Malia always mused to herself that the library in King's City was like the one in Hogwarts. It had not two but three levels. Malia read everything within her easy reach. Eventyrian literature was not unlike that she had pedaled on Earth - there were mysteries, spies, monsters, and more. All a quick and enjoyable way to become acquainted with the norms, lore, and language of her new world. Vampires did not drink animal blood, she had learned through a novel. And the ascension of royals was different from that of everyone else.
Today, Malia found herself elbow-deep in a novel about a knight in the west. It reminded her of Don Quixote, but the protagonist was far more grounded…
She had not worried over her attire since she had no agenda that day - while she had been unable to find a comfortable pair of trousers, she had opted for a simple blue dress. She read with her bare feet tucked up under her legs on a cushioned chair, deep in the library away from the windows. Her knight was falling in love, and she wondered if his intended would reciprocate. Were women required to? Would there be an authentic look into her perspective? Either way, it gave her quite an insight into Eventyrian culture…
It hadn't taken much for Sarnai to escape brunch early. A bit of poking at her meal, nudging the vegetables around her plate with her fork until King Philip took notice and asked after her wellness. "The babe is just giving me fits today," was her excuse, rubbing her palm lightly over the soft swell of her belly. "I don't feel much like eating."
He excused her readily enough, probably as eager to be done with the awkward meal as Sarnai herself was, and she'd beat a hasty retreat - but not too hasty. She needed to be away from him though, when every move he made reminded her of the still-fresh memory of his hands on her skin and his lips on her throat . . .
With her heart racing and her palms sweating, Sarnai made her way to the library. It was closer than the stables and as much as she longed to wrap her arms around Gan's neck and cry into his mane, people tended to take notice when she was there, as if worried she'd leap atop the horse's back and make a wild bid for freedom. Their worries may not have been completely unfounded, of course, but Sarnai found that there was less alarm from the other castle occupants when she went to the library instead.
It was quiet inside and Sarnai found that the scent of books was quickly becoming almost as comforting as the scent of manure and the musk of horses. She wandered through the stacks, her gown gathered in one hand and the fingertips of the other idly running over the spines as she waited for a title to catch her attention and distract from the anxious feeling in the pit of her belly.
In the end though, it wasn't a book that claimed her attention, but rather a woman. And more specifically, her bare feet. It was an odd sight around the castle, Sarnai had found, and it had her wandering just a bit closer out of simple curiosity . . .
The love interest remained elusive. Welcoming, but coy - a classic hard-to-get situation, which Malia knew from many an Earth novel. Absorbed in the story, she shifted in her seat, resting her head against one armrest and her legs draped over the other, book held over her head. Ohh, the knight was making a very persuasive bid for her affection! It was romantic as hell, but Malia had to stop and wonder - were knights supposed to be romantic? She knew rumors about their dalliances with noblewomen, but weren't they supposed to be pillars of nobility? Was that normal or not?
Her wonderings let Malia blink away from the book, even though she wasn't quite at a chapter break. Her face lit up as she saw a young woman looking at books. The librarian in Malia kicked in first, and she smiled, broadly. "Oh, you want that one - the black book with the gold lettering," she said, letting her own book rest, open, on her chest as she pointed. "It's about a girl who slays a dragon…" Quickly, Malia added, "That's not giving away the ending. The story gets much more interesting from there."
Sarnai nearly looked away as the woman, likely feeling the weight of her eyes, pulled her attention from the book, but her smile was bright and lit with an intriguing excitement as she spoke. So instead, Sarnai pulled the heavy book from the shelf and turned it over in her hands, fingertips smoothing lightly over the gold foil lettering. "A dragon, you say?" Well, that did sound interesting and, perhaps, the adventure would afford her a bit of an escape, if not in the literal way she often daydreamed about.
Malia nodded - she had learned much about how dragons operated from that book, and enjoyed the focus on a female protagonist. They were few and far between in these shelves…
Tucking the book into the crook of her arm, Sarnai wandered closer, her curiosity loosening those knots of anxiety. She didn't recognize the woman by sight, though she had to be of noble blood to have the freedom to wander the castle. Especially barefoot. "Who are--" She stopped, painted lips pressing in to a thin line as she caught herself. Her handmaid, who not only tended her needs but also gave her lessons in courtly etiquette, would have been beside herself.
So Sarnai tried again: "I am Altansarnai, Consort to the King." She drew to a stop a few feet away. "But I'm afraid I don't recognize you, m'lady . . ."
As the young woman came nearer and attempted formalities, Malia straightened and stood, a sign of respect. Barefoot, perhaps, but nothing could be done about that - her shoes were actually abandoned in the non-fiction section she'd spent the morning in.
The young woman could have been her granddaughter, she mused. Beautiful, well-dressed, southern, if she had to guess, and… oh, pregnant! The bump on such a slight form was subtle - not like her own had been.
The King's Consort. The words hit Malia hard, and her eyes fluttered and brows raised a moment. This was an... opportunity she hadn't anticipated at all.
The girl's self correction was so forced that Malia needed to circumvent it - doing so was a sign of power, suggesting that Malia was above the rules, but doubled as a silent sign of permission, suggesting Malia wasn't hung up on any of that.
"Al-ta-sar-na-y?" Malia asked, attempting authentically to pronounce the name and ignoring all the stuff that came with it, all the shit attached to a man. It was easy to see why this girl was in the shoes she was - lovely with her perfect skin, her petite form, her smooth hair. It was no wonder she had been sent to the Eastern Woods - all the wonder was why she'd come out.
Tit-for-tat, Malia offered her name. "I am Malia Von Oehsen," she said, without attaching titles, explanations, or anything else. "I am glad to meet you, in the best space in Eventyr."
Sarnai smiled but not because she was amused by the woman struggling with her name or how her tongue tripped over the unfamiliar syllables, but rather because this stranger was making the effort to learn to pronounce it correctly. It was more than Philip had done. "Al-tan-sarnai," she corrected gently, putting the emphasis on the second syllable.
When the much taller woman gave her name though, Sarnai's eyebrows rose in surprise. She obviously hadn't met the Duchess of the North in person yet, but a decent part of her days at the castle had been dedicated to learning the names, titles, bloodlines, and history of Eventyr as a whole. Chief amongst those lessons had been learning the names and pertinent details of those she'd eventually interact with. "Duchess Malia Von Oehsen." Of the North. "It is my pleasure."
She glanced around the library again, though she wasn't sure she agreed that it was the best place in all of Eventyr. That prestigious title belonged to the Grasslands and, more specifically, the people who lived there. "It is certainly the best place here, in the King's City." That much she could agree with, at this moment. In a few months time, when she'd delivered the King's child and was no longer being treated as if she were breakable, her opinion may be different.
"Please, just call me Sarnai."
"Al-tan-sarnai," Malia said, with much more success this time. Although she nodded to the girl's request, she needed to establish that it was not because she could not nor would not say her name correctly. She must have had her identity compromised in a hundred ways since she'd been chosen, and she didn't need another slap in the face of losing her choice of what she was called. "Sarnai."
Although there was a small prickle of pleasure as Malia's own name was recognized - wasn't that what she had spent these years conniving for, after all? - she still smiled modestly and concluded, "The pleasure is mine, my Queen-To-Be."
What the hell was this little girl doing with a title like that? She was still a child… although a careful wariness caught Malia before labeling Sarnai as helpless.
"I don't intend to obfuscate," Malia said, as if to explain why she had not offered her title or, perhaps, why she had not dressed up and was sitting in the back of the library, alone. "But I am… less than proud of my role in - the circumstances." She concluded, nodding at Sarnai's baby bump. The regret in her voice was real, although misleading. If Malia had known then what she knew now, she would have sent her step-daughter, Anastasia. The Duchess sat back down - while it was common to stand before royalty, her towering height circumvented that dynamic. "I sent three girls away who, it seems, will never come home."
Obfuscate. It was a word that gave Sarnai pause and the slight tip of her head may have given that away, but she was quick to pick up on the context, all the same. Her hand came to rest on her belly, instinctively once attention was drawn there, and those complex emotions that were becoming all too familiar constricted her chest.
Ever since she'd arrived, since it had been clear that the King had planted his seed whether she wanted it or not, the focus had been on her slowly growing belly. It wasn't that Sarnai had any particular issue with having children - in fact, she'd always assumed that she would at some point - but never in her wildest dreams had she expected it to happen like this. The attention was a constant reminder that she couldn't remember that night, that eleven girls were likely dead, that every time she looked at him all she could think about was cutting off the very thing that had put her in this predicament, that she didn't choose this . . .
"No, they won't," Sarnai said, with an accusatory snap in her tone. This wasn't the place for the words that came next, where they could so easily be overheard, but the young warrior couldn't seem to stop them from spilling out of her mouth anyway: "Tell me, Duchess. Had you known, would you still have sent them?"
The young consort made it sound so simple. So black and white. To send or not to send… but that was not the question. The Duchess allowed the question to hang in the air and then answered, "I could not have decided to reject a direct and urgent order from the King." Since she seemed not to see the nuances, Malia laid them out.
"If I had not sent those young women, the King's army would have come to take them. Their invasion would have killed my own men, and the soldier's selection process," she cleared her throat, uncomfortably, long enough for the implied images of sneering soldiers rounding up all the young women they could find to choose the most beautiful... "would likely have traumatized many more than those three girls. And in the end, they would have ended up in the same place." At the least, Malia had been able to pump them full of hope, with sweet words about how they had been chosen, and they had gone to their apparent deaths with a sliver of optimism or elitism instead of just fear.
With a shake of her head, Malia concluded, "Knowing that, however, doesn't help me sleep at night." Which was true, although, again, misleading. She didn't stay awake fretting: she spent it planning on how best to capitalize on the unrest and distrust the whole charade had caused throughout the realm.
The alternative that Malia laid out was, indeed, horrifying and the Duchess wasn't wrong that it would have been far worse of an experience for everyone involved had the soldiers done the choosing. Sarnai also knew, that just like with the Green Duke, the Duchess of the North hadn't had a choice. To hear her tell it, Malia had done like the Duchess of the South and chosen the girls herself in an attempt to make the entire situation a little less horrifying. It didn't change things though, not really. Eleven girls were still dead, presumably, and Sarnai was still here, pregnant with a child she didn't want by a man she couldn't stomach.
Malia watched the young woman struggle with the gray area, the tension screaming through her small form, and she finally appeared to come to grips with the reality… although, it was hard to tell from her curt words whether they were overly simplistic or just resigned.
"And our King, in turn, must do what best serves his people," Malia said. She lowered her voice a touch, but the words themselves were not incriminating - she well might excuse herself, if she were overheard, that she meant that the King must have an ultimate purpose behind his actions, but the purse in her lips - like she tasted sour milk - made it clear to Sarnai that was hardly her belief.
But the expression was fleeting, and then Malia continued with a formality that could only be facetious. "How unfortunate that the King, in his great… wisdom, had to cause so much pain." Every duchy lost beloved members of their communities, valuable members who would soon have becomes wives and mothers. Parents, friends, siblings were outraged. It was a hell of a political mess, and one that Malia doubted the unstable King was ready to clean up. She had certainly been given no apologies or reparations. "Across the entire kingdom."
The fine muscles around Sarnai's eyes tightened minutely, her head tipping just slightly as she read the implied meaning underlying the spoken words. Could it be that this Duchess of the North truly disagreed with Philip's actions? Even if she did, it wasn't as if Malia could say so outright but maybe if Sarnai were careful, she could find herself something akin to an ally. Or, at the very least, someone sympathetic to her plight.
She stepped closer and settled onto the edge of a plush armchair, setting the book in her lap and smoothing small hands over the leather. "I'd like to apologize," she started, the words not coming easily. "This transition hasn't been easy for me. I was never . . . important." At least, not outside her family and clan. Now, she was only important because of the child currently doing somersaults in her womb. "And everyone here is keen to forget that I had a life before this." She paused and pointedly touched her belly, "Before this."
Malia shook her head as the consort offered a totally unnecessary apology. It was a good sign, though, that perhaps she was winning the girl over. That would be a huge advantage Malia had barely even considered for what a longshot it was!
But as she continued, Malia's expression turned from confused to impressed. She allowed that emotion to shine through far more than her carefully-crafted mask usually allowed. "But my dear Sarnai, that is what you want." Maybe not in her heart, as a young woman who hadn't asked for this life, but as far as the political game in the capital here? "That means they're treating you as an equal."
With a laugh and roll of her eyes, Malia added a personal touch, "It took me years before every noble at every party stopped asking after my parents' health." An underhanded joke about her common history. As a student of literature, she had expected that a rags-to-riches narrative would win her points, but that had hardly proved so in Eventyr's highest circles of nobility. Apparently that was an American thing. She wondered, briefly, if the consort's royal tutor had even attempted to decode the elusive backstory of the Duchess of the North. There was so little in the past and so much in the present that few people, these days, worried over it. "If that child has earned you respect, prize that over understanding any day."
Oh. Well. Sarnai couldn't quite stop the obvious signs that she was working through the Duchess's words - the slight furrowing of her brow, the way her eyes got just a bit distant as they drifted around the library. Could what the Duchess said be true? Could it truly be that their focus on the present and the future, rather than Sarnai's past as a Burut warrior, meant they were taking her seriously? It seemed improbable, at first thought, but maybe . . .
Maybe she was powerful in her own right. Yes, the child was the key that unlocked the door and Philip, the shove through it, but now she was inside and she had a choice to make: allow herself to be pushed back against the wall or stand tall and claim her space. She didn't want this vapid royal lifestyle but there was little doubt that she would have to own it in order to not only survive but to thrive.
"Thank you, m'lady," she said after a moment, rising to her feet. "You have given me much to think about." This time, when she smiled, there was a playful sort of confidence there, "And when I've finished this," - she held up the book - "I'll be sure to let you know how I enjoyed it."