There was a tense moment in which no one moved. The triplets and the king’s attendants watched apprehensively as Lilya stood there, taking in the sight she was seeing. Slowly, she took a step forward, and then another, and stopped right in front of the desk.
“Does that hurt?” Lilya asked softly.
The king actually took a small step backward, clearly not expecting this. For a moment, no one knew how to react to her question. After a minute of heavy silence, His Majesty picked up a pad of paper that lay on the desk in front of him and began to write.
~No, it doesn’t hurt.~
“Oh, that’s a relief,” Lilya said, placing a hand over her heart. “I’ve seen people lose their heads before; it always looked like it hurt terribly.”
The king began to write again. ~You were present during such barbaric acts?~
Lilya nodded shakily. “The royal family in Tritsia was captured during the war and were forced to witness many terrible things. Able-bodied countrymen were rounded up and executed en masse in a horrible show of power, even if they were just farmers or merchants. We were made to watch them all.”
All five attendants exchanged looks of horror.
~That must have been harrowing. How old were you when this happened?~
“It started when I was ten, after my father was killed, and carried on until Couliea claimed our land for themselves three years ago. I helped dig a fair number graves during that time.”
~How old are you now?~
“Nineteen, Your Majesty,” Lilya said.
Conversation died briefly, but after a moment, the king began to write again.
~Would you like to sit down?~
“Oh, yes, thank you,” Lilya said. Raba brought a chair for her and she took a seat. His Majesty waved his hand, and all five of the attendants bowed and left the room, closing the door behind them. Peridot winked at them as she exited.
~Are you not afraid of me?~ His Majesty asked.
“Not really, no,” Lilya replied. “After all that’s happened, I’m not afraid of very much anymore. Should I be scared?”
~This meeting marks three thousand, six hundred and sixty-two marriage interviews that I’ve conducted. You are the first and only woman who has seen me and not screamed, run, fainted, vomited, burst into hysterics, or begged me to let them go, fearful that I’d eat them or some other nonsense.~
“How awful. I couldn’t imagine someone treating you so cruelly. Why would they even come if they didn’t want to?”
~Pressure from their families. The political gain of a union with Banfarie would be a boon to any country on the continent. The appeal of that power and influence drives people to do things they don’t want to do. Either the women would cry hysterically and run away, or they would swallow their disgust and force themselves to conduct the interviews as if it were normal, all the while looking as if the idea of marrying me made them sick.~
“That was terribly rude of them,” Lilya replied, incensed.
His Majesty’s shoulders shook slightly, and Lilya thought he might be laughing.
~In all fairness to them, I am unusual and a little frightening.~
“That’s no excuse! So what if you’re a bit different? That’s no reason to make such a fuss. How would they like it if people acted that way around them? I know my feelings would be hurt. They should have been more considerate.”
His Majesty was completely still for a full minute. Lilya was beginning to wonder if he was alright, when he started to write again.
~You’re rather unusual, aren’t you?~
Lilya laughed good-naturedly. “I suppose so.” She looked at the paper and pen in his hand thoughtfully. “It must be difficult for you to communicate sometimes. I know most people of royal or noble birth are required to learn to read and write, but even in a prosperous nation like this one, many people are illiterate. Do you have trouble communicating with your staff?”
He moved his shoulders in such a way that it put Lilya in mind of someone shaking their head.
~No, since most of my staff are made up of fairies and spirits, my magic allows me to communicate telepathically with them. If needed, they can convey my thoughts to others.~
“Oh, I see! That’s how you spoke to Raba when the door was closed.”
“Do you know any of the signing languages? Perhaps we could talk that way.”
His Majesty visibly perked up and began gesturing.
“Oh! No, I’m sorry, I don’t know the signing languages, I just meant that I’d be willing to learn it so that we could communicate easier with each other.”
He stopped signing, but he didn’t seem disappointed. Rather the opposite, he seemed touched.
~You’d be willing to learn an entire language just to be able to talk to me?~
“Well, yes. After all, if you accept me, I’d also need to learn this country’s native language to talk to the citizens. Adding another language to my curriculum wouldn’t be so bad.” She leaned forward a little, and His Majesty leaned back, as if intimidated. “This may be an impertinent question and you don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to, but may I ask how you lost your head?”
~It’s alright. I removed it myself.~
Lilya looked both horrified and impressed. “Whatever for?”
He paused for a moment before writing again, and this time he wrote out an extended statement.
~I was the son of a concubine who died during my birth. Apparently, I resembled her very much and did not take after my father, the king, at all. The queen’s children, my half-siblings, bullied me relentlessly, often questioning the legitimacy of my birth and whether or not I was indeed my father’s son. They spread rumors about me and my mother, which eventually got back to my father. He also began to question my birthright and threatened to send me into exile. In anger, I somehow managed to pry off my own head and throw it into the Aurora. I think I’d meant to end my own life, but I survived somehow. When my father saw this display of my magical power, he reversed his position and put me first in line for the throne, even though he had four sons by the queen who were all older than me. I was crowned king the following year, and the year after, my father passed away.~
“How old where you when you became king?”
“How old are you now?”
~One hundred and sixty years old.~
Lilya’s eyes widened in shock.
~Does my age upset you?~
“No, not at all, it’s just…” She frowned in sympathy but fell silent. It must be lonely to have lived alone for so long, she thought to herself.
~I have not aged since I lost my head. I think the magic of the Aurora is what keeps me alive.~
“That’s incredible,” Lilya breathed. “I’ve never heard of such a thing happening.”
~My family has always been strange.~
Lilya chuckled a little. “How are you able to see and hear without a head?”
~Magic. It’s hard to explain to in simple terms, but I don’t see or hear in the same way as normal humans. It’s more of a perception of the wavelengths created by light, shadow, and sound by my whole body instead of my head. I can perceive those sensations similarly to true sight and hearing, but it’s not quite the same.~
“That’s fascinating,” She said, leaning closer. “May I ask you something else that might be a little personal?”
He seemed to laugh again. ~More so than you have already done? Please do.~
“You’ve only been conducting marriage interviews for the last sixty years, right? That means you had already been ruling for almost eighty years without a queen. Why did you suddenly start looking for a wife?”
~My attendants began to pressure me to marry and sire an heir.~
“Is that the only reason?”
~What other reason would there be?~
“Weren’t you lonely?”
His Majesty’s hands were motionless and he seemed to be thinking.
Then he fell still again, as if he didn’t know what else to say.
Lilya smiled a little. “You don’t enjoy these interviews, do you, my Lord?”
He gave another shoulder-shake of laughter. ~No, not at all. I believe this may have been the longest conversation I’ve had with a human woman in my entire life.~
“Oh, goodness,” Lilya said, holding a hand to her mouth in surprise. “I hope I haven’t bored you, my Lord.”
~Not in the slightest. This has been surprisingly pleasant.~
“Oh good,” She said, relieved.
~You’ve asked me a fair number of questions. May I ask you something in return?~
“Of course, My Lord.”
~What is one thing you wish for more than anything?~
Lilya looked out of the far window and thought about the question. She had never spent much time wishing for anything, knowing that wishes did little to affect reality. After all, she had wished for her father back numerous times, and for the terrible atrocities committed against her country to stop, and that had never happened. The only thing she really wished for was the safety of her people, but how could she achieve that?
“Walls,” She said suddenly.
“The borders of my homeland have no defenses. People from outside the kingdom come in and steal food, destroy crops, take livestock, and even abduct people right out of the fields, and we have nothing to stop them. My land grows smaller every day because people just come in and take whatever they like, whenever they like. I wish we could do more to protect ourselves, but we have no military or security forces. Walls would be just as effective as guards, perhaps more so.”
You care very much about your home and people, at your own expense, it seems.
“Yes,” Lilya said, clutching the pendant on her neck. “I… I sold the tiara you sent to me so that I could feed the people affected by a famine on our southern border. It was a lovely gift and I was quite touched by it, Peridot even took this jewel off for me to keep,” She pulled it up to show him. “But… my people needed food more than I needed a crown. I hope you won’t be too disappointed in me, but… I didn’t want to lie or mislead you.”
~I see. He sat quietly, as if in thought. Very well. It will be done. I’ll have construction teams sent out to Tritsia right away.~
Lilya looked up in shock. “Wha… You’re Majesty! I wasn’t… I didn’t mean…”
~I know you didn’t. It is my gift to you for your understanding and patience. This has been one of the most enjoyable mornings I’ve had in many years. That alone is worth giving you some peace of mind.~
He stood up and made for the door. Overwhelmed by his generosity and on the verge of tears, Lilya jumped out of her chair as his Majesty passed her.
“I’ll marry you!”
His Majesty stopped dead in his tracks and turned. He hadn’t brought the paper with him so he couldn’t respond, but he was rooted to the spot as if frozen.
“This is the kindest thing anyone has ever done for me or my people. How could I possibly refuse?”
This spurred him to action. He walked briskly back to the desk and wrote on the notepad.
~I didn’t do it to buy your cooperation,~ He protested. ~It’s only a gift, nothing more. I expected for us to continue the interview after I made the arrangements. You don’t have to accept because you feel obligated to repay me.~
“No, that’s not it at all!” Lilya protested. “I don’t know what all those women saw when they looked at you, but it can’t be the same thing I see.”
~What is it that you see?~
She took a deep breath and attempt to gather her thoughts into a coherent fashion. “Maybe when they saw you, you reminded them of a storm that covered the sky at night, full of destructive power, and it made them afraid. But… all I can see when I look at you is what’s behind the storm.”
“You’re the stars, not the storm. Your Majesty, you’re the light that shines when the storm passes.” She shook her head and laid it in her hands, unable to keep her overwhelmed tears from spilling. “Oh, I don’t even know if I’m making sense. But, Your Majesty, please believe me when I tell you that I don’t just want to marry you because I feel as if I’m in your debt, even though I most certainly am in your debt. I want to marry you because… I… I just do! I don’t even know how to explain it properly. I just… I would be happy to be your wife and honored to be your queen. If that’s what you want.”
~Wouldn’t you be happier marrying a normal man?~
“My Lord, I had no thoughts of marrying at all before I received your summons. If I did marry, it would most likely have been someone my family chose for me. With you, I get a choice. And I’ve chosen you.”
Slowly, he wrote, ~Are you sure?~
“Yes, I’m certain.”
~Then why are you crying?~
“Because I’m happy,” She replied, her voice shuddering as she laughed.
He held out his hand to her. ~You truly mean this? You’re accepting the proposal?~
“Yes,” She replied, taking his hand. “I’ll marry you right now if you want.”
He seemed to chuckle. ~It is enough that you said yes freely and without reservation. I am pleased.~
He turned toward the door, and it flew open after a moment, and all five of the attendants stood there with their mouths hanging open, staring at the pair holding hands. He must have told them the good news telepathically.
“Sire, congratulations!” Larima said. “It’s about time one of these women saw sense!”
“Larima, hold you’re tongue!” Aquamarine said, boxing one of his ears.
“His Majesty says that the wedding will have to be soon,” Raba told Lilya. “He regrets to have to rush it, but there is a political upheaval brewing to the west that he must take care of. He honestly hadn’t expected you to accept, so he hadn’t canceled his plans to intervene.”
“That’s quite alright,” Lilya said, grinning a little giddily. I can’t believe it! I’m really getting married! “I understand his Majesty must be terribly busy. I don’t mind if the wedding is soon. Oh!” She turned back to the king. “Can my family attend the wedding? I promised that I’d keep in touch with them, and I’d like them to meet you. Would that be alright?”
“He says that would be fine, except he’s worried that your family will not like him, which doesn’t normally bother him, but that it may cause trouble for you,” Raba said.
“It’s fine, I’ll explain everything to them. Thank you, Your Majesty!”
Lilya threw her arms around His Majesty’s waist, hugging him. He went completely still and his body tensed under hers, as if he were at the mercy of a pack of rabid dogs. Lilya, sensing his discomfort, released him immediately.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to overstep! I was just so excited that I acted without thinking.”
If a headless person could gulp, His Majesty would have done so. He straightened his lace collar and waved his hand.
“He says it’s alright, he was just startled,” Peridot said. “He also says that as his chosen queen, your word is equal to his. You may give any order you wish and the staff with follow it without hesitation.”
“I understand, Your Majesty. Thank you.”
He bowed deeply in response, his arm across his chest as a show of respect.
Peridot clapped her hands eagerly. “Come now, princess! There’s much to do to get ready for the wedding and only a short amount of time to do it!”
The triplets led Lilya from the room, tittering happily. Once the door closed behind them, the king fell into a chair as if exhausted.
She’s like a whirlwind, He said to Raba and Larima. I am completely at her mercy.
“I’ve never seen you like this, My Lord,” Raba said. “She must have made one hell of a first impression.”
That is an understatement. Send a letter to her family inviting them to the wedding. It’ll make her happy to see them.
“Of course, Your Majesty,” Larima said. “But… are you sure she’s the one? In all these years, after all those interviews, are you sure you’ve found your queen?”
It’s her; I knew it the moment I saw her, the second I heard her voice.
“The second she didn’t scream, you mean, sire?” Larima said. Raba flicked him in the forehead.
I’ve spent sixty years… no, much longer than that, looking for her. I’m not going to wait anymore. Begin preparations for the wedding immediately.
“Yes, My Lord.”
It took only a week for the preparations to be complete, seeing as the wedding would be a small affair. His Majesty said he would give Lilya any kind of wedding she wanted, no matter the expense, but she said all she wanted was for her family to be there and nothing else. All that was left now was to wait for Lilya’s family to arrive.
She hadn’t seen his Majesty since the interview, but she knew he had to have been incredibly busy. He was the monarch of a vast empire, after all, and he genuinely didn’t think he’d be getting married so soon.
A day before her family was due to arrive, a dress appeared in her quarters. It was gorgeous; a white, princess cut ball gown with a sheer layer of silk over the top painted with pink roses. The neckline was a low square-cut and it had half-sleeves with lace frills. On top of the mannequin holding it was a lace veil that trailed the ground and glittered as though it was woven from diamonds.
“Oh, how beautiful!” Lilya said. “Is this for me?”
“Yes, it’s your wedding gown,” Aquamarine said. “His Majesty had it sent down for a fitting.”
“It’s lovely,” She breathed, daring to reach out and touch the fabric, though it looked so delicate that it might disintegrate under her fingertips.
“Here, let us help you,” Garnet said, beginning to untie the laces.
Garnet, Aquarmarine, and Peridot assisted Lilya in putting the dress on. Though it fit like a glove around the waist, the skirt was just slightly too long. The sisters assured her it was a quick and easy fix.
That night, she was alone in her room looking at the dress, newly tailored and ready to be worn, and began to get anxious.
“What if I trip and tear it?” She fretted. “A dress like this couldn’t have been made in just a few days, no matter how many seamstresses worked on it; The lace on the train alone would have taken months to tat. It must be some kind of imperial heirloom. What would I do if I destroyed it? Would His Majesty be angry or cancel the wedding? What if he decides he doesn’t want a klutz for a wife?” Lilya scrubbed her face and sighed forcefully. “I need some air.”
She went to the long gable windows and unlatched one side, letting it swing open. The night air was cool and refreshing, and the aroma of the nearby gardens was soothing.
As she was about to close the window again, a wild gust of wind rushed in and caught up the veil, blowing it out of the window.
“No!” Lilya yelled, throwing her foot out of the window and jumping to the ground. It was a good thing her room was on the ground floor. She chased the veil across the lawn until it eventually got caught in the branches of a tree.
“Oh, come on!” She groused. The branched were too high for her to reach, so she was going to have to climb the tree in her nightgown to get it back. It didn’t help that there were no low branches for her to grab on, so she was basically going to have to shimmy up the trunk. How dignified.
“Okay,” She said, taking a breath before she started up. One foot, one hand, over and over. It seemed to take ages, and when she looked down, it was as if she hadn’t moved at all. “Ugh, I shouldn’t have stopped working in the stables. I have no core strength anymore.”
She was nearly at the lower-most branch when her foot slipped and she lost her grip, falling from the tree. She expected to hit the ground pretty hard, but she fell onto something soft. Looking around, she realized to her horror that His Majesty, was on his back underneath her, having broken her fall. He was dressed in a casual white buttoned-up shirt and simple black slacks, likely his sleepwear.
“Oh, my goodness, I’m so sorry!” She said, scrambling to get off of him. “Are you alright?”
He pulled out a small pad of paper from the inside of his shirt and a fountain pen.
~I’m fine. Are you alright? Why were you climbing a tree at this hour?~
“My veil,” She replied, pointing at the branches. “It flew out of the window. I was trying to get it back down.”
~Why didn’t you call the sisters?~
She laughed a little self-consciously. “I panicked. I was scared that I’d tear it and you’d be upset with me.”
~I wouldn’t be upset over such a trivial thing. It’s just a piece of fabric.~
“How did you know I was out here?”
~I saw you from the window of my suite. I was worried you would hurt yourself or that you were running away.~
She was a little alarmed. “Were you chasing me down to bring me back?”
~No, I was going to watch over you until you got somewhere safe. Don’t worry, you’re free to change your mind at any time. I wouldn’t hold that against you.~
“Oh,” She said, surprised. “Your Majesty, I have no intention on going back on my decision. I meant it when I said I’m happy to be your bride. You feel the same, don’t you?”
He didn’t answer. Instead, he stood up and easily reached the branch with the veil. He was quite a bit taller than she was. Pulling it down carefully, he folded it and handed it back to her.
“Sorry to have caused you trouble,” She said, worried by his silence. “I’m afraid you’re bride-to-be is a little clumsy.”
~It’s nothing. Let’s go back.~ He held out his hand for her to stand up, and she took it, feeling sad.
He doesn’t want to marry me, She thought. He’s just doing it because I’m the only one who didn’t refuse him. I like him very much, but he doesn’t feel anything for me. That’s not fair to him.
The triplets met them back at the castle and escorted her back to her room. His Majesty left her in their care with a bow and went back to his quarters.
“Just call us next time, My Lady!” Garnet said. “His Majesty would be devastated if anything happened to you.”
“He might be inconvenienced, but I think devastated might be too strong a word,” She said. “He doesn’t even really want to marry me, he just thinks he has to.”
Peridot scoffed. “Why on earth would you think such a thing?”
“Isn’t it obvious? I’m just the only person who accepted. I’ve only seen him once since the marriage interview, and that’s because he was rescuing me from a fall. He doesn’t really want to be with me.”
“My Lady, that’s absurd, of course he wants to marry you!”
“How can you be sure?”
“Look,” Aquamarine said as they reached her room. She opened the door and lay the veil back on the mannequin with the dress. “You see this? Where do you think it came from?”
“It’s an heirloom, right? Something that’s been in the royal family forever? It couldn’t have been made just for me, there wasn’t enough time for that.”
“That’s where you’re wrong,” Garnet said. “His Majesty himself made this gown for you.”
“He did?” Lilya exclaimed, looking more carefully at the gown.
“Yes, with his magic. Do you know what he said to us when we were waiting outside of the office door after you agreed to marry him?”
“’She said yes!’ he said. Every interview before always ended the same. He would tell us, ‘I don’t like her’ or ‘she’s lying’ or ‘she looks like she’s going to pass out, take her back to her room and let her go home’ or ‘why do they keep sending these women with dirty souls to me?’ He always sounded so dejected. But when you accepted, he was so excited. I’ve never heard him sound so happy.”
“Miss Lilya, you must understand,” Peridot said. “His Majesty’s mother died when he was born, and he was raised by nurses. In truth, he grew up never knowing the love of another person. Now as a man, he has no idea how to express affection for others. Until now, it’s never come up as a problem, but he sincerely wants you to be happy.” She pointed at the dress as an example, and then to the pad of paper on her desk. “You see those notebooks?”
“Ordinarily, those would only be in one place: and His Majesty’s office, since that is the only place His Majesty meets with people who can’t hear him telepathically. But now, every single room in the castle has a notebook, just in case you’d like to talk to him. He’s doing everything he knows how to do to make it comfortable and easy for you, he’s just operating outside of his, admittedly, vast expertise. Give him some time. He’s very intelligent, if a little dense and insensitive. He’ll learn.”
Lilya smiled softly, touched. “I had no idea.” She pulled the sisters in for a hug. “You’re right, I shouldn’t jump to conclusions. His Majesty and I don’t know each other well, for all that we’ll be married in a few days. I think when he gets back from the diplomatic trip, we should spend time rectifying that.”
“I think that’s a lovely idea,” Aquamarine said.