As she lay slumped over her bed, sobbing inconsolably with her head buried in her arms, Princess Fiadh heard her father’s angry stomps receding into the distance. Her mother’s calm, calculated steps, however, grew closer, until the edge of her bed sank slightly and a hand was placed on her shoulder.
“Think carefully about it, Fiadh. Don’t make any rash decisions you’re bound to regret. Your father is only doing what he thinks is best for you.”
“No!” replied the princess, her arms muffling her voice. “I’ve made my choice. Now leave me alone!”
The choice in question had been made barely a minute earlier, but the events leading up to it had begin a week earlier. A party led by the Duke of Glóircaillte, governor of one of the largest and richest regions in the kingdom, had arrived at the royal palace at the behest of the king. Although the last armed conflict had ended more than ten years ago, when Fiadh was five years old, and no great disputes or tensions had arisen since then, it was crucial to keep a balance of prudent satisfaction amongst the noble families; pay too much attention to one family and another was bound to take offence. The previous war had erupted out of such an imbalance, resulting in empty coffers and silent homes throughout the kingdom – not to mention the complete eradication of the Imithe surname from the map. Thus, the king and queen were constantly receiving visits from an endless rotation of dukes, duchesses, viscounts, baronesses, earls, marchionesses and countless others whom the royal family invited to the palace to keep them happy and – more importantly – loyal subjects.
This particular visit, however, had struck Fiadh as an unusual one. If her memory served her right, the Duke of Glóircaillte had been at the palace barely a year ago; the rotation of nobles, on the other hand, only repeated itself every two and a half years. This was an early visit. Her suspiciousness was further aroused when she saw his entourage. Other than his wife, his personal guard and a handful of pages, the duke was accompanied by one other person: his first-born son, who had only recently become of marrying age.
That same evening, the palace servants carried out the painstaking job of lighting up the one hundred and twenty-seven candles that comprised the chandelier which hung above the main table of the banquet hall, as well as the thirty-two torches mounted along the walls and the large hearth at the far end of the room. The Imithe tapestries, the finest in the kingdom, had been taken down from the throne room and now lined the walls of the dining hall, the stories of love, war, grief and pain woven into them retold by the court musicians playing next to the roaring fireplace. Once the hosts and guests had all been seated, enough food to feed a village had been brought to the long wooden table: platters as big as shields arrived containing a wide selection poultry roasted, steamed or boiled, each bird surrounded by a mountain of vegetables sweating in gravies as thick as treacle. Equally extravagant were the copious amounts of wines and ciders served around, enough to drown every person in the room in – servants included – and flowing as easily and freely as the conversation among the diners. That is, among all but two.
To her chagrin and confirming her suspicions, Fiadh and the duke’s son had been sat next to each other. Her mother, who was sitting to her other side, dashed her daughter’s only hopes of escaping him by devoting her full attention to one of the men in the duke’s retinue, whom she gazed at with worryingly lascivious eyes.
“I don’t suppose you’re aware of this, but my father commands the richest region in the entire kingdom. It is said no previous leader of Glóircaillte ever amassed as much wealth as him – and that’s including the kings of old, from back when the region was its own kingdom.”
Fiadh smiled curtly, keeping her lips shut to hide her gritting teeth. Not only did the dolt seem to be unaware that he was trying to brag about wealth to the daughter of his father’s lord, but his manner, the tone in his voice, even his posture reminded her of her younger brother, the pompous, arrogant idiot who was next in line for the throne. Not satisfied with inheriting the position which by rights should be hers just by being born with a penis, he used every occasion possible to turn his direct line to the throne into a direct line to some poor girl’s undergarments. In fact, he was busy at it right now. Across the table and a few seats down, she watched as he slowly beguiled one of the palace courtiers, a young woman recently arrived from one of the northern regions whose pale, smooth skin, bright, timid eyes and glaring innocence proved irresistible to someone like him.
Before her anger at the prince could boil over, Fiadh turned her attention back to the duke’s son. She had to give it to him: unlike her brother, he at least was quite handsome. Unfortunately, this wasn’t enough to compensate for his haughty attitude and slow wits. Grinning inwardly, she decided it would be a pity to waste the evening away.
“Glóircaillte used to be a kingdom of its own?” Her tone was demure and full of awe, intended to fulfil his expectations. The self-satisfied smirk on his lips confirmed she had achieved it. Her own lips, full and glossy, formed a questioning ‘o’ which succeeded in redoubling his interest in her.
“That’s right. The Kingdom of Glóir, as it was called back then, was the fiercest and most prosperous in this part of the world, at its peak encompassing almost twice its current size. They say the barges floating into the capital city often sank due to the excessive amounts of jewels and precious metals they carried. The city itself was a marvel to look at, dazzling every new visitor with its lavish architecture, covered almost entirely in gold, silver and precious stones the size of fists. Those who lived there were so used to it, it was ordinary stone houses that they stared at in surprise when walking through the sparkling streets. You’ve heard, of course, of the Creachadh palace?”
“The one with the platinum domes and the ruby-, emerald- and amethyst-encrusted walls?”
“The same one. Creachadh was the capital of the old kingdom.”
Here it goes, she thought, smirking in her mind. “Oh, I would so love to see it sometime.”
The smug smile vanished from his smile as he realised the corner he’d led himself into. “That, uhm…” He cleared his throat, took a long sip from his goblet. “That won’t be possible, I’m afraid.”
“Oh? Why not?” she asked with feigned innocence.
“It was… plundered.”
“Plundered? But you were the fiercest kingdom in this part of the world! You said it yourself.”
His face was contorted into an expression in between angry embarrassment and desperation. “Your ancestors plundered it almost four hundred years ago,” he muttered.
“My ancestors? Why would they ever do that?”
“They defeated mine in war. The city and its palace were the spoils.”
After this, the he became much more wary of his words and very reluctant to answer her question. Every time he made an attempt to amaze her in some way, she managed to steer him into yet another uncomfortable – for him, anyway – corner through simple, naive-sounding questions. Before long, he’d decided to remain quiet for the rest of the evening.
Across from them, the prince was having more luck as the young courtier laughed at something he had just said. They watched him at work, he with glum envy, she with seething disgust.
The duke son’s subsequent attempts to captivate the princess’s heart over the week-long visit were as unsuccessful as those of the first night, and very similar in pattern. He would try to astonish her with stories of rich – and long-gone – cities; she would act ignorant, asking seemingly harmless questions; and he would find himself explaining or admitting the many defeats, concessions and subjugations his family had been subjected to in the past by hers. By the end of the week, he was merely commenting on her beauty – or perhaps that of the gardens they were walking through, she couldn’t tell for certain.
To her surprise, the offer came anyway. On the morning of their departure, Fiadh was brusquely woken up and squeezed into one of the many impractical dresses expected of her before being hurried into the great dining hall where the banquet had been held a week earlier. The fresh air, warm sun and carefree chirping coming in through the wide-open windows painted a very different picture from the flickering fires and intermittent shadows that had draped the walls and ceilings on the first night. Accustomed to having breakfast in her room, she couldn’t tell whether the fresh bread, soft butters and fragrant jams arrayed along the table where an unusual addition to the room; the two distinct groups gathered at the head of the table certainly were.
As she was ushered next to her mother and father, the conversation between the king and the duke petered out and all eyes in the room fell upon her. For a few seconds, the chirps coming from outside and the gentle flapping of the royal banners, now draped where the Imithe tapestries had hung a week earlier, were the only sounds in the room. Then someone cleared their throat.
“Princess Fiadh, this has been a terrible week for me.” The Glóircaillte crowd parted to reveal the duke’s son dressed in the most traditional and most ridiculous outfit she had ever seen, a gaudy ensemble of golds and silvers flashing with circles of crimson, emerald and violet. His head was topped with a bubble-like hat with a pointy end on the top, the entire thing painted silver – no, not silver, she realised, but platinum. She smothered a chuckle. It was the Creachadh palace turned into a dress. The duke’s son, apparently ignoring the absurdity of his costume, continued his speech. “A terrible week because my heart threatened to thump its way out of my chest with every thought I had of you.” He took several steps towards her until he was at the front of the group, next to his father. “Princess Fiadh, most beautiful, most precious, most...” After a few seconds during which she was tempted to make her own suggestions, the duke whispered into his son’s ear. “...most elegant! It would be an honour,” he continued, getting on one knee and causing her stomach to sink, “if you were to accept my offer to be your loyal husband.”
The duke gave a cough that sounded a lot like the word ring and his son rummaged around his pockets until he found what he was looking for: a ring of pure gold encrusted with a diamond the size of a large grape. The room held its collective breath, expectant. Accepting his clumsy offer, however, was the last thing on the princess’s mind.
“I too am honoured, dear…” She realised she didn’t know his name, so uninterested had she been in him. “Dear. Any woman would be lucky to receive such praise and dedication from someone as… tall as you.” She looked around her, locked eyes with one of the palace’s pages, a young teenager whose pale face was covered in red, angry spots, and signalled him to take the ring. “That is why I will take your offer under serious and careful consideration.”
The duke’s son, clearly as confused and inexperienced as the page taking the wedding band from him, stood up and retreated back into his father’s retinue. The duke, on the other hand, had no doubts about what had just occurred, and after a short and curt exchange with the king went on his way, the ducal entourage behind him.
“What the devil do you think you’re doing, rejecting the hand of the heir to the Dukedom of Glóircaillte?” The king’s face was a beetroot red very similar to the royal mantle draped around him. Two little lumps of frothing spittle, one on each corner of his mouth, mirrored the white tassels perched on the cloak’s shoulders, which bobbled around as he and his wife followed their daughter up the stairs that led to the corridor she shared with the prince.
“I didn’t reject him. I said I would consider his offer.”
“Stop pretending, Fiadh. We all know very well what your reply meant.”
“The duke’s son didn’t seem to,” she snickered.
The king’s lower jaw shook as he gnashed his teeth, but the queen intervened before her husband burst out. “All your father is trying to say is that maybe you should be true to your words and seriously and carefully consider that young man’s proposal.”
She had said this just as they were just arriving at Fiadh’s room. The princess, who had just put her hand on the doorknob, suddenly turned around to face her parents.
“Seriously consider his proposal? Have you seriously considered your own words, mother? The man is an idiot, incapable of holding both a conversation and a spoon simultaneously without bursting a vein in his brain. All he does is talk about how rich and powerful his family is and how rich and powerful it was, all to get into someone’s – anyone’s – bodice.
“Oh, don’t be rude, Fiadh. He’s a handsome, well-mannered young man.”
“Only one of those two statements is true. I’m telling you, I know the kind. I grew up watching one just like him,” she said, directing her gaze across the corridor to the door into her brother’s room.
The queen followed her daughter’s eyes, then snapped back in indignation. “You’re crossing a line there, young woman. Your brother is the most decent, honourable, prudent, gentle-”
The listing of the royal heir’s virtues was interrupted by the sound of a door creaking open. When they all turned to look, a tired-looking young woman shuffled out of the prince’s room carrying her shoes in one hand while holding together the torn left shoulder strap of her dress in the other. Her hair was completely dishevelled, but Fiadh still recognised her: it was the northern courtier, the one she’d seen the prince preying on at the banquet.
Raising an eyebrow, Fiadh smirked at the timing of it all. “You have no idea who your children are. Sometimes I wonder how we all still live under the same roof.”
Her king growled. “If that’s what you think, why don’t you leave?”
“I’d love to, but you’d never let me.”
“Oh, I’ll let you-”
“Let me finish. I said I’ll let you leave,” he repeated, causing his wife to stare at him in disbelief, “under one condition.”
“Fine! I accept.”
“You haven’t heard the condition.”
“I don’t care.”
He smiled with an evil grin. “I will let you leave, but your dresses stay behind.”
In all her life, Fiadh couldn’t remember ever making as much an effort as she was making now to stop herself from bursting into laughter – and that included seeing the duke’s son wearing a building for a suit. Her dresses? Even is she had enjoyed having her ribcage squeezed into half its size every morning, their conspicuousness would completely undermine her plan to meld into the populace and learn more about the kingdom most of her father’s subjects experienced. The fact that he had threatened to take her dresses from her only proved her point: he had no idea who his own daughter was. Still, she knew he would be much less reluctant to actually let her leave if he believed she would last for long out there, so she decided to play along.
Like a dam bursting under too much pressure, a torrent of tears gushed down her cheeks on command – an ability she had developed a long time ago. Deliberately leaving the door open behind her, she stormed into her room and threw herself onto the bed, where she continued to sob inconsolably with her head buried in her arms.
Inside, she was smiling.