It is so strange to suddenly be surrounded by a family who likes me. I can see Uncle and Johanna near choking as I stroll by on the arm of the future queen and share jokes with the king at dinner. Not that they can hear what we’re saying. Uncle’s seats are a long way removed from the high table.
They make a final effort a few days before I’m due to leave, inviting me to take tea with them. Their apartments are everything one could expect of a royal palace, but not a patch on mine. Which is probably why they arrange to meet with me in the Rose Salon. That and their wish to show off our connection, this is a popular meeting place in the afternoons. I haven’t disdained them during my time at the palace but nor have I drawn Johanna into the higher circles I have been inhabiting, and Uncle is not happy.
Whatever Uncle is building towards – he either wants me to take Johanna with me to the High Kingdom or speak to the Chancellor about reinstating the stipend – is thankfully cut off by the arrival of a footman.
“Excuse me, Your Highness, His Majesty requests the pleasure of your company.”
I stand, please note, Uncle, what a good and obedient daughter I am, and say to the pair before me. “Goodbye then. I doubt we’ll have time to talk before I leave. Do write.”
As I go to leave, my uncle blurts out. “Your mother wants to see you.”
I bite down hard on the fury pouring through me, waiting until it turns from hot to icy-cold before I answer. “She has known where to find me for the past twenty-two years. Unless her convent is on the direct road to the High Kingdom Pass, I believe I’ll have to forego the delight of our reunion.”
Johanna glances at the people around us, before gasping theatrically. “For shame! Your own mother!”
“Who tried to murder me once before I was born and twice after. Who left when I was six months old and refused any contact since.” If my cousin wishes to air our dirty laundry, I’m happy to help her do it properly.
Uncle glares at Johanna, who doesn’t notice, she’s too shocked by my response to do anything other than gape. He mumbles. “She wishes to return to court.”
Aware of the footman at my elbow but reluctant to leave until this matter is closed, I raise a brow.
My uncle flushes and addresses the cup in front of him, rather than me. “She left the convent and married. Her daughter is now old enough to be presented at court. She would like you to ease your sister’s way in.”
I have no words, no breath, how dare she? Thankfully my shock is hidden under the derisive laughter of every eavesdropper in the room, it gives me time to collect myself a little. “I suggest she try another court.”
With that, I sweep from the room, the footman all but trotting to keep up. When I pause in the hallway, fists clenched, mind blank, he says. “In his study, Princess.”
I take a deep breath, then a second. “Of course, thank you.”
I manage to make the trip at a more decorous pace and maintain a deceptively untroubled expression.
The news beats me there and I’m strangely comforted by my father’s rage. His betrothed rushes to me, enfolding me in the kind of hug a mother should give. “My dear Arianna, I had no idea… What you must have been through.”
I can’t help it, my lower lip wobbles but I concentrate on breathing, slowly and evenly, until I can answer. “I don’t remember it, obviously, but it was commonly known.”
The king growls. “I should never have left you there but the Treasury people assured me you were well-cared for.”
I force a nonchalant shrug. “After a fashion, I was, and it’s all in the past now.”
He brightens. “Indeed, and I called for you on the matter of your future.”
Gesturing towards a shallow wooden box on the desk in front of him, he says. “A gift for you, from the High Prince.”
Well that’s one way to distract me, and an effective one at that.
He pushes the box across the desk, and I open it. My jaw drops. Resting on thick velvet the colour of spring grass is a necklace. But one unlike any I’ve ever seen. It’s a flurry of apple blossoms, detailed and delicate, each enamelled petal looking light enough to drift away in the next breeze.
A ridiculous, wonderful hope lights in my heart. I’d first encountered Zarn in the spring, while tucked in the reading nook of my favourite apple tree. He liked to call me his apple-blossom lady. I try to dismiss it. Our kingdom is famous for its orchards, and this is an impossible dream, but the little flame refuses to die.
My father pulls me from my thoughts. “You don’t like it?”
“I love it. It’s beautiful. I was simply trying to decide what dress would best display it for tonight’s banquet.”
The king and future queen laugh, but it’s a fond sort of laughter, the kind that warms rather than stabs, I let myself bask in it as my future stepmother loops her arm through mine. “Let’s decide together. There are earrings and hair pins as well. You’ll be the envy of every woman in court.”
My appearance that evening, in the High Prince’s jewels, set off by a dress of soft green, echoing the budding leaves that peek from behind the blossoms around my neck and in my hair, diverts the court from their recollections of my mother, none of them flattering from what the servants tell me.
As soon as I enter the room, my attendants fly to my side. I had given them the afternoon off to visit their families and start saying their farewells, and they’re so upset about abandoning me in my hour of need, they make me laugh. Is this what it’s like to have friends? I reassure them and make them laugh in turn with my description of the king’s reaction. It won’t hurt for that to filter back to my uncle, and from there to my worm of a mother. She’ll not find a welcome here.
Lady Sara leans in, wide-eyed. “Did they truly say you have a sister?”
“A half-sister, born in wedlock I would hope, and likely doesn’t know of my existence. I doubt the husband knows either.”
Lady Jane, the quietest and most observant of my little group glances around, then whispers. “My maid was near your uncle’s quarters this afternoon. She says there’s a strange lady staying there, with a girl about my age. The lady was having quite a tantrum when my maid passed by.”
I look across the room to my father, who I think has been waiting to catch my eye. He knows. If a lady’s maid knows, the king will surely have been informed. He beckons, and I make my way to him, my attendants following.
He places my hand on his arm and draws his companions’ attention to my necklace, telling them who it came from and how delightfully surprised I was by the gift.
Once they’ve finished exclaiming, I’m dismissed with a reassuring pat to my hand and, as I leave, I hear him say. “I’m very proud of my daughter. She’s proven to be an intelligent, gracious, and modest young lady.” He drops his voice to a carrying undertone. “Nothing like her vulgar harpy of a mother I’m happy to say.”
And with that, the knives are out again, aimed at the woman I believe is now stewing in Uncle’s overheated rooms overlooking the stables.
I’m told a woman with a bewildered-looking daughter tried to gain an audience with me several times in the following days, but I was caught up in the final flurry of packing and preparation and had no time for anyone other than most of the court.
On the day before my departure, I decide to enjoy a final walk in the palace gardens with my attendants. As we cross the Summer Terrace, I notice Johanna all but run out of a door further down this section of the palace, dragging someone with her as she sets out on a path that will shortly intercept ours.
And, what a coincidence, we encounter my cousin and her companion at the place the paths meet.
Johanna pretends to be startled, she’s a terrible actress. “Cousin, what a surprise! Please let me introduce Bellessa, another cousin.”
Her smirk says she thinks she’s clever. I wonder whose idea it was to have her ambush me with my half-sister in tow. Bellessa curtseys, then stands, gaping at us. The family resemblance to my cousin is distressingly strong. She leans in to Johanna and hisses. “Which one’s the bastard princess?”
That’s a step too far and even Johanna knows it. Lady Jane looks Bellessa up and down. “How terribly gauche.”
I hide my smile at Jane’s use of the most biting insult in a court lady’s repertoire as Johanna grabs her newly discovered cousin’s arm and hustles her away, lips pinched.
Lady Sara calls to one of the guards, politely trailing a few steps behind our little party. “I’m concerned Her Highness may be subject to further vulgar encroachments as her departure looms.”
The guard bows, then raises his hand in a series of strange gestures and I find myself surrounded by a full, five-man patrol of grim-faced guards.
We complete our stroll to stares and whispers, I can almost see the story of Bellessa’s introduction travel from group to group as expressions morph from curiosity to amusement. Sara is proved right in her concern as we’re about to go back inside. A woman with Uncle’s nose calls my name as she bustles across the terrace.
The guards close ranks and I’m hurried indoors as she protests, loudly. I wonder if Uncle will have any credibility at court remaining after this visit by my mother and her graceless daughter. From what little I’ve seen of Bellessa, the woman did me a favour by abandoning me.