Just before I reached my quarters, the same councillor who led me to the Emperor the day before approached me.
“Your Highness,” he said with a deep bow.
“The Emperor requires your presence at a banquet.” The man held out an invitation. “His Majesty will be holding it tomorrow next, in your honor.”
“A banquet? For me?” I asked with a slight squeak.
“Yes.” The councillor bowed again, hiding the slight frown that had formed on his narrow brow.
“Thank you,” I replied, taking the sealed paper, “tell Fa – His Majesty that I’m grateful and assure him that I’ll be present.”
The man gave a final bow and left abruptly, as I hurried to my room in a very flustered mood. I couldn’t even keep myself from pacing around while I waited for Nalda. I could hardly contain myself – all my limbs felt as if they’d been turned to jelly.
Nalda finally came and I practically jumped on her. “What has you in such a state, child?” she exclaimed, trying to shake me off.
“The Emperor is having a banquet! For me!” I cried out, bouncing on the balls of my feet excitedly.
“That’s wonderful, Your Highness,” she replied calmly, handing over some tea.
I took a sip of the warm brew under her steady gaze and immediately felt calmer. “I wonder why?” I pondered.
“Why is the Emperor having a banquet for me?”
“Most probably to celebrate the return of his lost daughter,” Nalda stated matter-of-factly, “and perhaps . . .” She paused and turned away with a teasing smile.
“Perhaps … what?” I prodded, creeping closer towards the old woman. But, she simply shook her head and pressed her lips firmly together.
“Please? Tell me!” I begged, tilting my head in an attempt to look pitiful and pleading.
Nalda chuckled and said, “Well, it is possible that the Emperor will introduce you to the Prince of Baesinja and the King of Yosae.”
My eyes widened. “That’s all?” I asked disappointedly, before hurrying to add, “that is quite an honor.”
“Quite.” Nalda’s smile grew wider.
“Am I missing something?” My brows furrowed in suspicion.
“You are bound to meet them sooner or later. Especially as you are the Emperor’s own daughter.” The old woman was toying with me.
“What do you mean?”
“You are to marry one of them – if you wish to inherit the throne,” Nalda explained and poured herself another cup of tea.
I said nothing. I could say nothing for my mouth had gone as dry as chalk and my tongue had become stuck to the roof of my mouth. The pouring stopped.
“Your Highness?” Nalda faced me with concern at my uncharacteristic silence, “Are you alright?”
I started to nod, then changed my mind, and shook my head.
“Why, dear? What’s the matter?” She started to reach a hand for my forehead to check my temperature.
I blocked her hand and cleared my throat. “I’m fine,” I croaked out hoarsely, “But why am I to marry? And what … am I … inheriting the throne?” I grasped my head with both hands, trying to process the cluster of thoughts that were running through my brain in a confusing muddle.
“It’s your destiny.” Nalda pointed her cup to the ceiling for emphasis.
“No, it’s ridiculous,” I declared, “I thought Pulsa was heir to the throne. I remember it being declared in the town-square last year in celebration of her birthday.”
Nalda shook her head. “You have as much of a chance as she does. You only have to marry well.”
“I don’t understand?”
“’The Empire can only be ruled by an Empress if said Empress is united with a partner of good stature and honor to guide her’,” the old woman recited. “That means her husband,” she pointed out helpfully.
“Because men believe that women are unstable until they are married,” She scoffed, shaking her head at the notion, “apparently having a single female ruler is cause for disaster.”
“Can’t the Emperor change it?” I asked.
Nalda shook her head. “It’s an ancient law. There never was cause to change it due to a succession of male heirs. But now – well, to change it could bring unrest.”
I nodded slowly as an inkling of understanding pressed itself against my memory. Back home, tradition was considered sacred among the people. We viewed it as the cause of stability and peace. However, it was sad that Pulsa couldn’t marry for true love.
“So, when Pulsa marries, she will become the next heir?”
“No. Not any longer,” Nalda said, “Before, it was quite probable. But now you’ve come and that changes everything.”
“It does?” I asked weakly, a terrible feeling crawling into my stomach.
“You are the next heir. It is your right as the Emperor’s own flesh and blood.”
“But the Emperor adopted Pulsa as his own,” I protested, “that makes her his daughter too.”
Adoption erases rank. It was a custom among our people.
“True. But you are the elder.”
“Yes, and I should know. I saw you born.” Nalda turned and touched the side of my cheek. “You were such a beautiful baby. You were in the palace . . . in existence, long before Princess Pulsa.” Nalda stood and bowed in emphasise. “You are the heir. You shall be Empress.” She lifted her head with a glint in her eye. “Provided you marry well.”
I gulped. “I am to have no chance at love then. I have no choice?”
“Oh no, dear.” Nalda knelt and patted my knee. “You will not be forced to marry. But if Pulsa does and you do not, she gets the throne.”
“Suits me fine.” I crossed my arms and sighed with relief.
Nalda shook her head at my foolishness. Denying my chance to become Empress probably did seem a bit ridiculous. But I was already struggling with the idea of being an actual princess.
“When is the banquet?” The old woman asked, graciously changing the topic.
“Next week,” I replied.
At that moment knock sounded on the door to my chamber.
“Come in,” I called.
A tall, beautiful lady entered the room. Her hair was hidden beneath a dark veil and her brows arched so high that they gave her face a permanent look of scepticism. Her neck was long and her walk so light and graceful that she appeared to be floating above the ground.
“I am Lady Moon-Sol,” the lady introduced herself with a low curtsey, “I am here, at the request of the Emperor, to train Princess Forsythia in the ways of the palace life as befits her rank.”
Confused, I asked, “So, you are here to teach me . . .”
The Lady bowed again, smiling tightly and looking me over with an appraised glance. “How to be a proper princess and I suggest we begin at once, Your Highness.” She raised her eyebrow. “We have much work to do.”
I flushed and ducked my head in a small nod. Nalda hmphed scornfully, but kept her tongue.
“Walk across the room,” Lady Moon-sol ordered.
I did so, feeling her eyes staring me down like a hawk assessing its prey.
“Again,” Lady Moon-sol commanded, “But this time more slowly. Head high. Chin raised. Arms folded in together.” She placed her arms into the draping sleeves of her dress. “Like so.”
I obeyed, following her instructions.
“Slower.” Lady Moon-sol barked.
I took smaller, shorter steps until I felt as if I was wading through deep water.
“That’s better,” she said with a sniff. “What do you know of history?”
I told her what I knew – which wasn’t much.
“We shall have to bring in a tutor,” she said briskly before motioning Nalda to leave the room. The older woman hesitated but left when I gave a reluctant nod.
“I hardly know where to begin,” Lady Moon-sol muttered under her breath. Then her eyes landed on the tea that was set out on a little table.
“Ah,” she exhaled, “this will be an excellent start. Come.”
Lady Moon-sol beckoned me to join her as she approached the table and sat down at one end. Sitting across from her, I peered at the Lady curiously.
“Pouring tea for different personages is a great responsibility,” she said while lifting the tea pot’s lid and examining its contents. “Depending on rank, one must go through certain rituals and customs in preparing the drink before presenting the cup to its guest.”
Lady Moon-sol waved her free hand over the tea in a slow, circular motion, breathing in its sweet scent. I saw her mouth open slightly, whispering strange words that I didn’t understand as her hand moved in mesmerizing circles over the pot’s open head. Then Lady Moon-sol replaced its lid and smiled over at me.
“It’s a private custom of mine to recite a short blessing upon the tea,” she explained, laughing uncomfortably as if she wasn’t accustomed to the sound. “It invokes good health on those who drink it. I happen to be rather superstitious,” the Lady confessed.
I gave a short nod, before reaching for my tea cup.
“Not yet, Your Highness,” Lady Moon-sol reprimanded, “since I am the one preparing the tea, that makes you my guest. Your rank is higher than mine and therefore, I must go through traditional motions before handing you the cup. It is a sign of respect.” She started to turn the cup twice in the palm of her hand before blowing on it. “Watch carefully.”
I watched, confused. “You blow on your guest’s tea?”
“If the rank is higher – of course,” Lady Moon-sol stated nonchalantly.
“As a symbol of care and concern for your guest,” she explained before handing me the cup. “Drink, Your Highness.”
I raised the cup to my lips and sipped the tea slowly. It was very refreshing, possessing a pleasant taste that reminded me of damp rain that was filled with the aroma of a garden. Then, for a moment, I suddenly felt a little light-headed. However, the feeling passed and I soon had drained the cup dry. I held it out for Lady Moon-sol to refill.
“This is not a time for pleasure,” she rebuked, “but for instruction. It is now your turn, Your Highness, to prepare the tea.”
I put down my cup reluctantly and started to mimic Lady Moon-sol, starting with the blessing.
“What are you doing?” she asked harshly, as I lifted the tea pot’s lid and started to move my hand over it.
“Preparing the tea … like you did?” I answered hesitantly.
“Not that way!” Lady Moon-sol yanked the lid from me and re-covered the pot abruptly. She closed her eyes and heaved a heavy sigh. Then she opened them and with an air of exaggerated patience, explained, “Your rank is higher than mine, Your Highness. There is no need to invoke a blessing or demonstrate such care. That should only be shown to a rank above you – such as a King or the Emperor himself.”
“What do I do?”
“You simply pour the tea slowly, being careful not to splash, and then hand it over to your guest – the cup held gently in between both hands,” Lady Moon-sol explained, “if you wish, a slight bow of the head to your guest as he takes the cup will signify a mark of respect.”
I did as she instructed, though my hands trembled a little and caused me to splash a few drops onto the wood of the table. Lady Moon-sol did not say a word, but frowned a little in disapproval. I presented her the cup with a slight bow of my head. She took it and after taking a sip, put it back down.
“The tea is cold,” Lady Moon-sol stated, “that will be all for today. I shall see what I can do about sending over a tutor to instruct you further in history. I myself shall take over your lessons in etiquette. Together we shall make much progress before the banquet.” She stood and bowed. “Till tomorrow, Your Highness.”
I rose to bow in return, but Lady Moon-sol had already swept out of the room. I collapsed back down on my cushion.
“Are you alright?” Nalda asked as she peeped out from behind the dressing screen.
I nodded, glad to see her. “Were you there the entire time? I thought you had stepped outside.”
“I did,” she said briskly, “but I didn’t like how that woman was putting on airs. So, I came back.”
The old woman’s face turned red. “Well – I just wanted to keep an eye out for you. She acted as if you weren’t even a princess,” she scoffed.
“Thanks, Nalda,” I said gratefully, “but Lady Moon-sol seems to know a great deal.”
“Perhaps,” she agreed gruffly, “at least she wishes to instruct you herself.”
“I just hope she can fit me in the role as a princess in time,” I murmured.
“It did sound as if she felt the responsibility keenly,” Nalda stated reluctantly, “you will have no trouble. I’m sure that you will pick up all that ‘etiquette’ dribble in no time.”
I wished with all my heart that Nalda was right. However, the next day it soon proved after a couple of classes that I was a complete dunce. What was common sense to Lady Moon-sol, was as foreign to me as the moon. I had seen it but had never really been near it. And lately my head always felt hazy and dull. As if I was surrounded by the deep, thick fog of a dream. Lady Moon-sol would catch me grasping at my head and would kindly offer me more tea.
“It’ll calm you, Your Highness,” she’d almost coo while handing me the flowery drink, “let us take a break.”
At the first taste of the warm brew my head would clear – as if clouds had parted and let the sun shine through, giving me a glimpse of clarity. But only for a moment.
It didn’t help that I couldn’t sleep anymore at night. I was having the worst of nightmares. In an insomniac haze, I would stay up all night catching glimpses of beady red eyes staring eerily at me out of the corner of my eye – always disappearing when I turned my head. And dark, wispy hands of black smoke clawed and groped slowly over the floorboards before reaching up to pull my hair and pinch my skin with their icy fingers. At times I thought I could hear whispers in the farthest corners of the room. I would wake to their cold, raspy voices whispering a black dialectal language harshly in my ears. I always thought that it was all in my mind.
But, in the morning, I would see scratches scraped and torn into the wood all around my bed.