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Excerpt IV - Casting Shadows

As Mistress Lee supervised halfheartedly, Catherine laced up my dress, tighter and tighter. I winced with each tug. It was not only the travel from Brenton that bothered me, though. It was an awful day to begin with. Poppa insisted that I see him immediately. I was tired from the trip from Brenton and hardly had time to recover, past worrying about Jerry telling Poppa about my adventures at the Blooming Festival.

Next, I brought company on my household budget. With Poppa’s permission, Howe and his wife and family came with me. While Howe and his sons were pleasant company, Lady Melinda was not. Throughout the journey north, Lady Melinda complained about anything. Her horse seemed to be always lame. She was sweaty and wanted someone to fan her. Her sons were too wild and making too much noise. She could not ride. The flies were giving her a headache.

Norton was my other nuisance. As Howe featured more prominently in my life, he felt left out. I felt his pain at the loss. I did not appreciate him nitpicking at every word, error and gesture Howe and his family made, though.

“Did you see that the younger son’s horse kicked up mud?” he’d say. “It splashed against the wagon with Your Royal Highness’s goods.”

“They can be cleaned,” I reasoned. “The wagon had your jewels in it.”

“Then, when we stop, find a way to get them washed. Jerry can issue an extra guard. You know the procedure.”

“Then, why are the children allowed near it?”

I waved Norton away. I called Howe over and told him to simply watch his sons more carefully. It satisfied Norton for a few hours. Then, he was back again with more gripes.

“Lady Melinda said that she wants a carriage.” He sniffled at the prospect. “She is suffering under the heat.”

“She can still use one of the servants to fan her,” I told him. “We are not stopping somewhere to obtain a carriage for her.”

It went on and on from there. The complaints were endless! I had enough of them. The next people who came up to me were ordered sharply to stay away. Enough were yelled at that the request was finally honored.

The problems did not end in Ploum. The warm welcome to the capital was a respite from the irritants. Once inside the palace, though, it was a different story. It first began with my future brother, Charles. As soon as I put Miranda in the stables and called for a groom to clean her, he was in my face about Jayne. He recently attempted to read more books and plays and learn an instrument. My sister was unappreciative of the efforts and had kicked him out of her rooms rudely when he was ready to present his new skills.

“They are her rooms,” I pointed out with a sigh. “She has the right to order you away.”

“I thought you were listening, Eleanor!” Charles was impatient, huffing over nothing. “There was a play. I was the head musician. And, and, and –” Charles could not continue. He was so upset by the prospect of being shooed away by Jayne that he could not see propriety and was stuttering. I tried losing myself in the crowds of my household. It did not fool Charles. He continued his rampage about Jayne until I found my way to the front doors. There, I lost myself in ceremony. I was recognized by many people in the front hallway and paid more attention to their excited greetings than my brother’s sniffling nonsense.

Finally, there was the matter of my sister. Before, she had been amendable to having Princess Flora as our mother and her letters indicate jealousy over what I was doing. Once Jayne heard that she was a step closer to being cast aside, though, she had thrown a temper tantrum in her rooms about the possibility of being disinherited. This began the moment my feet touched the stone steps of the Ploum palace.

Once I was settling in my rooms, Mistress Alice visited. She helped Norton in supervising everything. She also came to talk with my governess. Her concerns were with my sister.

Mistress Alice took Mistress Lee to one side. “Princess Jayne cannot be consoled,” she hissed. “She blames her father for losing his love and trust. His Majesty had made too many promises.”

“He has gone on long enough with a son,” Mistress Lee determined. “Klenard needs a King.”

“It was promised that Princess Jayne’s son will be King of Klenard,” she replied.

“It is also said that Princess Jayne will be His Majesty’s heir until he has a son of his own. That has not changed.”

“Can you blame the girl, though? She is upset over losing her place in her father’s heart. A wife and son will take away what she worked so hard to keep.”

“When it comes to the Princess Royal, I reserve my judgements.” Lady Lee eyed her companion severely. “So should you. You take her too seriously.”

I shook my head free of this nonsense as my governess left the room. As Catherine tightened the remains of the stays behind my dress, she leaned in to whisper. “Princess Jayne has been throwing a temper tantrum for hours. She does not leave her rooms. She will not leave to go to Council meetings. She refuses to meet with Missire Eurick when he arrived to meet her. She rails at His Majesty for letting you return to Ploum.”

“The problems seem endless.” I was not sympathetic. “Apparently, I am one of them.”

Catherine was not finished. As she moved to the sleeves of my dress, she added, “It’s been said that the Princess Royal curses the marriage between His Majesty and Princess Flora. She does not want to be pushed aside by a woman a year younger than her and ready to have sons. She thought she had time before her son will be born or that she’d be able to inherit before a child is born. I do not think it helps that you are bringing the marriage to fruition.”

I sighed. “Who cares? As long as Poppa is happy, why should we argue? He deserves it.” Despite Bray’s negative outlook, I had to look to my father’s joy. “My sister is exaggerating my involvement. I did what I was told and I organized it with the help of the most powerful men in the kingdom. This is the way of the House of Brutrose. We must marry and secure our house.”

“Princess Jayne does not think this is the right order of things. You are ruining any chances she and Prince Charles have ruling Klenard.”

“Nothing is in the right order of things, Catherine. At this point, though, we have a young woman sailing east to Klenard. She is intended for the King of Klenard. We have to welcome her and protect her, no matter if she has a son or not.”

“What will you do if the marriage agreement does not fall through? His Majesty is intent on joining with this woman. However, portraits and ideas are not always the same thing. Romance can fail in a second.”

“I will have to join the Council meetings and work on the issue head-on with Archbishop Bray then. That’s it.”

We heard noises in the other room. Our time alone was over. Catherine finished and grabbed my headdress and began the arduous task of fastening it. She mumbled about my sister’s sense of fashion. When she finished clipping it to my hair, she balanced the weight of feathers. When Nadine, Ellen, Margaret, Helga, Gertrude and Mistress Lee entered, we had to play a new game.

Ploum was known for its gossip. In the few precious hours that we had been here, my ladies must have picked up something that kept them entertained. I was curious. If I wanted something out of Catherine, then I’d have to include my gatherers of knowledge.

“What have you heard about the Princess of Jast?” I asked my ladies. “Is she as beautiful as people say? Is she intelligent? Fervent to learn? Godly in her ways?”

Ellen answered me first. “She is important enough to have the Klenard Navy follow her the last one hundred miles to the port. I think that’s good enough.”

Nadine snorted. “She is as dark as we are light.”

“How dark is her skin?” I looked to Mistress Lee inquisitively. “I knew that Jast has brown people. I did not know that she was black.”

“She is not,” my governess reassured me. “Nadine is exaggerating. Princess Flora appears as dark as you become when you are outside for too long.”

“I am not stretching the truth,” my lady insisted. “My lord father has told me. He saw her when he boarded her ship some weeks ago.”

“He did not,” Margaret protested. “Besides, it’s impossible to return to Ploum so fast.”

“My father has ways to get messengers to shore faster than you can blink. You can believe he has his fingers on the pulse of Klenard.”

“What are they doing? Getting the sea dragons to give them rides? Nobody has a schooner with that speed.”

“They say she is generous with her ladies,” Gertrude offered as Margaret and Nadine sparred. “She takes care of them.”

“She is most ardent and strong in her faith,” Helga proudly said. “Uncle has reassured me that he will steady her studies and make sure that she will be devout.”

I turned to Catherine. “And her servants? What do they say?”

Catherine sputtered before replying. “Missire Eurick’s people do not say anything.”

“Oh, I am sure they do.” Helga inched forward to listen better. “Tell us, Catherine. Servants do talk. They know more than we do.”

Mistress Lee was astonished we’d ask Catherine for such information. “Girls! Leave Catherine alone. She should not be talking about her betters.”

At last, Catherine finished with the final touches on my dress. We had a few minutes before I was required to see Poppa. I sent Mistress Lee out to check with Norton when I was supposed to leave. When she was safely out of our rooms, I looked at my friend to answer the questions about Princess Flora.

Catherine was quiet for a moment before answering. “Well, Princess Flora is beautiful. She has black hair, light brown skin and the most purple eyes. It is true that she loves her servants and will do anything to help them. And she loves flowers. Jast is a tropical nation. Missire Eurick said that she brought some seeds to Klenard, to feel more at home.”

“What is tropical?” I didn’t understand the word. Some of the others did not either and pressed her like I did. “Is this something that describes Jast?”

“Is Klenard tropical?” Helga inquired.

“No,” Nadine declared. She stopped her argument.

Helga looked to Nadine, ready for a fight. “How do you know? You don’t know what…trop – tropica – or whatever that word is.”

“It’s tropical. And I do know what it means, Helga. Poppa told me so.”

“Your Poppa wouldn’t let you live without you holding his hand every step of your day.”

Catherine sighed, annoyed with the backbiting remarks. “It means it’s a place where it is hot and humid. Jast is a nation of islands in the southern Nord Ocean. They do not see the cold seasons like we do in the north.”

“You’ve been there?” Now, I was intrigued and tried to hush my ladies. “Can you tell us more?”

Helga and Nadine continued their argument and did not take the hint. It took Ellen, Gertrude and Margaret to shush them. When they explained that we could be trouble, they understood quickly.

“When Dorcas was alive, my father took us to Jast, when we were little girls,” Catherine said. “His Majesty was kind enough to finance a trip to Jast. He asked Poppa to trade some goods and to see if there was some worth in being allies with Jast.” She paused, looking to me for permission to go on.

I saw where this was going. I waved for Catherine to continue with her narrative. All the same, I was thinking about what Poppa did to Jast. He waged war. This happened after Martin Buckingham returned from the islands. All of the goods must have been impressive enough to jump to the worst decision in conquest.

And now, he wants to marry the greatest jewel Jast has?

All in the name of her converting to our religion?

And sailing here without proper time and authority?

And her brother the King is supposedly helping to drive her out?

There was something wrong with this picture. My mind rang with the possibilities. Bray underestimated the dangers Princess Flora faced. This isn’t a matter of seeing if she will marry Poppa and escaping her country of birth because of prosecution. She has become a bargaining chip in the larger game. I just did not know what the name of it was and who all of the players were.

I was only the pawn. I could be captured quickly…or I can make it to the end of the board and become the piece I want to be. There was a chance for control.

I put my hand up, to stop Catherine’s story. “Thank you. You may go now.”

My ladies were alarmed that I dismissed Catherine so flippantly. One by one, they tried overriding my decision. I struck all of them down. When Mistress Lee reappeared a few minutes later and told us that Poppa was ready for me, they stopped their fussing.

They did not understand what was going on. Catherine had awoken in me the sense that I was being fooled again. The dots were connected. Poppa was going to be trapped by his own logic and I was going to be the master this time.

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