The pounding of the horse’s hooves reverberates throughout the carriage as we move along at a steady pace. My friend’s sound asleep on the opposite seat from mine. I don’t understand how she’s capable of such a feat. A loud thunderclap startles me, and I peer out of the window at the downpour.
The mugginess of the carriage being too much to bear, I discard the blanket and stretch. Working the kinks out of my neck, I cannot wait to be free of the confines of our prison. The journey has been long and arduous, and tomorrow mourn, we shall arrive at our destination.
England, where my friend is to marry the Prince. Once she’s married, I will have fulfilled my obligation as her companion, and I’ll have my freedom. Portugal has been my home and the King a stepfather to me. He’s treated my mother and me well, and I’ll return there when my tenure is over.
A large two-story home with a yearly stipend of fifty thousand pounds. The King, Cecilia’s father, is most generous. It doesn’t hurt that my mother is his mistress, either. He and my father were close friends, and he left us a legacy of debt, penniless. If it had not been for the King’s devotion to my father and his affection for my mother, we would be in a world of trouble.
I’m thoroughly tired from sleepless nights and leaning back in the seat, I think of my future—the life I’ll live, free to do as I please, alone. Dark of hair and skin, I somehow still have a slew of potential suitors at my beck and call. But oppression is something that will be a thing of the past. I will never marry. I have chosen the life of a spinster.
I will not live another day past my servitude of companionship to my friend in the forced service of others. Marriage is a form of bondage, where the wife is subjected to subjugation. Her purpose is to look pretty, bear sons, endure her husband’s infidelity, and make her body readily available at his leisure. I don’t want to describe the poor woman’s role. I lie back on the seat, shaking my head to clear it of the depressing thoughts. I’m counting the days until my liberation.
The morning sun greets us, shining brightly in the sky. I must have finally dozed off and groggy, I notice that I’m alone. The carriage has stopped and venturing outside, I see that a few tents have been pitched.
Two men standing at attention outside of one, I know that that’s where Cecilia will be. The men guarding the entrance make way and let me pass without question. “Good morning, friend.” She chirps as two maids help her dress. Her hair’s wet and hangs loosely down her back.
A brown mass of tresses that accentuate her lovely soft features. “What’s all this?” I ask, lifting the dome of a platter. The fruit’s uninviting, as that’s been chiefly our fare for the final stages of our expedition.
“We’re an hour’s ride from our future, and one must look her best for the Prince.” She says with a wicked smile.
“Yes, one must...” I echo with less enthusiasm.
“Oh, my Marie. I forget that long voyages tend to sour your mood immensely. A lake bath and some wine afterward should raise your spirits.”
An hour to go, and I’m going straight to my bed and sleeping for days. “I had the men bring one of your trunks in. Make haste. We must not keep the King and my Prince waiting.” She says, ushering me to my valise.
We’d made it, finally. An entourage greeting us, I admire the opulence and grandeur of the palace. It’s monumental and makes the palace in Portugal look like a peasant’s abode. “My... my... my...” I whisper to myself.
Reigning in my horse, a guard helps me down. Thanking him for his assistance, I smooth my dress to make myself more presentable. I could not stand to finish the rest of the excursion cooped up in that carriage. Patting my hair, I await Cecilia’s arrival like the rest. There’s a strained silence as we all wait. I receive open stares and whispers behind gloved hands.
One would think that they’d never seen a person of color before. Sighing, I self-consciously touch my hair again. My natural curls are a pain to maintain. I’d lost my hat minutes into the ride, and I know that it must look a frightful mess.
“There’s no need to worry. The king himself shall be enchanted, Miss.” Rodrigo, the seasoned guard who’s taken a liking to me, states. He’s handsome, silver-haired, kind, and gallant. I love him as one would a doting uncle. He’s the one who taught me to ride, fencing, archery, and anything strenuous that my “delicate” lady body could imagine.
I firmly believe that if men could do it, women could do it better—Speed races against the gentlemen callers, where no one could see. Cecilia and her friends would bet against me, and sometimes I proved them wrong. Arm wrestling was my greatest failure, but that only made me try harder.
A murmur ripples through the small crowd, and my attention’s drawn to where their gazes are locked. Dark-haired and dark-eyed, he’s tall, fit, and handsome. He doesn’t have his father’s English features at all. His expression is severe, and he offers no smile to the giggling young women as he passes.
The Prince’s steps are confident, his gaze searching, and then it stops on me. The man’s wonderfully handsome, and I don’t realize that I’m holding my breath until he’s in front of me. “His Royal Highness, Prince Mael.” States one of the guards at his side. And that name is definitely not an English one.
Cecilia will be pleased as I am with his striking good looks. I owe her forty shillings, as I’d lost our bet. He doesn’t resemble a pig’s bottom with warts. In fact, he’s quite the catch.
“Where’s your mistress?” He inquires of me—his deep baritone sends a warmth throughout my body. A betrayal of the highest kind, as I must not feel this way. He’s to wed my dearest friend. And so, I play the role of the offended lady.
“My companion, her highness.” I correct him.
“The Princess is a few minutes out, and she should be here shortly.” Answers Rodrigo, giving me a stern look.
“Good, I don’t have all day to wait for her.”
His highness’s attitude needs some work. As we wait, I wonder what the King looks like. His son is very pleasing to look upon. It’s a fact that I’m trying not to revisit, with the Prince’s wonderful alluring eyes slowly perusing my body. I squirm under his scrutiny. Those dark depths coming to rest on mine give no evidence of pleasure or dissatisfaction with his findings.
Cecilia’s arrival with her fleet of staff is a welcome diversion. The applause assaulted my ears as she was helped from the carriage—her four ladies-in-waiting followed in her wake. They’re friends from suitable means who look down upon me. I may have come from money, but it was no more. And the only reason I sit within their circle is that I am a lowly companion to their friend, the Princess.
Rodrigo takes my arm and escorts me off to the side so that she can be received. “Your Highness.” She says, bowing to the Prince. Mael takes his time with his inspection, and all are silent as he makes a study of her hair, light brown eyes, fair skin tone, and slender frame. I’m uncomfortable as we wait, becoming angry with his unnecessary extended examination. I want to get a bath, a hot meal, and a bed, and he’s delaying that. Finally making eye contact with her again, he nods his approval before leaving.