The Handmaiden

It was already late June now but felt like the last days of winter rather than spring. Juliette wondered if the dredges of winter had followed them all the way from the Black Forest and decided that today was the day to have its last assault before giving way to the summer’s warmth.

Couldn’t it have picked another day? she thought angrily, For goodness sake.

She didn’t exactly have clothes to last the entire spring, but the one late spring or early summer dress she’d bought with the intention of wearing it in Paris to procure a job wouldn’t stand up to the chill of the day alone unless she wanted to arrive at the palace shivering and pale.

“Are you alright?” Adolf asked from across the room as she paced.

“I’m fine. The weather is just ruining everything.”

She had been saving this dress since Freiburg for her first proper interview. It along with two others were the only nice dresses she had. Wearing her tattered coat from Germany would not help her at all since she was interviewing at the palace in Versailles.

“How so?’

“My interview is today, and I can’t wear this nice dress with a tattered coat!” She worried her lip and turned, “Do you have a coat I can borrow perhaps?”

Even a men’s coat would be better than the near threadbare coat she owned.

“I thought Percival gave you furs.”

She frowned and turned to the place in her closet where she’d put them. She had forgotten about them, assuming them to be gifts to help and planning on keeping them until she desperately needed the money.

“But he said I should sell them.”

Adolf snorted, “He said for you to have them and gave you a price to sell them for– that’s not the same thing.”

“Well,” she said. “I suppose just this once.”

Adolf snorted, “Right.”

Adolf shook his head as Juliette pulled the furs down from the shelf. After realizing that one was lighter than the other, she opened the lighter parcel and gasped. She knew that one had been a rabbit, but she had never guessed that it would be this brilliant white or that he’d turned it into such a beautiful fur wrap. The clasp was made of swirling silver, gold, and a touch of gray-black metal around a jewel setting. The wrap would go perfectly with her pale green dress and its gold trim.

“It’s beautiful,” Juliette gasped, walking to the mirror to slip it over her shoulders.

Once it was clasped, the length of the adjoining chain and clasp adjusted until it was just snug enough around her shoulders. Juliette stared at herself in the mirror and Adolf wondered for not the first time exactly what had drawn Juliette to Paris. Perhaps it was the young woman she was seeing in the mirror.

“You look great,” Adolf said. “I’m sure you’ll do fine. You might even find a young lord who wants to take you out.”

Juliette snorted, “The lords who would be in Paris at this time wouldn’t be worth the trouble.”

She turned back to Adolf.

“One day, I’ll have enough money to buy something like this on my own.”

Adolf smiled, “And that’s the dream, isn’t it?”

“That and to show my parents that a daughter can make just as much fortune as a son,” she said. “And keep it for herself.”

Adolf chuckled, “Well go on, you have a bright future ahead of you.”

She nodded and grabbed her purse. With one last check inside, she left the house and walked to the transport stop.

The trip to Versailles was a long one, but one that gave her enough time to gather her thoughts and her nerves. She had come to Paris with the intention to do well for herself, by herself. To make something more of herself than some pretty face that her parents could essentially sell to the highest bidder or their uneducated caretaker. Getting a job at the palace, whatever that job would be, would be the first step in doing that.

She walked in through the front entrance and followed the knight to a parlor.

“Good luck,” he said with a bow of his head before knocking and announcing her.

“Come in,” a bright voice said.

Juliette straightened her spine, lifted her head and opened the door. When Juliette entered the parlor, Mirabelle and Desiree shared a glance, and Juliette had a strange feeling that she wasn’t what they expected. She was three years older than Desiree and just a year younger than Mirabelle.

She had crafted her resume to present herself as a young woman who had worked hard for where she was, someone who had clawed her way out of her circumstances and was now climbing higher.  She hoped that somewhere in the words they also saw someone who could be trusted to be at the youngest princess’ side in whatever capacity she would need short of court assassinations. It wasn’t the most glamorous job, nor would it pay her the best, but it was several steps above many of the jobs she had found while searching.

Calm down, Juliette, you’re getting ahead of yourself.

Even the most basic job in the palace would do, she need not be Princess Desiree’s handmaiden. Any job would do since she was running through her savings faster than she would have liked due to the more recent shifts in expenses.

“Hello Juliette,” Mirabelle said standing to shake her hand.

“Your Highness,” Juliette said, “Forgive me, I was under the impression that I would be meeting with the estate executive.”

“We are the estate executives,” Mirabelle said kindly, “Shocking, yes?”

“Not terribly,” Juliette said, “Forgive me, I know only what most know about the working of the Parisian court.”

“Well, you are from Zephyrine, it would stand to reason,” Desiree said, “Please, sit down.”

Juliette took a seat, and Desiree tilted her head in the picture of curiosity as she eyed Juliette’s shoulders.

“Before we begin,” Desiree said, “Are you wearing a Lang fur?”

Juliette’s eyes widened and she flinched at the idea, “No. Goodness, no. I don’t think there will be anyone in my family for the next few centuries who could ever afford a Lang fur.”

She was nervous just thinking about ever owning something so expensive at the moment. She would only ever be that frivolous if she could absolutely afford it, and she had not reached that level yet. Never mind that Lang furs were things sold in boutique shops in Germany, not given randomly in forests. Desiree tilted her head as her gaze focused on the clasp that held the wrap around Juliette’s shoulders.

“Are you certain of that?” Desiree asked.

“I,” Juliette frowned, “I am fairly certain. It was a gift from a man I traveled with from Freiburg. I’m not highly educated, but I know that people don’t tend to give Lang furs away to practical strangers.”

“Oh?” Mirabelle asked.

Juliette unclasped it and pulled it from around her shoulders, “Yes. he was quite kind to me if a little mysterious. He is actually the reason why I applied to work at the palace.”

“Does he work here?”

“Oh, I’m not sure, but he said that, per the gossip of merchants, the palace was always hiring.”

Desiree laughed at that and Juliette found that it wasn’t as annoying or as hollow as she expected it to be. She knew of Desiree as the youngest princess. She knew too that Paris whispered about her and called her a brat, yet Juliette wasn’t sure what to make of the fact that the woman sitting before her was an executor of the royal estate alongside her older half-sister. Princess Mirabelle was a mystery to Paris and the entire French country. Aside from the fact that she was the fourth eldest of the Roi’s children, and the elder twin of Prince Galen, no one knew much else about her.

Something told Juliette that the Parisian court and all the whispers floating around Paris were only that way because Desiree and Mirabelle wanted them that way. Whatever the two aimed to do within the palace, or with all of France, was a plan that only they and, maybe, their father knew.

“Well, yes,” Mirabelle said with a chuckle, “It is a rare thing for someone to part with a Lang fur for any reason.”

“It is. In Germany, families have passed them down for generations, but I watched him tan this and the other one he gave me on the way here,” Juliette turned the wrap over to look at the lining of it, “Lang furs always have the family crest on the inside right beside the–”

She choked and froze in her seat. There beside the fastenings of the clasp on the inside of the wrap was the Lang family crest softly glowing in its unmistakable glory. On the back of each part of the clasp was the crest of the Leonhard family.

Sweet gods, Percival had given her Lang furs.

“Percival is a Lang?” she gasped.

“It seems that it will take much less than centuries for you to afford a Lang fur,” Desiree said with a smirk, “Let alone two.”

Juliette scoffed a laugh, “He simply gave them to me. I did nothing for them.”

“You would be surprised what people hold as valuable,” Mirabelle said, “He apparently felt you worthy of them.”

Juliette considered it and wondered at what point she’d done anything worth this. In her mind, she’d only talked his ear off and accepted whatever Percival had deigned to give her with nothing to thank him with other than a humble “thank you.”

She folded the fur in her lap and regarded the princesses as they began the interview. Though she answered the questions and marketed herself well, her mind turned towards where Percival was in this city of lights and what he was thinking tanning Lang furs in the forest and simply giving them to her.

At the end of the interview, Desiree tells her that she’s been hired as her personal handmaiden and that she would start work the following day at an hour before noon. Juliette thought it an odd time, but Juliette instructed her to wear her fur as it would be cold the next day. She would be entertaining company and would need Juliette there. She’d left with a grateful thank you and went straight to the library to pick up as many books about court etiquette and geopolitics as she could.

When she arrived back at their shared townhome, Adolf was at his writing desk working on what she could only assume to be his resume. His suit was pressed and hanging beside the desk with a cloak she’d never seen before and a brooch that was at once interesting and strangely beguiling.

“That looks new,” Juliette said, “When’d you get that?”

“The cloak? I brought it with me from Germany,” he said with a soft sigh as he looked up at the cloak, “Percival’s father gave it to me.”

Juliette licked her lips, “Right… did you know that Percival is a Lang? And I was talking about the brooch. It’s very interesting.”

“Yes. I’ve known him and his family since we were kids, and Percival gave it to me.”

He set down his pen and turned to her, “How’d it go and what is with all the books?”

“Studying. I’ve been hired as Princess Desiree’s handmaiden and something tells me that I won’t be dressing her for her days.”

Adolf chuckled, “Oh? Helping her fend off suitors?”

“She said it I would need to learn on my feet,” Juliette said and sat down at her desk with her books, “I don’t know what that means, but I have an idea of what women of that level of power tend to talk about. I start an hour before noon tomorrow.”

“An hour before noon?” Adolf asked with a scoff, “That is the palace for you. Are you expected to wake her up?”

“She said that her machinations don’t start until noon when the rest of the court is active.”

What that could mean, she didn’t know, but she would do her best to be knowledgeable about what she could guess would be discussed and learn all she could in the days to come.

She set the books aside and pulled out a piece of paper and began to draft a letter to Percival using the address that Adolf had for him.

“I thought you knew he was a Lang.”

“Why would I know that?” Juliette asked.

Adolf frowned, “The furs obviously.”

Juliette groaned, “Not every fur maker in Germany is a Lang.”

“I meant the crest.”

“I didn’t look.”

Adolf shrugged, “Well, now you know. Did the Princess ask you about your wrap?”

“She did,” she said, “And I told her how I got it… I don’t know if that had any bearing on my hiring or not, but…”

“Connections to a very prominent merchant family?” Adolf said with a smirk, “Probably.”

Juliette would have agreed with him, but there seemed to be something more than that in the way that Desiree had looked at her. It was calculating, and Mirabelle’s gaze had felt like visiting a Seer in old Germany a little. She didn’t know if Mirabelle or Desiree had any magical abilities, but she knew that they did not make decisions lightly if they were truly the executors of the estate.

So why hire me so quickly?

She shook the thought away and focused on drafting the letter to Percival before eating dinner, reading for an hour and turning in for bed.

The next day was as cold as the day before, and it seemed that she wouldn’t be parting with either of the furs for some years to come. Per Desiree’s request, she wore the wrap with the second dress she had reserved for working at the palace. She dropped the letter off to a postmaster at the palace when she arrived.

The knight who had escorted her in the day before gave her a kind smile and told her that Desiree was expecting her in the Snow Parlor. After writing down the directions to the room, she made her way through the halls until she was stopped by a voice that made her think of the rich, young women she used to serve and trick into teaching her French from their lesson books.

“Is that a Lang Fur?”

She turned towards the source of the voice as two courtesans approached her. The leader of the two with dark brown eyes and a sneer that made Juliette want to punch her looked down her nose and eyed the clasp on Juliette’s wrap.

Her companion snorted and sneered at Juliette from within her dainty hood, “As if a servant could afford a Lang fur even if she is German and knew them personally. It is obviously an imitation; have you no eye for quality?”

Juliette lifted her head and met the woman’s gaze squarely, “Have you none? What you believe me to be wearing or not, is not my concern, but to insult the quality of this gift affronts me, and for your information, it is a Lang fur, a new one at that.”

The women gasped at her words and stumbled for a reply, but Juliette did not heed either of them, “If you’ll excuse me, I have work to attend to.”

Juliette walked around the two affronted women and continued on the path towards the Snow Parlor. When she arrived she knocked on the door.

“Come in,” Desiree’s voice seemed light much like it had been during her interview.

Juliette entered to see Desiree sitting by the window with no door. The parlor was decorated in a crystal blue and white with gleaming silver detailing on the walls. While the room was beautiful, it was a rather odd choice for such a cold day. She closed the door behind her and pulled her attention away from the beauty of the room.

“Juliette,” Desiree smiled, “So glad you found your way here. I’m expecting guests.”

A knock sounded behind her.

“Come in,” Desiree said airly as Juliette crossed the room to stand off to the side.

The shift in her voice was almost too subtle to notice, but Juliette could almost feel it. There was a sense of snobbish superiority lacing her tone now as if she simply tolerated whoever was coming in. The two courtesans from the corridor entered and shivered at the coolness of the room.

“Good afternoon, your Highness.”

The two of them narrowed their eyes at Juliette and shivered before looking at Desiree who was completely unbothered by the cold in her cloak. If Desiree was right, she wore a Lang cloak of the same era as Juliette’s wrap. She wondered if Percival’s parents had made it or if maybe he had as something about the entire encounter was beginning to click in the back of her mind.

“Do come in and have a seat.”

“I am surprised your Highness has taken to giving such gifts to your servants,” the brunette with dark eyes said, “Especially a new hire.”

“Well, you see, that is where you are wrong. Juliette hails from Freiburg, and on her way here, she traveled with a man who gifted her such a fine wrap for simply being the remarkable woman that she is,” Desiree met Juliette’s gaze with a trickster’s smile, “To inspire such graciousness and connection in someone you are simply traveling with in a caravan is a mark of a young woman well worth a chance to better her station in life and well worth hiring and keeping.”

Desiree looked away giving Juliette just a moment to catch her breath and her bearings. The two courtesans seemed to flush as they took seats on the low couch.

“You are, of course, right, your Highness.”

“Now,” Desiree said, “Enough about my hiring decisions. Has your brother returned from Switzerland yet?”

As the women began to talk, Juliette prayed that at least Adolf’s day was going well as she attended the meeting with all the cunning she had in her body. When they left, she and Desiree returned to Desiree’s quarters at which time she explained that the two ladies were only of importance because of their families.

One of them had a brother who was in trading and had a hand in the ports that dealt with most of the trade from Bavaria. The other’s father was a merchant who did most of his work in northern France along the border of a Baden-Württemberg.

“Your sister and brother-in-laws?” Juliette frowned, and Desiree smiled, “Those are territories of Zephyrine. Why would you have an interest in them?”

“Oh, dear Juliette,” Desiree chuckled wryly, “I’m not interested in the territory. I’m interested in keeping tabs on my sister, her conniving husband, and their lackey.”

“You mean keep tabs on their economic standing?”

“How do you stage a coup without funding? Any fluctuations on what is being traded, how much, and for how much could be an issue. I’ve been keeping as close of a tab on Benoit, Simone, and Cornielle since Simone and Benoit married and he was titled.”

Juliette worried her lip. She had family in Bavaria and knew that things had changed a bit since Benoit had taken over two years prior. Things had changed in Baden-Württemberg last year when Cornielle had taken over, and the change had prodded her to seek her fortune elsewhere. She wondered if Desiree was looking to find out the meaning and origins of those changes.

“You have something on your mind?”

Juliette hesitated but she decided that whatever Desiree had planned, it likely wasn’t nefarious, “If you’re interested in the specifics of what goes through Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg, might I suggest looking into a merchant for the outer towns near Stuttgart then?”

Desiree poured herself a cup of tea, “Go on, what is on your mind?”

Juliette bit her lip and looked at the map on Juliette’s wall.

“If a coup is a concern, the suspicious trade you’re looking for wouldn’t come from within Zephyrine or Zephyrine-loyal territories like Switzerland. You should be more worried about what might come down the Rhine from the Netherlands or somewhere English affiliated even somewhere in Germany. Marquis Thibault and Nihel are loyal to the Grande Duc, but Stuttgart and the neighboring towns are close enough to the border to be problematic and they have their own port. If there would be anything suspicious coming through old Germany, it would be Stuttgart because of the knights there.”

Juliette hummed, “The Knights of Stuttgart are a problem?”

She snorted, “They are greedy and selfish in recent years, but I would not call them a problem other than being easily manipulated. Besides, the merchants that you have connections to via family most likely deal with large trade rather than transport and all transport across Baden-Württemberg is directed out from Stuttgart.”

“Why is that?”

“Because of the Black Forest,” Juliette frowned at the question, “You… don’t know much about how old Germany works do you?”

She smiled, “Well dear Juliette, that is precisely why I hired you.”

Juliette’s eyes widened, “You…”

“All the handmaidens we interviewed were from old Germany,” Juliette said, “As it’s the only place neither I nor Mirabelle has direct or indirect contact with. It just so happened that you were the only one from Baden-Württemberg.

“Why… not ask the Grande Duc?”

“You don’t know much about how Zephyrine proper works, do you?” Desiree asked, “The Grande Duc is swamped with keeping us alive from border attacks and the idiocy of the Duc of Tangier to worry about potential threats. He checks in as often as he can, but you and I both know that when you expect an inspection it is easy to make it seem like everything is running smoothly. Besides, the knight force in Baden-Württemberg and Bavaria are all French.”

Juliette hummed, “I see your point. I am confused as to what it is you want from me.”

Desiree grinned, “While being a handmaiden is the title, I don’t need someone to dress me. I need a confident, a second set of ears that can go where I can’t inside and outside of the palace. It certainly helps that you already have a connection to Baden-Württemberg.

“You… want a spy,” Juliette said, “But why Baden-Württemberg? Why not Bavaria?”

Juliette smirked, “Simone and Benoit are at least smart enough not to have anything that could look remotely treacherous happening in their borders. Cornielle is their puppet. If there is anything in Bavaria, it is so deeply hidden in the books that only the Grande Duc would have access to it.”

Desiree poured herself a cup of tea, “Rest assured that you won’t be asked to do anything against your morals or anything that could put you in danger. All I need from you is to simply gather information and provide me with an understanding of old Germany so that I can figure out what Simone and Benoit are planning. The Grande Duc and my father are quite close, and we as allied nations tend to help one another as needed especially with threats that come from within.”

Her expression turned grim as she poured tea into the cup, “Make no mistake that my sister, Simone, and that husband of hers are nothing less than a threat. Would you like tea? Mirabelle picks the best.”

“Sure,” Juliette swallowed as Desiree poured her a cup and slid it over to her, “A threat to… who?”

Desiree looked at her, “France and Zephyrine as a whole.”

Juliette lifted the teacup and took a deep breath, “It seems like we have much to discuss then. As much as I don’t like my family, I don’t want to see them harmed.”

“Fantastic. Mirabelle said she had a good feeling about you,” Desiree grinned and lifted her cup to her, “And I figured that anyone who tricks the upper class into giving her an education for the price of dusting mirrors is an ally to have.”

Juliette flushed as Desiree took a sip of her tea and hummed, “There are things you’ll have to be taught to fulfill this role, but I should think that once all is said and done you will have everything you need to secure any job you’d like in politics or any other field.”

Juliette nodded, “Well, when can we start?”

Desiree pulled a scroll from beside her and unfurled it across the table. It was a map of old Germany and France with several notes along the border notating who Desiree knew that traded with certain cities and for certain wares. Juliette couldn’t believe that anyone had such a map.

“Right now.”

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