She’d expected the fear. She was surprised by the wonder.
As the rough stone walls of Cairn Delve rose around her and funneled her into the rough stone buildings of Cairn Shant she clung close to the Knight and his bulk–as tall and as wide and as solid as a stone that would render a field unfit for plowing–gave her comfort.
It was more than not seeing a face apart from his for all those days since the bad time. It was the faces, and that she was not ready for them, for the splendor and the misery and the ugliness of the simply human.
She’d been raised for the people, her own, the people that she would one day rule, and the others, the people that she would one day wage war upon. People were for her a known quality, this many bowmen, this many farmers. People were the warm adoring crowd that blanketed the square during naming days. People were the trade she was born into, to protect or to kill as politics demanded.
In Cairn Shant there were no people. There was only a trickle, a cataract, a maelstrom of persons.
This man, who looked up from mending a saddle to direct them to the goods store, his half raised arm and half wince spoke of an ache in his shoulder born of an old injury and long hours working.
That woman, who the Knight address as “crone”, which would have been an insult in Malcroix, answered him with a brightness in her eyes that said as clear as speech that she may have been too old to give a child but numbered herself still young enough to appreciate the process.
The clothier, a greybeard, who measured the spread and width of her with a gentleness that bespoke daughters of his own, and looked from the Knight to her and then looked away.
The Princess stepped into this river of humanity with her head high, holding to the precept of aristocracy that if one should die one should die unbowed, and she was not drowned. Overwhelmed, perhaps, and so she clung to the Knight who seemed not to notice, going about the business of an ordinary man.
Until they reached the door of the steamhouse, oak clad in beaten tin to guard against rot, and he told her to go through that door alone.
She looked into his eyes and knew that he knew full well what he was bidding her, that he saw in her soul that he was the one solid thing since the death of all that she had once loved and he asked her with eyes open to let go of the beam she clung to and dive into this sea of strange faces alone.
When we die, we die unbowed, she thought, and reached for the door of the woman’s court of the public steamhouse and she did not look back.
He would be watching her enter. She was princess enough to know that without looking.