It starts with Eirlys buttoning up the final button on her dress and saying, “There is a visitor without.”
“Without what?” Eirlys huffs. “Sorry. Who is it?”
“My lord Iwan.”
“Iwan?” Eirlys steps back and she turns. “Up here? That’s … odd.”
“My lady,” Eirlys says firmly. “Haven’t your parents permitted any male suitor to call on you?”
“Only at the Christmas feast, and Iwan is hardly… Oh, never mind. Let’s find out.”
So, Eirlys opens the door and Aneira lets her, having lost this fight long ago. True enough, her childhood friend is outside, bemusedly inspecting nearby Christmas decorations. When he sees her, he bows.
“Princess Aneira,” he begins.
Eirlys nudges her. “Wait, why are you bowing?” she says. Eirlys sighs. “And calling me ‘princess’?”
“Technically. After, what, three cousins and my father?”
“And your brother, my lady.”
“And my brother.”
Iwan laughs. “Did you just forget Aled? How?”
“I don’t know. Clearly, he is unmemorable. Anyway, that’s beside the point. I’ve been a princess all my life, and you’ve not called me that before.” He looks behind her, at Eirlys. “Eirlys can be trusted.”
He gives up. “Aneira,” he says, “marry me.”
“Marry me.” She waits for an explanation. “Go on.”
He looks around. “I would rather not explain here.”
She glances at her room. Eirlys’ lips turn downwards slightly. “The parlour, perhaps?” she says.
So, they walk past holly, mistletoe, and bowing servants towards the parlour. She always finds the bowing odd: despite being sixth in line to the throne, everyone knows that she is too sharp-tongued, improper, and interested in warfare and scholarship to be anything other than an embarrassment to her family. The best thing she can do is marry and bear children. That’s her only worth.
But as always, she says nothing, just smiles. When they reach the parlour, they sit. She looks behind Iwan sees mistletoe hanging precariously from the door, and scowls. After her parents’ proclamation, she’s not feeling particularly festive. Besides, the mistletoe doesn’t add anything to the room.
Iwan coughs. When she looks back, he’s looking at Eirlys.
“She’s chaperoning,” Aneira says.
“Chaperoning? Since when-”
“Since you inexplicably proposed marriage. What if I’m overcome with hitherto unknown lust-”
“Alright, never mind.” He looks at her. “I heard the announcement. Suitors are invited to tomorrow’s Christmas feast and you must pick one, correct?”
“Yes. Tomorrow. With invited suitors. Why are you proposing?”
He shrugs. “Well, I thought: I’m handsome, funny, willing to do kitchen raids with you…”
“That last one is important. Eirlys refuses to come with me.”
An amused huff this time.
Iwan smiles, teeth flashing. “So, why not?”
“Well. You lose points for calling yourself handsome.” She looks at his dark hair and twinkling brown eyes, the stubble on his face, and knows that others would agree with him. Especially as he is the well-respected heir to an earldom with important trading links. But. She likes him for his kindness, his discussions of scholarship, his tolerance for sparring with her, even his stupid jokes. But not like that. Never like that.
She says, “Iwan. I, I’m sorry but I don’t lo-”
“I know.” He looks again at Eirlys. “I’d rather we discuss alone, if possible.”
“She can be trusted.”
“…Fine.” He sighs. “Aneira, your parents require you to marry well. My father has similarly been … vocal. Marriages for us are not about love, we know that. But at least we like each other.” He hesitates. “At least you would not be offended if I did not share your bed.”
“…You have a mistress?”
“No. I … have no desires. Of that sort.”
He looks away, fists clenched. She feels Eirlys’ stillness behind her. She hesitates herself, a little surprised at his admission. But then, she can hardly judge.
“But I have to have children,” she says. “A son, preferably. You know that.”
Relief crosses his face. “We can find one somewhere.”
“Somewhere? Iwan, babies don’t grow on trees.”
“That’s what kidnap is for!” She laughs, despite herself; he smiles. “Think about it. It’s not love but neither is it indifference. In marriages like ours, that may be all we can hope for.” She says nothing. He sighs. “Think it over, at least. And … merry Christmas.”
He leaves. She stares after him, fists clenched.
A gentle hand touches her shoulder. “My lady-”
“My lady. Perhaps he is right.”
She turns. Familiar blue eyes look back, and she swallows. In eight years of knowing her, Aneira has never heard Eirlys say something she doesn’t mean.
“Your family lose patience with each failed betrothal attempt. They will approve of my lord Iwan, and you like him. It may be the best outcome. Otherwise, I fear you will be left with someone … unsuited to you.”
Aneira watches how Eirlys’ eyes dip away, as they did when they learned that Aneira would be betrothed by Christmas’ end, one way or the other. Eirlys never says anything she does not mean, but she does not say everything she thinks either.
Her throat tightens.
“Come,” she says roughly. “I have nothing scheduled. Let us enjoy this day at least.”
Eirlys hesitates, then nods. They head into the corridor. Her parents’ manor is large: as a child, she loved running through its rooms and gardens. But now its baubles and expectations wear on her. Sometimes, she thinks she reads so much simply to not be … here. Or to not be her.
They eat breakfast in the kitchen, despite the impropriety. The cook won’t tell on her: he likes her for faking ingredient cravings whenever he wants to see his lover in town. But as they finish, they still take care to sneak out. Just in case.
A familiar voice calls, “Princess Aneira.”
She freezes and looks up to see the very tall figure of Hywel, waving frantically at her. Her heart begins beating again. She, Iwan, and Hywel were terrors together as children. While Iwan learned the minimum martial arts he could, preferring trade and management, Hywel became a knight, throwing himself into it whole-heartedly. For all that, it’s Iwan who lets her practice swordfighting still, and Hywel who reluctantly suggested she stop when they hit their teenage years. Somehow, she’s never forgotten that.
“Sir Hywel,” she says politely.
He smiles. “Walk with me?”
“I… Of course.” When he looks at Eirlys, she says, “Eirlys will chaperone.”
An amused huff. Hywel blinks but doesn’t question it, just wordlessly opens the front door. Together, they walk out. As always, she and Eirlys glance up then smile. The sky is pretty but never as it was that night when Aneira convinced Eirlys to sneak out with her to see the stars.
For a couple of minutes, they walk silently. The wind bites; she realises that in their haste, she and Eirlys forgot to don cloaks. Behind her, Eirlys shivers badly but when Aneira opens her mouth, the maid shakes her head. Aneira turns back.
Hywel, seeing Aneira shiver, offers his cloak. She shakes her head.
“You know,” he says, “we could return for your cloak.”
“True.” They turn around. “But what brings you here, Sir Hywel? I’ve not seen you for weeks.”
He scratches his head bashfully. “Well, uh, I heard the announcement and…” He shrugs. “Marry me?”
Eirlys tuts, but Hywel shrugs, as she knew he would. “You’ve always said you don’t want to marry. I thought, at least with me, we could be friends.”
“That is … kind. But Iwan has already volunteered his services.”
“Aye, thought he would. But I was thinking. You’ll need a son. I have a son. So.”
“You have a bastard son.”
“But if you adopted him…”
“That wouldn’t make him legitimate.” She pauses. “Would it?”
“It may,” Eirlys says quietly, “but I doubt your father would accept him. And I understand Sir Hywel’s father…”
Hywel grimaces. It’s a well-known secret that he impregnated a miller’s daughter after a night of drinking. It’s less well-known that Hywel’s father overruled his offer to marry her or legitimise the boy. It’s known the mother hates them for ruining her prospects; less so that Hywel visits anyway.
“If we married, my father would forgive it. And yours would come around when we have no other children. I … assume you have no interest in bearing my children anyway.” A pause. “Unless you want Iwan’s children?”
Eirlys snorts this time. Aneira says, “He actually had another idea.”
“It … uh, involved kidnapping.”
He laughs, hearty and loud. “I’ve changed my mind. Marry Iwan. I want to see this.”
She smiles. “I think we would look wonderful in gaol.”
“Obviously. Assuming your maid lets you get arrested anyway.” Aneira starts because people so rarely comment on Eirlys. “Honestly, I’m half tempted to marry her and let her scare away my enemies.” He pauses, then looks at her. “Actually…”
Eirlys looks at her nervously. “My lady…”
“He’s joking. I hope.”
Her friend chuckles. “I am. Anyway, think on it, Aneira. I’m less powerful than Iwan but I think your father would accept it. It would be nice to be with a friend, aye?”
She shivers again, and sees that Eirlys is nearly blue. “I’ll consider it, Hywel.”
He clasps her shoulder, then walks away. Silently, she and Eirlys return to the manor, and go to her room. Only when the door is closed does Eirlys say, “Do you wish to marry them, my lady?”
She puts her cloak on. “You know what I wish.”
Her maid says nothing, just puts her own cloak on. But as they head towards the door, she says, “You have an easier life than most, my lady. You never worry about your next meal, your clothes, the goodwill of your master. Is it so bad, to do what your parents want? Run a household, entertain guests, have children?”
Her throat tightens. Eirlys knows...
“You think me feckless,” she says. “Or spoiled.”
“You’re right,” she says softly. “I owe my family everything. I have lived in comfort every day of my life. This is the least I can do for them. And still, I want.” She sighs. “I’m a foolish child who doesn’t understand the real world. And I know my selfishness has created an undue burden on-”
“My lady, that is not what-”
A knock on the door makes them jump. Eirlys recovers first, opening it to reveal a servant who reports that there is someone who wishes to speak to Aneira. Aneira sighs. She has a feeling she knows where this is going.
Taran, a noble she knows from various social engagements, waits in the parlour. He bows when he sees her.
“Princess Aneira, it’s so wonderful to see you.”
“Look. Will this end with you asking to marry me?” Eirlys huffs; she sighs. “Sorry. I’m being rude.”
Taran blinks. “Well. That was the gist of it.”
“It’s Christmas Eve, my lord.” She looks at that damn mistletoe on the door. “The feast is tomorrow.”
“I know. But I thought perhaps I could make my case now.” He pauses. “My father may have suggested this.”
“Sympathy points. I appreciate that.”
He blinks again. “Um. My family is powerful at court and we have connections with the smiths’ guild. We are unfailingly loyal.” Her gaze seems to make him nervous. “I have a dog?”
She starts to laugh. “That is a strong argument.”
He smiles, relieved. “I told my father we should wait until tomorrow. I wasn’t expecting to get this far.”
“Don’t worry. You’re the third man to approach me today.”
“It’s OK. I remain unbetrothed.”
He smiles. “The proposal is there, Highness, but I’ll return tomorrow with better arguments. And the dog.”
“Um. Please don’t give me the dog.”
“I hadn’t planned to. Otherwise, I’d have nothing left to bargain with.”
She smiles slightly. “You seem like a good man, my lord. Why not marry someone you love?”
“Highness. Love has no place in discussions like these.”
“…I know.” She tries to smile. “Until tomorrow.”
He leaves. She slumps, staring at that damned mistletoe. This isn’t about love. She knows that. Frankly, her parents are being more than generous, giving her the opportunity to choose when her personality has scuppered previous offers. After all, nobody wants her jokes, her scholarship, her interest in unfeminine things. Just her progeny and royalty.
What is love anyway? Something heady, yes. Something that fills every day with colour, makes even mundane tasks meaningful. But people live without colour, without sight even. They live mundane lives. Nobody can have everything they want. Least of all people like her.
A familiar arm slides gently around her shoulder. “I’m sorry,” she says. “I’m being selfish. Again.”
Eirlys says nothing. Then: “Every time I make a mistake, you lie and say it was you. When I told you about that noble forcing the laundry maid, you reported it, knowing it would make enemies of his family. When my sister lost her home, you sold your necklace to help, then said you lost it.”
“All so easy to do, when I am not at risk.”
“I see how they restrict and punish you when you do something they regard as wrong.”
A knock on the door sounds. Eirlys shifts away and opens it to reveal two more men. These ones, she barely knows. Relatively high ranking, she thinks. Probably.
One bows, followed belatedly by the other. Seeing Eirlys’ expression, Aneira hastily stands and curtseys, before gesturing for them to sit. Her parents must know about all these early suitors. They want her to feel the pressure.
The first one says, “I am Dyfri Ap Derec. This is Dylan, my brother. Our father, of course, needs no explanation.” (Damn, she thinks.) “We heard your father’s announcement and…”
She tunes out. It’s hard not to. Dyfri likes to talk. About himself. To hear him tell it, he has brought down kingdoms, saved thousands, and is a talented poet to boot. When they get married (it’s very much when, not if), he’ll give her strong sons. He’s heard her manners are poor but-
“My lord,” she says, “this is wonderful but the Christmas feast is tomorrow.”
He smiles. “Is that necessary? I am here now. Marry me.”
She glances at his brother. “And you are the moral support?”
He’s not, it turns out. He’s worse. He gleefully tells her what a firm house he runs, how if they get married (a point in his favour), he will talk to the king to impose stricter laws on the poor (never mind), how her wild ways can easily be cured. And so, he asks for her hand in marriage.
“My lords,” she says, struggling to keep her voice even, “thank you. I will consider once I have met the other suitors tomorrow.”
Dyfri scowls. “You think you will have better offers? You are an embarrassment to your family. You should be pleased we have reached out.”
“I am not saying no-”
“She’s playing games, brother,” Dylan says. His eyes narrow as he stands. “In my household-”
“My lords,” Eirlys says, coming up to them, “please do not-”
A hand swings. Aneira gasps with pain as she crashes backwards. When she looks up, she sees Dylan’s fury, Dyfri’s fear.
“She jumped,” Dylan says. “I meant to chastise the servant-”
Aneira stands shakily. “Get out.”
“I will not marry men who use violence against our servants. My father will agree. Get out.”
The brothers leave, stumbling over each other in their haste. The door swings shut behind them. Her eye begins to swell.
Eirlys looks around before gently putting a hand to Aneira’s bruised face. “My lady-”
“Aneira.” Then, softly, hating herself because she knows Eirlys is terrified of being overheard, “Please.”
“…Aneira. You should have let-”
Eirlys swallows. “My lord Iwan,” she says quietly. “Marry him.”
She closes her eyes. “That is what you wish?”
“No,” Eirlys says. “But.”
They face each other, as they did that night under the stars. She remembers how beautiful Eirlys looked then. How soft her lips felt; how her fingertips burned like fire on Aneira’s body.
“If I asked you to marry me…” she says.
“I would say yes. In a heartbeat. But women do not marry, do they?”
“And if we ran,” Aneira says quietly, “how would we survive? I am too recognisable, with no useful skills. We would be swiftly killed or arrested. We’ve discussed before.” She sighs. “I’m sorry. I’m useless.”
She looks away. Not for the first time, she wishes that marriages could be things of love. Because maybe then…
“Why Iwan?” she says.
Eirlys sags. “Because he is kind. Because you would not share his bed. Because he likes you, and makes you laugh. You could be happy, Aneira. Even the child is not insurmountable.”
“I would be with you. That is enough.”
She puts her forehead to Eirlys’. “I hate this.”
“OK,” she says softly. “OK. If we have no other solution, I will tell Iwan tomorrow. Perhaps we can skip the Christmas feast entirely then. Or turn it into an engagement feast. I care not.”
Her lips gently press to Eirlys’. “Come,” she says. “We have one day of freedom left.”
Eirlys nods. But when she opens the door, the mistletoe, the stupid, stupid mistletoe, falls.
“Leave it,” Aneira says, voice rough. “It’s worthless anyway.”
But Eirlys lets the door close.
“It’s not,” she says. “Not to me.”
Carefully, Eirlys affixes the mistletoe to the door.
“You see?” she says. “Perfect.”
Her blue eyes are warm and filled with love, and Aneira is not worthy.
Softly, she says, “I love you, Eirlys. I always will.”
Eirlys’ smile is sad. “Till death do us part?”
“Forever,” Eirlys repeats. She closes her eyes. “I hope to be worthy.”
“Oh, Eirlys.” Aneira holds her tightly. “You are. You always are.”