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heavenly powers

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They sit in the third row of pews, near the front because her father is good friends with and advisor to the king, but never the front row itself because that is reserved for the royal family and their royal guests exclusively and, despite the camaraderie and very good relations, her family is distinctly not royal.

Sunday mass is a clockwork-like ritual. She has known it since birth and has been taught its rules as long as she has been old enough to sit up on her own. Even as a child, she followed the rules faithfully--better than her brother did, her parents praised her. He would be restless, swinging his legs and shifting in his seat. She never had to be spoken to; fear of disappointment was enough to keep her still and quiet.

Every week she sits perfectly upright with a straight spine, never slouching or learning against the wooden back of the pew. Her knees are held together under her skirts and her ankles are crossed and tucked underneath her. Her hands are clasped piously in her lap and her head is bowed just enough to be appropriately demure.

(Though, sometimes, she kicks her shoes off under her skirts, so long that no one can see, and she presses her stocking-ed toes flat against the stone cold floor. It’s probably not a sin, but she knows the scolding she would get if Father saw and she always makes sure her shoes are back on before she has to stand or kneel.

(Except, one time, she couldn’t slide her foot back in fast enough and she had to stand to take communion in bare feet. She moved slowly and made sure her feet were hidden beneath the sway of her skirts. No one noticed. Well, almost no one.))

She must always pay attention and listen very carefully to the priest. And most Sundays, she pays very close attention, trying to understand the meanings behind the holy texts. She admires his beautiful and elaborate words--he gives sermons like a poet reading aloud--and she wonders what it is like to be so wise. She is not like that; she is full of questions--questions she can’t ask and Father won’t answer. She wonders if the priest had to study. She tries to imagine the gray man as young, deciding to take up the cloth. Maybe he was as curious as she is.

Or maybe Heaven chose him and blessed him with answers. Maybe he now lives in certainty.

Father says great intellect is the burden of great men. He says that it is a man’s duty to become educated so that he can best lead his family. It is why he made sure Laertes went to the best school Europe could offer.

Father says that a woman’s place is to support and comfort her husband.

She wonders if she could become a nun. Nuns must study at convents and abbeys. Then she could learn as the priest must have.

But, no, she thinks, she could not take those vows. She wants too much.

Her gaze wanders over the marble icons that line the walls. They are the work of a master. She can almost see the cherubs take flight and drift in circles over their heads, singing hymns. The saints that stand somberly, with their books and their beards, she half expects to begin speaking as if they weren’t stones moments before, debating and discussing theology with each other.

She tries to imagine what it would be like to be trapped in stone. Would she even know that she was trapped? Or would her stone eyes and stone ears blind and deafen her until she thought that she was nothing at all? Would she think she was dead?

She wonders what it is like in Heaven. The priest says that it a paradise greater than any imagined on Earth, but she imagines just the same. It will be full of angels and music and she will want for nothing. If she gets there, that is. She must be good to go to Heaven, she is told. She must be sinless.

But her eyes will wander to the front row where the royal family sits.

And her prince is right in front of her, only one pew in between them, and it is only at mass that she can watch him like this without being noticed. She’ll notice the curl of his hair and she knows what it feels like to run her fingers through it. She’ll trace the lines between his shoulders and down his back and she knows what is feels to have him against her. She knows how strong he is.

And she knows that these are shameful thoughts, entirely inappropriate for any religious setting, and catches herself and forces her eyes away, and she makes herself listen to the priest and think about Heaven, but she can’t keep her gaze from wandering back. And she wonders if Heaven can’t be kept in shadowy alcoves and hidden rooms and in flowing penmanship on white paper.

She can’t see him on Sundays. Sundays are for family and she must spend the day with hers. After mass and a modest breakfast, they retire to the parlour, the small one meant for their personal use, and she sits and does some needlework while Father reads passages from the Bible and speaks on them. Once in a while, her brother will chime in with his own opinions and the elocution will become a debate. She never participates. After lunch, she may do some reading of her own, or, if it is very nice and she is very lucky, she may go for a walk in the gardens. She hopes to see her prince when she goes out. She never does.

(Except, one time, as she returns from the gardens to freshen up for dinner, mind full of sunshine and birdsong, her walk is interrupted by a hand around her wrist.

“Bare feel, my lady?”

“I don’t know what you mean, my lord,” she replies, but there is a knowing glint in his eye and she doesn’t mind being caught as long as he’s the one catching her.

She lets him pull her back into the shadows, out of view should anyone come down the hall.

“You’re a terrible liar. What would your father say if he found out?” he muses, running a hand from her wrist up her arm.

“He’d find it shameful,” she says, and there’s a not-so-hidden meaning in those words that she knows he picks up on. She tilts her head up.

“Let’s not tell him then,” he says, and then she is swept up in a kiss that is beyond shameful. She knows that she should pull away, say that it’s Sunday, that this is improper, but instead she kisses back and falls into his arms and tangles her fingers in his hair and she thinks that, yes, this might be Heaven.

They pause for breath, and she sighs and makes herself whisper, “They’ll be wondering where I am.”

He steps away, letting her go. Before he leaves, he catches her wrist again, bows, and kisses the back of her hand. “Until we meet again, my lady.” And then he is gone, and she has to take a few minutes to compose herself before she feels ready to leave her shadows.)

But then the bells of the chapel are ringing and the castle is plunged into darkness. The king is dead.

She sits behind him as she always does and the queen is being comforted by her brother-in-law, but her prince sits alone in the pew, the foot of space between him and his mother seeming vast. He becomes the black that he wears, and she wants to reach out to him and hold him and tell him that she knows how to lose a mother.

But the pew between them is too far for her and, even in grief, this place and this ritual have rules that she cannot break, and so she sits with her hands resting in her lap, and she prays for him, and she hopes that if she wills it hard enough that he will sense her feelings and know that she loves him.

When the funeral ends and the royal family leaves, he does not look at her.

And soon she finds herself enrobed in bright color and lace and she witnesses the queen exchange vows with her brother-in-law (and their new king). Her prince is a spot of darkness in the bright atmosphere, draining the light as if he has torn open the void of space itself and fashioned it into his mourning. She has always seen him as incomparably wonderful--clever, bold, quick--firey and sharp--royal in how it was imagined. At the wedding, he is broken.

(He seems to disappear early from the feast. He reappears as a knock on her bedroom door after her ladies have retired for the night. She lets him in and he falls into her arms and buries his face in the crook of her shoulder. She can feel the damp of tears against her neck. He is shaking.

She leads him to her bed and holds him, lets him cry, kisses his face, gives him whatever comfort she can offer. The candle has burnt low by the time the storm has quieted.

“Let me stay with you tonight,” he asks her and it breaks her heart to shake her head.

“You know I can’t,” she says. She cannot make out his expression.

She kisses him before he leaves. “I love you.”

He nods, eyes squeezed shut, head bowed. He takes a moment before he pulls away.

“Good night, my lady.”)

She prays before bed.

She always prays for her mother. That has been her first prayer for so long that she’ll catch herself repeating it silently, like the chorus of a song stuck in her head. She prays for her prince. She prays for her father and her brother, for her king and her queen, for her country.

She’s not sure how to pray for herself.

She recites the Lord’s Prayer instead.

She tries to apologize in her pew. She knows her sins and attempts to make their weight a burden. She goes to confession, but she cannot tell the priest what she has done and she cannot ask for his forgiveness. They think she is virtuous. She lets them.

She finds peace in the gardens. She has always found peace in the gardens. They are blooming with flowers, splashes of color on blankets of green. The air is full of their scent and the golden warmth of summer. The river bubbles and laughs. The willow sways. Minstrels are playing faintly in the distance.

She wants to be good.

She wishes someone would tell her what that means.

She weaves flowers into her hair and she sings quietly to herself.

Perhaps they are wrong. Perhaps her prince is Adam, not the serpent. Perhaps she will not eat of the tree.

Or perhaps she already has.

She doesn’t know.

(The last prayer she will ever speak will be the cry of a girl abandoned and a woman betrayed. It will be a frantic final clawing to keep together what is crumbling apart. Her last prayer will be a broken call for help when there is no one left to turn to. Her last prayer will not save her.

“O, heavenly powers, restore him!”)

(She will never again kneel in her third pew. She will never return to the chapel at all. The funeral is held, but she is inconsolable, cannot be made to leave her room, cannot be made to dress or eat. She screams when her ladies try to make her sit up off the floor. There is no one her ladies can call to for help. She is alone.

It is decided that it will be better to leave her alone. Perhaps, when she is feeling more herself, she will be able to go to mass.)