in which the truth comes out
The hair on the back of her neck was wet, sending popsicles into her bones. It kept Rhema alert, which she had to remain. She was not alone in the wash room. Mara’s firm hands belted a corset over her barely dry ribs. It was next to intolerable, not the corset, the company. She liked Bastion’s hands better for the task, not because he was at all adept at fastening women’s clothing, but because he always made her giggle when he attempted it. Mara inspired nothing in her but silence, her voice trapped shut under firm knots. She bit the inside of her lip and reminded herself again that she was going to the Cottage today. Tonight, she would sit in her father’s big red chair and enjoy the luxury of doing absolutely nothing special.
Mara muttered something about needing a hair pick and left the room. Rhema knew she would be back. After all, you can’t trust the princess to be able to finish dressing herself, could you? She took advantage of her lonely moment to pull her bedraggled hair off the base of her neck and rub her waist, hoping to loosen the ties if only by a little. Mara returned. Rhema instinctively lifted her arms, but Mara grunted and pushed her arms down. Then she reset Rhema’s hair against the back of her neck and set to combing through it with something that felt like a pitchfork.
Mrs. Delannoy let herself into the washroom accompanied by none other than the VanGall twins. Gwenyth and Adele had changed little in the past few years other than to grow into slightly taller versions of chipmunks. Rhema reached for a towel to cover her half-nakedness. Mara grunted again, took the towel away, applied it briefly to her hair, and then tossed it out of arm’s reach.
“Will Her Highness be ready on schedule?” said Mrs. Delannoy, paying little heed to Rhema.
“Yes, Madame Delannoy,” said Mara.
“Could I—“ started Rhema as Mara pushed something white over her head. “Excuse me, could I review the schedule again?”
“Not to worry. Everything is in place for you, Your Highness. You will leave here at 9am sharp. That should get you to Middelwey by 1pm. There you will lunch with the governor and local council members, followed by a brief meet with the union heads in that area where you will offer words of encouragement.” As Mrs. Delannoy spoke, Gwenyth and Adele went into Rhema’s closet to pick out shoes for her. They moved slowly, as if they were doing their own personal shopping, and gossiping quietly all the while.
“Words? I haven’t prepared any speech—“
“A speech? Goodness, no, you will not be giving a speech. Just a say a few words and, for goodness sakes, smile. After that we leave immediately for Wenderry, where we should arrive promptly at 4pm. After the parade in your honor, you will be presented with the key to the city, which you will graciously accept. Then a brief rest before you attend dinner with the mayor before a social with the members of the Gallish Ladies Society. Then to Fairfax Estate to spend the night with Lord de Frees and family, and the next day—“
“That is enough. Thank you. I remember now.” Rhema did not remember, nor did she ever want to be reminded again. The important part was that she would get to spend a night at the Cottage with her family. That was the only part that mattered.
Her head ached. She couldn’t decide if it was Mrs. Delannoy’s voice or Mara’s follicle attack that caused it.
“Is Bastion up yet?”
The VanGall sisters giggled in the corner.
“That is not my business,” said Mrs. Delannoy. “I would presume His Highness has been up for a while now.”
“Will I have time to see him before we go?”
“That depends on whether or not you can stop talking long enough to prepare for the day. And straighten up, you look like a freshman school girl.”
How easily her desire for Bastion returned! The mention of his name stirred her like dry leaves on a windy day. The women draped fabric around her. She held still, imagining she was a windowpane being fitted for curtains. If I am the windowpane, then what is Bastion?
After she was dressed, she escaped her captors long enough to go looking for him. She checked his room, his study, and all his favorite haunts. Nowhere.
“You are certainly not the only person in this city with a schedule,” said Mrs. Delannoy, huffing to keep up with her. “But you are the only one who will be late if you do not get to your carriage right now.”
Rhema sighed and went with Mrs. Delannoy and the VanGall twins to her carriage. She teetered a moment on its step, but could not draw out the moment any longer without becoming awkward. Princesses were not supposed to be awkward. She ducked inside and immediately directed her attention out the window.
“Have you forgotten something?” The floor rocked as Mr. Highwater followed them into the compartment. That was some small relief.
“No. I suppose not,” said Rhema.
She stared at her lap. She didn’t recognize her own hands, as covered in gloves and rings as they were. The carriage rocked again.
Bastion’s head appeared through Rhema’s window. He breathed heavily and was dressed as if he had just ran from an important function.
“I forgot to tell my wife something,” he said.
Mrs. Delannoy turned her eyes to the ceiling. The VanGall twins mimicked her. Mr. Highwater checked his watch.
“What is it?” said Rhema.
He kissed her. “Two days.”
“Two days,” she repeated.
“Give my greetings to your parents.”
“You have to go now.”
“Is it always going to be like this?” said Rhema quietly to him.
“Yes, my love, but we will always return to each other.”
She nodded again. He kissed her again and jumped down off the side of the carriage.
“He should be setting an example of decorum, not leaping through windows,” said Mrs. Delannoy, holding her hat on her head. Adele nodded primly while Gwenyth seemed lost in her own daydream. Mr. Highwater pounded on the side of the carriage, and it pulled to a start.
Main Street in Wenderry was trim, narrow, and effective for the daily comings and goings of a common market, not, however, for a parade. It had hardly any room for the armed escort that rode between Rhema’s carriage and the crowd, much less for the rest of the festivities. Rhema rode an open coach through the town, waving to the people as she passed. She recognized some owners of shops she had once shopped in, children she had once played with, and fellows she had attended church with. They all cheered and waved at her not as familiars, but as admirers. Every time she moved her hand, they cheered. If they are like this for waving, what will they do if they find out I can walk and talk as well?
Her chance to find out was long in coming. Her entourage crawled through the crowded street. The scent of Mrs. Archer’s Pie Shop perfumed the air of everything around it. Rhema turned to Mrs. Delannoy, who rode in a low seat behind her. Mrs. Delannoy frowned over the schedule. Rhema’s stomach rumbled. Mrs. Archer’s blueberry pies had never been more tempting or more pungent.
At the end of the parade, the mayor presented Rhema with a key to the city. It was as big as her forearm and twice as heavy. She held onto it while great men of Wenderry made speeches about her that hardly seemed accurate. Sweat crept down the back of her neck from the heat of a watchful sun, as if it also expected something from her.
Her eyes strayed to the crowd. Below, a little girl in a purple jacket skipped back and forth on the cobbled stones of the main walk, oblivious to the events around her. Her blonde curls bounced in happy disorder. Rhema tried to remember being that little girl. She vaguely recalled that child-like feeling, but now she did not remember how to be that way when she was not with Bastion.
At long last, the ceremony ended. She had dinner with the Gallish Ladies Society, where Rhema was surprised to have no appetite, despite the delectable dishes they served. She nibbled on just enough not to be rude.
The world was dark by the time her horses finally carried her up the road to the Cottage.
“Is this all there is?” complained Mrs. Delannoy, looking up at its shadow on the hill.
“It looks bigger in the daylight,” said Rhema, but in her heart she also found the Cottage small in comparison to the palaces to which she had become accustomed. She had remembered it as bigger.
Her entourage – thank the Lord! – was safely stowed away in the left wing of the house, leaving her alone with her family. How surreal to be curled up in her nightdress, in the big red chair, listening to Roger regale her with tales about his teenage antics as if nothing had ever changed!
“Bertand Moss is our strongest player really,” Roger said, “But they made me the lead hitter anyway. That's probably because they're all intimidated by me now because your my sister.”
“Are you saying this to thank me or to scold me?” said Rhema.
“That depends on how we do against the team from Haswerk.”
Rhema smiled. “Oh, you have no idea how relieved I am to be talking to you about this. All they talk about back at home is politics.”
“Are you much involved in politics, Rhema?” asked her father.
“No,” she answered. “But politics seem to be involved with me.”
“That is the way of it.”
Rhema’s stomach rumbled.
“It is a pity the Cartwellers, that is, Jonathan and Becky could not be here,” said Lady de Frees. “I do not know if you have heard, but Jonathan is going to run for a seat in the House of Gentlemen.” The House of Gentlemen was the lower of the lawmaking bodies in Gallia, for which any free citizen in Gallia could compete for a seat, as opposed to the House of Lords, where her father held a place, into which only those of the nobility could be inaugurated. Wenderry was a small enough district that, unless he had any noteworthy opposition, Jonathan could actually have a chance of joining the Gentlemen.
“Why on earth would he do that?” said Rhema.
“He always wanted to,” said Roger. “Don’t you remember?”
“I had forgotten.”
Her stomach rumbled again. Her appetite for pastries quickly fell away.
“Are you well?” her mother asked.
“I am tired. That is all.” Rhema glanced at a folded copy of the Wenderry Chronicle on the end table.
“You have read it then?”
“Yes,” her father answered. A wrinkle formed above his nose. “Have you?”
Lord de Frees sighed and lit his pipe. His wife folded her hands in her lap.
“She doesn’t know?” said Roger.
“Should I deny my son the truth?”
“Why not? You deny your daughters.”
“I have denied you and your sister nothing that you have asked. Neither of you have ever professed interest.”
Rhema uncurled herself and leaned toward him, elbows on her knees.
“I will forgive you the great discourteousness of not informing me of something so crucial to my own history, if you tell me now, Papa. I want to know what happened in Freesia. Why can you not go back? What have you done that risks the reputation of myself and my husband?”
Her father stared at her a moment as if he had never seen her before. Then he took a breath from his pipe and began his tale.
“It happened when you were small. Too small to remember, perhaps. We lived in Freesian Sever, by the border near Devon. We had a large estate, the estate of my father and his father. It was much grander than this Cottage of ours, though I suppose it is smaller than the accommodations to which you are now accustomed. We had horses and dogs and plenty of work hands. You got lost in the service quarter once. It took us half a day to find you. We were on good terms with Mayor Randolf even then, because traders often came back and forth across the border.
It was a Sunday night. I remember that well because your mother and I had been discussing Bishop Dupont’s sermon. Your sister and yourself were already put down in bed. In that late hour, three men came calling at our door. They said their names were Mr. Hand, Mr. Fisch, and Mr. Morgen, though we later learned these were not their names. They told us that they were farmers and that they were on their way home from the market in Solzbury. They said their cart broke an axle on Myer’s Bridge, and if you can remember Myer’s Bridge at all, Rhema, you would understand why I had no reason to doubt them. It should have been condemned years ago. Their accents were good. Their knowledge of the area was impeccable. Your mother is certain that at least one of them must have actually been a farmer. She can always tell, having grown up on a farm herself. It was snowing heavily, so we allowed them to stay the night. The next morning they left, and we thought that was the end of it.
Two weeks later, Mr. Hand and Mr. Morgen appeared once again at our house with three strangers. Mr. Fisch was no longer with them because, and we didn’t know this at the time, he had already been captured by the police. We were not at home at the time, but the outlaws imposed themselves on our servants. Monsieur Nowlen, that trusting fool of a steward, let them in under the supposition that they were friends. When I returned, I found five men entertaining themselves at my expense, this time with no story to explain their presence. I took them for drunks and fools and turned them out immediately, but since they had caused no damage to myself or to my property, I did not alert the authorities to their presence.
That, as it turns out, was my greatest mistake. News traveled slowly then. It wasn’t until after they had long crossed the border that I learned of the assassination of King Gervais in Verni and that the conspirators had fled in our direction, towards the border to Gallia. It was a foolish plan on their part to suppose the Galls would be happy to harbor them. They shot off their mouths in a pub, and Mayor Randolf apprehended them before they got out of Sever and gave them to the Freesian militia. Then they were dealt with as assassins usually are.
Investigators traced their journey in and out of the country through our estate, and the press learned of it also. What were they to think of me? I lived far from the court and had a Gallish wife. We already lived on the edge of disrepute. Many in the public wanted me to be arrested for treason, but, of course, no charges could be brought against me. Mr. Hand, perhaps thinking it was I that was responsible for his apprehension, testified against me shortly before his execution. It was all lies, but such testimony cannot go without investigation. A friend of mine from the court warned me of my impending arrest, and I fled. What can I say? I was afraid. I took your mother and you two girls, and we ran like the guilty. I appealed to Mayor Randolf for sanctuary, and he, good man, believed our story and harbored us in Gallish Sever. Shortly after, King Harold gave us clemency to remain in Gallia and allowed us to buy this estate.
In time, the truth became known of our situation, and even Queen Penny has stated that she holds me in no way responsible for the death of her husband, but still, we are not generally welcome in Freesia, and even if we were, this is our home now. Your brother was born here. We raised the three of you here and watched you grow to three strong, beautiful people. Choose it or not, we are Galls. Banishment is not so terrible a punishment. But I am sorry, Rhema.”
“It was not your fault,” said Rhema. Her head spun. “But why did he do it? Why did Bastion marry me knowing this? He puts our reputation, our whole treaty with Freesia at risk.”
“Oh, liebchin. I think you know the answer to that,” said Lady de Frees.
Rhema shook her head. Bastion risked everything for her. All for her, a silly, ignorant country girl with poor manners and a shady history. She could hardly stand the brunt of it.
“What is that smell?” said Rhema.
“Mama, do you have a new perfume?”
“Your father bought it for me on our anniversary. I am surprised you smell it from there. Do you like it?”
The scent crawled up Rhema’s nose and poured into her already ill-eased stomach.
“I...” she started.Then Rhema vomited all over her father’s favorite red velvet chair.