My mother always said that a lady must learn to hide their emotions in a series of complex compartments so that your true emotions could never show. Smile when the wild red blossoms of rage burned with an aching persistency. Look serene and at peace when chaos has struck with such force and sunk everything into a sea of turmoil. You must speak when only spoken to and above all else my father’s word was law. If he suggested I run into the heart of a battle to search for his fallen crown I was to do so without fail.
Even when a decadent feast that made my jowls overflow with saliva and stomach growl like a caged beast, she warned with caution; I was to take little as possible and if possible none at all. A lady of noble heritage, she would repeat with tiring patience, was as dainty as a rose and made sure to be graceful in every act that she carried out. I’d role my eyes without discretion because I’d heard this speech time and time again until if I so much desired could mimic her word-for-word in the same soft-spoken manner that she addressed me in.
My mother for all the beauty and grace she carried herself with when she sat next to my father-excuse me the king, whom she had been married to for over seventeen years. Was weak and compliant, the memories I have of her which I hold closely to my heart like that one old toy that brings in despair when the thought of parting with it came to mind. She was weak, not once do I recall her ever speaking in ill tongue of my father. And those times she desired, especially after a nasty exchange of words. The poison frothing in blackened pools in her mouth waiting to be spat out, her hazel brown eyes enveloped in a gathering darkness while her rosy full lips would pull into a line so thin I could barely see them.
It was terrifying but no sooner had this temper risen to the top she would forcefully push it back down placing a new layer of pretence as if it were a new layer of makeup so nobody could know. I recall once when I was wandering down the halls late at night in our country estate, only to hear the sound of weeping a few paces in front of where I stood. Curiosity spurring me forward like a wild mare that was yet to be tamed; I ran as fast as my legs could carry me down the halls because something about the voice beckoned me to it.
Further and further my legs carried me down the dark halls the only source of illumination a small candle in my hand. Then in the distance I saw a faint golden light piercing through the keyhole in the otherwise dark halls, pooling on the carpeted floor.
The crying was loudest hear I noted much to my horror because it was the room my mother was sleeping in. I took tentative steps towards the ornate door and pressed my eye against the brass plated doorknob to get a glimpse through the keyhole. My heart immediately plummeted seeing my other crumpled on the floor her head in the lap of Lucinda her most trusted lady-in-waiting, a beautiful woman from a neighbouring town whose family was held in high prestige, carding her hands through my mother’s hair in a soothing fashion.
Amidst mother’s group of women who flocked at her heel wherever she went; she stood out because of her distinct look. Where most women in my mom’s ladies-in-waiting wore bright and elegant dresses of the finest fabrics woven with jewels or pearls; hers were simple in style and if there was a grand celebration one with a dramatic lacy pattern exposing her pale and creamy skin set against a rich cloth a distinct shade of red and maroon. A pendant with a golden medallion engraved with her family’s symbol, the white peacock, her only piece of jewellery. Tresses of black hair the colour of obsidian fell in gentle swooping curls around her pallid skin. Her dark green knowledgeable eyes shone like a beacon amidst a sea of cerulean blue sallow eyes of the other women whose giggling and fussy nature reminded me of a bunch of over excited shrilly geese, trying talk above each other.
She spoke in a witty and prudent manner to appear that she was neutral but if a matter that really came to close to her heart was brought into discussion. Then her words became more passionate and if the person was of lesser knowledge she didn’t shy away from talking down to them. Showing kindness when it was needed and a sharp tongue (a trait she carried proudly) made her by most men undesirable but she never really cared. I watched for a few seconds as she mumbled through choked sobs in Latin about the latest argument but I was too young to understand the implications and left immediately as if I had trespassed on territory that I wasn’t meant to tread on once the surreality of the situation wore off.
My mother for all the kindness and affection she had towards the king: was too compliant towards him accepting each insult and degrading remark thrown her way. When I’d ask her why she continued she’d shake her head and order me in that tone that was an indicator that there would be no more talk of this subject. I’d nod meekly in return and continue my needlework. I may have inherited her long golden tresses, olive-skin with the same beauty mark under my right eye and hazel brown eyes. But that was where the similarity ended for I’d inherited my father’s stubbornness, short temper and impatience, there was no denying that.
Unlike my younger sister who inherited her kind and compassionate nature that charmed many in our castle. Whereas I was viewed as the vile-tempered troublesome child who no one could tame and whispered about when they thought I couldn’t hear them.
Her death struck a few years later after giving birth to my younger sister Isabella that was the first time I saw him show an emotion other than icy rage or steely contempt. His mouth was curved down in a slight frown, his grey eyes gleamed with tears that only through sheer willpower he kept from falling. He watched keenly as the gravediggers filled the grave with sand gripping in his hands a bouquet of red poppies and white lilies-her favourite flowers.
It had been a rather sad day, as we were marching through the town in our royal procession everyone my Dad, Isabella dosing peacefully in my lap. The atmosphere was heavy with and overwhelmingly gloomy inside the carriage; to distract myself I pulled back the curtain and sighed melancholically at what I saw. It seemed like the whole kingdom was mourning with us, many of the villagers had come out to see the procession. The men had their heads bowed down clutching their cloth caps in their dirt covered fisted hands. While the woman dressed in black had thrown white lilies and roses onto the palanquin carrying the casket. In which my still mother lay in an eternal slumber. It was touching but at the same time made my heart tighten even more in raw anguish. I’d turned to look at my father to ask a question but the neutral scrutinising gaze in which he looked at me with, made me shudder inwardly.
“Lucrezia,” he had started in his rough voice.
I blinked unintelligibly “Yes your majesty” I answered after a moment, retracting my hand from Isabella’s hair which I had up until now been combing my hand through.
It might have been a trick of the light but he looked like a mere shadow of his former self. His eyes were bloodshot and sunken in, the wrinkles like small sloping hills above his forehead. A waning smile on his lips, his massive build bent forward reminded me of Atlas, a titan who had to bear the weight of the stars on his back for atonement, still I didn’t dare voice my thoughts.
“Your mother has raised you well Lucrezia” the next thing he did was pat my head in affection. Something he hadn’t since I was seven, my first instinct was to inch away from this stranger because he wasn’t the father I’d believed was strong unperturbed by the unpredictable whims of fate. But the child in me moved closer and craving for the attention that only he could give.
What I wasn’t aware of was that would be the last time I would ever see this side of my father. Three weeks had passed since my mother’s passing on and a grand feast was being held in the grand hall, I had turned eighteen beaming with pride having a seat next to my father.
Boisterous and noisy he called for more food and spiced wine while engaging his esteemed friends from his court and neighbouring nations. He continued to exchange pleasantries while each course was being brought out until the banquet concluded with a presentation of the piéce de résistance, a large cake carved in the family emblem was brought out with lots of intricate sugar patterns and he stood to his full height, tapping his gold leafed goblet to get everyone’s attention and called out loudly
“Today my friends and esteemed allies I bring you to celebrate a monumentous occasion, my daughter’s coming of age!”
The company broke out into a clamour of rambunctious cheering and uproarious stamps of approval, the room swelling with excitement. As expected of me I looked down in slight embarrassment, my cheeks dusted in a faint pink helped to further the act seem all the more believable when what I really felt was elated joy.
He tapped his glass with a spoon the cheering died down “but I have received great news that the prince has accepted my fair daughter’s hand in marriage”
My grip on the cup tightened painfully as I continued to watch my father carry on talking about it but I’d already stopped listening. Over the past weeks there were rumours that had been whispered in secret when they thought I was not within hearing distant or they assumed I wasn’t paying attention at all. It was strange because until as of now there had been no mentions or indicators from my father about him considering my betrothed, it was all a lie and refused to believe he would do so without my consent.
As the day to my inevitable betrothed ceremony grew nearer the tales of this Lovino grew wilder and outlandish. One excited lady said that because of his love for women of beauty he was never a faithful man. In the late hours of the night when his child and wife slept he’d sneak out into the night to sleep without much care. Only to awaken in the bosom of a cheap harlot drunk in a hen house from consuming too much ale.
Another whispered that the only reason why he considered me as a bride is because there was not a cent left in his country’s treasury, a prince with no royal jewels she exclaimed without much consideration. If she had seen me hiding behind the pillar she would have been none the wiser and taken precaution to be shrewd of her surroundings and chosen a less obvious spot to voice her meaningless chatter.
Three days past in a whirlwind of activity with my royal dressmaker Estrella shrieking blue murder in her ungodly shrilly voice that only served to heighten my ire especially when she poked me hard enough with her needles to draw blood, whether coincidental or not. I snatched the pin cushion off the bedside table and threw at her more than once while calling her an incompetent louse. Until the witch went to my wet nurse and complained incessantly about my ungrateful behaviour, soon after she came and I spent the last few days being obedient while the wench continued to take her measurements until the dress was done.
The dress she made for me was absolutely magnificent; she’d chosen a hue of red that faded into a light shade of orange at the bottom, it reminded of a sunset. The fabric was soft and felt glorious as my fingers stroked it, tracing the gold threading detail of intricate flowers near the waist. Holding it up in front of my face I walked towards the window, when I held it against the sunlight it shimmered. Small precious red stones were sewn onto the burgundy sleeves that ended at my elbows that I hadn’t noticed before. Sighing in sadness, I pressed the dress against my chest. It was absolutely beautiful, sinfully so. I couldn’t deny its allure no matter how much I tried. This made my resolve to destroy it even greater.
Within each everyone lays a dangerous desire capable of consuming us if precautions aren’t taken. A member of my Dad’s royal advisory, Maverick had a fondness for sweets. Everywhere he went he’d always carry a small wooden chest in his fat fingers containing some form of sweet. Greasy crumbs of leftovers would stick to his grey and white beard that protruded under his jowls of fat. He was one of Dad’s closest advisors and confidant which made many envious of the power he supposedly held in the King’s court. Jealousy a hideous fast growing weed with many pores if not terminated. A sinister plan was watched and when his body was bloated, blue and his torso covered in multiple gashes. His clothes were gone and when the undertaker removed his heart which had blotches of a deep shade of purple that almost looked black.
He’d been poisoned the old undertaker declared, he wore a white shirt covered in so many stains it looked brown. His hair had disappeared all but a single scruff in the middle of his head; beady black eyes studied the body as he hobbled to the head. Disturbingly his eyes and mouth remained open as if he were still screaming from the dead. Whether in rage or fright we could never know. Muttering a few choice curses when he approached the head and poked the eye with a rusted knife.
I looked at my Dad for the whole time he’d remained still and silent. His head bent forward so that his hair fell in loose strands covering his face.
A drop of water appeared at his feet. Maverick had been a good man.
Some choose to hide it, like my mother. Others chose to suppress it hoping one day to it will soon fade into oblivion, how many times had the king chose not to strike those who wronged him until he felt it was necessary. Others choose to succumb to this side and indulge themselves whether it is collecting art or eating fine foods.
For me ever since could remember I’d sometimes like to sit by the fireside and watch the flames rise and fall. Crackle and hiss swaying to and fro whilst slowly engulfing the wood in the hearth. And yet if allowed to escape, they would engulf everything in their beautiful light.
When had mine been engulfed? Stealing a glance at the candelabra I watch as the lone yellow flame burns away slowly eating away at the candle. My feet carry me to where it is placed and slowly raise a sleeve above the candle. It flickers to the side for the moment before returning to the centre. I bring the sleeve closer to the fire it’s hot and makes my hands become wet with sweat.
I allowed a smile to tug at the edge of my lips when the sleeve caught fire.
The door creaks open and I throw the dress to the floor hastily stomping out the fire. My back becomes wet with sweat. Against my better judgement instead of ordering the person to leave my quarters, I turn to face them with a tight smile.
A tall and lithe silhouette blocking out the light enters my room. She’s wearing a simple white dress that ends just above her ankles enter. A mane of curly and wild red hair falls forward as she bows down in greeting. When she comes out of bow light brown eyes gaze questioningly at the discarded on the floor. Without asking a question she walks over and picks it up gingerly off the floor. Her eyes widened the slightest at the hole on the sleeve but she asks no question.
“I shall return tomorrow too early in the morning to bathe and prepare you” Not even waiting for a reply she bows her head and leaves the room. Closing the door behind her without even creating a sound.
The servants were like ghosts hovering in and out of every room only to leave without a trace of their existence. When I was younger, my father would take me on top off his shoulder telling all who were willing to listen that I never cried. Weary, I walk to my bed and lie down gazing at the ceiling with a blank expression. Was I really made of stone? If only I could be made of a hard substance. I wipe something hot and wet with the back of my hand, it still doesn’t go away. Hugging my knees close to my chest, I cried.
Never had I felt so abandoned before.
The next day I sat stiffly next to my father in the throne room waiting for my husband-to-be to arrive, the traces of my anguish and rage banished to the deep recesses of my mind. The white trail sown in with mother-of-pearls trailing behind my seat; a gold choker inlaid with sapphire and emerald stones I wore around my neck. The blunt edge of the necklace was pressing against my throat making my breath come out in short quiet gasps. I stared dispassionately down below to the massive doors, tears would’ve began to roll down my eyes in fat drops but I had done enough of that all that remained was a beastly rage, flicking its tail agitatedly back and forth waiting to escape its confinement.
Then the trumpets were blared and the doors with aching agony slowly swung open. I’d heard rumours of how he’d brought in a convoy of one hundred and fifty soldiers bearing gifts of exotic spices and scented oils amidst trove of equally fascinating baubles from faraway lands as so he claimed. In flamboyancy; I had been informed by Lucinda, I noted she spoke with a particular visage of revulsion when she spoke the next few words: ‘he spared no cost to impress the doe-eyed Jezebel in order to pillow her and explore her vast terrain’ while waving a goblet of wine. Her pale skin flushed a rosy pink, the smell of fermented grapes rolling off her tongue in strong noxious waves, teetering from one side of my room to another.
True to her words the prince came in an ostentatiously obnoxious manner that with each second transformed into a gaudy display of superfluous power. As if he knew that he needed to stay in my father’s favour if he were to make any bold decisions in the near future when our kingdoms would join. This admittedly was not far from the truth.
Before he entered we were greeted by the entrance of fifty or so stone-faced men wearing silver armour polished so brightly it made my eyes hurt to glance at for no more than a few seconds accented by the dark purple of the royal family, the insignia a black four-leafed clover painted on the breastplate. Marching in two neat lines the two men in the front whose helmets were decorated with bristled hemp died a dark blue indicating that they were the commanders. Carrying between them a cloth banner of maroon with a yellow griffin painted in great detail holding in its outstretched paw a human heart, its maw opened to reveal fangs and a wicked forked tongue out to full it’s length tasting the sea of maroon, massive wings although only one could be seen were painted in such a way that appeared that it was about to burst from its cloth restrain and into our very own world.
It was magnificent and at the same time sent a ripple of trepidation down my spine if I were to encounter such a beast right here. Before my wild imagination could carry me like a flower in the wind, the thundering of feet from the small assembled force stopped and I returned to my gaze at what lay below the banner.
Right now four tanned strong women with dark curly hair dressed in simple white cotton tunics and leather corsets, bowed deeply at the foot of the throne. Presenting several wicker baskets piled generously with the baubles I’d heard one of my ladies in waiting speak so fondly a hint of envious greed flashing in her brown eyes when she subtly looked at me as she spoke with another over a game of cards.
“Your majesty the prince would humbly like to apologise for his late arrival there had been a storm that had stopped us from reaching the port for that he hopes you accept these humble gifts as a small token for his atonement” one of the ladies spoke her words though fluent were heavy with the accent which made the pronunciations awkward.
The king grunted, a sign of his displeasure “Hardly, I have taken time out of my duties to the country to be here he will have to do much better than trinkets to appease me”
The lady who spoke sunk lower to the ground “how gracious of you your majesty for that we are...”
“Where is he” he cut off coldly, directing a venomous glare towards the woman “if he is to further delay my time then I will have no choice but to send him back.” He leaned back in his throne “and if he were a man worth his grain of salt then he would do more than send the likes of you to speak on his behalf”
She flinched and sunk her head lower still “My apologies we are aware of this error but we beseech you on the prince’s behalf”
The king leaned back in his chair and placed his elbow on the rest leaning his head heavily onto his open palm, still I couldn’t afford to breathe any sigh of relief as of yet because he hadn’t given any given indicator that this ceremony was over yet but that didn’t mean he still couldn’t choose to end it.
“On his behalf you say, and who are you but a common servant to the king” he sneered lightly with his stony expression turning the full intensity of his displeasure towards the woman in the middle.
The woman realizing her error bowed even deeper, until her forehead was touching the floor, which made me wonder where had she learned her manners from, a swine? Were these people disrespectful when addressing their superiors? Will I be treated such a manner if I were to marry this toad of a prince? I gazed curiously at the maid who had up until now managed to remain composed when facing my father, which was a commendable feat in itself but did little to quench the ire within.
Much to my father’s rage the reason why the prince he had not yet arrived was that his ship with his entourage had been caught in a storm. Which had delayed them for several days and after the storm cleared they had to wait even longer for the winds to pick up speed. Meaning there arrival would gradually arrive here but at a very slow pace. I’d hoped there ships had gotten sunk by powerful waves but unfortunately the woman who I’d learned later on was called lady Anastasia Charlotte Reginald who served as the right-hand advisor to the king of her country, had informed my father that he would arrive by tonight.
The king sighed in annoyance, agreeing to her request partly because she was brave for not faltering. But also because a more secretive reason he and the current king had been friends for a while now and so he was granting him a special favour. The meeting was adjourned and as soon as I ran to my room and saw Lucinda calmly reading a novel, something I’d been forbidden from doing by my tutor. She looked up and smiled at me in greeting that instantly changed into a frown of concern when she saw my tear-stained eyes.
“It’s not fair” I choked out my knees buckling underneath me onto the floor, my dress pooling out around me “it’s not fair, why does this have to happen to me? I don’t want to married to that man” I cried in anguish, leaning forward on my back and crossing my arms over my torso “I don’t want this at all, oh Lucinda how I wish I could runaway to nunnery and commit myself to one man.
There were footsteps and soon I felt a warm body press against my own, the smell of strawberries and wild herbs lifting me minutely from my disparity “rise Lucrezia have you forgotten the teachings from your mother” she whispered soothingly.
I froze in shock surprised by the tenderness which had crept into her voice “rise Lucrezia” she repeated tenderly removing her hands from around my waist and cupping my chin. Her green eyes shone with affection that only a mother could convey “your mother wouldn’t be particularly happy that her eldest daughter was weeping like a new born child all because she feared the notion of wedlock”
“Lucrezia it is rather foolhardy to make such assumptions when you do not know a person’s story” she continued in that soft voice not really lecturing me but not talking down to me either.
I blinked slowly “what do you mean?”
Lucinda sauntered slowly towards the armoire opposite the window next to my bed pausing for a brief second to look at the garden below, her eyes flickering with sadness while a small frown tugged at the edge of her lips before she walked towards my bed a silver hairbrush in her hand she patted the space next to it “come and I shall tell you of the story of the one man I ever loved”
It was tragic; they’d been young when they had first met. She had been fourteen and he sixteen from a dear close family friend of her fathers. His name was Christino and soon about to ascend to his father’s throne. The day had been sunny when she was carried in the royal palanquin with her mother to the kingdom amidst there royal convoys,
“Like you I had been infuriated when my father decided out of the blue that I was to be wedded” she admitted with a weak smile “but all that changed when I met him”
She described in great detail about his warm generous smile that made his intelligent brown eyes sparkle. His tiny stature seemed dwarfed even further by the tremendous velvet cape and trimmed at the hem with fur, a single silver looping amulet he wore around his neck. His head of curly brown hair wild and untangled which he would always run his slender fingers through when something perplexed him or felt nervous.
Her father had spared no expense for this monumentous procession preparing the castle by the sea side the most beautiful and lavish for the wedding.
“In that time Christino and I grew to enjoy each other’s company more and more. His mind was beautiful and full of a childlike curiosity whenever we’d walk in the gardens or he’d hear me perform a ballad on my flute then we’d spend the rest of the afternoon in a cocoon of comfortable ambiance created by our own content” she said with a distant with expression pausing briefly in her recounting before continuing
Then the day of their wedding had arrived, it had been a beautiful ceremony she recounted with a distant look in her eyes. People threw dried rice and flowers chanting their approval as they were carried through the town until they reached the church. But none were happier than the couple amidst the sea of people, with an innocence that could only be captured by that of youth exchanged vows. Sealing it with a kiss, there union sealed that night underneath the full moon in a heated moment of passion.
They were both inexperienced, she admitted fondly but still out of all men she had met until now had been the most gentle and considerate in his ministrations. Soon after she’d been pregnant but the child had died in still birth, countless times they’d try and try again but it seemed each child befell the same fate. It was taxing on both counts but he was patient and understanding wrapping her in his arms.
But one day, a few years later an epidemic had spread, fear of their safety they fled the city into a country lodge, unfortunately he had caught the cold and although he had tried to hide it. The effort became too strenuous and while walking down the halls one day he collapsed onto the floor breathing shallowly while his skin became was pale. Servants carried him to his bed by then his temperature had risen and he’d sunken into a delirious fit of coughing, tossing and turning in pain. His own doctor came and tried everything within in his power to try and help him, but deep down he knew there was nothing that could be done to save him the symptoms were too far in.
And so he called her in to say his final farewell, shoving everyone aside Lucinda entered and rushed to her husband’s side
“I couldn’t even recognise him anymore had it been anyone else I would’ve run out of the room in fact I was tempted to do so as well but then he whispered my name” she said mumbling the last two words with
With tender hands she brushed her hands through his wet clammy hair, his skin had become as white as the sheets and sunken in it seemed as if from the slightest touch it would tear. Time passed painfully slowly with him coming in and out of a feverish delirium, in one he dreamt of an angel who resembled his wife singing to him a lullaby. Another he felt something cold pressed against his forehead; weakly he raised a hand to touch the face of his mysterious saviour
“Then truly death’s carriage has arrived to take me to the land of the silent at least grant me this one request of seeing my beloved one more time, I beg of you let me see her face one last time” he whispered through blue lips.
It seemed in that moment, she felt herself grow numb unable to look away from her husband’s pale blue eyes. She stared fearfully at the bed where he lay, momentarily unable to breathe as her heart was seized in the icy transparent tendrils of fear. Despite the fevered delirium and glassy look they there was genuine fondness and warmth she could only associate with him. Her eyes burned with tears as the gravity of the situation began to sink in. He was going to die and there was nothing she could to do to stop it. So she stayed holding her arm tenderly in her own until he finally breathed his last breath on this earth muttering her name.
“As old as I am, sometimes I wake up thinking he is still by side” she admittedly sadness creeping into her voice.
Lucinda leaned back and dropped the silver hairbrush against the foot stool when she was satisfied that they were no more knots in my hair. A peaceful silence settled between the two of us, interrupted by the distinctive sound of trumpets and cheering. Lucinda placed the comb on the bed and looked outside the window, where had the sun had begun to set. The sky tinged orange and pink
“It seems like his highness to-be has finally arrived” she remarked with distaste
I tightened my grip against on the folds of my dress “So what of it” I replied coldly
She chuckled, it was a warm and sincere one “even without my insistence you know your father will send someone to come and escort you to the banquet hall”
“They will have to drag by my feet and bed along with me”
Lucinda shook her head slowly in amusement and mild exasperation “Well you truly did inherit your father’s stubbornness”
I whipped my head around a small frown marring my lips “I do not” I insisted much to my confusion she chuckled again “and what may I ask is so amusing”
She made to say something but stopped when the door opened and stern-faced man dressed in red cardinal regalia walked in. Gold rings with precious stones adorned his hairy fat fingers, while cold grey eyes looked calculatingly at Lucinda first. She bowed her head and muttered a greeting, he returned with a slight bow of acknowledgement. Then he turned his attention to me
“His majesty insisted that I escort princess Lucrezia and Duchess Lucinda to the banquet hall for prince Lovino has finally arrived”
Uncurling my fingers from the iron clad grip I had on my dress I stood stiffly and begun to follow the cardinal glad to have Lucinda beside me. The walk to the banquet hall was the most agonising and daunting task I had ever encountered. Oddly the halls were empty of life and yet I felt like I was being watched from each and every corner, eyes not visible to my nervous glance.
I looked to Lucinda for any form of guidance but her expression was blank and she offered no form of reassurance, offering comfort when needed but nonetheless tough and strict came to mind when I turned to look back at the empty halls. With no way of escaping we continued in silence until we reached the ornate wooden doors, where two guards stood guard.
They did the sign of the cross when they saw the cardinal and bowed their heads while muttering a courteous greeting towards Lucinda who tilted her head in acknowledgement while I walked past them without so much as an exchange.
Immediately we were welcomed by the boisterous clamour of cutlery against plates drowned out by the yells of the people feasting. The cardinal lead us further down the long teak table where a feast had been piled high with delicacies that made my stomach growl. The centre piece being a wild boar glazed with an apple in its mouth, several hunks of meat had already been cut off revealing soft pink tender flesh. Steam curling in the air, surrounding the boar was an array of wild game meat that made my eyes shine with famished glee. Especially when I spotted a platter of bell peppers stuffed with prawns and spiced potatoes.
A light pinch on my elbow from Lucinda and I reluctantly drew my gaze away from the delicacies and followed the cardinal until we reached the end of the table. Where my father was seated his beefy arm wrapped around another man of similar build a crescent shaped scar spanning from the tip of his eyebrow to the edge of his lip. It rippled and bulged whenever he opened his gaping mouth to laugh uproariously or inhale another morsel of food from his platter. His eyes were a bright and intelligent brown and his wide generous lips opened to reveal a set of crooked white teeth. A halo of black hair streaked with silver surrounded a bald spot that seemed to glow in the dim light of the three crystal chandeliers above.
Who I could only assume was the king of the neighbouring nation whose son I was to betrothed too. I recall rather vaguely my mother saying how whenever he was travelling with his royal litter that he would make sure to visit. And the effect would be immediate on the king gone would be his serious a nature and youthful energy would glitter in his grey eyes full of mischief and excitement as they exchanged stories.
As we drew nearer to the table I noted next to my father’s companion sat a lanky man with a rather handsome face. Not quite the rough and rugged features but gentle and rather feminine, dressed in vibrant shades of red and orange complimented his tanned skin. Ornate gold chains on his neck, his hands fluttered over the dishes laid out in front of him. I was fascinated to watch his hands move fluidly from plate to cutlery to dish. Then suddenly he looked up and my heart seized because he looked directly me. His eyes were the colour of the sea foam that crashed against the cliff side.
Behind me I heard Lucinda chuckle then she leaned forward and whispered “there will be time for courting but right now why not greet your father” again the sour scent of fermented grapes wafted into my nose.
I turned my head and blinked unintelligently “I suppose” I murmured back and waited for my father to finish the conversation he was having with the cardinal who departed after a few minutes.
Swallowing thickly, I clutched tightly to the green silk of my dress and walked forward for reasons I could never discern talking to my father had always been a difficult to task. My eyes flickered to the crown resting on his head. The few times we ever held a conversation it was short and one could easily think we weren’t related. I curtsied and said ‘your majesty’ flatly as I had been taught by my mother.
I could hear a deep chortle as I looked up again “your daughter is truly the pearl of this kingdom she will make a fine bride” he slammed his hand against my father’s back “how come you’ve never told me about her until now, Tino”
I couldn’t help but tilt my head in confusion but before I could ask who this Tino fellow was Lucinda pushed me forward and we walked towards our seat, much to my pleasure my seat was next to the handsome fellow. The food was glorious but sadly before I could enjoy the feast I was pulled away by Lucinda who reminded of the dance I was to perform with the other ladies-in-waiting.
After changing into a much more elegant gown the shade of the last teary drops on sunset that harpy made with fine gold threading of beautiful roses on the fine silk. I sat calmly on my bedside as Lucinda fixed my long curly hair into a bun. Using the precious golden tiger lily pin my mother had given on my last birthday. We shared a moment of silence as she combed my hair neither was willing to end.
Lucinda stepped back and clasped her hands under her chin, her green eyes sparkling with fresh tears “you look just like your mother right now” she whispered
I smiled and stood up, carefully picking the heavy silk of my skirt I walked towards her “and yet I inherited the temperance of my father”
Predictably she lightly slapped the back of my head “your majesty is a respectable man who has helped maintain sovereignty of this country for the many years he has been in power” she lectured
“For a moment I almost mistook you for the lyrebirds in his Majesties, stumbling over each other like blind and lame mules to stay within his favour” I teased as I placed my hand against the handle of the door.
She laughed that rare laugh that made my smile grow even wider “I see you have inherited his sharp tongue as well”
Arching my back to appear taller and letting the edges of my lips fall into a light frown I marched down the middle of the ladies in waiting with Lucinda beside and took my position at the front of the left line whilst she took the right. I closed my eyes and muttered brief prayer before clasping my hands in front of my chest. A soft rustling of material from behind me indicated me they had taken the same posture as me.
I tilted my head lightly to the side and waited for the doors to the hall to be opened by the guards. We glided in as soon as the doors were pushed open, the precious gemstones on my dress shimmered as I stepped into the hall. The large table had been pushed to the side and all the men stood in two straight lines. Standing on a raised platform were the musicians the mournful lilt of a violin filled the room as the final notes of ‘My Fair Lady’ floated in the air. Gliding elegantly down the middle until I reached the end I tried in vain to look for the handsome man, with that ageless face hoping he would be my partner.
Unfortunately that was never meant to be and I ended up in instead with Augustus, a rotund man from his Majesty’s council. He looked absolutely uncomfortable in his navy blue tailcoat as of late he’d gained a lot of weight judging from the protruding belly. Barely held back by his suit, time had been rather cruel with him. His russet hair receded to the back of his head leaving a gleaming bald spot, wrinkles made his face sag. A jagged and disfiguring scar on the side of his tanned face he’d gotten back when his Majesty was a youth and enjoyed a particular dangerous hobby.
“How you’ve grown into a beautiful woman Lucrezia” he complimented as he bowed his rather large form, the smell of fermented ale permeated the air “you will make your father proud”
I curtsied “Thank you” I said graciously.
The violin stopped as he took my rather small hand in his large and calloused fist with a surprisingly gentle grip placing his other hand against my waist.
And we waited, quietly. Then the sound of a flute floated into the air a jolt of excitement rippled through my body when a violin joined in. The stillness was broken and soon he began to whisk me around the floor. I was impressed with his elegance and graceful movement as he guided me across the floor. The skirts of my dress spreading out like a wild flower when he spun me around like the tops I played with my sister when I was younger. We were doing the waltz and for all the poise Augustus had when he danced with me a restless almost childlike part of me wanted it to end.
I got my desire when I curtsied with a flushed face and moved onto my next partner. His face was pinched and as pale as the white shirt he wore under his black suit. Icy grey eyes glanced down at me through narrow slits, he bowed stiffly. Without exchanging a word he wrapped his long and thin fingers around mine.
I tried to mask the pain as he occasionally stepped on my toes when we moved across the floor. When suddenly amidst the sea of dancers I spotted him in the distance, excited I gasped in astonishment. Only for the excitement to disappear when I recognised a certain blonde haired harlot named Everlett Regis, who is five my senior and yet she had the mannerism of someone far younger. She leaned closer to him and mouths something in his ears, which elicited a laugh from him.
“Is something the matter?”
Blinking, I returned my gaze to my partner, who I noted had it not been for the thin hawk-like nose he would have looked less hostile “there is no issue” I lied politely, the image of that harlot burning strongly in the back of my mind “but I do appreciate your concern”
He made a noise and we continued. Much to my pleasure when the song was drawing to a close I noted that the next partner would be him. I curtsied to the man and moved to the man. Now that I stood facing him I looked away shyly for a moment, he looked even more handsome standing in front of him.
“So you must be Lucrezia the woman I am to wed” his voice was smooth like velvet with all the undertones of mischief like the faeries my mother used to tell me about “you are indeed as beautiful as they say” he took his hand in mine and kissed it lightly “I would be honoured if I could have this dance”
I nodded not trusting my words and curtsied. He took my hand in his I stifled a gasp of pain as searing pain in the back of my head erupted. Digging its claws deep into my head until I was nearly blinded by it. I closed my eyes and lightly touched my forehead as every sound began to fade into a faint buzz. I snapped my eyes shut and all I could see was a terrifying all consuming darkness, it felt cold and unwelcomed. I desired to escape but I didn’t know how.
Tap. Tap. Tap.
What was that? I snapped my head to the side.
Tap. Tap. Tap.
Where was the noise coming from, I wanted to scream but I found that I couldn’t.
TAP. TAP. TAP. TAP. TAP.
It was growing closer, if only I could just-
“Do you need to rest you appear flushed” a familiar voice breaking through the darkness, for a moment I saw a silhouette bathed in a golden light. It was warm and calming washing away the darkness that had enveloped me. It seemed so familiar it was as if I’d seen it before. Out of the light a hand began to reach out on instinct I began to reach for it as well
I shook my head lightly the pain had disappeared “I am alright” I lied, a small smile tugged across my lips “I don’t mean to be forward but shall we dance?”
He laughed warmly a mischievous glint entering his pale green eyes “I have never met a lady who’s ever been so forward” and still he took mine in his again and we began to waltz across the floor, a wailing violin our accompaniment.
I was sad when the song drew to an end because that would mean I would have to wait several weeks before I saw him again. Throughout the dance he had been charming making me laugh with many amusing stories about adventures he had been on as a traveller. When I inquired about whether it was true he had pillowed with many woman. I was taken aback by the hurt look that entered his eyes. It was disheartening watching him turn from a charming man into a sad one.
Realising what I had done I tried to apologise only for it to come out into a mumbled, gibberish and ineloquent mess.
He laughed a soft and sad one then gently stroked his hand across my cheek “It’s alright” he started gently “no I have not for no woman has captured my heart except for one if only she could recognise me”
I felt my cheeks become hot and still I asked “And who might it be”
He sighed but didn’t give me any answer leaving me to wonder who this woman might be. Was it possible that this woman had died in some unfortunate way? A part of me wanted to know more about this woman who’d captured his heart. And yet another part of me worried that he may never be able to accept my feelings. Several times I caught him looking at me directly in the eye with a longing almost pleading gaze. But maybe I was reading a bit too much into the situation.
When the song finally ended came to an end, I joined everyone in applauding the musicians for truly it was an amazing performance before turning to my partner. Curtsying I said with sincerity
“I truly enjoyed dancing with you” and turned to leave only to feel a warm and strong hand wrap around my wrist. A flash of recognition darted across my mind but it was much too fast for me to grasp it.
“I don’t want this to end Lucrezia may we go somewhere secluded?” he pleaded.
If you stilled all the sound of merriment around me you could almost hear my heart pounding violently against my chest. Certainly if I abided with his request there was no telling what would happen and I wouldn’t be judged.
I turned to face him and nodded my head “we can go to the Azure Gardens I suppose” I imagined Lucinda giving me a disapproving look “but we won’t have much time”
He looks me in the eye “that would be wonderful, Lucrezia”
I shook my head lightly somehow that name sounded familiar but before I could piece it together the memory faded. Taking his hand in mine I eyed the crowd of people looking for the least crowded area, there were too many people I could recognise who would know it was me immediately, I concluded.
The man tapped my shoulder when he noticed I was still yet to move “perhaps I could be of assistance”
My head spun to the direction I heard the voice coming from. It didn’t help that I knew it was Lucinda, if she saw me now she wouldn’t even to hear it she’d take him away from me.
Tugging a rectangular pendant with a colourless stone the middle with his finger, the man rubbed it with his thumb. He muttered a brief incantation and soon it began to shimmer. It became hotter and hotter until the stone began to change to a deep shade of red.
He winced when he began to feel the heat melt through his gloved hand, still he continued until the spell was complete. He looked at the stone which had clouded inside with a dark matter crackles of blue light rippled across the surface. Clasping his hand over the stone he crushed the stone in his hand. Thick and dark mist curled in tendrils around his fist raising his hand above his head he muttered a single word and opened his fist. The miasma spread across the room.
Lucinda paused in her brisk walk and turned away from the blonde haired woman, she saw standing next to a man. And turned away not really sure why she wanted to see that person in the first place. She blinked... who was that person to begin with.
I found it peculiar when people drew to near where we stood they would immediately turn away from where we stood. Refusing to question this phenomenon I took his hand and guided him amidst the crowd. Curious, without me having to weave around them they seemed to part way. Soon we were out in the corridors, the moon trailing behind us like a distant guardian as I led him to the gardens. Further and further we went until I could hear the faint splash of water and the sweet scent of honeysuckle and roses tickling my nose.
We slowed when we reached a stone archway that I recognised with ornate carvings of cherubs that opened into a garden. It had a haunting beauty the way the faint moonlight bled it’s dim light on the flowers planted around the fountain of the Centaur who was holding an urn through which poured out.
We stand there a moment in silence before I turned to look at him; my smile grew when I saw the mesmerised look in his eyes. I took my time to assess the man who stood next to me which now that I realised I hadn’t asked for his name. I tugged at the sleeve of his ornate coat
“Would you mind telling me your name?”
He turned to me that same small frown returning to his face and then he tipped his head to look at the stars “my apologies I was so jubilant to see you after an eternity of waiting in this accursed form that I forgot”
I closed my eyes slowly and opened them again “what do you mean?” I look at him, what did he mean by he forgot? Above us a star shot across the skies. We remained in an uncomfortable silence until I heard a rustle of cloth next to me his hand gently tugged mine and he guided me deeper into the garden. Then he gently released my hand from his and lay down on the grass. Crouching down next to him I hugged my knees close to my chest and looked up at the sky.
“Do you know” he started “the story of Zenos and Azra?”
I nodded my head not sure if he saw me do so. Zenos was a young immortal god who one day came down from his home in the sky, curious to see what mortals were like. Whilst wondering around the town directly below the kingdom a young beautiful woman caught his eye. She was sitting by the well as the story goes dressed in a plain toga, her hair the colour of nightfall was swept over her shoulder. Her long pale fingers dancing across a small harp. Her long eyelashes closed a serene smile on her face as she played, so smitten was Zenos by not only her beauty but her angelic voice that he watched her play until night fell.
The next day as the story goes he snuck out from under the watchful eye of his father to go watch the lady play the well only to find she wasn’t there. Disappointed he began to wonder around the small town until as fate would have it he bumped her again. At a loss of words having never talked to a woman before he smiled and quickly turned ran. Ashamed by his own behaviour he vowed next time he saw her he would woo her.
His charm won her eventually and soon they began to fall in love with each other that he desired to marry her. However as legend would have it the same beautiful woman had caught the eye of another God who became envious of the two’s love. His jealousy grew because that woman did not belong to the young blood but to him. Upon chancing him chatting excitedly with his father one day asking for special permission if he could bring the woman he desired to marry to meet him. A plan began to form, on the eve of the introduction he summoned terrifying creatures from the underground and sent them to drag the young god down to the deepest and darkest confines where he couldn’t escape. His plan proved to be disastrous as the creatures not only killed the young man and the woman but stole their spirits.
Scared of his Father’s wrath he took on the form of a sea creature and tried to dive to the deepest parts of the sea. The distance wasn’t enough as Zenos’ father the ruler of all gods, extended his hand down from heaven and plucked him out of the sea. He’d never known true fear until he saw the look of rage in his eyes. His punishment was swift and without mercy. Then he ordered that the soul of his son be retrieved however they say when they went to the underworld to retrieve it. Something strange occurred.
The two souls were merged, his sons golden one and the woman’s white one. Unfortunately this meant that his son could not return to heaven. So touched was he by his resolve that he gifted them with two celestial bodies so that they could roam across the heavens together. Whilst still under his watchful eye.
“About the two lovers in the sky?”
He nodded grimly then he added “did you know once every century they are able to come down from the heavens and meet again in this world”
In spite of myself I shook my head “I did not know that”
He sighed and chuckled darkly “I guess not considering every time I come down to see you. You’ve taken on a new form and you seem to forget. But in spite of all this your soul still remains the same and your beauty shines as bright as ever”
“What do you mean?”
“Perhaps this will help you remember” he lightly trailed his hands across my cheeks and lightly touched his forehead against mine. There
I exhaled slowly as a warm and calming aura rippled through my body. My eyes began to feel heavy until they could no longer remain open and fluttered shut.
He smiled inwardly when he felt her mind begin to relax this was important in order for what was going to happen next. He hesitated for a second when he finally felt their minds had melded. Feeling her thoughts pour into his mind, her emotions becoming his but he quickly managed to build a wall so he couldn’t become confused.
Shutting his eyes he willed his mind to go silent before he set to work imagining a bridge and a piece of string attached to his finger. It would grow and stretch the further he went but lead him back in case he got lost.
Raising his hand to another necklace adorning his neck he tugged the chain off and studied the small and cloudy white sphere within its gold confines. He shook it and it began glow a long golden sceptre appearing in his hand. Curling around the full length of the pole was a snake it’s mouth wide open at the apex. Giving it an experimental twirl he began to search for what he desired.
Spreading his conscience as far as he could without harming her conscience, he paused when he felt images flit through his mind depicting an injured animal. Immediately he drew his conscience closer perhaps he had been too forceful especially after summoning the remnants of his powers in the form of Erez, his familiar. Finding what he desired was the equivalent of going through a maze of projected pictures. Further deeper he went the more he was able to look at the new life she had taken on.
A soft smile tugged across his lip as he came across a particular memory where Lucrezia was resting in the lap of a beautiful woman as she strokes her hands through her hair. He touched the image and it rippled like the surface of water. He could feel happiness shadowed by sadness but he chose to not probe further and continued onwards. In his hands he felt Erez shift and coil his body tighter around the pole.
They were close.
Raising the sceptre in front of him he coaxed his energy into the weapon “Show me the way” he murmured. A blinding white illuminated the darkness in front of him he raised his hands to shield his eyes as a strong gust of wind made his clothes dance and hair whip at his face.
I fisted my hands into the soft grass.
“What’s going on” I panicked
Zenos removed his hand from his eyes and blinked, perhaps he had been wrong in thinking she was the same. After all it wouldn’t have been the first time to make this error judgement. How many times had he come close to the finding her only for the truth to unfurl before his eyes, leaving him to search longingly in the sea of faces. A strong determination so resilient it would have driven some to lunacy as he continued to search. Shifting from one form to another with growing impatience and concern when his exploration bore no results for his efforts. He took a deep breath and exhaled when a door started to form in front of him. Without even having to touch the knob it swung open and he stepped into the room.
The door disappearing as soon as he entered, tightening his grip on the sceptre he crouched down and traced an enchantment circle. It was nothing special but he felt it was necessary when he felt a growing dread that made the hairs on his neck erect. Feeling safer when the spell was done he continued forward silence allowing his instinct to guide him. Still keeping a steadfast grip Erez in case something decided to sneak up on him
Stopping when he felt his foot brush against something hard, he raised his arm where he allowed a little more energy trickle into his hands, a small orb of yellow light appearing. Looking down he saw a box bringing the allowing the light to expand so he could see it better. It was small no bigger than the palm of his hand made of lacquered wood a deep shade of black. The edges fixed with ivory inlaid with intricate designs of horses he brushed his hand across the brass padlock.
Using his other hand he brought the box up to study it even closer, it looked even more beautiful than before. In his hand he felt Ezer uncoil himself around the pole and slithered up his arm as if it were just another tree branch. His cold golden scales pressing against his skin. He came to rest with a majority of his long and thin body coiled loosely around Zenos’s torso while his head shaped like the tip of arrow was stretched forward. His mouth opened and a pair of fangs appeared.
“Proceed with caution” Ezer warned “this is a soul”
Zenos hummed in reassurance and then said “I understand”
The snake blinked its eyes a forked tongue sliding out of its mouth “I cannot tell whether it is her or not but” the snake opened its eyes and looked the youth in the eyes “it doesn’t quite taste pure nor does it taste tainted” Ezer’s eyes narrowed in what could be as close as he could get to a glare.
Zenos regarded his familiar with a curious glance “What do you mean”
Zenos uncoiled even more of his slender body and tapped the box with the tip of his nose. A painful current energy rippled through his metallic body and he retreated from the box. Extending his hood Ezer hissed at the box in annoyance and surprise.
“It seems to reject my presence” he mused. Not really annoyed but merely surprised a being such as he was not really familiar with pain. Not taking his eyes off of it for a moment.
“Then you may return”
Ezer glanced at his owner “As you wish” he slithered back to his position on the pole and became still his eyes becoming mere precious stones once again.
Zenos sat down and placed the box on top of his folded legs whilst placing his familiar beside his lap. Opting to study the box quietly for a moment, Ezer was right it felt tainted. As if some other person or thing had tampered with it.
He ran his hands across the smooth wood he felt something calling to him from within to open it. Dare him, what if the results were the same. He closed his eyes and tilted his head back, decades of searching coming back to him in a violent tempest.
A humble dancer from Spain, beautiful with the kindest eyes he had ever seen. To an opera singer with the voice of a Nightingale in Greece, her hands seemed to dance in the air whenever she made gestures with her dainty hands. And yet another one in Peru who cared deeply about her family ties. A musician who reminded of her in every single way. From the way she strode across the cobblestone pathways in a far off village in Northern Italy. Her willowy frame that swayed from side-to-side as if she were caught in a breeze. Her melodious that parted from those pearly pink lips. The soft arch in her nose the way her rosy cheeks would deep into smooth and shallow craters whenever she smiled.
Confusion that was not his own flooded his mind stopping him from his musings. He ran his hands through his hair and picked up his sceptre. Regardless Zenos vowed from the moment he stepped down into the mortal realm he would find her again. Closing his eyes he tried to send out waves of reassurance when he felt her panic once more.
He could only hope they were received in kind.
How long had we been like this? Wrapped tightly in each other’s embrace in the gardens a sky full of stars above our heads. Well at least that’s what I could assume there was considering I didn’t have the slightest idea. It was strange having a person enter into my thoughts. She could feel he was there but it felt as if there was a wall preventing her from reaching out and venturing in after him. A very vivid memory of my mother holding me when I was seven by the hearth appeared. I felt my cheeks become wet.
A wave of concern and comfort prodded at the edges of her conscience, it was him. It was touching that he showed concern but I sent back a firm assurance that I was alright. I needed to know. I could feel his hesitation but it disappeared and no longer could I feel what was going on.
Trapped behind the glass I waited for a sign. Feeling his soothing presence but only from afar. Faster than I could comprehend I dropped to the floor clutching fistfuls of my hair. Pain. There was no other word to describe it felt like floodgates had burst open and in came this torrent of memories I didn’t know I had.
“Make it stop” I whispered as I curled up into a ball on the floor “please I beg of you make it stop”
He could sense her agony immediately as soon as he opened the box. There was nothing he could to help because it’d make things all the more dangerous. All he could was wait for the process to complete. Watching through there link with tears running down her eyes as she tried to reach for him to make it stop.
Zenos turned his attention to the box in his lap which was now bathed in a white glow violently rocking back and forth. He’d found out what was that other presence he’d felt in her conscience. A creature that seemingly had no shape but fed off the nightmares and memories. It was old and had been residing within her for a long time considering that it had been able to take a form of human. Ezer devoured him without much effort but made a face of disgust as he turned back into a weapon.
Even now he could hear the spiteful remarks about forcing him to eat something that was beneath him. Feeling the box stop rocking in his, Zenos tuned out his irate familiar and picked up the box. It was time he departed.
Conscious came back in the form of a cold blanket pressed against my forehead. My eyes fluttered open and smiled weakly. I felt strange, oddly detached from the body and the very life I had come to know up until now. Overpowering it all was a strong sadness.
I remembered it all.
“Zenos” I whispered in disbelief
He hummed and kissed me lightly on my lips, the feeling so familiar “Azra” he whispered back
Wrapping my arms around his torso I brought him closer to me “is that what you meant by why you still hadn’t found-”
He nodded slowly wiping a stray tear across my eye “I missed you Azra” he murmured in relief softly into my ear “let’s go home”
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