What a mess! Viola Alerion thought in dismay. The newly appointed high-archivist of the Imperial Grand Library raised her light-stick to fill the Hall of Unregistered Histories in gentle, golden light. She gasped in horror at rows upon rows of heavy wooden shelves. She craned her neck, but the towering stacks vanished into the darkness above her, beyond the reach of her light-stick. It was the contents of the shelves, however, that caused her heart to constrict. Horror turned to mirth. A giggle escaped her usually serene lips at the parchments, scrolls, and bound volumes which had been stuffed onto the shelves higgledy piggledy without consideration for the rigid orderliness that characterised other parts of the great library.
As her gaze absorbed the extraordinary disorder which gripped this particular hall, Viola felt herself at the edge of the abyss. How, in the emperor’s name, was she ever going to find the manuscript which could bring her the distinguishing mark of imperial high-archivist? Her new position did not merely require overseeing the smooth running of the library and helping nobles from the palace find something captivating from the archives; no, her duty was also to entertain, to contribute to the empire by producing historical texts worth reading. Viola was acutely aware of the importance of her first publication which would become the hallmark of her career.
How—in all this mess—was she ever going to find the perfect manuscript to secure her future? Picking up a large volume at random, Viola thumbed through it, pausing to read a section here and there. She slammed the book shut with a resounding slap—shuddering and grimacing in distaste. Some people had no concept of storytelling. Sighing, Viola wondered whether she should have accepted the second-archivist’s offer to send some filing specialists to bring her a selection of manuscripts. Viola shook her head. No, she had to do this herself. There was no point in sending some underling to bring her something when she didn’t even know what she was looking for.
Viola turned back to the shelf in front of her and began searching through the documents it contained. Within a few hours she had identified the system used to sort the manuscripts. Once she had a grasp of it, it took Viola no time at all to find the period and area which she hoped would provide her with a manuscript worthy of her talents. Sure enough, after but a few days spent searching, the high-archivist's triumphant shout echoed through the silent hall of musty vellum and parchment. At last, her true work could begin!
Elisabeth and Edvard
The Siblings’ Tale
Here follows the account of the great queen of the renown kingdom of Vendale. The original manuscript was discovered in the Imperial Library and has been faithfully copied here. Unfortunately, the queen's manuscript only tells part of the story. The historian has taken the liberty to complete the tale within her skills based on the historical records remaining from this time. Some licence has been taken in the manner this second part of the tale is presented, attempting to remain true to the tone of the original section.
I would like to add, that although many centuries have passed since the events recounted here, this tale still holds many truths for our day and remains one of the favourites among our children, especially as Queen Elisabeth and King Richard are today seen as the founding monarchs of this great realm—those who planted the seed for this empire’s beginnings.
The carriage bounced along the road tiresomely. I had spent the past several hours musing over my sudden return home after more than three years’ absence. A part of me tingled with excitement at finally being able to go home, but another was filled with dread. Edvard’s letter summoning me home had been unexpected. I had tried very hard to think of happier thoughts, but kept finding myself faced with two alternatives. The first was nostalgic memories of time spent in the garden with my mother, which turned to ashes in my mouth as I recalled the reason for my return. The other memories I had to peruse were of my horrible big brother, Edvard. Those tended not to be truly happy thoughts, for although there may have been a great deal of laughter, those memories usually ended in tears after cruel jokes were played on me. I wondered whether my brother had grown up in the time I had been away, or whether I would be faced with more of the same.
Were we there yet? I peeked out the window and my heart soared at the sight of familiar surroundings. The town church with its dirty mud-stained, white walls was the way it had been before I left, and the iconic, tall poplar trees lining the road brought back fond memories. Children from the surrounding farms played in the barren fields, still dormant from the blanket of snow which had only recently melted away. The beautiful orchard trees waved their branches with a salutation of flowers. Long green fingers of bulbous plants had begun pushing their way through the softening ground along the side of the road, and I even caught glimpses of feathered wings flitting through the air. It all looked the same, just as I remembered. Nothing had changed. And yet, so much had changed since I had been sent away.
The letter I received from Edvard, calling me away from school before completing my training, told of the worst change that could possibly have happened. How could mother be ill? It was impossible to imagine my always-smiling mother—the image of health and beauty—in a sickbed.
Finally, the carriage rounded a corner and there they were: the gates. Thundercloud-grey wrought iron twined into the myriad blossoms that greeted me. I was home. The intense smell of fir trees which lined our drive filled the carriage. Oh, how I loved that scent. I remembered the walks we used to take with Mother through the forest where their fragrance seemed to seep into my skin. The trees parted and there was the great house I had grown up in, windows blinking in the sun like hundreds of smiling eyes, welcoming me back. The fountain in front of the house still sparkled in the glinting sunlight as it had always done. I was truly home. I could hardly believe it. My heart bubbled over with overwhelming joy.
As the carriage drew nearer, I noticed two figures hurrying out the front door. Two? Oh no, my worst nightmare just became reality! Prince Richard, Edvard’s best friend, was hurrying down the steps beside my brother. What could I do? Hours of travelling and I didn’t even have a mirror with me.
How could you be so stupid as to leave the mirror in the bags on the top of the carriage? I thought, exasperated with myself.
I did my best, straightening out the worst of the creases in my navy-blue dress and rearranging the dark, untameable wisps of hair that always succeeded in escaping whatever method I had to keep them in check. I would just have to make up for the looks by showing exactly how much of a lady I had become at school.
I stopped what I was doing. Why, oh why, did I even care? Had all that superficial nonsense at school really rubbed off on me? Why should I worry about looking a mess? I had been travelling all this time and what did it matter that it was the prince? He was there for Edvard, not me. Nevertheless, despite my resolve not to worry about appearances, I couldn’t help myself. In hindsight, I suppose we fourteen-year-old girls just can’t stop it: when there’s a prince, you make an effort, no matter what.
I was still fussing when the carriage came to a halt. I could briefly make out my reflection in the glass of the window. My dark brown eyes were heavy from the long journey. Large cheeks, the bane of my existence, were the most prominent feature of my round face. I frowned at myself, it would just have to do.
Edvard stepped forward to open the door. I really had to admit my nasty big brother turned out quite handsome. Now that really did come as a surprise. So tall, too—I had known he would have grown, but how he had. He flashed a smile at me as the door swung open, a thousand memories streaming through my mind at that familiar, mischievous grin. Yet something was different. His smile had changed. The almond skin around his face was drawn, and unfamiliar lines formed deep grooves at the corners of his eyes, speaking of the responsibilities he had assumed, what with Father away and Mother ill.
To my surprise, it was Rick— no, I must think of him as Prince Richard. It was unseemly to think of royalty in any other manner. To my astonishment, Prince Richard was the one who held out his hand to help me down from the carriage. I faltered. Our eyes met. Oh, what a prince! He really had grown up. He looked fabulously dashing in his dark suit with golden epaulettes.
No Elisabeth, stop thinking like this! You are a lady. You have to at least behave like a lady! my thoughts chastised me. Otherwise, what had been the purpose of my long stay at finishing school? If even then I couldn’t behave like a proper lady, revealing my mixed birth?
In the fateful moment my hand touched his and my eyes met his intense gaze, my other hand which was supposed to lift my skirts just enough for me to step down didn't do things the way it should have. With my gaze fixed on his pale brown irises, I didn’t notice the toe of my shoe catching the hem of my skirt. Next thing I knew I had come crashing down onto the prince's chest, nearly bowling him over.
Clumsy clod, I thought to myself. Why did this have to happen to me?
“Zibby, are you all right?” both cried out in unison.
Zibby? My already burning face flushed even further. Zibby! How could they still use that terrible, unseemly nickname? I thanked the Almighty my dark complexion didn’t make my embarrassment obvious beyond a doubt. Regaining my balance I took a step away, distancing myself from the prince. All the strength seemed to have left my legs which behaved like wobbly jelly.
“I'm sorry... I... I...”
Apparently, my legs weren’t the only part of me that was misbehaving. I couldn't even speak any more. The fancy of showing off what a lady I had become was brutally torn from me by my own clumsiness. I felt the fateful tears pricking at the back of my eyes.
Whatever you do, Elisabeth, don't cry! I thought to myself.
Weeping would just make everything worse. So, taking a very deep breath, I pulled together all the pieces of my shattered self-esteem and put on the best performance I could, all things considered. Giving them both my most beautiful smile, while avoiding eye contact with either of them, I set off up the stairs to the front entrance of the house. It gave me those few crucial seconds to compose myself; no matter how rude it may have seemed—it was the better of my two options.
By the time I reached the front entrance, I was ready to start a conversation. As I turned to ask my brother about Mother, I was astonished to see both young men still standing beside the carriage with a look of utter bewilderment on their faces. I was apparently moving too swiftly for them. First the bumbling fool, then the ‘sweeping-up-stairs graceful beauty’. I chuckled to myself; well at least I was keeping them on their toes. I felt a sense of pleasure at their confused expressions. For all the times those two had left me in a muddle, this served them right.
The satisfaction was fleeting though. I remembered the real reason I had been recalled from school and, summoning all my training, I declared, “Ed, I’ve come on a terribly long journey as quickly as humanly possible because of your rather sudden and unexpected letter. I’m here to see Mother, not to wait for you to stop gawking.”
I did not dare address the prince. I was still far too embarrassed from tripping, but thankfully my words snapped both of them out of their trance. Prince Richard was first in joining me at the top of the stairs, while Edvard stuttered, “Of course... um... Mother. Right away, Zibby...”
I scowled at him, but he was so busy watching his step he didn’t notice. I turned on my heel and continued into the house making my way straight to the wing in which our mother had her room. Richard’s presence right beside me, the sound of his purposeful footsteps, confounded me. I really had no idea whether I could have a conversation with him at this moment. What should I say? All I could think of was his touch, the way he had caught me, the thrill I had felt at being so close to him. Unable to bring words to my lips, I decided silence would be the only option. It made no difference how rude it might seem, at least I had the excuse of Mother’s illness to pull me through my abashment.
Edvard passed us and held the door open for me to pass through. Now, there was a change. My brother had never held the door for me before. He was wont to run through, ensuring it slammed in my face, and would laugh with wild abandon as he rushed off on the other side. How different things were.
I stepped into the eternal gloom of a sickroom. The heavy curtains were drawn and I could hardly make out the enormous four-poster bed, let alone any of the other furniture. As I came closer to the bed, and my eyes adjusted to the twilight, I made out the emaciated figure of my mother, so familiar and yet alien, so wrong. The dark cinnamon skin of her face, much like my own, was drawn against the bones beneath it, and her eyes had sunk into their sockets making horrible shadows on her once-full face. Her vibrant, ebony hair had become streaked with silver and lost its life and lustre.
I ran forward, kneeling beside the bed and taking her icy hand in mine. Then I stopped. Could this skeleton truly be my mother? How had the woman I remembered, so full of life and laughter, been reduced to this creature of death? Another thought stabbed through my horrified mind: this could not have happened quickly. Mother must have been ill for a very, very long time. The sheer abhorrence of encountering her in this state was rent through with uncontrollable anger. I rose to my feet and turned to vent my fury on the only person who could possibly be to blame for the situation.
“She has been ill for months, don't try to deny it! How could you keep this from me? If you had called for me sooner—”
“Shhhhh. She’s asleep. Don’t wake her!”
Edvard’s admonition at my rising voice made me seethe even more. I marched out and turned to face him as he tiptoed out the room and closed the door behind him, keeping my outburst under a tight lid until the latch clicked into place. Then, the mixture of horror, dread, disappointment in Edvard, and anger at having been kept in the dark burst forth in a torrential tirade.
“You weren’t taking care of her properly. How could you think you’d be able to manage? Father is away and so was I, and you never even thought to let us know. Your arrogance knows no bounds! Hoping to manage like that and failing so dismally! I can’t believe you let it get this far. Mother is dying! And what did you do all this time? You probably kept going to play at horse riding and swordsmanship without thinking of the consequences! Why in the king’s name didn’t you call for me? I could have helped! I could have been useful...”
I trailed off when the guilt on his face settled on my awareness and just like that the anger was gone. All I was left with was a horrific image of my dying mother dwarfed by her bedding which brought an uncontrollable urge to cry surging up within me.
I couldn’t burst into tears there. My body reacted before my mind had grasped what I needed to do. Run, flee, hide my emotions. Just run away to a quiet corner for the shock to wash away in peace, far away from the brother whom I was blaming even though I knew that was unreasonable. I just needed somewhere to be alone.
When the tears stopped streaming down my face and the sobs had subsided, I was in the garden at my favourite spot in the labyrinth which had been Mother’s pride and joy. I had flung myself under the beautiful tree I had sat under so many times with Mother while she told me stories or comforted me after Edvard and Richard had played a prank on me. The memories that beautiful old oak brought flooding into my mind made everything inside me tighten painfully, and I am certain if I had had any tears left, they would have fallen again.
Gravel crunched under a boot behind me and a very familiar, yet oddly deeper, voice said, “Ah, there you are. I’ve been looking for you through every part of the labyrinth.”
I turned my head, following the sound. I was aghast. The fluctuating emotions were really going to be the end of me on this terrible day. My face had already steamed up; I could feel my cheeks and ears grow horribly hot. Why did I now have to deal with courtly manners and fine speech, on top of everything else? Why did Edvard’s best friend have to be royalty? It made life far too difficult and just kept reminding me of what a klutz I was. A little child, lacking in any graces or noble airs.
To my even greater discomfort, he placed his hand under my elbow and helped me to my feet. My skirt was torn at the knee and grass-stained. I returned to the little girl I had been who tripped so often on long skirts while trying to keep up with my big brother and his friend who ran so much faster and who always teased me for crying when I grazed my knees. My face was very similar, too—all puffy from tears.
“Come, Elisabeth. I think you should sit down for a bit.”
To my surprise, he proceeded to lift me by the waist, popping me on the nearest low-hanging branch. Taken aback, I blinked as he dexterously swung himself onto the leafless branch beside me. There was a boyish air to him as he turned his face towards me, the soft, dark curls bouncing slightly as he did so. For a moment I saw a twinkle in his eye but then his face fell again, seriousness clouding his features.
Becoming aware of my bewildered and blotchy, tear-stained face, I turned away, wiping my cheeks with the palms of my hands.
“Here, allow me.”
He dabbed under my eyes with a small, soft handkerchief. I reached for it, embarrassed he should show such kindness. As my hand closed around the handkerchief, taking it from him, my fingers brushed his. Our eyes met again. His gaze was so intent it felt as though he was looking right into my inner self. I felt the terrible creep of a deep blush darkening my cheeks.
“You are too kind, Your Highness.”
Irritation marked his sharp retort, “Don’t be silly, Elisabeth. You should remember how I hate my status and subsequent fate. As much as you hate your nickname, I imagine. So, please stop using any of the ridiculous titles.”
I remained silent, fidgeting with the square of white silk. What could I say? I did vaguely remember him hating being a prince. He had often said he wanted to be a real boy like all the others and get muddy and tear his clothes while playing. But that didn’t change the fact of his birth—a social situation I had become so keenly aware of during my time away. He continued, pulling me away from my thoughts.
“I wish you could consider me as a friend instead of a prince. I truly am your friend, just as I am Ed’s. Would you please accept that?”
I held my breath. I didn’t want to contradict him. He spoke so firmly, and yet so kindly. He seemed to have left behind the playful boy whom I had disliked because of his idolisation of my older brother. Out of the corner of my eye I took a good look at him. He had changed much in the time I was away. For one thing, he was thinner and ganglier than I remembered, as though he had been stretched by a sudden growth-spurt. His face seemed to be just as confused as the rest of his body; the growing process was spreading things around unevenly, leaving him looking like he was somewhere in between: half boy and half man. Although his jaw had become larger, more defined, and his cheeks and lip showed the tell-tale hints of soft stubble, his face was still quite round, and his hair curled despite obvious attempts at straightening it. There was also a spattering of acne on his jawline.
Not wanting him to notice my studious scrutiny, I dared to ask, “How long has Mother been ill for?”
I asked the question I most dreaded the answer to.
He sighed as he replied, “Almost a year. At first it was nothing to worry about, but slowly—very slowly—it crept in, getting worse.”
“A year!” I felt indignation rising within me once more. My eyebrows drew together, and my mouth pouted, petulant at having been kept out and for being helpless now. Before I could start ranting, he cut me off.
“She made both of us swear not to tell you. It was only a few days ago Ed managed to convince her to let him free of that oath. It has weighed heavily on him.”
“Oh,” was all I could manage. What a strange thing for Mamma to insist on.
The silence drew on, I began to fidget. Sadness had settled about his shoulders like an extra woollen cloak.
I broke the oppressing quiet, if only to hear him speak again. “What about Father?”
Richard jumped at the opportunity to speak, “Ed has been in continuous communication with your father since the beginning. He was able to visit your mother briefly between voyages a few weeks ago but was called away to the offices at Port Averly. It appears there was some unexpected complication with one of his trading ships he needed to attend to personally.”
The prince fell silent again. I was fighting with myself, trying to hide the resentment surging within me. I was the only one who hadn’t known about Mother’s illness until it was too late for anyone to do anything. Why? Why did things have to be so wrong? Why had no one told me? Was there something at fault with me? Didn’t they trust me?
Richard pulled me out of my dark musings by hopping off the branch.
“Will you walk with me?”
He held out a hand, but I ignored him and jumped down beside him. I could still out-climb him if I wanted to. My feet landed together perfectly, and I sent a look of self-satisfaction his way. The expression on his face was definitely worth it. To hide my smile, I turned my attention to brushing off my skirts. Then I followed as he set off out of the clearing.
“Tell me about this finishing school you attended. What’s it like?”
We had walked for some time together, chatting about the silly things that were said and done at school. I had not taken note of the path we took, too busy sharing small anecdotes and fun incidents about my teachers and friends. My heart sank when I saw the front entrance of the house. We rounded the last corner of the maze, and I could see the fountain at the front of the manor.
Several uniformed knights milled about on horseback, and I noticed a rider-less horse being held by one of our stable hands. It was an impressive bay steed; his coat glistened in the bright sunlight but at the sight of that gorgeous horse my spirits reached the pit of my stomach.
“You’re going already?” I asked, unable to hide my disappointment.
He sighed and nodded.
He had been slowing his pace since before we left the maze and now, he stopped.
“Elisabeth, I’m so terribly sorry you returned at such sad and troubling times. I truly wish you could have come back happy, smiling as you did the day you left. However, I am really glad you have finally arrived and hope to see you again soon.”
I was surprised. Was this really the same person whom I had loathed so much in years past? He had changed an awful lot.
“I am glad to finally be back home...” I fought off the recent memory of my mother which surged up, belying this statement.
Caught up in my own thoughts, I did not hear what he replied and could only watch in complete detachment as he took my hand in his and raised it to his lips. Richard had already walked off to the waiting guard when my befuddled mind came to grips with it all. He had kissed my hand. The crown prince had kissed my hand. I was stunned. He had treated me as his social equal in front of all those people, even though I was far from it.
By the time I made my way to the front steps, a cloud of dust was all that remained of Richard and his entourage. Edvard was waiting for me though. He looked terrible, as though he hadn’t slept well in ages. I ran up the steps and flung my arms around him. He was much taller than I remembered, and I had to stand on tiptoe to achieve a decent hug.
“I’m so sorry,” I whispered into his shoulder.
He pulled me close but said nothing. I responded with a tight squeeze as well, while my thoughts turned to how hard the past months must have been for him. That first, proper hug from my big brother marked the dawn of a new relationship between us. Gone were the days where my brother playfully teased and played pranks on me. I smiled to myself at the thought that something, which had appeared eternal, became something new and different in a heartbeat.