As the carriage pulled away from the house, Dídac raised his arm to wave goodbye. He smiled, regarding Veronica through the window, and she returned the gesture shyly.
It was like a dream, she thought, all of this is some grand dream I will not wake from.
The carriage pulled out from the gates of the estate wall and Veronica pulled her hands to cover her face to scream, the ecstatic sound coming up through her throat in a sharp blast.
Marcelina could only smile at her niece, her composure having been startled by the sudden burst from the young girl. She waited a moment for Veronica to stop and say something, make some intelligible sound through all of her delirious screaming.
“What is it, dear? What happened? Hush! Tell me!” Marcelina smiled.
“Tia, it was wonderful! It was all so wonderful! He is wonderful!”
“Is that what you’re fussing over?” she teased. “Really, I could have told you that before we arrived.”
“He talked to me so sweetly, he promised he would write me every day. Here, see, he has already given me a letter!” She pulled the sealed papers from her dress shoulder and waved them in the woman’s face.
“He wrote this before you arrived?” Marcelina frowned.
“No, it’s even better than that! He is a writer of stories, as I am, though he’s never let anyone read them before. His family doesn’t even know he writes them.”
“You’re babbling, dear, speak more slowly,” Marcelina said calmly.
Veronica frowned in spite of herself.
“I mentioned to him the letters I write to friends back home, and he asked me if I would write to him, as well. I told him that it would not be proper for a lady to take up correspondence with a gentleman in secret.”
Marcelina frowned, “Dear, that was not necessary, you know it would be perfectly fine with me.”
Veronica continued as if she had not heard her.
“And so, he went to his room and gathered something that he had been writing on his own and gave it to me with a cover letter requesting my correspondence.” She fidgeted with the envelope and then realized she hadn’t even opened the letter yet. The girl exhaled in self-frustration and tore the seal open, unfolding the parchment.
The cover letter was written in a fine black ink with a handsome and carefully printed script:
Señorita Veronica Elena de Fernández y Motas,
I am herewith requesting the honor of your correspondence, as was previously discussed during our meeting in my family’s house. Enclosed here is the letter that I promised you.
I pray you will honor me with your reply.
Dídac Adriá Ferrero i Martell
Veronica read the cover letter aloud by the heavy moonlight, which beamed into the carriage. She handed the letter to the Marquesa, who accepted it from the girl casually, as if it were of little importance to anyone. At least, that’s how Veronica felt about the Marquesa’s sluggish movements.
Marcelina glanced over the letter and eventually produced a whisper of a smile.
“That’s a clever thing to have done, enslaving him with such an intimate communication. Men will tell you things in letters they might never tell you to your face after fifty years of marriage. Yes, so wise of you to think of this. And the rest? Read it to me, please, if you would.”
Veronica, who had momentarily forgotten that anything of such importance remained in her hand, redirected her attention, focusing her eyes on the letter.
She began quietly, allowing her voice to grow louder with each paragraph:
A Lost Kingdom
Dídac Adriá Ferrero i Martell
The clouds rested high on the bordering mountains of the immense kingdom of Fioriono, the jewel of the legendary continent Catafierno, and the greatest of all civilizations. It was a time of peace that brought about a succession of gluttonous kings who cared for little else but their own glory, seeing to it with every breath that their names and figures were immortalized by their sons. These young men were sent out into every respectable and profitable field of enterprise, eventually creating a small but distinguished aristocracy that bore the names of ten monarchs.
The tenth of these prideful, gluttonous kings, Jehoiakim Rex, was distinguished in his tenure only by his method for ensuring the propagation of his name. Jehoiakim saw to it that, of the hundreds of sons he fathered through his harem of wives, only but a handful—those who met his stringent criteria—were allowed to leave the palace and situate themselves in this evil aristocracy of vanity. Whereas, Jehoiakim’s predecessors had inserted a catalog of sons into their crumbling and cursed society, the tenth and most vile of the evil kings allowed only a small margin of sons to pass out.
All of his sons, however, were first to be put through the scrutiny of his outlandish tests. Those who failed were slain. And of the first ninety-four sons bore to him, only twelve passed through the trials into manhood.
But of his abundant sons, only Prince Didacus, son of Jehoiakim’s first and most important wife, Franciska, the rightful Queen of Fioriono, had the birth-given right to be reared as the heir to his father’s throne. It was Prince Didacus who was raised in the fashion of a soon-to-be king, tutored and labored over by the highest minds in the monarchy, much as Jehoiakim had been as a child, ever being readied for his father’s eventual death.
All this was met with utter contempt from King Jehoiakim.
Jehoiakim, in the diseased state of mind he held upon entering his forty-second year, decided he would not tolerate the offense that this young boy imposed upon him, his son or no.
“To think of it,” he moaned, “that this boy should be treated like a king, that these fools about me who bathe him in their loving affections will ensure themselves security when I am gone. I will not stand for it!”
Indeed, the king felt it outrageous that anyone should be treated with even half the measure of respect he demanded for himself, for this king truly felt himself to be immortal. The concept that all his possessions were but temporary was a foreign idea, which he would never recognize. And so, he set about his swift calculations to have Prince Didacus done away with.
By the week’s end, Didacus had been scheduled to compete in a private sword match for His Majesty’s court. The boy would go against his own instructor and the fight was to be carried out to the death by Jehoiakim’s own insistence.
“Will you have a weakling for a king!?” the monarch shouted at his court.
But his advisors were in a private uproar, at a loss to do anything that might counteract the king’s demands. Their only hope of appeal came from the distraught Queen Franciska, who was in agony.
The court begged the queen to somehow intercede, but she made it clear that there was nothing at all that could be done.
“The King is a force onto himself. If I were to but improperly bat an eyelash, it would mean my end. You all know this to be true. Why do you ask me?”
The truth was that the Queen had already done all that she could on her son’s behalf. Her pleadings to the King had amounted to little more than Jehoiakim’s affectionate jests and then stern admonishments. She understood that her only hope was to somehow scheme in time. She would see her son live past this ordeal or suffer her own fate as a result.
And so, she approached Genco, Didacus’s sword master and loving mentor, who had threatened to take his own life rather than fight the boy. Queen Franciska knew well enough that were he to refuse the King’s decree, he would be slaughtered, as would his family. And it was out of love and a profound admiration that she made her promise to Genco: if he were to fall in battle for her son, she would see to it his family was rewarded with riches beyond imagination.
“I will write their names into the kingdom’s golden book of ancient families. They will be honored as members of the aristocracy in life and death. And my son will one day honor your sons as beloved cousins. I swear this all to you, my friend,” she promised.
And at the week’s end, Genco fell in death to a terrified prince and stunned court, not to mention an outraged king. But it was Queen Franciska who was horrified above all to hear Jehoiakim call for Didacus’s death.
“He has slaughtered one of my most beloved subjects!” the King bellowed.
The King’s feeble court stood by miserably. To utter so much as a word against His Majesty’s wishes would mean their death and replacement, the very destruction of their families.
The Queen threw herself into the lap of the King and begged as she never had before. “My only child, Your Majesty, my only child! He has done as you commanded, he has triumphed over his victor in battle. If he must be punished, send him to a life of imprisonment, but do not kill him, Your Grace, not my only child!” She wept in his lap with great seizures of grief.
And with great carelessness, the King allowed for the boy’s life to be spared, that Prince Didacus be permanently imprisoned in a tower, a prison needle that rose above the royal castle to touch the very clouds. And the great nation wept as the years passed.
Didacus grew to manhood, a prisoner, his only luxury a devoted mother who eased his suffering with the little comforts she imposed upon the jailers for her son. She saw to it that he continued his education in private, for she insisted to him that one day he would be free to take his rightful place as ruler of Fioriono.
In the years of imprisonment, Didacus suffered a minor form of madness as he watched the world go on without him from his prison chamber in the needle. And with this madness came an utter hatred of the vile, selfish, gluttonous king, his father. He would one day have revenge against his father, indeed. One day the King would die by his own hand, he thought.
And in the tenth year of his imprisonment, the Queen, his mother, came to Didacus in his prison chamber and announced that the time had come to take vengeance for his stolen youth. She produced a mandate document attesting to the King’s decision to release his son from bondage. This document bore the false signature of Jehoiakim, forged undoubtedly at the Queen’s command, but without flaw.
The jailer did not question the document, which was presented to him briefly by the Queen, and Didacus left in the arms of his mother as they descended down the needle and out into the world.
Those who saw the aged Prince did not recognized him at the Queen’s side, thinking him one of her many slaves, newly acquired at auction and being brought to the Queen’s private wing. Her plan had worked as she had envisioned it, and she knew that even if the jailer thought to gossip too loudly about the Prince’s release, word could not get to the King as fast as she planned for Didacus to murder Jehoiakim.
Within the hour, the Queen sought a private audience with her king, insisting they be left alone to attend private matters that his bodyguards need not witness. Of course, the men searched the Queen’s chamber, securing the rooms for their master, permitting only three of her chamber maids to remain in a side room to attend her if necessary.
The men were to wait outside the single entrance to the Queen’s bed chamber for hours as Queen Franciska made passionate love to Jehoiakim, feeding him absurd amounts of wine and bringing him to a delirious state of intoxication.
And when she was through with him, she turned to her servant girls, who by then had entered the room and made their preparations to escort the Queen away. But to their surprise, the Queen dismissed two of them. And when the Queen was alone with her oldest girl, they set about their plans. The servant girl unsheathed the King’s dagger, a small jewel-encrusted sword of fine steel concealed in her garments. With a quick slit of the dagger, the maid opened the unconscious king’s wrists, sending the hateful man into a blessedly peaceful rest.
From her private closet the Queen produced another mandate, which she slipped into her gown. The two women exited out of the apartment, passing the guards, who were told that the King wished to sleep now.
Rushing back to the needle, the Queen helped her maid remove the girl’s clothing and wig to reveal the disguised Prince Didacus. Wiping off the layers of makeup and powder, the Prince readied himself to face the Grand Council.
The Council’s uproar was only quieted when Queen Franciska produced the two mandates, each signed by the King. The first addressed the release of the imprisoned Prince, which had already successfully fooled the jailer. The second was an abdication of the throne in which the King expressed his wish that Prince Didacus succeed him.
In face of the court’s fury, the Queen described how she had just left the King who, after having spent his final moments in her arms, took his own life. “He was not well, my friends, and it was his time to go,” she said.
And the rest of this tale unfolded as you might imagine. The guards attested to the King having been undisturbed the entire night. The Grand Council found themselves more than happy to have the younger and more intelligent prince take the throne. And the Queen remained a flower in her son’s kingdom.
The Kingdom of Fioriono, nestled in the ancient continent of Catafierno, prospered under the good King Didacus for a century.
Marcelina responded with an uncontrollable burst of laughter before Veronica could do anything. She had done all that she could to keep from laughing as the girl recited the absurd story, and now it poured out of her in a flood.
“Oh, but it’s too adorable! God, to think that his father should ever come across that story written in the boy’s own hand.” The continued thought of it sent her into a fit of laughter and she had to raise her hand to her mouth to control herself. It was too much.
“He was so restrained in my presence as his father berated him on and on. Oh, this is too rich! Now, I approve of this child. I was going to reserve my judgment of him until you had spoken, but now there will be no controlling my love.” She continued with relentless giggles.
Veronica still could not respond. She seemed caught up in the story and would not even raise her head to look at Marcelina.
“I suppose I am to take this to mean he does not appreciate his father?” she said seriously, sending Marcelina into even more fits of giggles.
“No, it’s safe to say he is not his father’s greatest admirer, and I don’t blame him! His father has always presented himself as a bit of a fool when it came to the raising of children. I’m just so glad that at least one of his sons doesn’t resemble him. I will equate that fortune to his mother, who, I must say, shocked me with her sharp understanding of her son’s situation. I had sorely misjudged her. But really, it was the first time I have ever spoken to the woman privately. I am always accepting lunch and dinner engagements with her that include other women, and at such gatherings, she goes out of her way to appear the common fool. I almost laughed at her when she began to speak about her son’s eviction of his father from their library.”
“But do you really think that it is all right for me to reply?” Veronica begged.
“If he has agreed to this enterprise only to better know you in the coming weeks, then I cannot imagine any reason why you should not reply. I have a suspicion his mother wouldn’t be concerned if she ever came across the correspondence; she will not even bother to read them, knowing with all probability that I will read both sides to ensure their propriety. It seems young women’s mothers are always doing such intrusive things. And, of course, so I will,” she smiled mischievously.
Veronica heaved the first true sigh of relief in hours and sat back in the carriage seat as it drove them away through the cool night air.