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A Royal Invitation
The Parliament House
“If you ever decide to remarry, you must marry someone who has my golden hair.”
The words echoed in my ears as my mother murmured them to my father. The entire court had gathered there with us in that darkened room with stone walls covered in old tapestries of red and golden threads, watchful eyes of men and women looming over us from the walls.
My mother, the königin, the queen of Tränen, was dying.
Servants had lit candles across the room, creating a gloomy, death-like ambiance. The only source of light came from the flames, curling out like a snake’s tongue from the fireplace. Many of my father’s councilmen stood murmuring while they waited for the queen’s end to come. They waited for death’s dark cloak to wrap around her like the cape of the goddess, Nótt.
Mother lay in her bed, her form still as her breaths became shallower; her lungs becoming less full of air. Her hair, like spools of golden thread, clung to her pale skin. My father’s hand brushed over her forehead, pushing the strands away. She lifted her hand, touching his, seeking an answer from him.
The contrast of her skin against his was shocking. She was pale—corpse-like, the tips of her fingers already turning a frosty shade of blue. My father kneeled, dressed in a white tunic and tan hunting trousers. His light brown beard seemed thicker than usual. His tired blue eyes, the same eyes that others often commented reflected my own, gazed upon my mother.
He was a handsome man for other women to admire.
He carefully grazed his lips over her knuckles. I could hear his soft murmuring.
“My wife. My poor, lovely frau.” There had been talk that he had been by her bedside for majority of the night and all through the morning, while I had been kept in my chamber. I was to wait until the end was nearly at an impasse before I was to bid my mother farewell. He had waited upon her on bended knee. It was an unexpected display of affection. My father had never been the affectionate sort, and especially never with me in all my nineteen years.
His gaze drifted toward the line of young maids surrounding the queen’s bedside, all waiting for an order or request. He lifted a hand and beckoned one of them closer. With reddened cheeks, one of the maids took a step toward the bed, offering a warm, wet rag for my mother’s forehead.
My father’s eyes seemed to taunt the maid to come closer as they glittered in the candlelight, a small, amused smirk on his lips as he held out his hand. He knew his effect on women, as did my mother. My father seemed to have always found a strange delight in tantalizing the young women of the court right under my mother’s nose–especially the young maids of the castle. His wandering hands had been an unacknowledged topic between them, and yet had most haunted my mother in her own private chambers.
As I was guided away from my tutoring lessons earlier in the afternoon, I found many of my father’s councilmen murmuring in the hallways. Their conversation had rattled me as they spoke of the queen’s declining health, proclaiming quite loudly their uncertainty of the future of the königreich, the kingdom. With no male heir, there would be no one with my father’s bloodline to carry the crown. If he were to die, the succession would be uncertain, leaving the kingdom without a könig, and I would be left with nothing.
There were a few young girls my father had bedded over the many years of his rule, all of whom had come to his knees, begging for acknowledgement, money, or a future for their child. Many of the children were male, all of which my father craved to take under his wing. But as the string of his lovers began to unravel before my mother, she’d quickly banished them and their children from our courts.
“Any male that is not born from me will never be könig,” she insisted. My mother feared of finding herself replaced by a younger, more beautiful woman, who would give the king something she could not . . .
I had been told my mother looked to my father with apologetic grey eyes on the day of my birth. The wet nurse had lifted me, the accursed girlish bundle into the arms of my father as my mother promised, “A son I will give you next time.”
As I grew older, I could see the desperation in her eyes as my father drifted from maiden to maiden, leaving a trail of bastard children in his wake. All while she remained infertile.
As a girl, I was no use to my father. Without a son, the marriage with my mother would always be a failure in the eyes of his court. Because I had not been born a boy, I rarely saw my father. I was only granted permission on special occasions.
My mother hardly paid attention to me either; I was a constant reminder of her failure, her misery, her curse. I had only been permitted to receive an education in writing and reading, and brief history lessons about the kingdom and surrounding countries. I excelled in learning and did what I could to avoid all the other womanly lessons I was expected to learn. I hated the mundane tasks that were deemed appropriate for the fairer sex.
My mother did everything she could to keep me tucked away in the castle, out of sight. I was never permitted to join the court for festivities. My mother preferred me to stay in my room or the library, like the castle’s ghost. She wished to pretend I didn’t exist. As my youth began to pass before me, I wondered if I would spend the remainder of my years hidden away behind the stony walls of my father’s castle. I wondered whether, if my mother finally had a son for the king, somehow his birth would release me from the prison which cradled me in my own home.
“Promise me,” my mother hissed at my father presently, as she grabbed his hand. She pushed herself up in the bed with a grunt, to look at him more closely.
I watched them as I clung to the red velvet bed drapes. I could feel myself grow light-headed from the warmth in the room and the array of eyes and voices behind me as they murmured their fears and prayers.
“Promise me,” she begged, her voice cracking as he tucked another golden curl behind her ear. “She must have golden hair, like mine.”
As I watched her glossy strands circled around his fingers, I touched my own loosened curl. My hair was tied back with a black ribbon to match the black gown that Myriah, my nursemaid, dressed me in—a symbol of mourning. And yet, I felt nothing like how a daughter should feel while watching her own mother die.
Perhaps my mother thought her eager demand would bring her peace in the grave. I understood. If she could not be a proper wife, who’d brought him honor with a prince, perhaps her golden-haired replacement could be.
Fear surged cold through my hollow ribs as her last breath slipped between her lips, her hand slowly falling from my father’s firm grasp.
A cold shiver ran up my spine as I heard my father’s reply.
His gaze lifted to me in the quiet moments after. I was my mother’s reflection and her only true legacy.
And I knew the king’s promise would become my curse.
KÖNIGREICH OF TRÄNEN
The day we buried my mother, the earth was grey and wet. Snow had fallen heavily upon the kingdom, making it difficult for the gardeners to dig a deep enough hole in the ground for her casket.
My father ordered a grand stone to be placed upon her grave with engraved words honoring her forever as his queen. The kingdom’s crest, a large eagle with a curling tongue, encompassed in a great shield, was engraved along with her name.
Each time I came to visit her grave since, I found my fingertips itching to graze the smooth surface, but something always stopped me, forbidding me from closing the distance that once lingered between my mother and me for the entirety of my life.
The hiss of her words still haunted me: “Promise me.”
I wondered if my father, too, heard her plea echo around him with each gravesite visit. We hardly spoke to each other, even when we went to the grave. He’d grow restless as he stood over the stone in winter and spring, his hands fidgeting as though he could not get away soon enough. As though he could not wait to return to the line of maidens awaiting him back at the castle.
Always a short distance away from my father stood his advisor, Lord Haven.
They’d known each since my father was a child. As my father grew into his position as könig, he listened to the guidance of Lord Haven, whose father had once served as an advisor to the könig before him. My father rewarded his continued assistance with an abundance of power, titles, and land. It was rumored Lord Haven had a helping hand in arranging the marriage between my father and mother. It was said she had come from a foreign land—a kingdom across the sea, where riches of jewels and gold were plentiful. All of which my father’s lands were lacking.
At the suggestion of Lord Haven, my father held a ball in hopes of finding a suitable bride. During at which time, Lord Haven took the opportunity to invite the exotic princess, my mother, to Tränen for an introduction between the two.
Myriah, whilst telling me the story of my parents’ meeting, said my mother knew how to wear seduction in the corner of her lips. All men who gazed upon her desired her.
She’d arrived at the ball dressed in a gown of reflective gold. It was said she held the ability to turn normal thread into pure gold by magic. My father had been drawn to her instantly, and my mother to him, drawn into the attentions and enormous power he could bestow upon her. Myriah recalled that my mother had made a scene by tracing her fingers over his body as they danced. She’d fed him fruit and exotic nuts from the tables and laughed at his jokes. She knew exactly how to entertain and enchant him with laughter and seduction, and keep his attention throughout the night. Myriah tried to shield me from the circulating stories around the court, which condemned my mother as a witch who manipulated my father with her magic love spells.
Myriah was like a second mother to me. She knew everything. She had grown up in the castle. At the age of five, she was sold to the palace as a servant in exchange to pay off her father’s debts. Her father was once the town baker, and with the plague taking over the villages for years, and harvests doing worse each year, he’d lost his bakery, and almost his home, until he sold Myriah.
She told me stories of her early childhood, milking cows and harvesting grain. When she came to the castle, she began with the daily household chores: washing and mending, sweeping and mopping. She once had worked as one of my father’s maids. I knew there were many things she never told me about that time–things she felt were better left secret. But she did her best to quench my curiosity of the king and queen.
Women of the court started rumors of my mother pouring white powders into my father’s drinks shortly after their engagement. Her magic was allegedly used to keep his attentions centered upon only her, despite her cruel and cold heart. She would dress improperly, exposing the crest of her cleavage for all to see. She would adorn her face with too much rouge on her cheeks and lips. But after the birth of a daughter, my father’s interests began to drift to the younger, the more beautiful women of the court.
My father’s desires lingered with young maidens who knew little of the world or of men.
My mother had her own escapades with men of the court, tempting them with the rising hems of her dresses. After my birth, love nor lust lingered between the king and queen.
I heard too many of these stories behind the closed doors of the library as I’d hide under the tables when servants entered. I’d cling to the books at my chest and listen to them giggle at the news of the latest affair of my mother or father.
“They have always been envious of me,” my mother said once, catching the gossiping women in the library. She snagged me away, gripping my arm too tightly with white fingers.
“They will say anything to win the könig’s favor, Aurelia. But they are lies. All lies!”
“Are you truly a witch?” I once asked her. The slap of her hand against my cheek had been her reply.
We all knew the stories of what happened to those who did not speak favorably of my father—those who spoke about the sort of indecent things he’d do to young women.
As I had been escorted back to my room one afternoon, I witnessed a bout of his misconduct for myself. A sharp cry rang out in the halls, echoing as a trail of disparaging wails resonated down a long corridor. A cleaning maid sobbed as she raced away from my father; the back of her gown open, revealing bruised and reddened skin. My father stood in the doorway of his chambers; his dark eyes appeared to be watching her as his hands adjusted his trousers back into place. His slow movements told enough of what he had done to the maid in the privacy of his rooms.
As our eyes met, the fear of what my father could do grew deeply inside of me, much like a tree’s roots. I was never able to forget the maid’s face; she seared a fear in me that was irreversible that made my blue eyes burn and my stomach twist with disgust. The hair on my arms rose as I tried to regain my balance. The fear sent me running to my chamber, where I vomited as soon as I entered the room. At dinner, I couldn’t stop hearing her sobs or seeing her face in my mind, almost like a bad dream. Distractedly, I pushed the stew in my bowl around and around, until Myriah pulled the cold mush away.
The next day, I watched from a window as she was carried away in a carriage. Myriah heard murmurs of her being sent off to a new establishment with a Lord and Lady. I could only hope it would be a better situation than the one she had found in the castle.
“If only you were a son,” my mother would remark bitterly in passing to my tutoring lessons. “Things would be different.” Of course, with a son, there would be reassurance for the kingdom as to who would inherit the throne. With the passing age of my father, there would be no fear as to who would rule after him.
“He would be strong and brave,” I found my mother often saying to her ladies in waiting. “He would be just like his father. A good and just könig.” But as she’d turn her gaze in my direction, often finding me in the corner of the room practicing one of the many tasks she wished for me to perfect. She always found fault in me, no matter how hard I tried to do my best.
“Why can’t you be more accomplished? Talented?” She’d ask bitterly over musical notes not struck correctly on the harpsichord, or loose stitching in my embroidery. I never knew how to respond to my mother without turning my cheek away, doing what I could to hide the flush on my cheeks. I was the shame she had to wear every day.
To her, I was the reason why my father drifted from her and her bed. I was the one failure in her nearly perfect life and now, with her passing, she would be mine. With each passing month since her death, many of the courtiers remarked how ‘very much like my mother’ I had become. The more I heard this, the more I wished for it to not be true. I never wanted to be like her.
My father began his search for his new wife only after a few short months. The councilmen had been quick to move into his study with lists and lists of eligible women in and around the kingdom. His courtiers, and more importantly, Lord Haven, reminded my father the importance of finally having a male heir, and securing a wife who could fulfil this role.
“Only with a son, my könig, would Tränen feel at peace in your passing,” Lord Haven said many an evening at the dinner table, surrounded in the dark finery. “Without a son, it would leave neighboring königreiche the chance to fight for Tränen and rule. We wouldn’t want everything that you’ve created and kept fall apart.”
“And what would you have me do?” my father growled a response, as a servant poured wine into his goblet over his shoulder. Lord Haven returned his question with a placate grin.
“We invite eligible maidens to the castle. From the selection, you take a bride. Marry her, Your Majesty, and have a son. Avoid any chance of a war or the ruin of the königreich.”
War had always been on the lips of the courtiers; war with the neighboring lands, and without the reassurance of a future king, Tränen would no doubt fall into the wrong hands. It was a true fear of my father, and to Lord Haven; power was fickle – it could belong to one man and in an instant, another by the slash of a sword.
“It is your duty as our könig to ensure the future for not only your people, but for your daughter, Aurelia, as well.”
I watched my poor father slid his fingers through his hair, almost as if he wanted to tug every strand away until he was left with nothing on his head. Agreeing to Lord Haven’s insistence, a selection of women began to come to Tränen in hopes to gain my father’s favor and become his bride.
I watched as he entertained the many possible brides, only to turn all of them away for one reason. None of the women held the most valuable piece to my mother’s promise: her golden hair.
The court endured two years’ worth of parties and galas; two years of visits from hundreds of women with their gowns, jewels, and high expectations of marriage. The maids of the court endured the king’s wrath as each party resulted in failure. My father, enraged by the weight of his promise, began to take out his anger on everyone around him. What began as tantrums during dinners with a sudden push against serving plates and pitchers of wine, slowly turned into overturned desks in his study and pink, flushed cheeks of serving maids after he’d slap them. My father felt powerless in his inability in finding the promised wife, and he knew time was of the essence. His abuses began to affect the prospective wives as they witnessed his increasing aggression. Many of the potential brides upon their experiences with his increasing temper quickly left, returning to their homes. Rumors began to spread over the land of his maligning demonstrations. Invitations that had once been sought for, began to be returned declined or even, unanswered.
On a cold, wet, and grey morning—much like the day we buried my mother—I found myself staring at my father who stood solemnly with Lord Haven. There were dark circles under his eyes, as though he had barely slept in the two years gone by. He looked pale and thinner than before. My mother’s large tombstone lay between us, already turning a shade of grey with decay; a sad sort of irony for my mother’s vanity.
He spoke to Lord Haven and turned to glance in my direction just as my golden hair was caught in the morning glow of the emerging sun. His blue eyes were wide and a small, determined smile lurked in the corner of his lips; one of conquering. I suddenly felt as though I were drowning, as a thick sinking sense of dread filled and overwhelmed me.
“The könig wishes to dance with you, princess.” I felt Lord Haven’s touch on my shoulder as he nudged me toward my father’s extended hand. Usually, most of my time during my father’s balls was spent in the shadows of the grand hall sipping on the provided punch or eating pieces of the fruit provided on long silver trays scattered among tables. The tables were decorated with tall golden, candelabras, and long streams of white and blood-red table cloths. It was warm from the many guests, while the mixture scents of roasted meats and flowers filled the room.
Even on the anniversary of my mother’s death, my father decided to host a ball, generously giving his attention to those who still sought his affections in marriage. He filled the ballroom with the finest decorations, many of which were encrusted with the brightest and most beautiful jewels. Every table was filled with foods and fruits, and accented with bouquets of knapweeds, edelweiss and peonies. The high chandeliers, which hung over the guests, glittered in the flickering candlelight. He would only host the most talented musicians, sending invitations far and wide to outlying kingdoms for geniuses and savants.
My father only ever chose the most beautiful and most charming to dance with. But tonight was different. Everything about this party was different. The selection of the women invited were few. It was obvious my father’s options were growing slimmer. My father’s hope in finding his golden-haired wife was diminishing.
As I was led to him, I took in the sight of my father’s selection of women surrounding me. They adorned with layers of rubies, sapphires and emeralds. But all of them wore different shades of yellow on their heads. None of them were any match for my mother.
I stared frozen at my father’s hand as he extended it to me.
“Take his hand, Princess,” Lord Haven hissed at me, nudging me harder as he pulled the glass from my hands. The guests were watching the two of us, waiting to see if I would accept.
“Aurelia,” my father said with a grin as he took my hand. I could only imagine how pink my cheeks appeared as I raised my hand to my father’s shoulder.
It seemed as soon as my father drew me onto the dance floor, soft whispers of gossip bubbled up from the crowd; all eyes were on him and me.
Something changed in my father. He held me more tightly in his embrace, sweeping me up and swirling me around the floor. His blue eyes glassed over, becoming strangely unfamiliar. I knew there was a change in the room and in his presence since the encounter at my mother’s grave. There was a change in the way he watched me.
“You have grown to become quite a beautiful woman,” he murmured softly against my hair. I was almost sure I could smell the strong odor of wine on his breath.
My father’s hand came to rest on the small of my back, as his thumb from his other hand brushed against the crook of my neck. As he twirled me around the room, he pressed against me more closely, his breath washing over my earlobe.
Breathless and a little dizzy, I pushed myself away from him and took a step back. Danger. The word resonated in my head and a memory from just a few years ago flashed in my head of the young maid in the hall with a tattered dress and tear-stained cheeks. She haunted me. My stomach twisted, as my eyes began to burn with the thought.
I knew the cruelty my father harbored just beyond his regal exterior. A warning twisted in my gut, pushing me to run.
“Aurelia? Come, finish the dance with me,” he beckoned with an outstretched hand.
I took another step back and shook my head. I pressed a hand against my forehead and another against my waist, hoping the paleness of my face would allow me to take my leave.
“I think I’d like to rest,” I replied softly, giving my father a low bow.
I was surprised when I felt his hand on my back as he followed me to sit. With the snap of his fingers, several servants surrounded us with choices of fine wines and food.
“I hoped perhaps you would allow me to treat you,” he replied as he cradled my hand in his. “Join me. I would like to speak with you privately.”
Succumbing to his attentiveness, I followed my father as he guided me to his and my mother’s thrones; hers sat empty—alone. I paused in front of his chair as he took a seat and then gestured towards the queen’s. Did he truly wish for me to take her seat? He studied me, amusement bright in his eyes.
“Sit,” he commanded. Only at this, I moved to sit on the edge of the throne. It felt odd as my fingers dug to the arm of the chair. A coldness settle in the pit of my stomach, causing a deep shudder through me. I could feel my father’s dark gaze trail over me.
“I feel quite guilty, Aurelia,” he confessed as the corners of his mouth turned up in a small smile. My cheeks burned as I lowered my gaze to my fingers knotting in my lap.
“Why?” I asked gently, tilting my head curiously.
“Because, I feel as though I hardly know you. While you were being educated, I was busy ruling the königreich. But here you are, a grown woman.” He lifted his fingers to his chin as he smiled wider. “You remind me of the königin.”
I wanted to cringe at his words. My whole life, I longed for attention from my parents, and yet as my father spoke to me now—gazed upon me—I knew this was not the way I wanted to be recognized. I did not want to remind anyone, least of all my father, of my mother.
“If you could have anything, anything at all, what would you wish for?” he asked, leaning on the arm of his throne, pushing his face closer to mine.
Perhaps he was expecting me to answer the way my mother would have. Perhaps he expected me to demand jewels and finery. But I knew I truly wanted one thing—one thing for me, for him, and for the kingdom.
“For your happiness, sire,” I replied genuinely and bowed my head in reverence. My father seemed to approve my response and smiled.
“You’re quite considerate, Aurelia,” he said with a chuckle. “I do like that about you.”
“I have always tried to be considerate, sire,” I said, shifting uncomfortably.
“Indeed.” His eyebrow twitched with curiosity. “How far would you be willing to go for my own pleasure? My own happiness?”
“What could bring you more pleasure than this?” I asked as I gestured out toward the courtiers, who danced to the string and horn melody filling the ballroom. “Your court is devoted to you.”
“Many things would bring me pleasure,” he said with a smirk. “Are you devoted to me, Aurelia? Can I trust that you will be as devoted and loyal to me, if not more than them?”
“I am as much of a servant as they are to you, father,” I replied.
I turned my gaze back toward the dancers again, watching as the men and women pressed their hands together and made large circles around the room.
“Your answers truly please me,” he finally said after an extended moment. “I wish to please you.”
“Please me?” I asked as I turned to look at him. Why was my father suddenly so interested in my happiness? He smiled warmly and nodded.
“Of course. If I were to send you gifts, would this please you? Could this be a unification between the two of us? I wish to be closer to you. I wish to knowyou.”
I spent years wishing to hear those words. Once, I desired nothing more than to share a relationship with my father and mother, and yet after all this time, everything felt different now. Who my father had been to me as a child, and who he was now were becoming dramatically different.
“I wish to see you more at these parties as well,” my father continued. “You are of age now, are you not? It is time for you to take your place in my court. To be seen.”
The possibility of interacting with my father’s court had never been offered to me, at least, not so openly. I began to wonder if this would open the possibility of a marriage arrangement among the nobility. I had grown up knowing my role as the könig’s daughter would result in a marriage to better help my father’s kingdom. The idea of possibly becoming someone’s wife sent a jolt of both hope and fear through my heart.
I replied with a silent nod.
“Would it please you to join me?” My father asked, his blue eyes brightening with amusement. I slowly nodded again. I was apprehensive when answering his questions. It felt almost as if he were asking much more underneath the surface of his words.
“Then you shall,” he replied and grinned. He took my hand and carefully lifted it to his lips. I did all that I could to resist the urge to pull my hand away from his. His eyes pierced mine as he pressed a kiss against my skin, sending a cold shiver down my spine. All the hair on my arm stood in revolt. I pulled my hand away as quickly as I could before darting to my feet. Hastily, I curtsied to him. He nodded in my direction and I took the opportunity to leave.
A flood of relief filled me as I slipped into my room, finding Myriah, my nursemaid, waiting for me with a warm bath. She smiled as I closed the door and slumped against it.
“You look exhausted,” she murmured warmly and gestured towards the wooden basin. “As I expected. I had a bath drawn for you.”
A bath became almost a routine after every one of my father’s parties. I smiled at her and pushed myself from the door.
“Thank you, Myriah.”
Myriah knew well how to tend to me. She had been doing so since the day of my birth. She was so much more to me than just a mother or servant, but my friend. After challenging days of disastrous needlepoint and failed studies, Myriah was always there to wipe away my frustrated tears. She spent countless evenings telling me stories, pulling laughter from me when I was certain I couldn’t. She had the healing touch for when I was sick, staying up well into the night fighting back fevers and coughs. Truthfully, she was one of the only people I had ever learned to truly trust and love in the castle.
Myriah picked up the fire iron near the hearth and pushed around a few of the logs, making room for more firewood. She tucked a strand of her salt and pepper hair behind her ear and brushed her hands on the apron around her waist.
“You were later than most evenings at your father’s parities. Did you enjoy yourself?” She gazed warmly at me.
I began to peel away the layers of my dress and laid them out carefully on the canopied bed.
“I suppose. It was a little strange,” I admitted as I pulled a few pins from my hair, allowing more of my golden locks to cascade down around my shoulders.
She wrinkled her nose at my reply. “Strange? How so?”
“Father wanted to dance with me. He ignored the other women, and then later spoke of wishing to spend more time with me.”
I remained in my long chemise as I approached the hot water. Myriah came to my side and began to lift the chemise away while I held my hair off to the side. With a relieved sigh, I stepped into the warm water.
“What do you think of that, Myriah?” I asked, resting my arm on the brim of the tub as I looked to her. She seemed to hesitate, her lips silently moving as her gaze darted from mine.
“Myriah?” I asked again, wiping a bead of sweat from my temple. Myriah shifted in her step and let out a soft, exasperated sigh.
“I think this could be a good step in the right direction. But I beseech you . . . be careful.”
There suddenly came a knock on the door, startling the moment between Myriah and me. My gaze bounced to the entry and back to Myriah who wrinkled her nose, disgruntled.
She moved to the door, pulling it open slightly. There was an annoyance in her greeting to the person behind the door: “What do you want, boy?”
I could hear the faint voice of another servant replying, “His Majesty, the könig, wishes for me to deliver this gift to the princess Aurelia in hopes to pleaseher.”
I lifted my chin, trying to see if I could catch a glimpse of what he carried, but Myriah’s wide skirts eclipsed the doorway.
“Do you know what it is?” she asked.
“I do not, fräulein,” the messenger replied.
Myriah gave a nod and shut the door on him. She turned with the small box in her hands.
“What is it?” I asked, leaning on the side with my elbows.
She shrugged and pushed the box into my wet hands. I looked at her inquisitively and then down at the dark, velvet-covered box. The box was small and delicate and my heart raced with excitement over what could be inside.
“I do not know, princess,” she replied and knelt beside me. Her brow wrinkled with the same curiosity I felt. “Open it.”
I did, revealing a small delicate, golden chain with an opal stone, small diamonds encircling it. I had never received anything so beautiful from my father. A small note lay beside the chain with a quick dash of my father’s handwriting.
‘I ask that you come to the gardens tomorrow morning.’
I quickly closed the box, almost afraid the elements of the room could tarnish it. I couldn’t stop my grin from spreading wider as I opened the box again and gently removed the bracelet, fitting it over my wrist. The opal and surrounding diamonds shimmered in the candlelight. Perhaps this could be a new start for my father and me. Perhaps now things could be different for us—we could be closer. I smiled even more brightly as I gazed up at Myriah.
“It’s beautiful,” I said softly. “It’s so beautiful.”
“It is,” she replied with a nod. But there was a lack of excitement on her face.
“What’s the matter?” I glanced down at the bracelet and then back at her. “Do you think he should not have sent such a gift?”
I could see Myriah weighing her words again. I reached out to touch her shoulder and she patted my hand with a small smile and sighed.
“I’ve raised you since you were a babe. I’ve watched you grow in front of me. I’ve seen you ache for attention from the both of your parents. I’ve seen them turn their backs to you. This gift frightens me—frightens me in what it might imply to him, and what it might signify to you.” She took the box from my hands and placed it on the fireplace mantle.
“What do you mean by ‘what it might imply to him?’ He did ask if he could send me gifts as a way to mend the past—to make up for the way he’s neglected me.”
Myriah grabbed a folded and clean linen from my bed and held it up for me to take. I rose from the water and wrapped it around myself, stepping out carefully on a special rug she placed before the basin.
“I don’t mean anything by it, princess,” she explained softly, shaking her head. “I think if the könig wishes to try to connect with you, then I can only be happy for you. I just want you to be careful. There has been plenty of rumors traversing round the castle, and I know something isn’t right. Something hasn’t been right with His Majesty for . . . quite some time.” I knew Myriah spoke the truth. I had known since seeing the maid in the hallway.
Just as she finished dressing me in a clean nightgown and began to comb out my hair, I touched her arm with a gentle smile.
“Thank you, Myriah, for caring—for tending to me. I . . . I’ll be careful. I promise.”
“You don’t have to thank me, princess,” Myriah said. “I know you’ll be careful. You’re a strong girl, Aurelia. Stronger than you know.”
I took the comb from her hand and smiled.
“It’s late, Myriah. You should get some sleep. I can do this myself.”
Myriah chuckled and patted my cheek with her gentle fingers, “My sweet girl.”
I smiled in response and pressed a small kiss to her cheek.
“I’ll see you in the morning,” I promised.
Myriah walked slowly to the door and turned back to look at me with a shine in her eyes.
“He doesn’t deserve your forgiveness, princess. He doesn’t deserve anyone’s forgiveness for the crimes he’s committed.” With a stubborn nod, she opened the door and slipped into the corridor.
The next morning, after being dressed and tended to, I decided to take to the gardens for a short stroll. Myriah helped me to slip on the opal bracelet the könig sent me.
As I stepped out into the brisk air, I found the flowers of the garden were beginning to change from their brown and twisted forms. A few were still covered by a light dusting of frost. I hoped to enjoy the warm glow of sunlight among the many layers of soft furs I wore underneath my coat. The promise of spring lingered in the damp morning air. It was there I found my father standing near the edge of the stone wall, overlooking another portion of frozen land. His cape billowed around his ankles, and I could see he was sliding his fingers through his hair; the same way I had seen him do in his study while councilmen bombarded him with names of potential brides.
Everything around the castle was decaying and grey with death while my father stood with his gleaming, golden crown.
I walked to him and touched his arm gently with my gloved hands. He turned to me, surprised. Slowly, consciousness filled his eyes as he drifted away from whatever thoughts he had just been absorbed in. I wondered where his thoughts took him.
“How are you, mein liebste?” he asked as he turned towards me with a welcoming smile. There were dark circles under his eyes as though he hadn’t slept at all the night before.
I gave a slight bow before I came to stand next to him at the wall. He startled me by taking my hand and kissing my gloved knuckles. My cheeks felt warm as they flushed. I took his affection as a kindly act—a warm welcome.
“Danke for my gift.” I murmured.
He seemed pleased by my response, for he lifted my hand higher to examine the bracelet around my wrist.
“It pleases you?”
“Yes, very much.” I replied in earnest.
His returning grin was bright but fleeting, and diminished quickly. Confusion squirmed through my gut as he turned to look over his lands again. He let go of my hand, and slid his fingers through his hair once more.
“Are you alright, father?” I lifted my hand to his arm again, wanting to catch his gaze. There seemed to be something troubling him.
“Fine,” he whispered sharply and eyed my hand from the corner of his eye.
With his look of sudden displeasure, I lowered my hand and licked my bottom lip. I wondered what he was thinking about; what he saw as his glare scoured over the gardens.
“Perhaps you’d like to join me tonight for a dinner, hmm?” he asked after a long moment of silence.
Before I could answer, he gave a sharp, curt nod. “I shall see you when you come to me.”
It was not a question, but an order. I knew I should not argue or disagree with him. I knew to be gracious about his invitations. There was no jilting the king. I quickly wore a small smile and nodded.
“Sehr gut,” he replied.
After another long moment, he turned and bowed his head to me. “Go, enjoy the day. If there is anything you wish, request it. See to it you do what you desire.”
With a chaste kiss against my cheek and a quick squeeze of my hand, he turned away and began toward the large doors. I watched after him until he disappeared inside the castle’s corridor shadows. I didn’t understand why his mood changed so quickly; what plagued him enough to slip away with such abruptness? I glanced down at the opal bracelet around my wrist and let out a sigh.
I was relieved when my advanced lessons had finally come to an end for the morning. My father had insisted for me to continue with my education shortly after the ball. He wished for me to learn philosophy, geography, and political policies. My tutor left me in the library to read his selection of philosophical novels until after lunch. He usually returned after his afternoon tea and we’d begin again.
I let out a soft, exasperated sigh at the sight of the small pile three or four books beside me. Beside it lay a list of several chapters outlined for me to review. I wished to read the sort of books I fancied. I longed to get lost in the pages of romantic poetry or epic adventures. At times, I found my tutor’s reading list boring and bothersome, and in my opinion, hardly helpful in my education. Many of them were large books on historical accounts of many philosopher’s lives, while others studied the way of life; expectations of royalty with power. Just as I opened the cover of one, two servants entered the other side of the room. Pushing myself from sight, I snuck into my favorite large window seat, hiding away from their prying eyes; the library was my safe haven.
“I hear he’s determined to marry a woman before the next harvest season.” A servant whispered to the other as they set their wash pails against the stone floor.
“. . . and there is a celebration planned. I overheard the chef ordering large amounts of food and wine from the village. It seems the könig might be holding another ball much sooner than we thought. I wonder who he’ll choose to dance with thistime.”
“Oh hush, it certainly won’t be with you.” The other barked with a high-pitched giggle.
I peeked around the edge of the drapes to see their faces, but they were unfamiliar to me. They were none of the maids I recognized from my own wing of the castle.
“Perhaps it’ll be with the princess again. You know how they’ve been talking since the ball last night.” One of the servants wrinkled her nose at other as they tucked a few dirty rags into the pockets of their aprons.
The servants were older, and their hair was curled and frizzed from their sweat. They looked nothing like Myriah, with her soft complexion and well-tended appearance. They seemed more like kitchen help than cleaning maids.
“Oh, I’ve seen the way the könig stares at the princess. The poor girl seems to not even notice or mind.”
“Perhaps she’s like her mother. . .” The older maid grinned as she snapped her rag playfully at the other. “Perhaps she’s a witch. She does have her mother’s charm and whit. And her hair . . .”
I bit my bottom lip, preventing myself from interjecting their private conversation. I wanted to cease their lies, but I knew if my presence were discovered, they’d stop their chattering.
“The könig is determined to find a bride with the königin’s golden hair. The only one to come close is the princess,” the other replied. “Perhaps the princess killed her mother, in hopes to be the future königin.”
I felt angry and sick at their cruel gossip. I was not like my mother. I was not a witch, nor as beautiful or cruel as she had been. I glanced down at my hair, feeling a strange twist of dread and embarrassment.
“You should keep an eye out,” the older one replied with a cackle. “For, if it is the case, the könig should be announcing his wedding soon. To whomever he chooses.”
Together, they laughed as I lifted my hand to my mouth. As my bracelet glimmered in the sunlight coming from the windows, I lowered my hand. My gaze took in the sight of the golden gift and suddenly wondered if this was Myriah meaning. I didn’t understand how this gift could be anything more than a sign of my father’s affection for me—his daughter. He was never so demonstrative before, but I was both honored and grateful for the opportunity to know him now.
I listened as they polished the large table, and a few other items around the library and then finally left. As soon as I knew it was safe to emerge, I grabbed my books and raced back to my rooms.
I shifted uncomfortably in my seat as I sat at the dining table for dinner. My dress felt too tight around my waist, and sharp carvings of the chair dug into my back. It didn’t help that I was famished.
Many different dishes scattered the long table, all of which were things my father preferred to eat. A large swan, garnished with its white feathers, almost seeming to be untouched by the cook in the kitchens. Different bowls of potatoes and vegetables, which had been all grown within the castle gardens There were also large pitchers of what I presumed were wines.
Normally, I took my dinner later than the rest of the court and stole away to my room with Myriah. I was not used to the formality of sitting at such an elegant table with so many people.
My mother always preferred me not to attend their evening meal. It was only moments earlier a servant arrived at the door of my room reminding me to join the king for dinner. I withheld telling Myriah of the chatter I heard in the library, unsure of how to ask her if what they said was true. I was too preoccupied with my thoughts to argue about the gown she dressed me in for dinner.
She pinned the layers of my hair up, allowing only a few of the tight curls to fall over my shoulders. The dress was a dark shade of blue, almost as dark as the night. The sleeves ran down to my wrists, and the collar was high around my neck, and met with a plunging line down the front of the dress. Small dark blue beading adorned the bodice, following the revealing line down to the skirt.
“I’m to wear this?” I asked as Myriah guided me down the hallway to the dining room.
She said nothing in reply. Her silence was my answer: a gift from my father. My body was exposed in a way I was not used to; in a way I had always known to be unacceptable. As I sat quietly, I tried to pay attention to my deep breathing as I waited. Time stood still as I felt a wave of nerves wash over me upon his entrance into the room.
He was dressed in black, from head to feet. His blue eyes pierced mine as he took his own seat at the head of the table. I adjusted quickly in my own seat beside him, sliding my hands underneath my thighs. He smiled warmly and lifted his goblet for the nearby servant to fill with wine.
“I’m glad to see you came. Did you enjoy your day, mein liebste?” he asked as he took a sip.
I nodded slowly as I watched the servant maneuver to my place setting and fill my goblet with the same wine. My father lifted a piece of the sweet meats, which had been set before him. Piles of meat rested upon each other on large, wooden trays, while bowls of freshly picked strawberries were strewn nearby. Loaves of bread were cut into large squares, and adorned with small amounts of freshly churned butter. Everything smelled so wonderfully.
“Tell me what you did to amuse yourself,” he said as he took a bite from a piece of meat on his plate. He watched me with entertained eyes as I carefully lifted a few figs from a nearby platter and placed them on my plate. I popped a pomegranate seed into my mouth as I tried to think how best to answer his question.
“What did you do?” he asked again as he leaned upon his elbows, moving closer towards me with interested eyes.
It was strange for me to explain how I spent most of my days in the library. I assumed he’d known what my mother had permitted me only to do.
“I was preoccupied by my lessons,” I said softly, “and spent much of my day in the library. Mother only allowed me to—” I stopped myself from saying anything further as he watched me with a darkened expression. “I enjoy spending time in the library. It’s often the only place I consider my own,” I quickly added, darting my gaze to the figs on my plate.
I heard my father chuckle as he lifted his goblet toward the servants again. They quickly refilled it and my father took a longer sip. The servant came to check upon my goblet, only to find I hadn’t touched it. The smell of the wine was too strong. I placed my hand on the rim of the goblet and shook my head at the servant.
“No wine for you, liebste?” he asked, seeming a bit surprised. “Do you not like it?”
“I enjoy sweet wines. This is a bit too strong.” I knew my father enjoyed stronger tangier ales and merlots than I preferred. As a child, I had only been permitted to have a sweeter, diluted wine. It was what I became accustomed to. He only chuckled at my reply.
“The late königin possessed the same tastes,” he murmured, glancing at me as if he were pleased with my response. “I think perhaps if you try to drink more of this, you’ll grow a liking to it,” He gestured towards his cup.
I noticed his eyes trailed over me a bit longer than before.
“May I be permitted to ask you a question?” I asked softly as I lifted my goblet to my lips.
I wondered if I did as he suggested and drink a bit of his wine, he would converse more candidly with me. He nodded as he watched me take a sip of the dry cabernet.
Seeming to be pleased by my actions, my father took a deep bite from the meat as he raised his brow curiously.
“You may ask me anything.”
He smirked as I shifted in my chair, uncomfortable from the carved figures on the backrest. I imagined the king who left the poor maid in the hallway, alone, terrified, found a small amount of pleasure in my unease.
“I briefly overheard a rumor about a wedding that might be in development,” I said softly, taking another small sip of the bitter-tasting wine. My father straightened in his seat as his gaze latched onto mine. His piercing glare could burn through me. His hand slid nervously through his hair again.
“Have you found a wife?” I asked as I picked up a small carrot from a nearby plate and started to nibble on the edge.
He lowered the meat back down onto his plate. Warily, he wiped his fingers on the linen near his side and grazed his fingertips along the edge of his beard.
“I would do anything to make you happy, Aurelia. You must know this,” he said tenderly, his gaze catching mine.
His answer felt a bit unusual. As he shifted in his chair and nervously fumbled with the cloth napkin in his lap, he appeared to be trying to choose his words wisely; His eyes focused on mine.