The Southern Kingdom
It wasn't her first gray hair, but its presence still irked Gregoria.
Every night before bed, the princess applied a mask of clay, milk, and eggs to her whole face to keep it looking young and firm. Every morning before dawn, she sat before her silver mirror and plucked out her gray hairs before her handmaidens could attend her.
They might call me a spinster, she tilted her head, admiring her reflection, but at least I'm a good-looking one.
Gregoria was in her mid-thirties. In addition to never having married, she'd never borne a child, which her father's court considered most unseemly. However, she had a younger brother in peak health, and Gregoria was a well-educated woman, so despite the court's dismay, none of her father's councilors ever pressed the issue.
She always knew when the sun had risen because her chief attendant Winifred arrived every morning like clockwork to pull back the heavy velvet drapes and let the sun in.
"Good morning, Your Highness," the maid greeted neutrally.
"Good morning, Winifred," the princess replied, leaning closer into her mirror to check for wrinkles. "What news?"
"Your father did not return in the night," Winifred replied, going over the princess's bed to collect the sheets for wash day. "But Lord Godric did, and wishes to meet with you this morning."
"Noted," Gregoria nodded. "Have the girls draw me a bath. I'll take my breakfast with Lord Godric."
"And the Ursa maidens are due to arrive today," Winifred added, stuffing the sheets and pillowcases into a large basket. She was a large, doughy woman several years younger than Gregoria. Much of her blond hair had long gone gray, lending to the illusion that she was the older woman. The princess always chose handmaidens who looked older than she did.
"The Ursas?" Gregoria blinked. "That's today?"
"Autumn has begun, Your Highness," Winifred reminded her. "From equinox to equinox, they tend the royal shrine."
"I don't give a damn about Ursas, cousin," Queen Lavinia snapped, waving her handmaiden before scowling at her kinsman across her balcony table. "I hear Lord Godric returned alone."
The queen was still in her sleeping clothes, draped in a heavy blanket against the morning chill, her long hair hanging uncombed about her shoulders. She was blond, like her stepdaughter, but unlike Gregoria, Lavinia knew to regularly dye her hair and stay out of the sun.
"Indeed he did, cousin," Lord Benedict bowed his head slightly. He was a ginger, freckled, tall, and gangly. He was always up before the sun, dressed as resplendently as any king in silks and velvets. His heavy perfume wafted across the small table to the queen, souring her mood further as Lavinia was reminded of just how high she'd raised him up.
"And?" she demanded. "What news from the North?"
"Godric is meeting with the princess over breakfast," he informed her. The sun was out night, shining brilliantly over the castle courtyard, where the chrysanthemums were already in full bloom, and the tree leaves were turning gold and red.
"Fuck the gods," Lavinia hissed, biting her nails. "Why is this taking so long? Florian is already betrothed to that Northern bitch. They should be wedded by winter. Gods willing, they'll have a healthy child by summer. So why does Everard delay?"
"Cousin," Benedict began gently, "Gregoria is the elder child. Technically, she is the heir apparent to the throne."
"And yet her father has not formally declared her Crown Princess," Lavinia countered. "He merely dawdles in the North, probably sucking up to that wench Damiana."
Benedict chuckled. "My spies assure me there's nothing untoward between your king and the Queen in the North. Damiana is...a hard woman to negotiate with. She has the bigger army."
"And we have the harbors," Lavinia barked. "We have the ships, the seas full of fish. We have the orchards in the east, the wheat fields in the west. What we lack in gold, we more than make up for in sustenance--the fuck does she have to compare in that frozen wasteland she calls a kingdom?"
"An army," Benedict patiently reiterated, "bred for war and braced for any hardship."
"Surely the Northerners are not still upset?" Gregoria asked, helping herself to some more fresh bread and butter. "The war is technically over." Unlike her stepmother, who heavily favored jewels and lavish gowns, the princess dressed modestly in fine but plain gowns, with a simple golden circlet upon her head. Today she wore a dress of deep purple velvet embroidered in gold.
"Victims have long memories, Your Highness," Godric politely reminded. He was tall, slender, with black hair and a goatee. Like his princess, he preferred to dress simply in fine wools and high leather boots. He was several years her elder, but barely looked any older. "Your predecessors invaded their territories, hoping to claim their copper mines. We warred for decades, incurring great losses on both sides. Such a thing is not so easily forgiven."
Gregoria sighed. "Is my brother betrothed to Celestina or not?"
Godric paused, choosing his words carefully. "It's on the table."
The princess's patience was wearing thin. "What does that mean?"
"It means," he raised an eyebrow, "that their betrothal is but one of many items in contention. Damiana also wants wagons of grain, apples, and hundreds of pigs for the coming winter. Your father wants complete ownership of a copper mine."
"So why not make the trade?"
"Celestina is Damiana's only daughter. Florian is your father's only son," Godric attempted to explain. "Their betrothal puts our kingdoms on equal footing, but in an of itself is not enough. Each side must add to the bargain. Wagons of food are undeniably valuable, but a copper mine is worth so much more. Yet your father is...struggling to find something else to add to the bargain."
"Why not gold?" Gregoria shrugged. "The royal accountants assure me our fleet has turned high profits in trade and fishing this past year."
"But our kingdom incurred substantial debts during the wars," Godric shook his head. "We have still have dukes and counts and banks to repay. I'm afraid negotiations are at an impasse, Your Highness."
"What about my dowry?" Lavinia finally asked, as her maids began serving breakfast. "When I married Everard--at the tender age of thirteen, mind you--my father surrendered the northernmost lands of his dukedom. What if Everard offers that to Damiana?"
"It might help," Benedict mulled it over. "The region is good for growing apples all year long and has enough woodlands for hunting." He raised an eyebrow. "But I must warn you that even if the king agrees to add it to the bargain, it may further sour relations between him and our family. Your brother never did like Everard."
"My brother has a fucking dukedom," Lavinia hissed, cutting into a fresh pear with jerky movements. "He got to be a fucking Duke while I was sold to a man many years my senior. I don't care what Ferdinand thinks, and I don't think he'll care that much if we can secure this alliance and make Florian king."
Benedict tried not to wince. "There's still the issue of Gregoria."
"Gregoria is an infamous spinster."
"Who rules in her father's absence and does so rather well," her cousin pressed. "Her refusal to marry and bear children might be...well, odd but she's still earned the respect of her father and his court. She is very likely to succeed him, Your Majesty. And though Florian may never be rule, his children still might. All is not lost."
"You have no idea what it's like to be thirteen and married off to an older man," Lavinia growled. "I'd barely had my first blood and my father practically raced to the altar to beat out his rivals. I nearly died bringing that boy into this world, Benedict--I bled for days, was in excruciating pain for weeks--and I will not bow to the sanctimonious little bitch who looked upon me with pity the whole time. I want her gone, cousin. Everard is not a young man, and once he leaves this world, my son and I will be ripe for every courtier who's ever hated me."
"Perhaps you need to start making peace, then," her cousin suggested. "We have many unmarried boys and girls in our family. Our western lands are fertile--"
"--and our enemies are rich," the queen spat venomously. "House Dustan is already descended from kings and they recently discovered a sapphire mine on their lands. House Castellan owns their own fleet of trade and fishing ships. Even the fucking Albans and their orchards have made a fortune in wine over the past half decade--Everard himself can't stop drinking that swill! Honora Alban was supposed to marry Everard instead of me, if you recall. They won't care about my brother's wheat fields nor any of our snot-nosed brats. But if my son is married to Celestina, her family's army will give them pause.
"Write to my husband," she commanded bitingly, leaning back into her chair. "Tell him to surrender my dowry to that Northern bitch."