A print of the portrait is kept in the cupboard in the schoolroom, one of hundreds of colour prints, and the night before we were due to meet the Arvintans was the first time I had ever removed it from the room. It was half past nine, and Cassandra and I were in our sitting room, Philippa having already gone to bed. I was looking at the picture, and she was looking at a piece of paper she had been handed on her way upstairs.
“Who is it from? Is it a poem?” I asked, not looking up.
“It’s from Wilfrid Herring, and it seems to be a poorly-disguised misquotation of Shakespeare’s sonnet 116, so I suppose that makes it a poem,” she replied, airily checking the back of the paper as if she expected some kind of written apology.
This surprised me, and I looked up. “Did he really sign it? How do you know it’s from him?”
“He hasn’t signed it, but only he would think that a sonnet has 15 lines and no rhymes at all. Unless he hired Matilda to write it for him, of course,” she said, frowning at the paper as if she couldn’t see it properly. “Or perhaps it’s some sort of stylistic extension of his claim in line 6 that I am ‘without bounds’, but I suppose we’ll never know.”
I still stared at the piece of paper in my hands. It was the eldest child. When I looked at her likeness in the portrait now, as always, I felt the full force of her ostentatious name, and her picture had granted me knowledge beyond what I could remember from my childhood. Standing with the perfect composure she had adopted when I had seen her, she almost glared at some unknown point with such an impression of ferocity that I was nervous at the thought of actually meeting her. Still, within this, it was also possible to detect an emerging beauty in the twelve-year-old, and I had a sense of the idiosyncrasies of her manner. She seemed to command the scene in a way that actually seemed to be physically intimidating her younger siblings. She would be nineteen now.
“I really do feel sorry for him,” Cassandra continued, sighing as though she really meant it. She waved the ill-fated poem up and down a little, making it crinkle, as though the poor quality of the paper was a reflection on the person who had written upon it. “Poor soul. I think the worst part is that he feels he actually has a mind of his own to write about at all.”
“Maybe he thinks you have two. Right-brain and left-brain; rational and emotional. The grammar still works,” I muttered, still not looking up. At the back of my mind I reminded myself to slip the portrait back to its rightful place in the morning, to spare Mr. Lukian’s sanity. He was a big believer in conspiracy theories, and this portrait held a great deal of quasi-spiritual significance for him.
Beside her older sister, eleven-year-old Ariana Prudentia was holding her sceptre, but in a childish, instantaneous way she held the orb at the end cupped in one hand, like a ball in a game of catch. Her shoulders, either worn down by the weight of her robes or nervous in the shadow of her fierce sister, were hunched to one side. Timothy and Jonah Octavius had generic faces with no personality; nothing of their sister’s palpable presence. Both of their heads were bent, Jonah’s so much so that the whites of his eyes were not visible. For Joseph Eric and Maria Constanza the artist had used another wooden Arvintan trope: the awkward arm around the shoulder. Joseph Eric’s stiffness made the gesture completely incongruous, but somehow the wider context of the picture made up the balance, and it seemed appropriate for Joseph Eric to feel the need to comfort his sister. And when I looked at Maria Constanza’s pale face, I could see a red patch just beneath her right eye, and there was a hand in the process of nervously pushing back her robe. Was the hand always meant to be there, like a lazy confirmation of its own existence, and was the red patch just an error? Or was I right in supposing that she was anxious to escape, and almost seemed to be in tears? It may have been just my imagination, but this particular arrangement, the way the mysterious Crown Princess seemed a star of majesty surrounded by orbiting satellites of subservience, had given me an impression that something was amiss.
“Are you listening, Joanna?” Cassandra suddenly demanded, tossing the fifteen-sixteenths of the poem towards the sofa. It didn’t quite make the journey, and floated to the floor. An abrupt swish of Cassandra’s skirts caused a draft that sent it skidding underneath the sofa.
“Not particularly,” I muttered under my breath. Slightly louder, I said, “Do you think there’s something odd about Eugenia Gwendolyn here?”
Cassandra wrinkled her nose as she casually twitched the portrait out of my hands and studied it, as though she were not already familiar. “The artist is terrible, Joanna,” she declared. “I wouldn’t be surprised if she had two heads. Anyway, you haven’t seen that girl since you were about six years old; how would you know if anything were odd?”
“I just remembered her as less fierce than this,” I said.
“Arvintans always paint their heirs to the throne this way. It intimidates people, and that’s what they like,” she said. “They’d paint her with that expression even if she were six months old. Anyway, don’t you remember what Mr. Lukian used to say about this? The portraits in the background give away the artist’s lack of talent, even if nothing else did. You can’t trust artists like these.”
I recalled the conversation she was talking about. In the typical fashion of eagerly observant art critics, one of the greatest sources of discussion about this portrait was not the children, even the magnificent Eugenia Gwendolyn, but a detail of the background. The children were standing on a pinkish carpet that the uneven brush strokes had made to appear dirty, and on the walls behind them hung two other portraits. This was another typical Arvintan trope: portraits within portraits. In Arvinta, where a person’s characteristics do not easily condense onto a canvas, to paint the portrait of a monarch or any other important person is more a risk than a mark of respect. When artists paint Arvintan monarchs, what matters is the symbolic significance of transferring a person’s power to an immortal physical form; the way the person’s features actually appear is almost irrelevant. As a result, including the images of past Arvintan monarchs in contemporary portraits is said to boost an artist’s standing, as they are considered to have actually ‘painted’ three monarchs, even if they have never seen these people in the flesh.
The portraits in this picture were framed in gold, like ours, and because the artist was so poor at perspective, they were almost as present in the scene as the six children, like tiny hovering fairies above their heads. But they were, of course, famous coronation portraits, and I recognised them as Queen Olivia and Eugenia III. The fragile-looking character on the left was Queen Olivia, and the haughty queen to the right, walking across the yellow paving stones of the Glass Palace, was her daughter, Eugenia III. But they were different. Was the picture of the nervous, mouselike woman, gazing like a wounded animal, the same Queen Olivia that had gone through four hundred years of history as the ruthless military campaigner, capable of crushing any mutiny and commanding any army? In the original portrait she stared out at her viewer with such assertion and confidence, but all I saw here was something akin to fear. And Eugenia – was that the subservient, dutiful daughter grandly strolling through the Glass Palace with her loose hair draped majestically over her shoulder; the determined stride in place of the anxious tiptoe? Her head was in profile, so I could see her nose pointed high in the air and her mouth in a firm, angry line. I suppose that in the original setting in which the children were painted, with the two portraits side by side, it should have looked as if Eugenia were scurrying over to her formidable mother for instruction. Instead my impression was that Eugenia was marching over to confront her, and Olivia pleaded for help from her viewer. The bottom of Eugenia’s robe was spread neatly across the ground, as if she had only just began walking – hers was an instant decision to pounce. It was because of these bizarre inconsistences, the areas in which visual evidence did not conform to my own memories, that I didn’t know what to expect.
Late the next afternoon, I stood restlessly between Cassandra and Philippa, rocking backwards and forwards on my heels in a way I knew my mother would later call ‘ludicrous’. Both of my elder sisters were sitting down on the large blue sofa beside the fireplace, casually ignoring the constant buzz of people around them. Cassandra sat nearest to the fire, dressed in a bright, regal green. Once, when I was very little, someone had told me that Cassandra suited green, and that it ‘set off’ her auburn hair, and every time she wore green after that I would glance at her fearfully, wondering when her hair would spontaneously burst into flames. Today, her hair, which had recently been cut and which brushed against her dress’s velvety fabric in a perfectly straight line, was indeed shimmering slightly by the light of the shaded lamp that stood on the mantlepiece. She was neither poised nor relaxed; she sat on the sofa without touching its back. Her small hands rested idly on the seat on either side of her knees, as if her fingers were tiny but heavy objects that she was too tired to lift. She had looked no one in the eye since she had sat down over an hour before, despite the many people who had eagerly attempted to catch her attention. Here in Rowenia, the appreciation of beauty has always been an intellectual endeavour, and like a vivid dream or a good poem, a person’s beauty should hint at limitless depths that can only be glimpsed in the briefest of moments; a place in the mind where life exists on an immense scale that renders normal everyday life irrelevant. Cassandra had somehow managed to draw out this moment to make it fill the entire time she had been in the room.
Philippa was sitting up very straight at the other end of the sofa, her hands clasped in her lap. Her right hand was closed in a loose fist, while her left, enclosing it, pressed down on the knuckles in a way that looked painful. She was staring at the carpet, her face pale and covered with poorly concealed freckles, her brown hair already beginning to assume that dead look it always chose to reserve for formal occasions. Her dress was of dark purple, which I believe had been intended to ‘bring out’ something in her face, but which was stubbornly continuing to allow the natural proportion of her face to favour the nose. Her savage expression implied she was aware of this.
My mother was bustling around the surging room, saying nothing, but fixing each person who met her eye with a deterring glare. She, of course, was in burgundy, and her own hair (of colour indeterminate, but certainly not yet grey) was arranged in a ringleted style that some would have said was too young for her. I knew personally that the whole arrangement was designed to evoke her image in her coronation portrait, which hung on the wall above the fireplace. It had been painted by the court artist at the time, an elderly man named Sir Albert Dredge. Now suffering from the mental effects of extreme old age, the last time Sir Albert had visited us at Heraney, the sight of the painting had caused him to scream as if he were being stabbed, and his glass of port had gone flying towards it, spraying a steady jet of dark red liquid around the drawing room as it did so, only to crash into the fireplace and intoxicate the fire. Despite this rather decisive piece of artistic feedback, the painting remains, and like the other portraits in the room, my mother’s was (and still is) enclosed by an elaborate golden frame, punctuated by strange lumps and knobs of gold that do not seem to resemble any pattern. I have read of the portrait’s reputation and have learnt that it is praised as a remarkable and animated likeness, though I have always felt that it most resembles a sallow adolescent boy; perhaps one of the overdressed feminine youths of the Renaissance. In my childhood I spent many years thinking of this boy as someone who had actually existed once, not realising that he was my mother, and I still cannot help but feel that those bright eyes must have belonged to someone who lived and breathed, many hundreds of years ago. With its own charming quirks, therefore, the Someone in the portrait over the fireplace laughed down at its ageing parody, which continued to glare in the middle of the room.
The blue drawing room at Heraney Palace was also occupied, at that time, by my father, my four younger siblings, several of my aunts, uncles and cousins, and a few friends and attendants. My father was sitting in an armchair in front of the fireplace with Edmund and Elowen. He was a man of few words, with little opportunity to assert himself. He sat on the edge of the seat, his hands clasped around his knees, with a dormant smile on his face. He looked at nothing in particular, his eyes wandering around the room at a steady speed to focus on people and objects alike, although occasionally he broke this cycle to converse with whichever of my siblings commanded his attention. I can’t help thinking that he provided a less-than-optimal alternative to my mother’s first husband, Cassandra’s father. My mother had initially been married to the Grand Duke of Calbania and Matalie, who had inadvertently funnelled both of his grand duchies into the Rowenian crown when his marriage to my mother produced only a single child. He had died several months before Cassandra was born, but his presence remains palpable in conversation and legal documents to this day. My younger siblings had always formed a peculiar group of four, who with my father were consigned to the category of ‘lesser royals’. Public opinion seems to have drawn an invisible line of obscurity underneath my birth. Everyone knows about them, of course, but it is not uncommon for less respectable newspapers to forget details like which of my sisters are the twins, or how a title is formulated, or where my brother fits into the birth order. In all fairness, Matilda and Rosalind were the twins, but were different in every possible way, in both looks and personality. My brother Edmund always looked and acted a lot younger than he actually was, and certainly no older than my sister Elowen, who was in reality my parents’ youngest child. And it is almost excusable, given their similarities, that one particularly outrageous newspaper piece once completely amalgamated my brother and youngest sister under the single name ‘Edwin’.
Everyone else stood talking quietly in little groups, a set-up that was benefitted by the layout of the room. The room’s excessive furniture always anticipates a crowd, with five dark blue sofas and matching armchairs, all positioned in cliquey little bands. There is nothing cosy about this room or its decorations; it seems to have been made exclusively for waiting. Until that day, I had never seen more than a few seats occupied at any one time. The central sofa stands in front of the coronation portrait of my great-great-great-grandmother, who was painted standing before the very same sofa. That sofa appears in every portrait in the room, and in every portrait it is empty.
On the opposite wall there was (and still is) a pair of wood-panelled doors, positioned dramatically in the middle of a bare wall, so as to constantly threaten some imminent and perhaps disconcerting arrival. At that point, however, the sight was made slightly more homely by the rectangles of sunlight that shone through the window panes as the sun began to set. The glowing orange shapes were so similar in size to the wooden panels that they could probably have fit perfectly together like a jigsaw puzzle. At the time, however, they were not in line, and the lowest sunbeams spilled onto the carpet, illuminating the patterns of flowers on stems that always made me think of foetuses on the ends of their umbilical cords.
We were going to meet the Arvintans. It was an odd thing to say, as if they were strange creatures from a fairy tale or some obscure book from an old Greek poem, but saying that we were going to meet the family of the King of Arvinta was even stranger. My mother’s mind was surely fixed on diplomacy (it happened to be the anniversary of a famous truce following the Arvintan War), but on that particular day, as on many others, I found myself fixated on the details. I played over conversations I had had, and things I had seen. That morning Cassandra had asked me how long the boat journey was from Arvinta, and I had replied, “I don’t know, but it must be several hours”. I liked the way I had paused slightly after the word ‘but’. I repeated the first four words in my head to try and capture the essence, which I only found somewhere obscure at the back of my throat, as people do when they try to capture a taste of something they swallowed several minutes ago. The words had a flavour; when my mouth closed on the final ‘t’ I had a mouthful of air, and I imagined that if the word ‘but’ were a person he would be overweight. The word was pale blue, combined with the metallic, oily grey of the ‘u’. My pause had allowed the word the space it had needed. It occurred to me that this was what all conjunctions were for, in part; to give surplus space to a sentence where some of the words were big enough to risk being crushed. ‘I don’t know’. It was difficult to know why, but something about the word ‘don’t’ made me think of the flavour of tomato, and I could taste it on my tongue as I mouthed the word, particularly during the rich, deep ‘o’. It is a tomato with intense taste but no texture, warm and pointed on the tip of your tongue and then the back of your palate, not unlike a burning sensation. When you mouth the word ‘don’t’ and touch your hard palate with your tongue, the first and final letter sound like drops of water on a wet stone. Then it struck me just how unbalanced the sentence was. At one end were those dainty, tomato-y words, and at the other the stretched, endless sounds of the vowels in ‘about’ and ‘hours’. They didn’t taste of anything.
I had to remind myself to think of the Arvintans themselves, but they remained a limitless mystery incapable of physical form. I stared at the double doors and couldn’t imagine any Arvintans walking through them. But then, since Arvinta was a place that had been as unreal to us as any fiction, it was easy to fancy that time would stop before they arrived and refuse to let the stuff of dreams walk into my present and very physical world, where words themselves had become things I felt I had within my grasp. If they became my present, that meant they would eventually become my past, and that was unthinkable.
Arvinta has always been very different to everywhere else in Islandia, and I knew that even then. On any map it is noticeably remote, cut off from the other islands by a lengthy stretch of the Inner Sea. Rowenia and the rugged, northern Keperlia are like a protective pair of barriers that cup the other islands in a close embrace, away from the dark mysteries of the Outer Ocean. All these places have the pleasant randomness and variation in their geography that one would expect from lumps of rock formed over millions of years by the processes of nature, but Arvinta, in stark contrast, is almost perfectly round. When I see it at night from the south-facing rooms of the palace at Heraney, its black silhouette looks like the tip of a huge, flawless sphere, like some horrible other sun, and when the moon shines above it on clear nights it casts a sort of shadow across the water, as if Arvinta grows as the moon rises. Dierfon and Elania are still there, of course, and they always made me think of the moons of Mars: small, oddly-shaped, and out of place beside their graceful parent. However, both islands are hidden behind Arvinta, facing the vastness of the Outer Ocean, forbidden to disrupt its symmetry as it confronts the other islands. It has always seemed odd to the people around me when they learn that I find Arvinta frightening as a piece of land rather than due to any threat of what might inhabit it. Almost any fear of nature can be tracked back to what people fear might be hiding within it; it is why people fear forests rather than trees, for example. But I have always felt that land itself can become invested with something of this terror. I think there is no unliving object that can develop as much personality as a raw piece of land. I once read that there are languages in ancient and isolated communities that use specific geographical features, like hills or mountains or lakes, as their spatial markers, rather than universal terms like ‘left’ and ‘right’. The people who speak these languages somehow continue to use their terms instinctively, even when the thing that determines position is not in sight. If a piece of land can make us feel so homely, and be such a fundamental aspect of our world, perhaps it follows that another can make us displaced; lost. This was what I felt when I saw Arvinta; that its sharp roundness left me with no solid bearings, and that I may as well be floating in some remote point in the Outer Ocean.
It was then that I noticed Sir Joseph Potter speaking to both of my parents. He was my mother’s private secretary, and had been since I was about six. My father had stood up from his armchair, scattering Rosalind, Edmund and Elowen onto the neighbouring sofa, and was now standing with folded arms next to my mother. My mother casually ignored him and nodded confidentially with Sir Joseph as he spoke.
“They landed half an hour ago, much earlier than we expected. The King has asked whether they might be allowed a few minutes to ready themselves and come to be announced up here,” Sir Joseph said. He spoke quietly, in defiance of all the people in the room who had stopped talking so that they might hear him. “And…I would advise that we acquiesce to this request, Ma’am. We wish to appear as accommodating to Arvinta as possible.”
My mother frowned. “That was not what we arranged,” she said. “We and the King and have exchanged personal letters on this matter, and we were given to understand that my husband and I would greet the King and Queen aboard their yacht. That has been the custom of every official meeting to date.”
“I understand, Ma’am, but as this is a particularly delicate meeting, might I suggest that the King and Queen be appeased on this occasion?” Sir Joseph replied. “It would, of course, be done differently for any other visitors, but I’m sure your Majesty will agree with me when I say that Arvinta has always been something of an anomaly…”
“That may be so, Sir Joseph, but surely our guests are aware that they are in my home?” my mother retorted. I could see that she was already angry; she had referred to herself in the singular. “Are Arvintans truly ignorant of the customs and expectations of others, or are they revelling in the image of their own dominance?”
“We have been put in similar situations in the past,” my father added quickly. I couldn’t tell whose argument he was supporting. Perhaps he didn’t know himself.
“In all truth, Ma’am, Sir, I cannot say what the motive of this change is. However, I must advise that you relent on this occasion; I fear that nothing will come of a confrontation.”
“I had no intention of beginning a confrontation, Sir Joseph,” my mother huffed. “That is not the business of a sovereign, whether it be myself or the Arvintan king.”
“Of course, of course not, Ma’am, but….”
“I simply wish to assert the right to my own customs in my own country,” she continued, my father nodding nervously. “But who am I to interfere with the subtle details of diplomacy? I suppose we must allow our guests to accommodate themselves as they will.”
“…Thank you, Ma’am,” Sir Joseph stuttered, as if he wasn’t sure whether my mother were refusing his request or not. “I am sure the family will arrive here very soon.”
“Let us hope that our guests have at least mastered the art of punctuality,” my mother declared, turning away from Sir Joseph and regarding her portrait above the fireplace. Sir Joseph and my father exchanged a tired look that held no particular message, and Sir Joseph turned and disappeared again out of the double doors.
“This is absurd,” my mother muttered to herself.
“Arvintans like their privacy, Mama,” Cassandra chipped in. “I dare say they don’t want to be examined as soon as their voyage ends. It was a long one, after all.”
“Cassandra, all royals are used to the public eye,” my mother snapped. With that, she abruptly turned and stalked away towards the other end of the room. She began looking out of the window there towards the sea, though the dock was over half a mile away, and she would not have been able to see the Arvintan yacht through the trees.
Cassandra smiled good-naturedly, not in the least flustered by my mother’s curt answer. Still sitting with her hands resting beside her on the seat of the sofa, she turned her head and looked to Miss Dean, her governess, who was sitting on a nearby chair. “Miss Dean, Arvintans are very private people; isn’t that right?”
“Well, yes, if you want to make generalisations,” replied Miss Dean. She was a pale-haired woman of medium height, attired in dark blue and leaning back in her chair with much greater ease than anyone else. “Generalisations are usually correct, if you ask me.”
“How many children do you think the Arvintan King has?” I asked suddenly, almost before I thought to ask the question myself.
Miss Dean smiled and rolled her eyes. “Goodness, who knows? At least fifteen or so by now, I should say. Arvintans are like that.”
“Do you think he’s brought all of them?” I asked.
“It’s possible, but we might not meet them,” she replied. “I don’t think Arvintans are renowned for their appreciation of small children. You’re lucky you are fourteen now, Joanna, or the Arvintan king would completely ignore you.”
“Perhaps I wish he would,” I muttered darkly.
Abandoning them to their conversation and half-turning away, I now found myself facing Lord and Lady Tabloh, both of whom were tall, fair, and dressed predominantly in dark-red. They had recently been chatting with (‘indulging’, as I would have said at the time) my sister Matilda, who at eleven years old had recently renounced the company of children and declared herself ‘grown up’.
“I want to publish a book of poetry in a few years,” Matilda was explaining. “Anonymously, of course. I wouldn’t want to be successful just because of who I am.”
“Of course not,” said Lady Tabloh, smiling politely. “I’m sure you write beautiful poetry.”
“I don’t like rhymes,” Matilda continued. “It constricts the language. When I was younger I nearly gave up poetry for that reason. It seems so stupid to prioritise how things sound over what they mean.”
“Perhaps a restricted number of rhymes can offer you new possibilities,” faltered Lord Tabloh. “You may come up with something you would not have thought of otherwise.”
“Perhaps, but I already know what I want to say,” Matilda continued with a toss of her freshly-styled brown hair. Over on the other side of the room, our maid, Margaret, winced as a number of pins flew out behind her.
When Matilda had eventually walked away with an air of self-importance to inquire into the intricate workings of statecraft, they remained standing alone together, gazing smilingly at nothing in particular. They had not brought any of their fourteen daughters with them, even though the elder ones were well into their twenties and were regular fixtures at court balls and drawing rooms. In fact, even Lord and Lady Tabloh themselves held a slightly miscellaneous place in the room. For the last several centuries Rowenian monarchs had been in the habit of tactfully referring to the Tablohs as their ‘cousins’, to avoid any embarrassing admissions on diplomatic occasions. I wondered briefly whether I might go and speak with them, but I quickly decided against it. I didn’t want to be a second Matilda.
It wasn’t long, in any case, before only my parents, my siblings and I were left alone in the drawing room; too polite to wait until they were ushered out by the footmen, the Tablohs and members of our extended family had gracefully retired to their own apartments to dress for dinner. My mother’s original itinerary for this mysterious ‘Arvintan meeting’ had been laid out in detail, and each of us had even been given carefully-written pieces of paper to memorise, containing the key events down to the very minutes in which they were due to take place (my personal favourite part had been Sir Joseph’s insistence that the guests would surely decide to retire to bed at precisely 11:20). The most important part of the entire day, however, was due to have been the arrangement of me and my family on the royal dock outside the palace; proudly displaying ourselves to the masses of Arvintan delegates and royal servants accompanying the family, we would have stood like docile little ponies whilst my parents boarded the yacht itself to welcome the King and Queen and officially escort them onto Rowenian soil.
A key function of this arrangement was the bizarrely layered way in which all important visitors were introduced to the royal family and the nobility. It was not acceptable for the Arvintans to meet my mother at the same time as my aunt or my cousins; nor could they lay eyes on any member of the nobility until the banquet in the evening. The King of Arvintan needed to have a clear, uncomplicated image of precisely who my mother was, and what the hierarchy was. If the King merely walked into a crowded drawing room, the Rowenian queen could be almost anyone, and everyone in the room would automatically be considered social equals. It was to enhance the prevention of this nightmarish scenario that Sir Joseph had concocted his meticulous plan. Given all this preparation, I could almost understand why my mother was so angry. Now, with everyone else gone, she could give free vent to her feelings, and criticisms.
“Cassandra, can’t you sit with your hands together in your lap, like anyone else?” she snapped. “You look like you’re about to bounce up from your seat.”
“I don’t expect I’ll be sitting down when they arrive, Mama,” said Cassandra. “After all, I had thought I was meeting them outside.”
My mother did not respond to this; she had already moved on. “Philippa, I don’t know how you are doing it, but you look like an Old Maid. It is very aggravating. Could you perhaps make an effort to look slightly more animated? Don’t just stand there with your hands clasped.”
“I thought that was what Cassandra was meant to be doing?” Philippa muttered, but my mother didn’t hear her. Reluctantly, she loosening her hands and began softly brushing the skirts of her dress, like a cook trying to brush off flour.
“Matilda, stop disturbing everyone!” my mother continued. She was gazing at the aforementioned individual with a kind of embarrassed agony; Matilda was now telling the footman about her newest watercolour painting. “You are supposed to be standing next to Rosalind by the fireplace.”
“I’m not the same as Rosalind!” Matilda huffed, whipping around. “Just because we’re twins!”
“I haven’t time for arguments now,” my mother snapped back at her. This itself was an indulgence: such impertinence would not have been tolerated from Cassandra, Philippa or Rosalind.
Matilda said nothing, but her face slowly turned red and I could almost hear her teeth clench. It was a source of outrage to her that she was expected to always stand next to her silent but beautiful twin sister, however different everyone knew they were. But she went and stood by the fireplace anyway.
My mother continued to criticise in much the same way. Rosalind was blank-faced and needed a visible display of measurable character; Edmund was grinning so widely that he looked demented; Elowen kept hiding behind the furniture. It was only after everything else in the room had been covered that I met my mother’s eye for the briefest of moments. Fully aware that my hair was a mess, my clothes were dishevelled, and my face was red and had a tendency towards odd expressions, I grinned at her, almost inviting her criticism. She glared at me for a moment, and then simply passed on.
No one would admit it, but we all secretly knew why my mother was so neurotic on this particular occasion. Every so often, whenever we spoke of the Arvintans, this subject would come up, and it was one of the few topics that seemed to really animate my mother. Unfortunately, as I had learned a few days earlier at dinner, it often resulted in her feeling immensely disappointed in us.
“John, don’t you remember those delightful children?” my mother had swooned. She half-turned towards my father, but her eyes were glazed as she stared at something the rest of us could not see. “So incredibly well-behaved! I don’t think I heard a word from them the entire time we stood in that room. Standing for a portrait so sensibly; they must have been so proud of what their father was doing.”
“I think they were strange,” I said nonchalantly from across the table. This prompted a couple of stares; I think it was the first time I had ever spoken at the table since I had turned fourteen and graduated to the formal dining room. There were important guests present, and I sensed my mother cringe; if I were to ever become a competent conversationalist, this was not a promising debut.
“They were so still for the entire time,” Cassandra chimed in. I felt grateful for her agreement; she was a much more active and valued participant on these occasions. “They were like statues. At first I didn’t even realise they were human. And don’t you remember how shocked Joanna was when she saw the little girl move?”
My father laughed abruptly. “So stunned!” he grinned, and I saw that even my mother was smiling at the memory. “She thought they were too beautiful to be real. She didn’t think any princess could behave so well!”
I grimaced as a few half-hearted chuckles flitted around the room. “I wasn’t shocked because they behaved well. I was shocked because they really did look like statues.”
“Of course they didn’t! Ariana Prudentia was the spitting image of her father,” my mother scoffed, as though it were impossible to reproduce King Joseph’s image in anything other than skin and bone. “They were just very calm, very focused. It was amazing, really. I always admired that.”
For the rest of that meal, I had sensed that my mother’s attention lay elsewhere. And now, as we prepared to meet the Arvintans, we were paying the price for her infatuation.
“I wish everyone to be aware of how they appear!” she continued, to no one in particular. “Remember that we are representing our kingdom; this is not just a recreational visit. Our diplomatic future may depend upon this meeting, and I happen to know that the Arvintan king is a family-oriented man. Let us be harmonious.”
But my mother had not even managed to finish her sentence before everyone suddenly jumped. As she uttered this magnificent final word, evidently intended to evoke images of the kind of domestic bliss that remained ever elusive in our drawing room, we heard a loud, juddering bang from the corridor outside the closed double doors. This noise, which coincided with the word’s over-emphasised second syllable, was familiar, and was associated with some of our worst nightmares: someone had allowed the heavy wooden door at the end of the corridor to slam.
My mother’s final two syllables had trailed off at this noise; apparently the emphasis she had given to the ‘mo’ portion of the word (the force of which had caused her hair to twitch) had built up too much momentum for the word to completely end prematurely. Everyone else in the room, which now contained only my immediate family, stared at one another with a mixture of confusion and panic. Nobody, ever, was permitted to allow that door to slam. My mother could not abide it. With typical hyperbole, she had explained to us on multiple occasions that the sound of the heavy door banging against its frame aggravated her nerves to such an extent that she found herself scarcely in possession of her senses. Sometimes, when I had accidentally allowed the door to slam as a small child, my mother would send furious messages through her footmen, having found out through her intricate network of servants and courtiers who was responsible. I still had a couple of these notes: they said things like ‘utter disregard for your mother’s well-being’ and ‘I shall not stand for it’, and more often than not there were heavy ink blots and creases that provided proof of her physical distress. There was never a real punishment; the icy glare she would give me at the next meal would be enough.
Everyone was frozen, their eyes fixed on my mother. Eyes wide, she whipped her head round to the source of the noise, although as yet all she could see was the closed double doors. No one said anything more for several seconds, though in the corridor we heard a baffled exclamation that sounded a lot like, “We were not expecting you!”. Cassandra finally jumped to her feet, seeming oddly nervous, and out of the corner of my eye I saw Edmund and Elowen inch closer to my father, as if in fright. By the time the double doors swung open and admitted our guests, any harmony that this stultifying room could ever boast had been soundly dismissed.