“Be reasonable, my love,” Gwendolyn says in perfect unison with her mother. It’s a work of art, really, and she’s proud of herself. She gets the exact pitch, that light wheedling note, the stress on the word ‘reasonable’, as if it’s the very least that her mother could be asking of her, the very least that Gwen can do.
She does it so well, in fact, that it takes Mother a second to realise that she’s being mocked. When she does, she sighs, and sits on the edge of the bed. Gwen brings the duvet up to her chin and stares at the engraved ceiling, all angel butts and demon faces. Father, near the door to her bedroom, laces his hands behind his back and examines the wall. His eyes, as if magnetised, are drawn to Tristan’s portrait, and so of course Gwendolyn ends up looking at it too. Her heart softens, but after a moment, she drags her eyes away.
“Darling,” Mother starts again, placing a hand on the bed near Gwendolyn’s thigh. Taking care to be as unsubtle about it as possible, Gwen shifts away. “Not many are offered the choices that you have been. When you think about it, you’re really very lucky.”
Gwen stifles her fury.
“Yes, lucky, that’s me, for sure. So lucky of me to have the particulars of my life decided by the whims of a treaty signed before Ancient Allie grew her first pube, never mind before I was born. So lucky. Love it.”
“Young lady!” Father checks into the conversation right on time, with just the right amount of polite outrage, and Gwendolyn drags the duvet up until it covers her nose. She ignores the mute, but tense conversation her parents are having via eye contact in favour of glaring at her ceiling. Why weirdly cute angels and devils anyway? Just another thing that nobody had bothered to consult her about.
A minute passes in silence before Mother speaks up once more.
“Gwendolyn, you’re being childish.” There’s a pleading note in her voice that grates on Gwen’s nerves. “Let us simply talk about this, and we can perhaps reach an accord that will satisfy all involved.”
Talk. That was Mother, all right. The great negotiator, the conciliator divine. She’d done it when Gwen was little too, climbing into bed with her to discuss whatever five-year-old nonsense was plaguing her. Except talking won’t help in this situation. They’ve been talking about it for years, ever since Gwendolyn turned sixteen and was explicitly told what would be her lot in life. In the five years since, there’s been lots of talking, all the words you could ever want, but as ever, nobody (nobody) seems interested in listening.
“There’s nothing to talk about, Mother,” she says succinctly. “You want me to be reasonable, and I want to not get married off to some stranger from one of the duchies because tradition and a piece of paper say so. Nobody here is going to get what they want.”
And she drags the duvet up and over her head, and burrows beneath a pillow for good measure.
Prospective princes have been arriving for days. At breakfast next morning, Mother and Father discuss the current roster while Gwen drizzles honey over crepes and tries to chew them noisily enough to block out the conversation. Lance has already scarfed down his own food and scampered off to swordplay lessons. Ancient Allie shuffles around the table on creaky limbs, refilling cups, serving hot bread. When she reaches Gwen’s chair, she hisses under her breath.
“Eat a fruit!”
“Piss off!” Gwen hisses back.
They smile at each other.
When they’re alone again, Gwendolyn rolls up her crepe into a little cylinder, and lifts the whole thing to her mouth with her fingers. She actually doesn’t like the feel of the honey dripping over her fingers, making them sticky and warm, but Mother is watching her with an incredibly pained expression, somewhere between having a monster of a migraine and holding in a wicked fart, so… worth it.
Her teeth sink in, and honey oozes.
Mother purses her lips, and turns back to the parchment in front of her.
“Thus far, we’ve heard from nine of the eleven duchies. No word from Horton, but allowances must be made for time and distance. I exchanged letters with the Duke earlier this year, and he assured me that his youngest would be making the journey. James, I believe.”
Father takes a sip of his tea, and steeples his fingers.
“Let me guess. The second duchy we have yet to receive word from is Estanria.”
It isn’t a question. Mother bites her bottom lip, nodding.
“No letter, no courier, nothing. Not since last year.” She rests the parchment flat on the table, hands covering it. “When the Duchess reported having trouble from the north.”
“Yes, and I sent her the damned requested supplies, and all was well.”
“You don’t think she would absent…”
“She wouldn’t,” Father interrupts crisply. His eyes glitter. “She wouldn’t dare.”
Gwendolyn flicks her eyes lazily between them, and then takes another huge, noisy bite of her crepe. Her parents deign to look at her then, she whose future they are calmly discussing. Mother rubs her temple, and then scans the information once again.
“Of the duchies we have heard from, seven of the young lords have already arrived. Traditionally, of course, the princess in question would have met with them on arrival.” She pauses meaningfully to eye Gwendolyn. “The princess in question could still greet the remaining four when they arrive.”
“Could,” says Gwen with her mouth full. “Shan’t.”
Father is shaking his head.
“We allow her too much—”
“Gwen,” Mother speaks over him gently. “Think about it. This is a chance for you to meet with your prospective suitors, get to know them a little before the ceremonies begin, get a feel for who you might like best.” Earnestness draws lines in her expressive face, and her green eyes go softer as she leans forward. “Thirty-five years ago, when I first came to the Highhills, my carriage arrived just before Lady Justinia of Fenner. Was it a servant, or some lesser lord, or an advisor, or even the King and Queen waiting for me when I stepped down from the carriage? No. It was your father, the handsomest man I’d ever seen, with a rose in each hand.”
“One for each lady that was supposed to arrive that morning,” Father puts in, annoyance apparently forgotten as he reaches across to grab his wife’s hand, “but when I saw your mother, I was so enchanted that I gave them both to her. Knew it wasn’t the done thing but I’d quite lost my head. When Justinia arrived, I told her I had lost hers down a drain, or something like that.”
Mother beams at him indulgently, etching more lines into her lovely face.
“I was mortified. I knew she didn’t believe you, but gods above. I didn’t care.”
Gwendolyn wipes her mouth with one of her embroidered handkerchiefs that just says ‘SHIT’ in big letters, and selects another golden-brown crepe.
“Great. So you’ve both got decades of experiences not considering others, good to know.”
“Gwen!” Father snaps. Oh, look, he’s found his annoyance again. She ignores whatever look he’s giving her, and concentrates instead on her plate.
“Your fairy-tale love story is great and all, but here’s the way I see it,” she says, grabbing a pot of cinnamon to sprinkle a bit over her crepe. “Whoever I get married to has a lifetime of disappointment and let-downs lined up for him. This way, I’m just getting him used to the order of things.”
She chews, waits to see if this will get a response. She can sense her father fuming, can sense her mother radiating frustration and unease. But here, now, when a question might be welcome, when she might actually be persuaded to answer, (“Why, whatever could he have to be disappointed about, dear daughter?”) there is only silence.
Fine! Great! Whatever!
Gwen licks her fingers free of honey, takes an unladylike slurp of her tea, and starts on her latest crepe.
After breakfast, she goes back to her room to clean up. Emerging from her chambers, she spares a glance over her shoulder to verify who has been assigned to her today. Hilda. One of the new girls. Tall, blonde, more muscles than a suit of armour, hot in a way that always makes Gwendolyn look twice. Shouldn’t be any trouble. In the Small Hall, she pauses to adjust the flowers on Tristan’s shrine and give the polished stone a short caress, as she always does. Then she turns back to her guard.
“Frown,” she orders.
“Why do you want me to—”
“Yes, fine, that’s good enough,” Gwen says, bustling along. “It’s the expression you’ll make when you see where I’m going and realise that you can’t stop me, so. Head start!”
Twenty minutes later, Hilda is indeed scowling deeply as she stands next to the door that leads to the lower garden, watching as Gwen helps Marnee spread out wet linens.
“Princess, I really don’t think you should be—”
“Duly noted,” Gwen says distractedly, and flaps her hand in a shooing motion. Hilda dutifully takes a step backwards, though she looks like she knows she oughtn’t, and is afraid someone will upbraid her for it.
“I don’t see why you don’t just tell them,” Marnee is saying. All of the clotheslines are occupied by now, and they’re spreading the sheets over the hedges. Marnee twitches a corner to make sure it’s straight, and then plants her hands on her hips. “Surely they’d at least try to understand.”
Marnee is Gwendolyn’s milk sister. Popular superstition says that this accounts for the similarity in their looks: they’re both short, plump, pale-skinned and bright-eyed, and Gwen thinks Marnee is one of the prettiest girls she’s ever seen, so she supposes that bodes well for her own looks. Gwen has had ladies-in-waiting assigned to her practically from birth; proper girls from proper families. She knows it doesn’t please her parents much that out of all those women, her closest friend is the daughter of the old wet-nurse, the girl who’s now one of the castle’s washer women. Ironically, this is one of the few things in her life that she hadn’t done simply to piss off the King and Queen.
“Try nothing. If they’d wanted to try they would have already.” Gwen is reaching into the basket for another set of sheets, but then she stops, flopping her hands against her sides. “Gods. Isn’t it obvious?”
Marnee glances at Hilda, and tugs Gwen further away. Gwen could tell her that she doesn’t care what the guard overhears or reports, but she allows herself to be led under an apple tree.
“To me, yes, but your parents don’t know you like I do.”
“Part of me thinks that they already know, and wouldn’t that just be the pits.” She tilts her head, looking up blearily at the hazy, cloud-thick sky. “If they knew, and just didn’t care enough to ask my opinion about it.”
Marnee takes her hand consolingly.
“But if they did know that you didn’t care for men, that you can only love women, what would they do?”
Gwen thinks about tradition, about love, about Tristan, and his shrine. Of everything that could have happened, but didn’t; of everything that did happen, and might have been avoided.
“Buggered if I know.”
“Well.” Another squeeze. “You have a year, technically. Might be that you’ll manage to become friends with one of these lords, find something that you have in common, at least.”
“Might,” Gwen says glumly. “Won’t.”
Apparently, there’s still been no word from the Duchess of Estanria, even by the morning of the day slated for the official welcoming ceremony. Father is in highest dudgeon, sputtering and raging, when a runner comes up to the breakfast room to tell them that a carriage has been seen coming up the winding road that leads to Highhills; one with the crest of the crimson lion. His choler fades, but only just.
“He should arrive just as the ceremony begins, or soon after,” Mother soothes him.
“I don’t know what the Duchess thinks to prove with this show of insolence…” Father growls, tugging at his collar as he paces the length of the table. Mother rises from her seat to place a hand on his arm; Gwendolyn is adding milk to her tea and contemplating the scones.
“She simply knows we have far more important matters to consider, and this is therefore the best time to make her display of useless impertinence.”
She adjusts his collar for him. It’s an elaborate bit of kerfluffery to match the rest of his get-up; long robes of traditional purple and gold, with the emblem of Highhills stitched across the back. Gwen and Mother are similarly dressed, Gwen in a newly made gown of purple silk that does wonderful things for her bosom. Well pleased she would be about it too, if it weren’t for the fact that the crests of each of the eleven duchies have been sewn into the scoop of her neckline (as is, of course, tradition). It makes her feel like they’ve all already laid claim to her, in some way or another.
“I wonder which of her sons she’s sent,” Mother is saying to Father as she tucks back a lock of his silver-streaked hair.
“It doesn’t matter.” He flicks his eyes towards Gwen, but he says nothing, so she follows suit. “The last I’d heard, she has three boys of the age. Any of them will do.”
Mother turns to Gwen.
“Well now, my love. It’s almost time. Are you quite ready?”
Gwen makes a show of picking up the two scones she’s buttered and her cup of milky tea.
“Depends. Can I take these with me?”
The tea she leaves behind, but the scones (as well as a little trail of crumbs) accompany them and their liveried retinue down to the Great Hall, which has been grandly festooned for the occasion. Lance joins them along the way, skipping along in his own new clothes, and would leap onto her back if not prevented by one of the guards. He contents himself with prattling away behind her about his lessons, his friends, the interestingly shaped booger he picked out this morning.
Gwen likes her little brother’s company on most days, and today, she would give her left tit to be able to sit next to him and have his inane chatter drown out the sound of the ceremony. Instead, she must sit perched in her place of honour, just before Mother and Father on the dais, and look as if she doesn’t find everything about the proceedings to be a new level of torture. Gwen fidgets for a few minutes before wriggling a bit of sewing out of her dress pocket and starting to embroider. If her parents notice, they don’t say anything.
First, they have to sit through the Lord Chancellor’s accounting of the history of the whole thing: blah blah the Unholy Schism, blah blah War of Reunification, blah blah the importance of a kingdom united and peaceful under the gods. Irresponsible magic users this, monumental battles that. Most men Gwen knows have a pathetic hard on for war and the storied history of their great kingdom of Hindervale, but given the droll, flat tone of his recounting, the Chancellor isn’t one of them. On one hand, this gives him a slight boost in her esteem; on the other hand, she’s so bored she’s tempted to prick herself on purpose and try to pass out from blood loss.
Finally, he gets to the salient bit: three hundred years ago, with all the rebellions squashed and most mages dead or imprisoned and the War of Reunification well and truly over, the Crown Prince and the dukes and duchesses of all the remaining territories had convened to sign the Treaty of Highhills. Which included all sorts of tedious crap about land and tithes and rules for practising magic, and most importantly, the business they were about today. In order to foster ties of friendship and family (for that reason, and definitely not as a subtle way to emphasise the power of the crown) every child of the royal family would choose their spouse from one of the eleven duchies. When the princes or princesses came of age, the duchies would trot out their eligible daughters or sons. For a year, they would be housed in the capital, either being courted, in the case of the young ladies, or plying their suits, in the case of the young lords. And at any time during that year, the prince or princess could make their choice, and then huzzah! A wedding was had, bells were rung, cherries were popped.
Gwendolyn slouches further down into her seat, and starts a tiny flower for the point of the exclamation mark in the ‘Fuck!’ she’s currently embroidering.
She manages to tune out a fair bit of the droning as she’s working on it. There are prayers, of course. Father stands to say his piece; Mother, of course, has a little speech prepared. There’s the moment of silence in Tristan’s memory that they always have during ceremonies; Gwen puts her needlework down and stares at her hands for the duration.
Just before the proceedings officially begin, Gwendolyn is supposed to say a few words. Mother had pushed a piece of parchment into her hands with a selection of prepared statements, but she already knows she isn’t going to say any of them. She hasn’t decided what she’s going to say at all; it’s hard to gauge exactly how obnoxious she wants to be. Her mind is half set on saying, “bring on the boys!” because it’s the dumbest thing she can think of.
But when Mother nudges her chair, and she slowly puts away her sewing, and stands, and looks out at the gathered crowd of nobles and officials and citizens and the group of boys standing near the back waiting to be introduced and commence with the wooing, she suddenly feels lower than she has in months, and loses all desire to be clever.
“A few words!” she says with mock cheer to all and sundry assembled. “Now let’s get this over with.”
She slumps down into her chair, whips her sewing back out. There’s no tittering or surprised gasps or shocked expressions; not from any of the Highhills natives, at least. They’re all used to her.
The herald takes up his position, and the young lords get to their feet. Counting idly, Gwendolyn notices that there are still only ten of them. The Duchess of Estanria’s son hasn’t arrived yet.
“Presenting,” says the herald grandly, as the first boy steps forward, “Lord Cathal Learie, second son of the Duke of Gweedoran.”
The boy is her age, with about a million freckles and hair as red as her own. He bows deeply, and directs a winsome smile her way.
“Princess Gwendolyn, it is the greatest honour to meet you. May I say how lovely you look today?”
“You may not!” says Gwen promptly, and so it begins.
Some of the lords come with gifts, some of the lords come with pretty words, some of them come with displays of prowess. None of them come close to dispelling her boredom. Lord Kuba Novak brings her bolts of cloth from his family’s immense looms in a shade of pink so hideous she half thinks he’s trying to offend her. Lord James Griffiths does… a sort of… dance? That’s popular in Horton? Gwendolyn remains unsure. Lord Rene Danton says he’s written her a poem, which she supposes could be all right, but then it turns out to be the purplest piece of shit she’s ever heard, all about her ‘emerald orbs’ and ‘firebrand hair’ and ‘moonlight skin’. She makes him stop out of sheer pity.
Lord Torrian MacTyre and Lord Geri Raffa present themselves as well, though it’s understood that they aren’t formally candidates. Gwendolyn’s mother came from Linlith and her grandmother came from Sondria and the blood is yet too close. Gwen idly wonders, as they bring greetings from their families, if there’s anything actually stopping her from boning her cousins. The idea is no more or less repellent than any of the other men.
The herald is announcing the last lord when there’s a small commotion near the doors to the Great Hall.
“About damned time,” Gwen hears Father mutter beneath his breath.
“Presenting Lord Iyes Hessine, first son of the Duke of Matmattan,” proclaims the herald. A dark-complexioned young man with deep dimples and flashing eyes steps forward, makes a deep obeisance, and then withdraws two curved swords, presumably to do something impressive with them. Gwendolyn doesn’t pay much attention to him, however. Her eyes are drawn to the small group who have just entered the Hall.
There are four of them; two men and two women. The first man has the look of a court official, with his austere robes, correct posture, and the silver threads running through his dark hair and goatee. The second is clearly a guardsman: tall, brunet, just as muscle-bound as Hilda but nowhere near as hot. The girl who brings up the rear wears a simple travelling dress in shades of brown, and carries herself deferentially, like a servant. And the second woman…
She’s of medium height and build; a little taller than the official, shorter than the guard. Her skin is a creamy light brown, complemented perfectly by an elegant red gown with a low neckline. At this distance, Gwen can’t make out enough of her face to say more than that fact that it’s a pretty one, crowned with a mass of true black hair, the thick curls haphazardly secured with a red ribbon.
Gwen would like to say that she’s struck by the girl’s aura of sweetness and kindness, but that would be a lie. Partially because the girl doesn’t seem particularly sweet; just sort of fidgety and awkward, standing there and shuffling from foot to foot. Partially because Gwen’s mind kind of got snagged on that low neckline, and half of her attention is glued on the girl’s (really nice) tits. And partially because…
Gwendolyn looks at the group of four again. Thinks about the treaty. Looks at the girl.
She feels the beginnings of something bubbling in her stomach. It feels like a shriek, but as it rises to her throat, she realises it’s laughter. Mad, featherlike, hysterical laughter.
The Duke of Matmattan’s son is done with… whatever piece of swordery he was doing. Gwen doesn’t try to pretend like she was paying attention; she just chortles out a quick, “great stuff, really” and gives him a thumbs up and a wave. The Estanrian official is murmuring a few words to the herald, who looks confused, and then decidedly nervous. It’s killing Gwendolyn not to turn around and see what faces her parents are making, but she thinks it would kill her more if she were to miss a second of this.
The young lady steps forward, and drops to her knees. All around them, there is that particular sort of silence, the kind that says that everyone is waiting for something to happen.
The herald clears his throat.
“Um. Presenting Lady…” he says, and then pauses, as if willing to be corrected on this detail; it wouldn’t be unheard of. But the woman simply nods, looking sheepish, and Gwendolyn feels another hysterical little hiccough wriggle out of her mouth. The herald soldiers on. “Presenting Lady Maria Isabel Brasa of Estanria, fourth niece of the Duchess of Estanria.”
Murmurs start rising furiously from the crowd, though not loud enough to count as a disturbance. Gwen sees several of her would-be paramours looking at each other in confusion, and she presses her lips together to stop an escaping snort.
There’s a deep, gaping ravine of silence before Father speaks up, his voice terribly quiet.
“And what exactly,” he says, with obviously forced calm, “are you doing here, Lady Maria?”
Gwendolyn can’t help herself (or, well, she probably could, but she doesn’t want to). She speaks up, aware that she’s laughing like one of those ravenous, yippy, killer dogs from the menagerie.
“Isn’t it obvious, Father? She’s throwing in her lot, just like the rest of them.”
Lady Maria is closer now, and her eyes are large, and just as black as her hair. She bows in acknowledgement, and then says in a soft, husky voice,
“I’m very pleased to meet you, Princess Gwendolyn. I… I baked you a cake, but it sort of got squashed on the journey.”
And then she does something that none of the young lords this morning have done, something that sets her apart from them in ways other than the obvious. She looks at Gwendolyn, and she blushes.
Well. That more than settles it, doesn’t it?
Gwen claps her hands together.
“All right then,” she says to the Hall at large. “This has been fun, but you can pack it up, boys! I’m picking her.”
The room, of course, erupts in chaos.
Father is, to put it mildly, a bit perturbed about the whole thing. Just a touch put out. A smidge.
“This will not be borne!” he yells, his face almost the same shade of red as his greying hair.
They’ve relocated to the adjoining chamber: Father, Mother, the Lord Chancellor, Gwendolyn, her new betrothed, the Estanrian official (whose name is Lord Alvarez) and a few of Father’s advisors for good measure. Gwen, who hasn’t really stopped laughing since she allowed herself to start, tucks her arm into Maria’s, escorts her to a seat at the table, sits next to her, and drags a bowl of grapes in front of them.
“We might be here for a while,” she explains to Maria, who blinks.
Father, who might legit be about to have an apoplexy, struggles for words. Mother is standing at the fireplace, hand to throat, tight-lipped. At one end of the table, the Lord Chancellor is shuffling feverishly through scrolls and a few books. In the midst of it all, Lord Alvarez looks almost forcibly composed, as if this is all nothing less than he expected, and he’s rallying his composure for the remainder of the meeting.
“I understand that this comes as something of a shock, Your Majesty, but if you but allow me a few minutes, I can explain all to your satisfaction.”
Father glares at him, wrenching out a chair at the head of the table.
“To my satisfaction? No, I sorely doubt that. But you may explain. Begin.”
He tells the tale in a way that suggests writing a list, which makes Gwen think Lord Alvarez knows a lot about Father, or has read him quite well in just a few minutes. A long, rambling explanation is not what he wants. In short, the Duchess has received reports from her scouts along the borders that suggest that Estanria will soon see a repeat of last year’s invasions from the northern barbarians. As her sons were vital in repelling them in the last incursions, she would be loath to lose the surety of their aid. And as she would be equally remiss if she did not ensure that Estanria participated in this joyous occasion, she is therefore happy to send her lovely niece to satisfy the terms of the treaty.
Gwen considers herself pretty savvy at sussing out lies, and she’d wager that every word that Lord Alvarez says is the truth. But judging by the way Maria shifts in her seat once or twice during the retelling, there’s probably a little more nuance to it.
Father listens, and reads the official communiqué with a stony face. The tawny scroll is quickly rolled up and tossed onto the table.
“Except that the Duchess has quite evidently not satisfied the terms of the treaty. Lady Maria is a woman.”
“Indeed, You Majesty,” says Lord Alvarez, crisply and correctly. “And there is no part of the treaty that indicates she should not be.”
Father’s going as purple as the grape that Gwendolyn pops into her mouth.
“Don’t be impudent with me man! It is understood. Common decency indicates that the princess shouldn’t be courted by a woman!”
“Forgive me, but he is right about the treaty, Your Majesty,” says one of the advisors, a Lady Mireille. “With regard to the wording, at least. I have perused it many times, and the language does not contain specifics of this nature. Princes and princesses, sons and daughters, but nary a line saying who should court whom.”
“It… it would be quite correct, Your Majesty,” says another advisor in a halting voice. “The old laws were never reversed, and it is still done…”
He trails off when Father rounds on him.
“The legality of the matter is not the issue at hand!”
“Quentin,” Mother says softly. Just his name. Ordinarily, she never refers to him by his name in mixed company; the doing of it now says something that Gwendolyn isn’t sure she understands. Her eyes tick-tock between them, pendulum style.
Father doesn’t look at Mother; he’s addressing Lord Alvarez again.
“These claims, the incursions, they will be looked into most thoroughly. But that does not excuse the impertinence of expecting a princess of Hindervale to wed a maid, and your Duchess will answer swiftly for the slight.”
Lord Alvarez bows.
“I very humbly beg your pardon, Your Majesty, but the Duchess expected no such thing. She saw fit to send the inestimable Lady Maria to fulfil Estanria’s duty to the crown, but we certainly did not anticipate the great honour of being chosen.”
Little red spots are blooming into life on Maria’s cheeks, which is charming as all get out. The general focus of the room’s occupants turns to the both of them, and Gwen waves.
“Yep. Remember me? Or us, I should say?”
Father’s eyes bore into her. She meets him head on.
“No… no, I suppose the Duchess could not have anticipated this.” He takes a moment to compose himself. “This is reversible. Our daughter didn’t think this through, and she will take some time to reflect.”
“Did!” Gwen insists. “And won't.”
“Gwendolyn, do not try my patience,” he snaps.
“I’m not trying anything!” she insists. “I’m just saying!”
“I should point out, Your Majesty,” intones the Lord Chancellor, finally looking up from the pile of scrolls that he’s been perusing, “that the Monarch’s right to intercede in the betrothal rite extends only to the crown prince, and even then only in a very limited fashion.”
“Lucky Lance!” Gwen puts in, even though she knows, she knows, with a sickening swelling in her stomach, that Lance isn’t who her parents are thinking of right now.
Father is back to ignoring her.
“I am damned certain that an exception can be made.”
Gwen thinks she knows what’s coming, and when the Lord Chancellor begins to speak again, she physically pats herself on the back, and basks in being right.
“I’m afraid tradition does not leave much room for exceptions, Your Majesty. It must be the princess’ choice.” He peers down at his scrolls. “I admit that the Lady Maria’s gender is a bit… irregular, but otherwise, everything about today’s ceremony was quite in line with convention. One hundred and twenty-six years ago, Princess Amelia chose her husband after seeing only three candidates.”
“I am not in need of history lessons, Frederick!”
“Quentin…” Mother says again. She keeps her voice very quiet.
“Don’t,” Father grates out, and Gwendolyn feels a surprising puff of anger materialising in her chest. He isn’t often short with Mother, and she finds that she doesn’t like it. “We are going to sort this out. First, I have letters to write—”
“And I have a wedding to plan!” Gwendolyn interjects sweetly. Father rounds on her, eyes blazing, and she thinks, ‘good, be mad, get mad, be furious for all I care’ but before he can spit whatever venom he has building in his throat, Mother moves quickly to his side.
“Quentin,” she says a third time. “Peace. This is all very unexpected but perhaps… perhaps we can make this work.”
His eyes go round, twin clock faces beneath his lined brow.
“No. No, not at all. Not this time, Hera.”
“But if the treaty doesn’t…”
“We allow her far too much as it is. I will not allow this.”
“Quentin, if we just…”
“Gods damn it, Hera, she is not Tristan!” Father bellows.
The room is utterly still. No one breathes. It’s an awful silence, the kind you can’t imagine coming back from. Gwendolyn’s hands are clutched tight in her lap, knuckles straining, the clever remarks she’d been preparing to make committing suicide on her tongue. She would wager that she feels the way Mother looks: wan, aghast, hurt. She feels Maria turning towards her, but she keeps looking forward, not wanting to see what expression her lovely wife-to -be is making.
Mother takes a shallow breath.
“Pray excuse me,” she says to the room at large, and slips out.
Father growls, presses his fingertips into his temples. “We’ll continue this later,” he snaps, and follows.
Fifteen minutes later, Gwendolyn stands outside in the almost empty Great Hall. The Lord Chancellor, the advisors and Lord Alvarez are all conferring quietly, but it’s not an argument, simply a discussion. She isn’t very worried about what her father had threatened. That’s the thing about customs in Hindervale. If they can be allowed, they most likely can’t be reversed. Tradition is a stone you can always be prepared to beat someone about the head with.
Lady Maria hovers nearby her, her loveliness turned up to eleven.
“Did your maid and guard ditch you?” Gwen wants to know.
“I think they went to carry my things to the rooms that I’ve been assigned.”
“Oh. Well, I’m about to leave, so.”
“Oh, I…” A hot flush creeps onto Maria’s cheeks, and uncertainty is laced through her nervousness now. “Oh, that’s quite all right, Your Highness. I can—”
“I mean, you can come with me, if you want,” Gwen interrupts, shrugging. “I’m just saying, I want to be not here, and I’m going to make that happen soonish.” Out of the corner of her eyes, she spots one of the royal guards inching towards her, and she rolls her eyes. Maximilien, one of her regulars. Big, dark-haired and dark-eyed, he’s just the sort of silent shadow the castellan loves to employ. “And don’t you start with me.”
Maria bites her lip, after a somewhat hesitant glance towards Maximilien, and then Lord Alvarez.
“Yes, I think I’d l—I mean to say, yes, I’d like that very much, Your Highness.”
“Well, come along.”
Gwendolyn leads them at a brisk pace towards the Tower of Dawn. They have to pass through the Small Hall to get there, and her hand trails across Tristan’s shrine in the old, instinctive caress.
Near the stairs to the Tower, they meet Ancient Allie hobbling along with a basket atop her head. She takes one look at Gwendolyn, shakes her head, and pulls an apple out of the basket.
“You look like you could use a fruit,” she scolds, thrusting the thing into Gwen’s face. It’s the last thing she wants; her appetite had suddenly deserted her, and she has half a mind to say something cutting and stomp off, like she usually would. A deep frown from the wizened old face makes her pause, as if Allie knows exactly what she’s thinking. Gwen says nothing, but stoops to hug the old woman briefly (very briefly, extremely briefly, no onlookers will be able to swear to it) and takes the damned apple.
The Tower is one of the tallest in the castle, and has about a million stairs to prove it. It’s stately and well-furnished; it houses the apartments that Tristan would have occupied when he was ready to start his family. Thinking about that makes Gwen climb faster, like she’s trying to outrun her thoughts. By the time they make it to the glass balcony doors that she’s after, she’s breathing hard and sweating in a way that hopefully makes her look sultry and hot, rather than red-faced and huffy.
All the windows and balconies in this tower face the east, and in the mornings you can watch the sun arc up over the rolling hills, painting them red and gold and giving the tower its name. Right now the sun is almost at its zenith, but they’re high enough that the breezes come strong and cool. Gwen slumps into the loveseat a few feet back from the railing. This is where she normally drags Marnee when they want to gossip, and for a second, it’s very strange to see Maria, instead of her best friend, perch solemnly next to her.
Maximilien remains just outside the glass doors to the balcony, and for a few minutes, they’re all quiet.
Then Gwen says, “Don’t you think this is all really stupid?”
Maria shifts, blinking in surprise.
“I… well, it depends on what you mean by that, Your Highness.”
Gwen tosses the apple from hand to hand. “All of this. Any of it. The fact that I have to get married at one and twenty to someone from a pool of people I didn’t have anything to do with choosing. The fact that you’re going to get married to me, a girl you don’t know, just because I looked at you and said ‘sure’. Don’t you think it’s all really dumb?”
Maria stares at her. Her lips are red; some of it is paint, some of it the natural hue of a bruised cherry. She looks as if she’s really considering the answer.
“Well, I don’t know. I’ve never really had the leisure of considering the wisdom of the things I’m made to do or the things I have to do.”
“Wow, what an answer,” Gwendolyn says. An uncomfortable possibility occurs to her. “Do you… do you want to be here? Are you—”
“I do,” Maria interrupts quickly, colouring prettily. “Want to be here, I mean. When my aunt realised that she couldn’t afford to send Jaime, Hector or Raúl, she began planning things and asked me and two of my cousins if we would be amenable, as we all have… a certain thing in common.” She blushes more deeply. “I volunteered.”
That makes Gwendolyn feel better.
“And you don’t mind being your aunt’s political pawn or whatever?”
“That isn’t the way I would put it,” Maria says in a voice of mild protest. “As I said, I volunteered. My parents passed away years ago, and the life I expected to lead in Estanria…” She shrugs. “I might have never left, if not for this.”
Gwen considers this for a moment.
“And all that stuff Lord Alvarez said about the incursions and the reasons the Duchess couldn’t spare her sons… all true?”
Maria scratches a rosy cheek.
“Yes. Although… it must be obvious that she could have gone about things in a different, and far simpler way. But she couldn’t resist this. Angering your father in a perfectly legal way. You know our families have never seen eye to eye.”
Gwen shrugs. “Haven’t they?”
“I… yes. Ever since the Reunification War.” Maria looks puzzled now. “It’s never really been a secret.”
“Yeah, well.” She tosses the apple from hand to hand again. “I don’t pay a lot of attention to politics.”
They go quiet again, but this time, Gwen can feel Maria’s eyes on her, appraising her as if this new setting provides a better light to see her by.
“You know, you weren’t quite right before, Your Highness.”
“Take that back at once,” Gwen says idly, giving Maria a lazy look. “What wasn’t I right about?”
“You said I don’t know you, and… while that’s true, I do know a few things about you.”
Gwendolyn barks with laughter; short and not very amused. “Everyone in the kingdom knows about me, sweetcakes. I’m a brat. The proverbial spoilt princess. I get everything I ask for, say whatever I want, do whatever I please. A pretty pain in my parents’ sides. That’s me. That’s Princess Gwendolyn of Highhills, second-born, first-rate disappointment.”
It’s nothing she hasn’t said before, nothing that hasn’t been said, whether to her face, beneath someone’s breath, or as run-of-the-mill court gossip. It’s all water, and she’s the duck’s ass.
Maria looks a little perturbed, though.
“Be that as it may… it wasn’t what I was going to say.”
Gwen raises an eyebrow, as high as she can. “Oh yeah? What else is there to know about me?”
Placing a hand on her breast, Maria leans forward just a touch, the very picture of sincerity. It’s extremely distracting.
“I know that you’re clever, and very funny. When Lady Marlborough came to visit with us last spring, she couldn’t stop talking about the ball where you’d made her laugh and laugh.”
Gwen remembers the affair with vague fondness; Lady Marlborough is the kind of irreverent old lady that she can’t wait to become. She shrugs. “It’s true, I’m hilarious.”
“I know you’re a lot kinder and more thoughtful than you let on. One of the maids travelling with Lady Marlborough stayed on after she married our butler, and she still tells everyone who’ll listen that your reputation isn’t deserved, how sweet you are, how you’d read to the younger maids, play dolls with them, share your sweets, run away from your lessons to do whatever chores you thought interesting.”
“Ah, good old Nancy,” says Gwendolyn, though she knows very well that the girl’s name is Nyla.
“I always knew,” Maria continues, ignoring that, “how pretty you are, of course. Singers have been telling tales of how astonishingly good-looking you are since… well, since…”
“Since I reached an age where they decided it wouldn’t be creepy? Yeah, I know. And I prefer ravishing, thank you very much.” She finally takes a huge bite of the apple, feels the juice sliding down her chin, and charmingly enough, that makes Maria blush more than her actual words.
“Yes, well, I’m sure… I, yes, of course, Your Highness. Ravishing, yes. Um.” Her cheeks are very red now. “I just thought you would want to know. More is heard of you outside the castle besides the things you might think.”
Gwen isn’t sure what to say to that. Something sarcastic and glib is on the tip of her tongue, but even through her embarrassment, Maria still looks shockingly earnest, like she needs Gwendolyn to believe her. So she just smiles, and stays silent. They pass the apple back and forth between then, Gwen taking huge bites that make the juice spurt every time, Maria nibbling daintily as if she’d learnt the technique at apple eating school.
It’s only after they’re silent for a few minutes more that Gwendolyn realises that she’s on edge, and it only takes a few more seconds of thinking about it to realise why. Maria hasn’t asked the thing she’d been expecting her to ask, hasn’t mentioned one word of it, and it’s driving Gwen a little crazy, thinking of when and how she’ll finally bring it up. So she does what she deems best, and brings it up herself.
“What have you heard about my older brother?”
They’re almost down to the apple core at this point. Maria stops mid-nibble to give Gwen an awful, terribly tender look.
“The same things that everyone else has heard, I suspect,” she says carefully, handing the apple back over.
“Well.” Gwen considers what’s left of the fruit before pitching it over the balcony. “This is one of those things where everything you’ve heard is completely true.”
Tristan had been twelve years older than her. Tall, always smiling, handsome, charming, funny, obedient to their parents to the letter, always putting others before himself, good at hitting people with pointy things, better at getting people to listen to him, charming them to his side. The absolute perfect prince, a paragon of duty and propriety. Gwendolyn had loved him with all her heart.
When Tristan turned one and twenty, the time had come for him to take a wife, in the way that all Hindervalish princes and princesses took spouses: cleaving to the rules of the treaty, and the centuries-old ceremony. And for the first time in his life, Tristan had turned away from his duty, shirked his responsibility, said no to tradition. He hatched a plan with the stable-girl he’d been in love with for two years, stole two horses and a satchel of supplies, and escaped the castle with her in the dead of night, presumably to elope in the nearest duchy.
The next morning, their broken bodies had been found at the foot of the winding road that led up to Highhills.
In their grief, Mother and Father hadn’t thought to even try keeping the details of his death secret; it would have likely been impossible. The court at Highhills can double as a dockside tavern, given how news travels. Gwendolyn remembers crying for days and days, throwing horrible tantrums, incandescent with sorrow and utterly refusing to be soothed. The entire kingdom had mourned with them; as crown prince, Tristan had travelled widely, and been loved completely. As if the love he showed for everything around him was always reflected back at him.
Gwendolyn had had to slowly and painfully adjust to reality of never feeling that love again. And as she did, she became aware of her parents treating her differently. Not badly (ostensibly better; she’d had freedom in so many new ways) but differently.
In periphery, Gwen can see Maria’s hand on the loveseat between them. It’s making small, twitchy movements, backwards and forwards, like a caterpillar not quite sure if it wants to come out of its casing, become a butterfly. Gwen honestly doesn’t know what she’ll do if Maria touches her right now, and it’s with mixed relief and disappointment that she notes the slim tan fingers curling into a fist and drawing away.
“I’ve heard many great things about Prince Tristan. Your family must have mourned him deeply,” Maria says gently.
“Each in our own ways,” Gwen says, staring at her hands. Without the apple in them, they suddenly seem emptier than they ought. Bereft.
Enough of this. Gwen leaps to her feet, offers Maria a hand imperiously.
“Your Highness?” Maria says, even ask she takes it tentatively.
“Come on. Someone’s going to come looking for us sooner or later, probably to make us do something boring. Let’s do something interesting before that happens.”
“All… all right.”
Maria grips her hand with a little more confidence. It’s a different feeling, but far from unwelcome.
They find Marnee. After Gwen makes airy introductions, they retire to Gwen’s chambers, leaving the dour Maximilien outside. The latest sketch on her canvas is an unfinished drawing of Marnee, so she pushes her best friend down to recline on her bed, and sets about finishing it. Marnee is unfazed, and plies Maria with questions about Estanria in her characteristically chatty, easy way.
Maria is telling them about the bullfights when Mother sweeps into the room.
Marnee and Maria both leap to their feet, and then sink into bows, murmuring, “Your Majesty” in almost perfect unison. Gwen, for her part, puts her pencil down. She can’t say she’s surprised to see her mother here.
“I was kind of hoping we would leave this part for later,” she says, not bothering to keep the whine out of her voice.
Mother looks far more composed than she had when she’d fled the Great Hall. Her pretty eyes are swollen, and there’s a bit of a flush to her cheeks, but she stands straight and tall and serene. It’s a relief, Gwen admits to herself, to see that stricken look gone from her face.
“Ladies,” Mother says, including Marnee in that title more-or-less readily; by now she’s inured to the sight of her in Gwen’s bedroom, inappropriate as it might be. “Pray pardon me for a few moments. I’d like to speak to my daughter.”
Talk. Of course. That’s Mother, all right. Gwendolyn sighs hugely, and waves her friends towards the door that leads to her sitting room. They leave silently, Maria throwing a long, lingering look over her shoulder as she closes the door. Mother watches her in particular as they leave, and when she and Gwen are alone, she still stares at the door to the sitting room as if she’s trying to see past it.
Gwen traipses over to her bed and flops down onto it. Mother approaches, and sits next to her gingerly, one hand near, but not quite touching Gwen. They’ve done this so many times before.
“Gwendolyn,” Mother starts, and trails off in the way that says she expects to be interrupted. When Gwendolyn says nothing, only stares up at the horribly cute angels and demons carved into the ceiling over her bed, she places a hand hesitantly on Gwen’s soft, silk-covered arm. “Gwendolyn, you must know that the last thing I want is to drive you to unhappiness.” She sounds like she’s begging. “Please tell me you know that. The very last thing I could ever want is for my child to be unhappy.”
Tristan’s name hangs unspoken in the air between them. Mother’s entire body is angled away from the portrait of him that hangs on the wall, like she doesn’t want to accidentally see it, and be reminded of what her first child’s dissatisfaction drove him to.
Gwen expels a long, tired breath.
“I swear I’m not trying to be a dick about it, but no, Mother, it’s not always clear that my happiness is something you give a damn about.”
She truly didn’t intend to twist the knife, but Mother looks as if that physically hurts her.
“Or,” she adds, not knowing if this will make things better or worse, “it’s like you’re trying to make me happy without ever having to do a pesky little thing like bringing my thoughts into the equation.”
“But Gwendolyn I try,” Mother insists. “I try to talk to you all the time.”
“No, Mother,” Gwen says tiredly. “You talk at me, and you talk down to me, and you try – very patiently most times, I’ll give you that – to make me see things your way, the way you think would be best for me. But you and Father don’t talk to me. We don’t have conversations in this castle.”
Mother’s hand on her arm flexes, just slightly, like she wants to grip but is stopping herself from doing so. Their eyes lock, but then Gwen tears hers away almost immediately. It’s weird to see Mother looking this sad, and she’s pretty sure she doesn’t like it.
“I don’t know what to say, Gwendolyn,” she confesses softly. “I am… I’m really very sorry.”
Gwen shrugs. She’d said that she would have preferred to do this later, but now that the moment is here, and her mother is bearing her heart, and sounding so distressed, she realises that she would prefer to do this never.
“It’s okay or whatever. I know I’m not the easiest daughter to have or anything.”
“Don’t say that,” Mother says immediately. Now, she does latch on to Gwendolyn’s arm, squeezes it fiercely. “You’re an amazing girl, Gwendolyn, an amazing woman. Being a mother is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, but loving the three of you is easy. Believe that, if nothing else. You’re my only daughter, and I love you.”
Gwendolyn squirms, feeling the heat rush to her face. It is something that she knows, of course, but hearing it does make her feel like she’s taken a whack to the knees, such is her relief, and isn’t that kind of pathetic.
“All right, all right,” she says grumpily, rolling her eyes. “Don’t start crying or anything.”
Mother smiles wider, eyes shining.
“I’m serious!” Gwen insists. “If you put your hand to your boob and try to say anything heartfelt, I’m outta here.”
Mother doesn’t stop smiling, and squeezes her arm again, but thankfully, when she speaks again, she’s changed the subject.
“This… this girl,” she says uncertainly. “Lady Maria. Do you really want to marry her?”
Gwen shrugs, refusing to think about the fact that being reminded of Maria immediately makes her blush.
“Well, she’s really hot, and I like her a lot, as much as you can like someone after knowing them for a couple hours. But Mother,” she says, turning to face her, letting her voice get as serious as it gets, “even if I didn’t like her, I wouldn’t marry any of those men. I can’t and I won’t. I can’t love men in that way, I don’t have it in me, and I don’t ever want to have to try.”
Please don’t tell me that I have to try, she begs silently.
Mother stares at her, with just a hint of moisture in the jewel-green eyes that she gave to Gwen. What she does next surprises them both; she arranges her skirts carefully, swings her legs up onto the bed, tucks her long lean body near to Gwen’s short, plump one. She feels herself begin to stiffen, but then goes slack with a kind of shock again, when her Mother takes her hand and presses it to her cool cheek.
“All right,” she says simply. It doesn’t come easily; it looks as if she struggled with it. But she says it as if it’s the only thing she can say. “I… I’ve spoken to your father already, and I’ll just have to speak to him again. We’ll make this work. I promise.”
Warmth floods Gwen like a blast from a furnace. She tucks her mother’s hair behind her ear, adjusts her crown, makes sure the ‘thank you’ on the tip of her tongue makes it to her eyes.
Tristan hadn’t died because he strayed from tradition; loose stones and a dark night and a too hurried pace had done that. And cleaving hard to tradition won’t save Gwendolyn; living truly, the only way she knows how, will do that. She can’t tell her mother these things, doesn’t know how she can or should go about putting them into words. But this at least makes her hopeful that one day, her mother will see it for herself.
These thoughts flit through her mind, quick and warm.
Then she warns, “That was pretty sappy. You’re on thin ice, Mother.”
Mother looks fond, shaking her head.
“You’re my only daughter, Gwendolyn,” she says again. “I’ll be as ‘sappy’ as I like, and accept the consequences. If it came down to it, I’d let you marry a hundred Estanrian girls.”
“Yeah, well, slow your roll,” Gwen says, glancing towards the door to the sitting room. “I have a good feeling about this one.”
Breakfast next morning is awkward as fuck.
Or at least, Gwendolyn supposes it must be for Mother, Father, and her little bevy of bewildered boys. After a while, the young lords begin to chat amongst themselves mostly, making nice across hot buns and the clotted cream, while Ancient Allie totters between place settings, shoving fruits at anyone who so much as looks at her . Gwen spends her time serenely coating crepes in honey and cinnamon, making just enough conversation to be marginally polite, and admiring how Maria looks in the navy gown she wears today. It has silk ribbons and a bodice that could double as a murder weapon.
Father hasn’t spoken a single word to her since yesterday, and she’s okay with that. Mother says she’ll be writing letters, meeting with the young lords and their advisors, relaying messages for them to take back to their duchies, making sure that no one feels slighted or offended. She and Maria won’t be married immediately; they’ll take the year that was originally allotted for the courtship as their engagement period. And if anything happens within that year to change either of their minds…
“We’ll talk about it,” Mother had promised.
After breakfast, Gwen excuses herself, grabs Maria by the hand, and heads out. Maria is far from the first girl she’s held hands with, but doing it like this, walking the halls of the castle in daylight, their fingers twined together while Gwen brushes old petals off of Tristan’s shrine, and while she gives one of the new servants directions to the lower kitchens… that is a first, and the newness of it makes lightning shoot all through Gwen’s veins. And it’s not the only first to be taken care of. When they’re finally alone, in the hallway that leads to her chambers, she rounds on her betrothed.
“Okay,” Gwen says. “I need to see how good of a kisser you are. Lay one on me.”
“Oh good gods,” says a gruff voice behind them, and Gwendolyn remembers that they’re not actually alone, and probably won’t ever be unless they’re behind closed doors. She jams a hand on her hip and turns around to roll her eyes at today’s guard. It’s Andrea, a tough old bird of three score or more, with frizzy grey hair and a scowl that could turn men to stone and back again.
“Oh, well.” Gwen flaps a hand at her. “Look the other way.”
Maria emits a little squeak. When Gwen looks at her, her dark eyes are round and glossy, and her blush is crawling all the way down to her neck.
“Should we really, Your Highness?”
“Should,” confirms Gwen, stepping closer and waggling her brows. “Shall.” She pauses. “Unless you don’t want to.”
Maria shakes her head, not turning any less pink. “I didn’t say that.”
Gwen beams, and steps closer still.
It’s a feeling that beggars description; kissing a lovely girl in the hallway of her childhood home, light streaming bright and proud through a nearby window, surety in her heart that no one can say anything to stop them. Maria is slow at first, and tentative, but then she leans in further, tips Gwen’s chin up to her, takes control of the kiss and wraps an arm around Gwen’s waist.
They only stop when Andrea clears her throat loudly.
“All right. I know you two can’t knock each other up, but this feels like the part where I should intervene.”
“Eat rocks,” says Gwendolyn sunnily, aware that she’s blushing just as much as Maria is now. “You won’t be here to chaperone every time.”
“And thank the gods for that,” Andrea mutters, staring at the ceiling as they start walking again.
Gwendolyn links arms with Maria, who is Andrea’s antithesis, in that she’s staring straight at the ground. She might as well have the word ‘virgin’ printed in bright letters on her forehead, and that’s honestly just darling.
Gwen bumps their hips together.
“You know, I’ve been thinking about what you said before.”
She gets a sidelong look from beneath thick black eyelashes. “What did I say, Your Highness?”
A burst of laughter escapes Gwen.
“Okay first, girls who stick their tongues that far down my throat get to call me Gwen.” Maria covers her face with her free hand in an adorable way that does absolutely nothing to cover her blush. “And second, I was thinking about all the things you said you heard about me when you were back home. You know, about how funny I am, how kind, how super-duper sexy, how you pumped my old maid for information about me.”
“I did not pump your maid…”
“You know, all that factual stuff,” she continues with a blithe grin, poking Maria with an elbow. “Did you like, fall in love with me from afar and like, bully your aunt into sending you here to meet me? That would be kind of romantic, I’m not gonna lie.”
Maria’s sputters are half-protest, half laughter. Gwendolyn has another teasing line on the tip of her tongue, but she forgets it in the simple joy of watching her betrothed laugh. Which isn’t something she would have ever thought herself sentimental enough to do, but it’s a damnably pretty laugh.
“Your High… Gwen,” she says fondly. “I am here because the northern clans are harassing our borders, and because my aunt hates your father, and she needed a woman who would be amenable to marrying another woman, and there was nothing in Estanria to keep me there. But if you were to ask me why I’m staying… then yes, the answer would be you.”
Maria smiles shyly. Gwen has an arch remark at the ready (“Actually, you’re only staying because I chose you, and not any of those chuckleheads.”) but it doesn’t make it past her lips, because Maria is right. There’s a warmth under her skin, and it’s telling her that Maria chose her as much as she chose Maria.
Gwendolyn unlocks their arms, and laces their hands together instead.
“Come on,” she says to her betrothed. “It’s tradition to kiss in every tower of the castle on the second day of your engagement.”
Maria laughs. “Is it now?”
“Nope.” Gwen winks. “But we can make our own.”