The winter garden of the princess was half a labyrinth of oleander and rose bushes. The flowery scent in the air relaxed Katherine's senses and lightened her steps. From afar, she heard a melodic voice talking long before she spotted the white-clothed table between the greenery.
The princess was not alone but had another lady as well as a few of her servants surrounding her. Both women wore bright dresses but that was as far as their resemblance went. When the princess was a dark beauty, the other woman was pale and as thin as a stick. Her brown hair, brushed up in a stiff sphere, seemed to be an elongation of her already long horse-face.
"Your highness." Heads swirled around as Katherine curtsied. Behind her, Hazel curtsied even deeper. As the princess motioned them to get up, Hazel stepped back in waiting.
"Lady Balder", the princess said. "How wonderful to see you. Please take a seat." Then she turned back to the other lady. "Lady Hardy, I believe there is nothing to discuss anymore. Just do what I told you and if there is trouble with your father, you can come find me again."
With a sickly smile, the horse-faced lady curtsied. "As you wish, your highness."
She swept past Katherine, not without giving her a discontented glare. Obviously, she hadn't expected to be thrown out for someone else. Rising her brows, Katherine stared after her before remembering the princess' invitation. She walked over to the small table and sat down opposite the princess, like the two delicate tea-sets suggested.
A butler in a black suit came over to pour them tea, while two maids placed a cake and chocolate muffins on the table.
"Milk or sugar?", the princess asked. The tiny bells hanging from her silver tiara jingled lightly whenever she moved.
"Sugar, please. Thank you for the invitation, your highness.", Katherine said courteously.
Princess Helmina nodded elegantly and gestured for the butler to bring the sugar. "Actually, I'm very curious about you. A noble lady dares to engage with someone from the enemy county and even come to the capital, surrounded by enemies. That's very courageous, if you ask me. Admirable."
Katherine glanced to the side, a bit embarrassed and happy at the same time. "It just happened this way."
"Oh, I don't think it's this simple. It must have been a hard decision. I wonder what was important enough to follow through.", the princess pondered, before a small cease appeared between her slender black brows. "You weren't forced, were you?"
"What? No, no, absolutely not!", Katherine declared firmly. "Why would you think that?"
Taken aback by the suddenly powerful response, princess Helmina leaned back into her armchair. Irritation made her wave her pink fan in front of her face as she scrutinized Katherine. Then, as if coming to a decision, she closed it and laid it away.
Without the fan, her bearing turned way less distant. A slight smile crossed her lips. "Looks like I was overly worried. You know how the society works: sometimes women are forced to do things they don't want. Especially woman of aristocrat families. I founded an organization that helps women in bad circ.u.mstances, so I became more conscious of such matters. Luckily I overthought this time."
The sudden explanation surprised Katherine. Was the princess normally this considerate? It didn't match the image Katherine got on their first meeting where she criticized the prince heavily. Though the prince surely deserved the scolding.
Maybe she is nicer to women?, Katherine deliberated. If she founded such an organization and from the way she carried herself, this was very possible. The organization also explained the conversation with lady Hardy. Maybe the horse-faced lady had trouble with her father, seeking the princess out for help. Princess Helmina was really a kind woman at heart.
Katherine smiled. If it was for a good purpose, she didn't mind helping. Many nobles did charity work to please the lower classes. It was not surprising for the princess to do the same. However, she shouldn't lift all her secrets yet, since she didn't know the princess for long. "Founding such an organization is the real admirable thing. If there is anything that I can help you with, please ask. I might not look like it, but I learned a bit of medicine in my youth."
The princess' grey eyes glittered. "I will come back at that. Though we are working together with some hospitals, many women refuse to go there out of fear to be found out by their husbands or parents. Especially if the other party is very influential. Being visited by another lady like you is the perfect disguise."
"Then I'll be happy to help", Katherine said and tasted her tea before putting some more sugar into it. Maybe they let it brew too long for it was a bit too bitter for her taste.
The princess meanwhile drank it without any sugar. Maybe she liked the bitterness. "Now, tell me more about your future husband. I heard he's quite a cold character, so how did the two of you fall in love?"
Surprised, Katherine's hand shook and tea splashed on her hand and dress. Setting the cup down, she hastily dabbed at the stains, not daring to look the princess in the eye. Her ears turned hot. "In - in love?"
"Aren't you?" The princess lifted a brow, the gesture so closely matching a certain someone that Katherine would have stared at it with an open mouth if she had seen. Yet now, Katherine was too occupied with her own mess. The princess moved not a finger to help her. "Aren't you in love?"
The pressuring question only made Katherine more nervous. Her heart was beating wildly as if something frightful was bound to happen. But before her mind could catch up, her mouth blurted out loudly: "Of course I am!"
The statement echoed through the formerly quiet winter garden. Suddenly, Katherine felt so tiny in comparison. She wanted to hit her head against a wall. Why would she scream it out loud? They were fake betrothed, alright? She shouldn't have real feelings for him! No, she didn't have real feelings for him!
Performing, performing, I'm only performing, Katherine tried to calm herself down. She bit her lip. What a slip-up. The princess might already be creeped out by her sudden yell.
Gathering her courage together, Katherine held her head high, though she just wanted to vanish in the ground. Now that is had already come so far, she needed to continue with the act. So, she looked the princess right in the eye. "I really love him very much. It's just that our love-story is something so intimate to me... I never told it to someone before."
Lowering her eyes on the plates, the princess pursed her lips. "Very intimate you say? How is that possible when he doesn't even want to touch you?"
Katherine froze. The words were like a sharp sword stabbing her where it hurt the most. Even after more than a month, Nathaniel still shied away from her touch. Never once had she felt his bare skin. But how could the princess know that?! Was she observing them? She couldn't know what they'd done behind closed door or before they arrived in the capital. Nathaniel was the only one who knew. He had no reason to tell anyone, had he?
Following this assumption, the only way she could find out, was because she guessed it. And how could she guess it? If she knew the reason why Nathaniel didn't want to touch her!
Just as Katherine reached this deduction, the princess shook her head. The silver bells jingled lightly. "Such a pity. You love him so much but he... never had a place left for you in his heart since long ago."