Although Giana wasn’t particularly good at contributing to difficult conversations, she was quite adept at knowing when they were about to occur. Which is how she knew that the discussion she was about to have with her mother wasn’t going to leave her feeling warm and fuzzy. Queen Katrina of Izlia summoned Giana to her chambers, insisting they speak immediately.
Usually when the queen used such an urgent tone, it meant Giana was in serious trouble. The problem was, this time, Giana was almost certain she hadn’t actually done anything wrong.
Knocking softly on the door of her mother’s chambers, she pushed it open when she heard a faint voice giving her permission to enter. Out of both habit and respect, she automatically curtsied once inside the room, before hurrying to her mother’s bedside. The queen had been feeling out of sorts for a few days and Giana was starting to worry, as she didn’t recall a time in her twenty-four years of life that her mother had ever stayed in bed for an entire day.
“Good morning, Mother,” Giana smiled sweetly, taking a seat in the chair beside her mother’s bed. “How are you feeling?”
“Better than yesterday,” Katrina replied weakly, doing her best to sound positive.
Giana wasn’t so easily fooled and immediately shot back, “Liar.”
Queen Katrina had always been strong because she’d always had to be. Although the right to the Izlian throne came from Katrina’s side of the family, her husband dying before Giana’s first birthday meant that Katrina spent two decades both ruling a kingdom and raising a child entirely on her own. As a result, she’d become the master of not showing weakness, even when confined to bedrest.
“Thank you for coming,” Katrina smiled at her daughter, doing her best to change the subject away from her current state. In the weeks to come, Giana would have enough to worry about without adding her mother’s health to that list.
“Of course,” Giana reached out to grab her mother’s hand and squeezed it comfortingly. “Is everything alright?”
“It will be soon, I hope,” Katrina replied vaguely.
Giana’s eyebrows furrowed in confusion. “What does that mean?”
Katrina turned her head to look out the window, speaking softly. “Did you know that there used to be a bridge over the Cobalt River?”
The view from her chambers was of the palace’s back lawn, which tumbled downwards into a wooded forest, through which ran the Cobalt River, so named for the brilliant blue of its waters. On the other side of the river lay the kingdom of Ravenna.
“It was torn down years ago,” Giana replied, wondering why her mother was bringing up ancient history, “During the Great War.”
Giana had no firsthand knowledge of this act, as the Great War between Izlia and Ravenna occurred decades before she was born. But the history surrounding it intrigued her, as there were no consistent retellings of why the war began. Some said it was because Izlians were purposefully over charging for their grain and some said it was because Ravennites were purposefully selling diseased lumber, and although many fingers were pointed, the truth never seemed to be a priority. As a result, Ravenna and Izlia went to war, and although a truce had since been called in order to make Sireen, the region encompassing Ravenna, Izlia, and the southern kingdom of Kensen, peaceful again, the tensions between the warring kingdoms remained. To this day, neither Giana or Katrina had set foot in Ravenna or spoken to its king, despite it being a neighboring kingdom, a lack of relationship which was generally unheard of in monarchies. Alliances were crucial to the survival of any kingdom.
“Yes,” Katrina replied softly, still gazing out the window. “And sometimes I wonder if it was that act that set all of us on this path. How different would our world have been if we’d kept that door open?”
Giana was sure her mother had a point hidden in all that melancholy. “I’m not sure I understand.”
Inhaling sharply, Katrina turned to face her daughter, deciding that being direct is the best way to break the news. “King Leopold and I have been in correspondence over the past few months.”
“Why?” Giana blurted out, the knots in her gut immediately letting her know she wouldn’t like the response. It had been nearly a century since the monarchs of Izlia and Ravenna have been friendly and the sudden beginning of relations seemed suspicious if nothing else.
“Because it’s time this feud between our kingdoms came to an end,” Katrina insisted firmly. “We’ve spent decades on the brink of war, feeding into this pointless tension when we could have been fostering our economies with trade and exchanging cultures and philosophies. The people of Sireen deserve better than to be caught in the middle of an argument that no one even remembers why we’re having in the first place.”
“Are you and King Leopold discussing a peace treaty?” Giana asked. An official treaty would most definitely ensure lasting peace in the land. The war between Izlia and Ravenna had eventually come to an end, but there was no official document aiding in its completion, just the exhaustion of both armies.
“Of sorts,” Katrina replied, bracing herself for the impending conversation, knowing for a fact that her strong-willed daughter would not take to the solution she and Leopold have created. “But we want it to be lasting and neither of us are certain a peace treaty will be enough.”
“Then what will?”
Katrina took a deep breath before she responded. “A marriage alliance.”
“You plan on taking a husband again?” Giana replied, surprised at the thought. Her own father passed away before she was ever given the chance to feel his love, and she often wondered if the reason her mother never remarried was because her heart was too broken, having lost the man she often told Giana was most certainly the love of her life.
“Not for me,” Katrina shook her head, cursing herself for not assuming Giana would come to that conclusion. “For you.”
“No,” Giana spat out immediately, wide eyed in horror. She had passed her twenty-first birthday some years ago, which meant that the kingdom most likely expected she would marry soon, but Giana and her mother have never had the marriage discussion. Giana always assumed that more than two decades of ruling without a husband had made Katrina realize that having a man at her side was utterly unnecessary to being a good queen.
“Giana…,” Katrina pleaded weakly. “I won’t be around forever.”
The statement startled Giana into sadness and her heart became heavy as she scooted closer to her mother and squeezed her hand even tighter. “Don’t speak of such things.”
She could tell the queen was becoming weaker by the day, but Giana had no desire to think of a world in which her mother didn’t exist. Being royal hadn’t given Giana the opportunity to create lasting friendships, and the only people she really trusted were her mother and her handmaiden, Freya. Having her circle of trust cut down to half would be devastating.
“We can no longer avoid the subject, my darling,” Katrina replied softly. She had no desire to be pessimistic, but she knew her body and she could feel the life draining from it with each passing day. “My days are a numbered. All I want when I’m gone is for you to be well.”
As a mother, there was nothing more that Katrina wanted than for her daughter to be happy, and she knew that Giana could achieve that happiness without a husband. But as a queen, Katrina also knew that the tensions between Ravenna and Izlia wouldn’t end without some sort of radical event, and if anyone was up for the challenge of shocking a kingdom, it was Giana.
Sitting up straight, Giana removed her hand from her mother’s and keeps her tone calm and steady as she spoke. “I do not need a king to be a queen.”
“I know,” Katrina assured her, not wanting Giana to think for one second that her mother didn’t have absolute faith in her abilities to rule Izlia. “My beautiful daughter. You are so strong and so intelligent and so capable. You will be a fantastic queen, I am sure of it.”
“Then why are you trying to marry me off?” Giana asked, her posture relaxing slightly.
Katrina let out a soft sigh. “It’s not that simple.”
“This isn’t about just you, Giana,” Katrina explained, “This is about what’s best for Sireen.”
Giana understood that part of the responsibility of being royal meant that she must make sacrifices for the good of the kingdom, but giving up the opportunity to find love on her own seemed to be setting the stakes very high. “I’m sure there are other ways to ensure peace.”
“Maybe,” Katrina replied. “But none which will have such immediate and lasting effects.”
“That’s exactly what I’m worried about,” Giana said, reaching up to tangle her fingers through the ends of her long, dark curls, in frustration, “it lasting. This is marriage, Mother. It can’t be undone.”
Technically speaking, that wasn’t true. Although divorces weren’t common in the kingdom, they did happen on occasion. But never within the royal family.
“I know,” Katrina reached out to grab her daughter’s hand again. “But it’s for the best.”
Knowing that her mother wasn’t backing down, Giana sighed, “Do I have a choice?”
Giana didn’t consider marrying King Leopold, a man who is at least twice her age, to be an ideal situation, and she would at least like to be given the option of saying no.
“You always have a choice,” Katrina said softly, her eyes softening in sympathy. She received no joy out of strongly suggesting her daughter marry a man she’s never met, but if decades of ruling a kingdom had taught her anything, it was that sometimes hard choices had to be made, no matter the cost to a queen’s personal life. “Just remember that one day you will be queen. And queens do not always have the luxury of ruling with their hearts.” Hoping to quell some of her daughter’s anxiety, she added, “I’m sure Nicolas will make a good and faithful husband.”
Giana’s eyebrows shot upwards in surprise as she realized she might have misinterpreted the situation a bit. “Nicolas?”
“The Crown Prince,” Katrina reminded her, realizing the train of thought Giana must have been on. “You didn’t think I meant you’d be marrying Leopold?”
“Yes, that’s what I thought,” Giana replied quietly, a bit relieved. She knew very little of the Crown Prince of Ravenna, aside from that they were born around the same time, but if she’d forced to marry a man she didn’t know, the fact that they were the same age would at least be a bit helpful in establishing a positive dynamic in their relationship. Still, the entire concept didn’t sit right with her.
“Oh, heavens, no,” Katrina assured her quickly, realizing how unappealing Giana must have thought the idea of marrying someone she would consider to be an old man. “Leopold and I agreed that you and Nicolas would be the best representation of the future of Sireen. A show of unity which will last for decades to come.” Giana nodded, but stayed silent, still not quite sure how to respond, prompting her mother to plead, “Say something, please.”
Giana shrugged, at a loss for words. “I don’t know what to say.”
Katrina cracked a small smile. “Well, that’s out of the ordinary.”
One of the many aspects of her daughter’s personality that she loved was that Giana has an opinion on everything, and she’d never shied away from sharing it, so the fact that she had now been silent for a full minute was a bit astounding.
She did eventually speak, collecting her thoughts and sitting up straight. Although her voice was soft, her gaze was direct. “I always assumed that if I ever did marry, I would choose my own husband.”
It was an unusual assumption for anyone of royal blood to make, as marriage alliances were often used to foster peace and trade and support between kingdoms, but Giana had never been the kind of person who conformed to normality and she never intended to start when it came to marriage. To be honest, she wasn’t sure she’d marry at all, but if she ever did, she would want to ensure it was someone who treated her as an equal and did not assume that just because she was his wife, he had any sort of authority over her. Agreeing to an arranged marriage would destroy the opportunity for her to carefully select the people with whom she chose to surround herself.
“I know,” Katrina sighed, “And if you were ordinary, you would. But you are a princess, and someday you will be queen, which means that there are times when you will have to put what’s best for the kingdom above your own desires.”
“I understand,” Giana replied immediately. Because truly, she did understand, and she didn’t want her mother to think that she thought herself more important than all of Izlia.
Katrina lifted one eyebrow upwards. “Do you?”
“I do,” Giana assured her mother with a soft smile, squeezing her hand one more time before asking, “May I be excused? I have much to think about.”
With a nod, Katrina dismissed her daughter and after kissing her mother’s cheek Giana left the room, her heart heavy with the burden of a decision that could change her life forever.