For very many years, until I was at least eleven years old, I regarded Crown Princess Katherine of Keperlia as my best friend. There were several reasons behind this, though not all of them did her justice. For one thing, I used to be almost as fascinated by Keperlia as I was by Arvinta.
Keperlia is vast, with its immense frozen north and boreal forest cordoned off by the formidable Igalek Mountains. This vast mountain range, which also runs across Thurin to the east and Detland to the west (though in Detland they are known as the Tay Mountains), gives the impression that the ecological and anthropological wonders beyond belong to a different world. Keperlia’s boreal forest is dense, silent and ethereal, populated by wolves, bears and reindeer, almost perpetually covered in snow and punctuated by eerily beautiful black lakes. In the west, the enormous Tempest Bay, lying between the Kaur and Bethel peninsulas, is one of the most magnificent sights in Islandia: a body of dark frosty water running towards the horizon with the gigantic arms of forest on either side, dotted with rocky, forested islands that host little worlds of their own. This frozen north is the traditional home of Keperlia’s indigenous people: they are the founders of Aorey, Islandia’s northernmost city, and the twin towns of Lunar and Solar on the Kaur peninsula, which overlook a body of water so dark and cold that hardly anyone has ventured far into it.
And yet, in its southern regions, which encompass the capital city of Calidor, Keperlia can be as busy and bustling as anywhere in Rowenia, Calbania or Matalie, and on St. Mary’s Isle and the Rutland Islands, summer temperatures rival those of Torquen. The kingdom is particularly famous for its theological and philosophical learning, which is most concentrated in the ancient university at Linten (the oldest university in Islandia). Calidor, too, is a truly picturesque city: hardly any of its buildings were constructed after the close of the sixteenth century, and its general visage gives the impression of some long-gone storybook town. In this easy-going, relaxed place, nobility and peasantry alike wander the streets in their aprons or smocks, such is everyone’s contentment with the social order. It is not unusual for royalty to do the same.
When I was young, we would visit the Keperlian royals on a very regular basis, even aside from our summer progresses. The more modest royal yachts were usually employed for these occasions, as an overnight stay onboard was typically not necessary: the most frequently used was called the Kameryn and Gwendlynn, its hull painted a friendly cherry-red colour. It was more usual to travel from Rowenus to Enlin, Keperlia’s main sea link with Rowenia, but as my mother always preferred travelling by sea, we would typically start right from Kemerin, sailing down the length of the Angelis and then up through the Lemin Strait before heading all the way across the Inner Sea to Calidor. On arrival, the dock would be crowded with the excited faces of the Keperlian royal children.
Katherine was two years younger than me, though she was the eldest of her mother’s six children. With her eternally beaming smile, quick imagination, and curly black hair, Katherine stood out for more than just her prettiness: she had a hyperactivity and a zest for life that was occasionally out of place amongst the casual and sober Keperlian capital. Her mother, Queen Edith, observed this with an air of cheerful carelessness; social conformity was not there what it was for Rowenia. Boisterous, loud, and full of eccentric ideas, Katherine did not easily endear herself to my younger sisters, who were the same age as her. To Matilda, who preferred Katherine’s more serious younger sister Edith, she was silly and deliberately loud, whilst Rosalind found her energy and daring schemes impossible to keep up with. On one occasion, during one of Katherine’s spontaneous ‘escapes’ from the gardens of Calidor Palace to the quaint medieval streets of the city, Rosalind lost her nerve and burst into tears, obliging a passing baker to hurry to the gates of the palace and send a flour-sprinkled message to ‘the Queen of Rowenia’, requesting that she come and collect her daughter from his hearthside.
When we were aged around eight and ten, Katherine and I met on one of these friendly excursions. That visit, undertaken during a warm May, was a particularly enjoyable one: my mother was kept distracted by negotiations for a marriage of a cousin of ours to a Keperlian count, and so my siblings and I were left largely to our own devices. Across a number of years, Katherine and I had developed a game that preoccupied dozens of hours of our time: one child would be appointed the ‘fugitive’ (typically Katherine herself), whilst everyone else would devise overly-intricate plans for hunting down and capturing them. Katherine became an expert at this game, frequently disappearing for hours at a time. The lengthy corridors of Calidor Palace, with the strange twists and turns that are largely unique to Keperlian architecture, gave us a paradisal site on which to play.
But the fun eventually lost its flavour, as it often does with over-excited children. Each day there would come the inevitable point at which someone would fall over, skin their knee, and abruptly decide that the game was becoming entirely too intense, or someone would take offense at an imaginary slight and dissolve into tears – always a warning for children that adult intervention is imminent. On one afternoon a few days into our visit, my brother Edmund and Katherine’s cousin Stephen left without warning to start some war-related game of their own, and Katherine and I concluded that it would be too complicated to restart the game. Instead, Katherine became unusually subdued and took me to her bedroom, where we sat quietly for several hours, sorting through her pictures and gluing them neatly into albums. I can still remember how long the afternoon seemed, and how agonisingly long it seemed until we would be able to eat our dinner.
At some point, amongst Katherine’s jumbled possessions, I found a photograph. Blurry and faint, with a sharp crease down the middle that had exposed the furry edges of the paper, I could make out a group of people, at the centre of which sat two women, each holding a baby. At the side of one of the women there stood a small child, wearing an elaborate but generic white frock that refused to divulge its sex. Right in the centre there stood a pleasant-looking man with dark whiskers and a side parting; an unseen light source created a wide sheen of light streaking across his hair. His eyes were focused on something unspecified, but his slightly parted lips carried the ghost of a smile. In his arms he carried an even smaller white-cossetted child, whose indistinct expression failed to reveal anything. All were dressed in formal clothing, and the long gowns worn by each of the babies suggested an important occasion. One of the babies was so blurred that it was impossible to even ascertain where its face was, but the other had turned out remarkably well: positioned almost in the exact centre of the image, its eyes were screwed up tightly, its mouth twisted into a grimace that seemed oddly expressive for so young a person.
“Who are these?” I asked immediately. I was neither curious nor thoughtful; the box from which I had taken the picture was jumbled and close to bursting, and I had asked the same question about virtually every item I had extracted from it. The ritual had become so repetitive as to be absurd, and my words were ruffled with a vague laugh.
Mouth slightly open and brows furrowed, Katherine leaned over from where she was sitting cross-legged before three or four open albums and a veritable ocean of papers. “The King of Arvinta at his son’s christening,” she replied promptly, and instantly returned to her albums as though she had said nothing of interest.
I blinked, taken aback. “The King of Arvinta?” I replied, baffled, and stared back at the photograph. My mental image of the mysterious king was already well-established, and there was nothing about the very ordinary-looking man in the picture that held any kind of resemblance. He was carrying a child!
“Yes, he gave it to me when he was here,” Katherine said, even more implausibly. The King of Arvinta had been to Calidor? The King of Arvinta had given her a photograph?
“When did the King of Arvinta come here?” I demanded.
“I don’t know!” Katherine said. “Perhaps a year ago. He was very boring.”
“He was boring?” I replied incredulously. ‘Boring’ was not a word I associated with the Arvintan King.
“Yes, and so were his children,” Katherine muttered, her nose wrinkled. “They didn’t know how to play anything, even Chase.”
“We made that game up ourselves,” I pointed out.
“I know, but they didn’t understand it even when I explained,” she said. “Well, they didn’t want to play it.”
This was all very confusing. “Was it really the Arvintans?” I asked.
“Yes!” Katherine said. “That’s what Mother told me, anyway. They weren’t here long. The King gave me the picture and some jewellery, and he gave Leo, Edith, Rowena, Manny and Francis all toys. They were lucky.”
Already doubting Katherine’s story – she had a flare for the dramatic which occasionally went beyond the realm of truth – I looked back at the picture. “Who are these?” I asked. “Who are the two ladies?”
Katherine shrugged. “I don’t know,” she said. “One of them is the Queen.”
I frowned. “But who is the other lady? And why are there two babies?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” said Katherine. “It might be the King’s sister. I think she had a baby at the same time as the Queen.”
Amazed that I supposedly held in my hands real evidence of the mysterious family I had seen four years earlier, free from the flourishes of an Arvintan artist, I found Katherine’s lack of interest infuriating. Had she truly failed to be moved by the Arvintan king? Had none of his strangeness, so palpable and memorable to me, been apparent to her? Had he really been no different to the daily stream of courtiers through her mother’s palace, so forgettable that her only solid memory was of the gifts he had brought?
I kept this conversation quiet. As the days and then the weeks passed, and even when we were home in Rowenia, I kept Katherine’s information to myself, like some guilty secret. When I finally mentioned it to my mother I regretted my foolishness.
“Katherine met the Arvintan king?” my mother repeated, as if the suggestion were so ridiculous that I should feel ashamed for even having believed it possible. I instantly hated myself for having asked. “Absolute nonsense! There hasn’t been an Arvintan diplomatic visit abroad since my first marriage, and I don’t think they’ve been to Keperlia as a family for centuries. Katherine shouldn’t make things up like that; when she’s older her stories could have real consequences. And you’re very silly for believing them, Joanna; you ought to know better.”
Even my father’s reaction made me feel ashamed; he simple asked, “What?“, mockingly stretching the word into two syllables in its emphasis, as if to make doubly clear to me how ludicrous the very suggestion was. I never asked anyone again, even Cassandra, and it simply became clear to me that Katherine had been either lying or mistaken. My ever-fading memory of the photograph and the inconsistences within it served to reinforce this conclusion: the presence of two babies, Katherine’s inadequate account of their identities, and the very un-sinister appearance of the ‘Arvintan king’.
And yet, the Arvintan king wasn’t as I had remembered him. Spurred on by the drawings in fairy tale books, my memory had created an image of him in the likeness of centuries’ worth of refined, sinister leaders: tall, mysterious men with purring voices and palpable auras of menace. As he came through the double doors, King Joseph had in fact a rather conventional face, even a handsome one, and he was only a little taller than my mother. His dark hair was thick and pleasantly wavy from his journey, evoking the thought of fresh sea-salted winds: time spent on the deck of a yacht, maybe having tea with his wife or playing with his children. In a travelling outfit of pale green, his overall appearance was far from sinister. Perhaps he had been the pleasant-looking man in the photograph, holding the child.
My mother had of course not had much time to recover. After the door in the corridor had banged and the footman had cried out in surprise, we heard an indistinct murmur that I somehow knew to be the voice of the King; it had endured in my memory far more accurately than anything visual. When the doors swung open he strode straight inside, a smile on his face and a look of curiosity in his eyes.
He stood beside his wife as he abruptly clasped my mother’s hands in his and remarked with sincerity that he was glad to be there. Not the silent matron I had constructed for myself, his wife could even be called pretty: her hair was streaked with a maternal grey but retained the full brightness of its original nut-brown hue. She was dressed in the same shade of green as her husband, and the colour suited her. It was interesting how eager they both were: there was little preoccupation with maintaining dignity, although they both managed regardless. Neither stopped smiling throughout.
They were followed immediately by their children, with none of the eerie ceremony I remembered. There was no procession, and they seemed a normal family on an exciting trip. Dressed in the same green as their parents, the children entered the room with looks of quiet enthusiasm, and I realised I had not allowed my memory to alter their ethereal beauty. Exquisitely pale, each child had a unique face, and each of their outfits had been made with slight alterations to suit the figure or age of the wearer. It may have been the paleness or the brightly cheerful expressions on their faces, but their features all seemed curiously well-defined, and I wondered idly whether it was this that had caused me to mistake them for statues when I was younger: such care seemed to have gone into each of their delicate features that it was as though they had been pain-stakingly constructed by an expert sculptor. This feature that they all had in common somehow made them remote, unreachable. They never turned to look at any of us, keeping their wide eyes fixed on the interaction between their parents and mine.
They came into the room without any elaborate choreography, and seemingly in a random order: one of the elder princesses entered first with a younger sister, followed by several of her brothers. Fruitlessly trying to reconcile their image with the combination of my faint memories and the familiar portrait, all I saw were pleasant faces devoid of conflict or emotion. Each smiled pleasantly, as though still slightly flushed from the excitement of their voyage. The height of the two taller princes was exaggerated by the closeness of their small sister, who stood shyly beside the girl who must be Eugenia Gwendolyn. Their nearest brother, whom I presumed to be Joseph Eric, was barely taller than their older sister, and as if to lessen the effect he inched away from his brothers and stood directly behind the smaller girl. He was differentiated starkly from his siblings by his dark complexion: his skin had an olive tint and his hair was almost black; I realised that he strongly resembled his father. These five had entered the room in what appeared to be a perfect, self-contained little group that needed no artificial management to maintain its simple elegance. As they established themselves beside their parents, the queen beamed companionably at each of them and positioned herself beside her eldest daughter, tucking her hand through her arm like a friend. After a short pause, they were followed through the doors by a slim girl with a dark fringe who must be Maria Constanza, and a pretty chestnut-haired girl with a heart-shaped face.
They just seemed to keep on coming. After the princesses there were two boys in identical outfits that I immediately recognised as the twins of whom the King had seemed so proud during my remote Arvintan visit, and after them came at least three more boys, and perhaps four little girls, the youngest no older than three. Then, just as the room silenced completely with astonishment and awe, three immaculately-dressed nursery maids entered the room after the smallest girl, and each of them held a wide-eyed baby.
Still smiling, King Joseph turned and took a step towards his children, but to my shock he gestured not to the girl standing beside her mother, but to the smaller child standing to their left.
“My eldest, Eugenia Gwendolyn, whom we fondly call Eugenie,” he said carefully, gesturing to the small girl, who dropped her eyes to the floor apologetically and curtsied once to my mother and once to my father. Her father also seemed to notice the surprise in the room. “She has always been petite, and as you can see it has followed her somewhat into adulthood. However, she’s always been as healthy as can be, and her tutors were always very impressed with her intellect and talents. She now plays several instruments and speaks French, German, Italian, Latin, Greek and Arvintan. She was enrolled at the Duke’s College at the University of Arivintia two years ago, and the scholars think of her as the best student they have taught in years. She had her twentieth birthday last month.”
Finally venturing to look up from the floor, Eugenia Gwendolyn managed to meet my mother’s eyes for a second and smile quickly. Her face had grown progressively redder as her father listed her accomplishments, and there was something adorable about her shyness. Despite this, however, I was struck by the stark different between her portrait and the girl I now saw in front of me. I knew the princess had changed much in the eight years since the ‘striking picture’ in the antechamber in Arivintia Palace, but it seemed to me that the girl who had commanded the room in her icy stillness was gone, taken by a changeling and replaced with a girl whose face and manners reminded me constantly of a mouse. She shared her siblings’ smooth pale skin and sculpted features, and she was indeed exquisitely beautiful, but I had difficulty deciding whether she were the most beautiful or the least. Her hair was pale blonde, though mostly hidden beneath her bonnet, and was almost the same colour as her skin. On one side of her mouth there was the ghost of a small port-wine stain that someone had evidently tried to cover up with a cosmetic. She had a little pointed noise, a narrow mouth that looked almost pursed, either in anxiety or by nature, and her eyes were big and pale blue. I noted that at least three of her sisters, though some much younger, were taller than her.
There was a pause after her father finished his speech, as if he were stopping to allow everyone to gaze for a moment in silence at the exhibit he had described. The princess’s face grew the reddest it had been so far, and her natural pallor made the change of colour embarrassingly obvious. Possibly used to their sister’s shyness, I guessed, a few of her siblings smiled sympathetically, and the tallest of her sisters reached over and placed a hand on her shoulder, more an act of friendly teasing than one of comfort. Queen Constanza smiled at my mother with a slight raise of her eyebrows, as if to say ‘I’m sure yours are exactly the same’.
This complex chain of exchanges only took a couple of seconds, and King Joseph abruptly moved on to the tallest of the girls. “This is Ariana Prudentia, my second daughter, nineteen years old. Prudence, as well call her, is not as well-rounded as Eugenie in her studies, though she is also a talented scholar and she plays the piano extremely well; her talent encouraged us to hire Arvinta’s finest music teacher from the Kaerin Academy of Music.”
The girl, whose hair beneath her bonnet was a little darker than her sister’s, and whose face was a little more confident, smiled politely and curtsied very neatly. Her smile broadened modestly as her father mentioned her musical talents, and she was not quite as crippled by the embarrassment as her elder sister. Anticipating her father’s next move, Prudence stepped over next to Eugenia Gwendolyn to allow his introductions to continue.
“Timothy, my eldest son, the future Grand Duke of Dierfon,” he explained, putting his hand on the shoulder of a shy-looking youth. “He is sixteen. I believe Timothy will one day by a wonderful student of history at the University. And this is Jonah Octavius, future Grand Duke of Elania, fifteen years old. Were he not my son he could be the greatest doctor in Arvinta, but it seems he will have to settle for scholarship alongside his royal duties…”
I barely heard the King’s commentaries, although later I knew I would beg the attentive Cassandra for every detail. As the introductions went on, the King’s children, previously crowded against the opening of the double doors, were gradually spreading out as their father progressed. I tried to count them, not patient enough to wait for the King to introduce them. After the two eldest boys King Joseph introduced Joseph Eric and Maria Constanza, the two other children I remembered from the portrait. They were now fourteen and thirteen years old. Both still had black hair, and their pale faces had a slight olive tint. Maria Constanza, though younger, was taller than her brother, and had a rather severe face and an air of the leader about her; so different from the timid child I remembered. Joseph Eric (called ‘Eric’ by his father), though just a year younger than Jonah Octavius, was much shorter and seemed painfully aware of that fact. After these two there was a daughter called Helena Anna, and then a large group of younger boys including the two identical twins who had captured so much of the King’s pride eight years ago.
“Nathaniel and Frederick, ten years old, both budding Classical scholars already training with the best Arvintan professors…Alexander, nine; he is a fine artist…”
After the group of boys was a cluster of little girls, all completely different to look at, but who all seemed to melt into one another as a single unit and seemed unwilling to part.
“Josephina Sofia, six, who has an extraordinary gift for mathematics…Isabella, a keen botanist, whom we call Belinda on account of her beauty, aged five…”
The children became younger and younger, until eventually, to my shock, the collection of young people dispersed slightly to reveal a total of three nursemaids, each of whom held a small baby in her arms. After losing count several times and having to remind myself that Eugenia Gwendolyn was not one of the younger children, I eventually had the number within my grasp. Twenty.
When I was finally able to tear my eyes away and glance at my own family, the looks of surprise on their faces were barely hidden. Cassandra, standing near my mother, was staring at some specific point in the huge collection of people, as though deliberating something. Philippa’s gaze was darting from one child to the next, probably trying to accomplish the same task as I had.
“The triplets are our youngest children,” King Joseph crowed in a kind of bliss, gesturing to the three babies. “Bartholomew, Raymond and Joshua; we named them in honour of my three barons and greatest friends, who have been indispensable in my service for most of my reign.”
“Goodness, triplets,” murmured my mother in awe. I could tell that the Arvintan king had entered her good graces. “How fascinating.”
“And all identical!” the King breathed. “An extraordinary thing to happen.”
My mother was now staring at the lovely Arvintan queen. I know she wished to ask her a thousand questions, none of which would have been appropriate. Instead, she responded with her own introductions.
“This is my eldest daughter, Cassandra,” she faltered, half-turning towards Cassandra. Cassandra stepped forward gracefully and gave a beautiful curtesy, though her action lacked something that the Arvintan princesses’ had had.
“Cassandra!” the King of Arvinta breathed, clasping her hand as he had done my mother’s, and he bent to kiss it. “What a credit you are to your nation. So many people have told me of your beauty and accomplishments, though I see now they did not do you justice. And yet I always remembered what a charming and engaging child you were, and I had no doubt you would grow to be a wonderful Crown Princess.”
The King’s subtle reference to our only trip to Arvinta took me aback; that episode of my life still sometimes felt like a dream.
“We are so pleased you are here,” said Cassandra, and I noticed a little waver in her voice. She seemed about to say something else, but apparently changed her mind. It was possibly her most underwhelming introduction to date.
“This is Philippa, my second daughter,” said my mother, and Philippa echoed Cassandra’s words as she greeted the King. “And this is Joanna, my third.”
“Heir to Sarin,” the King murmured, more to himself than to anyone else. “Wonderful.”
I said nothing, frozen to the spot as I stared up at his grinning face. I sensed an expectant silence in the room for a few seconds, before my mother apparently decided to move on.
“These are Matilda and Rosalind, who are twelve now,” she said, gesturing to each of the girls, who now stood at opposite ends of our little crowd.
“Oh my, how could I forget the twins!” the king exclaimed, rapidly looking from one to the other. “Very different, I see,” he added, as though offering feedback.
“Oh yes,” said my mother, not without resentment. I sensed Matilda brighten. I had a strange feeling that despite everything, she would like the Arvintan king.
“And finally, Edmund and Elowen,” my mother finished, almost as an afterthought. “Eleven and ten.”
“Wonderful. What beautiful ancient names,” said the King. My brother and youngest sister stared at him, unsmiling, for the duration of this introduction.
“You must be tired after your journey,” my mother said bitterly. “And you came up here with such haste. Please make yourselves comfortable here; our guest quarters in the palace’s Evergreen wing overlook the Lemin Strait, which should give you a beautiful view of the sunset.”
“Charming!” purred the king. To my combined surprise and embarrassment, he turned around without another word and exited the room the same way he had come.