If King Ansgar had anything to say to his eldest daughter, Princess Wilhelmina, about her upcoming Quest for Favor, he should have been saying it long before today.
At least, that’s what his younger daughter would say, if anyone asked her. But no one, least of all King Ansgar, asked for Fifi’s opinion on the matter. The Chief Royal Steward just came and announced that the king required Princess Wilhelmina’s presence, and no one can refuse an order from the king, so Princess Wilhelmina--known to her friends and family as Minna--went, mouthing apologies to her younger sister on the way out.
That was ages ago, it seems to Fifi now as she paces methodically through the suite she shares with Minna, bedchamber to dressing room to antechamber to study and back again. She ought to be back by now, she tells herself for the forty-seventh time since Minna left. After all, what can King Ansgar possibly have to say to Minna now, when the Quest for Favor starts tomorrow? Even as Fifi paces, Queen Ingrid is in the grand courtyard of Adelhyod, the castle the Royal Family of Aethyrozia calls home, graciously receiving suitors who intend to compete for Princess Wilhelmina’s hand in marriage.
“Princess Josefina, please sit down,” Greta, one of the princesses’ chambermaids, pleads as Fifi passes through the dressing room again. “You’re making me nervous.”
“I can’t help it, Greta,” Fifi whines. “And please, call me Fifi. His Majesty isn’t here to scold--”
“If I let myself get into that habit, Your Highness, I can’t trust myself to use your proper name when His Majesty is present.”
Fifi rolls her eyes and stalks out of the dressing room before Greta can say more. Overly cautious, that one. And she hasn’t been working here long, Fifi grumbles privately. Her feet carry her to a window in their antechamber, but she still can’t see the grand courtyard from this window or any other in their suite. How many are coming to compete for Minna? She has no way of knowing until tomorrow morning, when the Quest for Favor starts, unless perhaps one of their parents says something about it at supper.
As far as Fifi knows, Aethyrozia is the only country in all of Lokva that allows its princesses to have some say in choosing their own husbands. Rather than the king just deciding who each princess will marry, any unmarried man of royal or noble birth who wishes to marry an Aethyrozian Princess must compete in her Quest for Favor, a competition consisting of three rounds in which the princess herself determines the victor. The Quest for Favor typically occurs on or near the princess’s nineteenth birthday; Minna’s is approximately three months late, and still far too soon for Fifi’s liking. She’ll have to move away, to live with whichever suitor becomes her husband, and how lonely these chambers will be without her!
The telltale creak of the door from the corridor into the princesses’ antechamber brings Fifi running from the adjoining study.
“Minna! What did Father have to say to you?” Fifi asks, more frantic than she intended, as Minna glides into their suite like the proper princess she always strives to be.
“Goodness, Fifi, no need to get so excited,” Minna chides gently, closing the door behind her. “And surely you know. It’s all anyone’s been talking about.”
“Your Quest for Favor, then, though I can’t fathom what he’d have to say to you about it. It’s meant to be your decision, no one else’s--”
“But that doesn’t mean he wouldn’t have guidance to offer regarding my choice, nor that I wouldn’t want to hear what he has to say.” Minna settles herself in an armchair by the window, tightness in her jaw and shoulders the only clue that she is anything but perfectly composed and at ease. If she doesn’t feel she can show her true feelings here, to me, what must Father have said to her?! Fifi wonders. She knows she’ll never get an answer; Minna has always looked up to their father as something of a god, someone who can do no wrong—notions utterly foreign to Fifi. She could never have such feelings towards someone who so clearly regards them as beneath his notice.
“What’s his advice to you, then?” Fifi sighs, dropping into the chair nearest her sister’s. “He is aware you’ve been preparing for this your whole life, is he not?”
“Aye, he is. He and Mother talk. And don’t worry. He might not have such strong opinions about your choice as he does about mine.”
“And who has he recommended to you, out of...how many suitors are competing for your hand?”
“I believe he said there are forty of them, give or take. At least, that many have sent him their letters of intent. Mother is still in the grand courtyard, waiting to receive any who may come before tomorrow morning.” Minna pauses, staring out the window. Fifi taps her fingers with frenetic impatience on the small decorative table next to her chair. “And Father simply requested that I give the five princes of Syazonia my special consideration.”
“Five?! They sent all five to compete for your hand?”
“Father says Syazonia and Aethyrozia intend to be the closest of allies, and a marriage between the royal houses would be most advantageous.”
“You can hardly marry all five of them!” Fifi protests, incredulous and concerned on Minna’s behalf. How can she possibly be so calm?! “Won’t the brothers you reject take offense?”
“They might, but that would be quite irrational, and it won’t matter regarding the desired alliance. All of the contestants have been told in no uncertain terms, and shall be reminded throughout the Quest for Favor, that the decision of which competitor I wed is mine alone and based on personal inclination.”
“That sentiment would be fine, if it were not untrue.”
“It’s none so bad as all that, Fifi. As Father told me, since all five of them are competing, surely one of them will find favor in my eyes.”
“Still, to have all five brothers pitted against one another….”
“I think it ought to be most entertaining, don’t you? At least, if they have any rivalries between them. And besides, there will be all the other suitors to consider.”
“Are you actually planning to consider suitors who aren’t princes of Syazonia?” Fifi jibes, but she half means it, knowing how highly Minna values their father’s opinions.
“I mean to give every contestant fair consideration, based on what they show me during the Quest for Favor.” Minna bites her lip, and Fifi wonders what Minna’s holding back. “We’re very fortunate, you know, to have so much say in our own marriages. Princesses of the kingdoms around us are not so lucky.”
“So we’ve been told. Many times. I just….” Tears spring into Fifi’s eyes, and she swallows hard, trying to force them back. “You’ll have to go away to get married, and then nothing will ever be the same.”
“Oh, Fifi,” Minna sighs, and then she’s standing and pulling Fifi out of her chair and into a hug. “Your own turn won’t be long in coming after mine. And you’re right, it won’t be the same, but we can write to each other, and perhaps visit on occasion. We’ll just each be having our own adventures, instead of sharing the same one.”
“I guess,” Fifi mumbles as she pulls away, forcing a smile she hopes is brighter than her spirits. “But we have time before that, I suppose. And your Quest for Favor to prepare for.”
“What’s to prepare? Tomorrow is just the Talent round, and all the preparation for that falls to the suitors.”
“Aye, but the next day is the Questioning. Have you thought of any good ones?”
“I have the list we’ve been building together.” Minna pulls the thin roll of parchment out of a hidden pocket in her skirts and unrolls it so they both can examine it. “Of course, what I ask each one will depend on who he shows himself to be. And the last question must always be, ‘what questions do you have for me?’, but beyond that--”
“Make sure you ask them some tough ones, like how they would handle a revolt amongst the common people.”
“Of course. That’s always been our plan. I thought you’d be more concerned about what they like to do in their free time, or their favorite menu items for a feast.”
“How they’d handle a revolt says more about their personalities than their favorite foods. It’s not only a political question,” Fifi points out, both pleased and annoyed that her best friend and sister has relaxed enough to poke a bit of fun at her.
“You’re right,” Minna agrees. “Will you dance with all the suitors who make it to the Ball, as well?”
“If you want me to. I would never think to infringe upon your Quest for Favor. Especially since you probably won’t be able to attend mine, if you’ve already wed.”
“All the more reason you should dance with my suitors, so we can discuss them together.” Minna rolls up the scroll and puts it back in her pocket, staring contemplatively out the window. “What do you most hope for in my future husband?”
“That he can bring you happiness. That he’s good for you, not just for Aethyrozia,” Fifi replies. She’s never meant any words more in her life, and she hopes Minna takes them to heart.
“May it be so,” Minna smiles. “Come, let’s join Mother in the grand courtyard. Perhaps she will be able to give us some insight into my suitors.”