“They are your serfs?” the lieutenant asked.
“No, but they all have stands in the market near Aveyron’s stall. I know them quite well. As a member of nobility, I despise all forms of thievery and bullying. I can promise you none of the people before you are the kind to delight in such behavior,” Cinderella said, taking care to highlight her noble accent, making her words crisp and clear.
The lieutenant dipped his head to her. “Very well, Your Ladyship,” he said before wheeling his mount around to face his men. “Back into formation. We return to Werra.”
The soldiers left the wagons and formed two lines. They marched back towards the capital, leaving ruffled commoners and peasants in their wake.
“Thank you, Mademoiselle,” the produce wagon driver said.
“Of course. Are you all alright?” Cinderella asked, extending a hand to the fallen boy.
He scrambled up without any help and bowed three times to Cinderella, almost falling again when he tripped on his bare feet. “Yes, Mademoiselle. Thank you, Mademoiselle.
“Blessings over you, Mademoiselle,” the mother of the howling baby said.
Cinderella smiled. “Thank you, take care,” she said before continuing ahead, splitting off on a small road that ducked between some of Aveyron’s plowed fields. It was a farming path, but it would cut minutes off the walk.
“Mind you watch out for that Erlauf officer, Mademoiselle,” the potter said.
Cinderella raised her hand to acknowledge the comment and kept walking home.
When the Erlauf officer strolled up to the market stand, Cinderella pretended not to notice him. Her back was to him as she sorted through a basket of onions, but she knew he was there because the market went quiet in the way it did only when he was around.
It was earlier than usual. Some of the market vendors hadn’t arrived yet. Vitore was gone with the milkmaid stand-neighbor, fetching water for the day. The maid’s absence made Cinderella uneasy.
She was reassured when the baker started humming—sounding much closer than the location of his stand warranted—and the ropemaker nonchalantly sidled up to the milkmaid’s goats and started petting them.
“I heard you ran into some trouble yesterday, Cinderella,” the officer said.
Cinderella stopped sorting and reluctantly turned to face the high-ranking soldier. Based on the quirk of his lips he knew very well she was Lady Lacreux, the Duchess of Aveyron. “Trouble?” Cinderella said, widening her eyes. “I have no idea to what you are referring.”
“I was told you came upon some soldiers as they were in the process of conducting random searches,” the officer said, tugging on his black eye patch. He was alone this time, although he still wore his army uniform.
“Oh, yes,” Cinderella said. “That is true, but I have no recollection of there being any trouble.” Normally she would ornament such a statement with her brightest smile, but she did not want to encourage this officer in any way.
The officer studied Cinderella, his face blank and emotionless for the first time since he started coming to the market.
His scrutiny was unnerving, so Cinderella busied herself with the carrots. “The usual?” she asked.
Shocked, Cinderella looked back to the officer. “I beg your pardon?”
“Today I have a different offer in mind,” the officer said. “But first, my mother would tell me introductions must be made. Cinderella-who-has-no-curiosity, allow me to introduce myself. I am Colonel Friedrich of First Regiment of the Dragon Army.”
Cinderella almost dropped the carrots. She immediately fixing her reaction, casually brushing her fringe of bangs out of her eyes. “Colonel?” she said, as if enquiring after the weather.
“Quite so,” the-no-longer-nameless-officer said.
Oh dear. I should have listened to everyone, Cinderella thought. Although she was able to keep herself schooled, the baker came down with a coughing fit and the ropemaker froze—he didn’t even notice when one of the milkmaid’s goats started nibbling his shirt.
A colonel was one of the highest offices an Erlauf soldier could achieve. A colonel ran a regiment of over 600 soldiers and served directly under a general. There were only a handful of them in existence, and the rank was a great honor.
As a conquered noble, it was safe to say Colonel Friedrich’s rank was considered higher than Cinderella’s—even though Cinderella had more assets and a higher monetary worth. Such was the value Erlauf placed on the Army.
What this meant was Cinderella could not safely disregard the Colonel. If he was so inclined, he could make her life a misery. In the span of a few heartbeats, the Erlauf officer had gone from an irritation to a danger Cinderella could not flee.
“I am honored to make your acquaintance, Colonel Friedrich,” Cinderella said.
“I’m sure,” the Colonel dryly said.
“What can I do for you, sir?” Cinderella asked.