There is a belief persistent amongst both the ordinary people of Rowenia, and amongst several members of the aristocracy, that Arvinta chose to withdraw from the world because of a perceived slight against them that occurred over a hundred years ago.
In 1701, my mother’s great-grandfather, King Rewan, came to the Rowenian throne after the death of his mother. Rowenia was enjoying a time of particular political prosperity: Rewan’s mother had been Queen of Rowenia and his father had been King of Keperlia, whilst one of his great-grandfathers had been the Grand Duke of Matalie. Rewan’s sister Maria Violet became Queen of Keperlia at the age of 17 after the death of their father, and so for the next several years Rowenia maintained an exceptionally close relationship with its old ally, as well as with Rewan’s cousins in Matalie. As a result, Rewan was understandably considered to be the most eligible bachelor in Islandia.
The Arvintan King Octavius V was unique among Arvintan sovereigns as the son of a Rowenian prince, and was therefore also a distant cousin of Rewan. Whilst Arvinta had not exactly been absent from the Rowenian royal family tree in recent years, it had been several generations since an Arvintan royal had counted a monarch of Islandia’s largest kingdom amongst their children, and Octavius was therefore keen for Rewan to marry his daughter, Crown Princess Maria Teresa.
Maria Teresa was eight years younger than Rewan and was supposed to be exceptionally beautiful. She and her siblings were one of the first royal generations in centuries not to have grown up within the confines of the Lyceum; her enterprising father valued his children’s political and diplomatic development above their academic education, and he chose to have them kept within Arivintia Palace along with a large collection of tutors imported from the University. He kept his elder children constantly in the public gaze, with ambitious plans for their futures. In 1698, when Maria Teresa was almost nineteen years old, her father commissioned a portrait of his whole family that was ostensibly intended as the King’s coronation portrait, but which had the primary purpose of showcasing his elder children’s marriageability. Maria Teresa would eventually be one of fifteen children, though only eleven had been born at the time of the portrait. In the picture, which hung in the corridor near our schoolrooms, the family stand on the terrace of the pavilion in Koruna. Behind them, a vast green lawn races down towards the sea, out of which the islands of Io, Dierfon and Elania rise, with the castle-fortress on Dierfon visible against the sparsely-clouded blue sky.
The Queen, also named Maria Teresa, sits woodenly on an invisible chair, holding the baby Princess Maria Anna and surrounded by two of her younger daughters, Maria Helena and Maria Octavia (one of whom, Maria Octavia, holds a sash on which the badges of Dierfon and Elania are pinned). Crown Princess Maria Teresa stands in the middle of the canvas, with her sister Maria Sophia on one side, and her young brother Eric Alexander on the other. She is dressed in a tomato-red dress of the same style as her mother and most of her sisters, with an Arvintan brooch fastened at the neckline, a string of pearls at her throat, and two chestnut-brown ringlets drooping over her shoulders. She stands elegantly on the yellow stones of the terrace, with a neutral expression aimed out of the picture.
The picture is an unusual one in many ways. Many art critics have commented on the strange red-pink curtain that is drooped across the left of the backdrop, behind Princesses Maria Eugenia (who holds an Arvintan rose) and Maria Christina. Curtains across a natural backdrop was a common trope of seventeenth-century art, but this one appears to hang in mid-air: the terrace at the Koruna pavilion was well known for having nothing from which a curtain could be suspended. A few slightly paranoid Matalians speculated that King Octavius, like Queen Olivia two centuries before, was in the process of chopping down the forests of Koruna to prepare for another pre-emptive and unexplained naval attack on Havilund, and therefore had the curtain added to the portrait to disguise the deforested area beyond the only remaining patch of trees. Apparently they chose to ignore the fact that if that were true, the King could simply order a forest to be painting into the picture.
Secondly, whilst Crown Princess Maria Teresa appears to be the central figure in the painting, the piece is dominated by the figures of Octavius V and his two elder sons, the Prince Royal Octavius, and the eight-year-old Eric Alexander. They alone seem to have a physical presence in the scene: the King’s magnificent ermine robes and the dark, military uniforms of his sons are well-integrated into the scene, but the Queen and princesses are all slightly faint, as if they are floating; not entirely there. In fact, a Rowenian courtier at the beginning of the nineteenth century acidly referred to the painting as ‘a marvellous likeness of the King and his sons against an elaborate backdrop’.
Octavius V was a man who much preferred his warlike sons to his large brood of daughters, though he did view the princesses as convenient pawns in an ambitious foreign policy that depended on an intricate network of royal marriage. This worked quite well for central Islandia: Octavius’s second daughter, Maria Eugenia, married Grand Duke Aaron of Calbania in 1704, and Eric Alexander later married Grand Duchess Elena of Matalie, although they each had very minimal success in Arvintanising their new families.
Despite his dislike of her, therefore, Octavius’s hopes were primarily centred on his eldest daughter. In marrying King Rewan of Rowenia, Maria Teresa’s children would share the crowns of Rowenia and Arvinta. If she were particularly strategic, or if she had only a single child, the Rowenian and Arvintan crowns could become one: Maria Teresa could use her intense political training first to manipulate her husband into raising and educating their children in Arvinta, and then to groom a future Rowenian monarch into an Arvintan nationalist who would transform the vast Rowenian empire into a mere backwater of the great Arvintan empire. If all went well, the long-deceased Queen Olivia’s grand plan of Islandian domination, now a hushed-up taboo even within the Arvintan royal court, could start to become a reality. Such things had not been done before, but Octavius V knew they were possible, and it would all be because of him.