They say the worst thing you can do is start out a book with a lot of back story, but in this instance I can't really find anything I want to do without. The bulk of the story is about sixteen-year-old Anella, but so much goes into the sculpting of the young woman that doing without this information would be hard. I know there are different strategies of working this information into the story in bits and pieces later on, but I like chronology. Am I being stubborn? Probably. Here is the first chapter. What do you think? Work it in later? Leave it out entirely? Leave it the way it is?
Once a Princess
King Arden and queen Leasl loved each other and they loved their people. Peace and prosperity abounded across the land just at it did within the royal palace itself. Five children were born to the royal couple. First came two boys, straight and strong. Born two years apart they were neigh on inseparable. Born soon after were three daughters, and then the queen could have no more. But the palace echoed with the sound of children’s running feet and the laughter of play. It was a fairytale story with only one tiny blotch, not enough to blotch the entire story.
As they grew Princes Franklin and Claudius were groomed into their positions in life. Prince Franklin would be the next king and Prince Claudius would be the commander of his armed forces. Of course they would; it was the way things were done.
It was a different story for the royal daughters, though no less customary just the same. There would be no throne for them. Their neighbors were few and mostly across a mean sea or a meaner mountain range, and those royal families had daughters of their own and much closer neighbors to worry about. Queen Leasl came from across the mountains; her words still carried the lilt of a different language under them. Princess Maria, named after a grandmother she never met, and Princess Janine, named after her other grandmother, were everything their parents expected. They were lovely, graceful and colorful, and they flirted with all the young men at court.
The queen worked as hard to groom them for their position in life as the king worked on his sons. She made sure they were pleasing to look at and graceful to watch. She saw to their instruction in color coordination and sewing, hairstyle and makeup, dancing and music, and even some singing. But being colorful and entertaining wasn’t the only thing she made sure they knew how to do; she made sure they learned how to manage the household and all of its servants and staff. Since it was very important that the royal daughters married into the best families in the land, thus strengthening the king’s power and influence, they must also become a valuable addition to their future husbands’ houses regardless of his title. The peace they all enjoyed needed constant attention lest it deteriorate into petty squabbles.
The youngest princess, Anella, was the family thorn. Her hair was less than golden and habitually unruly, and though she wasn’t an ugly child, she was not the dainty princess her mother would have liked. She wasn’t particularly graceful, but she couldn’t be called clumsy either; she just didn’t care about dancing and it showed. Lack of interest wasn’t an excuse her mother tolerated; she preferred to blame her big feet, though they weren’t all that big really.
Her feet weren’t the only signs of difference between Anella and her sisters. Long before reaching the age of six, she was already taller, sturdier and far more stubborn than either of her sisters.
Though the queen insisted she learn it, Anella was not interested in sewing or embroidery, and poetry was quite beyond her grasp. In fact, she was quite unruly in almost every way conceivable to the queen.
The first big event in Anella’s life was the announcement and celebration of her betrothal to the second son of Duke Seville. Seville was a powerful man himself, and though he was a cousin, he was a distant cousin and the king thought it desirable to bind him a little closer to the throne.
Anella, her mother, and her mother’s servants spent days making her a special dress for the occasion. On the day of her betrothal, she stood with her father in front of all the court for the first time as the duke and his son crossed the crowded audience chamber to meet them. All the negotiating was completed, and the necessary papers were signed and sealed; all that remained was the formal announcement and ceremony, and the inevitable ball to follow. At sixteen, Prince Franklin was there too, he stood with the king in all things now, and just now, he was standing directly behind his littlest sister, lending his silent support for this frightening affair. As Duke Seville and his eight-year-old son came to a stop in front of Anella and her father, his strong frame was there for her to back into. Then the king took his youngest daughter’s hand and placed it in the hand of the boy who would one day be her husband.
Anella wasn’t afraid anymore; she was mesmerized. Somewhere overhead, the king and the duke said their oaths and promises aloud for the entire court to hear, but Anella wasn’t paying attention. She was more interested in the boy who now held her hand. She had been told that his name was Paul and that he was the second and last child in his family. She had also been warned against talking during the ceremony, and since he didn’t say anything either, he must have been warned too.
He was taller than she was, of course, he was two years older after all, but he had such a nice face, wavy black hair and big beautiful blue eyes. Anella thought he was very good looking for a boy. She couldn’t help but gloat a little to herself, he’s much better looking than either of the two boys betrothed to my sisters. He was looking at her too, the whole time. Is he thinking about me like I’m thinking about him? Does he think I’m at all pretty?
Since the ceremony was more about the alliance between the king and the duke than it was about two young people coming together, and since Anella and Paul were both quite young, they were sent away in their separate directions to go to bed as soon as the ceremony was over, missing the celebration that came after completely. Then, early the next morning, the duke and his entourage left to return to their home and Anella never got another opportunity to meet or speak with Paul.
After all the excitement was over, life at the palace returned to normal with one small addition, every year, on her birthday, Anella dutifully received a birthday present and a letter from Paul, and she was required to do the same in time for his birthday. They also exchanged presents and letters on their anniversary and on Christmas; it was all very dull and boring. His letters told of daily happenings in his life, like the birth of a new colt that would be his to train, or some lesson he was to begin soon. His letters were always a little dry, but then she was sure hers were too, after all, what do you write to a stranger?
His presents were just as uninteresting as his letters. The first such gift was a bolt of cloth in his family house colors, some of which was added to any new dress from that point on. For Christmas that year, he sent her a little gold harp that migrated to the farthest edge of her dresser rather quickly. When she turned nine, he sent some jewelry obviously intended to match the cloth; it was added to her jewelry box and then all but forgotten, the ring didn’t fit anyway. Admittedly, they were all things Anella thought were quite lovely, but she just couldn’t get excited over them.
The queen picked out most of the presents she sent to Paul; the only thing she picked out was a fancy saddle for his colt to use someday. “A girl shouldn’t think of something so...so leathery,” said the queen indignantly.
“But mother, see here,” said Anella. She points out the letter she had just read. “This whole letter is about his colt and he even mentions wanting a saddle that matches him. There’s silver all over this thing, and what goes better with black than silver? You wouldn’t want me to send him a sample of my sewing now, would you?” The saddle was bought and sent, along with an extra long letter telling about all the plans she had for the use of the material he had sent her. As the list of ideas grew, she feared he just might send another bolt. “Mother, stop adding things, it’s long enough.” Her mother left the room in a huff. Anella recopied the letter one more time and then handed it to the waiting messenger.
Even at a young age, Anella tried to be very logical about the things she did, and now that she was betrothed, it was logical for her to do the things her mother expected. She worked at her sewing until her eyes wouldn’t focus anymore and her mother dismissed her when fingers started to bleed; it wouldn’t do to have a bodice that was stained with blood.
Though her fingers hurt, there was one good thing about that; it got her out of her music lessons too. And, since the palace bard cringed every time he saw her, skipping those lessons altogether was simple, leaving her afternoons mostly free.
Shortly before dinner, her sisters, and sometimes her mother, practiced their skill with makeup and hairstyle in preparation for the evening meal. These sessions were especially long when a new merchant who sold such things was in town, something that happened all too often in Anella’s opinion. Ah but, this too fell under the things she needed to learn, so Anella tried her best and eventually she was able to apply makeup to her sisters’ eyes without poking an eye out. Too bad her sisters’ eyes were so pale; her own eyelashes were rather dark so she never bothered with eye makeup on herself, not unless her mother was there to see to it. The first time she poked her own eye out, she figured her mother made her do it as punishment for what she put her sisters through.
Every summer as part of the midsummer’s celebration, the king hosted the Grand Tournament, and when Anella reached the age of ten, her mother allowed her to accompany her father. She fell in love with the whole thing. First was the jousting contest; she thought it was very exciting to watch these big men, some of whom she knew from the palace guard, charging at each other on their big horses. She didn’t so much care for the way they tried to stab at each other with those really long poles, but that was the point of it all. The whole stadium cheered whenever there was a good hit, and if a rider was unseated entirely, the place rocked with the stamping of feet and the blaring of horns too. One day, she asked, “Father, when can I learn to ride like that?”
He was leaning forward, paying attention to nuances he didn’t explain, but he had enough attention for his daughter to say, “women shouldn’t ride; it’s bad for them.”
The next day, she was with her mother and her sisters. They were walking the thoroughfare and sampling the sweets. Anella saw a man with a small pony – it was barely as tall as his waist and on it was sitting a little girl. That wouldn’t be bad, would it? “Mother, that man is giving all the children a ride on his pony. May I? Please?”
Leasl took one look and suddenly her ever-present hanky was in her hand and she was fanning her face with it. “Oh heavens no. Oh no.” She turned to look again and then waved for the royal carriage to take them home.
The next day Anella followed her brothers and discovered other competitions. Claudius was especially interested in the single horse and the sword competitions; the horses did some pretty amazing tricks but Anella didn’t understand why they were taught to do them. The issue was further confused by the fact that the riders were dressed in armor, though not such heavy armor as those in the jousting competitions. When she asked, “Claudius, why are they doing that?” Her question was forgotten when the horse did a fancy jump and everyone in the stands stood up and cheered.
Francis lost interest after the single horse competition and left the stadium but Claudius remained and so Anella stayed with him. The sword competition was the best she’d seen so far but it was still confusing, though Claudius seemed to understand it just fine. Admittedly, it was rather pretty to watch but she didn’t see the point.
Since horses were out of bounds and the events they were involved with made no sense, Anella wandered off on her own. It didn’t take her long to discover many, less formal, events took place outside of the stadium and away from the promenade. She discovered wrestling and boxing matches, but soon lost interest in them; they were much too sweaty and brutal for her tastes. She also found sword and staff fights. These things she could understand; one man competing against another to be best was a simple concept and it was far more than a single strike at a time; a fighter had to avoid or block being hit and try to hit back at the same time – it was really very intricate. She liked the sword matches best; they were almost like a dance with death, though from the amount of jeering and laughter, she knew no such danger existed. For her, they were an ever-changing, never-ending excitement and she went to the tournament grounds every day just to watch them. She soaked up every match, reliving and remixing them in her head, imagining sword contests of all sorts where she was the victor.
Not long after the tournament was over, she found a spot where she could watch her brothers at their sword lessons. She of course knew that her brothers did this, but it never occurred to her to watch before, not until she had seen what could be done with the skill. Drawn like a moth to a candle flame, she took every opportunity she could find to skip her afternoon of music so she could watch the sword master try to teach her brothers the intricate skill of the sword. She had no idea it was such a puzzle.
Watching the sword master work with her brothers, and reliving the duels she had seen at the tournament, lasted Anella for almost the entire year, but it was inevitable that it would become inadequate; she simply had to discover the secret for herself. So, late one evening, when no one was around, she sneaked down to the armory. She had no plan for what she would do when she got there, but as soon as her eyes rested on a rack full of all manner of different swords, she had to have one. She handled each one until she found one she liked. She had no idea whether it was suitable for her size or strength; the thought prompted by a comment she’d overheard the sword master say “You’re outgrowing this sword, Claudius. You should choose another” a few days ago, but she liked it. It was shiny and it wasn’t the smallest sword on the rack, but she could lift it.
She stepped out onto the training ground and started trying some of the moves the master had been teaching her brothers. Her moves were noticeably awkward and weak, and her arm grew tired depressingly soon. To her eye, it didn’t look like anything the sword master was teaching. Far from ready to stop, she did the only logical thing; she switched the sword to her left hand and continued to try to grasp the moves. It never occurred to her that she had never seen anyone else do this; she just wasn’t ready to stop, not yet, and her arm was tired so why not? She did it with every thing else she did.
She continued to struggle with the forms, switching hands until both of her arms were totally leaden before giving it up for the night and replacing the sword where she found it. She erased all the other signs of her presence and returned to her room to dream of fighting in some glorious battle or other of which she had only seen pictures. This time she had the memory of the weight of real steel in her hands and the aches in her arms to make it more real.
The library was filled with old tomes and their pages were covered with flowery letters and fantastic pictures. Anella’s mother would never let her read the stories that accompanied those pictures; the only books she was allowed to read were the ledgers where she was carefully schooled in the writing of various supplies and the accounting of numbers. Anella tried hoarding some of those books in her room once, but the servants found them and then her mother cried and fanned herself again. Unknown to the queen though, Anella managed quick glimpses from time to time.
The books in the library weren’t the only source of such pictures though; there were tapestries depicting battles hanging around on nearly every wall, especially on the main floor where visitors could be reminded of the glories of past ancestors. She saw those every day; she just couldn’t stop and study them unless she was sure she was alone.
Day after day, she did much the same thing; she’d watch her brothers at their lessons, soaking up every detail she could, and then she would return later that night when no one was around and try to figure it out for herself, using first one hand, and then the other, and then back again. She knew she was getting stronger when she heard the shift change out in the hall; dawn would be soon. She mustn’t be caught here when the sword master returned for his morning classes with the soldiers.
Even as her endurance increased, the puzzle remained tantalizingly out of reach. In her imagination, someone was always able to get past her defenses and her attacks were always too slow to score a hit. With stubborn determination, she would try again, and again, and again.
As time went on, she grew overconfident in her ritual and less careful about making sure she was alone. There came a day when the sword master remained in the classroom behind the training room much longer than usual.