The first time I saw her, a sweet tangle of honey and almonds carried on the summer breeze as she smiled at me. Perhaps I had seen her before, perhaps I hadn't. It didn’t matter, she was yet another silly nymph. I had seen plenty in my life.
When I was young and still new to such things as romance, the boys my age took great pleasure in crouching in the coarse grasses that line the shore, hoping to catch a glimpse of the alabaster bodies of the women of the ocean as they bathed. When the young men returned, their voices were high and excited as they talked among themselves of the splendor they had seen. Hair like spun gold, lips so full and sweet. Nymphs took great pleasure in toying with the hearts of young boys, simply because they could.
But beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I always believed there was a coldness to the nymphs. They were so flawless it almost hurt. And though their sea-glass eyes shone as they smiled, their beauty was chiseled from stone. Cruel. For the most part, I took no notice of them and the stupid boys who chased them.
My mother says if I were sensible and quiet, I might catch the eye of a man. Alas, I have no wish to paint my face powder white and style my hair in a pile of chocolate ringlets above my head. Women my age are expected to sit still, to make themselves beautiful. They preen like peacocks, spreading out their iridescent feathers to catch the eye of the foolish men of our island. I cannot bring myself to sink so low. Perhaps I am too proud, too wild in my own pursuits. My mother’s lips purse and her hands worry themselves into knots as she frets about me. I’m too headstrong for my own good, she says. ‘Please Zephyra, she begs, ‘won’t you try to do as you’re told?’ Mother tells me I would be so much prettier if I did all the things she wishes I would; brush my hair, dust my eyelids with a light shimmer of color, paint my lips red.
I suppose I am pretty. My large ice-blue eyes, dark hair, and slender form are enough to gain some vague attentions from men. But it isn’t enough, for most young women of my age are promised to someone or already married and settled down. It is what a woman needs, my mother says. But I have no such needs.
When I was a little girl, I sat where I was told, buttoned my lips, held my swirling thoughts inside my head where they echoed and multiplied. Straight spine, hands folded in my lap. My mind is a place of mirrors and shards of thought. I’m afraid commerce, trade, and poise lessons from my tutors did not fulfill my lust for knowledge very adequately. When I couldn’t escape to the woods, I let myself get lost in my own head, relishing in the rich color and life of the universes inside my mind.
My father’s presence weighed heavily on me when I was small. I feared and respected him, his power. His voice rumbled like silver thunder when he spoke, and I admired the way he drew everything unto him. There was a glint in his eye that made people sit up just a little straighter, lean forward to hear what he had to say.
He is a just ruler and a good father. As a child, I tried to do what I thought would please him. As his oldest, I was expected to someday become queen of our Island, called Thudran after the mighty god who pulled it from the ocean long before I or even my father was born.
As I grew older, it became harder for me to please him, to sit just so on my throne with my hands folded tidily.
I would so much rather have let my dark hair fall loose and run barefoot through the rich honey glow of the forest on the south side of the island.
Now that I nearly eighteen, I suppose I’ve become more defiant. More often than not, I escape to the woods to dig for roots that taste of cinnamon and trace the trails insects leave in the bark of the ash trees. And even though little crescent moons of dirt catch under my fingernails, and often my arms are often cut by thorns, I would rather spend every day of my life in that forest than sit in the stone-cold palace where the walls are tight and suffocating as storm clouds.
Yet there are some duties I cannot ignore or slip away from. Every two years, the ruler of a neighboring island called Atrax and his people come in immense wooden boats, smelling of salt and faraway places. They are a seafaring nation; one of voyagers that travel the globe. They discuss trade, treaties, and border issues with my father and his advisors. As the next in line, I am expected to attend. Sometimes I don’t mind it. The travelers provide a glance into foreign places, glowing worlds I’ve never been to. Their weathered eyes hold the wisdom and mystery of faraway lands. As my father talks with them, I sit silently and take in their brightly colored silk clothes, the golden hair, and almond eyes.
It was at such a gathering that I met Aurelia. I was seated in my throne to the right of my father, my eyes flickering over the small crowd gathered in our courtyard. Aurelia stood towards the front of it, near the base of the dais where I sat. A large man with a thick, fiery auburn beard had his arm around her shoulder. I assumed he was her father. The faint blue patterns around the girl’s eyes marked her as a sea nymph, though she was somehow unlike the ones who played on our misty shores. Her nose was slightly crooked, and she was a bit too skinny. Her white robe hung crooked on her shoulders. She smiled sweetly, shyly, as our eyes met briefly. She was, perhaps, only half-nymph, I decided. I couldn’t help but wonder about her. She was stunning, to be sure, but she didn’t have the same haughty, hungry look as the nymphs I had known.
I was startled when the red-haired man spoke out suddenly a booming tone, addressing my father. Advisors to the visiting King did not typically address my father directly. “Thank you, King Aegeus, for the warm welcome,” he thundered, “I am General Bemus, Head of the great army of Atrax.” My father nodded, his gray eyes betraying no emotion. I watched him carefully, trying to gauge how he felt at being addressed so boldly.
“I would like to offer my daughter, Aurelia, to the service of the future queen of Thudran," Bemus continued, "If it is your will, she will stay by the Princess Zephyra’s side as her handmaiden, and tend to her needs.”
I glanced again at the nymph, Aurelia. I had no wish for a handmaiden. And yet my father nodded solemnly, thanking Bemus for the honor. I remember Aurelia’s ivory cheeks blushing the pale pink of crushed roses as she followed me to her new chambers after the meeting.
And so it was that Aurelia came to live with me as my lady in waiting. She slept in my quarters on a small mattress in the far corner. I would hear the whisper of her mattress as she woke quietly each morning. Aurelia always rose before the first streaks of salmon brushed the sky, dressing and leaving our chambers to fulfill some of her duties.
I fear I was rather cold to her at first. She was like a sparrow in my wake, attending to my needs but seldom speaking more than necessary. Her painful shyness was irritating. It was strange for me, to have a girl so close to my age attending to my every whim. I always preferred to take care of my own needs.
The days passed, long and slow. Often, I would feel Aurelia’s wide eyes watching me as I worked on the loom, or my fingers flew over the patterns of my needlework. But when I caught her staring, they darted away, startled and guilty. The only time she stood near me was to brush and style my hair each morning, her willowy fingers expertly twisting and pinning.
One morning I woke early, my legs itching to walk the hidden pine trails of the forest. The days were shadows, stretching thin and predictable. This was the cruelty of life in my father’s palace. I dressed in a pale blue tunic and slipped from the palace into the splendor of the outdoors, ignoring the snag of guilt at the lessons I was sure to miss.
To my dismay, my departure did not go unnoticed. Aurelia was bent over the old stone well in the field, humming a tuneless song as she filled a jug of water. She glanced up and saw me walking barefoot through the grass. I nodded at her curtly, hoping she wouldn’t ask questions. When she spoke, her voice was soft, unsure.
“Where are you going, miss?”
I turned. Considered lying. But my own words surprised me. “To the woods.”
I expected her to nod. Turn back to her work though she knew what I was doing was wrong. But her voice piped up again, and she spoke as though she could hardly believe the words that tumbled from her lips, clumsy and rushed and apologetic. “Might I come along, miss?”
I hesitated a beat. The woods were my place, my haven. But that fact that she had asked was curious to me. “Come,” I said at last, and a brief smile played on her lips. The thick green grass rippled in the cool morning air. Before long, the fields gave way to the thin light of the woods that streamed through the waxy pine needles. The sharp scent of sap echoed throughout the forest.
We spent the day enveloped in the warm embrace of the trees, turning down the gilded pathways and tasting the bittersweet berries of the earth. Aurelia hung behind me, lost in her own thoughts.
We reached a clearing that was alive with blackberries and ferns that whispered against our ankles. I popped a berry in my mouth, relishing the darkly sweet crunch.
Aurelia gathered a handful of them as I swung myself onto a low-hanging branch of a nearby willow. I glanced down at my silent companion, and suddenly felt strange for not having spoken to her for so long. When I was alone, the quiet of the woods was sweet and welcoming. I didn’t need to fill the space. But with Aurelia there, the silence felt tight and heavy.
I cleared my throat and she glanced up. “I’m not sure why I love this forest so,” I said “ There’s just something about it… something mystical. It makes me feel… oh I don’t know.” I trailed off, unsure how I might explain.
“Like you’re free.” Aurelia’s voice startled me.
I stared at her. “Yes,” I replied finally, “Exactly like that.”
Something changed between us after that day. We were more good friends than master and servant. I felt foolish for my original indifference towards her. Aurelia spoke to me freely and more often, spinning golden tails of her homeland in her lilting voice as she braided my hair. She smelled of pecans and peaches as she softly bent over me. Something within me jumped when she smiled.
One evening, many months after she arrived, we took a walk together on the beach as the sky faded to hues of inky plum and apricot. I asked Aurelia about her mother, a sea nymph who she had mentioned briefly before.
Her eyes wouldn’t meet mine. “She left with her sisters when I was four years old. I watched her slip into the sea and disappear forever.”
“I’m so sorry.” Words failed me.
“I’m fine,” she said as though willing it to be true, “ My father raised me. He’s a wonderful man.”
“You must miss him.”
“Yes. But I’m here now, in your wonderful country. And I get to spend every day with you.” She smiled at me.
I had really looked at her eyes before. I noticed then that they were a soft earthy brown. It’s funny how long you can spend every day with someone and barely notice how beautiful their eyes are. Soft and gentle like a doe’s, a caramel universe.
I didn’t have the words to tell her what I was feeling. Didn’t have the courage to admit it to myself. When I spoke, my voice was thin as spider’s silk. “I… I’m so glad you’re here.”
And then she was leaning forward to kiss me underneath the cold light of the stars.
This afternoon, the two of us sit on a wide ledge of the chalky white cliffs above the sea. Aurelia’s head rests in my lap. I watch her delicate hands twist little crimson flowers into a crown. Pecan trees hang heavy above us and there is a sweet laziness in the air. My fingers absently play through the sunkissed waves of Aurelia’s hair as I gaze out over the glittering embrace of the ocean.
What if I told my mother I had fallen for someone at last? Perhaps I might bring it up one night as we sat together in the living room, weaving. I would keep my eyes fixed on the fine threads of my tapestry, my voice casual. Mention that I had been seeing someone. Tell her how happy they made me. And my mother’s voice would pretend indifference, as though this was normal, expected.
But the excited edge in her voice would give her away as she asked me who. And then I would tell her about Aurelia, and the way her nose wrinkled when she smiled, and how her laugh was like music. And the room would be suddenly stiff, silent. Because Aurelia isn’t a man’s name. Aurelia means my lowly maid. And then I would turn to my mother at last, and immediately wish that I hadn’t. Something inside me would break at the panic in her eyes, the way her hands wrung in her lap. How deflated she would look. Because surely I am not telling her that I am in love with the chambermaid?
And so I won’t. I won’t tell anyone how Aurelia’s hair moves like wheat in the wind as she walks or how her lips taste of salt and stars. But doubt not, I will love her forever.