Authors: V. Ashenden
A Tale of Two Princesses
Peasants and Princesses
Once upon a time, there was a kingdom known as Avelot, ruled by a Golden King, renowned for his golden hair. Rich with trade and culture, Avelot sat on the shores of an ocean, holding much influence in the country around it. One day, however, tragedy struck, and the king fell into a mysterious death, leaving behind a widowed queen and a young daughter. His passing met with the chilling rumor that the queen had poisoned him, revenge for his adulterous ways, for it came to pass that the queen banished all the maidens from the castle, allowing only the elderly to serve within the walls.
But rumor flourishes on the lips of the old as easily as the young, and as the princess grew into adulthood, she learned the sins of her father and the suspicions of her mother. Never did she speak about these things, for she was as a dutiful daughter ought to be, obeying her mother's every command. However, when her mother summoned her to the throne room and told her she was to be married in three weeks time, on the eve of her eighteenth birthday, the rebellion damming upon her heart at last broke in a storm.
"You have given away my hand in marriage?"
"Princess Celeste," the queen said, "your tone does not suit a princess of the realm."
"Queen Friora," the queen corrected. She never permitted her daughter so much familiarity in public, and it was certainly unacceptable here in the throne room, with an audience of her lady-in-waiting, as well as the steward, the chancellor, the captain of the guard, and a line of soldiers along the wall.
"Queen Friora," Celeste corrected, "how could you give away my hand without consulting me?"
The queen's lips were tight. "You would demand answers from me?"
"Forgive me, my queen," Celeste said, bowing her head to her mother. "I was impassioned. I meant only to say I do not know this prince, and I would pray you trust my judgment is sound enough to choose a ruling partner on my own."
"Prince Court Cross will arrive in one week's time. You will meet with him, and if he finds you suitable, he will ask for your hand in marriage. If he does not, he will depart."
"And what of my choice?" Celeste said. "What if I do not find him suitable?"
"You already have," the queen said. "Your hand has been promised if he wishes it."
The queen's eyes blazed. "Do not speak to me with such familiarity in this court!"
"Mother!" Celeste shouted. "I will not marry anyone against my will!"
"Vrine, clear the room!"
The lady-in-waiting clapped her hands, directing everyone to leave. Once they were out, she closed the doors, returning to her queen's side. The queen stood from her throne, moving down the steps to come level with her daughter.
"I cannot ever remember being so disrespected in my own hall, let alone by my own child."
"I cannot ever remember being so disrespected either, let alone by my own mother!" Celeste shot back. "You have sold me to a prince like a madam at a brothel! Am I a harlot, Mother, to be given to the first prince who comes calling?"
The queen's hand shot up, slapping her daughter. She pointed her finger at her face. "Do not dare forget yourself, Princess Celeste. I am queen." And then the queen turned away, coughing, covering her mouth. When she removed her hand, a small drop of blood remained on her lip. She licked it and it was gone.
"Your majesty?" Vrine said, coming up to her side, reaching into her coat and withdrawing a vial.
"No more, Vrine." The queen cleared her throat, returning her eyes to her daughter. "Knowing a man is not required for wedding him. You will learn him in time."
"Why have you done this?" Celeste asked. "Have I not been a fine daughter? Have I not obeyed you without question? Have I not made you proud?"
The queen took in a breath. "Of course you have, Princess Celeste. This is not about you."
"Pardon me, Mother?"
Cross kingdom grows by the day. The king is powerful, but so are we. A war could destroy us both. He does not want that any more than I do, so we agreed to be allies. A deal was struck to mingle our bloodlines in exchange for one hundred years of peace. But the king already has an heir, his first born, Prince Clinton. Clinton has won his bride, a desert princess taken from a northern land. His second son, Court, was never intended to rule. He became a knight in his father's army, campaigning and adventuring to amuse himself. I proposed if Prince Court would entertain the idea, he might rule by your side, and with a Cross heir in your belly, our kingdom's sovereignty will be assured for a century."
"Now, I see what you have done, Mother," Celeste said, trembling. "Better to win the war in the bedroom than on the battlefield, yet it is I who will be on the frontlines. I am to be a harlot to the prince."
The queen laughed. "Oh, Princess Celeste, do you not think I know about your familiarity with the castle guards? I see all, my child. At least Prince Cross is a knight and he will so honor you with that code when he becomes your husband. Then you will have a partner to help you rule, for I shall not be around forever, my child."
"And do you not think I am up to the task of ruling as queen all upon my own, Mother?"
"You are a child," the queen said, letting out another cough. "You may think in that immature mind of yours you have the bearings of a queen, but you do not understand loss and sacrifice. That is something time will teach you, but pray you have a strong king by your side as you learn this lesson."
"Is there no way I may sway you from this decision?"
"The decision has already been made. To be informed of it does not change it. Perhaps you should practice curtsying in the mirror. You do have a prince to impress in one week's time. You are dismissed."
"My queen," Celeste said, curtsying to her mother. She strode out of the throne room, her blue dress billowing around her angry footfalls, storming across the castle to her chambers, bursting into them. She picked up the nearest thing to hand, a candelabrum, and heaved it across the room, smashing a tall mirror. "How dare she?"
"Princess," Celeste's lady-in-waiting said, following her in and closing the doors, "do not let the queen's anger become your own. She means only to—"
"Ruin my life!" Celeste said. "I am not marrying some prince with goals to expand his father's kingdom at the cost of mine! Mother thinks she sees so much, but she can see nothing beyond her own ticking clock! It is my kingdom she is handing over to another on a plate of silver!"
"Do not be angry, princess. Your father always told you to mind your anger."
"Hah! My father!" She looked at herself in her broken mirror. "Queen Friora murdered my father—"
"—and now she wishes to murder me, slowly, by way of marriage!"
"Princess, such things are better whispered in dark rooms than spoken aloud by the princess in her bedchamber! Think, pray you!"
Celeste sunk to the floor in her blue dress, putting her face in her hands. "What am I to do, Homa?"
Homa knelt beside her princess, stroking her hair. It was her hair that Celeste was so well known for, even above her beauty, her anger, her absolute obedience to her mother. All throughout the kingdom and abroad, they spoke of her golden locks, the hue of the sun in the morning, radiant as the light glowing from the flicker of the candle, a beacon in a storm. These locks were her family's legacy.
"Perhaps the prince will be kind," Homa suggested. "Might he be a man you could love? Will you not wait and see?"
"I know what I am to do," Celeste said, looking up at the broken mirror again. "When he comes to ask for my hand, I will so offend him that he will leave in a rage. That is what I will do."
"Mistress, to offend the prince of another kingdom would humiliate the queen, to say nothing of risking war."
Celeste was shaking. "To war then."
* * *
Just within sight of the castle, the spires breaking in the distant blue sky, was another princess with golden locks upon her head. Princess Sienna's locks were always blackened with dirt though, and her kingdom was a small one, the barn behind her uncle's tavern. It was here that she slept, minding the horses belonging to her uncle's guests, watering them, brushing their manes, feeding them plenty of hay and oats. Uncle Banyan was always yelling at her about overfeeding them.
"The customers won't notice if their horses have a full belly! Curse you, girl, you're putting me in the poor house!"
Sienna didn't much know what the poor house was, as she always slept in the empty stall at the end of the stables. The gate was broken, and her uncle was too lazy to go about fixing things, or she'd be out with the chickens. It had been this way since her mother died five years ago. She was twelve when she came to her uncle's door, the rain pouring down on her, sobbing and begging him to take her in. He had put her up in the barn and she had been there ever since. Never mind about her father. Not even her uncle knew about that.
"Sienna? Sienna! Are you sleeping about again?" Banyan called into the barn.
Sienna shot up, her dreams of princes and castles and riches broken. "Sorry, Uncle! I didn't hear the rooster crow!"
"You're putting me in the poor house! Stables three and five are ready to depart. Bring their horses around. Useless!"
Sienna tripped over herself to dress, putting her sandals on, pushing her filthy golden hair behind her handkerchief, buttoning up her shirt to hide her feminine chest. Her uncle always told her better to look like a boy than a girl with so many travelers about. She knew it was true too, as a stranger had tried to buy her from her uncle for a night. Her uncle had been sorely tempted, and he might just have taken the deal, had she not reminded him her mother had been his flesh and blood.
Sienna took the horses out of their stables, saddling them and leading them outside.
"Sorry for the delay," Banyan was saying to a pair of men in travel cloaks. One had a sword over his shoulder, his arms crossed in irritation. "She's just coming with them."
Sienna kept her head down, surrendering the reins to the men.
"Is that a girl under there?" the second man asked.
"My niece, the stable girl, not much to look at. She's best left in the barn. You gentlemen have a nice trip and thank you for your patronage."
The man patted the side of his horse. "Did she treat you all right, boy?"
The horse whinnied.
"I daresay she did. Look at the state of you. Here," he said, flipping a silver coin to Sienna. "You earned it."
Sienna missed the catch, but she quickly spun around, picking it up off the ground. "Thanks!"
"Come on then," his impatient companion said, jumping on his horse.
They both rode off, and the moment they were out of sight, Banyan snatched the silver coin out of Sienna's hands.
"Room and board paid for a week."
Sienna frowned. "Yes, Uncle."
"And you're running late today," he said. "I want you to milk the cow and collect the eggs and bring them around to the kitchen. Then get on the rooms. I want them shining. Then back to the stables. Spick and span so they're ready for the next horses. Lots to do. Lots to do. Don't put me in the poor house!"
Sienna returned to the barn, closing the stable gates. The cow occupied a small pen on the end, across from her stall. Sienna always let the cow out to graze in the corral when she cleaned in the afternoon.
"Morning, Mrs. Moo," she said, patting her head. "How's your baby?"
The calf mewed as Sienna stepped inside. She took her bucket and slipped it under the cow, climbing down on her knees as she began milking her.
"Have you been keeping at your mama?" Sienna asked the calf. "I gotta think of a name for you, huh? You gotta get bigger and stronger if you wanna be like your mama."
With the milking finished, she set her bucket aside and took up her egg basket, heading outside to the chicken coop beside the barn.
"Hey, chicky, chicky, chicks," Sienna said as she moved into the henhouse. She sprinkled some feed on the ground to distract them as she went for the eggs, putting them into her basket. They began squawking, fighting over the food. "Henlin, you're such a glutton. Share and share alike. Henrietta, don't peck at her."
Once the nest was empty, she crept out, picking up her milk and skipping her way to the tavern. This was her favorite part of the day, breakfast. The most important, and sometimes, the only meal of the day.