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Fiction

Princess Philidora knew how privileged she was, and had always thought she knew where her duty lay.

She was generally acknowledged as being kind-hearted and not a Princess Pushy, unlike her cousin, Princess Sarabanda, who tended to forget she was a minor royal, but she had a sharp tongue when she chose, and could outdo anyone in the Kingdom when it came to well-aimed sarcasm and the precisely targeted putdown. Anyway, she was a doctor of physics and literature and astronomy, and had already had several books published, which she had originally submitted using a pseudonym, to prove that it wasn’t just her status that led to her success. But she also had a fine, sweet singing voice, could play the flute and the harpsichord as well as many professional musicians, and could outrun many of the Kingdom’s finest athletes, though of course she didn’t compete professionally – yes, there had been reforms and modernisations, but there were certain limits! She was the kind of woman who wasn’t, unless by flattering sycophants, called beautiful, but whom even those who disliked her, not that there were many of them, admitted was a fine looking woman. She had a fine, clear skin, deep green-grey eyes that could sparkle with mischief one minute and be lost in contemplation the next, and long chestnut hair that she preferred to wear loosely or just twisted into a braid like a schoolgirl. She was above average height, but never stooped or slouched.

Of course, it was generally acknowledged that one day, and perhaps before too long, Philidora should get married. Modernisation had its limits. She could marry for love and the marriage would not be arranged. Well, that was the official line. The reality was that her family and the court, and the establishment in general, would be delighted if Philidora did, indeed, marry for love, but to one of a selected group of young men, and that if she saw to arranging it herself, all the better, but there was the general as Princess Philidora was never left in any doubt as to how privileged she was, and in even less doubt as to where her duty lay. She wasn’t the heir, but she was most definitely the spare. Equality of succession in the Kingdom of Altessa had been around for nearly a century now, but her brother Florian was older than she was, so he would ascent the throne when their father, King Simeon, decided the time had come to join his father, and his mother, who had been the country’s first Queen Regnant and reassured even the most diehard traditionalists that it would be fine. Privately, Princess Philidora thought this business about the heir and the spare was ridiculous, and privately, most of the adult royals would have agreed with her, but it was the kind of thing you didn’t talk about.

One of the privileges that Philidora had enjoyed was a fine education. Even though women had been admitted to the same education as men in the Kingdom for even longer than they had been entitled to rule it, there were still those who had their doubts about it, though of course nobody expressed them in front of Philidora, and not just because she was a Princess, but because, though they assumed that she would be sensible, she had her headstrong side, and you could never be sure.. Even her mother, who could read her like a book, and was very like her in some ways (though she had been fortunate, and adored Simeon as much now as when she first met him) worked on the assumption that her daughter was sensible, that much under-rated virtue – or she always had been. Lately, Queen Alysa was beginning to wonder. Her eyes, remarkably like her daughter’s, were very sharp, and so was her perception, and she could not deny that Philidora was growing far too fond of that young man Albertus. The Queen had known that the two of them were good friends at university, and whilst not exactly approving of the friendship, had seen no initial cause for alarm. He was pleasant in his ways, and she was sure that he wasn’t just interested in her position – indeed, if anything, he was fond of her as much despite her royal status rather than because of it. Even though he wasn’t of the nobility, if things had been different, then, at a push ……

But things weren’t different, and there was nothing that the Queen or anyone else could do to make them different. Albertus’s grandfather was one of the greatest traitors in the history of the Kingdom. He still languished in a prison cell in the forest near the border that it was best not to talk about. He had tried to steal what he had no right to, and what, in any event, he never could. Apart from being seditious, and unthinkably awful, his mission was utterly futile. Good Queen Marina, the country’s first Queen Regnant had made it known that she didn’t believe in things being passed on to subsequent generations, and his descendants were not to be punished or stigmatised. His son, who was old enough to remember his father, but was adopted, lay low, and was meek and modest, and if anyone thought the worse of him, they didn’t say so. Albertus, though, didn’t play by the rules. He was positively proud of his grandfather, though he didn’t make a cult of him, and though he had never, so far as anyone knew, yet spoken of plans for insurrection, who knew what he was thinking? Though of course, the monarchy was so well loved, nothing could ever come of it – could it?

After seeing the two of them walking hand in hand in the royal orchard, and then falling into each other’s arms under the oldest and most magnificent apple tree, its boughs enrobed in spring blossom, Alysa decided that something would have to be done.

She summoned her daughter to her study. In private, the royal family eschewed formality, and the two women greeted each other with a kiss on the cheek, not curtsies and homage, but Philidora knew her mother well enough to know that this was not going to be a pleasant chat, and already had a good idea why. She decided to go straight to the heart of the matter herself. “I love Albertus,” she said. “And he loves me. And if that means giving up being the spare,” she used the term deliberately, knowing how her mother disliked it, “then so be it.”

Alysa sighed. “I know you to be an intelligent woman, Philidora, so please don’t talk like a love-struck teenager!”

“And what’s wrong with being lovestruck? You and Papa are still very much in love with each other!”

“We are,” the Queen said, her features softening, “And we were remarkably lucky. I have never denied that. You have a freedom we never did, and I am glad you do. You don’t have to marry someone from the nobility if you don’t want to. But it can’t be Albertus. Maybe, even, if he were more like his father…..”

“That milksop!” exclaimed Philidora, and the trouble was, her mother couldn’t entirely disagree with her, though she liked to believe the best of people.

“You do yourself no honour by insulting people,” she said. “Look at me, Philidora!” Those two pairs of kindred eyes met, and each pair was full of love, but that did not mean there was to be accord. “We rarely speak of this, Philidora, and there is a reason. But you know as well as I do that it has relatively little to do with being, as you insist on saying, the spare. You would lose The Gift. Do you realise exactly what that means, child? For the kingdom, yes – but there are others who have it, but mainly for yourself!”

Both were silent. But of course Philidora knew what she was talking about. Like all other royal children, she had been told about it first gently, almost whimsically, as a lovely story. And when she first heard it, because she was a wise child, she told herself it was all fancy, but before long, because she had become an even wiser child, she realised that it was not. Her grandmother was the first to tell her, in that low, compelling, hypnotic voice:

Back in the days that were only the blinking of the sun’s eye away from our own, and yet were beyond a million years or more, there was a Prince called Hermann. He was of your blood and mine, and just as we do, he loved to hear the song of the birds that greeted the spring morning, and to watch the flakes of pure white snow that fell on the winter meadows, and to stare up at the multitude of stars. One morning he was out walking when he saw all was even more beautiful than ever, and yet a terrible sadness overcame him. “Oh, why can we not live forever and see this forever, and hear the birds, and feel the sun and the snow, and look at the stars, forever?” Even as he spoke, he saw that there was a being beside him, though he did not so much see as feel that presence, a presence of light and energy and power, something he saw for the first time, and yet, in his soul, had always known existed. “Is that truly your wish, Hermann?” he asked, “That you should live forever, and that your breath should never die, and that your eyes should only ever close in sleep, not in death?”

That is what I wish,” said Hermann.

Do you know what you are saying?”

I do, and have never meant anything so much in my life.”

Then it will be granted to you, Hermann, and this is your last chance to say you do not wish it to be granted. It will be granted to you, and to all of your line. And with it will come something else. You will be able to breathe life into others, as they struggle for it. You will live eternally, and you will be a giver of life. But to do so you must make your home in this kingdom, and so must your descendants, and you must never bring dishonour on this land.”

I make that pledge, wondrous spirit,” said Hermann. And he knelt, and he felt the rush of eternal breath coursing in his veins.

And that is how it has been ever since. We have the breath eternal. We never die. Oh, we slip away to the summer lands and the shining palaces, and we live quietly, and let other generations do as we have done, and most of the time these who have gone before cannot be seen, but in times of conflict, or crisis, or disease, we are there. We do not have the power of the wondrous spirit to grant life eternal, but we can breathe breath and life, breathe firmer breath and longer life into those who are stricken, and give them more years with those they love.”

Philidora had not yet been called on to exercise that power, but she knew beyond any doubt that she could. She was of the blood royal and the breath royal, and would never die, not as normal mortals did.

“If you marry Albertus, you will lose that power,” the Queen said, quietly. “I am not saying that to scare you, or to order you about, or because I wish you to be unhappy. Understand, child, that it is not even as if I have any choice in the matter. It’s not a question of my approving or disapproving, it is simply how things are.”

“That is monstrously cruel, Mama.”

“It may or may not be, but it is how it is. How much does Albertus know?”

“As – much as anyone else does.”

The Queen understood. That meant he knew about the royal breath of life, but not about the eternal life of those of the blood royal, though there were rumours and whispers about it.

“An eternity without Albertus is worse than death to me. I have made my mind up.”

For the first time in her life, though she had seen her sad and reflective, Philidora saw her mother weep. But she still kept that quiet dignity

Philidora never really feared that her courage would fail, but she wanted to act quickly, and the very next day she told Albertus that she was going to marry him, and that they must leave the bounds of the kingdom. For a split second, unthinkable thoughts flashed through her mind. What if he says no? What if he prevaricates and says we should wait? But neither of these things happened, and Philidora and Albertus set out on their way, and within a few hours, they knew they had passed beyond the bounds of the kingdom. It was a wild and lonely place, where no official border was marked, but both of them knew, and though they did not pause to embrace, for they wanted to reach the hostelry where they were staying before night fell, especially as the clouds banked thick and heavy and they doubted that the moonlight and the starlight would help them, their hands clasped more tightly.

And so they walked on. But after another half hour, when dusk really was falling, and their pace had quickened, they were set upon by a group of robbers. Though Philidora wasn’t wearing any royal regalia, and knew she never would again, it was still clear from their apparel that they were not poor people, and the Queen had given Philidora some of her jewels, lest she should need them, as she whispered, “My child, I know we will never meet again, but I wish you happiness and will only ever think of you with my heart full of love.” She only wore a simple pair of pearl earrings, but other items were in the rucksack she had slung over her shoulder. She could have sworn she heard the Queen whisper, “Give them my jewels before you let them take your life, child. Remember that is now the only life you have!”

But even as Philidora tried to fumble in her rucksack for the jewels, she realised that she was losing something more precious than a million more jewels, a million times more magnificent, could ever be. One of the robbers had stabbed Albertus through the heart, and he was bleeding, but he was fighting for breath. Breath, the breath of life was leaving him, and Philidora could do nothing about it. She could not breathe life back into him. She knew that. It had been her choice. And wild, grief stricken, guilt wrenched panic washed over her. I was prepared to be mortal, I was happy to be mortal, but now I cannot save the man I love.

“Take my life too!” she screamed at the robbers, but they had disappeared, perhaps because they thought they heard someone approaching, perhaps because they were horrified at the turn things had taken, and they had never meant to kill anyone.

She scrabbled desperately on the ground, wondering if they had left some weapon behind so she could take her own life, for what was that life to her without Albertus? And what did it matter if she would not go to the summer lands and the shining palaces, because he would not be there? But no weapon had been left behind.

Then she heard a familiar voice. Her grandmother’s voice. “You must not take your own life, Philidora, not when it is the only life you have. But listen to me. In a sense it is not the only life you have. Be still, and you will know.”

And she was still, and she knew. The previous evening, she and Albertus had lain together, although there were no rings on their fingers, and no ceremony had been held.

Nine months later, their daughter Vita was born.

April 09, 2021 06:21

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3 comments

Rachel Loughran
10:07 Apr 09, 2021

Wow, what a rich story! I loved the journey you took me on, and I became really attached to the characters by the end! Devastated for Philidora! This is a really pure and well done take on the prompt. I just had one - not even critique, really, as I think it's maybe a typo? The following sentence: "though of course nobody expressed them in front of Philidora, and not just because she was a Princess, but because, though umption that she would be sensible." From context I'm guessing it was supposed to be 'assumption?' Please correct me if...

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Deborah Mercer
10:51 Apr 09, 2021

I have now made the corrections - I definitely didn't edit enough, and many thanks for your help!

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Rachel Loughran
11:42 Apr 09, 2021

No problem, always happy to help! You've been prolific with the prompts this week so you must have done loads of editing in general!

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