9/18/21

The Prince and the Shrine


Aquiel had clearly never visited the mortal realm before. She glanced about herself repeatedly at the bustling harbor, gazing upon the sailors, blacksmiths, pirates, and merchants with a mix of awe and dismay...while covering her nose the whole time.

The two young women stood out like sore thumbs. Arriving by barge from the mystical isle, they were garbed as Ursa maidens in long blue gray line gowns. The sleeves were split and bell-shaped, the bodies empire-waisted, and the hemlines swept the ground.  Their hair was covered with the same material, but the veils covering their faces was sheer.

Neither wore jewels nor perfume except for Aquiel. She wore a silver charm about her wrist which allowed her to walk on land; it was a simple bracelet set with lapis lazuli, but valuable enough that Gisela subtly cautioned her to keep it hidden.

"There are some people low enough to rob an Ursa," she warned lowly. She scowled at the people hurrying about them. "Humans are a selfish little child-race."

Aquiel raised an eyebrow, bemused. "That's your own kind you're talking about, sister."

Gisela's mood merely darkened further. "Don't remind me."

Thankfully, the royal carriage arrived to collect them shortly after they came ashore. It was painted blue and manned by tall knights in black armor, and black stallions to match them. The knights greeted the maidens with low, polite bows and opened the carriages doors for them.

Inside, they sat upon velvet cushions as they rode deeper into the great capital of the Southern Kingdom. Aquiel was charmed, amused and intrigued by this strange new world, while Gisela was grim and tense.

"Aren't you at least excited about being back in the mortal world?" Aquiel asked her. "Haven't you missed anything about your home?"

"I'm from the Western Kingdom, not the Southern," Grisela corrected her. "And I wouldn't be so eager for this test if I were you."

Aquiel was confused. "Why?"

"Aquiel," Grisela began in a clipped tone, "don't you find it odd that when they test Ursa maidens, they don't send us to some quiet farming village to focus on good works like healing the sick or teaching the illiterate? Instead, they send us to the capital city of a kingdom, to a shrine upon the royal grounds, into the beating heart of temptation."

Aquiel shrugged. "I suppose...it's because there's not much temptation in a quiet village. But I don't suppose there's much temptation in a great city either."

Grisela looked dismayed. "What?"

"Well, take our vows, for example," Aquiel reminded her. "They don't say anything about not taking lovers or bearing children, or drinking wine or some such. We're not monks, Grisela. Ursas take lovers and bear children all the time."

Grisela was flabbergasted. "Have you learned nothing from our teachings? Ursula's temptation lay not with taking a lover or bearing a child, but in doing so with a mortal. She knew it was forbidden and yet did so anyway. All because she fell in love."

Aquiel seemed to mull that over. "Yes...but the teachings also say that love is divine. We are taught to love our sisters, are we not?"

"There's the love that's between sisters and then there's the love that is poison," Grisela told her, and for a moment it seemed her very words dripped venom. "Blinding, indulgent love which always ends in disaster." She turned to glare out the carriage. "They shouldn't have let you test so soon. You're not from this world. You're not even remotely ready for what's to come."

***

Château de Pierrefonds (click to enlarge)

The royal palace of the southern kingdom sat on a hill overlooking the capital. In the bright sunlight, the walls appeared white with gray tile roofs. It had numerous towers and parapets, and reminded Aquiel of the island temple.

"The walls are lower than I'd imagine," she murmured, mostly to herself.

"Everard is a beloved king," Gisela replied tonelessly. "He could have amassed great armies, like his forefathers, but he instead chose to feed his people. They'd die for him."

Aquiel is impressed. "So he's a good leader."

"So they say," Gisela shrugged slightly. "He's a devoutly pious man; they say he reveres the goddess unconditionally, and has kept her worship alive. But he's getting old now, and it's his replacement I'm worried about."

The Ursas of the royal palace dressed in blue gray silk and velvet, and adorned themselves with silver, gold, and all manner of precious jewels. As for the "shrine" they tended, it was a whole royal wing of the palace, complete with its own guards, several suites of rooms, and a flourishing garden with a rushing fountain in the likeness of the goddess herself.

When Aquiel and Gisela showed up looking line country bumpkins, they exchanged looks and giggled as even they led the newcomers to meet their high priestess.

She was a pale old woman, hair gone completely white and face heavily wrinkled. She walked with a wooden cane painted white and set with a large iridescent bauble at the top. She wore many glittering rings upon her bony fingers, and her long silken robes were elaborately embroidered with silver thread.

It was Aquiel and Gisela's turn to exchange looks; such opulence was a foreign concept at the island temple.

"I am Savia," the elder greeted in a deep, strong voice, "First Ursa of the Royal Shrine of Ursula. Which of you is Aquiel?"

"I am," Aquiel greeted, somewhat breathless.

"Mermaid," Savia snorted, before turning to her companion. "Then you must be Gisela. You are both very welcome, of course. I trust the journey didn't take too long."

"Not at all, my Ursa," Gisela blinked, clearly off balance.

"You are in the royal residence of the great King Everard August, and you must present yourselves as such," the elder Ursa intoned. She gestured to one of her acolyte. "Show them to their suite; make sure they are bathed and dressed appropriately." She turned back to the newcomers. "The princess is holding court this morning, and you will both need to be presented to her."

Château de Langeais

The red-haired acolyte led them away from the gardens, back into the castle. As they left, Aquiel spied a young man sitting under a tree with a book. He was tall, pale and slender, with dark brown hair beneath a golden coronet, and robes of ocean blue velvet.

"A male acolyte?" Aquiel stared, astonished.

"No," her guide chuckled. "That's Prince Florian. Savia practically raised him, since his own mother couldn't be bothered. He's not as devout as his father, but he does enjoy our library."

Gisela was surprised again. "You have your own library?"

"We do," the guide smiled proudly. "Though most of us don't use it. Half the books are written in Elvish; most of the rest are in languages long dead and gone."

"What is your name?" Gisela suddenly demanded, dark eyes slightly narrowed.

"Laria," the girl replied. She could have been no older than seventeen or eighteen. "And no, I've never been to the island temple. I was initiated here at court."

Aquiel and Gisela exchanged alarmed looks once again.

"These are your rooms," Laria showed them. They had polished wooden floors and furniture, and beds with velvet drapes. "We rise at dawn for the morning ritual, and then break our fast. We then do our rounds at court, tending the ill and the elderly, before dining again together at noon. After that, the elder Ursas take a siesta while some of us practice our music, letters, and study our herbs. We dine once more at sunset."

"These rooms are very fine," Gisela remarked.

"Altogether, we have nine Ursas here," Laria replied. "With the two of you, we are now eleven. The king has granted us six servants to do all our cooking and cleaning."

"Servants?" the new girls exclaimed together.

Laria was amused. "I take it things are different on the island?"

***

"New Ursas, I see," Prince Florian mused, closing his book and setting it down on his lap, as Savia returned to sit next to him.

"They'll be gone soon enough, I assure you," the older woman sighed, lightly patting his thigh. "One, I can already tell, doesn't like people. And the other is a mermaid." She flashed him a weary smile.

There was a pause before the Ursa gently admonished him, "You're not in court."

The young man tensed. "Why I would be? They are." He shot a scathing glance towards the double doors leading back into the palace.

"With your father delayed up north, you can't hide from them forever," Savia reminded him. "You're not a child anymore. In matter of months--weeks even--you could be a married man. In a year a father, and in a few years...king."

Florian's voice was leaden. "I'll never be king. I'm not sure I even want to be."

Savia was visibly disturbed. "What are you saying, boy?"

"Gregoria is a strong leader," he finally admitted. "She's smart and efficient. People trust her, even if they don't always 'get' her." He breathed the autumn air in deep and exhaled, looking upward at the falling leaves. "Me? I'm the one who reads."

"Boy, get to court," Savia chided him. She was the only one allowed to speak to him like this. "Gregoria is smart and efficient because she assesses and prepares. If anything were to happen to her, would you be prepared to take over? Go to court. Learn something that's not on these old books."

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