Excerpt: The Girl on the Stove

Galina’s father, the king, informed her that the visiting peasant was crude and disrespectful, a hussy with neither manners nor brains. Galina sighed at that but made little answer other than nodding. Obediently, she headed to the private chamber where the peasant awaited her. Using tact and charm with someone of a different social class, someone of limited mental capacity and terrible attitude, would be more difficult than her usual tasks, but she did not doubt she was up to the job. There had never been a man or woman she could not charm before, and it made no difference to her whether they were appealing or utterly distasteful.

A bit of an annoyance, of course, that her father would send her to gather information from someone so unworthy of her time, but she could do it. She paused outside the chamber door. Sighed. Braced herself. Set her face into a smile, and walked straight in.

The peasant girl was sitting on a stove at the other side of the room. The sight was a bit of a shock. While the king had told her that the peasant girl had arrived riding on a stove as only a witch or sorceress could, she had not quite processed that. At the least she had pictured in her mind some magnificent amalgamation of brick and stone, polished and perhaps scribed on in strange runes. But no, it was a simple hollow block of well baked clay that opened up to a steadily burning fire. Dirty, too, soot and ash smeared on it here and there. Clearly very old, and not even all that big, though heavy enough that try though she might, Galina could not picture it moving without a number of strong men carrying it. In a chamber of this sort, carved stone decorated with red and gold tapestries, it was distinctly out of place. Well, it would keep the room warm at least.

As for the girl, she was not quite what Galina had pictured. She was surprisingly plump and un-tanned for a peasant. It made her look like a wealthy woman despite her simple smock and apron. At first her pose was hunched like a beast, curled in on herself, but when she saw Galina enter, she straightened. She stood up on the stove at her full height (and she was taller than Galina would have guessed too, almost six feet) and bowed before sitting again. She did not get off the stove.

It was such an odd combination of reverence and disregard that Galina was unsure what to make of it. Was it rustic custom that made the peasant behave so? But surely her town was not so far from the capital as to have no knowledge of how to behave around royalty. And she had bowed—but now she sat while Galina stood, and her seat was elevated as well…

Galina cleared her throat. “My father sent me that I might entertain you during your visit to the capital.”

“He said he would,” the peasant said. Her eyes flickered over Galina, resting briefly on her face and crested headdress before flickering down, over her elegant gown and then down to the floor, where they remained fastened.

“He did not mention your name,” Galina said after a moment of silence. Only that she was a peasant and very crude and stupid.

“My name is Elena, princess,” the peasant said. She bowed again slightly, this time without even bothering to get up. “It’s an honor to meet you. I’ve never met a princess before.”

Galina, on the other hand, had met many peasants. Most of them had been servants, though, with a couple merchants thrown in for good measure. Certainly the king had never shown as much interest in a peasant as this.

Not that he was interested in Elena as a person. No one really interested the king personally. But there had been rumors that she possessed certain magical abilities, and the king was always interested in magic. He had decided as soon as he heard the rumors that he would learn the secret to her powers. But thus far, he had told Galina, Elena had refused to reveal it even when he had begged her, threatened her and reasoned with her. He did not want to use violence yet, but, he had told Galina, he would if he had to.

He could be hardheaded when it came to getting what he wanted. Focused, obsessive. A couple years back he had sent hunters chasing around the country to catch a golden leopard he had heard about. It had been ferocious, killing several men, but when it was caught the king had realized there was little he could do with it except put it in a cage. Now the leopard was sleek and lazy, a pet of the court, elegant in appearance but of very little use to anyone. And whatever magic Elena possessed was likely just as petty as a golden leopard.

Well, Galina would still try to wheedle it out of her. If the matter could be solved today, it didn’t need to be blown out of proportion. And she wouldn’t make nice with a member of the lower class longer than she had to.

She walked over to the stove and leaned against it, next to where its small chimney spouted out smoke. Smooth and warm, but not hot enough to burn. “Well, your inexperience is not surprising. There are not that many princesses out there, you know.” And in this country, she was the only one who was the king’s daughter, all the others being cousins and nieces. The highest ranked woman in the country since her mother’s death—not that she got much of that power for herself.

Elena nodded rapidly. She was still staring at the ground.

A bit annoyed, Galina let the smile slide off her face. She reached over and grabbed Elena’s chin, and tilted it up so that Elena looked her in the eyes. It was probably more appropriate for a peasant not to meet eyes with a princess, but it felt like Elena wasn’t even paying attention to her.

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