by J F Saxby
A Short Story from Starlit Realms: A Fantasy Anthology
edited by Elizabeth Klein.
“Pull tighter,” the head maid said.
I braced my body for another onslaught on my lower ribs.
The poached egg breakfast curdled in my stomach.
Could a whale bone corset break ribs?
Maili helped the head maid ease the silver blue dress over my head. I brushed my hands over the expanse of fabric. It swished around me like a wild ocean.
“Sit now, my Princess,” Maili said.
Skena arranged glittering pins on a tray, dragged a brush through my hair and then braided it into long, neat ropes. She wound them around my head and fastened them with the pins.
Next, Wynda powdered my face until I sneezed.
I muffled a sigh. The day I’d been waiting for all my life had arrived. The day I’d been born for, instructed in and shielded for. Confined to the so-called safety of my quarters, I rarely ventured beyond the castle walls. If only I could have escaped this day before it happened. It was like a fearsome dark blot on the calendar of my life.
I lurched from the chair and crossed to the window overlooking the expanse of Blackthorn Forest, which spread to the Rocky Mountains. I rushed to the other window, with its view over the gray sea, churning its fury, as usual.
Where would I have run?
Maili tapped me on the shoulder. “Princess, your stepmother will be here soon with the crown.”
I grabbed her arm. “I can’t, Maili.”
“You must be brave. There are four princes waiting to meet you.”
“What if I hate them all?”
“You only need to choose one,” Maili muttered under her breath. “There will be one. There must be one.”
“You’ll come with me to the new kingdom, won’t you, Maili?”
“Of course. I was your wet nurse when your mother died. You know it’s the custom for a wet nurse to stay with you for life.”
Mamon, my stepmother, swept into the room. Everyone turned their heads. Her tall, imposing presence always demanded attention. The woman’s black hair with a streak of white was pulled into a loose bun at the back of her neck, and an engraved silver crown graced her head. Her creamy satin dress rustled as she moved. “My Queen Griselda,” Maili said. Everyone in the room, including me, gave the obligatory curtsy. The Chief Advisor, Kagan, who wore a coat with oversized buttons, and two other attendants, pushed a large table on wheels behind Mamon. It held a towering crown with countless diamonds and encrusted pearls which glistened in the morning light.
“The crown for The Choosing,” Kagan said, his head nodding up and down like a parrot on his gaunt body.
I drew in a breath. I’dnever laid eyes on The Choosing crown before. How could I wear such a monstrosity without mishap? No wonder they’d kept it secreted away all these years, even though it was one of the few treasures left in The Crownery.
I’d heard the whispers: There’s little left in The Crownery. Gill-Eathain squandered all the wealth on his voyages and summer retreats. But appearances must be kept. The illusion of wealth must be maintained at all costs for the security of the kingdom. The beauty of Princess Allina makes our kingdom the most desirable for any prospective prince.
My stepmother narrowed her eyes. “Calm child. Remove that expression at once. You must make an impression. Do you want the princes to be disappointed?”
“Yes Mamon. . .I mean no, Mamon.”
Kagan stared down his long nose at me. “We will finish your preparation and then lead you to the throne room, where you will meet the princes. The banquet will be held this evening to celebrate and initiate The Choosing.”
He pressed his fingertips together. “Tomorrow, the four princes will choose one challenge each to show their skill and endurance. They will be judged by Taryn, the King’s Counsel, who will accompany them on their quests. Taryn will report to you how they fared to assist with your decision.”
He continued in a pompous tone, still nodding. “After the quests, you will choose the prince you deem most courageous and most suitable to betroth. You will then leave the Kingdom of Thorn and relocate to your chosen prince’s realm. This union and your offspring will ensure the survival of our kingdom and the kingdom you choose.”
My heart pounded. I knew all that already, but now that the day was here, I didn’t feel prepared.
Mamon pointed to my chair. “It’s time to put on the crown and meet the princes in the Throne Room.”
I sat, tense, while two of the senior maids lifted the crown from the wheeled table. They struggled under its weight as they shuffled across to me and lowered it onto my head. It felt as if my neck was cracking under its weight.
“It’s not for long,” Mamon said. “Quickly. It’s time.”
Mamon, the Chief Advisor, the head maids and I snaked in a procession through the dank stone passageways to the Throne Room. My crown threw a thousand shards of light onto the lamp-lit walls and ceiling.
The words ricocheted back and forth inside my skull. There was no escape now. It was time to go through with the task I’d spent my lifetime preparing for. The prosperity of the Island of Eoghan depended on this choosing. There were only two other princesses of marriageable age left on the Island, but Papon said I was the prize because of my beauty.
As we entered the Cedar Room, which led to the Throne Room, I glanced at the vast map of The Island of Eoghan carved into the wood of the side wall. My Kingdom of Thorn and the Kingdom of Cordillera were both on the east coast. The Kingdom of Hoar was situated to the north. The Kingdom of Fen was located in the south and the Kingdom of Omen was to the west of the island.
Which Kingdom would I rule? My stomach contracted in a cramp at the thought. I didn’t mind leaving The Kingdom of Thorn and its confines because perhaps in this new kingdom I’d be allowed to roam and be free, no longer guarded from day to night. But the thought of saying farewell to my father and my kingdom and going with a strange prince to another part of the island made my heart clutch with an ache.
Papon rose from his throne as I entered and smiled at me.
Papon. I wanted to run to him and bury my head in his chest, feel his arms around me so it would make everything better again. But I walked on, head held high, posture stiff and upright. The crushing crown slid to the side. I raised my hands, moist with sweat, pushed it back in place, and then gave him a tight smile back.
Soon I would see the four princes and one of them would be the possessor of my future. Maybe one of them would be like Prince Everly in the mermaid romance I’d secreted out of the forbidden section of the library and hidden under my mattress.
I wanted a prince who was as dark and wild as the forest, but gentle as a dove. His eyes would be as mysterious as a deep ocean cave. His strength and goodness would be renown throughout the realms.
But the crown weighed down on my head and a wave of nausea washed over me. I was going to be sick. I clamped my teeth as tight as an oyster shell. Where could I run? Maybe I could hurry to the pot planted with a thorn tree at the side of the stage and vomit into it. But there could be no rushing with the heavy crown on my head.
I gritted my clenched teeth. Not far to walk now. I counted in my head to take my mind off the sickness.
Up the five steps to the dais.
Take three steps to my throne.
Turn and sit.
The princes stood in front of my throne in a line, but my vision was as cloudy as sea mist. I couldn’t turn my eyes or head to look at them. I swallowed something bitter in my throat. I reached my throne in the three steps, twisted my body in slow motion, faced the attentive crowd and then lowered myself onto my mother-of-pearl throne, willing my stomach to settle, willing the crown to stay upright. And willing my face not to be as pale as my dress.
The voice of the Royal Aid, Taryn, rang out across the room. “I have great pleasure in presenting King Gill-Eathain Ealarand Queen Griselda Ealar and their daughter, Princess Allina Ealar of the Kingdom of Thorn, to the esteemed princes of the other four kingdoms of the Island of Eoghan. We welcome you to our kingdom and send our warm greetings and wishes for prosperity to your realms. All power and might to the kingdoms of our Island.”
Kagan stepped forward, faced the four princes, and continued. “Our cherished Princess Allina will betroth her prince of choice before the month of Theta has ended according to the tradition outlined in the Annals of Eoghan, Volume 20, Directive 530. We wish you good fortune in your quest.”
I sat tall to accommodate the squeeze of the corset and took three shallow breaths. Sitting settled my stomach. My vision cleared. I clutched the arms of my throne for courage and swept my eyes over the princes. I had often imagined this moment, both awake and dreaming. My longing had always been that there would be that one special prince, especially for me. This was the most important moment of my entire life. Not only for my kingdom, but for all the kingdoms of the Eoghan.
The four princes gazed at me.
None of them looked like the prince of my dreams.
My throat tightened with fear and disappointment. I hoped my expression was blanker than my thoughts.
Taryn stood on the dais and called for the first prince to come to the stage. “Your highness, I wish to present Prince Uarraig from the Kingdom of Hoar, the ice kingdom of the north.
I glanced at his pale skin and pinched face as he approached and nodded a greeting. He took the hand I held out to him and kissed it. His skin was as cold and slimy as a sea eel’s. Why would I want to live in a place like the Kingdom of Hoar? I couldn’t bear to never see the sun again. This prince was disqualified already. I wondered if they would skip the challenge if I made an early rejection.
The next prince approached the throne with a spring in his step.
“I present Prince Dervin from the Kingdom of Omen,” Kagan said.
This prince looked almost froglike with his wide, generous lips. Maybe if I kissed him, he would turn into a handsome prince. They said the Kingdom of Omen used magic, but enchantment was not my forte. He looked at least two years younger than me. Maybe sixteen?
My ribs ached even more and my head pounded in waves of pain.
“And now I have pleasure in presenting Prince Veren from the Kingdom of Fen.” This prince smelled of leather and metal. His tanned face crinkled into a charming smile as he took my hand.
Too old for me.
“Lastly, I present Prince Horas from the Kingdom of Cordillera.”
So, this was the one from the kingdom of mountain peaks that pierced the clouds. Prince Horas took my hand. His hair hung to his waist and his shifty eyes traveled from the top of my crown to my toes, then greedily back to the crown. He smelled like the stables.
Once the princes were all seated again, I cast my eyes over them once more, panic lodging in my throat. I couldn’t imagine sharing my bed with any of them. The thought made me shudder.
Papon leaned over, patted my arm and whispered. “Are you smitten yet?”
“What do you think?” I said in a dark tone. I couldn’t wait to go back to my room and have the crown lifted from my head. By tonight the crown would be back in The Crownery, ready for the next royal princess. Who knew how many eons that would be? Who knew if one day I would give birth to a prince or princess?
The Chief Adviser droned on about the protocol of The Choosing. I watched the princes for any clues that would reveal their true character. At last the Chief Advisor finished his speech. “And in conclusion. . .our esteemed guests will be taken to their quarters to refresh and prepare for our feast tonight.”
On the way out of the Throne Room, the ‘frog prince’ winked at me as he passed. Mamon tut tutted. Maybe he could be a friend, at least.
Back in the privacy of my room, I threw myself onto the bed and pressed my face into the feather quilt.
Maili knocked and entered. “Well? Did any handsome princes sweep you off your feet?”
“Oh Maili. Not one was attractive to me. Undo my dress before I die of asphyxiation.” I stuffed my face into a pillow and shed hot tears.
The old woman sat on the bed, untied the dress, and unhooked each corset fastening. She stroked my head. “It’s a union of necessity, my dearest. You are the only royal offspring. The Choosing is the custom of the land, and has been for generations. I had hoped and prayed…”
“It would be interesting to meet the other two princesses.” I rolled over and sat up so she could peel off the loosened silver dress.
“Very unlikely, my dear. It wouldn’t be safe for you to meet them. There is a price on your head. The fewer princesses on the island, the more power the remaining ones have. Your survival will always be precarious.”
“I want to rest in something that doesn’t pinch and crush, Maili.” And I didn’t want to hear about perilous dangers to my life. “Can you fetch me the loose silk day coat with the tassels?”
I threw the day coat over my now naked body, sighed and then settled on my favorite reading couch with a book.
“I’ll be back to get you dressed for the dinner later,” Maili said as she left the room.
But a suffocating cloud of apprehension settled over my mind. I needed sea air—air whipped up by the storm. How would I ever survive living in an inland castle away from the ocean? It would stifle me. My guard was occupied in the princes’ quarters of the castle. I was free for once. No one would know if I took the secret stairs to the ocean bridge.
I didn’t bother to dress. The silk day coat would suffice. I slipped out of the room and headed for the stone bridge between two of the towers with a view over the rock platform and ocean. It was a forbidden place for me, but Mamon was unlikely to lock me in the store room as punishment while the princes were in residence. I pushed open the heavy oak door to the bridge. My thoughts churned like the water crashing on the jagged rocks below. As far as the eye could see, the ocean looked like a vast grey mountain range topped with white snow caps. I allowed the spray-laced wind to whip away my angst.
A thud from the wooden door to the bridge startled me.
“Princess Allina. What a pleasant encounter.”
I swung around.
Prince Horas. My heart pounded. How had he found me here? “It is highly improper that we meet here without supervision . . . and at this time.”
The wind flapped the silken coat against my now chilled body. I tried to secure it, to hide my curves.
“But fortunate nevertheless,” Prince Horas said, smiling. “How alluring you are, Princess.”
The prince’s eyes raked over me from head to foot. Then he leaned on the bridge wall and stared out to the horizon. “The sea looks as thorny as your kingdom, I see. When you come to my kingdom of mountains and peaks, I will show you magnificence that will take your breath away.”
“You are very presumptuous.”
He reached out and took both my hands and pressed his lips on the closed fists one at a time. My coat billowed in the wind. I snatched my hands away and gripped it to my body.
“Ah yes. I offer you great riches and power that your other pitiful suitors could not possibly match. My princess—this is just a taste.” He held out a velvet box. “Open it.”
I shook my head with a glare.
“Let me open it for you.” He flipped it open. A chain of gold with a chunky amethyst pendant lay in its satin nest.
I muffled a gasp at its beauty. “Prince Horas, meeting in secret with gifts is not one of the protocols of The Choosing.”
He pushed the box into his coat pocket. “The jewelry is yours whenever you are ready.” He reached out and pulled me towards him.
I stepped back, repulsed.
“Leave her alone or I will kill you.”
Prince Horas and I swung around.
Prince Uarraig stood with his sword drawn.
“Just fulfilling one of my challenges. Cool your ire,” Prince Horas said in a calm tone, holding up one hand.
“What has your piddling kingdom to offer Princess Allina of Thorn?” Prince Uarraig said with a snarl.
“Ahh. . .you don’t know me very well. I always get what I want.”
A cry of alarm sounded from a window above. “My Princess, what are you doing out there? It’s not the time to meet with your princes.” “Ask them.” I shrugged, and stared up at Maili. I snatched at the silk day coat, which was now threatening to show more than curves as it ballooned in the wind. Then I turned and stormed off the bridge, with my heart racing, leaving behind the two seething princes.
Back in my room, the maids fussed about with preparations for my dinner appearance. Maili muttered incessantly about the episode on the bridge and what the Queen would say if she found out. The maids brought out the blood red dress decorated with rose embroidery fashioned especially for the dinner.
I pulled on the dress and twirled in the mirror. The velvet fitted my waist and hips perfectly and draped softly to the floor.
Maili stood back and admired the effect. “The dressmaker has excelled once again.”
But my heart panged that even Maili, the one I was closest to in the whole world—even closer than my father and stepmother—didn’t understand how I really felt.
It was time for the banquet, and after consuming little breakfast that day and no lunch, I was starving. Despite what I’d implied to Maili, I’d always hoped that one prince would sweep me off my feet. I imagined I would take one look and magic would happen. Like the romance between the prince and the mermaid in my book.
I was led in procession with Griselda, Papon, the Chief Counsels, plus a line of attendants to the Banquet Room. A delicious aroma of roasted fish and seafood wafted through the castle. Thank goodness Papon had given his word that I could wear my favorite silver crown. All around the base, there were tiny ruby roses. A perfect match for my dress.
On our entry into the Banquet Room, everyone stood and watched us walk to our dinner tables. Even the table-waiting servants paused to watch as we passed. Three of the walls were lined with hundreds of candles, which threw glowing apparitions onto the stone. At the far end of the cavernous space, a fire roared and spat in the vast fireplace. Dogs lay on a fur rug in front of it, like fat seals, soaking up the warmth.
As soon as we sat down, the buzz of conversation started once more and the servants sprang into action. They strode back and forth, to and from the main serving table with platters of whole stuffed octupi, glistening anglerfish, sea urchins, honeyed shrimp and squid ink cakes and then sliced Minerva blossom jelly to finish. To make one serve of the delicacy, the kitchen staff needed twenty blossoms.
I arranged the fabric of my red rose dress around my ankles to keep them warm and took a sip of the sweet briar wine. The Kingdom of Thorn may have lacked lush forests and picturesque mountains, but they excelled in the best seafood and wines on the island.
Each prince ate at a long table opposite us with a personal attendant ready to fill their goblets and serve them food. The princes wore distinctive crowns on their heads and were dressed in splendid robes displaying the signature colors of their kingdom.
I acknowledged the princes by nodding in their direction but bitter disillusionment once more washed over me. I ate a small plate of squid and then called the table waiter. “Can I have a slice of the Minerva blossom jelly?” He nodded and hurried to the serving table.
A smashing of glass and raised voices turned heads.
Prince Uarraig lurched out of his chair and shouted at Prince Horas.
“What’s going on?” Mamon asked, giving her best dagger look.
My breath caught in my throat.
Mamon was going to ask questions. Perhaps now she would find out about my indiscretion on the bridge.
The two princes stormed out of the room.
Papon called to Kagan. “Go. Settle this matter.”
The princes returned a few minutes later, faces like thunder. I settled down to enjoy the jelly dessert. Tomorrow I would get to know the princes better. What other choice did I have? I should be thinking of the kingdom, not my wants and needs. I singled out Dervin and winked at him. He chuckled, and Prince Veren glared at him. I ignored Princes Horas and Uarraig.
One of the servants sounded the large dinner bell and Chief Adviser Kagan took to the stage. “Honored Princes, guests and families of the Kingdom of Thorn. Tomorrow each Prince will choose a quest to demonstrate their skill and endurance. However, their greatest challenge is to be the recipient of the Princess’s choosing. Raise your glasses to their success and may the best man win.” A roar of approval sounded through the hall. The dogs barked and howled in unison.
What are the quests? In the next newsletter, find out what terrible repercussions ensue before the quests have even begun.