“You didn’t think that was the end of it, did you?”
Taresa sighed. This was the fifth coronation she could recall attending, though her mother pointed out that as a babe, she had been present for two others, which naturally escaped her memory. Still, five was too many to bear the thought of, as was the prospect of going to more in the years to come.
Dear Mar, she prayed, may the euphoria of wine consume me.
If only her station in life allowed her the liberty to indulge as she wanted. Taresa had seen many a maiden do just that, even nobility, though the latter often suffered ill respite in both Court and behind the closed doors of their manors. Nonetheless, none carried the burden of princesses, who were required to uphold chaste standards of the impossible sort until marriage, when the husband overtook the obligation of care from the father once the marriage promise had been sealed.
“Are you sure you want to wear that?” her mother continued.
The inflection shook Taresa from her thoughts. “Yes,” she answered, turning to her wardrobe attendant for a clue as to why her mother posed the question.
“It’s just that, well, that shade of blue doesn’t quite match the hue of sapphires on the King’s crown.”
“Good Mar,” Taresa uttered.
“Taresa! Mind your tongue. Your Promised is a king now. More than ever, you must mind your manners.”
More than ever?! Haven’t I minded them enough, she wanted to say. Yet she didn’t. Tonight of all was not one to delve into the matters of the family. “Yes, Mother,” was all Taresa said.
“At least adorn her hair with ribbons that complement the King’s attire,” Belitta instructed Taresa’s attendant.
“Yes, Your Majesty,” replied the young woman.
And so on it went. Servant after servant, maiden after maiden went over the garb that Taresa, her mother and sisters were wearing, trying their best to make up the four for the gathering about to occur in the Banquet Hall. Taresa had initially rebuffed the idea of changing clothes between the coronation and the banquet, voicing concern that such a preparation was too much flattery to a royal who only recently became their ally. Her kin – including her father – retorted that such pomp was necessary to keep on the semblance of conviviality, especially on a day so important to the dynasty of Kin Saliswater.
When all was said and done, Taresa bore a cream-colored gown with blue trimmings and jewelry to match, not unlike the dozen outfits she had tried on during the course of the wardrobe affair. In fact, she and her kin looked nearly identical in appearance as when they first began their changing. In response to their efforts, Taresa could only offer a sigh.
Her father and the Grand Duke met the four Garsea ladies at the base of the Northwest Tower. Naturally, Felix strode hand in hand with his wife, while Taresa was paired with the Xain and her sisters with dukes of lesser renown.
“I must say, Princess, you look especially remarkable this evening,” Xain offered as they began their stroll towards the Banquet Hall.
“Why thank you, dearest cousin.” Taresa expected as much and more from the forked tongue she had known since her youth. Even then, Xain was well-versed in the tactics of verbal manipulation, the qualities of which escaped many in her kin, even her father at times. But never Taresa.
“May I dare go on to say that Prince – my apologies, King Jameson – is a fortunate fellow to be locked into a Promise with you.”
“The Promise has yet to be finalized, Your Grace. What with all the preparation behind the coronation, the High Bishop has had nary a chance to consult on the proposed union between the two manors, nor has the Court of each weighed in on the matter.”
“Formalities, formalities, Princess,” Xain replied with a grin. “The fact remains that the patriarchs of our respective kins have approved the union, what with our beloved King Felix and even the late King Audemar, Mar rest his soul.”
At the last mention, Taresa cringed. Speaking of a deceased monarch on the day his son was crowned was in bad form, a behavior she hoped her cousin would not repeat during the banquet.
“May I dare to offer a suggestion concerning the honored, the newly-throned King Jameson.”
“If you must.”
“You are to be his closest confidant, as his grandfather is so along in years and he has no siblings. Embrace his words, lean in to his voice. If you do so early on, as opposed to waiting until he has taken you to his chambers as his wife, you will no doubt earn the highest levels of his trust.”
And no doubt you hope to profit from his secrets. “I intend to do my duty, as is expected of me.”
“I’m sure you will. When the time comes, of course.”
Taresa would have slapped a lesser noble for such an implication concerning her honor. Indeed, as a younger princess, she and Xain had had similar taunts and arguments that led to a physical exchange. A shove here, a slap there. Those had been in their much earlier years, though, with many more having passed since they had seen one another with any frequency. Xain had made his rounds with the various manors, being a ward in the tutelage of many sword masters and other teachers of the war arts. Only in the past year had he been a frequent presence in the Ibian Court. In doing so, he had made strides in gaining favor with the barons and royals, the most important of which being Felix. Such an image of the Grand Duke counseling her father sent a shudder through Taresa as she had never felt.
Coming upon the throng of attendees, the crier of the Ibian Court announced their arrival. “Make way for His Royal Majesty, King Felix. Make way! Make way!”
Like a sea divided in two, the crowd parted. All, including the Marlish, bowed as Felix and his kin passed. Taresa offered a nod and glance to a few nobles in the crowd while Felix did nothing of the sort, instead holding his head up high as though he was present for his own crowning.
Finding their way to the head table, such manners continued into the night. King Jameson’s eventual presence only spurred the displays of etiquette, at least among the women. Once drink was dispensed, the unspoken understanding among the Courts of two nations was that the men could do away with the pretense and do as they pleased. Some to liberty more than others, with more joining the lewdness of commoners as the night wore on. Pitcher after emptied pitcher loosened the tongues of many noblemen. Xain was not the exception, as the Grand Duke boasted of his conquests both in duels and in bedrooms long before the last course was served. By then, even her father was too inebriated to care. Only after the Grand Duke had tripped on purpose a server at their table did Taresa break with convention and excuse herself before the table had been cleared.
Against the vocal wishes of her mother, Taresa departed the banquet for the adjacent gallery, searching for a quiet alcove to allow her a brief respite from the hedonism. Though two Realeza shadowed her every move, upon hearing the echo of her footsteps on the tile Taresa breathed a sigh of relief. She was rid of all the traditions of royalty, at least for a little while.
Moonlight spilled in to the gallery through arrow slits, painting crosses of soft luminescence on the path before her. She followed the trail dutifully, as a curious child would, wanting to discover where the pattern led. Ultimately, the crosses took her nowhere as they ended in darkness, replaced by sconces that remained unlit.
“Perhaps we should turn around, Your Highness,” one of the Realeza proposed.
Taresa, taking pause, shook her head. “There must be light up ahead. I will go forward. Follow if you wish.”
Not waiting for a reply, she pressed on into the darkness. The corridor offered little in the way of guidance save for the same clapping of her soles against the tile, which told her that the composition of the walkway had not changed. She quickened her pace, knowing that the guards at her rear would grow anxious and may even dare to grasp her by the arm to pull her back to the relative safety of the banquet.
Their worries were soon extinguished as the path curved up ahead to reveal a splash of white light. The balcony beckoned to her, and motioning her retinue of two to stay back, she answered the call.
Stepping into the crispness of night alleviated the Princess of the evening’s woes. The vista before her lifted her mood further, as the half-moon proved enough of a beacon to the garden below. She had first glimpsed the aptly-named Sovereign Gardens from the harbor when the Armada came to port. From there, the ridge had seemed a wrinkled in the cliff face, hardly enough to hold but a few shrubs let alone a multitude of gardens. Yet like everything else she had encountered in Arcporte Castle, her initial impression had been inadequate, as the truth unfurled had proven that the beauty of Marland was so much more than she could have imagined.
Though dulled by darkness, the hues and shades of the blossoms and fruits below rightfully garnered her full attention. She spent several moments on each treasure of fauna, committing them to memory before moving on to the next.
In her appreciation, she spotted the figures of stone scattered throughout the grounds below. Most were unremarkable, as they reminded her of the many vestiges of reigns past that dotted her own palatial residence in Arinn. Only the last she spotted deserved more than a cursory glance, as the two standing figures were cut with such craftsmanship that she believed them to be real. The same could have been said of the third one kneeling at their base, though there was something about the way he had been chiseled that struck her as oddly familiar . . .
Then the statue rose.
Taresa nearly gasped as she came to realize that the figure was not of stone but was of flesh and bone. For what could have been a fortnight, the man had been kneeling before the two erect statues before him, as though in meditation or prayer. The length of his devotion, as well as the timing of his change in position, drew Taresa’s focus. She leaned over the balustrade, with no regard for the threat of gravity.
As her eyes adjusted to the dimness, she grew to note the first of the standing relics as that of Queen Ellenora. Upon recognition, it dawned on her that the stone figure by her side was of her husband, the recently-departed King Audemar.
Audemar and Ellenora, she gathered. The third figure before her . . .
No, it couldn’t be.
From afar, one could be made to believe that the man standing before them was the new king.
His stature was similar enough. His silhouette was identical. His mannerisms different, though. But any man could fit such a mold.
Or could they?
Taresa shook the ridiculous notion from her mind. She had seen Jameson at the head banquet table only moments before. To find a man of similar deposition before her was merely coincidence, nothing more.
She withdrew from the balcony and headed back to the hall, set on resuming her courtly duties. Yet for all her determination, the lone figure she had spotted in the garden haunted her thoughts. The familiarity was too keen, too appropriate. She knew she had encountered that same lad somewhere within Arcporte Castle, even if he had not been the King.
Upon returning to the festivities, Jameson made a visit to her seat. “My Princess,” he started. “We have missed your presence. Wherever did you run off to just now?”
“Oh, I merely stepped out to breathe in the Marlish night air,” she replied.
“Well, we are all the better for your return.” At that, King Jameson raised a goblet to her. He shifted his focus, as though to engage in conversation with another.
“Your Majesty,” Taresa interrupted.
“Yes, my Lady?”
“That day, when we walked the Sovereign Gardens . . .”
Jameson paused. He looked deep into her eyes, not sure how to respond, as if the event was one in which he had not been present. Perhaps it was the wine? Perhaps.
“Never mind,” Taresa finished.
Jameson nodded. Again, Taresa took notice. Of a look of relief. From one who was glad the flow of conversation had been cut short.
Why had he forgotten that moment altogether? One of the few intimate exchanges we had shared in my time here? Why that walk? In the garden?
Who was that one? That I walked with that day? That visited the same deceased king and queen, on a night dedicated to the new monarch? A relative? Of the same kin? The same? Or different altogether?
Perhaps all the above were possibilities? Or none?
She looked upon the King once more. He had moved on to engage her father in a playful jest, oblivious to the one who studied him.
What secrets do your kin hold? Taresa asked, her thoughts desperately wanting to give way to spoken words. Who are you, King Jameson?
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