“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.
Lilya conducts her marriage interview with His Majesty. Please leave feedback!
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.