Clarisse found me still trying to sort through my tangled thoughts and emotions in the garden. “Your Highness, there you are!” She exclaimed; I realized that I had no idea how long I had been there, or how long I’d been out of the castle. I looked up at the sky; the sun was about three quarters of the way across the sky, and I estimated it was midafternoon. That being said, I still had no idea when I had fled the gardens the first time.
“Yes, I’ve been walking around the town. The fresh air helped clear my head.” I replied, trying not to look sheepish. You’re a princess. You’re allowed to do what you want. I reminded myself. I took a closer look, and realized she was frazzled. “What’s the matter?” I asked, apprehension growing within me.
“The visiting prince, Your Highness. He arrived early and is waiting for you in the throne room. The servants have been trying to find you for ages. Had Sir Ayden not mentioned he saw you here, we might still be searching; as one of your favorite places, we checked and ruled out the gardens almost immediately.” She burst out, rambling, just like Claire always did when she was nervous. Muted surprise at yet another shared interest between Emeline and me, amusement at the shared idiosyncrasy between Clarisse and Claire, excitement at the mention of Ayden, and a sharp jolt of fear all swirled within my center at the same time. I barely knew how to function in this world yet, and my meeting with Ashren wasn’t until tonight. Suddenly I regretted saying I felt better.
“O-of course. I’ll...be just a moment.” I stuttered out, trying to get a hold of my emotions and come up with a plan. I tried to remember everything that I knew about royal interactions, but I never knew all that much to begin with, and panic was wiping the little I did know from my mind. I followed Clarisse up to the castle. Subconsciously, I began to try and map the confusing architecture of this new environment, but consciously all I could process was terror.
All too soon we reached what I assumed was the throne room. Hesitating and stalling as long as I could, I stepped into the room. Immediately I was assaulted by the sound of fanfare and I struggled not to flinch; clearly, this was normal. At the sound, the people assembled inside looked up.
There were only two other people in the room with clothing as extravagant as Emeline’s and her mother’s; a man in his 40’s with a beard and a clean-shaven man in his 20’s. The men shared the same icy blonde hair and pale blue eyes, but where the older man’s face was all hard lines and rigid corners, the younger’s had more of a softness to it. The Queen’s face was a blend of stress, frustration, and worry. Suddenly I felt guilty; it wasn’t their fault that any of this had happened to me, and they were concerned for their princess. They didn’t know I wasn’t her. So I smiled, and I tried to act normal-or at least what my best guess of normal was.
“Emeline!” The Queen’s voice was strained as she tried to mask her stress. “There you are! As said before, with a day like this and no responsibilities, my daughter has a tendency to wander off. Where were you today, darling?” No matter what time period, every daughter knows the tone and face the Queen was making; it was the face mothers pulled out when they wanted to say “don’t you dare embarrass me in front of these people” or “you better have a good excuse for this”.
“I was in the gardens, then the town. Forgive me, I lost track of time; I would have taken an escort had I realized I’d be gone so long.” Unsure of how to greet her-she’s Emeline’s mother, why would you bow to your mother? But she’s also the Queen, and how can you not bow to the Queen?-I elected to dip my head slightly. A bark of laughter emanated from the bearded man and I jumped.
“Willful child. Had my son failed to show me the proper respect after being missing from an engagement of his for hours, he’d spend the night in the dungeons.” The man’s voice held laughter, but arrogance as well and I instantly disliked him. The younger man said nothing and his face was unreadable.
The Queen sent a sharp look his way as I flushed. “If I recall properly, King Gerent, you and your son were not due to arrive for another fortnight. As for the bow, she is my daughter first and foremost. She shows her respect for me in her actions, not a gesture of formality. That you would send your son to the dungeons for a night over so little an offense...well. It is quite telling of your personality and rule. Bear in mind your goals while you reside in my kingdom.” My jaw almost dropped. Go Queen Elva! I silently cheered. A mother’s love remains the same throughout the centuries, it seemed.
The man-King Gerent-went red and sputtered behind his white-blonde beard and I saw the hint of a smile grace the younger’s face. A point in his favor, I thought. As I stood there, panicking-was I supposed to know their names? Do I sit down? Greet them?-Ayden spoke from beside the door. “What matters is everyone is here now. Princess Emeline, might I introduce King Gerent of Cerefis and his son, Prince Galfridus?” Stepping to my right, Ayden reached out a hand and I took it gratefully.
He led me to the front of the room where the rest of the royals were waiting. Upon reaching Prince Galfridus-I had to fight back the urge to laugh simply thinking about the unfortunate name-Ayden placed my hand in his. Skin warm and slightly clammy, he lifted my hand to his lips and kissed the back of my knuckles before sweeping into a quick, moderate bow. I gave what I thought was an equal curtsy before my hand was passed off to King Gerent. His hand was ice cold, a polar opposite to his son. The ritual repeated, and once again I repeated a female version of the greeting he offered me. I held his gaze the entire time, steel in my eyes. A rush of victory swept through me as he realized my intentional slight-implying that I was of equal status to him-and his face reddened once more.
“Very willful indeed…” He muttered, this time with an electric undercurrent of contained anger. Ice flashed through my veins momentarily before my hand was released to the care of my mother, who led me to a smaller throne beside hers. After we were both seated, Queen Elva
clapped her hands gently and the whispers that had been echoing in the corners of the room silenced.
“Now to get to the task at hand. King Gerent, as I understand it, you’re here to propose an alliance, yes?”
“Yes. It is no great secret that times are not always peaceful in our land. Our two kingdoms have managed to maintain prosperity, but only just.” Queen Elva bristled, and I realized he had implied she was lacking somehow as a ruler. “In light of recent developments, I think it wise to unite the strongest kingdoms on this isle.” A ripple of strange pride went through me. He’s saying Emeline’s kingdom is strong, not yours. You don’t have a kingdom, I told myself, shaking my head slightly to get out of my thoughts and into reality once more.
“....think it best as well,” Queen Elva finished a reply I had not caught. “What exactly do you propose?”
“My son, Galfridus, has not yet found a bride. Under normal circumstances, this would not be an issue until much later, but with the future uncertain, I find myself anxious for my son to produce an heir.” Uneasiness crept up my spine.
“There are a number of unwed daughters of my nobles at the moment; if given a summons, they can be here in a few days, and you and your son may choose a bride from among them.” Queen Elva spoke amicably, but her voice held a warning note.
King Gerent, however, either didn’t hear it or didn’t care, because he continued heedlessly. “Yes, that may be so, but my son is the crown prince to the largest kingdom on any known map. He deserves someone of equal stature, no? And what better way to secure the fate of our alliance than a marriage contract?” Clearly he meant me. My blood turned to ice. What was I expected to do? Would Emeline be ok with this? Would she fight it? Could I live with it if I was forced to marry the prince and couldn’t get back to my time? Dimly I was aware of the Queen responding.
“Well, I’ll have to discuss this with my advisors and my daughter before any final decisions can be made. In the meantime, I shall summon the court and let your son meet his other choices. Perhaps a new arrangement may catch his eye.” A quick glance at Queen Elva told me she was not pleased with this turn of events.
King Gerent scowled at her words and Galfridus’ face remained impassive. “Very well. I expect an answer from you within the fortnight. I presume our chambers are ready?” Without waiting for an answer he swept away from the Queen and barked at a servant near the door to show the way. Prince Galfridus followed dutifully, only once shooting me the briefest glance of apology. It seemed I wasn’t the only one unhappy with Gerent. Far from it.
With his arrogant and commanding presence out of the room, everyone visibly relaxed. I turned to Queen Elva and, with my voice only trembling slightly, asked: “I feel faint again; may I retire to my chambers?” The Queen frowned and began to say something when my knees buckled slightly. Alarmed, she reached out to grab my arm and steady me.
“Yes, of course. Sir Ayden, would you escort Princess Emeline to her quarters? I believe you know the way. Ensure that Clarisse is informed of the day’s events and have her send for a cup of tea to be brought up once my daughter is settled in bed.” The Queen rattled off another set of instructions involving extra blankets and a physician, but I’d stopped paying attention, instead focusing on staving off the panic swirling in my mind and making my vision blur.
“Of course, Your Majesty.” Ayden gently gripped my arm and led me out of the room, tightening his grip slightly to support my weight when I stumbled. Clarisse was waiting for us when we arrived at Emeline’s rooms, alarm across her face.
“Come inside, M’lady. You should’ve stayed in bed,” Clarisse began fussing over me while Ayden went to follow through with the rest of Queen Elva’s orders. Gently, she led me to the large bed I’d woken up in that morning. It seemed a thousand years ago since I’d been dealing with the heartbreak and betrayal of a teenage girl in the 21st century. I sank back into the bed, hardly even noticing as it poofed around me. Clarisse left the room and I resisted the urge to curl into the fetal position.
Suddenly I missed my time intensely. I missed my phone, I missed indoor lighting, I missed windows that opened, I missed pants. God, I missed pants. And bras, and underwear, and synthetic fabric. I even missed traffic and school and homework.
The dress I wore was heavy and itchy, and I could feel soot, dirt, and sweat clinging to my skin in the hot air. Air that was hardly breathable from the abundance of torches and lack of windows, not to mention the stench coming off of everyone I’d encountered. The smell was so bad I could almost taste it. My eyes watered from torch smoke and my ears rang with silence more profound than any I’d ever heard before. I’d hardly registered anything sensory all day, but now it all pressed down on me at once. How was I going to survive here? I still didn’t even know what was going on. My only clue was Ashren. Hopefully tonight he could shed some light on this whole situation.
As I sat there moping, Clarisse came back into the room, carrying a bundle of extra furs. She tucked them around me and propped me up on the pillows. Ayden returned with a steaming cup and placed it gently in my hands. I smiled at him gratefully, and he flushed and turned away. Clarisse glanced between the two of us before excusing herself with a slight grin. Absently, Ayden pushed a lock of my hair behind my ear.
“M’lady, you should not have ventured outside if you were still feeling unwell. Your wellbeing is my first priority.” His face turned serious and I had trouble identifying all the emotions swirling in his green eyes. The flutter in my heart didn’t help.
“I was feeling better earlier. I don’t know what made me feel sh--ill again.” I had to stop myself from saying “shitty”. I doubted that was a word princesses used in this time period.
“Well, whatever the cause, you must rest now. Clarisse will tend to you well.” He made to leave, and suddenly I couldn’t stand the thought of being alone.
“Wait!” I stuck my hand out and caught his arm. “Stay with me awhile?” I asked quietly. His face grew pained.
“M’lady, I do not think that is wise.” I loosened my fingers around his wrist.
“Why must you call me ‘m’lady’? My name is Emeline. You can use it.” I said quietly, looking into his eyes, hoping he could see the truth of how I felt in mine. I was surprised at how easy it was to say “My name is Emeline”. I’d been in her body for less than a day and it was already becoming somewhat familiar.
“M’lady, you requested I not address you informally when we last were alone.” His voice held a note of pain which confirmed my earlier suspicion. Ayden was in love with Emeline, and she’d turned him down. Absently, I leaned back into the bed, and Ayden escaped the room.
I spent the rest of the afternoon in the bed, bored. Clarisse hovered over me and wouldn’t let me leave my chambers, worried I would become ill again. None of the games made any sense to me except pool, and judging by the surprise on Clarisse’s face when I picked up the cue, Emeline didn’t know how to play. Unfortunately, I didn’t know how to play the piano, which effectively left trying on gowns, which got old after the fifth gown and Clarisse’s second comment about how odd the behavior was, and bathing myself. Taking a bath did eat up about an hour, and it felt good to get some of the grime off of my skin, but the water got cold quickly and it was fairly difficult to refill the basin or reheat the water.
Night couldn’t have come any faster. Although, due to the lack of windows in any of my rooms, I couldn’t be sure it even was night, save for the fact that Clarisse came in to prepare me for bed. I waited until I thought she was asleep before I attempted to make my way out of my rooms. A fair number of bruised shins and muffled curses later, I’d reached the corridor. I grabbed one of the lit torches off the wall and set off to meet Ashren.