"Your Highness, perhaps we should...turn back?"
Her Royal Highness Princess Jacqueline of Chevudon sat up straighter in her saddle. In the village, they had warned them not to ride on to their next stop, but Jacqueline hadn't been able to believe the truth of their tales. There was, after all, no such thing as a giant.
From where they sat, reining in their nervous horses at the edge of the enormous clearing, it seemed perhaps a bit more possible that a giant could exist. Exist, and live deep within the forest upon a few acres of cleared land and an uncommonly tall cottage.
She squared her shoulders. "Don't be foolish. This man owes taxes to the kingdom, and we must collect."
At her side, Groff, secretary to the tax bureau, sat upon his pack mule, nervously flipping through a leather satchel of papers. "I agree, Your Highness, but you see, the last person to try and collect from Andras Karlaff received quite the blow to the head. The poor fellow doesn't know how to count anymore. We let him sweep up our pencil shavings in the office.
Jacqueline rolled her eyes. "Please stop calling me 'your highness'. I am supposed to be incognito. Besides, I doubt this Andras Karlaff is enough of a brute to manhandle an unarmed woman."
Groff tried to stammer a protest, but Jacqueline would hear no more. "Really, if you're so frightened, ride back to the village, and wait for me there."
The man had a brilliant mind for organization, but no concept of bravery or loyalty. He bowed his head and urged the mule to turn back, then set his heels to the animal and nudged it into a brisk trot down the path.
"Coward," she grumbled to her own mount, the majestic steed Vambrace, who she'd won from her do-nothing brother in a dice game. At the thought of Philipe, her hands clenched on the reins. All her brother ever did was gamble, drink, and fuck. And while all of those things were tremendous fun in moderation, it was damnably unfair to do them all the time when one was set to inherit the throne. Especially, when one's sister felt duty-bound to pick up the slack.
That's not really why you're out here, she chided herself, and she swore under her breath. It was a bit of the reason, though she much preferred her big feather bed to a palette on the ground and her gowns to the trousers and tricorn of the tax collector's uniform. If she returned to the palace and all of its comforts, she delivered herself directly into the hands of the man she most wished to avoid: her fiance, Gilbert de Villchard.
She clucked to Vambrace and ducked beneath a low-hanging pine bough. She'd ridden all over the kingdom, for weeks, collecting taxes in the guise of an average working class citizen of Chevudon. Never once had anyone guessed her identity, not with her plain clothes and road-side hygiene. She'd become rather proud of the fact she'd gone weeks without a dresser, toilette servants, a coiffureiste. Her dark locks were free for the first time in memory of the powder and flour that stiffened court hairstyles, her skin clear and smooth in the absence of the arsenic her maid liberally applied to the royal cheek every morning. Jacqueline had even prepared her own food, free at last from the worry of poison in her dish. She almost preferred this kind of honest, tedious work to the bored pampering of court life.
Of course, a large part of that "almost" related directly to the structure that loomed in front of her. She guided her horse down the narrow path between the fields that crowded the clearing, and peered up at the cottage. Smoke puffed from the chimney, and yet no one had come out to see who visited this isolated croft. Very strange, indeed.
A single section of split-rail fence stood moldering at the edge of the field nearest the cottage. She slid from Vambrace's back and tethered him to the post, though it had rotted so that tying the animal was merely a formality. She smoothed the front of her sapphire silk vest and shook out the full sleeves of her linen shirt. Adjusting her tricorn hat upon her head, she took the steps up to the door and knocked sharply upon it. "Open in the name of our sovereign King Albart!" she called, rather impressively, in her opinion.
The door creaked ajar slightly, and a deep voice issued from the scant opening. "What do you want?"
A shiver crawled up her back. "I am here to collect taxes from you. Our records indicate that you have not paid in ten years, is that correct?"
"No one has been brave enough to collect," the voice growled, and Jacqueline stepped back.
Immediately, she realized her error. This was exactly how the man had dodged paying for years. Build a towering cottage, put about that you're a giant, and no one would bother you. Very clever, if not for her superior intelligence. "I must insist that you step outside and converse with me in a civilized fashion!"
She moved down the steps and waited for the undoubtedly short man to come out and face his justice. When the door opened and was seemingly filled with person, it took her a moment to realize her error. And though the door was at least six feet tall, the person had to stoop down to step through it.
Her throat flexed as she convulsively swallowed, tilting her head up, up, up to look into the face of Andras Karlaff.
If she had to guess, she would have figured him at eight feet tall. Though she herself was of average height, she stood only as high as his waist. His hands were easily the size of her head. His feet as long as her arm.
How big is his--?
"Sir." She cleared her throat and took a deep breath to force the heated flush from her cheeks. "I must insist that you hand over the tax due to your sovereign."
Andras raised one blond eyebrow. "He isn't my sovereign."
Jacqueline blinked. "I must warn you that your words are treason."
"It's not treason. It's the truth. I was born in Irmantraught, to the North." He crossed his arms over his massive chest. "So, he is not my sovereign."
She opened and closed her mouth, then regained her voice. "You live in this kingdom. You farm our land. You owe us taxes."
Andras leaned down--far, far down--his golden hair falling forward from behind his ears. "Well, I'll tell you what. Go into the village, buy a turnip, and whatever you can squeeze out of it, you can take back to your king."
So, he thought he would intimidate her, and go another year without paying proper restitution? She clenched her jaw and glared up at him. "I am not leaving here without your money."
His laugh was deep and full of malice. "What money? Do you suppose I should just go inside and open my vast coffers for you? Would you like it in gold or jewels? Look around you. I'm a farmer with two small fields, near a village that won't trade with me out of fear."
Jacqueline scowled at him. "Perhaps if you weren't so surly, people wouldn't be afraid of you."
He straightened, his expression growing darker, though she wouldn't have thought it possible. He took an audible breath and exhaled slowly. "You're not leaving without my money?"
"No. I am not." She folded her own arms, mimicking his stance.
"Fine. Get comfortable." He turned and stomped up the steps of the cottage.
"Excuse me!" She marched after him. "I am talking to you."
"Yes," he agreed as he ducked back through the door. "You were."
The door slammed shut in her face.
Jacqueline turned and looked to Vambrace. The horse looked back at her unhelpfully. Now what? She supposed she could ride back to the village and find Groff, then be on their way. Andras Karlaff was the last collection on their list. She could be back at the palace in two day's ride.
Back at the palace, ready to commence preparations for her wedding. To bind herself forever to that horrid, greasy man with his bad breath and hands that seemed to move faster than the eye could see or her own hands could defend. Just the thought of him climbing into bed with her in the middle of the night was enough to make her gag.
Groff had most of the provisions in his packs, but she had a few supplies. Her bedroll, at least, a day's worth of food. Perhaps if she waited right in front of his door, he'd have no choice but to pay just to rid himself of her. And it would prolong the inevitable, at least for one more night, perhaps two if he was very stubborn.
She sighed and looked around the clearing. She could get water for the horse at the crumbling well, and she could build a fire in the round brick oven to stay warm. It wouldn't be so bad. Certainly nicer than some of the roadside camps they'd endured.
"Well, Vambrace," she said with a sigh, "It looks like this is where we camp tonight.