In times liked these, Alba Malcastria of Eridania had to remind herself that being a Princess was hardly a privilege. She remembered the many stories she read alone to the wavering candlelight, smelling the old pages of books penned a hundred years before. Tales by Perrault and Basile.
Each of those stories had a valiant prince and a beautiful princess.
To her young mind, that meant there was a prince out there for her, and maybe one of the ruling houses of Europe was waiting just for her.
But in just the few decades since those books had been printed, the evils of the French Revolution and the horrors of Napoleon’s folly had poisoned the well.
Poisoned it deeply.
Sitting in her studio, Alba had to remind herself that what she was doing was not a privilege. It was duty.
A privilege would have been grinding the scrawny neck of her Minister of Treasury and Finances.
That would have made her feel much, much better.
“What you are saying,” she hissed at the man, “what you are suggesting is high treason. How could We even entertain such a thought, mister Grimka?”
Grigorji Grimka was, unlike the usual caricature of bourgeois capitalists, a very thin and dry man. He dressed in red silk, but beyond that he did not ostentate what he owned. No jewels save for his wedding ring. No perfumes save for a faint cologne. She hated it. If he showed more outwards signs to be a wretch and a coward, she could more easily despise him.
He had been put there by her father three years before. She couldn’t understand how he could have made a similar mistake.
“Your Excellency, I am no politician,” he replied, holding up his hands. “Even though in our modern world politics and capital seem to become ever more mingled, I cannot make suggestions in any sense. What I mentioned was just a- philosophical question.”
“Oh, that’s how it is,” she replied with a grin, rapping her nails on the thick wooden table. “You just suggested We surrender Our entire Principality to the Austrians and call it a day. Or did We come up with a temporary case of deafness? What say you, Grimka?”
He regarded her from behind his thin glasses. He let out a long breath.
“Your Excellency, you twist my words. I merely look at the evidence. It is what I have been trained to do since childhood – look at reality how it is, not how we would like it to be. Eridania is surrounded by the Habsburg. We have no allies, no army, no money to pay for an army, and the expected resistance of wet paper tissue. If you may be so blunt.”
“We know all this very well,” she replied. “Are you here just to tire Our ears?”
“Then I beg you not to listen with just your ears! There is no possible course of action we can entertain, save for a mindless resistance attempt that will only make the invader all the more eager for blood. The Duke Sparagmos…”
Alba’s fingers curled.
Karl Heinrich Sparagmos.
She hated him even more than her craven Minister.
And he suggested he was this famous prince of her childhood stories? That man?
“… the Duke Sparagmos,” Grimka continued, “has come out with quite the generous offer. I know this is the kind of offer that invades the personal sphere of royal affairs…”
“It invades my bedroom chambers,” she interrupted with a hiss.
“Good Heavens, Princess, but that has been the law of the land ever since we stopped fishing with our bare hands!” He exclaimed, widening his arms. “It is expected for someone of your rank and beauty to use every tool at their disposal to assure peace and prosperity. Why refuse such a generous offer, when the transition would be mostly painless? A few stains of blood amidst the sheets, and we avoid rivers of blood spilled amidst the fields!”
Alba closed her eyes, her jaw set. She felt a spike of anger pierce her heart and if she did not do something, anything else but grab the closest pen and throw it at Grimke’s eyes for suggesting anything like that, sh-
“This conversation is over,” she whispered. “You are dismissed, Grimka.”
He frowned. Licked his lips as if to say something else, but in the end he stood up and gave her a mocking bow.
“Be is at it may. I beg you to remember that your father put me here for my ability to tell him the most unpleasant of facts, especially when he wanted to hear them the least. Unpleasantness, you will find, it’s the forge of long-lasting venues. Avoiding a solution because it goes against one’s wishes… it’s not.” One more bow and he left.
“That wretched bourgeois,” Alba balled her fists. “Jacobin! That’s what he is, a revolutionary in the guise of a Minister!”
She shut her eyes again, trying to remind herself that what she was doing was a duty.
And that the times when she could have one of her Ministers hung on the basis of her word were long past.
Above the ground, the situation worsened each day. Ugly reports about the state of their armies by the Captain of Grace and Justice – worse ones on their lagging economy by Grimka – and Andronikos completed the trifecta with more ugly news about their state and diplomacy affairs.
The only thing that kept her together was knowing she had one very particular ace up her sleeve.
One she had kept secret.
The clock’s bell echoed five times, pulling her out of her anger.
It was five in the afternoon.
Time for dinner.
Not for her, of course.
The Catacombs of Eridania were not the most pleasant place, at the best of time. As it was the end of spring, the old masonry oozed moss and dirty water, the remains of the entire castle’s kitchens, cultivations and even more unsavory activities.
But Alba had gotten used to it. She had put on a thick spare of clothes and proceeded through the ink-thick darkness, carrying a lamp and a lunchbox. Among the very few good things that had come out of the current crisis: her cooks did not marvel if she always wanted to eat in her rooms.
That she used a hidden passage in one of said rooms to reach the deepest parts of the Catacombs was a completely different matter.
She passed over the thin bridge running over the buried river, trembling a little over the slippery stone. The waterfalls roared from below and all she could see was volutes of foam coming up like flame-less smoke.
And past that, she had to walk through the abandoned village where every wall of every house was decorated by expressionless faces and masks. She felt another shiver run down her back, for different reasons this time.
Her lamp guided her through a deep corridor, over steps that had been cut into the sheer stone so many centuries before, leaving it as smooth as glass and just as reflective. In an orrery of reverbs, she found the nethermost chamber, opening up like a flower from the oldest bedrock of the mountain. A dozen reflections reached the center, where a deep dark pit looked back at her like an unblinking eye.
There did not seem to be anyone here.
“I have brought you dinner,” she said to the well. “I will leave it here, as promised.”
She set it next to the lip of the pit and turned back, sitting on the glassy steps.
She did not turn – it was one of the silent agreements they had, but she did look at the reflection of a pale woman, her extremely long hair covering her back like living ink, reach for the edge and pull herself up with one fluid movement.
She remembered her of the jellyfishes she had once seen in the water of Venice, when she had went there with her father years before.
The female figure opened her lunchbox and put out every item: bread, cut ham, juice, water, fruits and a few biscuits.
She ate the biscuits first, which always made Alba itch a little. She had been taught to always leave dessert for last, and she dared to eat it first!
Truly a demonic entity.
And nobody knew she had found her.
She had cracked the deepest mystery that rested beneath the city.
“Eat to your heart’s content,” Alba said. “Then we will have to talk a little more. Perhaps today I will find you more reasonable.”
Being a Princess was hardly a privilege. It was a duty and a heavy one at that. Being the Princess of a tiny little state in the middle of the Alps had its own share of particular problems.
In times like these, Alba had to remind herself that she was not like those princesses in her fables.
But, looking at the figure devouring her dinner, she wondered if Witches, instead, were.
Author’s Notes: one more piece set in the Witchbound universe. At this point, I’m really liking what these two have to offer. I might actually start a new novel with Alba’s story. On the other hand, I would still like to go back to Patina’s world. I suppose I will decide in the next few days.
At any rate, thanks for reading!