For hours, Andria sat at her vanity without moving a muscle. Three handmaidens applied pounds of powder to her face and tugged at her golden hair. Andria hoped her memory of these nights were nothing more than unrealistic, nightmarish caricatures sculpted during her childhood. However, her maturity made nothing any more tolerable.
Her heart raced. Dread easily weighed her like a stone.
Once done sitting, Andria stood for even longer to allow her handmaids to tailor a gown made of finest, pleated damask to the very millimeter of her frame. The youngest of them, Margery, frequently corrected Andria's posture with her tiny hands.
“Mustn't slouch, Milady,” Margery reminded again and again, always pressing her fingers against Andria's spine with growing emergency. She fit her into a corset as Gwenore, a handmaiden with severely curly hair, wrapped Andria's braided hair into a bun. Evelyn hung various necklaces of exquisite diamonds and jewels around the Princess's neck.
“Dazzling,” Evelyn gawked. A bright grin lit up her eyes. Andria turned to her reflection to see someone unrecognizable gazing back at her, like a doll: not a strand of hair out of place, not a string of fabric undone.
Once again, she has been created into the elegant Princess of Aramore.
Evelyn shoos away her fellow workers after granting them a job
well-done. While Evelyn’s back is turned, Andria tugs a few strands of hair
from her bun to fall delicately on either side of her face. Imperfect. Now she
can smile at her own reflection.
Evelyn returns to the princess’s side, grasping her shoulders. “You and Prince Edmund ought to dazzle every guest, Milady!” Andria tries to keep her smile from fading. The thought of once again being in Edmund’s arms overturns her stomach. “How eager you must be to see him again! Oh, he always is so dashing at these parties.”
“Well … Years have passed since we last spoke.”
“Anxious, Milady?” Evelyn asks. Andria nods with a deep breath. “Fret not – there must be a reason Rüna brought you both here tonight.” Evelyn brushes Andria’s wily strands of hair back into her bun, wondering how they fell out. “Ah, true love’s reunion … ‘Tis that kind of romance which puts me into a fit of excited giggles.”
“True love?” Andria chokes. This is an arranged marriage. Surely no one believes there is genuine love between us.
“‘Tis something of which I have always dreamed,” Evelyn confides as she blushes pink. “I have seen fondness and I have seen affection. But never have I experienced love so unaltered and sincere … Merely cruel jokes.” Andria does not know what to say. She remains quiet as Evelyn fastens flowers in Andria’s hair, until Evelyn suddenly gasps: “Oh, dear – I almost forgot!”
From the vanity drawer, Evelyn retrieves a delicate tiara of pure gold. Its small rubies shine in the light of Andria’s candles as Evelyn places the diadem upon her head – another noticeable weight upon Andria’s shoulders, but a magnificent one at that. Like a child, Lady Evelyn embraces Andria and buries her head in her shoulder.
“I would bid you fortune, Milady,” she tells her, “but you have never needed such a thing. You are flawless without effort.” Andria hugs Evelyn tightly back.
“Your kindness gives me strength through my fear, Evelyn. Thank you.”
Evelyn blushes deeply, grinning in pride. A knock sounds on the door.
“Now, go dazzle your handsome prince.” Evelyn’s eyes twinkle. Andria feels bad offering her a fake smile as her lady-in-waiting rushes to answer the knock on the door. Sir Ronald enters with a bow.
“Dear Princess, ‘tis time I escort you to the ballroom stairs.”
A sweat breaks out upon Andria’s forehead. She follows Ronald out the door and down the corridors, passing palace servants who hastily decorate various tables, statues, and plants with golden bows and tablecloths. Andria’s throat feels too dry to swallow, and her hands are too shaky to ring. She begins counting her steps to calm herself: thirty-six … thirty-seven … thirty-eight … .
Ronald stops her before a pair of large wooden doors. He bows before opening one. Andria passes through, realizing that tonight’s dreadful experiences are only beginning. All that is left to do is wait.
Andria enters a warm room furnished with a cozy arrangement of fine maroon sofas and chestnut end tables. A couple of servants stand at the edge of the room holding bowls of fruit. A bright chandelier above burns Andria’s eyes.
Upon one sofa are Prince Benedict and a blonde noble girl sitting very close to Benedict. It sounds as though Ben babbles on about the food at the table tonight. Opposite the couple are the king and queen. Andria does not catch sight of King Frederick or Prince Edmund anywhere about. She heaves a deep breath of relief.
Seeing her daughter, Queen Sonja glides across the room to clasp her hands.
“You are glowing, dear,” she compliments. Sonja looks her up and down with glistening eyes. She grasps her trembling hands and rubs them in hers. “You mustn’t be afraid. The Andria I knew before was as fearless as a steed at war. I rather doubt such a girl remained on the Ground.”
“You know I hate these parties,” Andria mutters. “We are animals on display here.”
“Aye,” Sonja sighs, “yet, ‘tis part of the burdens we must bear. The People look to us for strength. Should they see our strength falter, our strength as a kingdom shall falter all together.” Queen Sonja holds her daughter’s face in her soft hands and kisses her forehead. Andria beams.
“Thank you, Mother.” She peeks over her mother’s shoulder: Prince Benedict shares polite conversation with his date; they beam at one another. “Who is she?”
“Oh, she should love to meet you.” Sonja calls to Benedict, “Son, come speak to your sister!”
Benedict rushes to their side, his grinning date hanging from his arm.
“Introduce your sister to your date.” A sparkle rests in Sonja’s eyes. Benedict grins, too.
“Andë, this is Lady Lysette,” says Benedict, holding out Lysette’s hand. “My sweetheart.” Lady Lysette nudges him with a chuckle.
“You embarrass me,” she whispers playfully. She turns her attention to the princess, offering her a refined curtsy; she smiles at Andria without fear. “‘Tis an honor, kind Princess.”
“The pleasure is mine,” Andria nods, returning the curtsy. “From which house do you hail?”
Lady Lysette hesitates.
“The House of Harcourt, Milady – but let me assure you I am nothing like my sisters.” Andria remembers her sisters quite well: Fiona and Violetta, women of King Oliver’s Court both known for their unrivaled beauty and for their crimes of immodesty. Yet Andria sees none of their wickedness in this girl, whose eyes are at once as fierce as a burning flame but somehow as gentle as a tranquil breeze.
“Do not be ashamed of your lineage, Lady Lysette,” Andria advises her. “I am certain you bring much honor to the House of Harcourt.” Surprised, Lysette beams, turning a little red.
“Thank you, Milady.”
“Come, you are family now.” Andria winks at Benedict. “Call me Andria.”
“Of course, Mil—Uh, Andria.” Lysette giggles as though the name tickled her tongue. Benedict laces his fingers in hers and gazes into her eyes before she places her head upon his shoulder. Andria and Sonja share a knowing glance.
The moment new guests enter the room, Andria freezes.
With their entrance comes a new tension in the air.
And the overwhelming scent of liquor.
“You are here!” King Oliver rose to his feet and met King Frederick with a grand smile and outstretched arms. They shook hands and pat one another on the back. Frederick, adorned in a stately regal uniform, royal broaches, and an emerald cape, returned the broadest smile Andria has ever seen on the toad’s wrinkled face.
“Of course—this was a party I could not afford to miss.”
Prince Edmund sauntered in with a servant at his side, who draped the Prince’s cape dramatically over one shoulder. He wore a pout that certainly meant he was in a particularly brooding mood and, like his father, was prepared to make ill judgments and drink ale until the break of dawn.
Is that man ever truly happy? Andria wondered.
As the Kings made their way to the opposite end of the hall, Edmund claimed one of the armchairs closest to Andria—nearly tripping over Lady Lysette on his way.
“Watch where you are going,” Edmund snapped. “I cannot dance with a broken toe.” Lysette squinted at the Prince—she definitely had something to say—but she withheld any comment and offered Edmund a curtsy instead.
“My apologies, Your Grace.”
Edmund settled into his chair and snapped at a servant who carried a bowl of grapes. Instead of retrieving a couple of the fruits, however, Edmund stole the entire bowl. He popped a grape on his tongue and stared at his boots.
You can’t be serious, thought Andria. Is he for real?
Edmund held up his hand as if to stop Andria from speaking.
“I know I am handsome,” he said, “but you needn’t stare.”
Andria’s jaw dropped.
“You’ve been staring at me. For quite some time, now.” A whiff of his breath crinkles Andria’s nose. Evidently, he performed a bit of what those of the Ground call “pre-gaming.” It is a wonder he can form a coherent sentence, let alone sit up straight on his own.
“You are drunk,” Andria breathes.
“I am enlightened.” Holding his head high like the heir-to-the-throne he is, Edmund tosses another grape into his mouth. “Years ago, you told me yourself that the only people who enjoy themselves at these balls are the drunkards. I only took your words to heart, your Elegance.”
“And despite your insobriety, you expect to be able to dance? Stumbling left and right like when you arrived,” Andria said. “If you fall while we’re dancing, I won’t keep you up.”
“Dancing is purely another name for fanciful walking. Stepping in threes and looking blissful about it… I can walk—alas, I can dance.” Edmund raised his hands and swayed his feet ever so slightly to recall the simple traditional steps of Aramore’s ceremonial dance.
Perhaps the wine already exhausted his energy and he already wears a mask of composure and poise. But Andria is certain that Prince Edmund must be the most bored man in the kingdoms.
Edmund lounged back with a huff, gazing at the ceiling as though reliving a daydream. Andria, meanwhile, imagined for a moment the utter victory in slapping the handsome prince upside the head right where he sits. Some ferocity ought to wipe that wry smirk from his poised and perfect face.
At her side arrived King Oliver.
“Awaken your Prince,” he insisted. “File in at the end of the line—and remember to smile.” Oliver pat Edmund on the shoulder, jolting the Prince awake.
Andria glared after her father as he rejoined Sonja’s side.
“He is not my prince,” she grumbled under her breath.
Chatter of hundreds of guests seeped beneath the door. Andria trembled, unable to think clearly with all those voices swimming laps in her mind. She drowned in the sight of gold, the smell of fine wine, and the fear of failure—wishing she could call for her Guardian as she stroked her locket out of habit.
With Xavier at her side, her doubt would disappear.
Out of the blue, Edmund yanked her into formation.
“Do not touch me.” Andria jerked away.
“Do you not think we should become familiar with one another?” Edmund suggested. “Standing arm-in-arm is nothing compared to what’s expected of us once we marry.”
“There is no way in hell I will give my body to you—.”
Horns blazed from the opposite side of the doors.
Then, a resounding applause.
Oh, God. It’s time.
Prince Edmund snatched Andria’s hand in his.
“Now, now, this is all merely a good show, is it not?” he muttered, his breath on her cheek. Andria rolled her eyes.
“You play such a pointless game.”
“But an amusing one at that. Yes?” To Andria’s surprise, Edmund did not laugh. Something besides amusement rested in his eyes: an honest melancholy. “‘Tis an art, yes? Rendering them breathless with a simple lie. In no time, we become more than fellow People of the Goddess Star, more than gods ourselves—we become a symbol that cannot be eradicated. A symbol that is adored.” Edmund cleared his throat. “I have a riddle for you, Princess,” he slurred.
Andria shut her eyes and heaved a sigh.
“An adored man claimed his loyalty with the falling of the sun. And in the morn, once allegiance crawled to him on hands and knees, he surely had me won. What am I?”
Andria considered his riddle.
Adoration, she thought. Loyalty. Allegiance.
She opened her eyes.
“Power,” she resolved.
The light of a thousand candles blinded Andria as the grand doors opened before her. All that met her ears was fanfare, chatter, and laudation as she made her first appearance in five years, arm-in-arm with the man who scared her away. Princess Andria of Aramore: reborn.