"If you ever decide to remarry, you must marry someone who is as beautiful as I and has my golden hair.” The words seemed to echo all around the darkened, red room as my dying Mother whispered them. Candles were lit all across the room, creating a gloomy and death-like atmosphere around us as they flickered against the stone walls; the only solace of light was the flames, curling out from the fireplace. My Mother’s hair, like spools of golden thread, lay against her forehead, clinging to her dying, pale skin as she lifted her hand, reaching out to my Father for his answer. My Mother, the Queen, was dying in her bed with my weeping Father on bended knee, taking her hand and kissing her knuckles and the corner of her lips.
“My wife…” His words were soft and full of a clouded grief I knew I didn’t understand. My Father and Mother were hardly ever affectionate behind closed doors. I often saw them together in the throne room, together in my Father’s den, but never close; never touching. His loss of her was a mystery to me.
“Promise me,” she hissed at him, her breathing was growing faint as she shifted and grunted, trying to look at him more closely. Perhaps it was her only solace that her husband, my Father, would never truly love anyone after her. Perhaps she hoped a new wife would only be a constant reminder of his first.
I stood in the background, watching the scene between my Mother and Father, clinging to the thick red bed drapes, my own golden curls tied back with a black ribbon. I had been pulled from my tutoring lesson with Mousier Rayner, learning French from the brittle books of my Father’s library and had dressed for the occasion of my Mother’s death in a simple black dress. I hadn’t known how to feel as the black silk brushed against my skin. I felt almost as if we were being paraded into her room to watch her die like an animal. Was this how life truly was?
We were born, lived the life God granted us, and then, just as quickly, our flame dulls until it becomes a wisp of smoke in a darkened room and we’re gone. As the servants and house-hold hands guided me into the room, I stood frozen in the back. It was often said by the Courtiers I looked much like my Mother; I had the same golden hair and the same blue eyes. I wondered now how true it really was. Did I truly?
I felt fear as her last breath slipped between her lips, her hand slowly falling from my Father’s shoulder. Everyone in the Kingdom knew the King did not have a male heir, and in turn, would need one to carry on the Royal Line. Who would be next? I could see eyes staring at me; I was my Mother’s reflection: my Mother’s legacy. I felt a cold shiver run up my spine as I heard my Father reply, “I promise.”
THE KING AND HIS PROMISE
KINGDOM OF TRÄNEN
I was told my Mother looked to my Father with apologetic eyes on the day of my birth. The wet nurse had lifted the swaddling bundle of the girl I was into his arms, as my Mother promised, “A son, I will give you a son.” My Father had kissed her forehead in a gesture of forgiveness, silencing her in the soft desperate moment which should have been a joyful one.
The earth was grey and wet on the day we buried my Mother. We often came to her grave as a Court, to remember and honor her in my Father’s name. Two years had since then passed for my Father and the Kingdom. The winter’s snow on the ground had begun to melt under the warm golden ball in the sky. We stood around the large stone my Father had constructed in her honor, keeping warm with our furs and shawls. My eyes drifted from each member of the Court, until finally they rested on my Father. My Father lifted his gaze to me, and slowly he extended his hand out to me. It was a gesture that I felt I had dreamed of my entire life. I had always wanted my Father’s approval. I wanted my Father to look at me with the love and adoration that I saw him give my Mother, her friends, their children; everyone but myself. But now, I was the only thing my Father had left. We stood there in the rain, repeating prayers until it seemed the Priest was appeased, and slowly the court began to head back towards the palace, leaving my Mother alone in the ground. I glanced at my Father, saw his torn face and decided to stay beside him.
“I can’t believe it’s already been two years, Papa.” I whispered softly and squeezed his hand. He gave a small, quiet nod and sighed. “Yes, I know.”
“I’ve tried my best to take care of you, the way Mother would have wanted.” I continued, biting my lip nervously.
“You don’t have to worry about me, Aurelia, my dear. You’ve cared for me better than any daughter would for her Father.” I felt him pat my hand gently and slowly walked ahead of me. In the short distance, I saw my Father’s advisor waiting for him: Lord Haven. Lord Haven had been a good childhood friend of my Fathers, and as my Father rose to power, he brought Lord Haven along with him. It was even rumored Lord Haven had helped my Father to meet my Mother. Other stories made my Mother out to be a witch, who had manipulated my Father with her magic spells. She had come from a foreign land; a Kingdom across the sea, rich with jewels and wealth. It must have made sense to marry such a woman who could give a King such power. She had been a lady of the court when my Father had first married her; an exotic princess, who knew how to wear seduction in the corner of her lips.
At my Father’s first royal ball, held to find himself a wife at the request of Lord Haven, my Mother had come to him in a gown reflective of pure gold. It was even said she had maids who knew how to turn normal thread into pure gold. She had interlaced her fingers with my Father’s on the dance floor, fed him exotic fruit and laughed at all of his jokes. She knew exactly how to entertain and enchant him, and from that time forth, he knew she had to be his, in name, body and soul. Some women of the court started rumors about my Mother pouring white powders in my Father’s drinks, keeping his attentions censored on her, despite her cruel and cold heart. Others claimed my Mother knew exactly how to wear her dresses improperly and tempted my Father with the hint of her cleavage and the rising hems of her dresses as she danced closer and closer to him. I recalled a time when my Mother had snagged me away from gossiping women of the court, gripping my arm tightly with her white fingers.
“They have always been envious of me, and would say anything to win the King’s favor, Aurelia.” I was never sure why she had felt the need to explain anything to me, or if what they claimed indeed the truth were lies. God punished my Father for her witch-craft by giving me to her. I was the shame she had to wear every day. I was the one failure in her nearly perfect life, and now perhaps she would be mine. Ever since her death, many of the courtiers remarked on how I was ‘very much like my Mother.’ I never wanted to be like her: I wanted to be myself.
As I looked at my Mother’s grave, I felt a twist in my stomach. I sensed she would continue to haunt me in some way, despite the time already gone by. I glanced at my Father, upon hearing my name as they whispered. He had been speaking to Lord Haven in the distance when I saw the way he looked at me; my golden hair catching in the glow of the sun. A sinking feeling of dread filled me. I was relieved when one of my servants, Myriah, came to tend to me and take me back to the warm castle.
“I wonder how much longer the King will take in finding himself a new wife.” Myriah murmured next to me as we walked back together. Myriah had been one of my oldest and closest friends. Despite tending to me since I was a child, Myriah was much more than just a servant in the household to me. She was a Mother, sister and friend, all in one.
“I’m not sure.” I said softly in reply, glancing over my shoulder for a moment, catching my Father’s gaze again. He lifted his hand in a gesture of farewell, and I quickly turned my head away.
“I think I might lie down until supper.” I said with a soft sigh. “It’s been an exhausting afternoon.” Myriah nodded and gave me an understanding smile. “Yes, Princess.”
The sunlight was bright as it filled my room, stirring me from a strange, dreamless sleep. I could hear a few of the servants outside of my room, jabbering on about the time and the duties they needed to still attend to. It seemed they were always busy now, tending to my Father, his demands and his visitors. Since my Mother’s passing, my Father had tried to stay true to the promise he had made to her on her deathbed. If he would remarry, he would find someone with her long golden hair. Over the past two years, the Kingdom had gone from an eternal darkness, in which the land seemed to be forever frozen in the loss of the Great and Beautiful Queen, to the rebirth of spring and summer; a newness to the air.
Within the past few months, my Father had decided it was now time to search for a new wife. His courtiers and more importantly, Lord Haven, had much to say about the lack of a male heir, and how much in need the Kingdom was for a Prince to carry on my Father’s name and line. I had overheard many meetings of them ranting on about needing a Prince; the Kingdom would only survive with a male heir. I saw my poor Father slide his fingers through his hair, almost as if he wanted to tug every strand away, until he was left with nothing more on his head. What a disappointment I was to him and to my Mother. If only I had been a son, my Father would not have faced such pressures and perhaps then, I would have been more useful. My Father eagerly sent for eligible young ladies to come stay at the castle; to woo them with dresses and jewels, fine foods and wines and hand-written letters. I didn’t know how I felt about such things or how I was supposed to feel.
I wanted my Father to be happy, but I didn’t want his promise to my Mother to consume his life; though it seemed it already had. The idea either made my stomach twist with sickness, or twist with a certain envy I didn’t understand. I longed for affection, whether it romantic or not. I had never had a suitor in all my nineteen years. The possibility of marriage had never been brought to me, though; I knew my role as the King’s Daughter would bring a marriage agreement with another Kingdom, giving my Father more lands or wealth in return. Sadly, I watched as my Father hosted parties, held balls, generously gave his attention to those who sought his affections off of the dance floor. The twist of longing started to become far too familiar for me. I watched an array of my Father’s parties, always glittering in the finest jewels and with many candles, filling the room with a beautiful bright arrangement of sparkles and light. My Father always seemed to choose the most beautiful and the most charming to dance with although it seemed as time passed the group of women became smaller and smaller as each party became a little less grand. It was becoming obvious my Father was losing hope in finding the impossible wife.
I usually spent my time during my Father’s parities in the shadows of the ballroom, sipping on punch or eating a few pieces of fruit provided on the long silver trays scattered among tables for the many guests. Myriah and I would watch my Father dance and twirl with the latest lady he was enraptured with; but this party had been different. There had been no women for my Father to court and the guests were all watching him, waiting to see who he would select to dance with. “Daughter,” He had said with a kind grin as he had extended his hand out to me. I stared at his hand for the longest moment until I felt Lord Haven touch my shoulder and nudge me towards my Father.
“The King wishes to dance with you, Princess.” I could only imagine how pink my cheeks were as I raised my hand to my Father’s extended one. It seemed as soon as my Father drew me into the small space of the dance floor, the flittering of fans and the soft whispers of gossip came to life; all eyes were on him and me. I could see something had changed in my Father. His eyes were glassed over; his blue eyes seemed unfamiliar to me, and I felt strangely uncomfortable. I knew there had been a change in the room; it seemed almost as if I couldn’t breathe, and my corset had nothing to do with my lack of air. It was my Father and the way he was watching me. Perhaps a courtier had brought it upon themselves to compliment my golden hair or my teasing smile as I had been speaking with one of the guests, but none-the-less, there was something about me that caught the attention of not only the courtiers, but my Father. I felt as my Father pulled me closer to him; his hand on the small of my back, his thumb brushing against the small part of my skin exposed below my neck. As he spun me around the room, he began press against me more closely, his breath on my neck. I didn’t understand what he was doing, or what he wanted, but I felt I would know all too soon. I pushed myself away from him and took a step back. I heard him say my name and beckon me back with his awaiting hand, but I took another step back and shook my head. Even this was a line I was not willing to cross. I hoped my Father was only behaving this way because of having too much to drink.
The knock on my door startled me from my thoughts, bringing me back from the endless night at the ball, to the safety of my room. When I did not answer, the knocking came again. I slowly rose to the door, only pausing for a moment of hesitation, unsure of whom it could be.
“Yes?” I asked quietly against the panels. A deep voice replied, “Your Highness, the King has brought you a gift in hopes to please you.” As I pressed my hand against the wooden boards and iron, I opened the door and saw one of my Father’s messengers staring back at me with a small box in his hand. I looked at him curiously and then back down at the box.
“Do you know what it is?” It was all I could do to keep my hands from taking the gift. Why had my Father sent me something? I couldn’t recall the last time I had received a gift from him. Even so, on the celebration of my birthday, my Father and Mother would only send me a bouquet of flowers or host a feast in honor of God granting them a child. The past year my birthday had seemed to go unnoticed and forgotten in this grief of Mother’s death.
“I do not, Princess.” He seemed to almost thrust it towards me, forcing me to take it from him. As I took the box, I noticed just how small and delicate it seemed. I gave the messenger a small nod of gratitude and closed the door. I leaned against the panels, staring at the small box, as my heart raced from the sheer curiosity of what could be inside. Finally, I shook my head and opened it, revealing a small delicate golden chain with an opal stone encrusted with small diamonds around it. I had never received something so beautiful or valuable from anyone before. I quickly closed the box, almost afraid the elements of the room would tarnish it. Perhaps my Father did love me, and wasn’t ashamed of me after all.
I couldn’t stop myself from grinning wildly as I opened the box again and gently took the chain from the box, fitting it over my wrist. The opal shimmered in the sunlight, beaming through my window. Perhaps this could be a new start for my Father and I. Perhaps now things could be different for us. I smiled even more brightly when Myriah entered my chambers; a whistle was soft upon her lips.
“What a pleasant sight to see this morning, Princess.” Myriah said with a smile as she shuffled towards my armoire. I heard her open the doors and let a deep sigh out.
“What do you wish to wear today, Aurelia?” I grinned as I walked up to her, exposing my wrist to her.
“Something that will match my Father’s gift to me.” Myriah’s eyes opened wide at the sight of the chain and stone and then flickered back to me.
“When did the King give this to you?” she asked. I noticed how her hands flittered to her waist, as if she were waiting for a problem to arise. I looked down at the chain and then back up at Myriah.
“He had a messenger send it to me this morning.”
“Ah, I see.” she murmured and turned her attention back to grabbing the things I’d need to dress for the day.
“Perhaps you should leave it here, so it doesn’t get misplaced. You would never forgive yourself if such a thing happened.”
“I’ll be careful, Myriah. I’d like to wear it. Perhaps it will please the King as well to see me wearing it.”
“Perhaps.” Myriah answered curtly as she pulled a soft pink gown from the folds of my armoire and laid it out for my approval. I found Myriah’s comment a bit disconcerting but I did not press the issue. Perhaps I was still too much of a child in her eyes to receive such a grown-up gift. I ignored her comment as I started to dress myself in the undergarments she had laid out for me; the opal glittering against my wrist.
“Where is my Father?” I asked as I tucked a strand of my hair behind my ear and straightened my skirt around my waist. I felt Myriah’s fingers behind me, nimbly tying the strings around my waist to keep it into place. The corset was my least favorite part of dressing every morning. Myriah would put the contraption around me and begin the endless tug of pulling my ribs together.
“I’m not sure, Princess.” she replied curtly after a few tugs. I turned to look at her, staring into her shocked eyes. I never treated Myriah this way before, but I was not going to let her stop me from trying to have a bond with my Father.
“If you’re not going to be helpful, Myriah, I’ll just call for another maid to tend to me.” Myriah opened her mouth to say something and then sighed, giving me a small, curt nod.
“Yes, Your Highness.” I turned back around, letting her finish the task of tying my corset around me, holding onto one of the bed posts for support.
“I don’t think you understand your Father.” she replied after a long, silent moment.
“And you do?” How dare she talk to me in such a way!
“Aurelia, I’m trying to help you. 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 your parents. I’ve seen them turn their backs to you. Why do you forgive your Father so easily?”
“I don’t wish to speak about that. Why can’t you just be happy for me? This is everything I wanted. I’ve only ever wanted to be seen! Why should I not take advantage of this chance?”
“Your Father isn’t seeing you the way you think he is.” she said sternly, tying the last part of my corset and turning me around roughly.
“What do you know, Myriah? You know nothing about Fathers or families.” I knew my words had stung her. I knew Myriah had come from a poor family. So poor, Myriah had been taken from her family as a child and sold to the palace as a servant in exchange to pay off her Father’s debts. Myriah had grown up in the palace, learning how to milk cows, tend gardens, and do kitchen work. When she came of age, she moved into the Royal Castle and began to tend to my Mother as a lady’s maid. Once my Mother gave birth to me, Myriah became my nurse and maid. If I ever had a Mother in my life, it was Myriah. She had been through countless evenings of tears and not understanding why my parents didn’t love me. There had been countless conversations about love and families and what I wanted and wished for the future. So now, why couldn’t she just be happy for me? Why couldn’t she see this was a sign?
“I think I’m needed in the kitchens, Princess.” She gave me a small curtsy and walked towards the door.
“I’m sorry, Myriah, I didn’t mean...”
“You know what you meant to say,” She responded and left the room. I stood there in my undergarments, staring at the wooden boards. What a twist of events that had ensued in only a few short minutes. I glanced down at the chain around my wrist and wondered if I should listen to Myriah and tuck it away for safe keeping. But then, just as quickly, the image of my Father filled my mind, and the desire to please him filled me. I grabbed a shawl from my armoire and wrapped it around myself, as I walked towards my door. I opened it to find another maid waiting for my request and I welcomed her into the room. She finished Myriah’s job quickly and quietly, pulling the gown over my frame and tended to my hair until I was presentable. I watched as the maid left to continue her chores elsewhere; leaving me with the soft silence of the bustling servants in the hallway: I was alone just as I had been before.