duminică, 16 septembrie 2018

The obedient wife

“The best way to keep a prisoner from escaping is to make sure she never knows she’s in prison.”

We arrive at the Royal residence later than expected so there is only a stable boy who hurriedly takes our horses as we dismount. We rode ahead of the rest of our belongings and servants, but Gregory does the work of a housemaid quite skilfully and helps untie my laces and unplaits my hair. I try not to linger on the questions that arise in my head (about how someone must have shown him how to master all those womenly tasks) and let myself simply enjoy how warm his callused hands are as they linger a bit longer on my body, as if by chance.
I see the King and the royal household for the first time the next morning, at Mass. Even if he can't be older than 65, the King looks aged far beyond his years. Aged, but still in power and far from how frail the Crown Prince appears. While the King still carries himself straight (even if he occasionally has to reach for the support of my husband), the Crown Prince has to be excused from the service after less than an hour, his face drenched in cold sweats and trying to contain his persistent coughs.
His young wife (my husband tells me she is only 15 and they've already been married for 3 years) is at his side in a moment and carefully tries to lead him to his rooms. She too looks frail and weary and I can see that she is with child. I'm not yet familiar with the state of affairs at the Court, but I will later find out that the young Crown Princess already gave birth to a stillborn son only 5 months into their marriage, she then managed to birth a healthy daughter followed by a very frail one and so now the King and his lords are anxious to see if she will finally give the Kingdom the heir that everyone is expecting. The poor creature looks almost afraid as everyone's glance follows her anywhere she goes. 
I can't help but think of my daughter, Rosalie who I've been told is pregnant with a wedding night baby. She and the future Queen will probably give birth around the same time and if Gregory will follow his plan, I will be there to assist her. I haven't seen my older children since before the birth of my Charlotte and I fear that they were too young when we parted to remember me.
In the meantime, it looks like Gregory has managed to arrange marriages for 2 of them. Rosalie has already been married to a young Baron. His wealth isn't very impressive, but his reputation is untarnished and the two of them aren't very far in age (my Rosalie recently turned 18, while her husband is only 25). Our son, Francis is to marry a young heiress, the daughter of a Duke. I don't know a lot about the young girl, only that she is related to our future Queen and that I will probably meet her soon.

______________________________________________________


"Alleken, there is something I need you to promise me." My husband's tone is grave and I can't help the slight shiver that I feel along my backbone despite the warm water that the maids have carried for my bath. He's just returned from a meeting with the King and the Council and judging by the slight frown he's trying to hide from me, I can tell that it didn't go too well. Our time at the Court almost faded away and there are only a few more weeks until Christmas. Soon we will have to start preparing for our departure and the thought that I will finally see my daughter again makes me a bit more indulgent than usual.
"If I promise to take into account your council, will you tell me what this is about?"
"Promise me that whatever happens, whatever sudden charitable calling you might feel, we are leaving the Court and staying at Riverswood. Promise me you are not going to try to get involved with the Crown Princess's confinement. I have a bad feeling about it and I don't want your name associated with any of it. You're too new to the Court and your reputation is too fragile."
By voicing his worry, my husband is only expressing everyone's concerns, yet I can see why he does it in the privacy of our bedchamber and away from prying eyes. To speak such a thing is to commit treason because, despite the Crown Princess' delicate health, the entire court is hoping for an heir to the Crown. The Crown Prince's health is getting worse before own own eyes and we are not sure if he will live long enough to inherit the Kingdom from his father. Having the future Queen give birth to a healthy heir is crucial for the royal family.
So I can understand where my husband's concern is coming from. In the past few months, I have grown closer to the young unfortunate Crown Princess. She's got dozens of maids and ladies in waiting, yet I can see that she feels isolated. She wasn't raised in the middle of the Royal Court, like my sister-in-law, Agnes and she was so young when she was married to the Prince that she didn't fully realize what responsibilities her new rank would impose. She is embarrassed by all the attention and completely overwhelmed by the obligation to birth an heir as soon as possible. While someone like Agnes thrives by being surrounded by flattering courtiers and intrigue, little Crown Princess Mathilde probably feels smothered in the middle of all the attention. I can't help but feel sorry and regard her like my little Charlotte, who is only 5 years younger.
"Please, Alleken, just once do as I say and I promise not to ask anything else of you. I simply have to know you're safe and away from this possible scandal. Whatever happens to the Crown Princess or the baby she's carrying, I need to know you won't be held responsible."
His concern is touching and this time I decide to do as he says. I too have a bad feeling about this baby.
"We'll leave for Riverswood the day after tomorrow", I concede. I am impatient to see my daughter and make sure she is alright.
His touch is familiar yet so new as his fingers lazily trail along my calf and there's comfort and care and maybe a little bit of lust too in the way he's caressing my skin.

vineri, 14 septembrie 2018

How do you love someone the right way?


"The only thing I don't know about you is what it feels like to hold you in my arms when you fly to pieces."

We used to enjoy hurting each other. Not in the physical sense, of course, because I couldn't seriously injure a grown man even if I tried and Gregory has never been violent with women (even if I have seen him clenching and unclenching his fists multiple times during our more heated arguments). But intimately... well, that's different.
Just knowing that we held the power to invoke such an emotional reaction from the other was simply... irresistible to us. I would like to think it was because we were married so young and without really knowing each other before and not because deep inside we truly are cruel people. But the reality is that I don't really know anymore. I also thought that I used to hate my husband after he separated from my children and abandoned me but then realized that it had never been hatred. Just as we had never really been in love, because how could you truly love a person that you never truly got to know?
And now, in our current situation, I am even more confused about his feelings. My husband is not a man of many words and I think he's always preferred to let his actions speak for himself so that people around him could take his actions and come to their own conclusion about him, yet I can't say he's not a passionate man, especially when it comes to things who truly define him. Maybe that's one of the reasons why we never could get along when we first got married. We were too young, too inexperienced and too unwilling to sacrifice little bits of us for the other.
The thing I'm certain of though is that somehow, along the way, while caring for him, I've allowed myself to fall in love with my husband. The fact that I have no idea if the same can be said for him has been eating me inside ever since my talk with Agnes.
____________________________________________________________

"The King has called for me. He is considering funding an expedition to the recently uncovered lands far into the Dark Sea and he would like my advice in establishing a crew."
My husband's voice is calm and if it weren't for the sudden change in his heartbeat you could assume we were discussing the weather, not his inevitable departure and possibly the end of our affair. His tan skin is still hot and there's a thin layer of sweat glistening on it and discreetly accentuating the old scars on his abdomen. I find myself almost unconsciously tracing them and wondering about the story behind each one. We've been married for 20 years and our bodies have changed so much. There are subtle wrinkles at the corners of my eyes and my skin is far from the unblemished white it used to be back when I was only 15 and the two of us married. I've recently turned 35 and was surprised to discover that my husband remembered my birthday and gifted me with a beautiful and very gentle mare, the two of us could spend the sunny fall afternoons riding. He will turn 45 in a couple of months but from the way things currently look, I fear that we won't be together.
I would like to be young again to plead and try to persuade him to remain with me a bit longer, maybe spend Christmas together, but I fear the way he would react to it. And when one is called for by the King, one can do nothing but obey and ride to meet the court as soon as possible.
"I've already informed your maid to pack your trunks. If we leave tomorrow morning and ride all day, we should arrive by nightfall. You will probably need new dresses and maybe jewelry, but those are women's affairs and besides, the Duchess of Leinster will be there and maybe she'll help you with that."
He delivers the second set of news in the same nonchalant manner he would inform me of next day's supper.
"Then I was thinking we could excuse ourselves from the Court and spend Christmas at Riverswood Estate. Our Rosaline is expecting her first baby and I think she would feel reassured to have her mother with her for the birth."
I shriek in excitement like a young girl, but Gregory doesn't mention it. He actually manages to look pleased with my reaction. We spend the rest of the day together, ignoring the servants knocking at our bedroom's door, so the next morning our trunks are only half filled and my maid is anxiously waiting to braid my hair. The road to the Royal Palace has never seemed so charming under the autumn sun.

luni, 10 septembrie 2018

A Scandalous Affair


"You fight each other, who fights them?"

"Fornicating with your own husband is so old-fashioned... Alleken, seriously, I was expecting so much more from you!"
Coming from someone who loves her husband so much that she is preparing to give birth to their seventh child while trying to decide on the perfect necklace to wear to the Christmas dinner(confinement has never been something my sister-in-law was going to go along with willingly), I find it a little hard to believe that Agnes isn't making fun of me.
"You do realize that you're married to my brother, right? And unless you have some kind of revealing news about this little one here..." As if anyone could have any kind of doubts regarding my brother's children, with them all taking after one parent or another like little mirror images. To put it in Agnes' words, they are boringly in love and hopelessly faithful to each other. But my sister-in-law is a Duchess and a King's daughter, so she can afford to banter like that. Me on the other side, already with a child born on the wrong side of the blanket... well, that's a story for another time. Though things do seem to be changing. Not necessarily in good, but there is a change and I'm no longer feeling as smothered by the consequences of my misconduct.
It still feels good to be able to tease each other like that. For so many years I've been so isolated, without even realizing it. First as a young student too absorbed by childish dreams, then as a young wife overwhelmed by sudden responsibilities and in the end as a shamed woman, trying to deal with everyone's judgment. Agnes might still be a bit too ambitious for her own good and maybe sometimes cruel in her way of seeing the world (she is still her father's daughter and she has spent most of her childhood and a good part of her youth following her father's ambitions on the battlefield, trying to discreetly fill her brother's position), but she welcomed me when I was nothing but a disgrace upon her household and she trusted me enough to become my friend.
"Well, you do know that your marriage was never annulled, right? There was not enough ground for an annulment to be granted. You two were both obviously alive and well and your marriage was obviously consummated, with 4 living children to attests to that." My friends' tireless persistence never ceases to amaze me. But I am curious enough to see where she is going with this, so I withhold my comments and let her continue. "You are still his wife and mother of his children and they never managed to persuade you to take the veil so legally you are the lady of his household. Now, pray tell me, dear Alleken... why do you two insist on this whole charade? Don't get the wrong impression, I'm all for a little bit of foolery, but still. Pretending to live in sin with your own husband doesn't really suit you two. Especially when none of you has anything to benefit from it. You especially. Unless... Alleken, is he forcing himself on you? Or is he blackmailing you in any way?"
I find my friend's concern for me endearing, really. In the end, Agnes does have a kind heart. Even if she hides it behind snarky comments and sarcastic remarks most of the times.
"Oh, please, you know I would never allow something like that. And I don't think Gregory would be the man to try it.  He didn't to it 10 years ago, when he really had every legal right to, so I don't see why you would think of such a thing! He's been very thoughtful and gentle ever since he recovered his health."
And I'm foolish enough to walk right into her trap. Really, I should have expected that from her. She knows me too well.
"Dear Lord, Alleken! You're in love with your husband!"
I can see clearly she's trying to feign indignation by the subtle curve of her lips.



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.


Interlude

"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.