This is all my fault. This is happening all because of me. A person is going to die because I ignored the facts that warned me to stop this from continuing any further; to stop this before it was too late.
It all started with that stupid pink dress. Fashioned from the finest silk in the kingdom, and sporting the perfect combination of ruffles and simplicity, it made me come across as too elegant--as too refined--for a woman my age. Mother always taught me that every female with a crown on her head should be the perfect picture of elegance, but I’d picked the wrong day to do so. Not knowing the trap I was walking into, I gave a polite curtsy to my father’s esteemed guests.
“This is my daughter, Eloise,” my father informed them as I straightened up. “Eloise, this is General Whitkin and his son, Sir Antony Whitkin. General Whitkin has been fighting some of the greatest battles for our kingdom since before you could walk.”
“A legacy my Antony will no doubt carry on,” General Whitkin had said with a proud smile.
“It would be my honour to fight for my crown and my country.”
Like I haven’t heard that one before.
But knowing that my actions as a princess always impacted my king, I flashed our guests a polite smile. “Any warrior that fights for the good of the kingdom is a friend of the crown, and thus a friend of mine. It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance, General Whitkin, Sir Whitkin.”
The pleasure of their acquaintance was short lived. Maybe my father had mistaken my polite smiles and friendly conversation as consent, or maybe the crown on his head was so heavy a burden that it had addled his brain, but as soon as dinner was over, he’d decided to drop the bomb he’d apparently been planning for a while.
“The union between our households will indeed be a strong one. Besides the royal family, the Whitkin name is an esteemed one. You’ve built quite a reputation and following amongst the people of this nation. Your son will make a fine king, indeed.”
I nearly dropped my soup spoon. It took me a while to really absorb what he’d said, but my shock at the news of an arranged marriage was nothing compared to what I felt when I realised that all three of the males seated around the table seemed unsurprised.
I was the only one who didn’t know.
Me. The princess of the kingdom wasn’t informed of this while the knights of a lower status than me were. The only female involved in this matter had been purposefully kept in the dark. To this day, I can’t believe that I hadn’t been involved in deciding my own life partner.
While my smile had only dipped slightly, my father must have gauged my mood, because he made a point of saying, “I know Eloise would agree. As the princess of our great nation, her decisions are always mindful of the best interests of the people. The people are willing to support Antony’s reign as their future king, so I know she’ll support this union, too.”
If my mother were still alive, maybe I would’ve had an ally in going against my father. A queen is the only person able to reign in a king, after all.
But help came in the form of a surprising source.
“With all due respect, your majesty,” General Whitkin said, “it seems that the princess would rather marry for both love and for her people.”
“Don’t you worry, father,” Sir Whitkin spoke up. “We’ll have lots of time to grow to love each other once the vows are read.”
My father smiled. “You will make a fine king, indeed.”
Without me saying a word, the matter was settled. The three of them carried on talking about other political matters with the broadest of smiles. I couldn’t find it in me to force any more smiles for the sake of the clearly power hungry Sir Whitkin--a man I still refuse to acknowledge as my future husband. I excused myself just as the ball slowly forming in my throat grew too painful to choke down. I calmly walked out of the room, but ran down the hallway as soon as I was sure that my footsteps were out of hearing distance. My ladies were hot on my heels until I snapped at them to stay where they were.
I wanted some time to think.
I needed some time alone.
I picked up the skirt of that stupid pink dress and ran out into the garden. I ran past a few of the servants tending to the roses, and bumped into the back of one of them as they were turning around. I continued to run until I reached the entrance to my mother’s alcove at the other end of the castle grounds. I slammed the door, ripped the tiara off of my head and threw it somewhere into the darkness. The clang of the expensive metal against the floor was so satisfying. Being able to let the tears fall down where nobody could watch me was so refreshing. I stood there with my back against the door and let the floodgates open. I hadn’t been to my mother’s “secret” alcove in years, and I wasn’t quite ready to turn the lights on and have a look around the room, but I felt a lot closer to my mother in that moment--in that room--than I had anywhere else in the castle.
Just as my sobs were starting to subside, a tentative knock sounded at the door. I jumped away from it. A thin stream of light seeped in through the tiny space between the bottom of the door and the floor. I could see the shadow of two feet positioned directly opposite me. The person gave another knock, this time slightly louder; more confident. And then a voice floated to me through the wooden door.
“Princess? Your Highness, are you okay?”
I didn’t answer him. From the genuine concern in his voice, I could tell that whoever he was, he meant no harm to me. But this was my sanctuary. My make up and hair were ruined. I looked nothing like the graceful, elegant princess everyone in the castle knows me to be. Regardless of how upset I was at my father, I wasn’t going to ruin the royal family image.
A moment passed without a word from either end of the door. I kept my eyes on the shadow. I waited for it to leave. Instead, it grew larger and longer. I took another step back, but instead of opening the door, they slid something under the door. It slid across the dusty floor until it hit the edge of my dress. I picked it up just as the shadow disappeared. Through the light that their absence left behind, I crouched down, opened the envelope and read the words written on the single slip of paper hidden inside.
The jewels that sparkle on your many crowns do not compare to the sparkle you emit as the ordinary woman I see you to be. I hope that one day you can embrace the fact that you are a person before you are a princess. When the crown feels too heavy on your head, I hope that you can comfortably take it off for a few hours and enjoy the kind of life your people want you to live. If you feel that it’s a luxury you can’t afford, then I hope you can enjoy this luxury in your mother’s room in secret, as you are now. If you decide to take my words to heart, let me know by keeping the envelope of this letter by the door. I promise to guard the entrance for you every time you come here to shed your burdens as a princess. I’ll come back later to see your answer.
That’s where this whole mess started. With a stupid pink dress, an arranged marriage between a princess and a complete cad, and the letter that calmed the storm brewing within me. Because of my curiosity, because I opened that envelope, a person was wrongfully imprisoned. An innocent person is going to die tonight, and it’s all my fault.
As soon as I finish reading the letter about his execution, I storm out of my bedroom with the envelope in hand and run into two heavily armed guards. They immediately spring into action and block my path. A laugh bubbles in my throat at the unfairness of it all, but I choke it down.
“You’re still not letting me leave?” I ask.
They don’t turn to look at me. I push against their chests, but they don’t move by a single inch.
“I command you to get out of my way this instant!”
“Deepest apologies, your Highness,” one of them says with a small incline of the head, “but I’m afraid we can’t do that.”
“Do you know that I can have you killed for this gross display of insubordination?!”
“With all due respect, your Highness,” the other guard pipes up, “our orders come directly from his Majesty. Disobeying the king’s orders will lead to our immediate deaths. Disobeying your current orders will gain us favour with the king.”
“When I become queen, I’ll have you beheaded for treason!” I spit at them.
“Come, now, Eloise. That’s no way for a princess to behave.”
The guards parted and stood at attention on either side of my door. I instinctively took a step back at the sight of my father, and immediately chastised myself for doing so. I have to appear strong. I can’t crumble--not when he is about to be executed at any second.
I take a deep breath and choke down the lump in my throat. As my father stands with an amused smile in the doorway, I stand before him and motion to the dress on my body.
“I’m wearing it, like I promised.”
His eyes glossed over my mother’s crown amidst the braided updo of my raven hair. They surveyed every inch of the white dress with its many ruffles on my skirt and the length, golden laced train that billows out on the floor behind me.
My father’s eyes softened. “You make a beautiful bride, Eloise. You look just like your mother did on our wedding day. She always wanted to see the day our little girl becomes a queen.”
I stifle the sob that threatens to break free. “Father, I’ve kept my end of the deal. It’s your turn now. Please let him go according to our original deal, not the one in the letter.”
My father’s eyes harden. “I can’t believe that you have the audacity to mention that boy at a time like this.”
“Eli has been stuck in the dungeon for days, father. You’ve tortured him enough. You’ve punished us both enough already. Please just let him go. He did nothing wrong, father.”
“You clearly haven’t learnt your lesson,” my father says, his voice raising in volume. “You are a princess, Eloise. A princess. Your life is not your own. Rebelling against my wishes, against my orders, is an act of treason. I’ve tried separating you. I’ve warned you that if you spoke about that garden boy again, I would stop making decisions as your father and start ordering executions as your king.”
“As the princess--”
“You don’t possess any authority that surpasses mine, Eloise, so don’t even start bringing up your title. If I tell the guards to starve a servant in my castle, they will starve the child for weeks. If I tell them to keep you locked up in your room for the same amount of time, they will keep you hidden away until your wedding day without hesitation. If I declare that your wedding date will be moved up, or that a servant who dared to so much as look at an engaged princess should be executed, it will be done immediately. And there’s nothing that you can do about it. You may be the future of this kingdom, but as the current ruler, my word is law. Try and order any of our servants to go against me again, and I will make sure the boy is executed immediately instead of in a few hours. Do I make myself clear?”
I look away from him as a tear escapes from the corner of my eye. I close my eyes as a tidal wave of pain surges through my core. Everything had been on the way to ruin for weeks, but now it’s all spiralling out of control. I have to save him. I need to save him. But I don’t know how the two of us can make it out of tonight alive; how we can make it past my father’s wrath unscathed.
“Do I make myself--”
“Yes,” I choke out. Without turning around, I whisper, “You’ve made yourself clear.”
I hear him let out a sigh of relief. “Good girl. I’ll send a handmaiden to touch up your make up. The guards outside will escort you to the ballroom in ten minutes, where you’ll be wed to Sir Whitkins. If you’re even a minute late, I’ll send a servant to relay a message to the executioner.”
As soon as he leaves, as soon as the doors lock me inside again, my knees give way. I collapse onto the ground as the pain of the past few days streams down my face. My handmaiden touches my shoulder. She tries to get me to calm down, but all I can see is Eli. Poor Eli, who was only ever guilty of watching me from afar and slowly falling for me. Sweet Eli, who was perfectly content with standing guard before I started visiting my mother’s alcove daily just to see him. Innocent Eli, who was only ever at fault for being the one person who sees me for who I truly am; who made me feel loved and human instead of as some princess to put on a pedestal.
Through the tears, I remember that I have one chance left to save him. Even if it means we can’t be together. I allow Marie to fix my make up and hide my puffy eyes behind a veil. I follow the guards silently out of my room and towards the ballroom. Every step feels heavy. I feel like crying. I feel like screaming. But I can’t do any of that. I am a princess. I have to start living for my kingdom, as someone else’s wife, or else Eli will die.
I curl my hands into fists at my sides as I see my father waiting outside the ballroom with his crown and kingly robes. He tells me to smile. I feel the corners of my mouth pull into a smile my heart isn’t involved in. The guards open the doors. The interior looks beautiful; fit for a princess. The roses lining the aisle remind me of Eli, who always brought me a rose during our secret meetings. The wedding march starts to play. My father intertwines our arms. The words of the letter ring in my head as I take my first steps onto the carpeted aisle.
I bring urgent news from the dungeon.
The eyes of the nobles and royals from other kingdoms follow my every step; my every smile.
His Majesty has ordered for Eli’s execution when the bell tower strikes its twelfth chime tonight.
I draw closer to my future husband. The crown on my head grows heavier with every step. My father slightly squeezes our interlinked arms--a reminder to keep smiling.
We have orders from the king to inform you that the execution will commence if you fail to say “yes, I do” tonight.
My father places my hand in Antony’s. We walk the short distance toward the priest. Objections are asked for. I wish someone would see the anguish in my eyes and object. But nobody does.
If you do, however, manage to say said phrase, his Majesty will let the boy live.
“Do you, Princess Eloise Renetta Stone, accept Sir Antony Wilkins as your loving husband, to have and to hold, until death do you part?”
With clenched fists, I close my eyes. In the distance, I can hear the bell tower near its twelfth strike. With Eli’s face burned into the back of my eyelids, I open my mouth and say the words.
“Yes. I do.”