Chapter 1: Once Upon an Arrival
The shrewd lady knows best above all
With whom she lays her heart
Determines will she rise or will she fall.
-Winner of Iris Mundi’s Pithy Poems Competition in its fourth year upon the page.
With fanfare in the middle distance, Princes Eliana Fragola of Terrafrutta was poring over information about the program taking place at the Grand Castle of Bonnamy. Though nothing had worked thus far, she was determined to excite her companion with the possibilities ahead. “Oh, Alessandra! I’m so delighted! Iris Mundi even agrees! For sure we’ll both be married before year’s end!”
“What if I kill myself? Would that ruin their success rate?” Princess Alessandra’s velvety purple eyes bore sarcastic sting.
“Probably,” Eliana shrugged, without looking up. She’d long ago adjusted to her cousin’s attitude. “But it wouldn’t make me any happier.”
“It would definitely do me some good,” Alessandra said, crossing her arms and stretching out her legs so they rested on the carriage seat next to Eliana. “I don’t need this sort of thing,” she waved her hand at the magazine Eliana had been scouring ever since they met up for this journey. “I just need to be left alone.” She sank further into her seat and glared out the window.
“No, you want to be left alone. What you need is someone who loves you!”
“You and your mushy rubbish! You are just going to have to shovel all of that into a gutter someday.”
“It helped Cinderella, didn’t it?” Eliana asked, and pulled out the Bonnamy advertisement that boasted of teaching girls to have the grace and patience of Cinderella. “Alessa, don’t you think if it were a terrible idea then Mirabella wouldn’t be here?”
Alessandra’s feet slid down off the bench and she sat forward. In that moment, she was glad they were wearing travelling dresses, with their high waists and loose skirts rather than voluminous formal mantuas. “Mirabella is touched by God or something flouncy like that, so she’s going to be happy no matter what, but how does that have anything to do with me? What do I need some man running my life for? Really, Lia, you don’t see it’s different for me. I’ve told you my magic makes it impossible to trust anyone.”
“Not everyone wants to control you, and you’re no pushover, so what do you really think will happen? You have several reasons to be against marriage, but I don’t see why you can’t reexamine them.”
Obstinate in the extreme, Alessandra fluttered her hand fan and gazed sullenly out the window, refusing to acknowledge the grandeur of the castle they’d driven up to.
It was this same obstinacy which had given her tutors so much trouble as they attempted to teach her the courtly language she would need at Bonnamy. The fashion had become widespread for young nobles to communicate across cultural boundaries using Bonnamian, since they had so many common ancestors from that land.
Eventually she had been persuaded, since it was difficult to insult someone in a language they did not understand, and now she could “bonjour” and “au revoir” with the best of them.
She had kept this fact hidden as best she could while she was still in Melabosco, but she had adopted the courtly habit of exclaiming “La!” to express her frequent outbursts of emotion or sarcasm.
“Excuse me, ladies, but… we’re here…” The princesses turned to see two men with powdered wigs, long silken coats, and starched white tights.
“La! But you are silly-looking!” Alessandra exclaimed.
Eliana hurriedly grabbed her cousin by the wrist. “We’re coming!” she called, and allowed herself to be helped out of the carriage. She shot a pointed glance at Alessandra.
Alessandra sighed and held out her hands for the castle attendants to help her down. As soon as they weren’t looking she wiped her gloves on her skirts, which made Eliana roll her eyes.
“We’ll take care of your bags,” said one.
“I know you will. Here,” Alessandra flipped each of them a gold coin from the pockets secreted under her voluminous skirts. “Make sure I don’t notice you.” With that she walked toward the castle.
Eliana grinned sheepishly at the attendants. “She’s a bit miffed…” she explained, then had to run to keep up with Alessandra. “Alessa, was that necessary?”
“Absolutely,” Alessandra said, keeping her eyes forward as they walked through the grand hall that welcomed them. “Do you want to see those fluffy twig men again?”
“Not… particularly…?” Eliana said diplomatically. “But they’re still people, Alessa…”
“Of course they’re people! They’re not giraffes!” Alessandra stopped as she realized she was flanked on either side by portraits of the princesses who may as well have been goddesses in this painted world of frippery.
There was Rapunzel, whose boyishly short hair was dripping in gemstones, and whose eyes gleamed with generosity. Her prince stood behind her, as if leaning on her for support. What had he really been through in the wilderness? The tales always assumed a full recovery, but perhaps they were wrong.
There was a haughty girl, golden ball in hand, who reminded Alessandra of her little sister Jezanna, with her cascades of tight blonde ringlets and her smirk. Behind her was the typical handsome prince, whose cloak was draped over one arm so that he could display his crest: that of Terrafrutta.
“They got it in!” Eliana gushed excitedly. “Giuseppe said they were measuring the portrait’s canvas to fit the frame on last year, and they kept having a dreadful time commissioning the right one!”
“I’m sure they were,” Alessandra acknowledged. “It had to fit in with the rest of the propaganda.”
“Oh, hush!” Eliana clicked her tongue. “See, they even rendered Father’s crest perfectly! See? There’s supposed to be lilies in the central river, but instead—”
“A frog. Yes, there’s a frog in there, I see it, and I have been to your house, so I know all about it.” Alessandra turned away, and was greeted by the likeness of Snow White, sitting under one of the famous mirrors her descendants were so fond of. Twin panels at the top would answer any question someone asked them, and were frequently to blame for shrieks of outrage, which was why Alessandra herself didn’t mind the replica her family had bought off some Falkeherzan merchants. Snow White’s starkly contrasting skin and hair brought attention to her eyes, which, like the peel of the enchanted apple she’d eaten, had forever been stained red as her lips.
“How do you pronounce what they call her in the north?” Eliana was asking Alessandra, who was still staring at Snow White’s bright gray eyes… which the same color as her own hair.
“Shh… knee… vee… ten.” Alessandra forced out. “I think that’s how you say it.”
“That must be the proper way to say it,” Eliana said wistfully. “I wonder if I’ll ever have a story about me like that?”
“Get food poisoning in the woods, maybe,” Alessandra shrugged as she turned her attention further along the gallery.
There was one that depicted twelve princesses, among whom she recognized her own mother, Mirabella’s, Eliana’s and several of their aunts.
“Lucky Mama being in two portraits,” Eliana muttered from behind Alessandra. “Such an exciting life… such romance…”
“She kissed a frog,” Alessandra reminded her.
“I would kiss a hundred frogs to put my portrait on the wall!” Eliana declared.
Alessandra rolled her eyes, which rested on the image of a princess, clearly from the northern lands, wearing a gold and silver dress in the arms of her beloved, and in the shadowed background of the portrait, was a hodgepodge cloak of all manner of furs. “You could be like her, with your papa trying to marry you,” she suggested to Eliana. “Wouldn’t that be exciting?”
“No… but living in my sweetheart’s castle in disguise and meeting with him when he does not know my name would be…”
“These girls fought for what they got,” Alessandra said with a sight more harshness than she intended. “Remember that, next time I have to fight for you.”
They passed the portraits of one red-haired princess and her sister the blonde, who must have been Rose Red and the other Snow White, with their husbands seated behind them, as well as some others Alessandra could not immediately pinpoint.
She was sure Eliana was still babbling at her, but she couldn’t be bothered. Cinderella, the one the school kept pushing, towered overhead, making her feel like one of Snow White’s dwarves.
She was afraid of a very few things: marriage, water, humiliation… but none held her in such horrendous rigor vitis as did staring at the woman she should have been.
She stopped in front of a sign telling her where to go for orientation. Having seen it, she walked in the opposite direction.
“Alessa!” Eliana scolded. “You should come with me, and do as is expected of us.”
“Not when I could get lost instead.” Alessandra called over her shoulder.
“Oh, no you don’t! Your mother will be very angry with my mother if I do not keep you in line. Come on, Alessa. I’m sure you’ll meet someone who’ll sweep you off your feet!” Eliana grabbed Alessandra’s arm and struggled to pull her along.
She may even have succeeded if Alessandra were not so much stronger. “The ability of a man to trip me up has nothing to do with his or my attractiveness.”
Eliana redoubled her efforts and still failed. “Listen, Alessa, I know you don’t want to do this, but you were born a princess as surely as I was. This is our duty and our destiny.”
Alessandra kicked over the sign. “That’s what I think of duty and destiny!”
“You’re making yourself miserable!”
“No, you are making me miserable! Leave me alone, let me get into trouble!”
Light flickered in Eliana’s eyes. “How could you suggest that?”
Alessandra turned on her heel and continued her escape attempt.
The door opened to admit two more students, the one walking in front practically shooting beams of light from his smile while his companion slumped in a dour shadow.
“Witnesses…” Alessandra hissed.
“You’re generalizing again, Garron. I’m sure these people know what they’re doing. You’ll be in love before week’s end!”
“I’ll be dead before week’s end!” Garron shot back. “Caden, I think you should take the wool off your eyes.”
“I don’t want to. It’s cozy.”
At last Garron cracked a smile, though it looked somewhat painful.
Eliana tittered. “Did I hear correctly? That you are Caden and Garron?” she waved her copy of the latest Iris Mundi. “I am Eliana.”
Caden’s eyes glittered across the room at her, and he pressed a hand over his heart.
Garron withdrew behind a wall of his folded arms and remained silent.
“Will you please help me get my cousin into the ballroom?” Eliana asked in her sweetest voice. “You can pick her up, if you like, all her threats are bluster.”
“Traitor!” Alessandra accused, and her eyes, which had thus far remained purple, shifted to scarlet as her curls turned to flames.
Garron jerked into motion. “Neither of us wishes to go alone, so let us go together.”
None of Alessandra’s struggling to break free could jar loose Garron’s grip on her arm, and miraculously, she did not scorch him.
“It turns out this place isn’t all bad, after all,” Garron told Caden, striding forth as if Alessandra presented no problem, whatsoever. “At least I got to handle fire, today!”
Caden rolled his eyes. “He tried to touch fire when he was twelve. They healed him, mostly, but he’s never quite recovered from the fascination.”
Walking subtly closer to Caden’s side, and matching his steps though at half the length and twice the speed, Eliana tilted her head. “Your friend seems quite interesting.”
As if without noticing Eliana’s maneuvers, Caden said, “That may be, but he isn’t as interesting as me…” He offered her his arm, and she accepted.
“I wonder if they’ll fall in love,” Caden mused as he watched Alessandra finally give up struggling.
“Oh, Alessandra would hate that. She’s so… contrary.”
“So I’ve read! I think she’s just found her soul mate.”
“I heard that!” Alessandra called back. “It wasn’t funny!”
“It’s funniest if they’re wrong,” Garron muttered. “In any case, wouldn’t you say that it’s better to suffer with company?”
“I need something to burn.”
“And I’d like a tree to sit under where I could glare at blades of grass, but we can’t have everything.”
“Do you… frequently glare at grass?”
“Sometimes I glare at clouds, but when I’m lucky I glare at people instead.”
Alessandra snickered, so Garron pressed on.
“I usually resort to it once I run out of books. You read?”
“No, I’m an illiterate serf.”
“You have serfs in your country?” Garron genuinely sounded shocked.
“No, of course not! La Carta della Libera wouldn’t let me if I wanted them.”
“So you do read.”
Alessandra thumped her elbow into his shoulder blade.
“I get it, you’re feisty,” he grunted.
“You think I’m some kind of joke?”
“Not at all. A droll anecdote, perhaps, but not a joke.”
Alessandra bit her lip, but her laughter escaped in a snort.
“Oh, how dreadful,” Garron said as they entered the ballroom. “That’s not a ladylike laugh, at all!” His voice echoed.
Alessandra stuck her tongue out at him, and attempted to rush back out past him.
“Not so fast!” he said, catching her about the waist with one powerful arm. “The torture hasn’t even started yet!”
“So I should let them bring out the thumb screws before I’m allowed to flee?”
“They can nay use the screws,” Garron said, clucking as one who was disappointed a child hadn’t read his hornbook properly. “You’d never embroider again!”
“No great loss,” she huffed.
A door opened at the end of the hall, and they heard someone exclaim, “Well! Our trouble students have arrived together this year!”
Other princes and princesses, including Caden and Eliana, entered behind Alessandra and Garron, chattering amongst themselves and making escape impossible.
“I hate you,” Alessandra said, and stalked away. When she parted the crowd, she knew her reputation preceded her.
Now, she’d been thrown in with the dregs and she would have no escape. Nobody left this island without finding someone to marry, and she was surrounded on all sides by the waters of the Westwild Sea as well as teachers who would be able to control her magic if she let them. She hadn’t even signed up for this!
One thing was certain: no matter what happened at the end of the year, her life would never be the same.
Chapter 2: Intimidation
Fashionable ladies and gentleman know to always imitate those above them, and never below.
-Iris Mundi, Quotes on Etiquette column,
Students entered the grand ballroom via a grand staircase at the top of one short end, and along the long ends were doors to the balconies above. Each of these was wide enough to accommodate even the most fashionable set of panniers.
Bonnamy’s insignia, a majestic purple background with a golden band along the middle and three roses strung along it, was embroidered on banners hanging in each niche. There had been a time when the island housed its own royal family, but it had so long housed diplomats from various countries who gathered together in order to negotiate between the nations that it had slowly become an international diplomacy enclave.
The school was housed in the previous royal family’s home, as said family had dissolved into the many royal families of other countries and donated the castle to the grand cause of future peace. That and rumor had it their last king had gone absolutely mad.
Some of the instructors had deigned to appear along the balconies peering down at the students, as if sizing up which ones they would ever grow to like. From their number descended a lady on the arm of a man Alessandra hoped for her sake was not her husband.
Before they could reach the center of the ballroom, Eliana caught sight of someone, and rushed over to her, with a reluctant Alessandra in tow. “Arletta!” she half-whispered.
“Ah, the resemblance is with us always,” Mirabella said softly to avoid distracting their hosts when she turned.
“Oh…” Eliana blushed. “I’m sorry, she’s been with us for only a year and I still thought she might have been here to see me off… but I did leave her at home…”
Mirabella appeared to bite her tongue before she diplomatically smiled and replied, “How is Arletta now? And her child?”
“They are healthy. Arletta is rather miserable with her symptoms, but she and Giuseppe are still most excited… I thought she may have come to see you off.”
Mirabella’s frown was deep and she appeared to be pouting simultaneously. “I wish she had come to see me off, but at least the two of you are here.”
“We’ll have to fill in the gap,” Alessandra nodded and gripped Eliana’s arm before whispering, “She misses her twin, let’s not drag this out, all right?”
After a stunned moment, Eliana nodded sympathetically, but their conversation was dashed over the rocks of formal announcements.
“I,” said the tall thin man with scraggly yet somehow elegant gray hair who had been escorting the lady in the gold dress, “am Instructor Guz.”
Snickers from both princes and princesses echoed through the spacious ballroom, whether or not those laughing tried to suppress the sound.
“I will have you know,” said Instructor Guz, huffing through his considerable nose, “that my name is highly respected in every nation which borders the Middle Sea!”
Alessandra and Garron both crossed their arms, but when they looked across the room and saw how they’d made the motion together, they both relinquished the pose.
“As I was saying, it is my job not only to look after the lot of you, but to match you so that your families will successfully continue. During this year, you will attend courses in etiquette so as to polish you for your futures. Each of you will leave better than you are now,” he said to lackluster applause.
The woman who had entered with Guz, a tall, elegant woman with gold hair stepped forward. “I am Queen Gianya of the Westwilds,” she said, her voice a majestic symphony.
“She doesn’t sound like she’s from the wilds,” Alessandra grumbled, hoping that only Eliana and Mirabella could hear her.
“I wish they’d stop calling themselves wild now that they’re just as civilized as the rest of us,” Mirabella grumbled. “The longer they keep using that term it seems braggadocious.”
The queen continued in spite of these mutterings, saying, “It is my privilege to welcome such charming heirs and heiresses to the castle. I am a graduate of this program. I look forward to overseeing the young ladies especially. I see myself in many of your faces already.” She smiled directly at Alessandra, who looked away almost immediately.
Alessandra lifted a hand to her face to test whether she were actually blushing. She didn’t know whether it was a trick that this woman already singled her out, but she wouldn’t be caught blushing at a compliment. Or maybe she hadn’t been referred to. She cast her eyes down. She didn’t really deserve that sort of recognition.
“Tonight I’ll be meeting with each of you in the ladies’ salon so that I can learn what you need on a personal level. Now I’ll turn the meeting over to the Instructor. Princesses, do follow me to the salon, where your welcome dinner has been laid out for you.”
Alessandra’s spine clenched at the idea of having to sit across from this brilliant example of everything she’d ever failed to be, waiting for her to list everything that was wrong with her. It would be immediately obvious to someone like this Queen of Perfection, and Alessandra would be laughed at every day of her stay in this prison.
No matter how much she dreaded the idea, she was prisoner to her hunger just as much as to this dratted island, and thus she trudged along within the crowd.
Instructor Guz quickly proved to everyone left behind in the ballroom that their first impressions of him had been correct.
“We will assign you initial partners, but it is up to you to make the relationships permanent. Understand?” Under the princes’ stares, he continued, “Furthermore, I expect you to arrive promptly to each one of your classes, and if you are foolish enough to try escaping, you will be punished with loss of privileges.”
Garron was busy cataloguing how many of the princesses in the room had turned Caden down while Garron took notes on reasons to reject them when his turn came. No use betting on a losing horse.
Near the back of the group, Prince Darnell Nasimben of Arcona turned his reading glasses in nervous circles in his pocket.
“Is the ceiling more interesting than my speech, Prince Darnell?” the Instructor’s nasally voice asked, dull gray eyes boring into Darnell’s forehead.
“Oh, no sir! I just… thought it looked… nice… With the painting and all… It has symbolic relevance… I’d seen it in an art book once, but…”
Garron and Caden looked sympathetically back at him, and they were the only two foolish enough to do so.
“I am speaking to one prince specifically, but the rest must keep looking forward!” the instructor snapped, looking right at Garron and Caden.
Garron’s temper flared up immediately, but he kept his outward cool. This twig of a man had better watch it or soon he’d—
“Tomorrow morning, you will arrive bright and early. The ladies will arrive at the same time to be matched up with you. You will then attend the breakfast hour with your new partner, not, I repeat, not your friends. Clear?”
“Yes, sir!” the young men said it as well as if they’d been a legion.
“You are dismissed. I suggest sleeping as soon as physically possible. You will have to be well rested to keep up with the ladies!” Guz wheezed through his nose as he left them.
Prince Cedric ran a hand through his hair. What exactly would he have to talk about with a girl for a whole hour? Or maybe he could perform his usual trick of ignoring her… no, that was how he’d gotten into this mess. He’d have to be cordial. He looked around at the other men. Perhaps it would be advisable to make some acquaintances?
“Why should we be arranged into couples?” asked Prince Ivan. “I say they put us alone, each to one room, and then never make us come out.”
“What happened to meeting girls at balls and getting the pick of the lot? That would have been a lot easier!” Alonzo moaned.
“I don’t know,” said Caden, “I think it’ll be a lot easier if they tell us who to spend some time with at first… If we don’t like the first girl, at least we’ve had practice.”
Garron remained sullenly silent, glaring at the floor. It was an interesting pattern, he discovered, based on the Terrafruttan architect Grumio’s work. Huh. He found himself less able to glare at it after that. His eyes drifted away from the floor and caught Caden smirking at him. “What?” he snapped.
“Oh, nothing. I was just thinking about how you might want to touch fire again.”
“Plan on always probing my business?”
“Only when it’s interesting.”
Garron couldn’t help but snicker. “Honesty compels me to admit, she’s not hideous. And she could be less entertaining.”
“Wow. That was much easier than I thought it would be. Now I’m disappointed. That was my one topic for the entire evening.”
“Exhausted your resources, have I? That’s surprisingly efficient of me. I can’t remember being so successful back home.”
“See? This place is already a benefit for you! You just have to let it work its magic!”
“Magic?” Darnell asked. “Where?”
“No, no, my good man,” Garron said to the bewildered Darnell who was attempting to conceal a book he’d been reading. “It was a figure of speech. There isn’t actually any magic around here.”
“Oh, but that’s where you’re wrong.” Darnell gave up trying to hide his book, and indicated its title: Secrets of Haunted Castles.
“This place has an entire chapter!” he said, clutching its sides with both hands. “It really is remarkable, all the work that went into planning this place and making it safe to keep nubile royals in without breeding scandal, if you’ll pardon my precariously phrased sentence.”
“No problem,” Garron said. “I love the odd joke now and again.”
“That… wasn’t really a joke, it was more poor word choice. But, if you want to make it a joke, I suppose I won’t bother stopping you. You see, the dormitories are designed so that there are barriers to segregate the genders. For instance, if you tried to enter the women’s rooms, you would be repelled by the barrier! You can’t even stand in their hallway.”
“What if there were an emergency and someone had to rescue them?” Garron asked.
Darnell’s brows danced uncertainly, and he flipped through his book. “It seems in that case, the wards might be a hindrance to safety. However, no such event has occurred.”
“What about the other way around?” Caden asked. “Bringing a princess into the men’s dormitories would make it easier to… breed scandal, if I may borrow your phrasing.”
Darnell cringed. “I wish you hadn’t said that, it makes me feel even worse for saying it in the first place… But, there are a matching set of wards on our rooms. The grounds are also constantly observed by means the authors explain are currently un-reportable, due to their secret nature. You couldn’t remove more than a single article of clothing before someone was there to stop you.”
“Congratulations, people,” Garron muttered, “you’ve established a tyranny.”
“Better than getting their reputations blasted for giving us all ample opportunities to create royal bastards to destabilize our countries with,” Caden said with a shrug.
“I don’t disagree with the theory, merely with the execution,” Garron cast an evasive gaze up at the ceiling.
“Oh, there’s something here about those, too. Seems they actually had to perform an execution on these very grounds one year because one of the students turned out to be…” Darnell glanced furtively about, before uttering the dreaded word, “evil.”
“Please tell me there’s a ghost,” said Garron. “I haven’t met a ghost yet, and it’s on my list of things to do.”
“He’s telling the truth. ‘Meet a ghost,’ is right under ‘shoot a cannon from the inside.’”
“I took that one out,” Garron muttered.
“Sure, but only after robbing a ball and chain from your parents’ dungeon.”
“Lads,” Instructor Guz said, looming over them, “if you are done discussing stuff and nonsense, you should retire. The ladies would prefer it if you spoke to them tomorrow, instead of using your porridge as pillows.”
“And what if we’re not having porridge? I’d say crepes make excellent pillows,” said Darnell.
Garron snickered. “We’re friends now.”
“Enough!” Guz clapped, and pointed to the dormitories. “To the lounge, little princes! You shall have a welcome meal there before bed! Your trials await!”
“And after that, the execution!” Garron whispered as he followed Caden and Darnell down the hall.
“I could show you where it took place!” Darnell said. “History is quite fascinating sometimes.”
Garron grinned impishly, and said, “You know what? You’re on. What’s life without a hint of the macabre?”
Caden groaned. “If you think it’s a good idea to dwell on the macabre, you’re wrong.”
With a dark chuckle, Garron simply shook his head, and said, “Don’t forget, Caden: those unaware of the edge are the first to fall.”
“You mountain-folk are always so bleak,” Caden said, drawing a huffing snicker from another prince, who otherwise blended into the shadows around them.
A smirk twisted its way over Garron’s lips. “It’s always entertaining to watch you hasty little lowland people scurry along, but at least this year, when every detail will be of the utmost importance, I’m going to hold you back if I see danger on your horizon.”
“I know you will,” Caden said seriously as Guz snapped his fingers and began to walk away, presumably as Gianya had led the princesses away.
On their way, Garron found himself jostled by a pair of swarthy southern princes. “Dummköpfe,” he scoffed.
The two princes grinned back at him.
“It’s only stupid if we don’t mean to do it!” one of them shot back, his teeth flashing just as much as the small golden ring in his ear.
Garron and Caden both stopped in their tracks, which forced someone behind them to blunder into them.
“Sorry,” Caden said, only to turn and see that behind them was Prince Cedric of Grauland, their distant cousin.
“N-no… t-t….” the prince’s ashen face fell, and he bowed his head, then scurried around them, to the crowing laughter of the two southern princes.
Garron had reached his limit of these lads by this point, so he stormed past them, knocking one over with each of his shoulders. “Dummköpfe,” he reiterated, and did not stop again until he had reached the men’s salon. “Cedric, come along. You obviously know a good joke when you hear it, so you’ve always got a place for yourself near me.”
“I-I do?” Cedric asked.
“Garron takes his jokes very seriously,” Caden explained. “I for one am glad to see another familiar face.
“Th-there’s a Bergerlander too,” Cedric pointed back to the end of the line, showing that a still more distant cousin of theirs, the youngest of his brothers, was creeping sheepishly along as if he may otherwise be crushed underfoot.
“Come on, lad,” Garron said. “No hiding at the back of the line for you. This year will be different for all of us.”
Chapter 3: Maiden Voyagers
What do they call it when the ship comes back?
-Reader-submitted question for Iris Mundi editors after the summer launch of the Princess Jeza from Port Drakomela
“I want each of you to consider this a turning point in your lives,” Queen Gianya told the seated cluster of princesses, each of them with their own cup of tea. She smiled genially at them all, her teeth and eyes as bright as the diamonds in her crown. “There is more to this opportunity you’ve all come to take than the connections you will form between your kingdoms and those of your husbands. Marriage leads to children, after all!” the queen’s face lit up again.
Alessandra frowned into her teacup. Children… if they had her magic, maybe her husband would use them just like he would use her, and every child she had would just be miserable, and it would all be her fault…
Mirthful chirping rippled around the room from various sources. It all made Alessandra sick. Why did they get to be happy? They didn’t even seem to care that they didn’t know these princes and they’d each be forced to wed one, whether or not he was likable. She was jerked out of contemplation by Eliana jabbing her with her elbow.
“Pay attention!” she whispered. “You might learn something!”
Alessandra frowned. “Pray thee peace, Eliana, I know enough, already.”
Eliana frowned back. “Queen Gianya graduated from this program. Does she look miserable? It could go well for all of us.”
Alessandra turned away so she could look back at the queen, but also hide her face from her cousin. What use was it to reiterate that Alessandra was not like the girls who could be happy?
“Tomorrow, you will have your first social opportunity. Instructor Guz and I have done our best to match you up with princes that you and your families will approve of. You will meet them in the morning, and spend the breakfast hour with your chosen companion. After which, you will be expected to attend your scheduled classes. You will each find schedules on your beds. You will know where you are meant to sleep by your families’ colors.” The queen rose gracefully, and smiled at the girls. “I must retire now, ladies. I will see you in the morning. You are advised to go to sleep soon, but we will not make you.” Sweeping a curtsy to the girls, which they hurriedly mirrored, she left the room.
“I want to be just like her,” Princess Runa breathed.
“Why would you want to do that?” Princess Tanith asked with a sneer.
Runa looked at Tanith. “Because she’s so graceful and wise!”
Tanith sniffed and set down her tea. “I’m going to sleep,” she said, “I’m done with you simpletons.”
Runa nodded, and bade her sister goodnight in their language, yet she received no reply as Tanith exited the room. When she realized there would be no reply, she turned her broken smile to the sugar bowl and dipped into the sugar bowl for rosettes of spun sugar.
“I think I heard your name was Runa, right?” Alessandra asked. “So far from home, it is too bad that you have only her.”
“Yes…” Runa said, dropping the little flower sculpted from pink sugar into her tea. Her large gray eyes flicked back up at Alessandra with a glimmer of hope.
Without hesitation, Alessandra nodded. “I’ll be there for you, when she’s not around.”
“What about when Tanith is around?” Runa asked, testing the waters.
Alessandra grimaced. “That would be unwise. Your sister, we met before… la! Che barba!” she shook her head and waved her hand as if to chase the memory away.