Lady Emma pulled her hair back into her usual low bun, wondering how much longer it would take for the others to be ready. Lady Alyssa was threading strings of pearls through Princess Shelby’s hair, and Lady Kaylee was turning in different directions in front of the mirror, checking her reflection from every angle possible.
“Emma, I can’t get a good view of the back. How does it look? Are the laces tied evenly?”
“Um, yes, everything looks fine,” Emma responded, not really paying attention. She didn’t know much about fashion, and besides, while Kaylee did look perfectly fine, Emma’s eyes were only on Alyssa.
Her fellow lady-in-waiting was wearing a deep rose-colored gown with an intricate gold floral pattern woven through it. The front of her hair was pulled back, showing off her beautiful face while letting her lovely dark curls flow behind her. Maybe Emma was being overly admiring, but she couldn’t help it.
“I think it’s all finished, Shelby,” Alyssa said to the princess in that warm, commanding voice she used when she knew what she talking about but didn’t want to boss anyone around. Here in the princess’s chambers, the girls didn’t have to constantly abide by formal titles, but it was still worthwhile to keep in mind that Shelby was their superior.
Moving out of the way so Shelby could look in the mirror, Kaylee said, “Oh gods, you look perfect, Shel. You’ll make Prince Kevin dizzy.”
“Thank you, Kaylee,” Shelby replied. “I hope you’re right. If he doesn’t propose today, it might never happen.”
“He will,” Alyssa chimed in. “Don’t worry.”
There was a pause then. Emma wondered if she was supposed to say something, too. As the most recently recruited lady-in-waiting, having only been at Edgewater Palace, the capital of Nadania, for about ten months, she still sometimes felt left out in a group that had been living together for years. Not to mention she already didn’t fit in; the whole reason Emma’s mother and father had sent her to live in the princess’s household was in hopes that she would grow out of her “unladylike” habits.
“Emma,” Shelby said, looking her up and down, “Would you mind fixing up your hair a bit? It’s a little messy, and I want everything to be perfect for this banquet.”
“Umm…” Emma didn’t know how to respond.
“I’ll help her,” Alyssa stepped in. “Why don’t the two of you go on? We’ll meet you there in a few minutes.”
Shelby agreed, and she and Kaylee stepped out into the hall.
The two remaining girls stood in a silence for a few seconds. Then, when they were sure the others were gone, Alyssa took Emma’s face in her hands and kissed her.
Emma could’ve stayed like that all day. Forget the banquet. She wrapped her arms around Alyssa’s waist and let herself sink into the kiss. These moments were short and precious. They had to make the most of them.
Too soon, Alyssa pulled away. Her cheeks were flushed, making her look even more beautiful than she already was.
“I’m... supposed to fix your hair,” she said, bringing them back to reality.
“Oh, right,” Emma replied. She turned around so the back of her head was facing Alyssa. “Is it that bad?”
“I think it looks cute,” Alyssa said, and from the sound of her voice Emma could tell she was smiling. “I always think you look cute.”
Emma felt her own cheeks burn now. This, her and Alyssa, was still all so new. It had taken months for the two of them to realize their feelings for each other, and even longer for them to admit those feelings. Now, three months since the day Emma’s happiness began, they had a steady arrangement. They could steal little moments together when no one was around, but they couldn’t tell anyone. No one else would understand.
In times like this, with Alyssa running her fingers through her hair, it was easy to forget the hard parts. It was easy to forget the heavy weight of her gown or the way her feet hurt from wearing high-heeled shoes. Emma sometimes thought if she and Alyssa could run away together, they’d be free from all that. But of course, that could never happen. They would be shunned at court, and neither of them, being women, would inherit any land from their fathers.
“It’s finished,” Alyssa said. Emma felt behind her head, pleased to find that it was still in a low bun, just a neater one than she herself had made. Having her hair down made Emma almost as uncomfortable as her high-heeled shoes. If she could, she would have cut it short a long time ago.
“Thanks, Alyssa.” Emma sighed. “I guess we have to go in, then?”
“I guess so.”
“Can I kiss you again, first?”
Alyssa smiled and nodded. Emma kissed her quick, and the two girls walked into the corridor hand in hand.
Prince Kevin did not propose to Princess Shelby that afternoon.
Although Shelby was inconsolable, Alyssa was relieved. The princess’s marriage would mean changes. Big changes. And Alyssa wasn’t ready for that. Not when she was unsure what her future could possibly hold.
Here, in her mother’s sitting room, Alyssa was sure at least what one person expected of her.
“Now Alyssa,” her mother said, pacing. “If even the princess can’t get a husband, it’s going to be that much harder for you. You need to be accomplished if you want to be provided for.” Lady Greene was tall, with hair that she kept tightly back and under a cap. The olive gown she wore had few adornments, but she carried herself like the richest woman at court next to the queen.
The small chamber barely fit the harp Alyssa was practicing on and the sofa across from it. It was suffocating to spend so much of her time here, but when she wasn’t assisting the princess with something, she was usually in this room practicing her harp.
Alyssa and her mother had come to Edgewater Palace five years before to join the royal household as ladies-in-waiting to Princess Shelby and Queen Marinda, respectively. It hadn’t been by choice.
They never talked about Alyssa’s father, or about how he had sent them away from the estate five years ago so he could live with his mistress and their son. And while no one at court dared bring up the shame to Lady Greene, everyone knew about it.
Alyssa tried to tune out her mother’s rambling as she wove her fingers between the instrument’s strings. She had heard it all before, and didn’t need to hear it again. Their station in society was lowered because of Lord Greene’s abandonment. Alyssa would have to work twice as hard as the other court ladies to find a husband. When her mother was around, she felt like a prisoner being pressed to death. And one of these days she might just be put under enough pressure that she’d blurt out the truth.
The only thing keeping her from going mad.
They had found each other at just the right time. Alyssa didn’t know what she would have done if Lady Emma hadn’t arrived at court ten months ago. Emma understood. They both had parents who felt like nothing their daughters did was good enough. They had both been shipped off to the palace from their homes. It was no surprise they were closer to each than to Kaylee and Shelby, who had grown up together. But it was a surprise when they got as close as they did.
Alyssa had never expected to fall in love. Her path was always clear: gather a long list of accomplishments, make a good match, marry a nobleman and have lots of children. That was what her mother expected of her, and love was never a part of it. But Emma had changed everything. The only time Alyssa felt at peace was when she was alone with Emma. Then, she didn’t need to hide anything, and didn’t need to worry. But their secret relationship had also brought with it fear. What if anyone found out? What if her mother found out? What did her future look like now? What could it look like?
Alyssa’s hands started moving more frantically across the strings of the harp, and suddenly she hit a brutally wrong note that rang through the little sitting room.
“Alyssa!” Lady Greene snapped.
Alyssa didn’t say anything, she just threw her hands down in defeat. Her mother paused and looked at her with sympathy.
“Oh, Alyssa, I didn’t mean to frighten you like that. I was just a bit startled.” She walked over to her daughter and placed a hand on her shoulder. “You must be agitated after today’s banquet. Don’t worry, dear. Just because the visiting prince didn’t propose to Princess Shelby doesn’t mean there’s no hope for the rest of you. We’ll find you a good man, I promise. Just let me do my part and you do yours. Now I’m going to see if the queen needs me. You stay here and keep practicing. You’ll be playing that song perfectly in no time at all.”
Lady Greene left the room then, her chin in the air. Alyssa didn’t start breathing regularly again until she could no longer hear her mother’s shoes clicking on the stone floor. She looked at the harp sitting before her. All she wanted to do was take a nap on the sofa across the room, but instead she lifted her hands and began playing once again. If she wanted her mother to be pleased the next time they met, she needed to perfect this song.
Emma fixated on the floating bits of dust that were visible in the streams of light coming in through the windows. No matter how long she stared, they seemed to stand still in midair, as if the air were so thick that gravity couldn’t do its work.
Everything at that evening’s supper was still and silent, other than the occasional clink of knives on plates. It was a full table, with King Lawrence and Queen Marinda at the head, Princess Shelby at her father’s side, and the lords and ladies of the household filling out the rest.
Emma sat next to Alyssa, who sat across from Lady Greene. There was something funny about the way Lady Greene looked at her daugher. A certain determination in her eye. Emma tried not to think too hard about what that could mean.
King Lawrence was the first to break the silence.
“I sent out inquiry letters to the Lords Vestengard, Britschen, and Lukster. An advantageous match will be made, be sure of it,” he said to the princess.
“Thank you, Father,” Shelby said, looking anything but grateful. The forlorn look on her face showed that she was still thinking about Prince Kevin. No one could understand why he had left for his home country without proposing. The two of them had walked the gardens every day and sat together at every meal for the four weeks he had spent at Edgewater Palace. That he would show such attention and then leave without an offer was bizarre, offensive even. As anxious as Emma was about where she would end up if Shelby married a foreign prince, she could understand Shelby’s frustration.
It was hard not being able to share a life with the one you love.
Alyssa squeezed her hand under the table. Emma squeezed back, releasing the tension of being in that room. No matter what happened in the future, at least they had each other right now.
It was then that the great doors at the of the room opened to reveal a short man carrying a small bundle of papers.
“Your majesties, your highness, your lords and ladyships, I bring correspondence,” said the man.
This was Andrew Lastelon, the king’s personal messenger. He delivered letters to members of the royal household during meals when they were all gathered together. Of course, the king received his mail privately in his study, but for the rest of them, there was no escaping the curiosity of the table.
Lastelon went around the table, handing letters to their recipients, who opened them eagerly. An update from a colleague, a thank you note from a friend, a long scribbled letter from a child. They all had people who cared outside of court.
Emma only had her mother and father, who only wrote to her occasionally to inquire about her education. So Emma never looked forward to letters, because when they came, they were just a reminder that she would never be what her parents wanted her to be.
She sighed when Lastelon handed an envelope to her. Apparently today would be one of those days.
Reluctantly, she opened the envelope and began reading.
Emma held the letter so that no one else could see it. She needed to process this on her own for a minute.
She focused on breathing normally. That would do it.
But as she tried, all she saw were those words on the page scrambling around in her vision. Oh gods, they wouldn’t stop.
“Lady Emma, are you quite well?”
“Emma? Emma, are you okay?”
It was Alyssa’s voice that brought her back. Emma looked up and realized that the entire table was looking at her with concern.
“Oh, yes, I’m fine, thank you. I was just taken by surprise,” Emma said. “I received some… good news from my mother and father.”
“Oh, tell us then, Emma,” said Kaylee from across the table.
Emma took a deep breath, locked eyes with Alyssa for a fraction of a second, and said, “Okay.”
To our dearest Emma,
We deliver joyful tidings, daughter. Having heard of the great progress you have made in your education at court, we have taken steps to secure your future station. We are pleased to tell you that Sir John, Lord of Lincshire has asked for your hand in marriage. We of course accepted on your behalf, and hope to hold the betrothal ceremony as soon as possible. We are so proud of you, dear. You will represent the Nolan family name well.
Emma stopped reading there. She needn’t read the next paragraph, in which they went on about how her marriage would exceed their expectations. Everyone at the table was congratulating her, if a little awkwardly considering their princess’s situation.
But Emma wasn’t looking at them. She just looked at Alyssa, whose wide eyes said a million things, but most of all: Maybe this is how it was always meant to end.