Cinderella elbowed her cloak out of the way and waved.
“At times like this it seems like nothing has changed,” Cinderella said, tossing her head to get the fringe of her bangs out of her eyes. She watched wild geese and swans fly overhead, returning to the north as winter fled the onslaught of spring.
The beauty of the moment was shattered by raised voices.
Further up the road, a small caravan of four wagons was stopped. One cart was filled with cages of ducks and chickens, another had produce, the third was packed tight with goods—blankets, pots, and the like—and the final wagon held a handful of commoners. Cinderella recognized the drivers and the passengers as sellers and craftsmen from the market.
A squad of Erlauf soldiers had stopped them. Some of the soldiers were rattling the poultry cages, and several others were going through the wagon of goods.
A soldier tore open a sack from the produce wagon, inspected it, and tossed it back into the wagon, untied.
The commoners protested.
“Please have some respect,” the driver of the produce wagon said as he reached to tie the sack shut.
“We’ve only come from the market. Whatever you’re looking for, we don’t have it,” an older man—the potter—said.
A baby cried,. Its mother bounced it up and down to try and cheer it.
“Silence,” the lieutenant—the leader of the soldiers—said.
Cinderella caught up to the farmer with the wagon and mules. He pulled his team to a halt a short distance away from the stopped caravan and watched the interchange with stormy eyes.
The two soldiers going through the goods abandoned the cart for the produce wagon.
“Anything of interest?” they asked the soldier who opened sacks and tossed them back in the wagon.
“Nope,” the soldier said, helping himself to a handful of peas from the wagon. He bit a pea pod in half and tossed the rest on the road to be stomped into the ground.
The driver of the produce cart—the farmer—scowled deeper as he watched the soldiers ransack his cart. The baby cried louder in spite of the mother’s best attempts to shush it.
A boy—perhaps thirteen-years-old or so—climbed off the passenger wagon so he could restore order to the wagon of goods.
One of the soldiers noticed and returned to that wagon. “We didn’t say we were finished, boy.”
The boy ignored him and tucked a clay jar beneath several blankets.
“I said we aren’t finished,” the soldier said, grabbing the boy by the collar of his shirt. He pulled him away from the wagon and pushed him, sending the boy sprawling to the ground.
Two Trieux men sitting in the passenger wagon stood, and the driver of the produce cart leaped from his seat.
Things were going to get ugly.
“That’s enough,” Cinderella said, hurrying forward to step between the soldier and the boy. “What is going on?”
“It’s none of your concern,” the soldier sneered.
“Lady,” Cinderella said.
“It is Lady Lacreux to you, soldier,” Cinderella said, using every bit of her manners schooling to stand tall and elegant in a way that demanded respect. “And it is my concern as we stand on lands belonging to the Duchy of Aveyron.”
The soldier hunched his neck into his shoulders. “What?” he repeated.
“These lands are my lands. So would you be so good as to explain what you are doing on my estate?” Cinderella said, folding her arms across her chest as she tipped her head back and looked down her nose at the soldier.
“Um,” the soldier said.
“I beg your pardon, Your Ladyship,” the lieutenant, mounted on the only horse, said. He urged the beast a few steps forward so he could address Cinderella without shouting over the wailing baby. “We received information of several armed ruffians traveling through these parts. For the safety of all, we are performing random checks.”
“Of course,” Cinderella said, magnanimously bowing her head. “When one is searching for ruffians and the like, it is always the wisest course of action to shake down farmers returning home from the capital.”
The lieutenant’s saddle creaked as he leaned. “Perhaps I allowed my men to be too enthusiastic in their duties.”
“Perhaps,” Cinderella said. “You have conducted your search. Are they not free to go?” Cinderella said, gesturing liquidly with her right hand. (Since the takeover, Cinderella had been bitter about investing so many years in dancing and fan-work, as fun as it was, and finding herself stupid in the ways of running an estate. But perhaps there were some uses for learned elegance.) As if testing Cinderella, a soldier rattled a chicken cage, making the bird squawk.
“If you are so worried they are secretly ruffians, please allow me to vouch for their character,” Cinderella said.