The first time Helen went to Attolia, it was spring. The trees smelled alive and green again, and everyone's plain iron fibulae were starting to rust in the damp. Her Uncle Agathon was going on a diplomatic trip about the price of olive oil. It had risen during the plague time years ago, but instead of eventually resettling near its original price it had continued to increase as the years passed. Helen did not really find the taxes levied on olive oil interesting, or she hadn't until Uncle Agathon invited her brother Pylaster to accompany him. Inviting one of her brothers on a trip like that was near enough to inviting Helen herself, and he did later that morning in the library. She had already started researching, just in case she would have to present a compelling argument.
Everyone in Eddis's capital city knew that Helen wanted to experience everything interesting that happened, and she was young enough that her barometer was still her older brothers' activities.
Besides, her mother told her uncle when she saw him that afternoon (and that's just how she started it "besides," like they were mid-conversation though they hadn't seen each other yet that day. Helen liked that about her mother, but whenever she tried it out her cousins always asked her "besides what?" so she'd given it up, for now), besides, Attolis's daughter was about Helen's age.
Helen didn't know why that was important -- maybe they hoped that she and Helen would get along, or that the Attolian princess and Pylaster would get married. She wrinkled her nose as she brushed down her pony Nestor, and wondered what Irene was like; her only experiences with princesses came from herself and the histories. She liked herself well enough, but all of the princesses from the histories seemed pretty different from each other. Some of them she didn't think she'd get along well with at all.
Her parents and her uncle decided they'd leave at the end of the week, and Helen went back to her studies with a new curriculum for the trip. Her etiquette tutor refreshed her memory of rules unique to Attolia, and her history tutor spoke of historical alliances with them, and tried to peel back some of the layers of the current political state. Helen felt like she already knew much of this – she had paid attention the first time – and the trees smelled greener and greener outside. Helen turned to her tutor and asked, instead, about olive oil.
When they left the trees for the open expanse of Attolia, Helen felt like she was going to fall off into the Sky as he was open like a hole above them. She hid it, though; she didn't want to look like a baby. Pylaster didn't hide it as well as she did, Helen noted, his eyes wide despite the sun's glare. That made her sit taller, proud, though guilt seeped in after a few seconds. It was not Pylaster's fault that he found it so terrifying, but it was to her credit that she didn't.
When they finally arrived in the capital of Attolia, Helen looked around with keen interest. There were fewer people in Attolia than in Eddis, it seemed, though she knew that was just a trick of the size of the land. Eddis had fewer places to stick everyone. Her uncle asked Pylaster questions while Helen tried to take stock of the city.
There were market stalls here, carrying more goods from the Mede Empire than Helen had ever seen. The market was much more solemn than the one in Eddis, but the colors were brighter, and the smells--
"Helen, we're going left," her brother said, annoyed, as she tried to resist her pony's urge to follow the horses.
"I know," she bit off, grumpily, and followed them up the grey pathway to the palace.
They were greeted in the courtyard by servants as they slid off of their horses. The servants were quiet and quick, and Helen followed her set of serving women to her bedroom where she found a hot bath waiting. Helen smiled politely at the serving women as they exclaimed about her wearing breeches, but what else was she supposed to wear while riding a pony? It was bad enough that she wasn't allowed to ride a horse yet; it slowed her down awfully. If she'd had to wear riding dresses they would not have arrived in Attolia until the snows blocked the mountains.
This wasn't true, of course, but it's what she told her uncle when he suggested she try them.
Helen cleaned with the strong-smelling soap pegged with spices from far across the ocean, from a country she did not even know the name of, and washed herself thoroughly with the aid of one of the serving women. She did not mind the help; usually she was left alone at home, but this was normal for special occasions. Meeting a foreign king and his family certainly counted as a special occasion, though given the casual nature of this visit they would be meeting them at dinner and not in the great hall.
She dressed in her emerald green gown with the amber in-sets, hair pulled up with similarly colored hairpins. Observing herself in the mirror --and it was good quality, her image was barely distorted-- Helen smiled. She was not foolish enough to think she looked beautiful, with her nose and her shoulders, but she knew she looked like royalty.
(Her little cousin Eugenides was only seven but old enough to think he could have opinions about anything, even court fashion—a sense he developed a little faster than any of the women in court would have wanted, would say it looked garish. Helen would reply with all of her mustered wisdom that that's the point of royalty, and that garishness comes with the territory.)
When they went to dinner, her brother dressed in a reserved green a few shades darker than her own, and her uncle in something in the topaz family because he had clearly failed to pay attention to their wardrobes. Helen observed her uncle with disapproving snootiness, and then smiled at the fact that she could in fact manage that level of disapproval. Clearly she was learning.
Attolis rose to greet them with an air of intense politeness, hair grayed but face stern and commanding. His daughter Irene was tall with thick black hair, and Helen felt an intense wave of jealousy. She also felt her brother go still at her side, which let her jealousy be completely overwhelmed by her growing humor. Poor Irene! Pylaster would be useless now in conversation, and very likely their parents would force them into it.
The queen was equally beautiful, and equally reserved, her eyes cast down from the guests. Helen wondered briefly about that, and then looked away as her uncle introduced them. She curtseyed slightly, in perfect form, and was seated next to Irene, while Pylaster sat across from them.
Pylaster made opening conversational gambits about every five minutes, but Irene would continually respond with quietly polite answers that only the rudest person would see as invitations to further conversation. Finally Pylaster fell silent. Helen wanted to say something to make it easier, but she did not know what. She looked over at the older, taller, more beautiful girl at her side and opened her mouth before quickly closing it again.
What kind of conversations were princesses to have, with each other?
The next day, while Uncle Agathon and Pylaster met with the king to speak about oil, Irene was given Helen to show around.
Helen was extremely disgruntled. She had listened to her uncle's long lectures, and read her histories, and spoken to her teachers, and she felt that she had some very pertinent points to bring up in discussion. Instead, her uncle gently reminded her that she was only eleven years old and also that there was nothing minor about trying to befriend the only child of an aging foreign king.
Helen thought that was a bit cold hearted, looking at Irene as she swept along in her dark blue dress, hair pinned back in a style more casual than at dinner but still more formal than anything Helen would wear to walk about her house. Irene slowed to keep pace with Helen's shorter stride, and looked at her curiously.
"Would you like to see the gardens on the north-west end?" she asked her, tone polite but prodding. They had already seen the gardens in the south, the south-east, and the west. There were three more to go, but Helen was not more than passing interested in any one of them.
Helen paused, and bit her lip, shaking her curly hair as she turned to the other girl. "Do you think we could go to the market? It looked very strange when we passed it the other day; strange in a good way, I mean—interesting."
Irene's face shut down, and Helen was worried that she had said something wrong. "We could request some of the servants to bring us a selection of the goods, if you would like," she offered, carefully.
"Oh!" Helen said, tucking a curl behind her ears and smiling. "That's fine, it was just a fancy. Would you show me the gardens?"
The next day, when Irene went to meet Helen in her rooms, the Eddisian guard let her in without preamble. In the sitting room, on the table next to the cleared breakfast dishes, was a note that read For Princess Irene in neat handwriting. The note was sitting on top of a book (the title read A History of the Sea Pirates and their Travails with Monsters from the Depths). Irene flipped over the note and read.
I apologize for not being here today, but I have found myself entangled in a situation that requires my further inspection. Please understand that I mean no offense, and if you would extend your grace please refrain from mentioning it to my brother Pylaster or my uncle.
Yours most sincerely,
Helen, Princess of Eddis
P.S. This is one of my favorite books, if you have nothing more important to do today it will do a good job of keeping you company.
Irene set the note back down, picked up the book, flipped to the middle and read a page before setting it down as well. She did have more important things to do than look after a little girl, or read her book. She straightened her gown, and swept back out of the room, and didn't feel the least envious that Helen was free to go on an escapade to relieve her boredom.
Helen tugged on her tunic a little, and straightened her head, glad that her hair was still short enough from the midwinter incident with the fire that she could pass for a sturdy boy in the right clothes. She went into the market, and wondered at the quiet men and women buying goods from the market stalls. She didn't have much money with her, though all of it was Attolian from the Eddisian coffers. Enough for some baubles, at least, for her mother and maybe some sort of toy for Eugenides.
She saw a stall with vibrant scarves, and double checked to make sure her hands were clean before running them through the fabric.
"Ah, young sir," said the seller after he'd finished talking to another man, "do you see anything that interests you?"
"The dye is beautiful," she smiled at him.
"From Eddis, are you?" he asked, curiosity plain, cutting off the E half-said, like he'd forgotten it in his haste. Helen felt a jolt of embarrassment: of course her accent marked her as clearly as his marked him.
"I came with the lord," she agreed, half-ducking her head, and was relieved when he asked her no further.
Nearer to lunch time she was growing hungry. Her small packages seemed like a burden, and a savory smell filled the air around one stall in particular. She went to look at it, and saw roasted slices of some round meat, being ladled into pastry pies.
"What is that, sir?" she asked, hopeful, flattening her vowels to imitate the others in the market.
"Octopus," he replied, cheerfully, "fresh and freshly cooked. Good food, for filling you up."
In Helen's mind, the octopus was a creature made to scare sailors and sea pirates, so of course she bought one.
She ate it carefully on her way back to the palace, disappointed to find that with all of the seasoning it didn't taste that different from fish.
On the day they left, Helen left a package for Irene with her nurse. Inside was a bright blue scarf wrapped around a handful of tart oranges, and a note thanking her for her hospitality.
Helen did not think she quite liked the princess of Attolia, but neither did she dislike her, and her mother had trained her to be polite. She thought that Irene was kind of boring, but also kind of bored—and lonely, and beautiful, and distant.
Later, she was surprised to hear how the lonely, quiet princess of Attolia had found her strength in her loneliness and claimed her throne as an independent queen. Helen always found her power from the people around her, which her cousin Eugenides would see as another way of finding it within herself.
The first time Irene went to Eddis, it was summer and her name was Attolia. She went because of a sisterly feeling that had been engendered when she found out that the energetic child Helen had lost her family and become Eddis. Attolia had learned all she knew about ruling through hard work and constant struggle, and she felt that to not extend her wisdom to Eddis would be worse than cruel.
But the trees in Eddis grew thick and green, and the people spoke cheerfully and sang songs about their queen not-yet crowned, and Attolia knew before she reached the palace that she was in a country with far different rules than her own.
For the sake of a scarf whose dye bled out within months and some too-tart oranges from the market, though, she made her case. When it was not accepted, she left the castle and nearly made it back to Attolia that next day.
The first time Irene and Helen met, they met as princesses. The second time, and all times after that, they met as queens.
They never met as friends; they were too different for that – Attolia fire and Eddis earth, Eddis summer and Attolia winter, Helen surrounded by enough family and friends to fill a city (a country) and Irene ever (by necessity and by choice and by circumstance) ruling alone.
Neither of them ever mentioned, through the peace-time and the wars, that sometimes they wished it could be different.