Today is the day that I shall be introduced to ruling the kingdom, Clara thought when she awoke.
Just then, Eve floated into her chambers. "Today's the day!" she trilled.
Clara managed a half-hearted "huzzah," in response.
Eve tutted at her reproachfully, then prodded her until she got out of bed and stumbled her way to the screen so she could get dressed.
One hour later, Clara was sitting on the throne, back ramrod straight, longing to slump and put her head in her hands.
How does the King do it every day? This is mind-numbing torture! she thought. Since that day was open council day, everyone in the kingdom with a problem came to wait in a seemingly never-ending line and have the monarch help them with their woes.
The next person in line was a knight ambassador from Mescia, the kingdom east of Theorden and their main allies in the ongoing war. He prattled on and on about how honored he was to be there, how excited he was to meet the other knights, how lovely the castle, food, and servants were, and... Well, he took a very long time about it.
He finally stated that his fellow knights would love to help the Theordenian knights in the coming battle against one of the other neighboring kingdoms - Dilaea.
"My knights are honored to die beside your knights," the ambassador said, giving Clara the traditional salute: a hand making a fist against his breastplate, making a cacophonous clanking sound.
Clara lifted her cramped hands from their positions on the armrests of the throne and raised them while curling her fingers in the way that one might when confronted with something much to their distaste, with confusion and mild disgust that surely showed on her face. "Er...that's, um, nice...? If a bit...disturbing..." Clara said, breaking up her words and attempting to speak quietly, asking James for help, since she had no idea how to respond to that.
To the side, behind the knights who stood and watched, Clara saw one of them smack his hand into his forehead and hold it there as he shook his head sadly at her. He had somehow heard what she said. Clara must have been louder than she thought. She cringed, wanting to mouth an apology for embarrassing them, and then slid her eyes to the left.
James was shaking his head, almost imperceptibly, but Clara saw it. When he saw her look at him, he mouthed, say thank you. When she hesitated, he jerked his chin towards the foreign knight.
Oh, right! Clara remembered. Then she saluted him back. In order to do so, she had to stand, and her legs ached from being seated for so long. Clara smiled and said, "I mean, thank you."
Then she attempted to bow to him in the Theordenian fashion-one leg behind the other, bend knees, grasp edge of skirt on the side of the leg behind the front, lift skirt as wide as possible without showing ankles, and finally, sweep the hand that is not holding the skirt backwards.
Clara managed to do most of this properly, and although her knees were twisted in such a way that was very uncomfortable, the real problem came with the last step.
She thought she had swung her hand straight backwards, and was very proud of herself for completing the complicated curtsy, but in reality, her hand arced to the left – right into her brother.
When her hand encountered something warm and soft, Clara immediately untangled herself from her distinctly uncomfortable position and spun around frantically to discover the source of what she had quite accidentally found.
As soon as she saw what she had done, Clara's hands flew to her mouth. "Oh, James! I'm so sorry!"
Clara had slapped him in the face. Being on the throne's raised dais, Clara had been raised to about the same height as James. When her arm swung into James, it had barely missed the edge of the throne and had instead hit him.
He had his hand to his jaw, and his expression of shock and pain quickly dissolved into anger, thinly veiled by a smile for the people.
"Don't worry, I'm fine," he sad reassuringly to the servants who had rushed to his aid. "Lady Melanie here is just a little...uncoordinated," he sneered at Clara. She tried to smile a little, but it became a sort of grimace.
Clara settled back into her chair as the knight scuttled off, both feeling incredibly humiliated. Well, only a few more hours of this, Clara thought.
Five hours later, Clara had only had a ten-minute break between all of the peasant complaints. She stumbled more than she walked to her rooms, and when she got there, Eve was standing there with a basket full of Clara's laundry on her arm. Clara leaned against the bedpost.
"So how did it go?" Eve asked with typical cheer. Clara groaned and fell onto the bed face down. Eve rubbed her shoulder sympathetically for a moment, and then pulled her friend up by the elbow.
"Come on. You've got a feast for the ambassador to prepare for," she said. Clara groaned again, but allowed Eve to lead her to the screen to dress. Clara clumsily tried to unbutton her dress so she could change into one more appropriate for a feast. Eve's able, calloused fingers replaced Clara's, swiftly removing the dress with ease.
"Thank you, Eve. That will be all for now," Clara said once her dress had been successfully removed and she was standing there in just her shift.
Eve looked like she was going to question that decision, but at Clara's expression she dropped a quick curtsy instead and said, "Yes, milady. I shall go and fetch your new gown from the tailor. I'll be back soon and I can help you with jewelry and makeup and such when I return." Clara nodded.
Eve finally left with her laundry basket and Clara fell onto the unfortunately comfortable bed again. As she thought over each embarrassing event of the day, the one with the knight being the pinnacle in a day full of unfortunate mishaps, Clara cringed and blushed anew. It is a good thing I am not meant to rule the kingdom. I would do a terrible job.
Clara was interrupted from her thoughts by a knock on the door. She stood and went to answer it, still clothed in only her shift, assuming it was Eve, back with the gown. Clara had heard wonderful things about it, and she could not wait to see the real thing and not just the sketches she had acquired from the tailor or the muslin pattern used for fittings.
Colin stood at the door, holding his hands behind his back.
A tiny "oh!" escaped Clara's lips. She clamped them shut.
Colin grinned at her, but it was a shadow of the usual smile. He pulled his hand out from behind his back and presented Clara with a necklace.
Clara's mouth popped open. She glanced at Colin with disbelief, and then snatched the necklace out of his outstretched palm. She turned away from him, examining it. "No... No way..."
Colin fidgeted and looked around awkwardly. "So no thank you?" he said at last.
Clara turned back round, a smile on her face. "This is what I saw!" Colin tilted his head, confused. "In my dream," Clara elaborated, willing him to understand. Her excitement was fading at having to explain herself, but when she saw Colin's eyes flash with understanding her excitement rekindled.
"Your vision was about this necklace?" Colin asked excitedly. Clara nodded. Colin withdrew into himself for a moment, the way he did when he was searching for something in his mind that he knew but almost could not remember. Clara waited impatiently, almost bouncing on the balls of her feet.
"This is why you felt sick. This is why I was drawn to it..." Colin murmured.
"It's from you?" Clara said. In the initial rush she felt over the necklace she had assumed it was from James and Colin was merely the messenger. Colin's ears turned bright red, like he was embarrassed but pretending to be absolutely fine.
"Yes. I saw it while I was shopping for James's tunic material for tonight and..." He shrugged, having lost his previous thoughts. "It seemed to suit you."
"Anything this lovely must have been a fortune. I love it," Clara said, surprising Colin. The months of being around nobility and acting vain as Melanie must have been rubbing off on her a bit. Clara put the necklace on. She did not love it because it seemed expensive, though, in retrospect, it would be impressive to the wealthy people she had to deal with. Clara loved the necklace because she felt an indescribable, inexorable pull towards it, and that was what made it so beautiful. The weight of it settled comfortably on her chest, and she started rubbing the pendant between her fingers. It was the beginning of a habit, though she kept it hidden beneath the neckline of her gowns most of the time.
When she released the pendant with the strange markings, Colin was still in the doorway, looking like he was attempting to make a sneaky retreat. "Colin," Clara said. He froze. She walked up to him, and, after a very brief hesitation, wrapped her arms around him. He hugged her back. It felt very nice. "I am so sorry about everything that happened over this necklace. It is just jewelry. Thank you," Clara mumbled into Colin's chest. She was not exactly sure where the words were coming from, but she was glad they had arrived. She had been burning to say them since she had run from him in the corridor.
Colin stiffened and pulled out of the embrace. Clara was disappointed. She could have held him all day if she had her way. She shook off the thought and tried to listen to what he was telling her. "See, there is just one thing about it. You can feel it pulling you, yes? And you had a vision about it. Your first vision in months. I confess to being partially responsible for that, as your enchanted dagger not only wards off nightmares but anything detrimental to your sleep, like your visions. That was not my intent, but... Anyway, it's an amplifier." Colin said all of this very quickly. Clara blinked, trying to put the pieces together and follow the same path he had to reach this conclusion. Only one thing was confusing her now.
"What do you mean by amplifier?" Clara asked. She hated having less knowledge than just about everyone else she spoke to. Back in her old village, she had been one of the unspoken brilliant ones who were stuck there but would likely end up as a trader or a servant in the city. Now that she had made it all the way to the castle, she realized just how hard eighteen years of farm life would be to erase. But she was turning nineteen soon, and that thought always cheered her.
"I was not sure what it was at first either," Colin said, displaying his ability to read minds, or, rather, faces; those spiky walls in Clara's mind would be coming down soon but at the moment they were still up. "It means that this necklace will help you increase your powers. It just bumps your limits out of the way when you hit them. And with more practice, even the new boundaries can be pushed away. At least, that's what the book said."
"What book?" Clara wanted to know in case she had difficulties with it, which was likely, as difficulties followed her like a shadow.
"'Ten' i Kost'," Colin said. Clara did not bother asking what it meant. Of course the book had a funny name. Colin was just beginning to tell her that it was a story from the north, and it was about a girl similar to Clara who had come into her powers late in life and then got help with them when Clara realized she was still only clothed in a shift. With a startled gasp followed by a stream of muttered, very unladylike expletives, Clara ran to behind her wooden screen, searching for something to cover her up.
Colin trailed behind her. When the sounds of her frantic rummaging continued for far too long, Colin simply said, "There is really no point to putting something else on. I've already seen you in your shift. I will not look at anything, I promise. I'll even leave for the sake of decency."
Clara poked her head out from around the screen. "Thank you for the gift, Colin. I really like it. Now, Eve will be back any minute now. You should probably go." To avoid having him be sad or upset, she added in a way that she hoped would sound sincere, "I look forward to seeing you at the feast," and smiled.
Colin could see that it was a genuine smile, and left without questioning her. She sighed heavily once he was gone and stepped out from behind the screen. Something was gnawing at her, as if pieces were starting to come together about Melanie, about the recent attacks, about something. It was on the tip of her tongue, nagging at the front of her mind...and then it clicked.
Good lord. How could I have been so –
A knock on the door scattered Clara's thoughts. She desperately tried to reclaim them, the conclusion she had reached that she was so sure was correct, but it was like trying to reclaim a lost dream. It was not happening. Clara growled in frustration at having her thoughts swept away like so much dust, but she held fast to one thing. It was all connected. She just had to try again some other time. Maddening as it was, she had a new gown, and she felt very vain and petty as she used thoughts of the new gown to push away and securely hide thoughts of Melanie.
Eve sailed into the room. The lack of answer at the door did nothing to worry her, as she knew how lazy Clara could be. What did worry her was seeing Colin leaving the room and then seeing Clara in just her shift.
"Clara..." Eve put the dress down on the bed. Clara could not see it, as a muslin cover protected it. Clara still could not believe that her old clothes used to be made of the same material as the dust covers at the castle.
"Hmm?" Clara answered, trying to sneak a look at the dress, picking at the corners of the cover until Eve swatted her hands away. Clara folded them behind her back and rocked on her bare feet, eager for the distraction of a new dress.
"I saw Colin leaving your room." Eve gave Clara a significant look up and down. Clara looked at her feet and wiggled her toes, hoping to avoid further questioning. But alas, Eve continued with, "You two weren't - that is to say, you didn't - "
"Eve!" Clara said, cutting her off. She was scandalized. "You really think I would - he and I are just - we weren't - we would never - " Clara just kept sputtering. Her feelings towards Colin were complicated enough without Eve assuming things. Calming down so as not to raise more suspicion, as Eve was ever so apprehensive about things like this, Clara attempted a rational explanation. Not that there wasn't one there already, just that she hadn't told Eve yet. "He was stopping by to give me this," Clara said. She pulled the necklace out of the front of her dress and held it up for Eve's inspection.
"Delivering this gift from James, I'm guessing?" Eve queried. Clara nodded noncommittally. Finally accepting this explanation, Eve lifted the dress again. "Would you like to see your gown now?"
Clara had been (unsuccessfully) trying not to imagine what Eve had thought she and Colin had been doing, what their relationship was. She had never been overly concerned with how she seemed to other people until she had to be Melanie, where there were people who knew her that she did not know. To them, she might be their whole world, but to her they were just another face in the crowd. It was all a bit much to bear, but the dress chased all her other thoughts away. Clara clapped her hands together like a young child, so excited was she to receive this newest present.
Eve whipped the cover off with a flourish, letting it drift unnoticed to the floor while Clara simply stared at the dress.
It would replace the one that felt like water in her mind as the dress. This dress was a deep purple, deepened into black at the hems. The sleeves were translucent chiffon, slashed to the elbow to allow the waterfall of golden lace to show before attaching into the fitted upper arm with a gold ribbon. The neckline was daringly low, ringed by more of the golden lace to appear more modest, and the bodice was stiff from being covered in abstract golden embroidery that resembled vines. The underskirts that Clara had to put on first were yellow and pale gold, and Eve presented her with a fine chain that was to be worn around the hips.
Dressed in her surprisingly heavy finery, even without her cosmetics Clara had never felt more like a princess. I am not technically a princess, she reminded herself. Although I am of noble birth, I am not supposed to know that, and instead I am the surrogate daughter. The foster princess, if you will.
This thought saddened her a bit. Reminding herself that she was not really a foster child anymore, her actual parent just did not know that she knew they were related, she actually was living with her true father for the first time. Shaking her head to clear the confusion, Clara allowed Eve to gussy her up for the big ball for the ambassador.
When Clara walked into the room on James's arm, her heart was pounding. For the first time in her life, people's heads were turning, following her and her brother's progress to the head table. They looked resplendent in their matching outfits of deep purple and gold. James's tunic was made of the same material as Clara's dress, specially requisitioned from the tailor, and imported from the South. Or was it the West? It did not really have any bearing at all, but Clara was feeling quite scattered. Suddenly remembering James's last minute instructions, she smiled at them in what she hoped was a benevolent way and not a grimace, which was a bit how it felt. During all this smiling, Clara wondered if she had any lip stain on her teeth. She hoped not. Once she had reached the head table, King Woden took her hand in both if his as James sat down. "You look absolutely beautiful," he said, kissing her hand. Fortunately, he did it in a very fatherly way, and not an unpleasant way at all. Clara smiled a bit wider and dipped a small curtsy, reclaiming her hand and sitting on the King's left, as always. When many of the heads that had followed her progress to the King continued to stare at her, Clara realized that, though she was hoping for otherwise, they really were looking at her. She had hoped that they were watching James, pretty prince that he was, but no. The men, at least, had continued to look at her. Clara did think she looked nice, though, if a bit too...suggestive. The shoes were a bit much, she thought, leaving her ankles and shins completely exposed beneath the skirt (though she was still wearing stockings). Eve had done something wonderful to her eyes that made them look huge, dark, and upswept, almost catlike, mysterious. Her lips had been dyed the same dark color as her dress, making her look paler in a very appealing way. Clara smiled at the gathered people again, making eye contact with quite a few of them, causing them to stop staring at her and look away, reddening. She smirked at that and continued to disrupt as many objectionable stares as she could before the King began to speak, drawing her attention and hopefully the attentions of her admirers as well.
"We have gathered here today to celebrate the alliance with our sister country, Mescia," the King began. Some, including Clara, began to doze off, though she kept the King fixed with a glazed stare as she tried to process what he was saying. There were a lot of legal terms in there, though, such as, "Together we have conceived and constructed what could be the beginnings of a treaty with our opponents" and "Their military strength combined with our strategic prowess shall surely send the Dilaeans home and stop their pointless attacks on our buffer zone. We will keep what is rightfully ours!"
That was how King Woden ended the speech. The knights and guards sent up a great cheer that brought the rest of the room to their feet, yelling and attempting to clap the twelve Mescian political and military ambassadors on the back. Servants began to bring out the plethora of food and drink, and Clara had begun to relax into the pattern of the festivities when the King held up his hands and waved the servants back out through the doors, taking the meal with them and rather ruining their entrance.
"I have one last announcement to make before we can sink our teeth into the delightful repast the kitchen has prepared for us," King Woden said. Sir John rubbed his immense stomach approvingly. Clara almost wrinkled her nose, but thought better of it. She hated the way the King spoke, over-describing and talking in circles.
"Lady Melanie has long been felt as a part of my family." Great, the crowd's eyes were turned back to her now. She looked up at the king with a grateful expression, though she was holding her breath. "However, once she is of age, a wonderful date that is rapidly approaching, she can be officially adopted into the royal family. She has no claim to the throne of Theorden, of course," he said. This pulled a laugh from some in the room, and Clara forced a weak chuckle. Where is he going with this? she wondered. James reclined in his seat, balancing it on two legs, as if this was all old news. The King had continued speaking, and Clara snapped her attention back to him. It took her a moment to make sense of what was happening. "There will be a series of festivities that will take place in Mescia to honor the betrothal." I beg your pardon? What betrothal? "Once Lady Melanie has officially become Princess Melanie, she will marry the Prince Killian of Mescia and we will unite the two kingdoms more securely than ever before!"
Another great roar erupted in the dining hall. During the commotion, the incredibly joyful-looking King hoisted Clara to her feet. She attempted to wipe the stunned look from her face until she discovered a better way to cover it. Under cover of the clamor, Clara pointed a finger at James in his chair, felt power course through her for the barest instant, and James fell backward as his chair tipped over. Clara yanked herself away from the King's grasp and rushed to her brother, swinging her hair around her face to give herself a moment to collect her emotions and compose the appropriate expression. Once she had ascertained that James was fine, as a tiny fall like the one he had just taken would not hurt more than his pride, she stood and beamed with joy. The smile slid off her face more than once during the course of the night, but for the most part, she maintained her performance, taking pause only to glare at James, Eve, and Colin when she saw them.
The next morning, Clara was not even half as happy as she had pretended. She demanded as soon as she was awake enough to talk that Eve fetch Colin and James at once and bring them to her chambers. She gave no reason for this meeting, and Eve knew Clara well enough to see that she was very angry and should not be asked to explain herself at the moment.
James, however, had no such luxury of knowing her well, as since she had arrived he had mainly done his princely duties, which consisted mostly of ignoring her, and once he had arrived in Clara's room he flung himself across the bed as if he owned it and complained, "This is all going to look very suspicious, you know. I have to practice with the knights in about an hour, and if you make me late-"
"Oh, hush up, you simpleton. Since you obviously cannot be bothered to even tell me I am going to get married in a short while, why should I care that you might be late to practice? You have an hour, do you need to pick out the perfect outfit and brush your hair? You can be such a girl sometimes, I swear," Clara shot back. She had her arms folded so tightly against her it seemed unlikely she would ever unravel, and she paced the floor in front of her bed. Eve and Colin sat on top of a flat trunk that contained Clara's spare items, like towels and little hairpins and whatnot. They exchanged a glance when Clara lashed out at James but they said nothing. They rather agreed with her and though he deserved it, and at the same time, they had known Clara's temper was coming to a boil. They both knew better than to poke her with a verbal stick.
Clara's outburst had effectively shut James up, and he sat there gaping at the others. "Oh, shut your mouth. You look like a fish," Clara snapped. She whirled to face all of them. "Why, exactly, did nobody see fit to tell me that I was going to be married?"
They all glanced at each other as if preparing and excuse. James opened his mouth to speak again, but this time Colin shot him a look that said If you know what's good for you and you intend upon continuing to use it, I suggest for your sake that you keep your mouth closed.
Clara fumed at them. All of them. "Any day now, people," she said. Clearly, she was irked. By silently communicating between herself and Colin, Eve tried first.
"Clara. We wanted to tell you, really, but it honestly did not seem important-" Realizing she had potentially said the wrong thing, Eve held her hands up and tried to explain. "At the time, Clara, it wasn't important at the time. We knew about the engagement, of course, but we did not realize that the announcement to the public was so soon. The announcement series of galas in Mescia will lead up to the wedding." Eve took a step back from Clara, hands still raised almost defensively.
Clara had deflated incredibly during Eve's little speech. She had shadows under her eyes, and had gone mostly limp. Her anger had taken a lot out of her, and stress had done even more. She practically collapsed into Eve's arms. Over Clara's shoulder, Eve glanced at Colin. He did not have to see what she was thinking to know what she was asking him.
I did okay?
Colin squeezed his eyes shut for a moment and nodded.
You did fantastically, Eve. I do not know where we would be without you.
Almost as if she had heard his compliment, she flashed him a grin and pulled away from Clara. Clara sniffled. "You okay now?" Eve asked.
"I just wanted answers. I don't want you all to be afraid of me," Clara's voice wobbled but it never broke. "Thanks. And, I'm sorry," she said, looking at James.
He took it fairly gracefully. He did not gloat or anything, just stood and said, "We leave for Mescia in about two fortnights. I estimate we will be staying there for at least four months before heading to the mountains that divide our two kingdoms for the wedding, a symbolic joining of peoples." Then James left without waiting to see the havoc those simple words had wrought in Clara's mind.
"In less than half a year I am going to be married to someone I have never even met," Clara said, clutching her hair to keep it away from her face. At the moment it was just one too many things to try to deal with.
"At least he is a prince," Colin said. "You will be helping both kingdoms in so many ways."
Clara shot him a glare and he backed off, leaving the room and following James to help the prince prepare for training.
Eve carefully wrapped her arms around Clara, waiting to see how she would react before giving her a gentle squeeze. "You know, Melanie was actually in love with him. She never thought the arranged marriage idea would end well for her, but it did. It makes me wonder. If we had never taken her away to put you here, for the good of the kingdom, could she have reformed with the help of Prince Killian and become a help all on her own? I personally doubt it, but..." Eve trailed off. "Something to ponder." She squeezed Clara's shoulders one last time before getting up and going about her duties. Clara closed her eyes and brought her knees close to her chest, holding them tight to her. She felt broken, almost, with these new revelations. But it was better than still being in the dark.
What am I supposed to do?