Okay, that's a surprise. I thought as the woman I fully expected to try and tackle me or tear my eyes out, stood in front of me with her hand slightly extended in a silent plea to accept her offer. “I would be honored, First Princess.” I said and took her offered hand. I bowed with a flourish, as if I was greeting the king, which made her blush a little again. I eased her close and assumed a proper dance pose as we waited for the music to start up again.
“You actually accepted.” Ellen whispered and her blush faded. It was hard to tell if she was surprised or not because she was trying to hide what she was feeling. The music started up and I started dancing with her. Not a single person moved to try and dance with us, not even her father who was a dozen feet away and held a shocked Rose in his arms.
“Like I told you before, our deal at that point was done. I took my due and you suffered for your crimes.” I whispered back, just so no one else would hear our conversation.
“Wait.” Ellen whispered just before I swung her out into a fancy twirl, using her replaced arm, then I pulled her back in and she twirled back and ended with my arm tightly wrapped around her in a hug. The music tempo shifted to a slower pace and I had to hold her like that.
“Yes Princess?” I asked and lightly swayed side to side as I held her tenderly.
“How can you not hate me?” Ellen asked. “I've done horrible things to you and...”
“Lots of people have done horrible things to me.” I responded and this time she did look surprised. “If I hated them all and killed them, there would be a lot of mangled bodies floating around.”
Ellen opened her mouth and closed it. She looked into my eyes and sighed.
“You know, you never did thank me for trying my best to save your little brother.” I goaded her and her face went instantly to anger.
“How dare you bring up...” Ellen stopped herself and looked surprised again. She fell silent and didn't say anything.
“I was severely hurt in that scuffle and it didn't matter at all to you, because you were solely focused on making as big of a spectacle as you could in the Eastern Empire. I provided that in all its horrible glory.”
Ellen ducked her head a little. “The potion barrels.”
“Yes, the very ones you were going to stop me from making when you told me to retrieve the tools necessary to make kracken tubes.” I said and she nodded. “No enemy ship approached after they were delivered to the docks, did they?”
“No, and it definitely caused a huge stir in the enemy's navy.” Ellen said. “It's just too bad you didn't make any for use on land.”
“Why couldn't they be used on land?” I asked and her eyebrows raised up. “We did that when we fought against the dragons.”
“I... well, I...”
“Yes, it was more important to concentrate on cutting off the enemy's navy ships.” I said and her eyebrows didn't lower. “I wasn't arguing with you. I've only ever argued with you twice. Once when you were being stupid and the other time was when you were being stupid.”
Ellen's face flushed red.
“I'm not berating you about it, so don't be embarrassed.” I said and she took a deep breath and let it out.
“Why are you saying all of this?” Ellen asked.
“We're having a polite conversation about tactics.” I said and the music picked up. I went to let her go to unwrap my arms from being wrapped tightly around her and she held on instead.
“If you let me go because the tempo changed, isn't that a tactical retreat?” Ellen asked.
I had to smile at that. “Perhaps a cease fire and a more relaxed position instead?”
“Agreed.” Ellen said and both of our arms eased off a little, then we settled into a more comfortable hold that wasn't too restrictive and would give us both the opportunity to either get closer or move slightly further away. “Yes, this is much better.”
Our steps increased to look like we were actually moving to the music and not dancing to something else. The only difference was that we held onto each other and everyone else were practically dancing separately. I hadn't noticed when they had started dancing and ignoring us, either.
“That was quite the entrance.” I commented.
“I wanted to get your attention.” Ellen admitted.
“No matter where I was in the room?” I asked and she nodded. “It worked.”
“You didn't retreat or let Gillis take the heat for you.” Ellen said and the music slowed down to a very slow dance. We moved close together, much closer than either of us thought possible, and I felt her body from my knee all the way up to my shoulder.
“I've always fought my own battles, since I never had anyone else to depend on.” I said as an explanation and her arm snaked from my shoulder and down under my arm to hold me close.
“Me, too.” Ellen said. “I've been raised to fight, to survive, and to make the hard decisions. It's always on my head, because no one else is responsible for me or my actions.”
“Not even your father, the king?” I asked.
Ellen let out a huff. “I surpassed his tactical knowledge when I was sixteen. He had to hire special tutors to give me more extensive knowledge.”
I had to think about that. “Why did he assign you to the Fifth Regiment?”
Ellen chuckled. “He didn't assign me to anything. I created the Fifth Regiment all on my own.”
That was surprising and I raised my eyebrows.
“Yes, it was my brain child. I knew that unless I personally did something drastic with the wasted resources that the army was squandering...”
“Women.” I said and she nodded. “Is that why the army council ignored everything you did or said?”
“Yes. They thought I was trying to undermine their authority.”
“You were.” I said and she chuckled. “You really were?”
“It didn't start that way; but, once the idea was put out there, everyone started to act like I was, even when I wasn't doing anything.”
“Ah, I see. It's better to do what they expect than to do what they don't expect right away.”
“Exactly. I knew that if I did what they thought I was going to, they would become complacent and would accept it as 'normal'.” Ellen had a big smile on her face. “When I turned everything around and threw it all in their faces... oh, boy... they were pissed.”
“The Eastern Empire.” I said.
“Yes, and that was thanks to you.” Ellen said and her face flushed red. “I know I handled that whole business badly and if given the chance again, do you know what I would do differently?”
I didn't even have to think about that one. “Nothing.”
“Right. If I changed anything, even accepting your plan alterations earlier than I had, everything would have been different.” Ellen said. “You know that, don't you?”
“Yes.” I said and she looked pleased. “We wouldn't have been rushed to make critical changes or changed the soldier loads, the building schedules, or the supplies allocated.”
Ellen nodded. “Everything happened just the right away, even with the delay for your trial.”
“It let the others think over the plans without pressure, just like I did.”
“What we did...” Ellen's face stayed red. “We, David. You and me. What we did changed the course of the war. We changed it.”
“You know it's starting up again next year.” I said and she nodded.
“I've been in contact with the advisers to both the Gulf Kingdom and the Eastern Empire. Both are finding faults in all the little things during the negotiations. It's stalling the talks and dragging things on as we both build up our forces for the next battle.”
“You're still involved?” I asked.
Ellen shook her head. “Not as part of the military. Once I'm out, I'm out... just like you, Alex, and Donna. That doesn't mean I can't contribute to the planning stages, so I do as much as I can.”
“You're not going to fix my discharge orders, are you? I prefer being free.”
“What I did didn't screw you over like I thought it would.” Ellen said and looked a little sheepish.
“Are you sure? Losing a few hundred thousand crowns made me feel pretty screwed over.”
Ellen laughed softly at that. “As if losing money mattered to you, besides the insult it bore.”
I gave her a knowing look. “So, you did understand.”
“Of course I did. I'm not stupid.” Ellen said, a bit snappishly, then she sighed and rested her head on my shoulder as we danced to the music that was still playing. “David, I... what I said to you... I really did feel like you betrayed me. I really did.”
“I know, and that's why I got you out of there as quickly as possible.” I said and she held me a little closer, if that was possible. Thankfully, I couldn't quite feel her ample breasts through the suit coat. “You were emotionally compromised on two fronts, because of your brother and because of me. You were in no state to command anyone after your outburst at Helena, let alone handle the clean-up at the new front and the subsequent battles.”
“I hate that you knew that.” Ellen said and I felt a tear drop on my neck. “I tried so hard not to react...”
“I'm sorry that I was the only one you could depend on to help you when you need it.”
Ellen didn't say anything and I felt the tears drop continually as she silently cried. She didn't sob, or wail, or hiccup, or make any other sign that she was crying her eyes out. This lasted for several minutes and she took several shuddering breaths as she composed herself for a few minutes more. She stayed quiet and we danced for several more songs, not really doing much besides holding each other and swaying with an occasional step, which showed that we weren't completely stationary.
“Th-thank you.” Ellen said as she lifted her head to look into my eyes. “I mean it. Thank you.”
“I want to ask for clarification on what you're thanking me for; but, I don't want to piss you off before I wipe your tears away.” I said and held up a clean handkerchief. She nodded slightly and I dabbed at her eyes to wipe away the tears and then lightly stroked her cheeks with the soft cloth to clear up the ones that fell when she had looked up.
Ellen glanced around and saw that no one was looking at us. She smiled slightly and looked back at me. “I was thanking you for everything.” She whispered, gave my cheek a kiss, and let me go.
I caught her hand and pulled her back in close to whisper in her ear. “When the king opens his present from me, take the box and open the bottom.”
“What? Why?” Ellen asked, a little confused.
“Because you earned it.” I said and let her go, then I walked over to where Helena still stood with Vanessa. “One more dance with Vanessa and we can go.”
“That sounds good.” Helena said with a nod. “I'll wait here and...”
“I meant we.” I said and took both of their hands. They looked surprised and followed me as I walked backwards for a dozen steps and avoided people that were already dancing.
“How are you doing that?” Vanessa asked.
“I'm the Marsh Man.” I said and stopped in a small clear area, then I tucked Helena under one arm and Vanessa under the other. The two women used one arm each to hug my waist and then used their free arms to hug each other.
The music started up and I led them on a merry dance, which made them laugh, because even with two competing sets of feet, I still managed to not step on them or have them step on mine. I also told them everything I discussed with the first princess. I didn't stop dancing until the story was over.
“Let's go home.” I said and both women nodded.
I turned to wave at the king and the queen, who were at the front of the room again, and the king was opening presents. I chuckled as I saw him reach for the medium sized box that Helena had sent over earlier. Inside was a heavily modified protection enchantment medallion that also had the concealment enchantment on it, with instructions.
Just as I led my wife and my concubine out of the ballroom, there was a short excited shriek from across the room. We turned to see First Princess Ellen clutching her preserved lost arm to her chest with tears on her face.
“I think that means the state secret you signed is going to be made officially public.” Helena said with a smile as she hugged my side.
“I wouldn't have told her about the gift if she hadn't shown up.” I said.
Vanessa gave me an odd look, then she laughed softly. “I can just imagine the staff just throwing out the box without checking it completely first.”
Helena joined in on her laugh and I walked the both of them out of the building and into the Henrietta Longshore carriage. We rode home in a great mood and agreed that was the best ending to the evening that we could have had.