color of Elena’s lips, gave her a bright, elegant appearance that still looked natural, without too much product.
When the hairbrush came out, Elena feared they might be there all night.
Her maid turned the chair around, and gently stroked Elena’s hair.
Rather than turn it into a project, she just made Elena’s natural looks clean and proper.
To top it off, Bethany affixed a moon-shaped, diamond-studded silver hairpiece on Elena.
“There. Look in the mirror, princess.”
Elena turned around and spread her arms. She lifted the skirt just a little.
She put her back to the mirror and looked over her shoulder at the reflection.
Not too much had changed, but it really felt like her best traits were accentuated very well.
“I feared you might doll me up too much, but this is quite pleasant.”
“We don’t have to conceal your looks today. We want them to shine in their organic state.”
Bethany laid her arms on Elena’s shoulders and smiled fondly.
Elena almost got a motherly sense out of that expression.
“Leda would be so proud. But let us not tarry. We should go meet that woman of yours.”
How unfair, to mention her mother’s name with that expression, and then hurry her along! Nonetheless, Elena followed Bethany down to the foyer.
There were maids working on last minute dusting and furniture arrangement. While the foyer did not normally look like much, they had added flowers and fine glasswork decorations, a portrait of the Emperor, and extra strips of lights on the ceiling to brighten up the atmosphere. It would not be long before a modest group of guests would arrive through the doors of the Villa. Bethany pushed Elena to a sideroom where the maids kept additional furniture in storage and bid her to wait.
Gertrude would be brought to her.
“Bethany, can you explain why I am hiding with the taxidermy?” Elena pointed bitterly at a stuffed creature occupying a corner of the dim little room. “I’m the birthday girl? What kind of birthday celebration is this?”
Bethany sighed. “Do you want to stand at the doors and greet everyone? It’s what you will have to do, as the Royal Princess, if the guests see you the instant they walk through the front doors. And then imagine the scandal if you leave the guests behind as soon as Lady Lichtenberg shows up?”
“That’s a good point.” Elena sighed. Everything was so complicated!
“I won’t object to the two of you appearing together. But you have to go in after the guests have settled down. It’s the only way that it makes sense. Anything else would be an insult to them. So wait here: be quiet and still.”
Bethany shut the door to the side-room.
Elena could hear the sounds of her heels, growing ever more distant. There continued to be a muffled commotion outside for quite some time.
And so Elena waited, sitting on an old chair covered in a white blanket.
Accompanied by a fiendish creature the size of a dog, frozen in time in its own corner. It looked ridiculous. She wondered whose this thing was.
Elena noticed a sharp increasing the number of footsteps and voices outside. That meant the people her brother had invited had arrived.
She surmised then that her isolation would end soon, but it was several minutes worth of people outside, being greeted she assumed, before the foyer became quiet again. Elena feared her dress would get dusty or wrinkled, but in the dim light of the side-room she was still able to see that her worries were unfounded. The room was fairly clean, even.
She had lost track of time, but in reality she was not in there for long.
And when the door next opened, Elena felt ready to forgive the plot.
She expected Bethany, and readied to hurl some invective.
In her place, however, the one who opened the door was an extremely handsome young woman in a very fitting, buttoned up jacket, and dress pants, black with gold trim. She wore a medal the shape of a white flower on her lapel, that indicated service to the royal family — Elena had given her that medal herself. Hers was a formal uniform, worn by high-ranking officers on special occasions, and it quite flattered the tall and lean frame of Gertrude Lichtenberg. Her hair had been collected into a ponytail, and her face was very slightly made up. Elena could tell that a few blemishes on her cheek had been powdered over, and her eyes looked darker, more intense.
Elena wanted to joke that she appeared more boyish than ever, but that was not true. She was gentlemanly in the best way, not merely boyish. She was gallant and knightly, and in that way she was beautiful too, and she truly shone in that dress uniform. Elena loved every centimeter of her.
Rather than invective, no words at all escaped Elena then.
She was quite stricken.
Gertrude took the initiative and extended a hand to the princess.
“I would be honored to escort the lady to the dance.”
“Y-Yes. Of course.”
Elena offered her hand in turn, and Gertrude took it gently and kissed the back of her glove.
More than in just her hand, Elena felt that kiss as a warmth that spread out from below her belly. An electric sense, an air of romance; it was storybook in a way that felt too good to be true. And yet it was no dream, or she would not have felt that touch at all. Gertrude’s strong hand stroked hers gently, and she gestured toward the door, waiting for Elena to collect her senses.
Somehow, the friendly soldier whom Elena had known, had become this enchanted being.
“Of course, ‘Trude.”
She had called her by the nickname as if to confirm this was still to her.
Without responding verbally, Gertrude simply smiled.
Yes; this was her Gertrude.
They held hands, and Gertrude waited for her to cross the threshold first.
Aside from a few maids standing around, the Foyer was completely empty.
There were signs everywhere that the floor had been well trod upon.
Bethany was not around.
She must have had more important duties to attend to.
Now that the party was in motion, she had to coordinate the proceedings.
Like a consummate gentleman, Gertrude helped Elena up the stairs from the foyer. She led her around a corner, toward the second-floor hunting lodge, the largest room in the villa. Gertrude would not have known where it was, as she had never had occasion to visit it. Elena thought then that the maids would have cooperated with her, and maybe prepared her before she took Elena. Her knight moved through the villa with complete confidence. But whenever they exchanged glances as they navigated the halls, Gertrude would smile casually and cheerfully as ever.
That smile indicated that this was simply Gertrude; but a Gertrude trying to impress.
When they entered the lodge, all eyes were on immediately them.
A princess dressing bolder than ever, and a soldierly woman in a formal uniform.
Elena could feel everyone in the room scrutinizing them.
She hardly knew what to say when she entered the room. She started to look around, hoping that the situation would solve itself.
There were perhaps a hundred people in attendance. To accommodate them, the massive hunting lodge had been completely transformed. Elena had always found the space a waste. So much room devoted to trophies and old guns and tacky fur rugs. She imagined those things must have belonged to her father. Bethany and the maids had gotten rid of it all, at least temporarily. For once it was possible to admire the breadth of the lodge’s floor space, the beautiful tiles, the fiery red curtains and decorative rose arrangements. Torches were lit to provide a mood, and the LEDs dimmed.
Along the side walls there were a few chairs arrayed for those who preferred to sit. There were small tables filled with treats.
Mutton and fig meatballs and crunchy bread spread with bone marrow were the most common small bites, along with plates of roasted vegetables and fresh fruit with spicy fish sauce or real honey for dipping. There were maids spread around the room, dressed to impress in frilly uniform gowns, serving a choice of various wines from intricate bottles.
Far in the back, a small stage had been erected where five maids appeared, all dressed up, the more tomboyish ones in suits, and some in ornate dresses, and they sat with instruments in hand and played music for all of the guests. She knew they also had a sophisticated sound system that could back them up, but Elena had several dozen servants boasting a broad array of talents, so she wanted to hope they were all playing the vibrant, sensual music which filled the lodge.
Conspicuously missing was the sapphire-gleaming glare of her half-brother Erich.
Elena wondered if she should say some words.
It was her special occasion, wasn’t it?
It was also true she had never wanted this party.
And none of these people were her friends, or acquaintances of even minor familiarity. None of her school age friends were here save for Gertrude.
Before she could make a fool out of herself, however, a woman stepped on to the stage. A mature, dark-haired beauty in a flamboyant red dress and white gloves, perhaps the singer, she drew everyone’s attention to herself with a clack of her heels. Wearing a smile as bright red as her dress, she addressed the room in a voice that felt strangely familiar to Elena’s ears.
“Everyone! I bid you all a luxurious evening! As you can see, the honored guest has arrived, which means it is time to commence the festivities. You have drinks, good company, and the floor. What are you all staring for? Give the birthday girl and her friend some space; what kind of party is it if we all just stand in a circle? Band, give me something to work with!”
She turned around to the maids, who looked at each other with something approaching disbelief and then began to play a sultry tune at a faster tempo. It was a popular song, particularly among soldiers, about a seeing a beautiful woman at port and spending a night before a fated departure. Snapping her fingers in tune with the music, the woman in red closed her eyes, first humming on stage until she finally broke out into the familiar tune with a rich singing voice. With the lights on her, she was enchanting.
It was then Elena realized that it was Bethany up on stage.
Bethany; her maid, Bethany–
Gertrude responded with a gentle laugh.
“It is a wonderful tune, but it’s so played out with the boys.”
She turned toward Elena, who was still mildly shell-shocked.
“I owe you a dance or two, but would you rather carouse?”
Elena snapped out of her reverie. “Carouse with who? Come on.”
Gertrude did not need to be told twice.
She took the princess by the waist and hand and led her to the dance floor.
Swept up in the physicality of the moment, Elena could hardly refuse.
Elena was unskilled, but Gertrude led well. For the most part, the princess avoided looking completely useless on the dance floor. She did not stomp Gertrude’s feet, and while ungraceful, she met the sweeping movements of her escort as best as she could. She felt as if caught up in a whirlwind. Gertrude had her by the hands, by waist, by the shoulder at times.
They said nothing to one another.
Their eyes locked, their breathing in tune. Their emotions were visible only in their movements. Elena could feel it from Gertrude, from the way she was held, led, touched. A certain possessiveness, a need to assert her place. Back at the tearoom, when Gertrude had spoke up to Bethany, Elena understood what the plot meant, but perhaps, she had failed to understand the degree to which Gertrude would put herself in the position of a lover.
And there they were. While a scant few others had begun to dance as well, it really felt like a majority of the party was not there for Bethany’s surprisingly seductive voice, or the atmosphere, or the drinks, or to take anyone’s hand in dance but the princess’ — or at least, to gain her attention or favor in some other manner. And so a great many men and women remained on the fringes of the dance floor, with what seemed like disconcerted expressions. Gertrude had beaten them to it.
In a sudden move, Gertrude broke from her, extending her arm, and pulled her back in. She bent low with Elena and held her, just barely keeping the princess from the floor. Their eyes, their noses, their lips, merely centimeters apart. Millimeters, perhaps. It was the final act of the show.
Elena could almost taste Gertrude’s subtle but clearly exerted breathing.
Suspended in this position, they spent what felt like eternity lost in each other’s eyes. Elena felt something inside her, brimming under her skin.
Gertrude gently lifted her back up.
She then acknowledged the gawkers with a smug bow.
Meanwhile Elena’s face was blushing red as the curtains, red as the roses, red as the wine.
“Would you like me to stick close, or would you prefer to scout out the room yourself?”
Elena, unprepared to make decisions, wished that Gertrude would just grab her again.
“I suppose I should try to see what these people want with me.” She said, sighing.
She did not go alone, however.
Elena took Gertrude’s hand, and they walked into a small crowd of aristocrats together. Taking up drinks, they introduced themselves together. To this crowd, Gertrude became Elena’s “long-time friend” and “military advisor” in the span of a few minutes, and the words seemed to change the atmosphere with them. It became possible to talk to them about nothing for some time, and nobody was quite able to bring up subjects Elena feared.
Many of them, to Elena’s surprise, expressed a greater lamentation at her brother ghosting the party, than whatever apprehension they may have had about Elena’s choice of companion. Slowly, over the course of several of these paltry interactions with the faceless folk that had heeded her brothers’ summons, she developed a fuller picture of what was going on. None of them had really come to try to woo Elena or even to try to get her to invest her hereditary wealth in the kind of schemes the nobility and capitalists got up to for profit. Nobody had come for her.
All of them had been brought to Vogelheim on the promise of her brother’s attendance.
First in line to the throne, overwhelmingly the most powerful man in the Empire now.
That the conversations around the party managed to become about family businesses, the rare vintage of the wines on hand, the array of fashionable suits and dresses on display, and the rare natural beauty of Vogelheim, gave Elena a sense of relief. It also unveiled the stark truth of how little power and influence she had. Nobody had come to her birthday even just to suck up to her personally. And if they were paying attention to her it was because she was inviting scandal with a woman partner. Everyone assembled, at best, thought of her as a proxy to get to her brother and nothing more.
She might have been able to endure at least one or two marriage proposals to avoid having to swallow that bitter pill. But she made the best of it.
With Gertrude at her side, she immersed herself in the people around her, she smiled, she drank. She laughed politely at jokes. She put on a convincing show pretending to be impressed at the son of a cattle magnate or the daughter of a mining industrialist and their petty little ambitions.
As Bethany advised, Elena endured the night.