vineri, 29 iunie 2018

Servants of fate

"Men fight wars.
Women win them."

"What's your name...?"
She's been quiet by the foot of the massive four-poster bed, playing with her doll, brushing and braiding her hair, all the while gently telling her silly tales in a low voice. And it wasn't even her voice that woke him from his deep, dreamless slumber, but a splitting headache that seemed to be growing in intensity.
It took him a few moments to register her question and a few more to answer it. In his hazy state, she looked more like a hallucination than a real, breathing child, with her tousled dark brown waves and curious eyes.
"My name is... Gregory... I think... What are you doing here?"
His head hurts and it feels almost like an entire swarm of irritated wasps took up their abode there.
"I'm braiding Lizzie's hair, you silly! Look!"
Of course, she'd be talking about her doll while shoving the thing in his face.
"Her name is Princess Elizabeth, but Jane said that I can call her Lizzie. Jane is a princess too, so she knows those things."
Her voice is lost, concealed by the wasps' angry whirrs, while her silhouette becomes obscured and once more, Gregory falls in a fitful torpor, under the doll's immobile and piercing, black stare.

"You do sleep a lot... "
She's in the same place when he wakes up one more time, but the doll is no more. She's playing with a couple of silk ribbons that she probably found somewhere around, on one of the ladies' vanities.
"I came to see you yesterday too, but you were still asleep."
"Yesterday? What day is it?"
His voice is hoarse and his throat is burning with every word, yet he doesn't have the power to sit up and fumble for a glass of water.
"I don't know..."
She actually sounds unsure, so he doesn't insist. He's too tired for it anyway and what good would it do to him to know the day or the date? He's still trying to grasp what happened to him, but for now, it looks like he'll have to do it without his little companion's help. He recognizes the room as the bedroom he usually uses when he stays at his hunting lodge, but he can't recall how he got there. Or why his head keeps aching even when he blinks. So he simply gestures for the water carafe and hopes that she'll do him a favour and bring a glass of water.
Only when he sees her trying her hardest to pick up and bring forth the carafe, does he realize that she can't be older than 5 or 6. She doesn't bring a glass, but she manages not to spill all the water by the time she hands it to him, so he's not going to find fault in her, especially now that he can see how wet her skirts are. Fortunately, she doesn't seem to notice and only looks glad to have something to do around.
He falls asleep again after that.

Later that night he dreams. It's something he probably won't remember by the time he wakes up again, but he has the sensation he's not alone in the room. Through his sleepy state, he can distinguish the soft rustle of a woman's skirts and he can't quite place the mild perfume he senses over the wrist of the cool palm that rests on his feverish forehead, even though he's sure he should recognize it. It can't belong to his little aide, but it does bring back memories of his youth. For a moment, he thinks it might be his late mother's ghost and he worries that he might be dead, but the ache in his entire body feels too alive, so he abandons that train of thoughts and falls back asleep.

"Maman said you had a fever again last night."
It's been like this for as long as he can remember. Ever since he opened his eyes and saw her for the first time. It must have been weeks by now, but he's not sure exactly how many. She's there every time he wakes up and each time he falls asleep. She doesn't make too much noise, but he can still feel her presence even before he opens his eyes.
"I feel better now."
"I know. You don't have a fever no more."
Her little hand is warm on his forehead and so petite. She smells a little bit of milk too, but he supposes that's what babies smell like. She's still a baby to him and sometimes he wonders why she isn't in the nursery. But she wears little dresses, so she must be old enough to wander the halls.
"I went horseriding yesterday! Well, it was a pony, not an entire horse..."
She sounds excited, so he lets her continue because he simply doesn't know what he is supposed to say. He hasn't exactly spent much time around children this young, even though he's the oldest brother and he has 5 children of his own.
"Dolly was really sweet, but she tripped and I almost fell! I didn't get scared though."
"I fell off a horse once... I think."
Now that he's said it, he tries to summon the experience, but it just seems to bring another headache, so he gives up.
"I know. Maman said you fell and hurt yourself pretty bad."

"Why are you always around? Don't you have anywhere else to be?"
"Everybody's so busy around and they forget about me. Well, maman doesn't forget me, but she's tired a lot. She's here too, you know? As soon as you fall asleep or ill, she comes here and watches over you."
He already came to the conclusion that her mother must be the woman he dreamt about. She doesn't smell like a servant, so that's another thing he knows. And the little girl isn't dressed in servant clothes either.
"Aren't there other children for you to play with? Siblings or friends?"
"I used to play with my cousins, but they're not here. They stayed back home and tante Agnes went back to them two weeks ago, when you started to get better. And I don't think I have siblings to play with."
"You don't think?"
"Maman said I have brothers and sisters, but that they're not here anymore. She get's said when she talks about them like she gets sad when she talks about grand-mere and grand-pere too and they died when I was very little, so I think my siblings are dead too."
She sounds very detached when speaking about death, but he assumes she doesn't fully understand the concept. Or the inevitableness and the fact that people don't come back or get better from being dead.

It has been close to 3 months since he first woke up after his accident and summer is almost here. His entire room doesn't smell like a sick man's bedchamber anymore so he guesses that, along with the fact that he doesn't have a fever anymore must be a good sign. His body still doesn't feel like his anymore, with his head too heavy and his arms and legs too light, but it's getting better almost every day. And his memories are back. He's been slowly remembering bits and pieces every day, putting names to faces and deciphering everything, so today, when she finally decides to remain by his side when he wakes up, he can call her by her name.
"I was almost expecting you to run back to your brother and sister-in-law as soon as I started getting better." It doesn't go as planned, because as soon as he catches his first glimpse of her in 7 years he forgets all his carefully practiced arguments, but he still manages to take her hand - still cold, in spite of the warm weather, he can't help but notice - into his and says, in a tone warmer than he first intended "I'm glad to see you, Alleken. Let us go out into the gardens. I'm ready to hear your story..."

duminică, 27 mai 2018

Things we've left unsaid

"Somehow, it felt like we were living on borrowed time, waiting for the inevitable to happen."

"There's been an accident!"
For a woman who just gave birth a few months ago, Agnes was quite determined to resume her activities at the Court and prove that motherhood wouldn't stop her from meddling with the kingdom's affairs. Well, it is her sixth child, she is not quite 25 yet and she's already proved to everyone interested that she can regain her strength in no time after giving birth. Trust my brother to find himself a royal wife who is both absurdly ambitious and insanely resourceful.
It's the beginning of spring, yet the air is frozen and there is no sign of a spring breeze in the air. The snow stopped falling weeks ago, but the ground remains frozen and the cold northern wind sweeps through almost any tiny fissure in the broken-down stone walls, slowly gaining ground all around the old country mansion where we've taken residence for the time being. Trust my estranged husband to come up with a wild horseback hunting on such harsh conditions. Rumour has it that he hasn't been involved in any scandalous affairs the entire winter and that this must be his way of recollecting himself after another public liaison with a Baron's wife, last summer.
"Dear God, is Albrecht injured?"
"What? No! He is all right, Thank God! He went on horseback to bring the royal physician, while I decided not to waste any time and came for you."
"Is it the Crown Prince? Did he have an accident? Did something happen to him?"
"No, of course not! He wasn't feeling too well this morning so the Queen decided not to let him ride with us."
"Agnes, for the love of God, who was injured?!"
Keeping off the subject wasn't like her at all and I could just see how distraught my sister-in-law was by the subtle trembling of her wrists and the way she kept twisting her filthy handkerchief while trying to collect her thoughts. That was when I noticed the red stained hem of her new riding habit.
"It's Gregory. Your husband's been injured. His horse was startled and Gregory was thrown on the ground and was seriously injured. Alleken, there was so much blood..."

miercuri, 22 februarie 2017

Interlude II

"Let me tell you what I wish I'd known when I was young and dreamed of glory. You have no control: who lives, who dies, who tells your story."
"You should consider coming with us this evening, you know? It's only a dinner organized by a Viscount. And his wife is a very good friend of mine, she wouldn't mind you joining us at all. She is quite an original character, so I think she would be rather delighted to have you among us. It would make everything much less dull, for sure. I don't think I can stand one more of the Viscount's anecdotes about his early days."
"I can imagine. He certainly looks ancient..."
"Someone should take pity on him and tell him that all that rouge doesn't help his complexion at all. It only makes all his wrinkles stand out more!"
"Well, I do pity his wife. Poor Isabelle... required to marry such a relic! He doesn't need a wife. He needs a caregiver! A nurse. Or better, a martyr!"

 "Her Ladyship could certainly never be considered a saint..."
"Don't blame her... I would do the same if I were in her place. Please don't tell my husband I told you that! I love Albrecht very much, but sometimes he simply can't understand my sense of humour."
"Well, forgive me for not arguing with you, but you can be rather... caustic at times... Your Highness."
Agnes used to be like that all the time in her early days. She had been quite a darling of fate ever since she had been born as the second daughter of a Duke. The fact that now she was practically a Princesse du sang and held the title and fortune of a Duchess only seemed to emphasize this aspect of her personality. During the time I spent in their home, I became quite familiar with my brother's wife and the two of us cultivated somewhat of a friendship. We enjoyed each other's company, eventhough there were many aspects we couldn't come to an agreement on - my persistence to isolate myself from the society and her alleged friends, her incessant need to meddle in other people's lives - yet we acknowledged the other's worth and the fact that we both derived beneffits from our association.
She could be quite self-centered and ruthless too, especially when her older sister, Maria, was concerned. The two of them had never been close as children, but ever since Maria's betrothal annulment and Agnes' rushed marriage to my brother (her sister's initial betrothed) things had been... strained. They avoided each other's company at the Court and each of them had a different entourage that regularly spread prattle about the other. At present, the courtiers' latest concern involved Agnes' ever expanding family (she had already given birth four times in just as many years of marriage and all her children were bright-eyed and rosy-cheeked) and Maria's noticeable barrenness (though there were rumours that the older Princess was finally with child, after three years of marriage).
"While on the subject of her Ladyship... Last time I met her at the Opera, she told me that your husband introduced your children at the Court and that your son, Francis, has become my youngest brother's best friend and the two of them are almost inseparable. Though Francis is younger than my brother, right? He should be... what?Six or seven, right?"
"He's actually nine... All four of them are. And Sarah is almost seven. I can't believe I haven't seen them in almost 4 years..."
I knew I have't been a good mother to my children, but I still couldn't accept the fact that my husband sepparated us and wouldn't allow me to visit them.
"Maman, maman!"
In that very moment, Charlotte, my youngest, stormed in the room and threw herself in my arms, a beautiful chaos of silk, ribbons and dark curls. She was 4 too and with each day I came to the realisation that she resembled her father more and more. Her eyes were mine, but the rest... the way her ebony hair would lightly curl around her still round baby face and everything about her mannerism. How she would look at me, with those big and revealing eyes and the way her eyelashes cast shadowes on her high cheekbones. She actually resembled Agnes quite a bit, especially those times her eyes would gleam with mischief. Considering the fact that my daughter was actually my sister-in-law's cousin, that wasn't entirely unexpected. Poor, innocent child... born after her father's execution and sentenced to a life full of speculation regarding her true parentage. But, if being known as an illegitimate child was what it took to secure my daughter's life, I was ready to bear the brunt of my sins. I was certain that if the King were to find out that she was his brother's offspring, his hatred for his old enemy would cloud his judgement and would make me lose another child.


"We accept the love we think we deserve."

"You know ... I think you were right."
"Well, I am right about many things, but I have an awful inclination of making the worst decisions when it comes to my own issues. What are you referring to?"
"I was talking about babies, of course. I can't believe I'm saying this, but she is even more adorable than Jane was. Of course, I might be unfair when saying this, because this one is so calm and almost always sleeping, while my first one didn't stop crying ‘till blue in the face. I swear, sometimes I had the feeling that baby would choke herself crying so much."
"It's only your second one. Wait until you have three or four more and you'll decide then."
"I might just do that ... "

The Duchess' second child was born only eleven months after her first one, but it all happened so smooth this time that I could completely understand her change of heart. And she and my brother sure made healthy and adorable babies.
She had only given birth 5 weeks ago, but she was already resuming her duties in society, she and her husband attenting almost every soiree and ball, plus going to the theater almost every night. In the meantime, I declined every invitation, not because I wouldn't have enjoyed such activies, especially after so many months spent indoors. I knew very well that a woman who found herself in my circumstances shouldn't attend such activities. Our society was still quite unforgiving in its views towards women such as myself. Yet, I was the one yearning for this society. 

"Are you certain you don't want to come with me and Albrecht this evening? I heard that young new actress, Florine, plays a lovely Isolde... "
"Then I'm quite certain Gregory too will be there... One more reason to stay here this evening."
"Oh, Alleken, I'm sorry... I shouldn't have mentioned that..."
She was the third. First, there had been a danseuse and then, only three months ago, there was that... chanteuse from the Whitefriars Theatre that produced a monumental scandal and brought disgrace upon a solicitor's family.
I knew that Gregory wouldn't want to lead a monk's life after our separation, but I would never have expected him to carry such public liaisons now that he was part of the King's entourage. Yet, His Majesty didn't seem disturbed at all by such displays, so who was I to condemn their behaviour? All these new rules, principles of behaviour and standards bemused me most of the time. I was considered a disgraced woman for having what everyone believed to be a war child and I was expected to stay away from polite society and try to earn forgivness for my sins, yet my husband got to parade in the same society with every harlot he desired.

luni, 3 august 2015

Of life and living

“Birth and death were easy. It was life that was hard.”

My salvation came five weeks later, in the form of a short message, delivered by the royal courier. I recognized the seal, though it was the first time I was seeing it, but I couldn't find any reason why the royal family would want to associate their name with a disgraced woman such as myself. There were two messages, a long letter and a short note, where I made out my brother's crooked signature. How could I have been so naive? My sweet, not so innocent, younger brother, Albrecht, crossed swords with the Marquess' men, chose the right leader and was rewarded with the title of Duke of Leinster as well as the King's second daughter's hand in marriage. His five-line message was, as usual, brief and to the point. No pointless introduction, no uncalled-for courtesy, not even a word about my faux pas. His wife, the Duchess, would give birth to their heir any day from now and he was asking for my assistance. If I hadn't known my brother, I could have misread his bluntness for bad manners.
The letter though, three pages of elegant formulas signed by the Duchess of Leinster herself, was more considerate and included a formal invitation to their residence in the Capital. I wasn't invited at the Court and I still couldn't believe that someone from the royal family would want to associate with me, but ,if desperate times call for desperate measures, then I was free to act as desperately as I wish.
The fact that the Duchess was to give birth only five months after her wedding only intriguied me more. I couldn't help but hope to find some form of support, even frienship from this woman. If my brother chose her and dared to defy the King, who first offered him his oldest daughter's hand, she had to be noteworthy. She too hurled defiance at her father, after all.
I left two days later, chaperoned by my father, who offered to outride me to the Capital. This time I took my daughter with me. If my sister-in-law was desperate enough to send for me, then she could turn a blind eye to a five week old babe born on the wrong side of the blanket, because I wasn't going to make the same mistake I did the last time. My heart still twinged every time I thought about the way Gregory separated me from his children. This child was only mine and I wasn't going to let anyone interfere between us.
The journey proved long and fatiguing, but when we arrived at our destination six days later, I was surprised to find my brother's house, along with everyone in it, family members, servants and even some mislaid pryers, upside-down. I could probably have died laughing seeing my formerly very composed brother now missing his footing upon a clueless lap dog and bitterly yelling at an innocent stable boy to get the creature out of his way and return it to the kitchen where it rightfully belonged, had I not been so exhausted after my own journey.
And then he looked at me briefly and knit his brows. My travelling attire didn't impress him. I probably looked slightly better than his wife's chambermaid on a Sunday morning.
"What do you want? Get out of my way! Or better! See what happened to that harebrained hallboy I sent to look after the midwife more than two hours ago!"
His commanding tone and the annoyance I immediately sensed from his words almost made me instinctively comply and run outside, on the streets, but I resisted my first impulse and reciprocated his politeness.
"I'm sorry I deceived myself and misinterpreted your note, my lord. I know that you are now the Duke of Leinster and I owe you respect and probably my gratitude too, but I don't think I changed so much that my own brother wouldn't recognize me."
"Alleken? Dear God, I thought you wouldn't make it here in time! Agnes is screaming bloody murder upstairs and no one knows what to do! Like that wouldn't be enough, I sent a boy after the midwife and I haven't heard from him in more than two hours. He better have been run by a carriage! I was about to go looking for one too."
And, just like that, I was reunited with my brother after almost six years of absence. In a strange way, he was still the same plainspoken person I knew and that gave me a bizarre sense of comfort.
"Now, pull your hands out of your pockets and come with me! I need you to assist Agnes, do something for her! I'm tired of people twiddling their fingers and lying idle while she is obviously in pain!"
So my first meeting with the Duchess of Leinster would be while assisting her in the efforts of childbirth.
In a minute I was sweept away by a very distressed Albrecht and almost dragged on the stairs, to the Duchess' bedchamber.
The person that I met there was far from the flawless image I expected.
She was probably shorter and smaller than I had anticipated, apparently ten inches shorter than my brother and the massive, encrusted canopy bed only made her look smaller, more fragile and feeble, emphasising her enlarged belly. She was hollering and squalling, frightening the servants that were surrounding her, and despite the fact that she didn't show any sign of shedding a single tear, I had the feeling that she was terrified of what was happening to her. The utter confusion around her was doing nothing to chase her fears away.
So the first thing I did from the moment my brother pushed me inside her bedchamber, taking care to shut the door against me, was to drive away all the fretting help that was only slowing me down and unnerving the poor mother. As soon as we were left alone, I heard her speak to me.
"Thank you! Those imbeciles were running around like a cluster of headless chicken! I assume you're my husband's sister, Alleken, the midwife."
"Why yes, Your Grace."
She still managed to frown at me and look quite overbearing, despite her laboured breathing and dishevelled appearance.
"Don't Your Grace me right now! I'm having your brother's child and you're supposed to help me through it! I have no time for pointless honourifics! We're sisters, you can call me Agnes! Now get here and deliver this baby for me!"
I may have laboured under a delusion from the first time I entered her bedchamber, because the Duchess was anything but fragile or feeble. She may have been frightened, yes, but that was only because no one was telling the young woman what was expected of her in this situation that was so out of the ordinary to her.
"As you wish, Your... Agnes. I want you to take a few deep breaths and allow me to examine you. It may not be pleasant, but it should help me estimate your condition. I assume there have been other persons overseeing your condition, right?"
"Well, there was the Royal Physician appointed by my father, but he never came... very close to me. My father, the King, forbade him from doing ... whatever you're doing right now. He probably wouldn't even know what to do. He used to be my father's barber."
"So, no midwife?"
I wasn't exactly staying abreast with the situation in the kigndom after King Geoffrey's self-coronation, but I knew that only male physicians were allowed to treat the royal family. I still don't understand why would someone appoint a person to look after their health if they are not going to let that person come near them. But a barber doing the work of a midwife? That was simply something I refused to accept.
"And where, pray tell me, is this Royal Physician now? Assisting you from the other side of the door?"
I should probably have kept my toungue in check, because I was in no position to criticize the King's decisions, but I was simply too tired to care any longer.
"Probably four sheets to the wind, collapsed in some damned whorhouse. I sent someone to look for him this morning, but I doubt he'll be of any help to us. Does this have to hurt so much?!"
I knew that if I wanted this to end well for both me and my brother's wife, I had to try to reassure her.
"Listen to me, Agnes. There is a secret that your mother probably never told you. It’s not that birth is painful, it’s that women are strong. So I need you to focus your attention on this and do as I tell you."
I decided not to tell her that I didn't know that from my mother, but from Teacher. She also used to say that men died in battle and women died in childbirth. But I saw no reason why she should hear that from me now.
"My mother was nothing but a depraved woman! She was the reason why this damned war even begun in the first place! Please, I don't want to die like this!"
Gaining a deeper understanding of our late queen's affairs wasn't exactly why my brother sent for me, so I tried to ignore her words and put her at ease.
"There is no way out of this except through it and I'm not going to let you die, Agnes."
In the end, it took her more than 12 hours to get through everything and by then, I didn't know which one of us was more exhausted. But her and my brother's smiles when I presented them their daughter were worth every effort.
"You helped me deliver her, so I see it only fit that you will be her godmother."
Both my brother and his wife seemed to agree on that matter, so I gladly accepted. It wasn't everyday that I was offered the oportunity to become the godmother of the King's grandchild.
After we had the baby cleaned, fed, swaddled and carefully laid to sleep, I drove away Albrecht from his wife's bedchamber and saw to her health.
"Is this really necessary? It doesn't smell very appealing and it's not even comfortable ..."
After endless hours of labour she still had the energy to complain about me wrapping her belly and applying ointments and warm compresses with chickweed, lavender and honey on her skin.
"Well, it is necessary if you want your old figure back. In time. You will never look exactly the same, but not many people will notice that. Until you will have your next one, of course."
"I'm not sure I want a next one ... "
I hear that each time, after every delivery. Every woman, regardless of her rank, education, manners, would swear there won't be a next time. She would mean it, of course. And there always was. So I kept my mouth shut and finished treating her.

"Was it like this for you too? Albrecht told me you have children too."
"I gave birth to my daughter Charlotte almost 6 weeks ago."
"And you're back on your feet and travelling too? Already? You told me I'll get my face wreathed in wrinkles if I get out of bed too soon!"
"Well, my Charlotte was not my first child. I have ... five more."
"What? Six children?! But you're not much older than I am! Albrecht told me that you are his senior only by a year and a half! That makes you ... 26 at the most!"
"Actually, I am still 25 years old, but I got married young. And I had my first four children at one time."
"That's not fair... "
I sensed she was worn down, so I put an end to our less-than-customary chat and let her rest. I needed a good rest too, so I let the servants show me my room, where I found that Albrecht was expecting me.
"She is asleep and she will probably sleep for at least five or six hours, but please send someone to call me if she wakes up."
"But she is fine, right? Out of the wood and recovering?"
"Yes, she did well and she will be fine. She just needs a little time to rest."
"Thank you. I don't know what might have happened to her if it weren't for you arriving here exactly when we needed you the most."
In a way, I was taken aback by my brother's attitude. I suspected the two of them were in love, but I have never seen my brother caring so much for somebody. Not openly at least, because I knew that he cared about me and our parents. I was glad that the two of them had each other.
"You will remain here, right? I'm sure Agnes needs your help and she would be a lot more relaxed if she'll have someone to show her how things work."
"Of course I'll stay."
It wasn't like I was needed somewhere else and somehow, I suspected there won't be many people that will demand a Baroness/Midwife's help. I still wasn't used to the title that my husband received after the war.
"You know ... you and Agnes make beautiful babies. You should have a couple more and introduce them to their cousins."
He answered me with a smile and took his leave, wishing me a good evening.

luni, 16 februarie 2015

Another secret

“It is better to love wisely, no doubt, but to love foolishly is better than not to be able to love at all.”

Life after the war came to an end should have been simpler. Quieter. Uncomplicated. But, like most of the circumstances in my life, it was anything but the thing I longed most.
To everyone around me, my parents, my husband, my former friends, I was a ruined woman. Even my former handmaid regarded me with disfavour and acted as if my immorality, my damnation could spread upon her. The fact that not long after I was captured and then openly absolved of any accuse(a consequence of my father's influence and my brother's newly gained title), I discovered that I was carrying a traitor's offspring could only make things worse for me. That spring, because of my delicate condition, I chose not to take part in the celebrations that were constantly organized at the newly crowned King's residence. How could I even try to justify myself? How could I let the others know that the child that I was carrying could have been a prince or a princess of the blood if it were to be born under different circumstances?
How could I even let my children have knowledge of such a secret? No, I decided, in that very moment, that this was to be my secret, my own burden, even if that implied that my child would always be looked upon as illegitimate. Anything would have been better than the life the Marquis' acknowledged children were sentenced to live, stripped of their rank and locked in a convent, their names erased from history.
My husband must have been apprised about my condition by his new high-born entourage, because only a week after I arrived at my parents' new residence in the south (a castle towering a new marquisate), he came to inquire about my health.
My condition was not noticeable, mainly because it was early spring here and the old manor was damp and still wintry from many years of not being inhabited, despite the constant effort that the servants were putting in tending the fire in almost every room, so I was wearing winter clothes. I waved off my new soubrette (my mother insisted on hiring me a new personal maid, someone suiting our family's new rank), because I suspected what was coming next and I didn't want to involve a stranger in my already precarious marriage.

"Your brother and his new wife inquire about your health and wanted me to send you their love and best wishes, along with their regret that you could not attend their nuptials."
Gregory began pacing out the unfamiliar room, while keeping his head down and avoiding looking directly at me. I suspected he was afraid of what he might see in my eyes, although I was too ashamed of my condition to look him directly into the eyes.
"Yes, please send them my regards as well as my regret that I cannot be present at the Court. I will pay them a visit as soon as ... my condition will allow me to travel such long distances."
I could see him flinch as soon as the words left my mouth and I instantly regretted my artlessness.
"Gregory, you... you have to know something..."
"Well, it feels more like everybody else already knows about your condition, so please don't bother yourself trying to explain it to me. I only need to know one thing, my lady. Who was it? Who is the father of the bastard you're carrying?"
I couldn't help but notice how he attempted to detach himself by not using my name and by trying to offend me. Even if he was in the right.  We have never been close, not even in our first years of marriage, but his sudden change of disposition left me quite unsettled. I knew that he could take my children away from me, that he had every right to do so and I simply couldn't allow something like that to happen to my family. Even so, I've never considered myself the most conciliatory wife and at that moment I was simply too terrified of what power he held over me.
"I think you, more than anyone else, should know very well how such things happen at war."
Thinking about it now, I realize that trying to defend myself by attacking him wasn't the most intelligent decision. I knew how war changed men and maybe attempting to suggest that my baby would be just another war child could have been my only option. The convents and monasteries were already loaded with dozens of unwanted children, fathered by the King's men. What difference could one more such baby make?
"Please don't try to act like you're innocent! I know very well what you must have done during those past five years! The entire Royal Court seems to have knowledge of your actions!"
"Neither one of us is as virtuous as we would like to be."
He seemed tired. Worn out by this war, by his sudden change of lifestyle and even more stricken by my words. Before I could say something more, before I could apologize for my insolent behaviour, he got up and took his coat, heading for the door.
"I already spoke to your mother. I'm taking the children with me, at the Court. The two youngest Princesses are the same age as our daughters and they can play together. As for my son, I hired him a tutor. You are not welcomed to visit them."
His son. Our daughters, but his son. That was his revenge. Separating me from my children and leaving me behind, in the countryside, far away from his new life. I knew that because of all the rumours that must have been circulating, I would never be received at the Court, regardless of how high my rank placed me in society. In their eyes, I would always be an immoral woman, foolish enough to get herself caught and punished for her misbehaviour. Not even the fact that I was suddenly related to the Royal family, though indirectly, could amend for my mistake.
Then he left and I knew I would not see him for many years to come. We were husband and wife and I was still the mother of his children, but I no longer had any right upon them.
He left the next morning, not even bothering to give me a second look. I made my farewells to my children, attempting no to cry, while they regarded me as a stranger. I couldn't help but feel at fault. When all was said and done, I realized that it was my fault. I have been an absent mother most of my children's lives, too engrossed in my work, in other people's sufferings, always pressed for time, while they had to suffer the consequences. And now it was too late.
I was abandoned in the countryside, on my parents' estate, without any hope. Four months later, after the announcement of the Marquis' execution reached us, I gave birth to his daughter. I was only 26 years old, but I felt like I lived for too long.

sâmbătă, 20 septembrie 2014

Endless Ambition

“But you’ve slipped under my skin, invaded my blood and seized my heart.”

Her father sent for her two months after the first attack, on an icy winter morning and in only a couple of hours, she threw away the fancy stitching her stepmother insisted her to work on and prepared herself a travelling chest. She had been expecting this moment ever since her father's departure. Nobody dared to ask why the Duke wasn't summoning his heir, instead of asking for his middle daughter, because while his sister was getting ready to fulfill his role in front of their father, her older brother, her father's heir, was kept to his bed, struck down by high fever, half conscious of the events that were taking place around him.
She was very much aware that if her father won this war, she may never become the crowned head, but she was determined to take over and rule from behind her unqualified brother's back. Her father practically raised her for to do exactly that.

Her arrival turned the scale in her father's favour and determined the war's outcome.
She still spent almost four years there, alongside her father and his men, acting as his advisor and his main ally.

She didn't hesitate any second when it came to giving up her beautiful, embroidered dresses for men's clothes and parting from her chambermaids, nor when she had to learn to pass quietly during chilly nights in order to clean herself of many days' grime.

Two years and a half after her arrival and exactly one year before her father's triumph, she carried on the first one of her many acts of defiance.
It was during a formal dinner in her father's pavilion, when she was introduced to a young and very promising Captain in the Duke's army, already very much admired by her father. And also very betrothed to her older sister, Maria. She recalled hearing his name casually mentioned among her family, but it wasn't until that evening that she decided to put to the test her personal charm. It certainly wasn't the first time she was flirting with someone, because what other guilt-free pastime could a noble young lady enjoy if not an innocent tease of charming courtiers? But she certainly never dared to foresee the outcome of her actions.

In only a few weeks, she was secretly leaving her tent in the middle of the winter nights only to meet him, far from prying eyes. And from there on, things could only move in one direction, even if she kept trying to convince herself that it was nothing more than harmless play.

"No, Albrecht ... It has to be the last time ..."
"You keep saying that. Every night. Yet you keep coming to me. Just one more night, right, Agnes?"
"That's Your Grace, for you, not Agnes..."
"I apologise for my recklessness, Your Grace ... Should I try to prove to you just how sorry I am ...?"
As their armies won more battles and the end of her father's campaign was closer, she came to the conclusion that there was only one way to settle the things between them, for having to put an end to whatever name they referred to this endless banter between them was simply not something she was ready to face.
"We could run away and get married, you know? The war is almost over and your father doesn't need your help anymore... "
"I'm not going to give up on everything that I have built up until now, Albrecht ... It is my birthright."
"Then I will simply go and marry Maria. That's what your father wants, right?"
He never got tired of provoking her in every possible way. Even if it always ended with her slaping him.
"Don't even dare mention her name in front of me!"
"As you wish, Your Grace ..."

"Don't you feel guilty sometime?"
"What should I feel guilty for?"
"Depriving your brother of his power? Hiding from your father? Stealing your sister's betrothed ...?"
"As if that would only be my accomplishment? I'm certain you might have had something to do with it too..."
The morning when her father informed her of their victory was marked by the first day of spring.
"What now, Agnes? You know that we will have to part, sooner or later. And the next time we will meet will probably be at your sister's wedding."
"Give me just one more day. I'll talk to my father."