The back of her dress was cinched tightly, to the point breathing was terribly difficult. The maid yanked and tugged until she was certain her ribs would snap and her lungs caused to collapse from the pressure. Julchen dismissed the handmaiden once it was tight enough and laced up her own boots. Technically that was the maid’s job as well, but Julchen took an extreme delight in lacing her own boots.
Once she ready for the day, she hurried downstairs, eager to get breakfast down so she could get started on her trip. Little Monika sat eating her porridge and strips of hart with her buttery loaf of bread. Julchen smiled pleasantly at her little sister, grabbing a loaf of warm, toasted bread.
“Julchen!” Monika reprimanded, glaring at her sister.
“ Ja, Schwester ?” Julchen asked, feigning innocence.
“Eat breakfast with me.” Monika said.
Julchen sighed and sat down. “One would think you were heir instead of me.”
Monika shrugged and continued her meal. Julchen pretended to resent allowing her sister to “boss” her around, but really she enjoyed pleasing the little girl. She would do anything to make her happy.
“Can I go riding with you?” Monika requested once she had finished eating.
Julchen, who was already rising to leave, looked at her hesitantly. “I do not think that would be the best idea. I’m meeting an English Duchess’ son and daughter today for business. It will be quite boring for you.”
“I can do my studies. I won’t be a bother, promise.” Monika insisted.
Julchen glanced at Monika’s tutor. “She can afford to miss one day with you? ” It was not a question and they both knew it.
The man nodded and Julchen smiled at her little sister. “Of course you may come with me. But you must focus on your studies. I expect you to have all your work done by the time we return, Monika.”
Monika smiled, pleased and hurried to change into her nicest travel clothes. They departed in the prepared carriage and Julchen read while her sister attempted to sound out the Latin she had to pronounce perfectly upon their return. Julchen eventually gave in and helped her sister out.
The journey was rather short, only a mere two hours from their castle. “Stay in the carriage, Monika. I’ll send someone if it is alright for you to join me inside.” Julchen instructed before stepping onto the cobbled streets of the village. She made her way inside the building they were to meet at, admiring the hangings in the windows. The designs were very beautiful. Although the quality was not quite like hers at home, it was stunning in a quaint sort of fashion.
It was a little shop that sold drapes, rugs, and the like. Despite the fact that meeting at such a place was quite unconventional, Julchen had insisted. She would much rather attend to such business out of her own home.
The place was vacant save for two young people who were admiring a tapestry at the back. Julchen grinned and announced herself. “Alfred and Madeline Kirkland, I presume?”
The two turned towards her. The male was quite attractive with gleaming blue eyes and a charming smile. His blonde hair was messy, for a duke’s son, with a cowlick curling at his hairline. Spectacles perched on a freckled, tan face. He was well-built and quite tall. Not a bad choice by any means.
But then there was his sister. The girl was petite with light brunette locks pulled into two thick plaits on either side of her head with one haywire curl falling in her face; her eyes focused on the floor of the shop causing her spectacles to slide down her nose. Her gaze made it difficult to determine her eye color, but they looked darker than her brother’s. She was much paler, with a rounder, more youthful, face.She kept her hands folded at her front and a faint blush painted her cheeks a light rouge. A shy smile turned the corners of her mouth up endearingly. Julchen had trouble pulling her eyes off her.
“Princess Julchen. Very nice to meet you.” Alfred said with a nod of his head and a large grin.
“And you, sir.” Julchen returned the smile. “My little sister is waiting in the carriage outside. Would you mind if she joined us? I promise she won’t-”
“Oh it’s no trouble at all. She must join us. I’d love to meet her.” Alfred interrupted eagerly.
Madeline nudged him with her elbow and sent him a look, allowing Julchen to see her eyes. They were a striking shade of violet.
“Ahem, excuse the interruption, my lady.” Alfred apologized.
Julchen waved him off. “Don’t worry about it. I’ll have her sent in.” She called for the carriage driver who was standing outside and instructed him to bring her sister inside.
Monika walked to her side, curtseying for the two strangers.
“This is Princess Monika Beilschmidt, my little sister.”
Alfred knelt down and kissed the little girl’s hand. “A pleasure, Princess.”
A small smile lit up Monika’s face. “Thank you, sir.”
Julchen sent her to sit down where she could still be seen and continued with the Kirklands. “I must be honest, I was rather expecting the duchess and duke here as well.”
“They couldn’t make it.” Madeline said quietly. “Mother’s come down with-”
“Maddie.” Alfred hissed, grabbing her wrist.
“What?” Julchen asked suspiciously.
Alfred sighed. “There’s been an outbreak of disease in our kingdom. Our mother is one of the more recent to fall ill.”
“It’s known as the Black Death at home.” Madeline said, finally looking at Julchen.
“I’m so sorry. Perhaps you could bring her here. I can promise her some of the best medical attention in Royal Prussia.” Julchen offered.
“We wouldn’t want to bother-” Madeline started, worriedly.
“It’s absolutely no bother at all!”
“We believe it might be contagious though.” Alfred warned.
“That’s why our father did not come. That and he did not want to leave her in case…” Madeline added, looking terribly distraught.
“Ah. He wants to stay with her until she gets better. Well, if she can bear the journey here, your family is more then welcome to stay until she returns to health.” Julchen said optimistically, hoping to cheer the girl up.
“We appreciate your offer. I will write to Father tonight and ask him to join us.” Madeline agreed.
“Now to more pleasant matters, I hope.” Alfred interjected, obviously trying to get back on topic.
“Of course. With the condition of your mother, perhaps it would be best to postpone the engagement.” Julchen suggested.
Alfred nodded. “I would greatly appreciate that. It would give us time to get our affairs in order.” By his look, Julchen could tell it was the right decision. He looked incredibly stressed by his mother’s illness.
“And it would give us time to get to know each other.” Julchen smiled at him.
“Julchen?” Monika asked, entering the women’s dorms.
“Yes, dear?” Julchen asked, setting down her letter.
“Why were you meeting with them?”
Julchen picked the little girl up and carried her to her bed. Playing with her sister’s hair, she wondered how to explain this to her. Monika had never really known her mother or father. The king had been killed in in a tragic hunting accident when Monika was only two and the Queen during childbirth. Julchen had raised her. Julchen was the only family the girl had ever truly known.
And Monika, at the age of seven, was just a little too young to understand the necessity of Julchen being wed. The Queen greatly depended on the advice of her king to rule their country. Julchen could not be crowned until she was married unless she conceded to unite with the Archduchess of Austria. And Austrian ties were currently with Hungary, the territories having been claimed by their king, István Héderváry. This tie was quite strenuous as the Archduchess had been semi-forced into the wedlock. It was typically the Archduchess’ choice but her kingdom had greatly needed the money and had been divided for a long time under the Treaty of Neuburg in 1379. Agreeing to unite with the Archduchess Sophia Edelweiss would tie Julchen to a crumbling agreement and could possibly involve her in an unwanted war. It was best for her kingdom to wed. The longer she waited, the more vulnerable the kingdom became.
“You remember how I told you about Mutter and Vater ? How they ruled together?” Julchen asked tentatively.
“ Ja .”
“Well, in order to rule, I need a spouse. I have an agreement with the Duchess Alice Kirkland of England to marry her son, Alfred, when I turn twenty.” Julchen tried to explain.
Monika turned to face her. “You’re in love with him?”
“What? No. We only just met.” Julchen told her, surprised by the question.
“But shouldn’t you spend your whole life with someone you love?”Monika inquired with that childish innocence that she rarely showed. Julchen had missed seeing it.
“It’s very complicated, Monika.”
“You said Mutti and Vati loved each other. You said it made them happy. Will marrying him make you happy if you do not love him?” Monika asked.
Julchen sighed. “We can talk more in the morning, kleine Maus . Go to sleep now. Guten Nacht .” She kissed the top of her sister’s head and stood up to tuck her into bed.
As she left the room, she was shocked to see candlelight flooding into the hall. She stopped at the room and peeked in to see Madeline with her chin in her hands, staring at a candle on her desk.
“ Guten Nacht, Fräulein Madeline .” Julchen said to her.
The woman jolted in surprise and nearly tumbled out of her chair. “Prin-”
“Call me Julchen. Please. Are you alright?” Julchen asked, only just stopping herself from coming through the door.
“Fine. You only startled me. What was it that you said?” Madeline asked, her face pink and her eyes averted. She looked so timid and flustered, Julchen could not keep from smiling.
“I wished you a good night, Fräulein .”
“Good night to you as well, Prin- Julchen.”