by Eliza Prokopovits
Ana didn’t speak when the courier came to the house. She stood next to Aunt Arda at the table, staring silently. The courier looked harried and bemused and didn’t inspire much confidence, though he read the proclamation with the proper gusto. It was a proclamation – not an invitation, for all it meant that she’d be leaving her aunt’s house to live in the royal palace beyond the bay. She merely nodded when he looked to her for her consent; it didn’t seem that refusal was an option, not when she had been chosen to marry the prince. Aunt Arda gaped, for once speechless.
It was ten-year-old Sari who asked, “When?”
“As soon as Ana’s things are packed,” the courier replied, nodding to Ana to indicate that she should begin.
She set the paring knife down on the table beside the freshly washed vegetables she was cutting for dinner. She wiped her hands on her apron then untied it and hung it over the back of a chair. She went to the rough wooden bunk bed where she slept below Sari so she wouldn’t wake her sister when she got up early to help Aunt Arda in the garden. Her wool blanket would stay here, of course, and she’d leave her other dress for Sari, who would grow into it soon enough. The only things she wanted to take were tucked into the corner of the bed against the wall: a small sachet of herbs that had long since lost its scent but still had her mother’s delicate embroidery and a book that had been Ana’s father’s. She could not read the words, as they were in a language even her mother didn’t know, but in the margins were letters formed by her mother’s hand as she taught Ana to read and write. Not that she’d had to use that skill much with Aunt Arda, who thought reading a waste of time. But every so often, when Aunt Arda was not nearby, she took a stick and scraped letters in the dirt so she wouldn’t forget. She’d tried to teach Sari to read this way, but Aunt Arda had seen them. She had scuffed the scribbles away and berated them for idleness. Any conversation between the sisters became a sign that they needed more chores to do.
Ana put her two treasures into the pockets of her patched woolen skirt and straightened up, looking around the small house a final time. Aunt Arda’s bed stood along the opposite wall from the girls’ bunks; the sturdy wooden table filled the center of the room, three mismatched chairs pushed in around it. Ana glanced once wistfully out the curtainless window toward the sea before turning back to the others. She hugged Aunt Arda; some kind of goodbye was necessary, having lived with her mother’s sister for the past eleven years. Aunt Arda, still stunned and silent, wrapped her arms around Ana in a perfunctory way. Ana hugged Sari then, and kissed her. She wanted to whisper that everything would be fine, but she didn’t know if it would, and she didn’t want to lie. Sari must have seen it in her brimming eyes, and hugged her tighter, tears running down her own cheeks.
Ana released her sister and turned to the courier. She nodded. She followed him out of the house, past the cooking fire that Aunt Arda had been tending when the carriage arrived. Carriages rarely came this far south around the bay; most of the people who used them lived along the north shore near the castle. A donkey, or even a pony, was enough to excite Aunt Arda’s attention. She was nearly dumb from amazement when the carriage stopped in front of their small cottage before anyone had said a word of why they were there.
Ana and Sari had heard the carriage from inside and had peered around the open door to see it. If Aunt Arda had caught them gawping, they would have received an earful. But they couldn’t help it: the carriage was so bright, painted emerald and sapphire and gold, that even dulled by the dirt of the road it almost hurt their eyes. The escorting soldiers on their massive horses, with jingling bits and bright livery, made Ana’s jaw hang open.
Now a footman opened the carriage door and waited to help Ana in. She accepted his help and sat on the padded seat, her fingers tracing lines in the velvet cushion. The courier joined her, and the footman closed the door. Soldiers mounted their horses and with a command and a crack of the whip they were off. Ana fixed her eyes straight ahead and did not look back as they pulled away; she did not want to see the look on her sister’s face.
Sari had been only one when their mother died. They’d lived with Aunt Arda for almost two years by then; Mother and Ana had moved in with her when Father disappeared and Mother realized she was pregnant again. Aunt Arda hadn’t wanted to let them stay. She and Mother had argued about it when they thought Ana was asleep, hissing at each other as though fury and disapproval had something to do with volume. As though, if you didn’t shout, they didn’t scatter about the room giving sharp edges to everything. Aunt Arda didn’t approve of Father, or of Mother’s decision to love him. And because Ana was Father’s daughter, she didn’t approve of her either. Ana pictured Father’s face and tried to understand what Aunt Arda saw wrong with him, but all she remembered was his laugh and how he carried her on his shoulders. But he’d vanished, and maybe that was the problem. He’d come back, though; he always did.
But he hadn’t come back, and Aunt Arda had let them stay, having the bunks built along the wall opposite her own bed. Mother and three-year-old Ana had shared the bottom bunk then. When Mother gave birth to Sari, Ana was allowed to sleep on the top bunk by herself. A year later, Mother got sick, and Aunt Arda was kinder to her than Ana had ever seen her. But kindness wasn’t enough to save her. Aunt Arda seemed to disapprove of kindness, too, after that, but she kept the two girls because they had nowhere else to go. Ana was responsible for watching Sari, for helping her learn to walk and to talk, for cuddling with her on the bottom bunk which they now shared and singing her to sleep when she wailed from the pain of growing and teething. Once Sari was old enough not to need constant supervision, Aunt Arda made Ana help her in the garden. Ana didn’t mind the work, but she would have liked it better if she could sing while she weeded. Aunt Arda didn’t approve of singing.
Ana only knew one song, the one she sang to Sari as a lullaby, and maybe it was the song itself that Aunt Arda disapproved of. But Ana didn’t see why – the song didn’t even have words. Or it might have, but she couldn’t remember them. Mother had taught her the song, or maybe Father had, or maybe they’d sung it together at times when he was home. It wove through her memories and rang in her heart as she worked in silence and tended Sari.
Ana was ten when she found the empty bottle. She was walking alone on the beach looking for stranded treasures. It was one of the chores Aunt Arda gave her when she got tired of having her around and there was nothing to do in the garden. She rarely found much worthwhile, but Aunt Arda seemed to hope that someday she’d find a chest of gold from a shipwreck that would make their fortune for life. Ana didn’t mind; she liked walking barefoot in the firm, wet sand near the high-tide line, looking out at the glittering waves. A gleam in the sand ahead caught her eye. She hurried to it, hoping to find a few pennies to take home to Aunt Arda. But it was only an old bottle – plain, greenish glass, empty but for the cork that still stopped the mouth. The sea breeze tossed her light brown hair about her face. She brushed at it absentmindedly as she studied the bottle. She might as well leave it, since Aunt Arda wouldn’t be impressed with such a find. Instead, she pulled out the cork and rinsed the bottle in the surf. She carried it home and hid it behind the small garden shed where it could dry. She told Aunt Arda that the sands had been bare.
The next time she was sent to the beach, she took the bottle with her. In one pocket she’d hidden a tiny corner of paper torn from her father’s book and in the other a tiny piece of charcoal from the fire. On the beach, she sat against her favorite boulder, hidden from the village, her toes buried in the smooth, dry sand. She took out the paper and charcoal and frowned at the bay, wondering what to write. At last she painstakingly formed the words: My name is Ana. She had no space for more than the simple introduction. She folded the paper and slipped it into the open bottle, humming her wordless song as she squeezed the cork in tight. Rising, she brushed sand from her skirt and approached the waves. With her bare feet in the surf, she flung the bottle as far out as she could. She watched it bob as it drifted out, following it with her eyes as long as she could, humming still. She wished somehow that it might reach her father, that he’d know everything she meant when she sent it even though she’d only written four words, that he’d come and take her and Sari away and they’d make a home together. Not that she really expected him to find it. It didn’t much matter who found it, she told herself; it was just the hope of a lonely girl to have a friend besides her sister, who still had to be protected from Aunt Arda’s bitterness.
The courier didn’t say a word to Ana during the evening’s carriage ride. She wasn’t surprised or upset by this. She watched the countryside pass, the carriage bouncing over the rough dirt and cobblestone roads. Sometimes the bay could be seen in the distance, glimmering silver-blue. A lump formed in Ana’s throat, but she swallowed it back. Sometimes they drove through small towns where people came out of their houses to see the royal carriage go by. Sometimes they drove between fields of grain that rippled in the breeze like golden mirrors of the bay. Ana had never been more than a few hours’ walk from home, and she couldn’t remember where they had lived before moving in with Aunt Arda. Even though fears and questions circled restlessly in her mind, she couldn’t help but gaze in awe at everything they passed.
They stopped for the night at an inn, a building many times larger than Aunt Arda’s single-room home. The floors were made of wood, not dirt, and the whitewashed walls glowed in the firelight from the grate. Ana was led to a pair of rooms on the second floor. She was to sleep alone in the smaller room. To get out, she’d have to pass through the larger room where the courier and the soldiers would be sleeping. Did they expect her to try to run? What did she have to run back to? What was ahead couldn’t be any worse than Aunt Arda’s house. Except for Sari. Her eyes prickled, and she blinked hard. She locked the door between the rooms and sat on the hard straw mattress, curled into the corner with the wool blanket around her shoulders, her knees pulled up to her chest. She didn’t try to sleep. Her mind was racing. She worried about Sari being alone with Aunt Arda, not because their aunt would be cruel, but because Ana had always been there to deflect attention and shelter Sari from the worst of it. But Sari was used to Aunt Arda’s criticism and strict rules and endless chores. Sari would be alright. Ana wasn’t so sure about her own future. What would the prince be like? Would she like him? Would it matter to anyone if she did? The prince had to choose a bride by his eighteenth birthday, a few short weeks away. They wouldn’t marry until his twenty-fifth birthday, which meant she had time to get to know him and to learn the million things a princess needed to know. She could only guess at the lessons and tutors she would have, and the piles of books. To have even one of those books and a free hour to read was more luxury than she had ever allowed herself to imagine before.
But the unanswered question that spun through her mind most frequently was this: why was she chosen? Why had Ana, an orphan, the niece of a plain woman who sold vegetables in a village by the sea, been chosen to become the wife of the prince, and someday the queen by his side? Who could have noticed her? How could the royal family have heard of her? No matter how she turned it over in her head, she couldn’t make sense of it. One thing she looked forward to about the end of their journey was the hope of finally getting some answers.
The bottle returned two months later.
Ana gasped, hardly allowing herself to believe that it was the same one. She dropped to her knees in the sand, digging the bottle free from the sand and seaweed. The cork sealed it tightly, sheltering a folded paper inside. Ana’s heart leapt as she saw that it was not the same paper she’d put in. She hurried to sit in the lee of her boulder and wrenched out the cork. It took some wriggling to get the paper out, but at last she drew it through the neck of the bottle. It was smooth, soft, creamy white – new, expensive paper. She held her breath as she unfolded it.
My name is Jasper, the note read in neat black ink. I live a few miles from the bay, west of the lighthouse. Where do you live? How does this work? Please write back if you can.
He had torn a blank sheet of paper in half and had only written on a corner of it, leaving her space to write her message. She felt a smile rising from her heart at his understanding. But she’d have to wait to write her own note as she hadn’t thought to bring charcoal today. Ana picked up the bottle from the sand beside her and began to get up, then realized that there was something else inside. She tipped the bottle. A small broken-off bit of pencil fell into her palm. The smile spread across her face. She unfolded the paper again and began to write carefully, keeping her letters as small as she could to make the paper last as long as possible.
I live on the other side of the bay with my ant and sister. I work mostly in our vegtable garden. It’s lonly sumtimes. I don’t know how this works. I’m just glad it does. Ana.
She folded the paper and fed it gently back into the bottle. After a moment’s thought, she slipped the pencil back in as well. She corked the bottle and went to the water’s edge, throwing it out and humming as she watched it float away as she had before. This time the song seemed less lonely. A note of hope had chimed in.
They were on the road for two more days. Ana was not required to say a word. She dozed a little the second night—her thoughts were exhausting—but she didn’t sleep soundly. She missed hearing Sari’s breathing in the bunk above her.
The towns they drove through became larger and busier the farther they drove. The roads became smoother as well, more suited to carriage traffic. Ana gazed in curiosity at everything they passed, but nothing brought about real wonder until she saw the shape of the palace rising in the distance at the top of a low hill. It sprawled like an enormous gray dragon, guarding its treasure and its secrets. Her heart began racing again, and she couldn’t look away. As they drew closer, she could see bright banners flying from the many turrets. Flowering vines climbed the high stone walls. Ana held her breath as the carriage passed into the castle’s shadow and under a wide stone arch.
They stopped in a cobbled courtyard. The footman opened the door, and Ana climbed out slowly. People in bright, beautiful clothing milled about the courtyard, pretending not to watch the newcomer but staring nonetheless. She looked down at her dirty shoes and patched skirt and followed the courier inside.
He led her to a small chamber, where he barked a message to a page boy and sent him off. Ana silently observed the room. The wide stone flags felt hard underfoot, much harder than packed dirt or wood. Bright tapestries hung the walls, scenes of flowers and picnics and orchards. She studied these surreptitiously as they waited, half afraid to move, though the courier seemed to be paying no attention to her. At length, a lady-in-waiting swooped into the chamber, her voluminous skirts rustling as she moved. She looked Ana over with a critical – but not unkind – eye before leading her along corridors and passages and stairways up to her new rooms. There were too many things to look at: the tapestries, the statues, the people themselves. Ana was lost immediately. And the lady talked the whole time, a continual chatter about tutors and lessons and clothes and schedules. After the silence of the last few days, it was overwhelming. Ana was glad when the lady left her alone in a sitting room while she saw to the bath. Ana sat on the edge of the divan, looking around at the room. Soft rugs were spread across the floor, and blue velvet curtains hung over the windows. Pillows were strewn on the divan, on chairs, even piled on the rugs. Everything was in shades of pink and red and gold and green and blue. It was unlike anywhere she’d ever dreamed of. She closed her eyes to block it all out and lay back on the divan.
The lady woke her and led her to another room with a large tiled bath in the floor. She tutted over the length of the trip and how exhausted Ana must be as she helped her undress and climb in. Ana sat back in the hot water and soaked. Almost, she felt her fears relax out of her in the soothing, steamy bath. Almost. Her baths at Aunt Arda’s had been rare, and the water was never quite hot enough. The lady helped her to wash her hair and pin it up out of the way so that she could bathe without getting it tangled. At last, when the water was cooling and turning a dingy gray, Ana climbed out. The lady had towels as soft as clouds and a silky robe for her to put on. She combed Ana’s hair, braided it, and pinned it up. Then she led Ana to a table covered in bottles of all shapes and sizes. She poured some cream out of one and smoothed it onto Ana’s face, following that with powder and some kind of paint. Ana frowned into the small framed mirror that the lady handed her. Ana had only ever seen her reflection in the rippling water of the bay or in dirty puddles after rain. The mirror reflected a clear, bright image, but she didn’t recognize the girl frowning back at her. She knew that the lady hadn’t painted her face as elaborately as most of the women she’d seen in the corridors, or even as elaborately as the lady’s own, but it was a stranger’s face she saw. The lady just laughed and chattered and led her to another room with a full-length mirror. A gold silk gown hung from a hook on the wall, and a paler silk shift. She took this shift down and slipped it over Ana’s head, following it with the gown. She laced the back and turned Ana around. Ana examined herself in the mirror with astonishment. She looked like she belonged among the people in the palace, though she shrugged her shoulders up when she was uneasy, and she was uneasy now.
Jasper wrote back to Ana, and Ana wrote back to him, and when that first half sheet of paper was full on both sides, Jasper began a new one. The pencil had always been sharpened when Ana took it from the bottle. She told him about Aunt Arda and about selling vegetables, about Sari and about what she remembered of her parents. It felt good to be able to tell someone the things she never spoke of at home. He told her about his lessons and his tutor, which made Ana self-conscious, knowing that he was aware of every spelling mistake she made, but he never seemed to mind. He talked about riding and hunting and books that he’d read. He told her very little about his parents, but he said there wasn’t much to tell. They were too busy to spend much time with him. At least they’re alive, Ana had written.
They’d written back and forth for nearly four years when Jasper’s letters stopped coming. His replies had been slower and slower in coming, sometimes taking four months or more. Ana knew that he was busy, and he always tried to make up for it by writing a longer note. She tried not to be impatient, but there were all kinds of things she wanted to tell him but couldn’t without the bottle and paper. And then his letter didn’t come. She waited four months, five months, six. She went to the beach as often as she could, but she never saw the bottle. Maybe the magic, whatever it was, wore off, she told herself. And then the courier came to her house, and she couldn’t have gotten it if he’d sent it.
Ana followed the lady-in-waiting to the great hall where a feast had been prepared in her honor. The lady left her at the door: she must walk in alone. She took a tentative step forward, new silk slippers feeling strange on her feet. The room was large enough to house a village. The light from lamps and torches did nothing to illuminate the high ceiling. But the brightly clothed people and the glittering dishes on the long, cloth-covered tables filled the space with noise and color and delicious aromas. She walked between the rows of tables, stomach tight with nerves. She found she couldn’t look at the food for fear of being sick. She glanced up at the platform at the far end of the hall where the grandest table had been set. Here sat the king and queen at the center of the table, their crowns glinting in the torchlight. A young man sat to the king’s right; an empty seat waited to the queen’s left. Ana accidentally caught the eye of the young man; the glance went through her like a shock. She faltered and looked away. A sudden silence fell. She looked back up at the table and saw that the young man was standing. And everyone was looking at her.
The king and queen rose then, and the king said something in welcome. Ana curtsied as the lady had shown her. Ana’s tongue felt glued to the roof of her mouth. She’d never had so many eyes on her in her life, and none with the intensity of the prince’s. She felt color rise to her cheeks as she followed a page up the steps to the dais. He pulled out the chair beside the queen for her to sit. From there she could see all the curious faces of the courtiers turned toward her, but at least the prince couldn’t look at her easily.
Food was put on her plate, but she had no appetite. Nor did she know which of the half-dozen utensils she ought to use. At home they had eaten with their fingers, or with shallow-bowled spoons. Ana glanced sidelong to see what fork the queen was using. She lifted her own from the table and pushed the food around her plate, but she didn’t raise a bite to her lips. She took a sip of the wine in her goblet, but she was used to water, and she set the goblet back down. The queen was kind, speaking gently to Ana throughout the meal. Ana tried to be polite, nodding and shaking her head as needed. The banquet went on for hours, musicians and dancers and acrobats coming forward into the aisle Ana had walked down to entertain them. Ana might have enjoyed it, had it not been so overwhelming. She wished she could simply curl up next to Sari as she had when they were younger and sing her to sleep, then fall asleep listening to the sound of her sister’s slow breathing. She bit her lip to stop the ache in her chest, but her eyes were as dry as her mouth, and she didn’t cry.
She was led bleary-eyed back to her rooms, where she was undressed, her face washed, and helped into a nightdress. Ana felt that she ought to be doing these things for herself, but she was so tired that it was nice to have someone do them for her. She climbed the step-stool to get into the high, soft bed and relaxed into the clean, cool linen sheets. The lady-in-waiting wished her goodnight and left the room. Ana blinked burning eyes at the large, beautiful, empty room. Suddenly the tears came, and Ana buried her face in a pillow to keep from making enough noise to bring the lady back. She cried until she felt hollow – overwhelming tears washing away the overwhelming day. In the emptiness and exhaustion and utter loneliness, she fell asleep.
Ana woke with sunlight streaming through her window onto her face. She never slept late and was surprised for a moment before she felt the stiff traces of tears on her cheeks and remembered. She got up and wandered out to the sitting room where the lady was waiting for her. This time the lady showed her how to wash her face with the special soap and how to apply the cream. The lady applied the powder and the paint herself. Ana wondered if she’d ever learn how to do that, and if she wanted to. She wondered if she would have a choice. Her gown for the day was sea-blue silk. She liked the color and feel of it. She wanted to ask who had picked out her wardrobe, but didn’t.
Today she was led along more corridors, feeling more and more hopelessly lost, and out to a large paved balcony that overlooked the bay. She forgot about the lady for a moment, as she walked to the railing and stood looking out. It was beautiful from here. She supposed the bay must be beautiful from wherever you looked at it. She breathed deeply and smelled the hint of salt.
The voice was low and gentle, but she whirled around, surprised. The lady called her “mistress,” and no one else had had occasion to use her name. It was the young man, the prince, who’d watched her so intently the evening before. He smiled shyly and came to the railing, standing a few feet away but near enough to talk comfortably. She met his eyes, braving the jolt in her stomach to try to get some idea of the man she was to marry. He had a handsome face, with sandy hair that tousled in the breeze. He watched her wistfully with eyes the blue of the sea. She turned back to the bay, unable to hold his gaze.
“Ana,” he said again. “Do you know who I am?”
The prince, she wanted to say, but no words came. My betrothed.
“My name is Jasper,” he said softly.
She gasped. Her eyes darted to his face, seeking the truth. How could he be? But otherwise how could he know? She opened her mouth, closed it, opened it again. She sought deep down and found words. “That’s not your name.”
He frowned. “It’s one of my names.”
Ana blinked at him. She didn’t know how to ask what she wanted to, but he read the question in her eyes. Instead of explaining, he began to hum. It was her song, the song her mother had sung with her when she was very small, the song she’d sung to Sari to help her sleep, the song she’d hummed as she wished the bottle on its way…. He’d hummed halfway through it while she gaped at him, before she began to hum along with him. They reached the end together.
“How do you know that song?” she asked.
“Every time I opened the bottle, I heard your voice,” he said. “It must have been part of the magic that carried it over.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“About the song? I thought you knew.”
“About you,” Ana said. “About all this.” She waved her hand at the palace.
He glanced at the edifice behind them then turned his back on it, looking out toward the bay. “For once I wanted someone to know me and like me for who I am, not what I am.”
Ana looked away, sorry she’d asked. She recognized the loneliness in him and wondered about the parts of his life that he hadn’t told her.
“Do you like it here?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” she said truthfully. “It’s all too much. I don’t know if I’ll ever learn to find my way around or know what fork or spoon to use…”
The prince laughed. “That’s easy enough,” he said. “You’ll eat with me today; I’ll teach you.” He sobered, the wistful look returning to his eyes. “I know it’s a lot to ask of anyone, but they told me I had to choose a bride by my eighteenth birthday, and I couldn’t imagine spending my life with anyone but you.”
Ana blushed. “You could have given me some warning.”
“I didn’t know how,” he said. “How was I supposed to tell you, after four years, that I was the prince and that I had to get married and that I wanted to marry you?” He looked at her for a long heartbeat. “And I haven’t even asked you yet. Will you marry me?”
Ana’s breath caught in her throat for a moment, in part because she knew he sincerely meant it as a hope and request, not a royal command. “I will,” she said softly. She watched the smile begin in his eyes before it reached the rest of his face. “But can we invite Sari to the wedding, please?”
He grinned, which made him even more handsome than she’d thought him at first. “Sari can come and live with us now and stay forever, if you’d like.”
Ana smiled as she met her friend’s eyes, and this time she didn’t look away. “And what should I call you now?”
“Call me Jasper, please.”
He reached out and took her hand, and she held his and looked out across the bay to where she’d lived for most of her life until just a few days ago. After the silence of those few days, after the endless whirling thoughts, she found a space of quiet inside without worry. She looked back up at her friend and smiled.
Copyright 2020 Eliza Prokopovits