It all started when I set my father’s beard on fire. That wasn’t intentional, of course; no matter what people might say, I don’t have my father completely twined about my little finger, and incinerating the luxurious beard of the King of the Twelve Demesnes is a deed that even I wouldn’t dare. Deliberately, that is.
Accidents do happen though, and through a combination of ill luck and (I admit) poor judgment on my part, his beard was set alight and this whole mad, improbable adventure began.
But I forget myself. Let me begin at the beginning: I am the second daughter of the King of the Twelve Demesnes. They say I am much like my mother, but I wouldn’t know; she died when I was two. My father never remarried, despite urgings that he do so to provide a male heir to the throne. Instead, he decreed that I or my elder sister would inherit his crown, a proclamation that everyone naturally took to mean that Kabira would assume the throne since she was eight years older than I. Then when I was twelve, my sister eloped with the local baker and my father immediately disowned her. Oh, don’t misunderstand: he liked her husband very much, and the two of them had dinner at the palace every Thursday night, but my father balked at the idea of a baker’s offspring ever ruling the Twelve Demesnes.
My sister and her husband accepted the news with equanimity. Kae’d never particularly coveted the throne, but she had coveted Virgel, and now she had him. Virgel didn’t mind either. They were as alike as two peas in a pod, and even ten years and six children later, they remained blissfully happy.
While Father liked Virgel, he became more and more troubled by the thought that I might follow my sister’s example and run away with some unsuitable fellow. As I was now the only heir to the throne, this possibility gnawed at him. Then, two years after Kae’s elopement, he happened to overhear a conversation I was having with a visiting aristocrat’s daughter. I think it was the comment, “He’s so wonderful I can’t stand it – I just want to spend every single second with him!” that drove him wild. He began shouting and stamping, and despite all my efforts to explain that we were talking about her new horse – I was not a very mature fourteen year old – he refused to believe me and summarily decreed that all male temptation would be removed from my presence. As a result, I grew up in as cloistered an environment as you could hope to find. No male between six and sixty was ever in my presence for more than thirty minutes, and even during that brief period we were heavily chaperoned. As you might imagine, this situation grew progressively more tedious as I grew up, and I sought ever more exotic ways to combat my boredom.
That’s why I took up magic tricks. I quickly mastered sleight of hand techniques, then turned to explosives for more of a challenge. I experimented with various materials, eventually producing small pellets which, when thrown to the ground, would explode with an impressive noise and roll of smoke. I carried several with me at all times, and it was due to one of them that my father’s beard caught fire.
We were at a drearily dull state dinner, surrounded by various elderly nobles and (as usual) I was bored. Our castle is very nice, as large stone monoliths go, and our staff enjoys state dinners, as it gives them an opportunity to show off in front of the visiting nobles. The mammoth stone walls were hung with festive banners from the far corners of the land; torches blazed brightly, dispelling any shadows, and groups of minstrels were placed strategically around the castle. The servants wore their finest regalia and swanked about, making it clear that as far as they were concerned, as residents of the capital city of the Twelve Demesnes, they outranked the aristocrats from more distant parts of the realm.
The happy chatter around me did nothing to improve my mood. I had long since explored all the interesting nooks and crannies the castle contained, and there were no longer any hidden passages, secret tunnels, or spy holes that held the least novelty for me. Besides, what’s the point of eavesdropping on conversations that are mind-numbingly tedious? There hadn’t been a worthwhile intrigue since the High Chancellor misplaced the Crown Seal and blamed the Vizier for filching it.
I looked around glumly. As usual, no one was paying any attention to me, though nearly a hundred people sat at the long tables arranged in rows across the enormous hall. Large roasts and enormous bowls of fruit dotted the snowy tablecloths, and flagons of ruby colored wine sat by every place. Except mine, of course. Father made sure I had a nourishing glass of milk. My nearest tablemates, after the obligatory small talk with me, had turned to their other neighbors and were engaged in passionate discussions about the likely cost of grain next season (on my left) and Lady Arabella’s new feathered cloak (on my right). Neither conversation piqued my interest one whit, and I gazed speculatively around the room, seeking diversion.
For lack of anything better to do, I plucked one of the explosive pellets from my sleeve and debated tossing it into the nearest brazier. While the resultant clamor would be diverting, there was a distinct possibility that the shock would provoke several heart attacks among the elderly dinner guests. I therefore reluctantly discarded the idea and made to return the pellet to my garment. The pellet, however, had other ideas. Slipping from my grasp, it fell onto my father’s dinner plate.
Father had been engaged in a heated debate with the Lord of Sumner, and he apparently mistook the pellet for an olive when he turned back to his plate. He tried to stab it with his fork, and the result, well, it was pretty spectacular.
I’d obviously miscalculated the weights on that pellet, for in addition to noise and smoke, it also produced a sizable blast. Father’s beard caught fire, several women fainted, the Lord of Exeter suffered chest pains and had to be helped from the room... “Mayhem” would not be too strong a description.
As soon as he’d beaten out the flames in his beard (aided by my quick action with a pitcher of water), Father turned to me with a roar. “Was this your doing?”
“Yes,” I admitted. A lie would have been pointless; it was clear what had happened.
“Hell spawn!” he bellowed. “Changeling!” Beet red with fury, he swung his open palm at my face.
I ducked. Father was entirely predictable. Two beats after “Changeling!” he always struck at me. It was largely immaterial to him whether he actually connected; he felt the attempt alone adequately conveyed his feelings. I’d been ducking since I was six, and he had never noticed.
“Idiot child!” he ranted on, pounding his fist on the table. “Witch’s brat!”
“Father -- “ I tried to placate him, but it was no use.
“You are too old for such nonsense!” he shouted, shaking his finger beneath my nose. “You should be wed! Then you’d have no time for this childishness!”
“I can hardly be blamed for my unmarried state,” I pointed out, stung. I hated being called a child. “You’ve made it impossible for me to choose a husband!”
“Fine!” Father shouted. “Then I will choose one for you!” Spinning to face the table, he raked his gaze over the assemblage, finally settling upon the man on his left. Dropping his hand to the bewildered nobleman’s shoulder, he declared, “ Lord Sumner, you shall have the privilege of marrying my daughter.”
The lord in question choked on his food, and it was several seconds before he could splutter, “WHAT?”
“You are unmarried, are you not?” Father demanded.
“Well...in a matter of speaking,” Sumner reluctantly agreed. His wife had died many years ago, but he had been openly living with his mistress for the past two decades. Obviously the idea of marrying a high-spirited princess thirty years his junior didn’t appeal to him.
The tight-lipped woman next to him gave him a sharp nudge, and I deduced that this was his mistress. She too was clearly unenthused by my father’s decree.
“Ah, Sire, you see -- “ Sumner began after several more nudges.
“The wedding will be held on the winter solstice, three months hence,” Father announced, glaring at me. His eyes dared me to protest, and I kept my mouth firmly shut. There were times when even I wouldn’t oppose the royal will, and this was one of them.
“But I -- “ Sumner’s voice trailed off as Father turned to him, and he hastily swallowed. “I -- er -- I’m delighted, Majesty.”
A muffled crack reached my ear, and I realized his companion had given him a hefty kick under the table. I could have told her to save her venom. When my father was in this high a temper, nothing could be done. Even as powerful a lord as Sumner would find his neck on the block if he refused the hand of the Princess Royale. My father is very sensitive to insults.
“You asked for her hand, did you not?” Father snapped.
Sumner darted an unhappy look at his mistress. “Uh, yes, Sire.”
Of course, he had. Everyone did. From the time I was sixteen, every unmarried nobleman had greeted my father with a polite and wholly insincere request for my hand in marriage. It was the standard custom, no more genuine than the offer “You must visit us sometime.”
The meal ended soon thereafter. Father kept rubbing his scorched beard and glowering darkly at me, while Sumner’s mistress jabbed him with her long nails and hissed instructions in his ear. The lord ineffectually tried to calm her down, occasionally turning a sickly smile on me.
I merely sat there. Outwardly I seemed calm, but I was thinking furiously. When Father made pronouncements in this fashion, he was virtually impossible to shift, but I was not going to marry some old fossil with a face like a pudding. Besides which, I doubted I would live to see my wedding night; his mistress looked homicidal. Still, I knew I would have to lay my plans very, very delicately.
I avoided Father for the next two days, hoping that as his singed face improved, so too would his temper. On the morning of the third day, I came upon him in the garden. He had been forced to shave off the remains of his beard, so for the first time in years, he was clean shaven. I was taken a bit aback – he looked much younger now that his graying beard was gone. He almost resembled the old portrait of himself that hung in the throne room.
“There you are. Where have you been?” he asked cheerily enough, making room for me next to him on the bench.
I settled beside him. “Well, Father, you gave me a great deal to think about,” I replied, choosing my words carefully. Should I compliment him on his youthful appearance, or would that simply remind him of how he lost his beard?
“Think about? There’s nothing to think about!” he bridled. “I made a decision! You’ll obey me!”
“Of course, Father,” I soothed, hastily revising my plan of attack, “and you know I would never defy your wishes. It’s just that -- “ here I sighed deeply “ -- I had so wanted children.”
“Eh?” He looked at me sharply. “Why can’t you have children?”
“Why, Lord Sumner is elderly, Father, and besides, he was married for years without any issue.”
Father relaxed. “Is that all? Sumner’s not old – he’s just a few years beyond my age. He’s plenty of active years left. Besides, you need a mature and steady husband to settle you down. And although Sumner and his lady were never blessed with a child, I happen to know that in his younger days he fathered at least two babes by local maidens.” He patted my arm. “Never fear, daughter.”
I could have strangled him. So much for my brilliant idea. I should have known Father would select a husband who he knew could provide future heirs.
“There’s also his -- friend, Father,” I said, referring to Sumner’s mistress in the most polite way I could. “She’s very angry.”
Father shrugged dismissively. “Once the two of you are wed, she’ll realize she’s lost him and depart for new pastures. If you fear her though, I’ll throw her into the dungeons,” he offered.
“No!” That was the last thing I wanted. If I were unsuccessful in persuading Father to call off the match, I fervently hoped she could convince Sumner to do so. She had struck me as being a very determined woman, and I placed great faith in her ingenuity.
“Father,” I tried again. “Don’t you think Lord Sumner will find me a dull and callow companion? After all, I’ve never been away from the palace, while he has traveled extensively.”
“You give yourself too little credit,” he chided affectionately. “You are widely read and your teachers praise your intellectual abilities. I’m certain he will find your innocence refreshing, and besides, Sumner is not the smartest of my subjects. You need not fear that he will grow bored with you.”
Wonderful. So he was not only old, stodgy, and unwilling, but also dumb as a stump. “I –“
“In any case, you’ll not be as untraveled as you fear. I must make my annual tour of the Demesnes, and I have decided that this year you shall accompany me. After all, someday all these lands will be yours. It is time you visited them.”
Even as I smiled and thanked him, I was raging internally. Touring the lands I would eventually rule might sound like a plausible reason, but I knew better. He wanted me where he could keep an eye on me, If I tried anything on this journey, I had no doubt he’d chain me to some gruesome hag, euphemistically referred to as my nurse.
Father might think he’d won, but I was not wedded yet, and with three months in which to plan my strategy, I was confident that I would ultimately prevail.