Dear my people,
Whatever happens, I want you to know that I forgive you.
Just as our priests tell us, these days, that our holy Savior took our sins upon Himself to save us, it is the burden of a king and queen to bear both the blame and the worship of their people. Sol, my beloved, knew that. It was the one thing he understood perfectly about ruling. We are here for you to dream about. We are responsible for everything.
Dear my people—but who are you, after all? Do I know you, any more than you know me? Sometimes I think of you en masse, an advancing tide of consciousness swelling with rage or shrinking in fear. Sometimes you are a single beggar whose unheard voice nags at my sleep, or a single family who greets me in the Hall on your knees, unaccountably weeping—not for poverty and not for despair, not for joy and not for gratitude, but only for the emotion of being in my presence, an emotion I have not felt for so long, sometimes it bewilders me to witness. But it’s true—I stood once in your shoes, and I, too, longed to kneel, though I was forbidden to.
Once, you were a mist of lanterns upon the Urodel River, cheering my wedding. And once, not long after, you were a child calling out to me from the plaza at the cathedral. Did I lie to you then, when you strained forth with such lovely, brazen curiosity, pulled just as strongly backward into the crowd—by those urgent hands of propriety—as my prince tugged at my own waist, to pull me back into the relief of the carriage? Did I lie to you, when you cried out to me, ignoring Prince Solon’s gentle, dismissive remonstrance, “Please, Princess Ella! What is it like? What was it like tobe one of us, and then become—?”
The cathedral’s construction was only just beginning then, and I was exhausted by the wonder of presiding over it with Solon at my side, greeting the best masons, carpenters, sculptors and artists of Sirenia, who would spend their lives in the exquisite work of creating this colossal altar to our Savior and God. I was trying to mimic Sol’s regal gaze, his gracious interest, pretending an attitude of inspired grace I did not feel, avoiding the wondering, admiring, scrutinizing gaze of hundreds, outside and beyond and all around me.
“It is like a fairy tale”—that was my answer. Your question frightened me. But I wanted you to believe whatever you needed to. I wanted you to grow up determined and brave—a woman, a queen of your own. I still want that. Have you done it, I wonder?
And I understand now, what you need me for. There are peoples who refuse monarchy—the Hums, the Ghost People before Mina Fox came to them, even the Barbarians perhaps—who find safety in councils, votes, consensus. But think: the kings you loved, the queens that moved you, that changed this world for good—they will live in your legends (much longer than the tyrants will), and you cannot make a legend from a council of many. Power brings risk, that is sure. But so does following your heart without fear when you love. Sometimes the heart makes mistakes, or is fickle, or cruel. But to live in its glow and shadow is to live.
So I take your blame with your love. But I am not guilty. And I do not say I am one of the great ones, one you will remember. I am old, now, and I no longer live for your opinions; instead, I live for you. But if I would teach you one thing, my people, I would teach you empathy, as a mirror through which you will better know yourself. I write my story here for that reason, because I must, though I cannot imagine what will become of it. I know that as your queen, it is my duty not to tell you all the little details of my humanity that I yearn to confess. Yet time changes that responsibility. What you need to know now, in order to be inspired, is different from what you will need to know a thousand years from now, in order to feel whole, in order to forgive.
Most of you, perhaps, are able to imagine quite clearly what you would do if you had riches. If you had influence in decisions that affect the world. At eighteen years old, I could not imagine either of those things. When I was seventeen, the glassblower’s son once asked me to run away with him. When I thought about that, I thought, “If I run away with him, then tomorrow night I will sleep in the arms of someone who likes me, and perhaps not be cold, and have no chores to do, and no soot on my face.” That was as far as I was able to imagine.
When they first brought me into the palace, into the courtyard to bathe and purify me from my former life, I found myself trembling between the hands of royal servants like a ghost ensnared for the first time by a body. I was intolerably embarrassed. I had not thought yet about the life before me, or marriage to the Prince, or the responsibilities of royalty, or how much money was spent just to make the curtains that surrounded the tub. I had no practice in thinking of such things. I only thought of the dress they were removing from my body—the best dress I had ever owned, the one it had taken such courage for me to secretly don the moment I knew who waited at my stepmother’s door, despite how my stepsisters would mock me and how I might be punished for it later.
“Wait!” I cried, but then held my tongue. Oh my people, it was the only fine and flattering dress I owned, with silk ribbons clustered at the breast and beads hissing in loops from the sleeves when I lifted my arms! It means more to me still than any of the bejeweled cloths I’ve worn since. I’d made and remade it three times since I was thirteen, when to my astonishment a mysterious tradesman from Zara gave me a bolt of the most exotic green fabric I had ever seen in exchange for a single kiss. It was my running-away-from-home dress, a thing of hope I had made with my own hands that had kept me alive. But it was nothing to the ladies in waiting who stripped it from me with soft-fingered disdain. So with a convulsive gesture, ducking my head, I let it go.
I needn’t have cared what the ladies thought, of course. I was to be a princess in but a few days, and I could have ordered them to keep that silly gown for me, and never given a reason. But I had never commanded anyone, and the thought hardly occurred to me. And they knew that. And even though they should have heeded my little cry of “wait!”—and not the meek sigh that followed—they did not. I regretted that weakness forthe rest of my life. I did not know then that my past had any worth. I did not understand that I was giving it up forever.
I remember particularly the sun that day—a different sun that I’d never seen before, one that seemed especially designed for royalty, a lace of light inlaid with gold—which oversaw the sweeping of clouds across its worshipful populace of sun flowers. The ladies left me alone for the first time within palace walls. The tub sat like a magic cauldron in a tent of beige satin curtains, partially open to the breeze from the gardens. I felt foolish reclining in water, for even at my father’s house, which was finer than many, we had bathed in a barrel. I thought I wouldn’t know how to arrange my body, but the warm embrace of that water claimed me instantly. It was the first time I could ever remember bathing in water that no one had bathed in before me. I touched the rim, scalloped with the last unicorn ivory from the Ghost Kingdom. I leaned forward and bit my own knees, because I thought I would laugh, and that might prove that I really was losing my mind. I clutched my own feet in that fur-lined tub in that shiny water in the royal garden, and I told myself sternly, “I am going to be married to the prince. Ella Gladstone, you are going to be married to Prince Solon Cygnini. Princess Ella.” And then fast, my practical nature took hold of my thoughts to keep them steady. I began to size myself up the way I might size up my family’s food caches in a time of drought. Was I enough? Would he still want me, when he saw me stripped of whatever magical something had clothed me on those nights? I examined my skin, my thighs, the texture of my wet hair, my fingernails. I swept my face with my thumbs.
My new lady in waiting found me weeping—I don’t know why. Her name was Leyla. She knelt with a dancer’s grace, like a swooping bird with a secret message to deliver, and it was her sole purpose to serve my every desire, but as I stared at the sleekly parted black hair upon her bent head, her perfectly trained beauty, I could not summon a single command.
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