The small boy was awakened suddenly. Not, as usual, by one of the nursery maids laying a fire in his big carved fireplace, or even by his governess’s loudly cheerful sweeping back the bed curtains. Instead he had been roused by something he’d never heard before in the palace—loud, angry shouting.
Early morning light just peeped around the edges of his curtained windows, like it did when he went with Papa and Lord Drass and their friends to hunt fowl in the great marshes south of the city. Maybe there was a hunt that morning, and people were angry because nobody had told them about it and they didn’t want to miss it. He didn’t want to, either.
He climbed out of bed and padded to where his small hunting bow hung on the wall. If he got ready quickly and didn’t fuss, Papa might let him go. He dressed himself in sturdy leggings and a leather jerkin and put on his wool cloak, for it was autumn and his governess would be cross if he tried to sneak out without it. As he pulled on his boots he listened to the strange sounds that seemed to be growing louder. They didn’t sound very nice.
The door to his room flew open. The boy jumped, but it was only his governess, the Countess. He ran to her. “What’s making all that—”
“Praise be, you’re awake,” she interrupted, and hurried over to his wardrobe. Flinging open the doors, she stuffed a bag she carried with his clothes.
He watched her rush round the room putting things in her bag. Why hadn’t she told him to wash his face and comb his hair the way she did every other morning? “Is there a hunt?” he asked tentatively. “Can I go too? Look, I’m all ready—”
“Yes, I’m very glad you are.” She snatched a mostly shapeless and balding stuffed toy from his bed.
He tried to wrench it out of her grasp. “I don’t want to take Poofa on a hunt. I’m almost five, you know. They’ll laugh at me!”
For an instant she looked at him with a funny look on her face, as if she wanted to cry. Then her usual calm smile slipped back into place.
“Quickly, now. We don’t want to be late.” She pulled the hood of his cloak over his head. “Best cover that hair of yours. No one else’s is quite that shade of gold,” she muttered, then took his hand.
The shouting was louder now. It sounded as if it might be at the end of the hallway. But he didn’t have time to stop and listen because his governess was pulling him through the connecting door into her room.
Her bedroom was very untidy, which was odd—she was never untidy. Clothes and papers were strewn about, and she had packed another bag that she slung over her shoulder. Then she did a funny thing. She poked at two or three places in the carvings around one of her bookcases, and the bookcase slid aside. There was a dark, narrow hallway behind it, and a flight of stairs leading down. Heya! This was even better than a hunt. He followed close on her heels into the secret passageway.
The Countess slid the bookcase-door shut behind them, grunting a little with the effort. Then, fumbling in the dark, she struck a spark with a flint and lit a small lamp. Shadows danced around them as she knelt down and gazed into his face.
“I want you to follow me, and do exactly what I tell you. No questions. And above all, keep as quiet as you possibly can.”
Her face looked a little scary, lit from below by the lamp. “Is this part of the hunt?” he whispered.
The Countess’s eyes took on an odd expression again. Was she angry, or sad, or—or scared? “Yes, dear. Now, quietly!”
They went swiftly down the dark stairs. The shouting sounds had faded. He heard his governess counting under her breath, and saw by the flickering light of her lamps that they were passing doors set at intervals in the wall. At the sixth one she stopped and set down their bags, then slid it open a crack. “Your Majesty—Elladis—” she called urgently.
“Wha—?” said a sleepy voice. The boy caught sight of blue silk hangings and realized that this was his mother’s room. Mamma was still asleep; she had to sleep a lot because the new baby made her tired, wanting to eat all the time. Would Mamma and his new little sister go hunting too?
He tried to squeeze past the Countess but froze when the real door burst open and the shouting sound he had heard before filled the room. Men waving axes and pikes poured in, shouting his father’s name. One of them—a young man with sleek black hair and a narrow, pointed face—bent over his little sister’s cradle and picked the baby up, grinning unpleasantly.
The boy opened his mouth to cry out. Before he could, the Countess yanked him back and slid the door closed, but not before he saw a tall, burly man with a blood-red feather on his hat bring a heavy axe down on his beautiful, sleepy, terrified Mamma’s head. Blood exploded onto the sea-blue bed hangings, turning them dark and ugly. Blood everywhere—
Through the door the shouts in the room grew louder and even more frenzied. A thin, fretful cry was cut off in a dull thud, and the boy saw his governess close her eyes and scrunch up her face as if the sound hurt her.
“Maaaamaa!” he started to wail, but the Countess lifted him with a small grunt, muffling his sobs in her shoulder, and began to hurry down the passage, away from the door.
“Hush, my darling…please be quiet or they’ll find us too,” she panted. “I don’t think—please the gods, let them not have seen us!”
She kept going until the light from their lamp was no longer visible behind them, then knelt in the darkness and set him down, holding him tightly, till her breathing was less ragged. “Can you walk, child? I need to feel my way from here,” she whispered, close to his ear.
The darkness around them felt like it was reaching toward him with grasping, greedy hands, but right now the only light and color he could think of were the gold of his Mamma’s head, and the glint of the axe as it fell, and then— “Mamma,” he whispered. His legs went all wobbly as the dark climbed into his head, blocking out the red—
But the Countess shook him. “No, darling! You can’t faint now. Your mamma…” She swallowed hard. “The bad men can’t hurt her anymore. Now we have to find your papa.”
Papa—the men said they were going to get him. Would they hit him too? “I want Papa!”
“We’ll look for him, right now.” He felt the Countess pull him close again and lean her forehead against his. “I will always be here to protect you, but you must help me by being brave. Remember what Papa calls you.”
“‘Brave as the lions in the Adaiha,’” he said dutifully, trying to swallow the sobs that threatened to choke him.
“That’s right. Come, my little lion.” She rose and took his hand. He clutched hers tightly and they moved slowly through the darkness, in the secret passage in the great palace by the sea.
Twenty years later
Marriage for reasons of state is the usual fate of monarchs. Matrimonial union is symbolic of political union; as your marriage flourishes, so too will your countries’ alliance. And do not forget that true love, or at least mutual esteem and affection, may follow if you enter such a marriage with the determination to make it succeed.
-The Flower of Royalty Blossom’d; or A Manual for the Instruction of Future Monarchs, with Especial Emphasis on the Moral and Spiritual Development of their Intellects as well as the Nurture of their Practical and Political Instincts by Count V. Ebroian, Regent of Mauburni
“You’re going to wear that book out, you know. The ink will rub off from being read so much.”
Saraid jumped and clapped The Book closed. “Pox it, Nin, don’t do that to me. And I wasn’t really reading. Just…thinking.” She casually slipped it behind the cushions on the window seat where she was curled. It was true, really—she had been thinking more than reading. Thinking about the fact that in just a matter of days, it might be years before she’d see this room again. Or anything in Thekla, ever. She pushed that thought hastily aside.
“Hmm.” Nin leaned past her and fished her book out of the cushions. “Ah, The Flower of Royalty. Just as I thought. Do you ever read anything else? I’ll grant you that it’s fairly good, but we studied a lot of other good books too.”
“Careful!” Saraid snatched it back. “That’s Mama’s copy.”
“I wasn’t going to hurt it, silly.” Nin sat down next to her. “You’ve been coming in here a lot, haven’t you?” she asked in a gentler tone.
Saraid glanced around the large bedchamber with its faded green silk hangings and cushions and delicately carved furniture. Father had left the room as it always had been, though he hadn’t gone to the silly lengths a king of Nolor once had, having clothes laid out and a bath drawn for his late wife every evening. It was comforting to retreat here amidst the quiet and memories.
“When I was little, Mama would call me in here sometimes when you were busy with Father,” she said slowly. That was how they’d always been: Nin was Father’s favorite, and she’d been Mama’s. “We used to talk about how one day I would go away to marry in a foreign land because that’s what kings’ younger daughters did. Mama said they became living bridges to link countries together. We would look at maps and talk about where I might go some day.”
Nin patted her arm. “I understand.”
Saraid turned away so that Nin wouldn’t see her face. No. She didn’t understand. She couldn’t. Nin would stay in Thekla and become queen when Father someday went to rest with Mama in the Fields of the Dead. She would never have to leave Thekla, never have to learn to call another place home.
“Don’t you have something you’re supposed to be doing? Ambassadors to receive or some such thing?” she asked. The Book said that “Deflecting unwanted conversation is an art well to be cultivated in any situation, but especially in the confines of a royal court.” She thought it might be on page 77, somewhere near the bottom.
Unfortunately, tactics like that didn’t often work on Nin. After all, she’d read The Book too. She put an arm around Saraid’s shoulders. “No. Don’t turn away and go all stiff on me. You’ve been an utter pincushion lately—pointy and prickly all over. In a little while we’ll have to dress for the dinner with the council, and then there’s the ball, and then later you’ll be packing all your last-minute necessities—” She tugged on The Book. “We won’t have any time to just talk. C’mon, Sardy. I’m your big sister, remember?”
The childhood nickname wormed its way through Saraid’s carefully constructed defenses. She looked down at her hands, where faceted rose-pink tourmalines sparkled on the bracelets Varian Mutrand, Lord Protector of Mauburni, had sent her. Be a queen! they seemed to signal up to her blurring eyes. In a few weeks’ time, she’d no longer be a Theklan princess but the wife of the ruler of Mauburni. Revealing any of her doubt and anxiety was not queen-worthy behavior.
But this was Nin.
“I…I’m afraid,” she mumbled.
Nin reached out and touched one of her bracelets. “What are you afraid of? The Lord Protector? That he’ll be horrible or something?”
Saraid thought of the portrait miniature the Mauburnian ambassador had given her. As far as she could tell, the Lord Protector of Mauburni was as handsome as any prospective bride could wish. She wore it on a chain under her tunic, next to her heart, but Nin didn’t need to know that. “No, not really. But—” She took a deep breath. “Mama may have talked about living bridges and all that, which was fine when I was little. But she didn’t talk about what it was like to be married.”
Nin shifted uneasily. “You, um, do know what happens on your wedding night, yes?”
As a matter of fact, she did know. A couple of the older ladies of the court had taken her aside to talk about it. That part of being married didn’t scare her, though it sounded somewhat improbable. Still, they’d said it could be very pleasant if done correctly. Both had been married for a long time and ought to know.
“That’s not what I’m talking about.” She looked down at her bracelets again, then back at Nin. It wasn’t queen-worthy to worry about anything so trivial as her feelings, either. Thekla needed her to make this alliance with Mauburni. But still… “What if he doesn’t like me? What if we don’t have anything to talk about? I know that’s not what’s important…”
“You’ve been writing to each other for months now, haven’t you?” Nin asked.
“Y—es. He seems nice enough. At least, I like the letters that I’ve actually gotten from him. Keranieth knows how many might have disappeared on their way across the Adaiha.”
Ninieth cleared her throat. Saraid followed her glance out the window that overlooked the gardens drowsing in the late afternoon sun. Bees hummed busily above the last of the summer flowers, soon to be felled by the first frost. That was another thing she would miss: the gardens of Thekla, where everyone had a green thumb. But maybe the gardens in Mauburni would be as lovely—
Nin cleared her throat a second time. “Ah, yes. The Adaiha.”
Saraid turned from the window. Nin always saved that exaggeratedly casual tone for cajoling her into doing something she wouldn’t like. “What about the Adaiha? Is there something wrong? I mean, something more wrong than usual?”
That was the only drawback to marrying a Mauburnian: in order to get there she would have to cross the wide, desolate desert of the Adaiha. When the last king of Mauburni had been deposed twenty years ago the Adaiha had declared itself free of Mauburnian rule. Now it was held by feuding warlords who could only agree on one thing: that anyone traveling through their land was fair game. Months had been spent negotiating the preparations for her crossing the Adaiha safely.
“No-o-o…” Nin hesitated. “Not wrong, exactly.”
“Which means that something is not quite right, either. Stop being mysterious.”
“I’ll tell you the good part first, shall I? I know you’ll like it.”
“What makes you so sure?”
“Don’t interrupt. What would you say if I told you that you won’t have to travel to Mauburni in the horse-litter after all?”
That was good, if surprising. Since a coach or wagon of any sort would be useless in the sand of the Adaiha, Father had taken it into his head that she should journey as befitted a royal princess of Thekla in an elegantly upholstered and curtained horse-borne litter all the way to Madariv, capital of Mauburni. Saraid had ridden in it for a circuit around the courtyard in front of the stables and had nearly thrown up all over the lovely silk interior. She’d asked, then demanded, then finally begged to ride horseback instead, but Father had been adamant.
“Very well. So what’s the ‘not exactly wrong’ part?” she asked warily.
Nin didn’t answer. Instead she regarded the toes of her kidskin slippers with a sudden deep interest.
Saraid sat up and pulled her round to face her. “Nin, what don’t you want to tell me?”
She looked up from her shoes. “It’s not that I don’t want to. I’m just trying to figure out how.”
“Tell me what?”
Nin sighed. “That you’ll be traveling to Madariv in disguise with a small guard, a minimum of belongings, and a minimum of comfort, too, probably, at least between oases.”
“You’re making that up.” There was no way that would happen—not after all those weeks of fussing about the hundreds of horses and pack mules to ferry her retinue and her wedding clothes and gifts for her husband and a thousand other things.
“I wish I were. The Mauburnian ambassador told Father and the Council that news of your marriage seems to have spread across the Adaiha, no matter how careful messengers have been, and now every warlord out there is on the watch, hoping to kidnap you for ransom. When Father wanted to enlarge your guard, they said that wouldn’t work because none of the oases could accommodate that many people and animals. So between them they came up with a plan: send the bulk of your luggage and people across with as much fanfare as possible to serve as decoy, and send you separately, traveling fast and light—just you, a maid, a handful of guards, a few pack animals. You’ll dress like Adaihans and ride Adaihan horses—oh, I wish Father had told us about this sooner, so that you could have prepared for it! When was the last time you spent more than half an hour on horseback? Three summers ago, when the water sickness was so bad in the city that we stayed in the country till after harvest?”
“Two summers,” Saraid corrected her. “Why didn’t he tell me sooner?”
“I don’t know. I didn’t know till just now. Maybe he thought you’d worry less if you didn’t know beforehand.” She took Saraid’s hand. “No wonder you’re upset.”
“But I’m not upset. It’s wonderful news!”
Nin stared at her. “It is?”
Saraid shook off her hand, jumped from the window seat, and began to pace. “Think about it. Instead of lying in that litter either throwing up or going cross-eyed with boredom, I’ll be—oh, I don’t know. Riding in the fresh air, helping keep watch, and not having a chance to feel bad.” Or homesick, or worried about her upcoming marriage and the impressions she’d make, or any other behavior unworthy of The Book. “It’ll be fun!”
“Fun, exciting…I don’t know.” She stopped pacing. “Tell me, would you rather be stuck in that litter?”
One corner of Nin’s mouth quirked. “Not so fast, Sardy—you’ll still have to travel in it until you get to the border.”
Saraid shrugged airily. “Pfft. That won’t take long.”
“Saraid, I’m serious. Are you sure you don’t mind? It’ll be hard riding, mostly by night, and you’ll be camping between watering places…not that most of them are supposed to be luxurious by any means, but at least they have beds.”
“I’m not completely soft. It’ll be just like when we used to take our blankets to the barn at Great-aunt Yareth’s country house. Remember that? You were always the one who wanted to go back to our room because the hayloft wasn’t comfortable enough, not me.”
A distant bell rang. Nin glanced once more at the setting sun visible through the window and rose. “Time to get ready for the dinner. I’m glad you’re taking it so well, though I still think—”
“Don’t worry.” Saraid took her arm and propelled her through the door.
As soon as she was safely out of sight, Saraid let the grin she’d been holding back spread across her face as she turned back into Mama’s room. Now she would have stories to tell her children, just as Mama had—but hers would be even more exciting, all about how she’d ridden in disguise across a wild, bandit-infested land in order to marry their father. They’d love it.
She fished inside the neck of her silk tunic and pulled out the miniature of Lord Protector Mutrand on its slender silver chain. Would their children have his dark eyes, or her green ones? Her rather long nose, or his high forehead? She hoped they’d have his sleek black hair and not her rambunctious, reddish-brown locks that were only well behaved when restrained in a braid down her back. Ambassador Rathal said he was tall, like her, so that would be well.
“I think we shall suit each other quite nicely, Milord Varian,” she whispered, tracing the shape of his neatly pointed beard with her finger. “At least, I hope…no, I’m sure we will.”
After all, there was no real reason why they shouldn’t. Yes, he was nearly twice her age—but she didn’t want a callow youth for her husband, not when she could have a mature man, experienced in both ruling and in…in other things. She only hoped that he would not find her too young, despite all the practicing she’d done recently at being dignified and regal. The Book hadn’t had anything to say about age differences between husbands and wives, but maybe that meant it wasn’t anything of importance—yes, that must be it. She brought the miniature to her lips and kissed it, then let the chain slither back inside her tunic and picked up The Book from the window seat.
The Book. Nin could tease all she wanted, but it wasn’t going to change how she felt about it.
Mama had given her her own copy of The Flower of Royalty Blossom’d; or A Manual for the Instruction of Future Monarchs, with Especial Emphasis on the Moral and Spiritual Development of their Intellects as well as the Nurture of their Practical and Political Instinct not long before she died, during one of those talks about Saraid’s leaving Thekla some day. It was a beautiful book, with exquisite illuminations, but Saraid hadn’t really paid much attention to it until after Mama’s death. Then, reading the book that had been written three hundred years ago for a little orphaned king, she’d been struck by a feeling of kinship with him.
Admittedly, she wasn’t really an orphan. But with Mama gone, she felt like one. Father had never had time—nor inclination—to be a father; he’d always been awkward and uncomfortable with them. He’d only overcome that with Nin once she was well on her way to being grown, and probably only because she was his heir. So it had almost felt that the author of The Book, Count Ebroian, was talking not only to the young king who had lost his parents, but directly to her. She was a future monarch too, wasn’t she?
When the delegations had first started arriving from Mauburni a year ago, seeking her hand, she’d been delighted. To go to Mauburni, the land of her beloved Book? To marry a man named Varian, which had also been Count Ebroian’s given name—a fact which delighted her no end? No matter that he was only a Lord Protector, nephew of the man who’d overthrown the last king. He held all the powers a king did, and the delegations had confided that the alliance with Thekla would almost certainly result in his being acknowledged as king by the Mauburnian Council of Lords. The new King Varian would owe his crown to her, which would give her a power not held by many princesses in arranged marriages. No empty life eating sugared listhra petals and ordering new gowns for her—no, she would be there right next to her new husband, being the perfect enlightened monarch as described in The Book.
Although envoys from the King of Nolor had also come to Thekla to woo her at about the same time, bearing jewels and gifts from that strange, far-away land, she had barely noticed them. Instead she had spent weeks calling on each of Father’s ministers in turn, discussing the benefits of both alliances but making it abundantly clear where her preference lay. Count Ebroian would have been proud of her, she was sure. And it had worked; they’d all supported the alliance with Mauburni, and Father had acceded to their wishes. If it was her fate to leave her home, then at least she’d had a hand in choosing her new one.
There was only one problem. The Book was regrettably silent on the topic of being a wife, of how she should go about becoming both lover and friend, of being all to her husband and knowing he was all to her. If only Mama—
But she couldn’t think about Mama now, or she’d end up at the reception later with red eyes and a swollen nose. She would just have to make that part up as she went along.
With a last look around the dimming room, she left to take her bath and go to her final farewell party.
©2018 Marissa Doyle