“So, here is what we’ll do,” said Diego. He, Marisol, and Rachel were sitting together in the early morning light in the stables. Diego had brought food, and Rachel and Marisol munched on bread and apples while he spoke. “I can get in there myself, but I will need the two of you to keep watch for me, to warn me when her guards come back.”
“And while you’re inside, you’ll…what? Sing to her?” Marisol asked. The Maestro, after having instructed Marisol and Diego daily for an exhausting seven months, would be finally leaving for two days on an errand whose nature he refused to divulge. Diego was committed to seizing the opportunity to court a girl he’d seen while in the market. She was a princess of some kind, she’d come with the Prussians when they sent a delegation to Toledo. Diego had seen her and fallen instantly in love, returning several times to investigate the inn where she and her courtiers were staying. If Marisol or Rachel asked about the girl – if she was pretty, for instance, or if she was charming or witty – Diego would lapse into paroxysms of praise that grew increasingly elaborate and flowery. It was alternately entertaining and tiresome.
Now, however, after admiring her from afar, he was determined to meet her. He held up a sheaf of papers. “These are poems that I have composed for her, regarding her radiant beauty, her effortless grace, her flaxen hair, et cetera.” He passed them to Rachel, who idly flipped through them. “I have no doubt that between these poems and my own natural charm and handsomeness, she will fall immediately in love with me, we will be married, and I will be a prince of the Prussians.”
“These aren’t very good,” Rachel said. “You’ll have to be very charming.”
“Yes,” agreed Marisol. “I also wouldn’t say that you were handsome, necessarily. Maybe…pallid?”
“Squirrely,” offered Rachel.
Diego snatched his poems away and scowled at them. “First of all, neither of you know anything. Second of all, shut up. Are you going to help me or not?”
With the Maestro gone, there’d be no practice, and that meant there was nothing to do around the estate but clean it. “All right.” Marisol replied.
On the road to Toledo, Diego seemed practically to dance, floating along on a cloud of his buoyant adoration, feet barely touching the ground. Marisol – with her sword in its burlap sack slung over her shoulders like the yoke of an ox, and her broad-brimmed hat keeping the sun from her eyes – and Rachel followed behind, quietly amused by the spectacle Diego was making of himself.
It was mid-day when Marisol realized the fox was following them, skittering along in the bushes beside the road. Sometimes it would disappear for minutes at a time, then she would see it peeking out of the grass up ahead. Once she turned back, and saw it sitting in the middle of the road watching her incuriously. Was it the same fox that had led her to find that strange circle of dead men? The more distant the memory became, the more certain she was that she’d dreamed it all, and that the fox that led her there had been a dream as well.
She debated telling Diego and Rachel about him.
The thought somehow didn’t feel right, and when she realized that Rachel saw him, slinking along the road – when Rachel put two fingers beside her lips and spit, and the fox slipped off into the surrounding fields – Marisol felt that some secret of hers had been violated. The fox belonged to her, even if she had dreamt it, it wasn’t anyone else’s to scare away.
When Rachel saw Marisol staring at her, she shrugged and said, “Foxes are bad luck.”
They reached Toledo by the evening and Marisol was a little surprised to see just how much it had changed since she’d left. The Prussians, formerly confined only to Granada, had come in great numbers to the city, and they’d surrounded it with ramshackle camps, dense with huge hide tents and rickety, hastily-erected wooden buildings. Black, savory smoke rose in scattered columns; the camps smelled of fire, roasted meat and sour beer, of sweat and filth, an overpowering miasma that Marisol noticed long before the spreading camps became a dark stain on the horizon.
“She’s not in here, is she?” Marisol said, making a face.
“No,” said Diego as they wound through the camp. “She and her…courtiers, I suppose…are staying at an inn over the bridge.”
“Why are there so many of them?” Rachel wondered. “What are they all doing here? I thought they were just going to be in Granada.”
“I don’t know,” said Diego. “They’ve been moving up here for months, though. I keep seeing more every time I come into town.”
The camp was loud and busy, filled with noisy laughter and men and women speaking in their clattering language. Pots and pans banged, men shouted, dogs barked. Someone in the distance was singing lustily and probably drunkenly. No one paid Marisol and her friends any mind, and there were a handful of other travelers –equally ignored — who joined them on the bridge by the Gate of the Sun. The gate was open and no one hindered them, but the two Spanish guards eyed the sprawling encampment with bitter expressions on their faces.
The city was strangely subdued, as Diego led Marisol and Rachel through its winding streets. It wasn’t empty, but it wasn’t thronging with crowds either, and the people who were there moved quickly and never lingered, eager to be about their business and back in their homes. It had the feel of a city perpetually watching over its shoulder, made anxious by strangers standing too near.
The inn where Diego’s fabled Prussian Princess was reportedly staying was a handsome, three-storey, building. It was well-maintained and had many wide windows. It boasted no sign, though, and its common room appeared empty. Diego said this was because the Prussian court, jealous of its privacy, had rented all the rooms for themselves and asked the innkeepers to turn away everyone else. There were lights on in the windows – all the orange flicker of candlelight, except for one. The corner window on the third storey was illumined by the steady, sickly-white glow of witchlight.
“Here,” said Diego, pulling them into an alley nearby, that gave a clear view of the front door. “Now, listen. Most of the people inside are the princess’s ladies-in-waiting, I think. Her father and his advisors are on the top floor, but whatever they’re doing in there, they don’t come out often. She has one guard, who leaves around nightfall to check in with the camp outside, usually for about an hour.”
“How do you know all this?” Rachel asked.
“I paid one of the serving girls to spy on them for me. She’s also going to let me in once the guard leaves.”
“It seems pretty strange,” said Marisol, “to only have one guard. Are you sure she’s a princess?”
“Well, what else would she be? They’ve rented out the whole inn. She’s at least a countess. Look – look! The guard! There he is!”
A man emerged from the inn. He was very pale, almost luminous in the darkening evening, and he had dark hair and drooping moustache. He walked by where Marisol and her friends hid, oblivious to their presence, and Marisol realized that he was huge. Not just tall, though he was fully a handspan taller than she was, and she was at least as tall as most men, but broad and thick. He had wide shoulders, legs like tree trunks, and a chest that looked like someone had thrown a jacket over a barrel. He seemed like he ought to shake the earth as he walked by, like if he brushed up against the wall of a house it would collapse like a cheap set.
The man wore the intricate uniform of the Prussians, a leather doublet and breeches, heavy leather boots, all strewn about with leather straps and steel rings that jangled as he walked, and epaulets on his shoulders made of some dark gray fur. He had a thick knife in his belt but carried no other weapons, and didn’t really look like he needed any.
“That’s the guard?” Rachel asked.
“Yes. Rachel, you need to wait around the kitchen entrance in the back—“
“And he’s going to be gone for an hour?”
“Maybe an hour, yes. Marisol, you watch the front door—“
“What happens when he comes back and smashes all your bones with his hands?”
“He’s not going to do that,” Diego said, exasperated, “because you are going to warn me when you see him.”
“Why, so he can smash my bones?”
“No, he won’t even come around the back, he’s going to come in through the front probably—“
“Oh,” said Marisol, “so the plan is for him to smash my bones.”
“He’s not going—“
“Did you even see him?” Rachel said. “He looks like a bear that accidentally joined the army, and then everyone was too afraid to tell him to leave so they just let him have a uniform and a huge knife.”
“All the Prussians look like that,” said Diego, dismissively. “Now look, when you see him coming, I’ll be in the room there, on the second floor, third window from the right. You stand outside and make a noise like a crow, can you do that?”
Rachel and Marisol both somewhat awkwardly attempted passable imitations of the bird in question, and Diego allowed that this would be sufficient.
“You may also need to distract him for a few minutes when he gets back,” Diego said, already heading towards the inn.
“What?” Marisol asked. “How?” But Diego was gone, disappeared around the corner. “Well. He is going to get one or all of us killed.”
“Yes,” said Rachel brightly. “But at least he’ll get to spend a few minutes with his pretty princess, first.”
“She had better be very pretty,” Marisol muttered. She took her sword from its burlap sack, and took up a position near the door of the inn, while Rachel went around the back. Marisol attempted a number of different attitudes, ranging from casually leaning against the wall, to wandering back and forth with an air of disinterest. None of these felt suitably inconspicuous, so instead she just sat next to the door and tugged the brim of her hat down low. Maybe passers-by would think she was a beggar, and so would conscientiously ignore her.