Author: Witch Fu
Tara sat in front of her vanity. The wood was precious mahogany with rich lines running throughout. Its drawers held beautiful brass handles, the finest in the country. Tapered legs ran smoothly to the floor lathed impeccably, intricately.
There was nothing in her room that Tara despised more. In defiance, she had swung the in-laid mirror to face the wall. It only reminded her of just how much wealth some lived in while others starved in the streets. Why couldn't her father see that? Why didn't anyone see that? Was she the only one to question the wallowings of the rich?
As she straightened, stretching her tensed muscles (as little as she was allowed to posses) she thought again of Marie. Not more than a month after her voyage across land and sea, did Tara finally prove to the timid girl who had been brought to serve her that she truly only wanted her friendship. Understandably, Marie had every right and inclination to question such a proposition of one in power, but Tara persisted. They began to talk, their conversations delving deeper each night into the secrets that they had shared with no one. The friendship was forming quickly as they both needed a companion more than anything.
One night, Tara decided that it was time, and asked the woman as to her family.
Marie looked uncertain, almost not answering, but the words slowly made it out, shakily, in somewhat impoverished French. "My mother died of the sickness more n' a month past. And my small brother came sick just before I was summoned to leave. I fear I shall never see him again." she sobbed, head bent, shoulders gently shaking.
Tara leaned closer to lay a comforting hand on the girl. "Oh how I wish to be active in that fight. If it were in my powers, I would see to the best care for your brother, and see you sent to his side through his recovery. I would make it that your whole family was spared from the plight. The whole village and province would know no sickness. But I have no more power than you in the workings and forces of my father. I watch as he constructs superfluous castles and rooms that will never see use. Watch as he lines his fingers with jewels of the starving people. Watch as he toasts his finest wines in crystal and pure golden goblets. I watch, but I do not smile."
Tara found that she could speak freely with Marie. They were close enough that the stutter that had plagued the blonde all of her life fell away in their conversations. Although, when the Madame had first encountered it, she looked little better than sick. She had proclaimed that her "malfunction" would be rectified by the end of this term. Tara sighed to herself her rare sarcasm peaking out, if it was that easy, why didn't anyone tell me?
Tara had secreted a few of her more costly jewelry (her distaste for the ornaments more than obvious to those who knew her) to a shop that would give her a price without mention. The money she placed in a cinch, giving it to Marie on the night after their conversation. At first Marie was hard-pressed not to accept, but Tara insisted, reminding her of the brother who needed her there with him. The money would pay for her journey home, knowing that no one else would provide for the passage, and good care for her brother. From there she was to choose someone who would not mind in the least an opportunity to serve the princess. Tara hated those words, but she knew that she had a role to play. She would never be mean to any of those in her charge, but the question still plagued her: "What makes me better?"
The years went on, and Tara found herself in the most fantastic of places. She had visited wonderful works of art and architecture. Acquired books that dazzled her imagination, solidified her beliefs. She had learned the activities put before her (for that's what they were, activities. She would never use them as a trade) painting, instruments, etiquette; all with the boredom and distaste as she was instructed.
There was a time that she was to learn to ride a horse! But when the time came and the Madame saw the saddle she was to mount, Tara was certain that her mistress was going to faint.
Her english improved, as will any language with much use. She used her native tongue only with the serving girl provided by Marie. Her name was Janette. She was haughty, and at times, very difficult to live with. Tara did not find the companionship with Janette that she often missed of Marie. She wondered how Marie had gotten along through the months and years they had been apart.
She found that politics was not the mystery that she was originally led to believe. When she had asked the Madame so long ago, she blushed, waving a prim hand in front of her face with a mixture of fear and confusion. Tara did not ask again. Instead she listened to those who discussed it. Running away from her dwellings to roam among the people of the quarter, listening in, and beginning to understand. She knew then, that the best match for herself and situation would be if the king of England had borne a son. Alas he did not, though there was talk enough of a mysterious birthing that happened long before the queen's death, that no one knew for any certainty about.
Of course, people of the town always had some sort of half-truths running around to keep themselves occupied. What other entertainment did they have? The drink was costly to belt and head. If your boss saw you in an inebriated state on the job, then he would cut you off immediately, and you spent the money for food on your vice. It was a wonder to Tara how all of the people kept smiles on their faces. How, with all the starvation and doing without, all of the uncertainties, did they stay happy?
She wanted so much to talk to them, but she was always behind in the conversations of others, so she knew better than to attempt one of her own. Assuredly, a royal French accent to their Italian (for that is where she was at the time) would start another set of rumors that she knew would reach the ears of her Madame. Although, she knew not how her Madame managed to know and find out about so much, seeing as she would never lower herself to be among the peasants of the town. Little matter as it was, though, Madame could and would not punish her if she were caught mingling with the common folk.
Sighing, Tara replaced the brush onto the vanity top, and placed her hands on each side of her seat thoughtfully. The floor beneath her was frigid, the tediously laid marble quieting any movement Tara or her robes could have made. Her chambers were expansive in all directions, and the effect always left her cold. The late daylight streamed onto her bed, her studies would not commence again until later that afternoon.
As she turned Tara choked back a gasp as sitting serenely on her bed, her Madame bade her attention with a sturdy gaze. With her hands resting delicately on her lap, and every aspect of her garb in perfect order, the thought struck Tara again that this woman was extremely well-disciplined. A wave of pity hit her as she looked on toward the woman whose life was forfeit for the sake of her role. Just as Tara's own life was indeed forfeit. The only job that this life required of her was to bear the children of someone that she could never hope to love for a means that she found no goodness in.
Madame Flockton made a movement for her pupil to sit beside her, drawing Tara's errant attention. Tara sat down, looking at her hands that wrung and fidgeted in her lap. Her long hair cut off any outside influence as her bowed head brought the tendrils forward. She disliked letting her Madame down, but she so wanted to know the people! To walk among them and soak up the knowledge of them, the wisdom and understanding. She was sure that could be the only reason for the Madame's premature visit, studies weren't for an hour yet.
The tutor shifted and cleared her throat softly. Tara swept her hair behind one ear, facing the expectant woman. "Tara, I have just been informed of very wonderful news, indeed. We are to attend a ball! Now, all that I have shown you must be strictly adhered to at this celebration. The future of your kingdom is held before you, and we are all trusting that you are ready for the challenge."
Tara was initially shocked. She had never attended a formal ball. Her father had given specific instructions for Tara to stay by while he arranged her development into societal knowledge. Her Madame would not have informed Tara of this lest her father had told the tutor himself. So, indeed, this ball must be important. It must hold more than one of the prospective suitors for the French crown. She looked to ask a question, but the Madame seemed to know its content,
"Yes, the king himself sent word to me, and on swift shoulders. This ball is most unexpected. The host is none other than the Prince of Surrounding Northern England!" she finished with breathy excitement. Her face had color that Tara didn't believe could be there. This woman was impenetrable. The news did hit hard, at any rate, and Tara was certain that she had heard wrong.
Madame explained, in all of her delighted gentility, lacking all brevity, that the king of England has sent cordial invitations to every suitable princesses and allied princes; befriended dignitaries and trusted house royale members to attend the ball that was to be the grandest yet imagined. Grand enough to present the world with the king's only and secreted heir to the throne of England, Prince William. They were to leave on the morrow to England, their invitation had specifically pressed they come immediately.
On the journey over, Tara was pushed and shaped with unwavering persistence by her Madame and assistants. They tested and prodded, belted and taught endless amounts of etiquette. There was always room for improvement, and nothing would be improved enough.
The journey lasted a fortnight, having set a fairly brisk pace at commencement.
Madame was noted to speak endlessly about the mannerisms and customs of the English. She thought it scandalous for a prince, of what she assumed to be coming years, to never have had any experience in social activities. But, he was the heir to the second most sought-after throne in the whole of the civilized world, and that spoke enough for his qualities.
The night of the ball was steadily approaching. Each day, Willow's training became more rigid, her time entirely consumed in perfecting every movement, each glance and smile. She was being taught how to be someone else. How to glide into a room and spend hours talking to people without letting them know who you were, just as they would be.
Guests began arriving four days before the ball. Every party announced as though they were the guest of honor, and prancing from their carriages as though they believed it to be so.
The castle, enormous and proud, seemed to batten down to bare the added occupancy. Its once endless hallways, now brimmed with excitement and activity. Preparations, guests, extra serving hands, all too busy with their individual affairs to notice any other.
The proclamations of the new arrivals became fairly regular. Willow had grown bored of the tiresome reviews in her manners and gentility. She escaped to one of her best spots of surrender. A place where, when she could not stand it one more bit, she would retreat to, surrendering to her instincts for peace. It was a high rising tower of sorts that looked out over the countryside. Not a soul bothered to reside in a good as abandoned armament of the castle wall. Its once strategical overview of the countryside now served for nothing other than phallic symbol of power. Never the less, Willow would find herself there, enjoying the fresh air that the height allowed. She may have lived in a rich environment, but anywhere you went tended to smell like the nearest stable. One gets used to it, of course, but she preferred the scent of open air and nature. She would lay on the grating bricks to gaze at the stars, or stand and watch the people of the town.
Today, she was occupied with watching those who arrived at the gates of her father's castle. It was almost like spying, seeing how each individual party would depart from their carriages. Some with grace and dignity, noses firmly pointing to the heavens. Others would exit one limb at a time, arm first, leg, other arm, torso, leg and remaining body. No matter how they chose to leave, however, they all acted as though the entire kingdom was in attendance to watch them, holding their breath at the excitement of it. Almost as though this was giving Willow a peak into who these people really were, she watched them enter the castle as if returning home victoriously. They were all so comfortable in their own elegance, as though anything less than the best would poison.
Willow stifled a yawn. The days events had been less than savory. She straightened to leave, certain that the greater portion of the guests had already arrived, when another carriage appeared around the farthest corner. She debated with herself whether or not to bother to stay and watch. In the end, her curious nature won the internal battle. Leaning on the edge once more, Willow peered down into the courtyard, holding her head between her hands in resignation. The carriage that sprinted up the yard appeared just as many of the others had, in fashion, hurried and with the royal emblem of that house.
Willow examined the flag closer, trying to define it. She had been versed in the house emblems, and knew most on sight. This one bore the insignia of the French King! Willow sat up now, breathing with more conviction. This was the one, the most prospective match. Willow leaned over to get a closer view, concentrating on the exit pattern of this one with extra care.
It was the individual limb departure. Willow sighed, she had hoped for more. She didn't know what, however. What could she expect? No doubt the princess of such an influential house would be honed to perfection on style and grace, actions and etiquette. She would most undoubtedly be of the same mind as everyone else seemed to hold to. They were rightful leaders, they were untouchable, worthy, simple-minded and wonderfully boring. But then something caught her eye, another lady leaving the coach. The actions of this one were not like the others, practiced, yes, but not self-assured. She wanted to know who this young woman was. She was late for her studies, and though she would not be directly punished, she knew that lengthy talks of how she should act of what is expected of her was sure to come from extreme tardiness. She would see the lady at the social gathering for dinner, at any rate. What had she planned to do if she had the time? She couldn't very well talk to the lady with no other pretext then conversation, not until the ball at least.
Romping down the flight of stairs toward the study, her hair flying behind in unseemly and not common happiness, Willow smiled. There was no explanation for her sudden wave of joy. She linked it to the impending adventures of social life, and thought nothing more of it. That is, until she felt a tug at her head, heart and curiosity. Should she have stayed to study her prospective bride more thoroughly? Was it best that she did not, so that any judgment she made as to the caliber of her was not based on her country's standing? No, it was better yet to make no judgments of any kind. What she supposed of the ladies put before her would be of no matter.
Stopping just before the main hall, she seized the wall of the corridor and peaked around the corner. There was much commotion about the latest guest, servants moving in dizzying circles of action. Willow bobbed up, down and to the sides to keep out an eye for her query. The lady who had first exited the carriage was obviously not of royal descent, her garb now seen from this distance was that of higher servitude. The latter-
Willow tore her gaze from the direction of the party. It was of no concern and her decision to abstain from judgments had been made. There were more important things to worry about right now.
"Ah, Willow. I have been searching this grand castle for you all of this after noon. Tell me, why have you dismissed our lessons?" Wesley had found her. She was doomed to an after noon and evening of boredom.
The hall was still bustling with people and activity since the last party, and she had to struggle to keep a straight course to the study. Wesley at her side, and talking as was the norm, they made their way through the hall with only the occasional lightly whispered exclamation.
Willow, being the only person finely enough dressed to be royalty and not recognized by any, fit the description perfectly for the alleged Prince of Mystery, as she was beginning to be referred to as.
All was loud and boisterous in the hall. Upon entering the study, only Wesley's endless monologue droned on. She spent the after noon in that room with repetitive lessons and quires, but she was not there in her mind. Her thoughts drifted to tonight's affair.
The dinner was to be the first gathering of all invited guests. She knew that Xander was to be there, which helped ease a few of the butterflies currently residing in her stomach.
Xander was the name that Willow had inadvertently coined for him. They had become fast-friends after their initial meeting. His good humor a respite from the rigid life of a family royale, and her genuine interest in him, helped to aid his nagging insecurities. They bonded over the first few weeks, and when archery was no longer instructed, merely practiced, he would assist her on the field where they could speak privately.
Though she had wanted to tell Xander of her true gender from the first moment of their friendship, she had not.
She wondered why it had been so hard, now, looking back on it. But never the less, he lived in ignorance of it for some time.
They played tricks on each other often, and Willow should have caught the gag immediately, but as it was, her thoughts were on serious and pressing issues, not the likelihood of a well-aimed joke.
Xander tumbled into her with force, breathing heavily, and knocking them both to the ground.
Willow felt herself haughtily question his actions internally, before swinging to face him. He looked ill, will pain etched in his features. Her mood changed effortlessly as she examined him for wounds. There on his left arm was an arrow, piercing the meat of his arm clean through. She gasped and straightened to aid him, "Alexander, what has happened to you? Your arm! There's an arrow!"
She chided herself for stating the obvious before Xander spoke up. "Will, it hurts. Don't-" gasping in pain before finishing, "leave me."
Willow's eyes narrowed in affinity. "I won't Alex. You'll be alright, you'll see." That's when she noticed the slight smile that played on his face.
Looking up, his smile widened as he spoke, "I know I will." And with that he lifted the fake arrow that had been creatively attached to sleeve as the smell of raspberries hit her nostrils.
Willow threw him from where he half-rested on her lap, getting up with exaggerated frustration, Willow couldn't even think of anything to say in her defense. She began to stalk away just as something caught her foot. Again, she found herself on the ground at the hands (literally, this time) of Xander. Her lightweight chest plate had shifted to cover her face, and while she struggled to free herself, she shouted with animosity, "Alexander!"
All that came out, however, was "-xander!" From that day on, he would only permit her to call him that. "Sounds regal," he commented with his goofy grin in place.
He was to serve at the dinners and finally at the much-anticipated ball. Though she would not be allowed to speak much to him during the affairs, his mere presence would ease her anxiety.
Her apprehension was driving her mad! And she hoped above all that she would not disgrace her father.
The announcement that dinner was to be served in the adjoining room came not nearly as quickly for some as they would have liked.
The guests had been socializing in one of the smaller conversation-designed halls. It's high ceilings made for a look of reserved grandeur, while leaving enough space width and length wise to speak of his volume. The drinks had been served immediately and with plenty to go around. People were beginning to find their comfort with each other, though the anticipation of the Prince's unveiling still held fast in the air.
Tara was nervous. This was not her first social engagement, but like everyone here, she was anxious to see the young prince. "Well," she corrected herself, "he won't be young to you." She had tried, unsuccessfully, to block thoughts of marriage from her mind. But that was the point of this ball, and her fashioning, or her life: to marry, and bear children. It was likely that this mystery prince was the very husband her father had in mind.
The lords and ladies that moved about her, did so with a mixture of distaste, envy and curiosity. They were invited, but how many of them would seriously be considered for the throne? And those who were not possible mates, were there for the conversation and reaction factor. In other words, little or no importance. It was a wonder that so many attended. But the first look at the Prince of Mystery would be salve to any wounded pride.
As guest and garcon entered the dining hall, Willow stood behind the curtain that sashed the main doors. Her nerves were at their breaking point, her hands shook and her mouth was dry. The people looked so at ease, where was her ease? "It will be in its chambers for the night." she mumbled to herself.
"Sir?" Peter asked with little patience. Willow had forgotten that it was his duty to stand no more than five feet from her at all times on this occasion.
"When will we be adjourning to our respective chambers for the night?" She uncertainly asked, trying to salvage her peace.
"Oh that will not be for some time yet, Sir. Your presence and manners are due here, and I would advise you to keep you thoughts on that alone." His gaze never left that little spot above her right shoulder, attributing to his subservience, but it always seemed as though he were the one commanding.
Sighing, Willow looked out to the table once more. It happened too fast for her as she heard the clear blast of a trumpet and a low bellowing of her title and name. Peter nodded to her, and in her panic, all she could think was, "What on Earth is he agreeing to?"
Peter's stern look of admonition, spurred Willow into action. Remembering her training surprisingly well under the pressure, Willow let go of who she knew herself to be as she took on the personality of a prince of her station. Seating herself, nodding to those who asked for acknowledgment, Willow was no where to be found.
Tara, in that mean, had watched the procession with growing disquiet. The prince was no different from any that she had had the 'pleasure' to meet. "Why should I have expected any different?" His gait, clothes and demeanor denoted a thoughtless, spoiled young prince, well aware of his station and influence. There was, however, something in his eyes as he turned toward her once which was causing a strange burning in her chest. Something told her that not all was as it seemed. That was the reason for her discomfort. He was different, she felt it, and it scared her.
The dinner was going well, Willow was guiltily relaxing into her role, and those who she conversed with seemed to be enjoying themselves. She wasn't comfortable with the idea that, just as fake as she was being to them, chances are they were more practiced at just that.
The table was longer than Willow had remembered it to be from her brief glance as a child. Everyone seemed, now filled well with spirits, to be jovially talking over the great things that England would be doing now that it had an heir, the greatness of their individual countries, and what would come of their union.
There was one lady that took her attention from the Earl of Glusclouster. While she had been enjoying their conversation on tithes from the clergy of Glusclouster being used to fund the noble horse care, her gaze was drawn to the inaction of one lady, quiet, wine glass full, with a rather distant look on her soft features.
Waiting for an opportunity, Willow interrupted the Earl to inquire as to his knowledge of the unique woman. The earl laughed with hearty movement, answering in a nearly-drunk slur, "Why, that's the Princess of France! Don't you know your own bride?"
While the glasses and goblets filled over and over with brandies and wines of delight. All emotions wavering, faked and practiced, only two at that lengthy table of glut and dishonesty shared the same feeling of disbelief and fear. The Royal Princess Tara of France and Prince William of Surrounding Northern England met in gaze for the first time among the chatter and raucous laughter of the subhuman culture of the wealthy.