All the empty uniforms around Max gave him an idea. He found one his size and pulled it on. When the buckler clanged against a shield, he froze. The sounds below stopped. When they resumed, he slunk to the ladder on the side. Bold as brass, he descended it into the lit guard room. He moved around the edges. Only the silent scarred guard in the corner watched him, the others hadn’t even noticed his arrival. Max walked up to the princess and presented his elbow as an escort.
“I should be going. Nice work, fellas.” She took his arm and let him lead her away. After they were out of ear shot, she spoke. “Aren’t you the curious one? Nice to see you wearing something more descent.” She let go of his arm and pointed to a servant’s private stair. He followed close on her heels. As they passed a murder slit for shooting arrows, Max caught a glimpse of the outside of the triangle-shaped Keep. The fat outer walls housed most of the support staff and stables, but this inner building looked almost grown up like a teepee in the middle of the courtyard. The stair wound past an exit to every floor before arriving on the small flat area at the top of the almost-cone. In the center was a large hooded fire pit glowing with a freshly tended fire. The hood reached out to cover some benches that formed v-shapes to surround the central pit. She wound around the outside until they were on the side looking out into the distant valley, and then sat on a bench that looked out. Max joined her and took off his metal helmet. His wild black hair spilled out almost to his shoulders. She smiled.
“I’ve never heard you speak. Do you even know our language?”
“Ah, so you want this to be a game of 20 questions?”
“Do you know anything about our realm, other than what you’ve seen streaking by?”
He shook his head.
“I’m a princess. If I was wed, I would likely become a ruling queen, but not until. I’ve got many well-meaning regents and chaperones that keep trying to set me up with someone, but none have suited me. Have you ever heard of Joan of Arc?”
“I hear from God only quietly, but I refuse to marry anyone God doesn’t at least say something about. So far it has only been negative.”
She grew quiet and stared out into the pine-studded distance of snow. After a bit, she drew a breath, then sighed. “Sorry to bore you with the intrigues of court life, they seem to be the only real topic people care about, since they so define who I can be.”
“What would you rather be?”
She looked stunned. His accent held an exotic shape to every vowel. “I would rather be a novelist. Free to travel and explore, then use the experience to weave into my tales.”
“Who has money to travel? Most in this time don’t get a choice than to be a slave to the land holders. If they get to eat daily, they count themselves favored by Gott.”
She looked puzzled at his words, but savored them as she looked back out over the landscape.
“Where I come from, the power holders like to keep holding it, nothing changes on that front. But the playing field is very level, if not always comfortable if you’re on the wrong end of the social pyramid. We value nature and views like we’re enjoying now, but at the expense of the living quarters and where you’re allowed to live. When you have a job, you live at your work. When you have a kid, you live where the kids all live and have to take a job next to there, no matter the type of work.”
The stars began to twinkle through the clouds. Wind blew a little bit of snow off the stone floor around them and pulled it up and over the sides. A hatch door opened in the floor on the other side of the pit. Max put his helmet back on. The servant man who emerged had a bundle of wood and brought it over to their side of things.
“Nice evening to you, Miss.”
“And to you, George. Thank you for the lovely fire.”
“Always a pleasure for you, Ma’am.”
He worked the coals with the split logs and branches before leaving each of them behind as a part of the fire. When his wood was placed, he bowed and took his leave.
She held her hand out to Max. “I realize we haven’t been formally introduced. I’m princess Alexia.”
“Max. Pleased to make your acquaintance, Milady.”
He felt the slippery feeling begin again. Stood, took her offered hand, and disappeared as he kissed it.