I went to Arvinta for the first time when I was six years old. Until then, we had always spent our summers on tours around the varying landscapes of Islandia, becoming accustomed to their languages, cultures, and people. A favourite route, always undertaken on one of the royal yachts, took us along the summery coastline of Rowenia and past the Grand Duchies of Calbania and Matalie, either for diplomatic visits or for leisure. On these cruises we would explore the smaller islands of the Inner Sea, each of them distinct and intriguing, before slowly proceeding to the rugged, frigidly cold land mass of Keperlia. Not that it really mattered where we went at all: I was too young to have a quantifiable picture of the state of Islandia as a whole. The indistinguishable island names would simply wash over me, because I was a child and everywhere that was not home was the same.
When we first deviated from this tradition and went to Arvinta, we took the largest royal yacht, Roweniana, all the way across from the Heraney peninsula to the Arvintan city of Cironus, and it seemed like such a long time that I lost track of the number of hours. All I remember of the boat journey is of standing on tiptoe to look over the barriers, trying to see if I could notice the round outline of Arvinta getting larger as we drew closer. It was the first time I had been out into any body of water resembling the open ocean, and the sea gained a certain aura that made the waves and the salty spray they generated somehow alive. I had too much faith in the adults around me to be afraid that I was in any kind of danger, but for the first time I wondered at the strange and frankly ridiculous notion of a man-made vessel having the power to sail with such audacity and confidence across the unforgiving enormousness of the Outer Ocean.
At the dreary pier in Cironus, before a crowd of spectators, there was a dock that could be used only by royalty. I don’t remember how it was decorated or how anything looked beyond it, because all I did after I descended from the boat was watch my own two shoes as they climbed up the red-carpeted stairs, which was dotted with little fallen bunches of pink and white blossom. Careful not to step on any, I wanted to reach down and gather up some of the blossom, but my nurse, Margaret, stopped me with a sharp tug on my hand.
We were not met in Cironus by the king or any member of the royal family, but by three Arvintan barons, who were apparently King Joseph’s closest friends. Somewhat overlooking my mother, they paid especially close attention to my oldest sister Cassandra, who was eight, telling her that one day she might marry one of the Arvintan princes. Cassandra stared back at them, neither smiling nor frowning.
I had not expected such a packed itinerary for those few days, and the way the visit was conducted somehow made me realise that there was not going to be another Arvintan visit for some time. My mother was unhappy with the way everything had been meticulously planned down to the minutes, not liking the feeling of being micro-managed, but since we were on a diplomatic visit she held herself back from protesting too much. The first evening we stayed in an old manor house in Cironus, the home of one of the barons, and I had to share a gloomy bedroom with all six of my siblings, even though my youngest sister Elowen was just a year old. It was long and narrow, which made it feel more like part of the corridor than a private chamber, and I kept expecting a member of the baron’s rather formidable staff to come marching past our beds on her way to light the fires.
The next day we still did not meet the king, but the barons took us to visit the Glass Palace outside the city of Hurgon. It was easily the most stunning thing I had ever seen, either in reality or in my imagination. Despite its name, it is a palace made not of glass, but predominantly of white marble. It was reached from a marble bridge that ran above a vast green meadow, and at the time there were trees with pink blossom standing in an avenue alongside, their branches suspended above our heads. The fresh pink petals were strewn across the ancient, shining stillness of the stone as we walked. Just before entering, I asked my mother where the private apartments were, and she informed me hurriedly that the Glass Palace was not meant for living; only for looking, and for painting royal portraits. This made the Arvintan royal family seem like gods, because gods do not need to eat or sleep.
The structure’s outstanding size was evident only when standing in its single enormous room. People only seem to be aware of great size in areas where space is restricted; we are astonished by high ceilings and the sheer breadth of large enclosed spaces. But not the sky, which disguises such a high ceiling that no one has managed to find it yet. We can only be astonished by things that go beyond their own norm, even if we see far more dazzling examples of the same thing every day. The feeling of stepping into that infinity of space, on coming out of the cramped corridor that led us in from the bridge, was one almost of terror. Even if I knew the exact number of feet to the ceiling, or the length or the width, I suspect it would be fruitless. You ask someone to picture the end of the room being as far as the horizon, or even further away, but they can’t even begin to picture that, and to picture that at the same time as trying to grasp the concept of the height and width is impossible. That first moment, the light hit my eyes from every conceivable angle. Ahead of me was a space so vast that the sunlight pouring in from the huge windows created a sort of dense mist. The marble avenues on either wall were too far away to be registered. The balconies all around the walls were visible but unspeakably remote. The floor was marble, mainly white, but strewn with irregular wisps of pink and blue and green of differing intensity, like clouds, so the floor seemed multi-dimensional. The layer on which my feet would have stood seemed a horizontal plane of glass that would threaten to drop me into an abyss of milky, diluted colour, but at the same time leaving me suspended in a floorless perfection. There was, however, a thin line of carpet that ran down the tremendous length of the room, like a sort of spotless, straight hanging bridge with a compulsory pathway. In reality we could have stepped onto any part of the floor at all, but nobody did. It may be my memory confusing the experience with something else, but entwined with my mental image of this place is the sound of faint, inarticulate music; marvellous Te Deums without any words. In one very distant word the many fading layers of history would peel back, and when I imagine this very clearly I hear the pulsing echoes of my own name.
On the second day we saw the large eastern city of Koruna, and stood on the huge cliffs overlooking the little islands of Io, Dierfon and Elania. We took a small boat out past Io and landed on Dierfon to visit the islands’ only town. There was a scattered collection of uneven stone houses that looked as though they had just risen out of the sea with the receding tide: their dark colour made them look saturated with murky water, and I could fool myself that I saw strings of seaweed trailing from a chimney or a doorknob. There was also a rough wall made of rocks, only three feet high, separating the little town from the marshy, deserted wilderness that dominated the rest of the island. The town lacked the inquisitive crowds of mainland Arvinta, though every so often I thought I caught a glimpse of a glowering face in a window. We met the town’s governor, who spoke with a strange accent, pronouncing the name of the island ‘Jeffon’. He led us past the small houses almost immediately and we were shown the dark hilltop castle that had been used as a royal prison in the fifteenth century and which for some reason still functioned as an occasional royal retreat. For the entire couple of hours we must have stood on Dierfon, the sky maintained a sour, depressing quality I have never seen anywhere else. It was difficult not to wonder why the Arvintans had chosen to include such a desolate place on their grand tour, alongside so many places of splendour and intrigue. My clearest memory of the visit is the sound of the steel masts of the boats at the dock knocking against one another in the howling wind, like an oversized set of ghostly windchimes. That evening, at a luxury hotel in Koruna, my mother began to be exasperated with the Arvintan king’s failure to show himself. She had a strongly-worded conversation with my father, and she used the word ‘insult’ more than once.
But the following day we finally reached Arivintia, the capital city. Our convoy drove very quickly through the streets in a deadly straight line and entered through the black-and-gold gates of Arivintia Palace with barely a nod to any of the other wonders of the city, which included the second-oldest cathedral in Islandia. There was a lengthy ride down a huge lawn while I sat moodily in my seat, exhausted after a sleepless night, and repeatedly fastened and unfastened the clasp of my mother’s necklace. We had to be decanted carriage-by-carriage before the enormous, ornate front door, and had to congregate in a marble foyer with a sparkling indoor fountain in the middle of the floor that temperamentally dotted me with tiny specks of water. My mother stopped me with furious words when I began to skip around the room, and I felt it was the greatest injustice in the world.
Eventually there was a guide, and a corridor, and a big room, and then all of a sudden the Arvintan king was kissing my mother’s hand whilst she wore an uncomfortable smile, as if she wasn’t sure that she was in the right place. He was thin and pale with black hair, and a mouth that was wide enough when he smiled to make me feel a prickling on the back of my neck. Somewhat uncharacteristically for odd people, his eyes had no effect on me, though they seemed capable of looking at everyone at once and I feel sure they sparkled. He was dressed entirely in something red, and I thought he looked a bit like a child dressing up in fairy tale clothes from hundreds of years ago.
My mother clearly expected a tour of the palace or a state lunch or a formal meeting with important people, but King Joseph did not feel like showing us his palace or any of the notable persons within it. In fact, he seemed not to have planned anything at all, and he treated my mother like a child-friend who had arrived for a surprise visit. With a boyish spontaneity he showed my mother and Cassandra a number of old portraits in the palace’s ornate gallery, not seeming to register that my father, my siblings or I were there at all. He spoke to Cassandra just like she was an adult, or else he spoke to my mother just like she was a child. In any case, his pitch remained constant with both, and while he continued to pile my sister with obsequious compliments for the duration of their interaction, he seemed unmoved by her precocity or the fact that she could speak about any issue of the day as well as a university professor. He was polite and attentive, but he regularly interrupted both my mother and Cassandra when they spoke, as though his sentences had been irreversibly inserted into the conversation several seconds previously. And then, whilst Cassandra was still listing the many things she knew about whichever portrait hung formidably in the frame at the end of the gallery, the king suddenly threw open a deceptively small door and darted inside like a bird, beckoning to us.
The room was round with a high ceiling, and less light than the portrait suggests. The painter was stationed with his back to us as we came in. As we went further into the room, I saw that it was a sort of amphitheatre, with raised platforms opposite the window. Interestingly, the platform contained exactly eight chairs. There was a strange smell, heavy like incense, only unpleasant. The dark red of the walls made me feel like we were all in a cave, or some sort of tomb.
The painter was a walking cliché, the archetype of a painter. He was working on an easel, but there was also a camera set up beside him. He was painting a most peculiar scene: six statues were positioned on a platform before the open windows. They were perfectly-sculpted children, and they were dressed in Arvintan court costumes: the three girls in flowing golden tunics, and the three boys in golden suits with short jackets. Over these, each wore an incongruously large red robe lined with ermine, fastened at the shoulders with big gold buttons. Each also had on a little Arvintan coronet; a simple band of gold around the head, dotted with Dantesque leafy stubs. The statues were arranged in pairs, with the two tallest girls in the centre. Both had fair hair and sceptres clutched in their little stone hands, and the shorter of the two also held an orb and had a string with tassels tied around her waist. The two boys beside them had swords hooked onto identical red sashes, and pristine little curls on their heads. The final little boy and girl, both with jet-black hair, stood together in a single statue, with none of the additional adornments of the others. Each had real hair, thin but glossy, which grew progressively darker as the statues became shorter, and pearly-white skin that looked exactly like the pure white marble of the Glass Palace. Like the little wisps of colour in the floor of that magnificent room, their pale, translucent skin was painted with such detail that I could see little wisps of blue and green veins in their necks and wrists. Despite this, I could not credit their sculptor with having made their pearly skin appear appropriately soft: it looked as hard and cold as I was sure it felt. It even appeared to be covered with the thinnest layer of dust, like the crumbling of freshly chipped porcelain. Again, the proximity of their luscious robes and silky hair to the stony hardness of their skin made me think of the Glass Palace: the fresh pink blossom landing on that dead path of white stone.
None of the figures had the typical facial features of other Arvintan statues, and they were certainly unlike any artwork I had so far seen in the palace, but in their delicate paleness each was exquisitely beautiful. Their glassy blue eyes stared about the room at various angles, each gaze seeming so intent and serious. It was such an unusual thing to see that I glanced at my mother for some sort of clue as to how to proceed. She was frowning, as if trying to feign interest, but there was an unmistakeable note of confusion in her voice as she asked the king a question I didn’t bother to note. But when I turned my eyes back to this bizarre set-up all was explained in one instant.
Despite all I had seen in Arvinta, the moment that followed was easily the most memorable and horrifying. I examined each statue in turn, taking in each ethereal face, but I found myself (as children are) overwhelmingly drawn to the angelic face of the smallest, the pale little raven-haired girl in the grown-up robes, and…her eyes moved. I gasped audibly and visibly, and, ignoring the Arvintan king’s abrupt burst of laughter, I realised all in one moment that she was a real, living and breathing child. It was only when I permitted myself to consider this new reality that the entire illusion was automatically dispelled: the swirls of green and blue became irrevocably her veins, pulsing with life, the dust on her skin became some kind of cosmetic, and the perfect glassiness of her eyes all of a sudden (though they had not changed) betrayed a certain anxiety I couldn’t place. I could not have been more surprised if one of the real statues outside the palace, with its unmoving hair and missing limbs, had turned its head and blinked at me. Beside her, there was no sign of movement, however slight, amongst any of the other figures, and in a second moment of panic I realised I had no way of knowing which were real and which were not. In a second more, however, the remaining five pairs of eyes turned in unison to the overbearing figure of the king in the centre of the room, though their steely expressions and poised limbs remained the same. As if the rigid composure was contagious, I found myself rooted to the spot, shocked to the core, desperate for the context that the king seemed reluctant to give.
The smallest girl did not fix her eyes on me: she had stared several spaces to my right, where Matilda and Rosalind stood, both a few months short of their fourth birthdays. Although Edmund and Elowen had come with us to Arvinta, both had long been deemed too young to accompany us on our outings, and they were currently with our nurse and the rest of my parents’ portable household, which had been redirected to our own lodgings in the palace. As a result, the twins were the youngest people in our party, and I suspect this tiny girl sensed some kind of kinship in that. What startled me most about the look, however, was the singularity of the movement. I sensed in that little girl nothing of the thorough, composed curiosity of the Arvintan people we had seen on the trip, but merely a one-dimensional desire to see a single thing, as if she had a quota on new experiences, and that too many of them would overwhelm her. In this sense she seemed to know what she was about to see before she saw it, and in hindsight it reminds me of her father’s apparent habit of using ready-prepared conversations, irrespective of the words of his interlocutors. Finally, however, her father’s plans caught up with the moment, and we discovered the cause of this nightmarish vision:
“My eldest daughter and heir, Eugenia Gwendolyn,” he announced, gesturing to the pale-haired statue-girl with the sceptre and orb. Her position barely changed, but she dipped a neat, mechanical curtesy, causing a fresh wave of that peculiar revulsion to run over me. “My next daughter, Ariana Prudentia, beside her. To the right of them are my two eldest sons, Timothy and Jonah Octavius – on coming of age they will inherit the Grand Duchies of Dierfon and Elania. And on the left are Joseph Eric, Duke of Amalia, and Maria Constanza. My other children are in the nursery; they are not included in this particular piece.”
As each child’s decadent name was announced, they followed their sister in a hideously perfect display of obeisance, but aside from their youngest sister’s slip their eyes never ventured to any of our faces. Finally withdrawing their gaze from their father, each pair of eyes became locked on the gold carpet beneath their feet.
Following this list of introductions, my mother apparently realised that she had not introduced her own family yet. “Do excuse me for being so impolite,” she said, emphasising the ‘do’ to indicate that she was not sorry at all. “You introduced your own family to me so eloquently; allow me to formally introduce you to my children. You have of course spoken at length to Cassandra, but here is her sister Philippa, the Princess Royal. Next to Philippa is Joanna…”
“Goodness me, are these two little girls the twins?” the king squealed, his grin waxing horribly wide as he stared at me, and then turned his gaze to Rosalind.
“No, no,” said my mother quickly, walking over and pulling me back from my sisters a little. “Joanna is my third daughter. The twins are…”
“Ah, your third daughter,” interrupted the king, still grinning at me. “Heir to Sarin, I take it?”
“Yes,” said my mother. She gestured to my sisters. “Rosalind and Matilda are the twins. Though rather different, as you can see.”
“Ah yes, it’s peculiar how that happens,” the king said. “Still, multiples are most interesting. My wife and I had a pair ourselves a couple of years ago: identical boys. They are most attractive children already, probably the handsomest of my sons. I would love to add a second pair of twins to my family one day. Previously I had always been jealous of families with twins. They always seem twice as good as normal families.”
“Yes,” said my mother uncertainly. “Matilda and Rosalind are almost four years old, and my two youngest are Edmund and Elowen. They are not old enough to accompany us at present.”
“Naturally,” said the king. “I’ve heard very young children can be irritating. When a child is older one can begin to prepare them for the life they must lead in the future, when they must become respectable ambassadors for their empire. The more the better, I say. Though it is always difficult to ensure that every single child in a group of many will turn out the way you wish, regardless of their parentage.”
“Indeed,” said my mother, seemingly with more conviction than she had shown all day.
“In any case, I have ambitious plans for this particular portrait, and I have commissioned the very finest of my court artists to cultivate this piece. I wish for my children to be seen by the world for what they are as they grow up. Will you join me for a while to observe the process?” The king gestured to the eight perfectly-placed armchairs on the platform behind us.
My mother of course agreed to this request and we spent what seemed like several hours sitting silently in those chairs, watching the six stony children standing for their portrait. It was impossible for me to understand their stillness. Crown Princess Eugenia Gwendolyn, who was thin and precisely as tall as her sister Ariana Prudentia, held her sceptre out from her body for the entirety of the time we watched, but I never saw her arm so much as quiver. Timothy and Jonah Octavius’s feet looked uncomfortably positioned at strange angles, but they did not stretch or relax once. When a strong breeze blew through the open French doors into the room, the children’s heavy robes twitched and their hair blew, but they remained rooted in position. Six maids hurried into the room with combs and brushes, but whilst their hair was being arranged the children barely blinked. King Joseph continued to talk at my mother and Cassandra, describing in elaborate detail each of his children’s destinies. At the time I didn’t listen, but Cassandra has since told me everything.
Eugenia Gwendolyn would be queen after her father died, and her father had already choreographed an ostentatious coronation ceremony with more pomp and ceremony than Arvinta had known for hundreds of years. She would make an auspicious marriage with a high-ranking Arvintan nobleman. She would continue the various reforms and laws that her father had set in motion, and she would follow his example in having many children. Ariana Prudentia would remain Princess Royal in its unique state of glorified bondage, and her role would be to protect her sister from any kind of political slight or rebellion.
Timothy, the eldest son, would be Grand Duke of Dierfon – Cassandra explained to me that King Joseph pronounced the name of the island ‘Jeffon’, just like the governor of the town on the island, although I had never heard that pronunciation from any other member of the Arvintan nobility. King Joseph had in fact been born in that dingy castle on Dierfon, so perhaps he felt he was asserting his identity as a Dierfonian native.
The second son, Jonah Octavius, would hold the pointless Grand Duchy of the uninhabited Elania, which was nevertheless perceived to be critical in maintaining Arvinta’s status as an empire. As for the younger children, some of whom also held distinctive-sounding titles, King Joseph had ambitions for each of them to marry a foreign prince or princess, even a queen.
Eventually the portrait sitting came to an end, and the artist, after putting away his paints, wanted to take a photograph of the royal children in their assemblage, to aid the painting of the portrait. He set up his camera and then spent a few second trying to decide whether anything in the princes’ and princesses’ positioning needed correction. When he realised that he could flaw nothing, he simply positioned himself behind his camera, and, right before the picture was taken, he gave Eugenia-Gwendolyn a half-hearted instruction: “Stand tall and proud, your royal highness!”
There was no noticeable alteration in the princess’s posture, but a corner of her mouth twitched and she widened her eyes. Whilst she lost none of her composure in the process, something about the effort was faintly pathetic, and at that moment King Joseph scoffed contemptuously and turned to my mother with haughty laughter in his eyes: “It’s almost as if she were born to be queen!” There was a flash, and soon the painter was disassembling his camera and packing his bag. Not permitted to relax their posture even now, the royal children remained pedestalled before us as the king ushered us all out of the room and back into the palace’s echoey corridors.
This was of course not the end of the visit, but due to both the imperfection of my memory and the impact of what I had already seen, I cannot say much about the rest of our trip to Arivintia Palace. As it was summer we were taken on a progress around the palace’s grounds, and we ate a lengthy meal under an avenue of trees. King Joseph also introduced us to his wife, Queen Constanza, who was a quiet, mouse-like woman who barely spoke. As we made our way back through the palace to our lodgings I regarded statues and even portraits with fearful apprehension, sure that each pair of eyes would jerk out of its stasis and become fixed on my face. I felt this even amongst the pure white statues with their smooth uncarved eyeballs, as if a pupil would roll out from the eyelid. That night, having secretly left my own spacious and sumptuously decorated bedroom in favour of Cassandra’s, I had a nightmare about a dozen eyes staring at me from the rims of skulls.
The rest of the visit was a blur. We were shown the ancient university at Arivintia, which, like the university at Hailina in Rowenia, contained several beautiful colleges with neatly trimmed quadrangles, long-tabled dining halls and fragrant chapels – in one of them (I don’t remember which) we heard Mass on Sunday. After a long, dark drive through the immense Amalia Forest, we reached the University of Kandrom, where we were shown the slowly decaying home of the legendary Emilia Helene, a poor academic’s daughter who secretly married the heir to the Arvintan throne in the fifteenth century, and we also visited the beautiful medieval city of Kaerin, the oldest settlement in Arvinta. But I had difficulty becoming interested in anything new, and it turned out to be a blessed relief when we once again boarded the Roweniana and headed back towards Heraney.