“Sister wake up!”
I jump awake to the sound of gleeful screams and tugging of my arms from my two younger siblings. Groaning in contempt, I slowly open my crusted, sleep-filled eyes to groggily glare at the overexcited children. The bright light shining from my oriel windows blinded me and I shut them hurriedly in pain.
“Sister, it’s time to get up. It’s Christmas!” By this time, the youngest of the two, Christina, has crawled on top of me and is enthusiastically jumping on my unmoving body. Meanwhile, her older twin brother, Caleb, is yanking the warm wool blanket that's wrapped around me, away from my stiff body.
“Elizabeth, you should have been up and out of bed hours ago. This is not how I raised you to be. A young lady should have risen at the stroke of dawn and prepared herself for the day.” My stern, yet beautiful, mother suddenly rushed into the room, fan-folded up in hand ready to start her onslaught of beatings if I did not get up quickly enough. With just one harsh look, the twins hurriedly move away from my side and stand in line behind mother. Too scared to even utter a sound, the twins look toward me in fear and helplessness.
Sighing, I find the strength to rise from the bed. I slowly place my feet onto the cold clay-tiled floor and walk towards the rope hanging from the too-large ceiling. While ignoring the sound of my mother’s scolding, I call the maids in to start dressing me up for the day.
“I understand mother. I’ll be more careful next time.” I say my voice dripping with fake promises and face dripping with cold water from a basin that the maids brought in. I wipe my face dry and sit in front of the vanity, allowing the maids to begin their work of dressing me up like a doll.
Thwack. I feel the sharp sting of my mother’s fan hitting my back, which causes me to flinch and sit straighter in my chair. The maids move effortlessly about my body, not even an ounce of surprise from my sudden jerkiness.
“As if I’d believe that. This is already the third time this week and it’s only Wednesday!” She screams in obvious contempt. I glance towards the twins only to realize that they have already made their escape during my mother’s tirade.
Cowards. I think to myself after they leave me here alone to deal with our overbearing mother. Granted this is not my first time bringing attention to myself in order to protect them. After all, I am the older sister and an heiress no less, I must be perfect.
That could never happen. Not with my mother’s standards at least. To my surprise, she is being a bit more lenient today compared to most days. Usually, she would have already barged into my room, a vase filled to the brim with freezing water in hand, and gladly dumped it onto my sleeping body. Then, the long-winded lecture would have begun; meanwhile, the maids would be dressing me, and the butler announcing my schedule for the day.
“Are you even listening to me right now? We should have already been down by the Christmas tree and opening gifts. You know your father loathes waiting.” She scrutinizes me from behind the length of her fan. Gracefully stepping away from me, my mother saunters towards my wide mahogany doors.
“I expect you to be through in the next 10 minutes. Don’t keep us waiting long.” With one final glare, my mother leaves slamming the doors behind her. Flinching at the sound, I tug at my messy and dark bedhead hair in frustration.
“Are you alright miss?” A deep and alluring, yet familiar, voice calls from behind me. I look in the mirror at the tall well-built figure behind me. There I find my childhood friend, now personal knight, Sir Maxwell staring back in concern.
“Max, why are you speaking formally? Mother already left.” I irritably say due to the maids brushing through my ratted hair roughly. Another, my personal maid Annie, pulls the strings of my corset so tight that I start to see the beginnings of my next life.
“Careful Annie, if you pull any tighter you won’t have a master any longer.” Max jokes, pushing Annie’s hands away and loosening the strings. He then ties it up smoothly and lightly shoves the other maid doing my hair away. “Go choose her dress, I’ll finish it up here. We don’t have much time left,” he states winking at the young maid causing her to blush and hurry off. I roll my eyes and slump in my chair, finally getting comfortable.
“Also we both know your mother has the hearing and personality of a wild cat.” He whispers so as not to be heard by the others around us. He then gracefully gathers up my long curly black hair in one hand and holds out his other.
“Ribbon,” he demands, shaking his hand lightly.
“Demanding this morning aren’t we? Also, her personality is more like that of an evil dragon,” I whisper back while raising my eyebrows and passing him a red ribbon. I hold up my index fingers and place them in front of my head to create devil horns and hiss in a playful manner. He just gives me a weird look in return and chuckles while shaking his head. I slowly move my hands back down and feel my cheeks heat up slightly.
Coughing loudly, I embarrassedly changed the subject.“Uhm, when did you get here anyways?” He finishes tying up my hair beautifully and moves on to my makeup.
“Well Milady, of course, I’ve been here the whole time,” he states proudly while winking at me mischievously. “I am your knight after all.” He gives a bright and honest smile that oddly makes my heart flutter.
Ignoring my feelings, I joke back, “Oh how chivalrous of you. You could have at least woken me up, you know. Also, stop calling me that! You know I hate it.” By this time, the 10-minute limit was up and the maids had finished dressing me up into a big red ball gown. I wrap my arm around Max’s and start walking down the long tiring stairs and into the living area.
At the bottom of the steps, my mother, father, and two siblings sit on a cushion surrounding our too-bright and too-tall Christmas tree. I let go of Max, due to the scornful eyes of my mother and sit next to Christina, awaiting the traditional passing of the gifts.
Being in an affluent noble family, the children of a Duke - second only to the King - to be exact, there were abundant presents to be distributed. So much so, that the maids had to use a small ladder to reach the top of the mountainous pile of gifts for each individual child and parent. Watching the eyes of the twins fill with awe and joy made me smile, but seeing the workers tremble on the ladders and look at us with eyes filled with sadness, created turmoil in my heart.
They should be with their own families instead of here. Hiding behind my gifts in embarrassment, I shoot Max a glance, eyes filled with apologies, to which he just shrugs his shoulders and gives me a wide grin. Knowing he’s only trying to make me feel better, I make a mental note to right these wrongs with the workers, somehow.
After the huge piles become less and less until there are none, I go to get up and put my newfound treasures into my room, when suddenly, my parents stop me.
“Christina, Caleb, you’re excused to your rooms. Elizabeth, you stay here and chat with me. The maids can take your belongings to your room,” calm and collected as ever, mother ushers everyone out of the area.
“But mother I -” Christina starts, the rowdier yet more daring of the two, before being pulled away by Caleb.
“Yes mother,” he says, ignoring the sharp look being shot toward Christina by mother. Taking her quickly out of the room, he glances toward me in worry, to which I shrug and give a half smile.
“Sir Maxwell you can help the others with the heavier belongings,” she says with a hint of malice that confuses me.
“With all due respect Duchess, I’d like to stay with the young miss,” he stands behind me now, arms behind his back and chest out with confidence, something I would never have in front of my mother.
“I am her knight after all.” It’s the same line from earlier, except this one was filled with such seriousness and emotion that it made my heart stop for a moment. It makes me wonder what is wrong with me for it to do so. Placing my hand over where my heart should be, I look towards mother only to be shocked to see a hate-filled expression on her usually calm face.
“So be it. Elizabeth, this last gift was picked carefully by your father and me.” She hands me a thick paper rolled up and tied together with a thick black ribbon. Unrolling the paper, I hear a soft, almost inaudible, gasp come from behind me. Ignoring the sound, I continue reading and then look toward my mother and the ever-unmoving and nonchalant father.
“Mother, what is this?” I question with malice dripping from my voice.
“Why it’s exactly what you’ve read. An acceptance for your betrothal to Marquis Oliver!” With overwhelming enthusiasm and glee, my mother shouts grinning from ear to ear. I can feel the paper slightly crumble in my hands as my grip tightens in pure anger.
“He generously agreed to it? Without my even knowing? Father?” I look to my father quickly firing off questions, hoping that this might turn out to be a dream.
“Lose the tone Elizabeth. A lady does not show such emotions,” mother grits from behind her fan.
“Listen to your mother. It is as you’ve seen. Marquis Oliver is the best fit for a Duke’s daughter as opposed to another Duke or Prince; however, the Prince has already been betrothed to Lady Anne,” father states, clearly unbothered judging by the way he continues doing his Ducal duties throughout the entire “conversation.”
“Besides, you’re way beyond the marriageable age. You just turned 18 this year. Give it one more year and you’ll be deemed unfit and useless for potential bachelors!” She stands in a fit of rage and starts to shout at me. She slams her porcelain white, never worked a day in her life, hands down onto the wooden table so hard that they turn a tomato red color.
“And that’s a bad thing? It’s my life, mother. I should get to pick and choose my marriage suitor! I don’t even know what this Marquis gentleman looks like,” I stand in my own fit of rage, letter crumbled into a tight ball, long forgotten, and my hair is flying out of my updo, just an extra point to my defiance.
“Elizabeth. It’s already been decided. The King even signed his approval for the betrothal. There are no takebacks, you are getting married.” She smooths out her ruffled dress, due to her earlier outburst, and stands tall, once again brimming with authority.
“This is low, even for you mother. I don’t agree with this, I won’t,” finding the courage, I briskly walk out of the room and slam the door behind me, but not before hearing the witch shout one last time.
I didn’t allow the tears to fall until I was safely back in my room. Surrounded only by my thoughts, and a bristling Max, I let out a loud sob.
“Max! What am I going to do?! There’s no way I can marry someone I’ve never even met!” I’m frantically pacing and scratching the crook of my arm viciously, a horrible habit I picked up as a child.
“Stop Liz. We will figure something out together, okay? You aren’t alone in this,” he gently grabs my hand away from ripping into my arm and begins breathing softly onto my face. Breathing back and forth into each other's faces was a trick we used as children to calm each other down. We took turns taking deep breaths until I finally calmed down.
“Okay, what are our options? How can we stop this joke of a wedding? You’re the noble, what’s the plan?” Max jokingly questions.
“Running away,” I declare proudly.
“Wh - what?!” Surprised by my sudden declaration and indifference, Max looks at me in shock.
“Think about it! It’s the only choice!” Losing all sense of rationality, I start to become delirious with my words.
“Don’t you remember? You’ve already tried running away before. One time, you got caught and locked up in your room for a year. The other time, when you did escape, you had to come back from a lack of money and you almost died from exhaustion and starvation. Running away is not an option.” Max declares this loudly, crossing his arms over his chest and giving me a stern look.
“Then, what about…” thinking hard about the possibilities, I finally decide what to do.
“WE get married! Let’s create a scandal together!” I shout in excitement about the perfect plan that I came up with and grab his hands in joy.
“Huh?!” Max gives a final shout before falling over in surprise.
After getting over the initial shock and happily agreeing to my declaration, Max and I begin to put my plan in motion. To make everyone in the nobility believe I have a lover, Max and I went on our first-ever date as an adult couple and not as childhood friends. To make us more visible, I had the maids dress me in my finest garments and jewelry. I even went as far as sending Max his own attire.
“Well, how do I look?” Max asks this question with nervousness evident in his voice and gives a full circle turn with it. He somehow got us a carriage without my family knowing and had been waiting patiently by the door for me.
“You look…” I take a moment to really see him. The dark blue of his suit really makes his sea-blue eyes shine. His golden blonde hair glows brilliantly in the sunshine that I almost mistake it for real gold.
“Dashing,” I finally whisper. For a moment, the world slows as we stare at one another. What is happening?
“Well.” Cough. “Uh, it feels weird not having my sword with me.” Max suddenly changes the subject, looking away and patting the spot his sword usually resides.
“Well, you shouldn’t need it for a date,” I chuckled before wrapping my arm around his and start heading to the carriage. He gently helps me up and we head off to town for our first date.
“Is that the Duke’s daughter, Lady Elizabeth?”
“Who is she with?”
“I thought she was to be married to Marquis Oliver?”
Seems like word really does travel fast, hopefully, this rumor of me having a lover travels faster. I smile awkwardly at Max, but giddy we could spend time alone together.
Suddenly, I realize what this feeling is. I am in love with Max. My heartbeat slows and my face flushes, but I continue on as if nothing has changed.
“I’m glad I got to spend this time with you, Liz,” Max whispers this close to my ear, I hurriedly cover my ear and nod in agreement.
“Did you see that?”
“Yeah, they are definitely lovers. I bet she’s already lost her innocence to him.”
This last line causes both of us to turn beet red and we refuse to look at one another. I feel his warm hand in mine as we walk hand in hand down the park gardens. Sighing in content, I decide to end the date here before anything else embarrassing happens.
“It seems like the plan is working, it looks like we can head back now.” Dejectedly, we end our date without any real action from either party.
A day later, due to the quick rumors, my mother and father come barging into my room, during Max's daily run no less.
“What is the meaning of this Elizabeth?!” My mother slams a news article down on the table in front of me, showing Max and my date on the front page. I almost smile, but stop myself before she can see.
“What do you mean mother? It’s exactly as you’ve read,” I say repeating the same lines she told me previously.
I feel a sharp sting come across my cheek, presuming it to come from my mother’s hand which is now floating by my face.
“You dare!” Before she can do more, Max comes barging into the room, hair ruffled and face frowning. He steps in front of me, but not into a protective pose, he looks right at me, his back towards my mother.
“Liz! I’m in love with you. I always have been. So please, will you marry me?” I can see that Max is out of breath, the nervousness is clear in his voice but he looks determined.
“I - I love you too. Of course, I’ll marry you!” Tears well up in my eyes as I run toward Max, he engulfs me in a hug and we share our first kiss, in front of everyone. Much to my family's frustration and surprise, we were married quickly to avoid any further scandals towards the Ducal family. The gift was officially returned to the spiteful sender and I got to live a life of my own choosing.