“Blessings to you, my lady,” The visitor said, bowing deeply in greeting. “My name is Aquamarine. I am a servant of the high king of Banfarie and a chosen attendant to the future queen.”
The summons wasn’t necessarily a shock, but it was definitely a surprise. Lilya, the third princess of the former kingdom of Tritsia, had come of age during a bloody war between kingdoms to either side, and her small, impoverished land had been caught in the crossfire. Tritsia had been absorbed by the victorious kingdom to the east, Couliea, and was now a vassal state. As such, the royal family of Tritsia were now hardly more than paupers in their own kingdom.
Lilya assumed that she would no longer be eligible for the marriage interviews that were famously, or perhaps infamously, conducted five times every month in the largest empire in the continent, Banfarie. The interviews had been happening since before she had even been born, but as of yet, no queen had been selected. Or rather, no woman had accepted.
The rules for who would be chosen for the interviews was standard for most monarchs looking for a queen: a woman of royal or noble blood with proof of lineage, at least eighteen years old but no older that twenty five, no previous marriages or engagements, no children, and… well… consent.
Lilya met most of the criteria… except for one thing: she wasn’t a high born woman anymore. Her family’s royal status had ended when the kingdom was absorbed into another. Besides, even when her father had been king, they had never exactly been what anyone would consider proper royalty. Her father worked in the fields with his people, doing the same back-breaking labor as his subjects. Back then, she could hardly be called princess, but now she was nothing more than a peasant farm girl, more suited to feeding chickens and mucking out stables than attending grand balls and high teas.
So there had been quite a stir when their unusual guest came to deliver the summons. She was a woman who appeared very young in age, no more than perhaps sixteen, though she spoke as if she were a far older creature. She had a short bob haircut and a thick fringe, but it wasn’t enough to hide her pointed ears, her sharp eyes, and her upswept eyebrows, belying a nature that wasn’t human.
Her cloak was plain, but well-made and of fine cloth, likely silk or satin. She had all the hallmarks of a servant of a wealthy, prosperous nation. She had been given entrance to the house by the only servant Lilya’s family employed, Sebastian, and was standing in the receiving room with Lilya’s mother and aunt.
“I come with greetings from my Lord King, to relay a question and to present a gift to you, beloved princess.”
Lilya tilted her head. “A gift? His Majesty didn’t need to send a gift.”
Aquamarine simply chuckled and bowed. “From his Majesty, with his kindest regards.” From her cloak, she produced a velveteen box and opened it, revealing a tiara of breathtaking beauty. Sizable diamonds and sapphires lined the circlet and rose up to create a lovely sloped and winding style like that of wind on water. It was a crown that would suit any head it rested upon.
“Oh!” Lilya breathed. “It’s breathtaking!” She rushed to her mother in delight. “This is the answer to the famine on the outskirts in the south! If we sell the tiara at the biggest market in the neighboring kingdom, we could feed the farmers for months, maybe a year!”
“Lilya!” Her aunt exclaimed in horror. “How could you suggest such a thing? This was a gift from a king, for goodness sake, you can’t just sell it!”
“But, Auntie, I can’t hoard something like this when people are starving!”
“You would not wear it?” Aquamarine asked, her face shrewdly assessing. “Is it not to your liking?”
“Oh, no, that’s not it at all!” Lilya insisted earnestly. “It’s lovely, more so than anything I’ve ever seen. I’ve never worn anything so extravagant. But… truly, for me to wear it would be like putting silk ribbons on a pig. It would be far less useful as a trinket in my wardrobe and better as a tool to feed the hungry. I’m afraid that Couliea doesn’t pay much attention to our struggles, so we have to fend for ourselves. This,” Lilya gently took the box from Aquamarine and turned it so that she could see the tiara properly. “This is indeed a kingly gift. This will save lives. There is no more noble a gift as that.” She bowed her head and handed the box back gingerly. “If his Majesty would not be pleased with my conduct, I understand, but I would hope he would see the sense in my actions.”
Aquamarine laughed a little. “I do not think his Majesty will be displeased. Quite the opposite. Even still,” Aquamarine set the box down on the table and carefully pried a dangling jewel from the very center, threading it through a silver chain she had worn around her own neck, and placed it on Lilya. “His Majesty will want confirmation that his gift was received. This will suffice.”
“Then I shall wear it to the marriage interview,” Lilya said, patting it fondly.
Aquamarine’s head cocked back in surprise. “I had not even had the chance to ask you, and yet you’re agreeing to go?”
“Well, yes,” Lilya said. “That’s why you’ve come to call on me, isn’t it?”
“Of course,” Aquamarine said with a smirk. “But usually it takes much more convincing on my part. I don’t believe I’ve ever met someone so… eager.”
“At the very least, I have to thank him for his generosity,” Lilya said. “Even if he decides I’m not a good match for him, I have to express my gratitude in person.”
“You’re not scared? I’m certain you’ve heard the rumors about my Lord King.”
“Well… yes,” Lilya admitted. “I won’t lie and say I’m not apprehensive, but kindness like this can’t go unacknowledged. It’s only right that I meet with him.”
Where Aquamarine’s smile had been playful and mischievous before, it was now wide and warm. “I will happily go now and inform his Majesty of your decision. My sisters and I will return in a fortnight to collect you for your interview. You may bring a guest with you, if you wish, though I assure you that you’ll be quite safe in our care.”
“I have no doubt that’s true,” Lilya said, bowing. “Would you like some refreshments to take with you on your trip back?”
“How kind of you, dear, but that won’t be necessary,” Aquamarine said, patting Lilya’s cheek. “We shall return in two weeks. You make sure you take care now. Our Lord King would be much distressed should something happen to you in the meantime.”
Aquamarine snapped her fingers, and there was a flash of light from which everyone in the room had to shield their eyes. When they blinked, the young woman was gone.
“Witch...” Sebastian said in horror. “My Lady, you can’t meet with this monster! What kind of king employs such demons?”
“Likely someone who understands that people like them also need to earn a living, I’d imagine,” Lilya said reasonably. “Besides, I’ve already agreed and accept his gift. I can’t go back on my word.”
“I can’t believe you’d actually sell such a treasure,” Your aunt said disapprovingly. “You’re so like your father.”
She didn’t mean that in a good way. Lilya’s mother’s sister, Kiya, had always disliked her father and resented him for being too weak a king, unable to protect his people during the war. She had also resented Lilya ever since she had been born. There was worry that Sophie would not be able to carry another child at her age, and that the royal line would end as there would be no male heir to Tritsia.
The birth of Lilya’s little brother shortly before her father’s death was not enough to warm Kiya to Lilya. In fact, it seemed to drive the wedge even further, as Sophie and her brother were both terribly weak afterward and there was concern they wouldn’t survive. Kiya had gone so far as to blame Lilya, telling her that it would have been her fault if they died. As a nine year old, she couldn’t imagine what she’d have done to cause such a terrible thing, but now she understood it was just her aunt lashing out.
Perhaps it was because Lilya resembled her father the most out of all her siblings, or because she was most like him in temperament, but she doubted Kiya would ever view her favorably. She was still family, though, and Lilya tried not to take her criticism to heart, though her aunt’s cutting eyes often wore into her painfully.
“I’m doing this for our country, even if it no longer exists,” Lilya said, determinedly putting the box away in a case so that Sebastian could take it to the neighboring kingdom for appraisal. “The king has called for me. The least I can do is answer.”
“Lilya’s right, Kiya,” Lilya’s mother, Sophie, said reluctantly. “It would be improper for us to take his gift and ignore him. Though I can’t say that I’m pleased with the idea of this.” Sophie sighed unhappily. “Lilya would have been expected to marry soon as it is. I supposed we couldn’t hope for better than a king.” Sophie took her daughter’s hands in her own. “Still, I’m very worried. I should come with you.”
“No, Mama, they need you here. You’ll have to be the one to make sure that the tiara gets a fair price and oversee the distribution of the food to the needy. I’ll be fine on my own, and besides, Aquamarine said that she and her sisters were part of the Queen’s guard, and I liked her very much. I couldn’t be any safer.”
Lilya’s mother grimaced. “That doesn’t make me feel better. You have many lovely qualities, my sweet child, but being a good judge of character is not among them. All anyone needs to do is tell you a sad story for you to want to take them under your wing, regardless of their true intentions.” She smiled fondly. “You’re much like your father in that respect.”
Lilya smiled in return. “Father was not a good king,” She said sadly. “But he was a good man.”
“With that, I cannot argue,” Sophie said, but she frowned in distress. “You’re elder sisters had married before they got the summons, so I’ve never met with the king. Your father met with him only once, during a conference of kings, but he never told us anything about him other than he found him to be… striking. I think he didn’t tell us more because he want to frighten us.”
“Have you heard much about him?” Lilya asked anxiously.
“Reports are varied and hard to believe; that the king is a headless monster, thousands of years old, ten feet tall, winged and hulking, who eats the women who refused him. I’m not sure I believed any of that, but the rumors are still enough to make me trepidatious.”
Sebastian grumbled, his mustache shuddering. “It is the rumors that could be true that make me uneasy.”
“How do you mean?”
“I am an old man now,” Sebastian said. “Well into my seventies, so I remember when the interviews began sixty years ago. In all that time, and no queen of Banfarie has been chosen. It concerns me. The king himself may now be an old man.”
“Is that why he’s being turned down?” Lilya asked.
“No, young madam,” He said. “You see, even before the interviews began, Banfarie had no queen in nearly one hundred years. In fact, since that time, no new kings had been crowned, either. The king from one hundred years ago was an elusive man who few had ever met, and those who did were terrified of him. If the current king is that man’s successor, it’s certainly distressing. But if he is the same man, then he is a creature of deeply evil magic, and Lady Lilya should stay far away from him.”
“Even if he were the same man, which should be impossible, his reputation is less than ideal,” Sophie said pensively. “The house of Banfarie is known historically for it’s cruelty and harsh punishments, even of neighboring kingdoms. It instituted a law that allowed Banfarie to make judgments on the conduct of royals, indict them criminally, and even sentence retribution against them, up to and including execution. The neighboring kingdoms pushed back against this, of course, but eventually they all fell in line and wrote it into their countries’ laws. I don’t trust any man who could wield that level of power over others.”
“But think of what that level of influence could do for Tritsia!” Kiya said. “A king with that kind of power could protect us and provide for us!”
Sophie shivered. “I don’t want to know what he would want in return for that protection.”
“Well, I would think that’s be obvious,” Kiya said, looking pointedly at Lilya.
Sophie, normally a mild, even-tempered woman, grew angry. “And you’re alright with that, are you? You’re willing to sell my youngest daughter to a monster if it benefits you?”
“Sophie, don’t be sentimental,” Kiya said, folding her arms. “Political marriages are common for royalty. If we had been a stronger country, this would be completely normal, even for a third daughter.”
“We’re not royalty anymore,” Sophie said firmly.
“But we could be, that’s the point!”
“Please, don’t fight,” Lilya said, getting between the two sisters. “I’ve already made the decision. Kiya is right; if I were to marry His Majesty of Banfarie, our kingdom would then be his responsibility rather than that of Couliea. However he treats that responsibility, it can’t be worse than the wanton destruction from the war or the indifferent cruelty of Couliea. If he accepts me, even if it is only a political marriage and nothing more, it would greatly benefit us both. He would at last gain the queen he’s been searching for and our country will be protected. I will meet him. Perhaps the rumors are wrong.”
“I can only hope,” Sophie remarked grimly. After throwing an angry look at her sister, she pulled Lilya away from Kiya and spoke in an undertone. “But… is this what you really want?”
“I want my family and people safe and well above all,” Lilya said. “If this king can offer that, then I can ask for nothing more.”
“If this is what you wish,” Her mother said slowly. “Then I will respect it. But… it is not what I would wish for you.”
“I know, Mama,” Lilia said. “We don’t always get what we truly wish for. But this is as close as I can get.”
“If the king accepts you,” Lilya’s mother remarked sadly. “We may never see you again.”
“That may not be true. I would hope that his Majesty wouldn’t prevent me from seeing my family once I settle in.”
“Just be careful, my love,” Her mother said, pulling her into a hug. “Be careful.”
As promised, Aquamarine returned in a fortnight to collect Lilya to take her to the capitol of Banfarie, Rukruf. A carriage had come with them for Lilya’s comfort.
“Couldn’t you transport me like you did the day you first came?”
“I’m afraid that’s a rather disorienting way to travel for humans, My Lady,” Aquamarine said, taking Lilya’s luggage. “It would require some degree of acclamation, and I don’t think his Majesty would want you to be sick during your interview.” She lifted Lilya’s bag up with one hand. “Is this all you’re bringing with you?”
“This is all I have,” Lilya replied simply. “You admit that you’re not human?”
“I was never attempting to hide it. I’m a spirit, specifically an stone spirit, as are my sisters. There they are now.”
She jerked her head toward the carriage. There were two more women identical to Aquamarine near the carriage, one in the driver’s box and another holding open the door to the carriage. All three women had short, pale lavender colored hair and large, glittering eyes. They wore identical uniforms similar to that of an attendant, but the skirts were rather short, stopping just below the knee, giving them a freer rang of movement. Each one had a dagger hanging from their hip.
Both new sisters bowed deeply as Lilya approached.
“My lady,” They said in unison.
“Garnet,” Aquamarine said, pointing to the driver,and then to the coach-woman. “And Peridot.”
“I don’t doubt the three of you are sisters; I can’t tell you apart,” Lilya said.
“Ah, but see?” Peridot said, pointing to a white bow on the right side of her hair in the shape of a butterfly. She then pointed to Garnet, who wore a black butterfly bow on her left side, and to Aquamarine, who wore no bow at all. “Even people who know us well have trouble distinguishing us from the other, so we’ve taken to wearing these. Only his Majesty can tell us apart without them.”
“Here, my Lady,” Peridot said, swinging a beautiful, fur-lined, snow-white cloak around Lilya’s shoulders. “We’ll be going through the mountains and it’s likely to get cold. His Majesty had this made for you.”
“Oh, it’s lovely,” Lilya said, petting the soft, veltvety collar that ruffed around her neck. “I’m starting to get anxious about meeting him.”
“In a good way or a bad way?” Peridot asked ash she helped Lilya up into the carriage.
“I can’t tell,” Lilya replied, laughing nervously.
“Don’t be nervous,” Peridot said as she came in and closed the door behind her, rapping sharply on the roof before settling. “His Majesty is only a threat to humans.”
Lilya looked at Peridot in alarm.
“It was a joke,” Peridot assured her, giggling. “…mostly.”
The carriage lurched forward and Aquamarine put a hand out to steady Lilya before she fell out of her seat.
“When will we arrive?”
“Around sunset tomorrow,” Aquamarine replied. “We’ll continue on through the night rather than stop at an inn. His Majesty is eager to meet you.”
“Won’t you be tired?” Lilya asked.
“Not to worry,” Aquamarine said. “Spirits like us don’t need much sleep, only a few hours a week. We’re all rested up.”
“That’s amazing. I wish I could do that.”
“Yes, it is awfully handy,” Peridot said rather smugly. “Are you hungry? We’ve brought things for you to eat.”
The two days passed pleasantly and Lilya spent the time having long, friendly conversations with all three sisters. Lilya had never had lady friends her age, and though the women were spirits and likely far older than she was, they seemed to enjoy her company and asked her many questions.
“Oh, Lady, come and see!” Garnet said, pointing out of the window. “You can see the capitol city from this vantage!”
Delighted, Lilya looked out of the window where Garnet was pointing. “It’s huge!” She exclaimed. “I can’t even see the end of it! It must be as large as my entire country!”
“Your country is larger by about fifty miles, in fact,” Aquamarine said. “It’s the smallest country on the continent.”
“Yes, that sounds right,” She sighed. “I mean, I didn’t know that for sure, but I’m not surprised.”
“Are you sad to be from such a small country?”
“No,” She replied. “My country is beautiful and my people are good. I just wish we were better able to defend ourselves.”
“Well, you may not have that problem anymore,” Aquamarine said. “We’re nearly there.”
“Will I meet his Majesty today?”
“No, you will be tired from the trip and will rest for tonight. He will conduct your interview tomorrow after you have your breakfast. His Majesty has instructed us to see to your every comfort.”
“That’s just going to make me more anxious,” Lilya said.
“The best things are worth waiting for,” Peridot said.
That evening, they arrived at the castle, which was every bit as colossal as described. Over it was a cloud of purple, blue, and pink particles, as if it were perpetual sunset over the castle.
“What is that?”
“It’s called the Aurora,” Garnet said. “It’s a magical field that has existed over the castle for hundreds of years and is the source of the royal family’s magical power. It ascends and descends over the castle, depending on how the king feels. It’s highly reactive to his emotional state.”
“Oh, goodness,” Lilya said. “It’s rather low right now. What does that mean?”
“Hmm…” Garnet said. “I believe he may be feeling rather withdrawn.”
“I wonder why that would be,” Lilya mused.
Standing at the front steps of the castle as they pulled up were two young men in uniform, one blond and one dark haired. The blond wore glasses and seemed to be the junior of the two. They bowed as Lilya exited the carriage.
“Miss Lilya, these are the King’s personal attendants, Larima,” She gestured at the dark haired one first, and then to the blond. “And Raba. They are meeting you in place of his Majesty today.”
“Does that mean his Majesty is watching?” Lilya asked, looking up at the windows.
“Whether he is or is not,” Larima said as he straightened. “We are pleased to meet you, My Lady. Please allow us to show you to your room.”
“Yes, thank you,” Lilya replied. Curiously, she noticed as they turned that there appeared to be leaves growing out of their hair.
The sisters were following behind her at a short distance. “Are they spirits, too?” Lilya asked them in an undertone.
“Yes,” Peridot said. “They’re tree spirits. All of the staff employed at his Majesty’s main castle are not human.”
“His Majesty distrusts humans,” Aquamarine replied.
“But isn’t his Majesty human?” Lilya asked in confusion.
“Yes,” Peridot responded.
“And no,” Garnet said.
Lilya made a noise of uncertainty under her breath.
“Don’t worry, my Lady,” Garnet said. “You’ll understand tomorrow.”
“This is all very ominous,” Lilya said uncertainly.
“Yes!” Peridot said. “Isn’t it exciting?”
Before she could answer, she was lead to an opulent guestroom, far larger than any of the rooms in her home, filled with luxurious furniture and carefully crafted decorations.
“This can’t be my room,” Lilya said with a laugh. “What would I do with all this space?”
Raba and Larima exchanged looks. “Do you dislike it? We have a number of other rooms. You’re free to choose any one of them.”
“Oh, it’s not like that,” Lilya said hastily. “It’s beautiful, I adore it. Please, it’s not that I’m ungrateful, I just feel like… I don’t know… isn’t it wasted on me?”
The triplets sighed sadly, having become used to Lilya’s unusual behavior, but the men continued to look confused.
“You do realize that if his Majesty chooses you and you accept, you’ll be queen?” Raba asked. “This,” He gestured at the room. “Is nothing compared to the queen’s suite.”
“Oh…” Lilya replied, a little disconcerted. “This will take some getting used to.”
“I understand,” Larima said. “You’re the princess from Tritsia, correct? The smallest, poorest kingdom on the continent, now a captured vassal state of Couliea. I suppose you must not be accustomed to living so resplendently.”
“Larima!” Aquamarine hissed. “Don’t be so tactless!”
Lilya laughed a little, relieved. “No, it’s alright. I’m not used to this at all, that’s true. Will that bother his Majesty?”
Larima smiled and shook his head. “No, I shouldn’t think so. Don’t worry so much about what’s appropriate and just enjoy your time here. Come.” He lead Lilya inside and showed her two cords right next to the bed, a small blue cord and a larger red cord. “The blue cord is attached to a bell in the queen’s attendants’ quarters. If you need for anything, just ring it and one of the triplets will be here in an instant. The red one is an alarm. If you pull it, bells will go off all throughout the castle. Ring it only if it’s an emergency.”
“I understand,” Lilya said. “Thank you for your hospitality.”
Raba and Larima bowed and left, and the triplets ushered Lilya into an adjacent dining room to have dinner.
After a restless night of sleep and a breakfast she barely touched, Lilya was dressed in a lovely blue gown that complimented her hair, which was pulled back with matching ribbons. The bodice was tight but comfortable, the cut of the dress was simple but elegant, and for the first time, Lilya felt like a proper grown woman.
A knock on the door revealed Raba.
“His Majesty is ready for you and is waiting in his office,” He said.
Lilya stood and clenched her hands to stop them from shaking and followed Raba out of her quarters with Garnet and Aquamarine following behind her.
“Don’t worry, my Lady,” Garnet said. “I think the king will like you very much.”
“Oh yes,” Aquamarine replied. “We’re more concerned whether or not you’ll like him.”
“Why wouldn’t I like him?” She asked.
“Well…” Garnet began regretfully, but then stopped.
“Here we are,” Raba said, gesturing to a set of large double doors. “One moment please.” Raba knocked on the door. “Your Majesty, I have retrieved Lady Lilya for her interview. Are you ready?”
There was silence, though Raba tilted his head as if he were listening.
“Yes, Your Majesty.” Raba opened one of the doors and stood aside. “You may enter.”
Gulping, checking that the pendant was in place, and taking a deep breath, Lilya stepped inside.
There, standing rail-straight behind a desk, was a tall, thin man wearing elaborate garments in keeping with his status as a king and emperor, as well as a sash and badges of his station. Almost immediately, one of the many rumors about the king was confirmed with Lilya’s own eyes.
His Imperial Majesty, the king of Banfarie, had no head.