Part Two: Spin
Chapter 11: The Sollantian Prince
I walk through the feast hall, separate from Frigidianus or Edite. Independent from assistance. Frid planned it out before, he said the timing would have to be perfect when I arrived. Just late enough for all attendees to be there, ready to sit and feast on the food in front of them. When the doors opened, some abruptly sat when they recognized me. Others gasped loudly and muttered to each other.
I sweep my eyes over the crowd, thankful that my feet are not halting. If I stop, I know I will freeze with fear. My white gloves clasp and unclasp behind my back.
There are old and young, men and women, and even some youth, who I assume are their children. I can see Aecia sitting close to Fidelis, only separated by a woman who sits in between them and dishes her food. On the right side of Fidelis at the middle of the U-shaped table setting, is a tan face with hair as dark as the blackness in my cell. In his hand is a glass of wine, which he occasionally sips as he watches me with vague interest.
Perhaps it is his clothing that catches my attention the most. Deep, royal blue doublet with gold embroidery and string that laces up his torso. His breeches the same gold. It almost blinds me, my eyes are glued to the shock of such colors. Since I've been here, Frid has been dressed in conservative colors-dark and rusty reds, browns, blues, or just plain black or beige. The most accessories they have is perhaps a plain hat and a belt. Mostly, they wear long robes, and once or twice I have seen Frid in a similar doublet and breeches, but nothing compared to this extravagance.
Frid nearly jumps to greet me, bowing and kissing my hand. I tear my gaze away from the stranger and meet Frid's anxious stare. I see him silently asking if I'm alright. I nod, aware that my expression is closed off...indifferent to his kiss on my hand, which should have given me a spur of joy at least. But I can't focus on him. I can't look solely to him. I glance back to the peculiar, colorful man again and notice more-his feathered hat, his fur-lined boots, his black velvet cape lined with white fur spotted with black. I look to the opposite sides of the room, full of Senators and their wives gaping at me.
I lay my hand on Frid's offered one and stiffly walk with him to the tables. The first to stand and introduce himself is an older, greying-haired man and his wife. They smile heartily, their faces pink as they laugh and introduce themselves.
"Amalia! How good-"
"How wonderful!" The woman corrects.
"How brilliant!" The man agrees. "We heard some rumors, but never expected them to be true!" He kisses my hand as well, though his bow is limited because of his round belly.
"I already feel hope in my veins, Amalia. You always come exactly when we need you the most."
"I-I...I don't understand." I shrink my hand away and look to Frid in panic. What am I to say? I've brought them hope? How-
“You've grown into a beautiful woman, Amalia. You can not comprehend the joy there will be of this news!”
My lips twitch at the woman's compliment, and I try to speak as warmly as I can, "I thank you, madam, I...I am without words to explain-" I stumble over my words awkwardly and feel my face heat up.
Frid interrupts, "I apologize Senator Amadeus, Madam. But could I steal her away?"
"Of course," the Senator laughs loudly, "We wouldn't want to hog the poor girl's attention." Almost immediately, I am nearly lost in the crowd that surrounds me. It's suffocating being around so many just waiting to speak to me. I am glad I have a firm grip on Frid, who introduces me to his associates. I best recall a man with a blindfold covering his eyes.
I wearily look to Frid in suspicion. Is this one of the-?
" I look forward to working with you. I am the Blind One Remigius."
"I look forward to it too," My eyes flick back and forth between Frid and the man. Frid never said that I would have to become some public figure involved in politics.
"He was just added into the ranks as the newest Blind One in Gazea," Frid explains.
"Oh?" I cringe at the thought of him removing his own eyes. What was Amalia thinking? "And when was the operation?"
"A few weeks ago, so it shouldn't be too long before I can remove this wrap."
I nod and then nearly slap my forehead for my stupidity; he wouldn't be able to see me nod! He's blind! Quickly, I try to recover. "Of course. Well…" I look away and Frid widens his eyes.
"Well, isn't that Lord Enrique?" he inquires of me, "You haven't met him yet?"
I shake my head quickly and whisper a goodbye to the Blind One. As we walk away, I mutter to him, "I don't understand how any person would willingly go blind for the sake of justice, Frid. Why did anyone think her brainchild was a good idea?"
He chuckles and turns to me, whispering so close to me, my ears tickle. Over his shoulder stands a group of men watching us with curiosity, including the Praeses and the finely dressed man.
I hear Fidelis answer an inquiry, "You never heard of Amalia, the wench born to rule? She wrote up the constitution for this forsaken country. The people see her as some hero."
"Their idol more like it," another corrects. "I've seen shrines for her in homes."
"Amalia?" I start and turn back to Frid. Had he been saying something?
"Sorry, Frid. I lost my senses for a moment."
"Do you need to sit? Don't exert yourself too much. You've done so well, they won't see any problem."
"I have practiced standing every moment since you told me of this banchetto. I am readily prepared."
"Then I will introduce you to the soon-to-be Prince."
"Prince? Why should there be a prince in a democ-"
"No, Enrique is not from this country. He's Sollantian." At the mention of the enemy country, Frid's face turns sour.
"He is the future king of Sollante?"
"No, they have many princes-just high titles. They are the main support of the monarchy, financially and politically. The nine Princes of Sollante have the largest estates, and the largest amount of support from the king's resources."
"So he's not related to the crown?"
"No...some say he will have more capital than the crown when he inherits. Rumors fly all about him."
"But…" I peer at the flamboyant Prince. "But he's so young!"
"What a peculiar statement, Amalia. As if his age and looks would affect his business capability! You were only 17 when we took the palace and imprisoned the king and queen."
"So his father has not yet died?"
"Enrique is not an actual descendant of his mentor. A distant nephew of some sort. I forget the connection."
"Dama Amalia, a pleasure." I turn slowly to see the back of the head of the extravagantly-dressed man. I watch with amazement as his bow lowers so deep that his cape pools on the ground next to him. Then he reaches out for my hand and presses his lips to it. His head looks upward to me and he smiles with brilliantly white teeth. I clear my throat after a few moments of silence and his holding my hand longer than needed. He straightens to be a very tall figure, taller than all of the men in the room.
"You are Prince Enrique?" I say, my voice trembling with nervousness
"By St. Amada! No one told me I am now a prince!" He looks around in amused astonishment to Fidelis and the other men who chuckle and shake their heads. "Has there been an announcement of old Carmelo's death?"
I blink quickly and my face turns hot, more than ever before. What did I say wrong?
Frid puts a hand on my shoulder, reassuring me, "Lord Enrique has not yet succeeded in snuffing the breath out of the Prince yet, has he Amalia?"
Lord Enrique laughs. To describe it? I wouldn't be able to put in words the obnoxious sound of his loud chortle. Perhaps it could be called merry, but it's so exaggerated and drawn out, much like everything else about him. His voice is accented and light as he counters, "Fie, I'll leave the murdering to you revolutionaries. How small and simple the plot would be to dispose of a sickly old man when you went on such a large scheme to 'lose' your queen. The solution is most likely staring me in the face."
"Perhaps ask your serfs to do it for you," I suggest disdainfully. "I'm sure they have more complaints against him than if and when he will kick the bucket."
Frid coughs loudly, but it masks an abrupt snort of laughter. The other men in the group are too shocked to respond in any way other than blush and swig the rest of their glasses. Enrique, however, slowly grins as he looks me up and down, as if resizing his expectations of me.
"And perhaps the serfs have no complaints against him? How could I then receive their aid?"
"I'm sure you could find at least one, milord,” I raise my eyebrows in amused opposition, “No person is perfect."
"Is every imperfection qualification for murder?"
"I can’t discern, Lord Enrique, you were the one to suggest it in the first place." My voice changes to a different tone-more ironic and sarcastic than any conversation I've had. "What could he have done to you?"
Lord Enrique smirks at me, and I nearly reciprocate, when Frid interrupts our exchange. "Now, now, play nice, Amalia."
I curtsy to Lord Enrique and resentfully follow Frid into the crowd, glancing over my shoulder once to catch Enrique's eye, who playfully smiles at me, and before I know it, I'm smiling as well.
'Play nice'? I was playing nice!
I almost had fun sparring with him. Through that small conversation, I learned more of his disposition and character than how much land he owns, or how the exponential rate of his income every year.
Frid turns to me with a frown that grows deeper as he perceives me. "It seems Lord Enrique took an interest in you...and perhaps you took an interest in him."
He looks at me expectantly. At this moment, I don't know what he wants me to tell him. To say that I did not would be lying. Instead, I shrug my shoulders, and look away, trying to hide the small smile threatening again. "Are you...are you smiling?"
"And if I was?" I raise my eyebrows at him. Tonight I feel like questioning his authority over me, pushing and agitating him to see how far he will stretch.
"I'm glad. I just...have never seen a smile on your face since you arrived."
"Perhaps I have smiled," I lie, "but you were not there to see it."
"I suppose that says a lot on my ability to make you happy," he grumbles and grabs another glass of wine off of the tray of a servant passing by.
"Frid." I roll my eyes. "Self pity is unbearable. Stop asking for an excuse for more."
"What are you saying?"
"I'm saying that feeling sorry for yourself when I show interest in another human being gets old and irritating."
"You think what I've done is irritating? Amalia, I found you. And I sent for you. And I clothed and fed you. Did any of these men or women save you like I did? I expect to see some type of loyalty!"
"Because no one had any idea-" I stop mid sentence and calm my anger. "Thank you Frid, for everything you've done for me. I really am so very grateful, but I am not your property. I can speak to whoever I wish, because it is my voice."
"Amalia you are right," he sighs. "Perhaps I should leave you to your own devices tonight. I'm sure you would be able to provide for yourself, to find an escort who would be willing to make introductions, who is educated on who to avoid, or who to ally yourself with, and know the proper length of a respectable conversation? Do you have that all figured out? Of course, you catch onto this life easily. I'll just leave-"
"Frid! Wait. Please don't leave me alone. I apologize. Just please don't leave me to fend for myself," I tug on his arm uselessly. He stops and turns to me, encasing my chin with his hand.
"I forgive, Amalia.” He smiles and kisses my cheek. “Now, let us sit." And like bees to honey, the crowd of Senators and their families are seated within two minutes of our placement at the corner of the vertical right and horizontal table. I am a few seats away from Fidelis, and his unwavering glare reaches me occasionally. I do my very best to ignore.
At some point in the second or third course, he directs a question to me, hushing the entire hall. “Amalia, now that you are alive and well again, what do you plan to reform first?”
I gulp and look down at my plate, where my food is scarcely touched. Frid is quiet next to me, he watches like everyone else. “Well, I believe…” I clear my throat, and look down at my hands gripping each other like death in the folds of my shiny-embroidered yellow skirts. The fabric now enfolds my clasping and unclasping hands.What am I to believe? How do I know what is the right and wrong Amalia believed in? I suddenly feel a hand grasping mine. I smile and glance at Frid who stares back at me. Then I look up and meet Fidelis’ cold gaze with a look of defiance, “I believe that in a very short amount of time, I will be able to catch up with all that I have missed in the years I’ve been absent.” The answer seems to be sufficient for most, who turn back to their previous conversations. I catch my breath and Frid’s hand leaves me.
“What have you been doing all these years, Amalia?” I turn to my left, where a Senator...I forget his name! His nose is straight and pointy and his mouth is a thin line. His voice is gravelly and rough.
“Senator...I apologize, I do not recall your name.”
“Senator Ursus, and I know, you would not remember me-”
“Why?” I interrupt with surprise. How would he know-
“I was merely a boy and still manning my parents farm at the time of your disappearance. Boys in our village would idealize and-”
“How very sweet,” I smile. “I’m afraid that there is a very simple answer to your question, Senator Ursus.” I feed him the explanation Frid taught me. “The night I went missing, I was taken to a prison near the border of the country and stayed there until one of the Senators found my position and rescued me.”
“Interesting…” Ursus frowns and turns back to his food. I glance at the young man a few times with confusion, and am about to ask him why it was so ‘interesting’ that my own fiance would want to save me, when another voice, this time across from me, interrupts.
“I could not help overhearing, Amalia, but I wonder, do you have any idea the person who did that to you?” This time, it is a man closer to Frid’s age, with black hair and blue eyes.
I wish to turn over the question to Frid, but he is distracted by a woman sitting next to him. So I answer as best as I can. “I’ve really no idea, honest, but the Senator has suspicions that it could be the work of the Invicta.”
All around me, the people mutter, “Pietà” and with their index finger, touch both of their eyes.
“You’ve heard of him?”
“The Invicta is the bane of this country! Always foiling our plans and putting fear into the people’s hearts. It does sound like his doing; families have been swept away into the night-good, honest and patriotic citizens. Victims who are always on the eve of announcing or publishing some great scheme.”
“My circumstance sounds the same.”
“You must have been one of his first victims,” Ursus says.
“What information do you have on him?”
“Only that he is a serial killer and now, perhaps only a kidnapper who has been at large since since you disappeared.” Ursus’ eyebrows pull together as he frowns and his features grow darker, “Though, there are earlier reports of his type of work even before you went missing. He’s gained more followers than dissenters.”
“How do you know?”
The man across from me interrupts. “If he had any dissenters, we would hear more about him and the way they find information. Or at least the man’s nationality.”
“Or the dissenters and traitors are too afraid to speak up about it. Perhaps the people are too scared to leave,” I suggest thoughtfully.
“Perhaps they know what will happen to them if they do leave,” the man adds, and his features darken at the thought. He does the same gesture-touching his eyes with one finger -and visibly shakes.
New food is placed in front of us and the man with the dark hair turns to his neighbor with a different question. My head churns even as Ursus continues to speak. I turn my head to look at him, but I cannot focus. My eyes blur, and I see flashes of the Dolor’s face every time I blink. I try to stop closing my eyes. That will stop the memory I know will play in my head. But out of all of the questions Ursus asks this abrupt one pulls me out of the gulf of shadow.
“Do you think the Blind Remigius is actually blind, or is he faking it?”
“What?” I hiss. We both look toward our right, where Frid is engaged in a serious, involved discussion with Remigius, who sits opposite of him.
“I only think, that it’s strange that the Blind Remigius turns his head so naturally for one so recently...operated,” he whispers in my ear.
“How do they usually behave?” I watch the Blind One closely, and he does seems to react to those around him almost too naturally.
“Jerky, confused, clumsy. He picks his food up perfectly, without searching for it using his hands. One would think that someone who is just recently turned blind would have a hard time adjusting.”
I nod and watch Remigius’ smooth movements. He cuts into his food, even looks down at it in the midst of the motions. “I’m grateful for your input, Ursus. I never would have noticed.”
“It takes a very clever man to get past me.” Ursus taps his eye with a smirk, “As a boy, I would have to notice the animal’s actions. For some odd reason, they were always falling sick, so I would have to tell the signs before they actually came down with some disease. I have a very keen eye, Amalia.”
“Well, you’ll have to be put to use,” I smile and turn back to my food. Perhaps I have found an ally. Frid my ears and Ursus my eyes. I watch Remigius with more and more suspicion as the night continues.
I catch my eye on an overlooked object behind the tables in the corner of the room. Like Frid said earlier, there would be music playing behind a curtain all night. I stab my food angrily, that I had ignored the beauty of the art all night long, just as he had told me I would.
Frid turns to me in a quiet voice, "I thought you should know, Amalia. We are on the hunt of the Invicta in the city."
I turn in my chair and hiss, "What? Where was he?"
"In the palace," he picks at his food, wanting to agitate me with his vagueness. Still, the Invicta was under the same roof as I. My blood turns cold and I shiver. So close. Too close
"Who is he?"
"Beautiful instrumentals tonight? Don't you agree?"
"Frid," I nearly shout. He glares at me to hush my voice. I whisper, "Who was he?"
"I feel, although, that the band is missing an instrument, don't you?"
"What?" I try to listen, but the loud conversations around me, the laughter of Prince Enrique, and my blood beating in my own ears as my mind closes in on itself blocks everything out. "I can't tell, Frid. What has this got to do with anything?"
"The harp, I believe is missing. How sad, that such a beautiful instrument is left out."
"Was it…" My mind reels. Had I touched the Invicta's hand? Had I been kind to him?
"The old harpist? Yes, that was him."
I freeze at the affirmation. How did I not know immediately? When I touched his harp and listened to his directions, how was my only feeling toward him gratefulness and compassion? How was I not revolted, disgusted, or even angry by his presence?
"Amalia, don't be frightened. My men are doing as much as they can to catch him."
"That is the Invicta? I imagined him younger and large and strong. How is it that he-"
"He was in disguise, Amalia. That is how he does it."
"So he isn't actually missing teeth or a weak old man?"
"I have no idea. I've encountered him to be a beggar, a farmer, a shepherd, a businessman, a trader, a ship captain, and now a musician. All of different ages, clad in a variety of clothes, and even as a woman once."
"How will we ever find him?" I sigh hopelessly.
"We keep looking and following up on leads. I found you, didn't I?"
"After years of doing the same method," I counter, "I don't know if I could wait so long for justice."
"Justice is my revenge," I shrug and stab my apple slices with a fork.
Frid just chuckles and shakes his head.
"You are so abrupt sometimes; it's not hard to see how plain you want things to be."
"And my life cannot be plain? My motives cannot be plain?"
"Your life is already not plain. In no way could you ever live a simple life, even if you strive for it. Complications will come and ruin dreams and schemes and goals and leave you a mess."
"Is that why I need you?" I remark sarcastically. "To pick up the pieces?"
"Perhaps," he smirks. "But I've already picked them up, Amalia. I hope that soon...you will see that you need me for other reasons."
I blink quickly and nod indifferently to him. "Well...either way, I have you in my life."
"That sounds tragically unromantic," Frid comments with a forced smile.
"Frid, may I ask you something?" He nods and awaits eagerly. I frown and point at him, "Why do you smile when you shouldn't? Why waste a good smile on something not worthy of such happiness or joy?"
"Perhaps I have a different perspective," Frid explains. "we both have been through hell...but they are different hells. Different levels of hell."
"So your hell makes you want to smile when you're sad, and mine makes me want to frown perpetually?"
Frid laughs and again shakes his head. "You'll get it, Amalia. Someday, you'll get it. Someday, you will smile because you are happy and you won't even think about it. You won't even think about it when you are in pain. And someday, you will smile through your teeth to someone you absolutely despise, and they will never know a thing. "
Chapter 12: The Festival
The next morning I wake up to the bell ringing in my ears. I blink blurriness out of my eyes and sit up groggily. “Edite stop that incessant clanging!”
“‘Tis not my fault you had too much to drink last night.”
“Excuse me,” I counter. “I did not finish one glass of wine the whole night. I’m just…” I cover I my mouth for a long yawn, “I’m just exhausted.” With that, I plop back onto my pillow and nearly doze off right there and then.
“Senhora!” The ringing starts up again, and with much more fervor than ever. I hear the clanging inches from my ear. I slap it away, as it is starting to become unbearable.
“Stop it Edite! Why would you wake me up so early?”
“Senhora, it is close to midday! Mestre should be here soon to eat prandium with you!” Perhaps that is some type of motivation. I yawn again and drag myself up. Edite shows me my wheelchair, moved close to my bed so I can sit in it quickly. But I shake my head and stand all the way. My calves ache, and again, my mind flashes to the incident in the prison for a second. Fear. The Dolor used fear to torture me. He used fear to paralyse me.
“Senhora, are you sure you do not want to sit?” I shake my head of the memory and tear my eyes away from the wheelchair.
“No. I do not need it to walk across my rooms. Perhaps throughout the halls, but not these rooms.” Edite smiles largely and takes hold of my hand, which is something I will accept. “Have you picked out my dress for today?”
“Sim, I thought since you will appear before the people today, they will want to see you as they remembered her. Something simple.”
“Was Amalia poor?”
“She was of the third class, that we know. But her past and childhood years are somewhat of a mystery to everyone.”
“So I will not be able to find her parents, or even siblings?”
“No, she never once spoke of them. They could be dead or isolated in the mountains. She’s such an enigma to the public.”
“And what of her close associates? What did she ever tell them?”
“I was not of them, senhora. I would not know what she told them, or even who her close friends were.”
“Other than Frigidianus.”
We enter the dressing room, and a brown dress is laid out on the side sofa. A smile-this looks long and simple. More simple and modest than last night’s dress. Though beautiful and elaborate, I didn’t feel myself in it. The long sleeves, slashed until the elbow, where the fabric hung like a curtain past my waist. The chemise was a plain white that cut straight across my chest and was a relief compared to the underclothes, which Edite determined was supposed to kill. The corset for this dress is still uncomfortable, but the style of the bodice does not assist in stopping air-flow. The skirt hangs loosely, and is not meant to stick out in the back or at my sides. It has the same style, with the low waistline and puffy sleeves. However, these do not extend far past my shoulders. My white silky gloves are the only fine apparel I really have, and they cover the skin past my elbows. Edite is fingering her way through my hair, commenting that she will have to trim some more of it soon, when a knock on my door interrupts.
“Who could it be? Mestre said…” her muttering quiets as she passes through the curtain separating the rooms. I comb through my long hair with my fingers and stand.
“Senhora? A foreigner is here to see you,” Edite hisses in a few moments. “He called himself a title and-”
“Thank you Edite, I know who it is. Just help me up.” She gives me a hand and pulls me to my feet. My heart beats faster as I near my bedroom where Lord Enrique waits. What could he possibly want? I had only one conversation with him last night, Frid made sure of that.
When I appear in the doorway, Lord Enrique first smiles listlessly. Then he strides quickly to me and repeats his ‘deep bow with a press to my hand’ gesture. My lips curve at the singular attention. “Lord Enrique, did you say you were planning on calling this morning?”
“No, I did not. I apologize for any inconvenience.”
“Certainly not, sir,” I assure and glance back at Edite, whose face is stone as she stands silently at the doorway. “Edite, you may go. I’ll ring when we are finished.”
“Are you sure, senhora?” Edite gives me a suspicious look intended at Enrique. I roll my eyes at her and nod.
After the door shuts I sit and look up at the towering figure still standing, waiting for me to be hospitable. “Please sit, sir.” He smiles again and makes himself comfy on the armchair across from me. He slouches and brings his arms up to the top of his chair. He looks as if he could close his eyes and fall asleep immediately. But he is exuberant in his conversation.
“I see I am not alone in my eccentricities!” he exclaims.
“Oh?” I look around the room with confusion.
“Your maid,” he says slowly. “she is not from this country.”
“Yes, I suppose so, though she has lived in Gazea since she was a little girl. She is as much a citizen as the next person.”
“Is she as good a servant as the next? I can never bring myself to hire foreign staff. Much too ungrateful. And always complaining about the heat and their loss of liberty!”
I choose to ignore the previous statement and ask, “Is it very hot in Sollante?”
“ Sollante is known for its humidity. My island is selectively humid-and it floods nearly every summer.”
“Excuse me,” I blink quickly, hoping I heard wrong, “Did you say your island?”
Enrique’s face turns red and he stumbles, “Well yes, I suppose I did say that.”
“Is it true?” His failure to look me in the eye confirms it. An island? How could one be so rich?
“It really doesn’t have too many perks, I promise,” he leans back and examines his fingernails, rubbing them on his immaculately designed doublet, today featuring the colors burgundy and black.
“Some may say the same about their one-room hut,” I point out. Although interesting, Lord Enrique is unequivocally part of that stiff, arrogant upper-class. Just from the state of his clothes, I doubt that he’s ever been in anything less than a mansion his whole life.
But he ignores me, “The cursed land floods every rainfall. And there is so much to do afterwards!” He waves his hand in the air in annoyance at the thought of manual labor.
“Lord Enrique does not enjoy getting his hands dirty?”
“Gad, no!” He declares distastefully. “There’s the matter of manure, mud and manure mixed with mud. Such an odious business.”
“Have you ever-”
I’m interrupted by a knock on the door. I freeze, remembering my commitment to Frid for prandium. If he was upset at my interactions with Enrique the night before, how furious would he be if we participated in a private conversation together? Enrique raises his eyebrows at me for my moment of weakness. I shut my eyes and sigh, struggling to stand.
“May I offer assistance?” Enrique frowns and stands, extending his hand.
“Yes,” My eyebrows crease as I nod and accept his hand. “Thank you.” My head whirls as I stand, even with his support. “I just…I need my wheelchair.”
“Wheelchair? Why would you need that?”
“I don’t walk well,” I explain as little as possible. “I had an...incident, and I am still recovering.” I walk with Enrique to my chair, and lean back heavily as I fall into it.
“Are you still going to the festival today?” He inquires with concern.
“That was today?” I lean back my head and close my eyes. ‘I suppose-”
The door opens and sure enough, Frid is on the other side, impatient for my invitation to come in. His smile is strained as he looks back and forth between Enrique and I. “Frid,” I try to recover, “I-I I’m sorry for keeping you waiting, but my legs gave way, and-”
“It’s alright,” he proceeds into the room, “as long as you are.”
“I’m doing my best for the festival today.”
“Good, we don’t want you to be exhausted.”
“Yes,” I glance at Enrique, who lazily looks at his fingernails, as if our exchange bores him. “Lord Enrique, thank you for your assistance, but I must apologize that I am further wise engaged at the moment. I promised prandium with the Senator today.” Frid’s face is smug as Enrique bows a gracious goodbye.
“Perhaps another time,” he agrees and departs, taking long strides to the entrance.
As soon as the door closes, I turn in my seat to Frid and try to explain, “I did not invite him in, Frid. Don’t be upset.”
“You do realize that you had plenty of reason to refuse his entry into your rooms!” Frid starts to pace, sometimes flinging his arms in the air when he gets worked up the most.
“Perhaps...but I didn’t want to be rude.”
“Of course you didn’t,” he spits at me. I roll my eyes and look up to the ceiling, waiting for his fit to finish. “You wouldn’t dare be rude to a future prince. You were never like this-you always hated titled lords and ladies, especially Sollantian ones! How does that mean anything to you?”
I stand and argue back. “It doesn’t. Titles didn’t mean anything when I was Amalia, and it won’t be any different after I die. But what does matter to me is a respected, esteemed gentleman giving me special and kind attention.”
“And I haven’t shown you special attention?” He fires back, “Every day has been spent with you since you arrived! Married men have been known for less devotion than I!”
He turns on me, his face red from outrage. But it softens when he sees me. I try to smile, though this is a painful smile, not a product of joy or satisfaction. “Frid...please be patient with me. Last night was my first in society...I didn’t know how to talk to others without familiarity. And I didn’t mean to sound forthright or shameless in my speech. I am pressured to be exactly like her...and I just don’t know how to.” My voice breaks and I feel burning in my eyes. Frid’s ‘pity face’ appears again, though I am starting to mind it less and less. He enfolds me in his arms, giving me reassurance and strength. He leans back for a moment and smiles.
I smile back and lean into him. His lips are ready for me as I push against them with my own. I feel...greedy. We have more to give, but I don’t know what else there is. At least, until he separates too soon. I frown at the parting but shiver immediately at his new ministrations. I stretch my head back as his head travels lower, to my neck. A strange thrill runs down to my toes almost almost. I unconsciously hum with it and reach for him. I find his hair-coarse and wiry as I finger through it. His mouth breathes heavily onto my skin as it slides down to my collarbone. I grip his hair like death, afraid that I might topple to the ground from my weaknesses.
Just as I nearly lose my strength, Frid straightens and smooths his fingers around my dress, stroking up and down my back, steadying me. Our lips come together without pause and I wish it wouldn’t stop. I squeeze my eyes shut, just wishing I could never leave this moment.
But of course, every time I blink, I see the prison. Every time my eyes close to the light, I am back. It just won’t leave me. The memories cling to me like fog, hovering and hanging over me forever and I see them…
The Dolor yanks and yanks on the rope. My feet fly into the air, and my left shoulder rips out of its socket. My arms feel they are going to be pulled from my body. The rope around my wrist tightens as he pulls. There is relief every time he releases me to tumble to the ground, but then, he yanks my body into the air...like a rag doll. Over and over, for hours and hours.
The door slams open and I tumble from the shock of the interruption, from the shock of the memory. My arms and shoulders are sore with the ghost pain. Frid fails to catch me and trips himself, though he stays on his feet. My head hits the floor hard, and I am flung back into the memories of darkness.
I am hanging. If the rope was around my neck, I would be long dead. The Dolor forces the drink into my mouth and its effects immediately take place. The pain is more incessant. The outside world fuzzier and blocked out. But there are multiple voices-more than the usual two. He has visitors, and my mind stumbles, freezing the drug, the pain, like it is a dream.
How does my unconscious realize this? How do I push away the fuzz and find the voices? I listen.
The Dolor’s voice-I’d know it anywhere, “But she is too weak! I pushed her harder than I should have-”
But he is interrupted by another, stern voice, “You think I care for her pain? This is why there has been no progress made with her memory! If you don’t step it up, I’ll make an end to you. Let my man do this-”
“-this is surely a setback. Will she be able to participate in the festival, Medice?”
I blink and look upward. Edite, Frid and Medice hover over my uncomfortable position on the floor. “What...What happened?” I try sitting up, but Medice pushes me back down.
“You knocked your head on the floor when you fell, and you’ve been as still as a corpse ever since,” Frid explains.
“You will not be leaving bed for some time, not until you are well-rested,” Medice dictates. Frid and I both protest immediately. The graying man holds a hand up sternly, silencing us.
“My orders are clear, are they not? Whatever caused you to fall Amalia...well, you need to be more careful next time.” I nod seriously, and studiously avoid looking at Frid. After Medice leaves, Frid chuckles for a few seconds and gets a nasty glance from Edite, who starts to make me comfortable in the covers.
“Well,” Frid sighs, “there goes our plans. What exactly is our festival for now?”
“Maybe…” I drift off and shake my head.
“Create a-” Edite offers.
“Wait, hold on Edite. Amalia?”
I wish I hadn’t said anything, “Well, I don’t believe it would be against Medice’s orders if I appeared before them in my wheelchair.”
Frid rubs his chin as he ponders for a moment. “It would defeat the purpose of us trying to let the public see their old Amalia.”
“They’ll have to find out sooner or later that I don’t know who these people are! Why not shock them in one setting, rather than have them gossip and theorize about my location and reason for my being gone for so many years."
Frid lets it sink in and nods, and he adds, “You would appear weak though. Critics and enemies will question whether you can hold up the mantle you were previously destined to carry.”
“Perhaps I am weak,” I agree. I’m not sure if I want to pursue Amalia’s career and take her place just because I have her body.
“But you don’t know just how strong you are, Amalia. Strength never comes from achievement or prosperity. You have so much strength because of your losses, your misfortune and failure.”
“But I-I don’t feel strong. I can barely walk-”
“Strength, the kind I speak of,” he pauses and kneels next to the bed, grabbing my hand for reassurance and comfort, “it has nothing to do with the scars on your skin or what you can and can’t do. You-you,” he sighs and smiles softly. “You are the strongest person I have ever set eyes on. Even before...she had gone through unspeakable conditions. As 164, there is no extent to what you saw and felt and did. And that is why I would hate for them to judge and critique and abuse you for physical disabilities that affect nothing.”
“Oh Frid,” I close my eyes, wishing I could respond with such fervency about…anything. “You don’t really mean that. The people will be right if they think me frail or incapable of such a position. Honestly, I don’t believe I can either. I’ve no idea what it is you actually want me to do.”
“What I want doesn’t matter, Amalia. Find what the people need.”
“And how am I to do that if I do not appear before them-wheelchair, or not?”
Frid closes his eyes and nods, “Fine Amalia, I never was able to say no to you.”
“A talent I aim to keep ,” I remark.
I’ve never been in the city, but I’ve looked down on it every day. Most inhabitants of the city never set a foot in the palace, but they have to look up to it every day. Can I actually relate to them? What if they throw rotten food at me? A horrible image of myself covered in the like material reveals itself in my mind. I smile...just a little.
I look to Frid, and I smile even more. He stands at the head of the king’s old balcony. Its white stone almost glitters in the afternoon sun, and the multitude that gathers beneath is astonishing. His voice projects over them, so loud I can even catch some of the words from the room I listen and wait in.
“A hero of this infant country…disappeared as soon as it began...A mystery...Amalia the Liberator!” At that a surmounting roar rumbled across the plaza below. Cheers and applauding erupt at the sound of her-our name.
“For years, her story has been stifled under her disappearance. Some thought she escaped the country for secret crimes-” A large amount groaned and hissed at the suggestion. “or that she was kidnapped and killed-” The crowd hushed and the only sounds audible were a few wailing children. I suppose that the latter theory could be seen as a truth.
“But this past month...I have gained the truth-” he stops for the effect and lets the people panic and turn to everyone around them for extra information. “Amalia;this country’s founder, this city’s conqueror...is alive.”
The mass becomes unruly and some shout up to Frid.
“How is this not some scheme?”
“She must be a fraud!”
“Ah, but it is true!” Frid wags his finger at the crowd, “This is the same Amalia of old. You can see her for yourself.”
Cries calling out falsehood and deceit make my breath hitch. What if they don’t believe? What if I’m another woman entirely, and Amalia really did die the night she disappeared? I shake my head to be rid of the thoughts though; they do me no good. There is no way Frid could mix up another woman who was promised to marry him.
“Wait one moment!” Frid jogs back to me and crouches, whispering, “Are you ready?”
“As suitable as I can be in this state.”
“You’ll do great,” he assures as he wheels me to the doorway of the balcony. “The crowd is actually pretty good today.” My stomach churns, my hands fidde in my lap, clasping and unclasping innumerable times. The multitude, which was suspiciously conversing while Frid left, hushes as they see me in the sunlight. Some of their faces are awestruck and wonderment, but none angry.
And then a shout that soon carries thousands of voices and sends chills up my spine… “Libertas!”
I look down over the edge, where faces without number gape up at me. I doubt they heard any of Frid’s speech on the corruption of Fidelis after that point, though I’m sure they’ve heard the topic so many times that I doubt they need to know of Fidelis’ policies sway within the Senate and the Blind Ones.
“This month… vote scontento for Praeses. Don’t allow tyranny and corruption to bleed in through the walls of this building.Vote for a man who will stay true to the vision Amalia dreamt of ten years ago. Her absence has weakened this country, and if we stray from the path of suffrage for all, then there won’t be anything for Amalia and I to save.” The crowd murmurs and shifts in response.
“Our fledgling nation is lost without her guidance. This day, this festival, marks an actual beginning for us. We can embark on a true democracy. Not one with aristocratia!” A roar from the crowd. “Not one with a bought-out Senate!” Another cheer. “A democracy with an honest, noble Praeses, and a Senate chosen from the educated among the people. Not just the upper class!” Another cheer that deafens my ears. I watch Frid with amazement. I never would have assumed that he could speak so well to the hearts of thousands of people.
The talent of Senator Frigidianus amazes me to no extent.
“This festival will celebrate our dear Amalia.” He looks down at me with a yearning that makes me beam and look out to the city. “She has endured, as you and I have endured. And suffered, perhaps even more than you or I have suffered. But this is a day of triumph over our foes! We triumph over the hypocrites, the liars, the schemers and the people who try to take more power…” I glance over my shoulder where, at the entrance, Fidelis glowers at us. His shadowy countenance only adds to the villain he has been painted out to be. “Gazeans, let the festival begin!”
The people jump and raise fists into the air. Some raise their hands and wave to us. I smile and wave back, and a sudden idea comes to my head. Perhaps it is the past Amalia giving me pointers and advice. I press my lips to my hand and raise it above my head, out to the crowd. They are loud and enthusiastic in response, calling up to me, cheering my name, one even tried to throw a flower up to me.
It hits the wall ten feet below me and slides down the wall. Frid grins at me and shakes his head knowingly before pushing me back to the palace. I keep my head straight, avoiding eye-contact with Fidelis, who no doubt feels targeted and betrayed now. Out of all of the results from his speech, I am glad that this is what immediately came from it.
“Frid,” I ask as he takes me back to my chambers. “What is that room? I don’t believe you’ve shown it to me yet.” A rather silent part of the building, and the doors remain shut, but these, these are elaborate, large, and bearing witness to something important.
“Oh that?” He scratches his head and stands in front of the doorway. “Well, the scholars do not like to be disturbed,”
“Scholars? What do they do?”
“Study the ancients, theorize, think.”
“About whatever they choose is worth the time, I suppose. I only know that they love their peace and quiet.” He sounds like he’s learned that from personal experience.
“So it’s not a good idea to disturb them?”
“No, I don’t think it would be.” He pushes me on, “The thinkers don’t like human interaction. They’d rather hole up in that room all day, with barely enough food and drink, just so they can wonder about how the world works, or what a previous mathematicus studied. A waste of time, in my opinion. Why not associate with others to make the world stronger and freer? Why meditate and study subjects that have no meaning?”
“I don’t know, Frid,” I lie. Perhaps Frid likes the interactions between people, but I feel exhausted and drained after every social gathering. For a very long time, it was me, by myself, and occasionally Cantor or even the Dolor who would speak to me. The rest of the time, I was alone and thinking. I don’t believe I’d mind joining the “scholars” for an afternoon to see what they do just to avoid a banquet full of people who leave me feeling void of privacy and energy.
Even my appearance in front of the people make me wish I could stay in my rooms, perhaps spend the afternoon bathing in the lavatio. I close my eyes in happiness. Yes, that would be wonderful. I hope Edite is close by.
He pushes the chair into the middle of the room and waits for my orders. “Just leave me next to the sofa. I need Edite.”
“May I be of service instead?” He holds his hand to his chest and uses the other to take mine.
“I...I suppose. I just do not believe that I,” I stop and shake my head. I need to bathe! His helping would not be appropriate! I just imagine seeing Edite walking in on him drawing the water and moving me to the bath, and I know I am right. “No, I don’t believe you could be of service to me at the moment, Frid.” His face falls and he nods, trying to cover up disappointment that is so evident.
“I will leave you then. Addio, mio amore.” He kisses me on the cheek and then leaves me. I stare at the doorway to my dressing room. That room leads to the lavatio. Do I really need Edite’s help? I could walk there, albeit slowly, and somehow manage to undo the clasps and laces and start the faucet for my bath...I’m sure I could...but the list is daunting.
Certainty is sacrificial to gain independence.
Edite bustles in pink and beaming, and I smile heartily. “Edite!” There is the girl who is my certainty. When I no longer need her…
I almost hope that I will never not need her. Independence is overrated.
“Yes, start my bath immediately.”
She bows and pushes my chair to the lavatio. As she prepares the water, I am left by the balcony again, where I can see the excitement and entertainment in the streets. Every road is full of performances, whether it be dancers, musicians, actors or singers. I yearn to be there. I remember Edite’s description of plays and the sound of the musicians playing their hearts to me. But the music reminds me of the Invicta, and I cannot take much joy from them as I originally believed. I look to the plaza, where a number of games and activities are set up for children. One corner is a doll show. In another, a food stand. The opposite side is filled up with the people who also participate in group dancing. They hold hands and twirl, and even from up here, I can hear their merry laughs and cries.
To be like them! To not know the horrors! What do they think? What do they worry over? What pains them? What do their dreams consist of?
“Do you think that I could go down...into the city?”
“After your banho? I think not, Mestre wouldn’t allow it. After what happened earlier...” she pauses and I can’t hear her over the running water. I smile a little; I wonder what she saw exactly. She must think me inappropriate or bold, but I cannot make myself care enough. “Medice wants you to rest, senhora. Perhaps after some sleep tonight, you will go tomorrow.”
“Do you think Frid will allow it?”
“Perhaps, senhora, but let’s see what mood he is in then.”
“Do you know his moods?”
Edite turns pink and busies herself with the towels, “Only some, senhora. The man has many.”
I laugh, “Very true, Edite.” I close my eyes and touch my smiling lips. A loud shout from below breaks my daydream and I turn to Edite, “Is it ready?”
“Sim, senhora. Do you need-”
“No, I can stand easily, just take my clothes.” Edite obeys and sheds my layers of clothing like feathers of a bird. She walks away with the dress and corset and chemise folded, and I step into the water. The soap and oils have healed my hair. It is long and parts easily when I run my hand through it. My rough fingers feel like they’ve touched a silk pillow.
But when I take the slippery soap to my body, I cannot ignore the scars. I cannot ignore how they got there. I cannot stop from recalling what the Dolor did...what the Invicta did. The criss-crosses all over my arms and back, the slices that gouged into the skin of my stomach, the brand that still marks me as 164. I sit on the step receding into the pool and catch my breath. My legs and lungs burn as if they have been running. My face wrinkles with pain and I lower my head into my hands.
How long will these memories haunt me? How many nightmares do I have to live through every day? Some idea, some mention that reminds me of it all, and it is over! I cannot help but relive it.
I sigh and raise my head, wiping unwanted tears from my cheeks. More water replaces them, and now I cannot tell if it is tears or just bathwater. I dunk my whole head in the water and come up some time later, gasping and sputtering as my hair flips a rainfall of water over me. I blink and the world has become different. Clouds block the sun, and from my seat inside the lavatio, I can feel droplets of rain coming through the transparent curtains. Sounds of bare feet slapping damp ground can be heard below as the music stops and the laughter turns into groans and cursings of the weather. The sounds of merriment end quickly, and they torture me much less.
I huff and lie my head back on a step half submerged in water. At least everyone in the city is disappointed now.
I take prandium with Frid in my dressing room the following day, he gorging into his sauteed mushrooms, onions and zucchini, and I nibbling at my ciabatta roll. At the side of his plate, he looks over a parchment full of figures and characters. Since we sat down, his mouth has been silent. The reticence between us is hard to break. But I want what I want. At the end of my bite, I thickly swallow and sip my mulsum. “Frid, I was thinking that perhaps later today I could go down to the city and see the festival.”
“Ummm, not today. You-” he drifts off, still perplexed by the parchment. A few seconds later, he is totally enraptured by the paper again. I roll my eyes and take a bite of the white, flaky fish. Surely, his business as a Senator could not be that distracting!
I finish as much as I can off the plate and stand slowly. All I hear is a page flip. “Thank you, Frid. For your presence, at least.”
Frid nods, “Perhaps we can talk later, Amalia.” and then he nearly bolts out of the room. I can hear the door slam as he makes his escape. I look at the mess of my table and ring the bell for Edite. As she cleans up the crumbs and the platters, I inquire, “Edite? Could you take me somewhere? Just for a few hours.”
“Senhora, I do not think it is wise for you to go down there. The people will recognize you! There could be spies! You could have another attack!You could faint, or be trampled or-”
“Edite! You do not even know where it is I wish to go yet. It’s not the streets. You won’t have to worry.”
“Oh, of course, senhora! Where is it that you’d like to go?”
“I’ll show you.”
Edite brings a blanket along with and wraps it around my legs, even though the breeze coming from the sea is warm and brief. We travel down a long hallway, turn at the courtyard and I see it approaching in a few meters. “It’s right here, Edite.” The alcove. It’s walls are nearly windows. I can look out to the city at three different angles to see the festivities.
“Senhora,” Edite sighs. “You bring yourself so much ache and disappointment by this. Why couldn’t you look from your personal veranda?”
“I wanted to see Gazea from a different place. I can see more of the mountains this way. This is beautiful. I will sit here for some time.”
“Do you wish for me to stay by you?”
“No, I will be fine on my own. I have the bell, anyways.I can ring it if I need you.”
“If you insist.”
“I do. Now go and...I don’t know. Join the festival! Eat, drink, dance. Take a few hours off.”
“But if you need me...how will I know? What worth is the bell?”
“Oh I don’t know!” I exclaim with frustration. “Just...don’t check up on me, alright? I want to be left alone.”
“Of course” She bows and is nearly silent in her retreat.
I lean my head back on the wheelchair and roll my wheels to the side of the left wall. I can indeed see more of the rugged mountains. They are not jagged and rocky and white like those in the distance, but rounded on the top and the roundness of trees nearly cover it all. At the base is the city and it stretches all the way to the sandy shore. In the center is the second largest building (the palace being the largest), with three spires pointing to the sky. Unlike the beauty of the archways and white stone of the palace, this is gray and gothic. Still, that attracts the largest crowd in the area, and I glance over other parts of the city, trying to see if there is any unique activity that I haven’t spotted yet.
In some squares, where roadends meet, it is filled with circles of shouting and jeering men. Sometimes, dogs are thrust into the middle, where it becomes so confusing that I cannot tell what happens until one stands and another stays on the ground, defeated.
I shiver and draw up the blanket around me, suddenly glad that Edite brought it along. I drift my eyes and find a stadium. It has cracked, white stone, with no ceiling. and I can see hundreds of people the size of dots sitting on the stone seats. In the center, two horses charge toward each other. When they meet, some collision occurs, but the angle of the pillars of the stadium cut me off from seeing the result.
“Are you dreaming of the day you will become a leader over them?” A voice interrupts my thoughts. I nearly jump out of my seat in response. My first sight of the man is his dark red vest embroidered with black, shiny thread. I sigh and take in the rest of him. A feather placed on the side of his black hat that lays on the perfect angle of his thick hair. His shirt underneath is loose and hanging on his towering form, trimmed with lace at the collar and the cuffs. I find my eyes wavering on parts of his chest where it has not been tied all of the way.
“Lord Enrique, I did not expect-”
“Lo siento, dama. I have to assure that I originally did not mean to disturb you. But then I changed my mind. You were much too content”
“Well, I was just thinking, sir.”
“And what was it that you were thinking of, dama?”
“It was not of my ruling over them,” I correct. “I was thinking of how I wish to be one of them. Down there, enjoying myself, and not tied up here.”
“Who is to stop you?”
“Frid-gidianus. The senator. He wants me to rest. To be safe. I haven’t set a foot outside since I was taken here.”
“You looked so well at the banquet. What could have-”
“I had an accident,” I state, turning pink. “I hit my head and fainted. So I’ve been ordered to bed all day.”
“But the festival only lasts a few more days! The jousting tournament starts tonight! It’s a pity that they would have you miss out on the celebration. It is for you, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” I smile at the irony. “The honored guest has missed her party. There will be another, I suppose.”
“If you could see the festivals in Sollante! They are unimaginable compared to this tiny fiesta. Parades! Balls! Ballets! Galleries! Speeches! Endless food...he drifts off and walks closer to me. I watch his eyes scrutinize the city, looking at the underbelly, the harbor, the trading sector, the grounds of the palace.
“They sound wonderful.” He is right, I cannot imagine.
“Perhaps..” he stops and shakes his head, a simper growing on his lips. I look at him expectantly. “Perhaps, I take you into the city? I could escort you to the most wholesome activities.”
I laugh and beam at him, “You would do that? I don’t know what I’ve done to deserve this!’
He turns pink and his grin grows wider. “Well, if Senator Frigidumnus is being unreasonable, someone else needs to step in.”
“And that person is determined to be you?”
“Dama, do you really know anyone else in this palace? The Senator has clearly been hogging your attention.”
“Does it incite jealousy, sir?” I raise an eyebrow at him.
“Not to me,” he covers quickly, “But a man must surely know that such a pleasant young woman cannot be hid away and locked in her chambers for months on end!”
“I have not been locked in there!” I defend, “at first I was very limited. I could not even walk-” I stop, shocked at myself. Since when is it wise to exclaim my sufferings and weaknesses to someone I have only been introduced to? They could take those weaknesses and somehow use me...
But Lord Enrique does not prod further. The information seems to pass through his brains without registering; his face is totally blank. I recover and finish, “I am recovering. That is all.”
“One little step at a time, eh?”
“Er,” He fiddles with his hands awkwardly. “Do you require anything from your chambers?”
“No, this blanket will do.”
“Be prepared, Amalia. I will now commence the start of your first festival since your return to civilization!” I laugh at the excitement and the way he speaks the words in his accent.
He pushes me through the palace swiftly and sneakily. Somehow, he navigates us through the emptiest parts of the building; we don’t pass a single soul. But when we near a stairwell, Lord Enrique measures up my chair carefully. It is impossible. “Here,” I reach out for him. He stands very close and accepts my hand. I grip it and use it to support me as I stand and try to get used to the sensation of standing again.
“Can we continue?” He gently prods. I wait a few seconds, waiting for my head to clear out the face of the Dolor. I finally nod, and we descend the steps slowly.
We are on the ground level now, and the magnificent halls have huge vaulted ceilings. The stone is covered in beautiful colors, paintings depicting a blue sky with clouds and nude children with wings. I giggle at the absurd sight.
“Why are there people in the clouds, Lord Enrique?”
“They’re angels,” he answers and scrutinizes the ceiling painting as well. “Probably looking at us with absurdity at what we look like.”
“Where did you get that idea from?” I laugh at him.
“Look at that one! He looks like he sees something quite hysterical.” He points at one that rather does look like a snickering, amused child.
It lingers in my mind for a moment. Are there people who look down at us from the sky, these ‘angels’ who laugh at our stupidity? Do the rituals, the statuses, the employment we have-everything we fuss over-does it really matter in the long run?
“Do you think what we do is funny?” I lace my arm through his and turn into him.
His eyes widen as he takes me in for a second. “Senorita, everything I do in this country appears silly to you revolutionaries! If I nap in the middle of the day, they think me lazy! If I stay up into the early hours of the morning, they think me treacherous! But that is how we do it in my country.”
“So you think our rituals funny too?”
“I think it is funny that a country who was so desperate to be free ten years ago, has turned straight around and become worse than the government that used to torment them.”
I sigh, “I apologize, Lord Enrique. But I fear that I do not have anything to say on the subject. Or even want to-these past few weeks have been full of depressing discoveries about the country I once led.”
“I am sure it was a shock to see it in such a state.”
“Quite.” I simply agree and pass into another room, leaving the smirking ‘angels’ behind. This room is inhabited by more; women and men dressed in robes similar to ones I’ve seen the Senators wear all the time. They smile and chat and mingle, sometimes moving to different circles to speak to others. Not a single one of them looks upset or angry. Some scan parchment, and others just declare what they think. The steps leading down to the room are very few, so this time, I do not mind it.
“Hurry,” Lord Enrique pulls me along gently and without anyone’s noticing. We pass into another room, this grander and full of paintings and portraits. I can hear our breaths and footsteps echo through the hall.
“Why did we evade them so?”
“Those are people who exchange ideas, inventions, news, and gossip. They come here whenever they have something to share, or want to find out.”
“Are they scholars?”
“Partly,” he explains, “Some of the scholars come down from their studies to talk of their theories and discoveries, but politicians and Senators, especially their wives-oh their wives!-love a good gossip or scheme about troop positions, crop failures or successes, bills introduced to the Senate, any type of scrap of news.”
“How are you so familiar with their customs?”
“I’ve spent months and months in this palace, and it seems like the same people come here every time, even when King Quirinus and Queen Laima were alive. I know if they recognized you, they would pounce and not let you leave for hours.”
“Thank you, sir, for saving me from such a fate.”
The end of the hall is the entrance, an archway that spans the whole wall. Carvings so intricate and minute that I could study the design for hours. When we pass underneath it, I smile and look upward at it, the underneath just as impressive.
In front of us is a courtyard with a large fountain spewing crystal-clear water into a large pool. Some birds flap on the surface, washing themselves before flying away again. Trees with little green fruit surround the whole perimeter, casting shade from the glaring sun. I can sometimes catch a glimpse, feel just occasionally, what it must be like to enjoy the outdoors. But trees and wildlife and flowers are wholly absent on my balcony.
“I have not been outside, sir. Other than a few moments on my balcony, I have not stepped outside until now,” I explain bashfully.
“I am honored that I could witness the event.”
Lord Enrique guides me down a white stone path, which curves around trees and gardens full of yellow, red, pink, blue, violet, and orange colors. Sometimes, large, clipped bushes line the path as well, or mark paths and enclose dead-ends. All around, I can hear birds and the occasional hoot of an owl, including the chirps and clicking of insects.
We approach another arch, signalling the end of the grounds. I can picture black-iron gates barring the town from the palace, but nothing is there. I frown at my own obscurity and ask, “Were there gates at the arch at one point?”
“Si, until the palace was overrun and the king and queen imprisoned. The crowd unhinged the barrier and threw it to the ground. Someone ordered it to stay open from then on.”
“To signify the cooperation of the people with the government, and vice versa. The Senate can not forget that they work for the people.”
I shake my head, almost feeling as if I was just in a daze. Lord Enrique watches me closely, almost surprised that I would say that. I’m surprised I said it. Was it Amalia who remembered it? Was it her reasoning for getting rid of the gates? Is that how I remembered it in the first place?
“As the pompous pig that I am, I’m shocked you could ignite some type of patriotism within me!” he rings out in laughter.
The gate truly signifies the city. Immediately, I am hit with an aroma of smells-spices, sweat, feces-both human and animal, and salt. The plaza is full of dancers and food stands. The musicians I am wary of, although, none have white hair or hold the harp. There is a lute, a viol, a recorder and an extra high-pitched instrument held horizontally to the mouth. I smile at the merry tune, even though the notes sometimes clash together unharmoniously. Beside me, Lord Enrique nods in time with the beat of a pounding pulse from a musician pounding on a cylindrical stool-looking instrument. I tap my foot with it and watch the dancers with yearning. They clap to the beat and the offbeats, twirl, change places in positions, grab hands and spin, and their laughs are as equal to the most beautiful instrument there.
Lord Enrique turns to me, bows and entreats, “Join me in this dance, dama,”
My smile grows wide as I accept his hand, and he pulls me to the circle, where everyone’s arms are clasping backs. I barely realize that Lord Enrique’s arm is covering my shoulders and that mine is underneath, as well as touching another person’s back. I am caught up in it and I ignore the struggle that my legs should be experiencing at the moment. The next part of the dance separates into partners, I am not with Lord Enrique, although I do face another. I smile at him, barely noticing his features or his clothes, only the way he dances: nimble and joyous. I’m not exactly sure what I’m supposed to be doing, only that I am moving, shouting, laughing at my stupidity, clapping and stomping with my partner. We come together in the middle and he gently pushes me to the right. I gasp as I land against someone’s shoulder.
He takes my arms and twirls me around to face him. I am blushing at our closeness, and then I see who it is. I struggle to keep eye contact with his brown eyes, lit with life and excitement. When he sees me though, and our eyes catch for the slightest moment, they darken, and I can almost feel time slow down as we continue in the dance. There is heat in the way we brush against each other, or when he spins my waist with his large hands.
Again, I have no clue as to what I am doing, only aware when he lets me go and sends me to another partner. As the music plays on, I turn my head almost every second, trying to see where he is. The other men hold no interest for me. I just wish to be led by Lord Enrique.
I gain more joy watching his eyes dance than someone’s legs hopping and arms flopping about in front of me. My legs burn and I almost falter for a moment. Pain still lances through them as I continue to try my best at the end, as the musicians slow and stop. Everyone claps and I follow. They disperse and I am lost. I blink rapidly and turn in circles, trying catch sight of my guide. I move from the next formation created for another dance. Is he dancing again, or is he waiting for me somewhere? Shouldn’t he be towering over them all?
“Are you looking for someone specific?” A voice sounds next to me. I start and then let out a laugh.
“I was looking for you,” I admit.
“In all honesty, dama, I actually left the dance before it ended. I thought I would buy this for you.”
He holds open a rudely crafted box and puts it into my hand. The object is held by string. And the sign, something curiously shaped. The triangular patterns remind me of an arrowhead, and I look up, confused. “What do you mean by this?”
“I saw it in a stand, thought it nice, and bought it! What else is there to do with never-ending money?” I shake my head with a smile and close the box.
“Are you sure it isn’t supposed to mean something?”
“I doubt it. If you want to see the type of religious necklaces available, there are stalls and vendedores full of them near the templo.”
“Could I see the temple? I’ve never heard of it from anyone.”
This has been here for centuries! How do you not remember it?” He asks me curiously. My throat encloses and I cannot speak. I scan the square, people still dancing, and if not, observing, laughing, clapping, eating. But I expect the Dolor to seize me, to take me back for mentioning the secret. That I cannot recall a religious temple, I cannot recall faces I once knew.
“My lord, shall we continue? Before I tire too much?”
“Of course, dama, but I am mystified. All day now, I’ve had to explain and inform you of people, events, places, that you have known all of your life.” My breath heightens and I cannot look at him. He knows! I walk faster, trying to leave him behind.
“Dama! Is it memory loss?” he shouts over the crowds. I stop and wait for him to catch up, breathing in and out, so fast my lungs hurt. I jump when he touches my shoulder . It seems like everyone is staring at me, everyone thinking me insane, strange, defiled, evil. I can feel his breath on my ear as he tries to whisper to me, but I cannot hear. There is a deafening roar of the wind, the sea, a wild beast in my ears.
I stumble along as he nearly drags me across the street, weaving in and out of the people passing. He stops me in a rather deserted alley, where the roar is not so loud. I lean back against the wall and breathe. Enrique advances towards me and I hunch my shoulders, shrinking into myself. “Don’t hurt me! Please don’t hurt me.”
Lord Enrique sputters and touches my chin, lifting my face. I watch him with fear, too stiff to move, now that he knows…
“Dama, I cannot hurt you. Slapping a woman is a crime in my country. Besides, why would I? Am I the least bit threatening?"
He chuckles for a moment. I shake my head and gulp, gaining better control of my senses.
“Why did you lead me here? Alone?”
“Any moment there, I thought you were going to black out and fall, or get trampled. I wanted to bring you here to calm.” I look at him, nodding and breathing less and less. “See? Nothing malicious.”
“I know...I sometimes become anxious. Anyone and everything is a threat.” I pass my hand over my eyes and squeeze them shut. My lips curl painfully as I try to stop painful tears.
“What exactly happened to you in that prison, mi querido? Is this the effect of what they did?”
“My lord,” I wipe my face and squeeze my eyes shut. I see the Dolor's pudgy face leering. Him slicing my skin, pouring boiling oil on my hands, and then the blue potion nearing my face when I couldn't lift it to my face.
“What they did was torture me and then they erased my memory.” I clasp my hands and unclasp them again at my sides, squeezing them hard to let out the tension. I glance up at his face, starting to feel the breath going in and out too fast.
Surprise, shock, alarm, astonishment. His expressions change as he keeps trying to find words to respond. “They...erased your memory? How?”
“I don’t know. He made me drink this potion, ” I stop abruptly and smack my lips, tasting it again. I grip his arms to keep me on my feet. My voice chokes as I remember him forcing it through my lips when I was more defiant in the beginning. “And I...I drank it every time...It made me forget everything.”
“So...the politics, the banquet? You didn’t recall old friends, colleagues, do you...do you even know who you are?”
I squeeze his strong arms, trying to relay the message, “Lord Enrique, I don’t remember. I didn’t even remember my fidanzato. The man I once loved!”
“And who is that?” He blurts out, reaching out to steady me as well. I grip the wall behind me, trying to stay standing. My legs, my feet, my head...they are all in pain.
“Frid…” I stop, realizing the intimacy in his name. “Senator Frigidianus. We were about to be married when they took me away.” Lord Enrique’s face falls and he steps away from me.
“Are you going to continue your plans of marriage, then?”
“What? Marriage...to Frigidianus?” I frown and think for a moment. What would that entail? What would it require of me? “I don’t know, we haven’t spoke of such things. I...I never thought about it before…” I think of the embraces we share almost daily. What more is there, why such a title on that word? Why so important?
“Dama Amalia,” he snaps me out of my dream. “Shall I deliver you back to ‘Frid’?” I glance back at him, confused at the bitter tone he adopted when he said his nickname. But his expression is simple, the ever-present smile on his face. “Do you wish to return-?”
“Absolutely not!” I exclaim. He laughs at my reaction.
“Are you well enough to continue?”
“My lord,” I smirk at him. “I’ve waited weeks for this. I’m not going back until you’ve taken me to what there is to see.”
He laughs again, casting my panicked mood to oblivion, and offers his arm to me. I beam as I take it, smiling up at him happily. I watch as his brows crease in confusion, or perhaps concentration. He leans down and presses his lips to my hair affectionately. I blink rapidly, and turn away from him, knowing that his eyes will be searching for my reaction, which is altogether fickle at the moment.
I feel if Frid saw us, he’d be angry, but if we were alone, not surrounded by hundreds of people, I would want pull him closer. Again, not something Frid would approve of.
“So…” he suggests, “the temple it is?”
“Shhh,” Lord Enrique whispers and then laughs, bumping into the wall as I lean into him. I giggle all over again and grasp at him to stay steady.
“Shh,” he warns, but his every breath is a laugh. “Do you know how late it is? It’s a wonder your maid hasn’t set the whole palace into alarm searching for you.” I nod. It’s been hours since Lord Enrique and I left for the festival, where we danced, drank, ate, watched and cheered at the jousting arena, toured the ancient temple of the gods, and sat in the sand by the big blue waters, something he called océano. He looked over at me once, as it started to get dark.
“Look at the sky, dama. Do you see that star? If I follow that exact one, it will lead me to my home.” He then pointed at a small speck, almost unrecognizable in the midst of thousands of others.
I grinned at him and pointed back to the cobblestones, “And if you follow that road, it will lead you to mine.”
He swatted his hand at me and chuckled. “I suppose we should follow the road then, since it is terribly late?” After that, he held out his hand and pulled me up. I brushed off the sand on my skirts and let him guide me back to the castle, joking and teasing with me all the way.
“She probably has,” I laugh now, “But they must have assumed me dead and given up.”
“Or kidnapped by the Invicta!” He bursts out laughing. At the name I would usually cringe, but it strikes me funny, since everything he says is amusing, so I point and laugh even harder than before. My stomach aches from laughter, and I double over, holding it for relief. I raise my head, slightly recovering, and freeze. Near me, Enrique still chuckles, but my cackling mood has disappeared.
“My lord! Did you...did you see that?”
“What?” He frowns.
“I’m not sure exactly. Something moved. I..don’t know. It was watching us.”
“Then let us investigate!” His eyebrows raise in mischief.
“But...what if that’s not such a good idea?”
His eyes roll, “It was also ‘not such a good idea’ of him to sneak around. In Sollante, a spy like that could die without trial!”
“You won’t do that, will you?”
“Well it isn’t Sollante, is it?” I laugh through my nose and shake my head. “But we’ll still go after him! Onward!” He impulsively grabs my hand and pulls me along after the figure. For our previous hilarity, we both are successful in slinking after the intruder. Lord Enrique slyly moves his head past the corner wall and gestures to me with a fake solemnity that nearly makes me start laughing all over again. I cover my mouth as I choke out a sound on accident. Lord Enrique shoots me an alarmed looked and presses a finger to his lips. I recover and gesture for him to continue.
I follow him, crouching down against the wall, hoping the shadows will hide us. I don’t see anyone ahead of us, and I wonder if what I saw was an illusion, a dream, even a memory. Amalia sometimes does it to me; sending me images like the black iron gate.
Then, I remember the pair of eyes watching Frid and me discussing the Blind Ones when I first left my rooms. I remember Frid telling me the Invicta is on the loose at il banchetto.I suddenly freeze. Enrique turns after a few feet of my halter. He shakes his head at me and waves me forward. I clasp my hands together and shake my head vigorously. “No,” I whisper firmly. “No I can’t.”
“Amalia, why? What are you worried over?”
“What...what if it’s him?” I grasp his hands and look him in the eyes, needing him to see my sobriety. “What if he wants us to follow him?” My face shrivels and I pull away from him.
“Or it’s some servant who wondered at the noises we were making and decided to find it! It really could be just about anybody. The odds of the Invicta being in this palace is close to none.”
“And yet,” my eyebrows rise and my eyes water, “he was here only a few days ago, dressed as a harpist! And those odds were next to nothing? No, his chances are doubled, nay, even quadrupled just because of who he is. I won’t go after him.”
“Dama,” he sighs and lifts off his hat, scratching his damp curly hair. “The Invicta wants you to fear him, to never face him. But you must! No doubt, he is some weasly little man who thinks himself so powerful-”
“But he is! Have you not heard what he’s done? What he is still doing?”
“Of course,” his voice softens as he catches himself. He doesn’t want to be pushy, but we’re both stubborn. “Pray tell, dama. Do you not want to find out who did that to you?”
“How are we supposed to find out his identity if we don’t search ceaselessly and bravely?”
“I confess,” my face falls, “Lord Enrique, I am not brave. I am weak, and frightened. And I say all of these words that they should mean something...but they don’t at all.”
“Do you even want to catch the Invicta?” He asks bewilderedly.
“Yes!” I cry, “But I fear doing that will dig up painful memories. Ones that I wish to keep deeply buried."
"Dama, it is a choice. Do you wish to bring your captor to justice, bringing all of the emotions that it will, or will you deal with the pain that this monster got away?"
“Someone else can catch him. it just won’t be me.”
“How? You are the only person to come back. You know more than anyone.”
“No I don’t! I never saw the Invicta. Was never even told his name. I just knew the Dolor. He never once spoke of a maestro. Never spoke of why his purpose was to get rid of my memory."
"So that means you must have learned who the Invicta was in the past. That is why you had to lose your memories. So he could keep his secret." How did I miss that? How was it such an obvious an answer that I never thought it, but this air headed gentleman did?
"Lord Enrique...you are more perceptive and clever than I give you credit for!"
His tan hue turns pink as he shrugs, "You sometimes have to see situations from different perspectives to understand them."
"Thank you, my lord. I don't know why I hadn't thought that before."
"The Invicta is greatly discussed, even praised for his secrecy and purpose in Sollante, but his methods are controversial there. I have heard and know much of the good and bad. And that he will do anything to keep himself anonymous." He looks at me earnestly. "Don't ever forget that."
"Then why are we going after him?"
"Because you will do anything to bring him to justice. I know this. And you know this, even if you are scared to death of him."
"If I go with you," I pause to breathe evenly, "promise that you won't abandon me there."
Lord Enrique smiles gently and takes my hand, "Never," he says gently, and seals it with a press of lips to them.
He waits for a moment, letting me recover before he stands again. We are more quick this time, making up for the moments he rallied me. I blindly follow, not letting myself think about what I am doing. For all I know, Lord Enrique could be the Invicta's spy, leading me into a trap. If I am mistaken, then I will never trust another again.
If I am mistaken, these could be my last moments. The Invicta, seeing that I am of no more use to him, could kill me.
When I was in the prison...I remember not caring if I died. That it was something I wouldn't worry about, that eventually, I would face it, in the prison or later in life. Now that I could be walking straight into it, I wish I still had that mentality so I wouldn't be so frightened.
We pass doorways shedding candlelight under the door, passages with open windows that cast in the brightness of the stars and moon, and hear the nostalgic tunes of late-night soloist musicians below. I hear the haunting and melodic sound of a lone harp and freeze, clutching Lord Enrique's arm. He stops and looks back at me, raising his eyebrows at my hand clenching his elbow. I lower my head and release him. The sound could be from any musician in a city full of thousands of people.
Hours seem to pass as we creep along the palace halls, but eventually, Enrique points to a doorway. Somehow, he has been following the person since I saw them. Did he recognize who it was and go directly to their chambers?
He puts out his hand to stop me as he walks straight to the doorway without making a sound. He pushes the door slightly open and walks inside. I nearly shout at him to stop, but the more rational part of me shuts my mouth and runs after him. I stop in the doorway, seeing the empty bedchamber. It is more elaborate, more expensively furnished than my own and I gawk at the mountains of displayed food waiting to be devoured.
Piles of animal furs are stacked on the bed, walking canes are put against tables and a blindfold is left on the bed.
"Where is he?" I hiss.
"Do you hear that?"
I stop and listen. Sounds, human ones, are echoing from the lavatio. Lord Enrique turns red and looks back at me with question. Do I wish to continue?
The suspicion that this is perhaps not the Invicta is apparent in my head. The evidence shows clearly who this is.
I pass ahead of Lord Enrique without another word and stick to the shadows of the room, though it is not hard to hide, seeing that the only source of light, a candle, was distinguished by a splash of water and was not relit.
Two people are in the water, the woman's long black hair covering the nakedness of her back. My cheeks flare with heat and I look behind to Lord Enrique who lowers his eyes in embarrassment. The Blind One faces us, and it is oh-so clear that this one is not blind. Remigius’ eyes watch her with satisfaction as she kisses his skin, moving from his slick neck to his smirking mouth. Bright blue eyes that watched us laughing together earlier. Blue eyes that I have not forgotten since my tour of the palace.
I feel sick and turn into Enrique stealthily. “Go” I mouth.
He nods and holds my hand as he leads me back to the bedchamber. I point to the lavatio and hiss, “He’s a fake! He’s not blind! How can he get away with something so huge as this?”
“Hush, they are still in there. The only reason I found this room is because of that woman following him. Even though they just got started, I don’t want them to hear us.”
“I wonder who she is.”
“A maid, obviously.”
“How do you know that?” I hiss. Lord Enrique pushes me out the door and closes it gently, leading us back the way we came as he explains.
“Firstly, her clothes were littered all over the floor. Plain fabric, dirty shawl and apron.’
“That is unless she snuck it from her maid and disguised herself.”
"Clever but not the case, dama. No Senator’s wife would endanger themselves by entertaining a Blind One. Especially a not-so-Blind-One. That group is supposedly the most honest group of abstaining individuals in the country; I’ve heard some Senators boast even the whole world.”
“So Amalia’s invention is a flop? A lost cause?”
“Perhaps not all the way. I would say the ones you hand-picked are trustworthy, fair and honest. But who knows? Ten years can change a human being for the worst or the better.”
“But if one member of a group that is supposed to uphold and judge the law breaks a law, how many others are participating in illegal activities?”
“Something worth investigating, I’m sure.”
“Definitely. I just don’t know how to inquire without looking suspicious or inconspicuous.”
“Request to monitor them. To see how they work. They would be honored to show off to you, their founder, how just and fair they are.”
“But then they will put on a show,” I point out. "They won't be themselves."
He snaps his fingers in delight, “I’ve got it. Find a Blind One that is seen as the fairest one of all. Ask him, but leave all of the others in the dark.”
“Since they cannot see me, and if I stay silent, they won’t know I’m there! Genius!”
“I have been called many things, dama, and genius is not one of them,” he laughs.
“Oh?” my face heats up, “What have you been called?”
“Fregon, imbecil, bobo, estulto, idiota, el bufon...all very nice, I assure you.” He chuckles.
“You are highly esteemed by the people around you?”
He glances at me with confusion and then laughs, almost bitterly. “Well, of course, dama! Everyone loves a caballero who has a bit of la mosca.”
“I think I’m sorry, if I am understanding what you are saying…” my mouth tightens into a thin line, hoping I do not hurt him in any way.
“There is no reason for you to be sorry for me, Dama, not after what I’ve found out about you today. There is nothing for me to complain about.”
“My lord,” I stop in the hallway and he faces me. I take his hand, my heart pounding up to my ears, and run my fingers over it, back and forth, back and forth. His eyes watch my gloved hands, and I can hear him swallow loudly before he looks back up at me, questioning in his eyes.
“Yes?” He whispers.
“Just because I have suffered...doesn’t mean that you haven’t.”
“Compared to your life, past and present, my whole existence is a breeze.”
“Some people have a whirlwind of a life, Lord Enrique. And for some it passes by like yours as you say, though I do believe you are underestimating yourself.” He smiles warmly and looks down at my hands, now engulfing his large one. “I can still have empathy for you...am I allowed that? Even when you don’t conceive it?”
“If it means you will do this,”his eyes twinkle with mischief, “then yes,” he flirts. I let go of his hand with a smirk and fall in next to his side, matching his pace back to my chambers. I have long ignored the ache in my legs and the cramps in my stomach protesting movement. The pain can almost be ignored in its dullness, but the last staircase to the floor of my chambers is a trial. Even with me gripping the railing, and Lord Enrique letting me lean on him, I can’t make it to the top. I sit down on a step a quarter way up, pushing back memories of a pitch-black maze: a labyrinth that echoes familiar voices and the screams of fellow prison mates.
“Dama? Do you-” He pauses uncomfortably, and finishes, bringing me out of the darkness in my head. “Do you want me to carry you up?"
I nod humbly as tears fall down my face. I’ll shout and praise the day when I can walk on my own, without the help of another person or thing. He bends down next to me and wraps an arm around my back, his hand resting on my stomach, which suddenly flips unexpectedly. Am I sick? But it isn’t the same. His other arm goes underneath my knees and I lean forward, situating my many skirts and petticoats so they cover any leg skin showing.
He starts to move and then stops, shifting my weight, figuring the best and stablest way to carry me up. I rub the moisture of my face into his velvet vest and then peer over his shoulder, where a large stained glass portrait is hauntingly shining by the glow of the moonlight. The picture depicts a type of glorious occasion, two beings coming down from the sky to the multitude of people below. The center is a yellow patch, made even brighter by the white light. I can only imagine the colors it casts when the sun is present. I look at my hand, a deep purple. I move it higher, and it is the same yellow as the beam of light.
“Enjoying the stained glass?” He looks at my face and smiles.
“Yes,” I say in wonder, sounding almost dazed. “It’s beautiful.”
“It’s supposed to be a picture of the gods coming down to their people for the first time, thousands of years ago. The myth has multiple variations.”
“What did they do that is so memorable?”
“Some say they gave the gift of bearing children, others the skill of fire. Others say that every seed rained down at their coming and created plants, and thus, food.”
“All are the necessities of life.”
“Or to make it,” he adds and then turns pink.
“Is that...that is what they were doing? Remigius and the maid?”
“Yes.” He clears his throat, and looks away uncomfortably.
“Have you ever made a child?”
He jerks to a stop and gives me a glare. “A bold question for such recently acquainted people! Not even a wife would ask her husband that.”
“So you won’t answer me?” He stares straight ahead, his jaw fixed and closed. I look down at my lap and my face heats up. What does it mean? That he has been so close to a woman and is ashamed to tell me, or that he hasn’t and is still ashamed to tell me? “I apologize, my Lord. I didn’t know the question would offend you. I still am confused about what to say and-”
“I forgive you, Dama. I should have realized you do not know what is appropriate. The question is just very personal to some.”
“Does 'some' include you?”
“Again,” he chuckles, “A very personal question.”
“I suppose I’m just trying to trick you into answering me.”
“Would you think of me less or more if I told you the answer?”
“I suppose I wouldn’t know until you tell me.”
“Then I won’t risk it. Especially since my life is none of your business.”
My eyes are trained on the floor. I am ashamed at my intrusion on his privacy. I would think him rude if he asked me such a thing. Truthfully, I wouldn’t know the answer if it was supposed to include Amalia’s life.
“I’m sorry. I won’t try to trick you again.”
“That’s alright.” He forces a tight smile. “I am not that much of el bufon that I would fall for it.”
“Good,” I say to say something. I fear I have run out of words, of topics. And I fear he has too, especially after my wretched intrusion of his private life.
So he carries me up the steps in silence and even continues on through the corridors, his arms not even straining to hold me and the layers of blue skirts that probably weigh the as much as a child Iotha’s size.
I relax and lay my head on his shoulder, enjoying his slow pace through the halls. I shift my hand on his neck, and I nearly jump when I grip the skin not covered by his curly hair. He stiffens as well and glances at me for a second.
“I believe we are here?”
So soon? “Thank you Lord Enrique. It was a wonderful day.”
“I agree. I believe we succeeded in amusing ourselves.”
“Yes, I’ve never had so much fun.”
I bite my lip and meet his gaze, even feeling his breath on my face, smelling of the cubed meat we had together that was held together by a stick. My hands tighten on his shoulders for a second. His brows draw together and he frowns, looking away. I fight a convincing smile as he lets me back onto my feet.
“Again, I thank you for your service today.”
“It was’t service to me, Dama.” He answers earnestly and holds out his hand. I put mine in his, and he nearly kneels on the floor to kiss it lingeringly. My cheeks heat for what seems the hundredth time today and I withdraw my hand from his grip, whispering goodbye before slipping into my dark bedchamber. I lean against the door in exhaustion, the release of tension that was between us since we came from Remigius’ chambers.
Remigius! What is his purpose in even becoming a Blind One if not to be blind? There aren’t that many perks, are there? Well other than honor and esteem and free from the stress of providing for themselves. Are those reasons enough to take out one's eyes? Or to fake it and risk their life? Or is Remigius part of a different plot not made known to me yet?
I walk to my bedside table and ring my bell loudly, since Edite is most likely asleep. But after minutes of no answer, no knock on my door. I ring a few more times.
“Edite!” I shout. Usually she can hear that, even when it is the middle of the night when I have nightmares. But minutes pass by and she does not come. I frown and leave my chambers again, searching for her now. She once said that her room was connected to mine somehow. I find a small, short doorway nearest to mine and knock on it, hissing her name, hoping it is the correct door.
I push it open after again, no answer. The hinges squeak, and I cringe until I see the room. Definitely a servant's room. A narrow passage, few personal possessions, a dress laid out for the next day, and a small bed with a thin mattress that sags. But no one is here. Edite is not here.
Chapter 15: Dreams
I sit on Edite's bed and rub my head that is starting to ache. The maid's black hair, her clothes on the floor... How long has this been happening? When was I ever going to notice this huge secret in her life? She'd never mentioned him before?
I was only introduced to him a few days ago, but he had been following Frid and me before I had even met the Praeses... Surely he would have had to have been told I was alive.
But Edite. She is so loyal! So caring and attentive. She couldn't have been telling Frid's secrets. Mine too! Oh... Did she tell him that I have no memory? Has he told others? The whole Senate could know by now!
I lie back on the lumpy mattress and cover my face with my hands. What had she been doing this whole day while I was gone? Had she even noticed my absence today? Realized that I had left my spot, left the palace?
Frid must know! I can't let his secrets be told to a corrupt Blind One. I can only imagine the effects there would be for the election, for the government!
I sit up and the whole mattress sinks in the middle. I can't be here when she gets back. I grip the boards of the bed and clench my teeth as I drag myself up to my feet. I lean against the wall and shuffle out of Edite's living space.
My doorway is so close but my legs are dead. I kneel when I know I am about to lose strength. My head is dizzy and cloudy. I am so tired, so exhausted. My head falls to the cold ground and everything goes dark.
I stir, and I hear it right behind me. The monster that has been tantalizing me for hours. His voice mimics the sounds of a soothing female, one that should comfort and give me love, but all it does is make me sob. Sometime, somewhere, someone spoke to me that way. But the voice has been gone for so long, I cannot recognize the original source. A friend, a sister, Mamai?s
But then the voice changes...just like it always does. Dark, menacing, and threatening what it will do if it catches me. My voice has turned quiet, my lungs burning for air, my throat thirsting for a drink...a drink that has negative effects on me. I wonder when the Dolor will pull me out of here. Surely not too long from now. It seems like I have been on the run for days.
I drag myself up from the floor and lean on the wall. I move my hands out in front of me, waiting until I hit an empty space. Once I do, I turn to the left until I hit another wall. I keep to it, trying to get ahead of the voice. I sometimes wonder if it is a man, the Dolor himself, or an actual monster bred to take my memories and frighten me with them.
"My love," he says now. My fidanzato! I stop and listen for his voice. "Come and kiss me. I love you with every fiber of my being."
My face crumples and I turn around. "I am coming. Where are you?"
"Behind you. I miss you my love. I have searched far and wide for you. Now where are you?"
I stop. My throat clenches and tears stream down my face. That voice shouldn't be here. That voice is dead.
I spin and run the opposite direction, blindly running into walls and hitting corners of the passages.
"My love where have you gone? Come to my embrace!" My heart breaks as I try to push out thoughts of our love. So close... The traitor-that awful man-stopped us. He killed him. Killed me by taking me here. There is no coming out of this prison. Either dead...or so far from myself that it would be better if I was in body, dead.
"When will this end?" I shout to the ceiling. Will the Dolor hear? "Enough! You've tortured me enough!"
"Isn't that the point, 164?" A voice echoes throughout the chamber. I wonder if it is the Dolor, the creature or just my head.
I feel the presence of some form ahead. And it is too late to turn back, what with the voice still haunting me from behind, although I can still hear his heavy breathing as he pants.
Fear clutches me and I stop as I see the silhouette nearing. What awaits me there? Surely it is even worse than the other monster. Or perhaps it is the Dolor waiting for me to find him. But I am certain about the voice- I know what it will do. I am certain that whatever it does, I won't die. The Dolor has just created this event to get into my head.
But turning backwards and running straight for it is one of the worst possible ideas. I know what it will do!
So I run towards it. I fear less going to the voice than than the uncertainty of the dark foreboding shape that was just waiting for me to pass by. It could be the object that would earn my salvation, a weapon to defend myself, actual food, not broth laised with the potion. It could be the Dolor waiting to take me back for interrogation. It could be helpful in my situation somehow, but the risk is too high.
So I face the voice monster.
I start and sit up to someone shaking me. I look around the area. Edite is looking at me with concern, grasping my shoulders to stay up. Everything from the previous night rushes to my mind. I cringe at her touch and scramble away from her. I scrutinize her appearance; nothing is out of place. Her hair is up prettily, her eyes alert and awake, the only feature that gives her away and hints toward something odd is her half-dry, damp hair.
"Senhora! What happened to you last night?"
"I...I-I guess I fell coming back."
"Senhora. I went back to the spot I left you, and you were gone!"
"I was with Lord Enrique."
"I was with him. I can speak with or go with the people I please."
"Did Mestre give you permission?"
"Permission? To talk and walk with someone? Of course not! I am not his daughter or his servant, for that matter."
"It is just safer, senhora. To have someone always with you."
"I did have someone with me. So there is no issue."
"But..." She sputters, "it isn't the same."
"How? Because 'Mestre' is not the one to spend time with me?"
She goes quiet and turns red. "I apologize, senhora."
Perhaps I could be less impatient, but the thought of Edite betraying Frid and me, it boils my blood.
“It’s alright,” I lie, “Now, get me into my clothes for today. Frigidianus is most likely coming to greet me this morning, and he would be distraught if he saw me in this state.
“Of course. Right away, senhora.”
She helps me up and I stiffly walk step-by-step to the doorway of my rooms. Sleeping on stone floor is painful and I feel as if every joint is unwilling to move, like a rusted hinge that needs oil. “Just stretch, senhora. You’ll do better then.”
“Like this.” Edite raises both hands in the air, pointing to the ceiling. I mimic and feel an ache that soothes as well. I close my eyes.
I squeeze my eyes shut. The rope tied around my wrists is burning the skin. I wonder if it is raw now.
The Dolor yanks on his end of the rope and I have no choice as my body jerks toward the ceiling for a few seconds, making my shoulders scream with pain. I try to bend my elbows, trying to use strength to keep me up, not the rope on my extended arms alone. He drops me though, and I collapse to the dirt in a heap. A minute or two later, it happens again. The rope pulls me into the air forcefully, only to release after a few seconds. A few more times I feel the violent snap of my muscle. I scream.
“No,” I jerk to life again. I clench my fists in pain, my shoulder now even more sensitive.
Edite opens her eyes in surprise. “Is it not working?”
“I don’t think it’s helping, Edite. BUt thank you. How about you wheel me over to the dressing room.”
She brings me the wheelchair and pushes me to the intermediate room. I try hard to hide my disdain for her as she raises my dress above me. She walks to the sofa, and gasps. She drops the fabric like a dead fish and glares at me.
“What is it, Edite?” I sigh.
“You have...you got a stain on your dress, senhora.”
“I apologize, but it was going to have to be cleaned anyway.”
“I know. But...I am...I am unclean!” She turns and runs out of the room. I shake my head quickly and try to follow. But my legs force me to stop. “Edite? Come back! I need clothes! I am still undressed!”
“I must bathe!” the girl shouts and I hear the door close. Is she referencing her and Remigius?
I walk to the discarded dress, trying to find the evil stain that I accidentally placed there. I frown when I come across one. Red and near the back of my dress. I smell it and gag.
"Amalia? Are you in there?"
I jump and cover myself up, "I am indecent! Do not enter!"
"Amalia," I recognize the familiar voice now, "I understand what is going on with you. Edite informed me of it moments ago before running off for her banho."
"But Medice, I don't have a dress on. She abandoned me in the middle changing."
"Amalia, I have delivered many infants before. No one will even question a short conversation with you."
"But I do! Just get a woman to talk to me, or better, a servant to help me."
"I am already here to help you. I am not going to dress or assist in any of those areas, I won't even touch you."
"Well I suppo-"
"Good," he barges in and I clutch the dress around me tightly.
"To make this as comfortable as possible for both of us, I will keep this interview brief. Do you understand the cause of this?”
“No. It just occurred. I don’t think I was injured in any way over the course of the night.”
“Precisely. This is entirely natural.”
“Is my body that deformed?” I gape. Did the Dolor mess the functions so much that I bleed without cause?
“No!” He laughs. “No this is normal for any woman. If you didn’t I would worry.”
“But I don’t remember having this before.”
“In the prison?”
I shake my head.
“Sometimes, when women are deprived of nutritious food, or under so much stress, it goes away.”
“Is that...that’s what happened to me?” my voice shakes.
“Most likely, Amalia. And now that you have food, sleep, positive human interaction, you can see it as a blessing-”
“What? Losing blood is not a blessing!”
“Amalia, calm. Listen to me. I mean that this event is a good omen.”
“Of what exactly?”
I am silent. A child? My own? An image comes into my head of a little family. Tiny Dark-haired boys run through the crude little room. When They see me they clutch their parent's legs with fright. The adults smile at me though, and beckon me forward. The mother has black unruly hair that falls out of her bun. The father is blonde, so light that It is nearly white. He grabs the boys and pushes them to me, saying, "This is Amalia, boys."
“Do you understand, Amalia?”
I slowly nod out of my daydream and look at him. “Yes. I think I do.” I can only imagine the swelling of my stomach. Could it grow to the size of a melon? Or does it get even larger than that? Could there actually be a potential for a child to grow within me?
“This is a sign that you may bear a child, that you are healthy enough for it to happen. I wouldn’t recommend it for psychological reasons and the need for marriage. But it is all possible for you when you are ready.”
I nod profusely, biting my lip to keep from bursting out in tears.
“Are you glad, or is this just all going over your head?”
“I’m glad,” I laugh and wipe away tears. “I never thought about...my own child. Are you sure I can have one?” Another image; my body is tired, my face heated, but I am smiling. There is a child in my arms. My child. Her face is purple, but her everywhere else the skin is almost yellow in its tint, and her fingers and toes perfectly wrinkly. Her precious hands grasp the fabric of my dress. They are smooth and untouched. I compare them with my own deformed ones, and engulf hers with mine. Perhaps my protection will keep her from getting hurt like I did.
“There is never certainty." He answers, pulling me away from the possible future. "Even with this sign, many women have issues with bearing children. But we’ll just wait for that day to come and then we’ll talk.”
“Thank you, Medice.” I wish I could embrace him in a warm hug, but with my current predicament, with the lack of clothes, I doubt he would want me to even touch him, much like Edite.
“I must warn you though. This is private information. Keep it to yourself, as this subject is highly ignored by men. They won’t even want to understand it. Any questions?"
"Why does Edite think herself unclean?"
"People from her country are superstitious by nature. They believe a woman going through this process is unclean, poisonous even." Medice turns to the door, preparing to leave.
He chuckles and shakes his head, "That is just what they believe Amalia. I don't recall anyone ever catching a sickness after touching the clothes of a woman. It's all in their heads."
“Then what am I do to for however long this lasts? Do I go without a maid?”
“It’s typically no longer than a few days, so we’ll get a replacement since Edite refuses to cooperate.”
“Are you sure? She won’t even touch me?”
“She won’t want to touch anything you have touched. Amalia, are you sure you even want to keep her? Edite has always been used as a child’s maid, a bambinaia.”
“No, we’ll work around her issues. I’d like to keep her close.” That’s what one does with traitors: bring them even closer to the secrets.
“Then you’ve become friends!” Medice exclaims. “Well I am glad. One must always have someone they can confide in.”
I smile sweetly, “Absolutely, Medice. I couldn’t agree more.”
“Well, I must be off; I was just about to visit Iotha when Edite told me the news.”
“Iotha!” I exclaim, “How is the child?”
“As well as she can be in her condition. She attempts walking every day, but it tires her out and she sleeps for hours afterwards.”
“And the seizures?”
He sighs, and my heart drops. Is it really getting that bad? “The seizures are giving her complications. Her weight loss is significant. She really can’t seem to gain it back.”
“Is there anything I can do?”
“Only to make her comfortable until the end.”
“But the end can’t be that close!” I exclaim.
“I suggest Amalia, that if you care for her, you will spend as much time with her as possible.”
I nod quickly, “Of course. After I get ready, I will see her.
“I think she’ll appreciate it, Amalia. I will send for a replacement, and she will be here to assist you in all that you need.”
“Thank you Medice for your advice and wisdom.”
“My pleasure. Have a wonderful day.”
“Amalia! How wonderful to see you. I’ve missed your company!” Iotha sits up in bed, coming to life as a smile brightens her whole countenance.
“Iotha, dear, I apologize for my absence the past few days. I’ve been so consumed with the festival and-”
“Lord Enrique?” She interrupts bitterly.
“What?” I sputter.
“Frid told me about the Sollantian man you are in love with.” She glares at me accusingly and with raw betrayal.
“Frid…? Said that I was in love with Lord Enrique?” My face burns angrily. “Iotha dear, I am not in love with him, or any man for that matter. I’ve known Lord Enrique for a few days. That’s not enough time to-”
“It was enough time for you to love Frid! How could you forget that you love him!” Iotha cries, and tears stream down her cheeks.
“It wasn’t my fault!” I panic, “I was tortured-”
“No. Not that time! When you and I were introduced, you loved him! I could see it!”
“Iotha! Don’t let your hopes get in the way of reality!” I exclaim angrily. I barely knew Frid’s name at that point! How could she have seen something that wasn’t there...yet? “I admire Frid greatly, but I haven’t grown to love him. I don’t know what love even is supposed to feel like.”
“But he said you kissed! That he declared his love you. How could you betray him with that awful rich SUINO!” Her voice turns into a shout, and her face is red. It’s shocking how such a sweet child could get so upset.
“Iotha! I haven’t betrayed Frid. I merely got to know Lord Enrique. A friend, that’s all I see him as,” I lie. At the time, at least by the end of our day together, I wanted to be more than friends.
“You were going to be married!” She sobs and hides her face in her blankets. My face falls and I feel immense pity for the poor heartbroken child. I climb onto the bed and instinctively wrap my arms around her, and her face falls into my side, where I can feel her shaking and hiccuping.
“Iotha,” I whisper, “I don’t know when I will be ready for marriage, but it is not at this moment. Not with anyone, not even Frid.”
“I..I-I just wanted y-you to be my Mater!” she admits and raises her face so I can see it tear-stained, “I’ve never had a mamma. Aecia has one and I wish you were mine. I just want to have someone who loves me like a mamma.” Her tears start again and her howls are stifled in my dress. I try hard to contain my own tears from falling.
“Someday, Iotha,” I explain, “Someday you will have a Mater. Whether it is me, or another woman Frid has chosen.”
“But…” her face wrinkles with pain, and she looks across the room at her feet. “I am running out of time, Amalia. You are the only woman he wants. He has always wanted to marry you. Even before you came back! He always told me of your stories and how wonderful you were.”
I try to smile. “Frid has always been in love with her.” Does he love her now? Now that she has supposedly “betrayed” him with Lord Enrique?
“He has. I feel like I’ve known you since I was born. I’ve heard so much about you. Know so much about you.”
“Could you tell me about the stories? What did Frid tell you about me?”
“He always said that when he met you, he risked everything to follow you. That he sold his home and land, and donated it all to your cause. He wouldn’t rest until he was able to give you the money in person.”
“How did I react?”
“You were surprised, and you invited him to a meeting with all of your special helpers.”
“Who were my special helpers?”
“People you trusted and loved.”
“What were their names?”
“I don’t know, Amalia. I never was interested in the other people. I only cared about you and Frid.” I bite my lip with disappointment. It would have been extremely helpful to know those names.
“Any other stories?”
“So many! Would you like another?”
“Yes please. I think her history is too much of a secret.”
“Not secret,” Iotha objects with a loud sniff, still suffering the effects of crying, “just sacred. Your story is sacred to Frid, to your old friends and followers.”
“I didn’t know I was so admired.”
“The right word is loved. Frid loved you the moment he met you. He said that your betrothal was celebrated by the army, and that there was a huge party in the palace. The king and queen had burned all of the rebels’ farms, so they didn’t have much food to eat, but the king’s wine cellar was discovered and extensive. Everyone was merry. But you and Frid hid in some remote, quiet part of the palace, where you exchanged vows of undying love to each other.” Iotha drifts off into her daydream.
“Iotha, you’re a romantic!”
“And so are you. You care for everyone, and perhaps you’ve forgotten that too. Deep down, you'll discover that you want love just as much I do. You don’t want to be lonely, despite however much you like being alone.”
“So I’m a contradiction?”
Iotha giggles. “Perhaps.”
“Well, I hope you see that I’m trying to get myself together, Iotha. I’m not trying to crush your dreams. I’m just doing my best."
“Don’t worry, it won’t be too long now.”
“I’m glad that you are so sure about me.”
“Maybe it will give you motivation.”
I laugh and slide off of the bed.
“Your laugh…” she looks down and then back up, “it’s beautiful. And so is your smile.”
“Thank you Iotha,” I make it to the doorway and whisper a goodbye before escaping her doorway. I can’t imagine ever letting her go. I can’t comprehend the cruelty of her sickness. It will leave her with the peace that she deserves, and it will leave the rest of us in ruins for the remainder of our lives.
The talk with the girl spurs me to action. I blink back melancholy tears and nearly run through the halls, trying to find someone who knows where Frid is. A maid finally points me in the right direction.
“I just passed him Amalia. If you go to the right passage, you might be able to catch up to him.”
I thank her and run, my legs burning already.“Frid!” I shout when I see him ahead.
He turns and frowns when he sees me. “Frid,” I pant and stop a few feet from him. He and everyone in the corridor watch us with confusion, shock and disapproval.
“Amalia,” he hisses. “What are you doing? Where are your shoes?” I look down, flustered, and wonder the same thing.
“I have no idea,” I gasp out. “But I do know that if you have a problem with my decisions...don’t go to a little girl. Tell me,” I step closer to him, and whisper, “Do you truly doubt my allegiances? After all you’ve done for me...do you think I am so ready to forget you?”
I interrupt his already ignorant answer with my lips. I block out the noises of disapproval around me, and press harder against him. Frid reacts eagerly and soon wraps his arms around me. He raises his hand to my face, where he runs it down my cheek and to my jaw, disappearing soon into my hair. When I need air, I don’t even break away. Our open mouths gasp into each other, and I can feel my body heat rapidly.
My head is a blur until he separates us, nearly prying away my hands from clutching his shoulders. His face his red and we both lower our eyes as we realize just how many witnessed us. I look up for the slightest moment and see the face of the one person I wish not to see. Lord Enrique barely gives off a countenance of hurt or anger, but only discomfort. What if he thinks I am sending him a message to not see me again? To avoid and leave me with Frid? He gives me a full smile and a subtle bow before turning round and going the opposite way.
“I understand now,” he chuckles. I turn bright red at the volume of his voice. I bite my lip and look down with embarrassment.
“Please, let us continue this in private, Frid. Too many eyes.”
“Come with me,” he nods.
I grasp his arm and follow. He leads me to a part of the palace I have only briefly glanced at. “Here,” he beckons and opens a door. “Come sit and eat. Have you had any food this morning?”
“No,” I realize. “I’ve had an interesting morning, I must say.” With the dreams I had, the news of my fertility, then the visit with Iotha… I have much to tell him. I walk through the door and see a bed, a table and another room in the distance. Much of the same layout as my own chambers, and my face turns red.
“I suppose this is your bedroom?”
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