“You can’t catch me, Kelban!” Princess Felice called out to her nanny as she darted through the kitchen door and into the yard. Fast, slippered feet darted through guards and helpers, and wove through a gaggle of idle serving girls. She burst from the crowd only to stop in her tracks in front of her stern-looking father.
As the man looked down at her, his frown deepened. “And why is the princess dodging her nanny?” His deep, rumbling voice was filled with disappointment rather than anger, and his daughter winced.
“I’m just playing a game of tag, Daddy,” she answered meekly with a curtsy. “Kelban is right behind me, truly.” Felice looked back in time to watch the dark-skinned man crash into a serving girl who was carrying water.
Both fell to the ground, and Kelban quickly apologized to her and started to offer to help get her a fresh bucket of water.
The king’s voice boomed forth and interrupted the offer. “Kelban! Take the princess back to either her chambers, or to her gardens. No more chasing games today unless they are in her garden!” His frowning gaze was intense, and the spry foreigner gulped down his words and nodded feebly.
“Yes, your majesty.” The man quickly nodded and hurried across the quickly-cleared path between himself and the girl. “Your highness, please come along nicely,” he urged the princess as he extended a hand to her.
With a disappointed sigh, the princess turned from her father and rested a hand on her nanny’s hand. The man briskly led her through the opened crowd, back into the kitchen, and then up a servant’s passage to her room. Once they were out of earshot of any other servants, and within her chambers. “Princess Felice, you must stop trying to run away!” His accented voice lingered over certain vowels, and almost neglected others, like a hand teasing a woman’s flesh.
Felice sighed and began to ignore her caretaker as she stared out a window at the gathering of the king’s hunting party. Hounds, their keepers, horses, and archers all gathered together in a milling, eager crowd. An unfortunate pair of mules was hitched to a large keg’s cart, and a few girls were hurried onto horses. It would be an exciting outing, indeed. Wistfully, she longed to join them, despite her mediocre skills at anything but riding.
Finally, Kelban caught on to her inattention and sighed. “Princess, you must learn to control these urges of yours. These ideas that Queen Enen-from-Eran has planted in your mind are toxic, and best forgotten. Women do not join hunts or learn to fight. Women are too important for such activities. Without women, there is no life.”
The princess looked up and stuck out her tongue. “Queen Enen said it’s only natural, since men enjoy distractions too much, so women should do such things more often!”
“She did not take into account that your men are much stronger and more clever than hers. Remember, the men who came with her were all weak and helpless, like needy children who could were too spoiled to have manners.” Kelban rubbed the bridge of his nose. “Even your mother thought the Enenans were a useless people. That is why we do not conquer them.”
“That’s not true.” Felice frowned. “We don’t conquer them because only they know how to grow cafa and make silk. They are the only people in the world who can create glisten-chain armor, or who know how to create thousand-folded swords. We’re strong because we protect them in exchange for exclusive trading rights.” She turned her nose up and looked away from Kelban. “Don’t try to tell me such lies. You’re a terrible nanny, trying to make me believe falsehoods!”
Kelban groaned and ground his fists against his forehead. “Please, Princess. Just stop. You are not suited for bloodshed. You only barely manage your monthlies without fainting.”
Felice wilted. “Shut up.”
The day continued on, with Kelban trying to convince Felice to settle down, and Felice attempting to coax Kelban to let her run wild, if only for a day.
As night approached, Felice finally gave in for the day and went to bed. Among her thick blankets, the chill from the open window became a pleasant foil to the warmth of her bed, and sleep came quickly, followed by dreams of riding horses, strange candied plum men who wished to court her, and children that had the heads and fur of animals.
During the princess’s sweet dreams, Kelban secreted away to visit the royal gardens. He knocked, and entered without an invitation. The nanny knelt quickly before the masked and robed figure inside. “My lady. She is too stubborn.” He closed his eyes and waited for his orders.
For a time, the figure remained silent.
Finally, as Kelban’s legs began to ache, the unmistakably soft voice of the queen emerged from the mask. The queen spoke quietly, her words barely heard over the nearby fountain. “What does the servant advise?”
“A quick marriage, a quick childbearing, and a quick and merciful end before she can gain power, if childbirth does not calm her feet. The servant knows it is harsh, but he thinks only of his lady’s beloved country.” He spoke quickly, in fear that those words might be his last.
Again, there was silence. This time, the queen did not speak again, but left the garden.
“I think I’ll name her Felice.” A tired merchant’s wife murmured as she gazed at her newborn
“But that’s the plagued name!” The midwife warned. “Take it back by speaking it backward, and give her a healthy name, please!” The older woman begged with wide, frightened eyes.
“No.” Felice’s mother smiled down at the tiny infant in her arms. “Felice is a pretty name. Maybe my baby will grow and make the name blessed again.”
“You can’t name her that without performing blessing rites during birthing! Please, undo the naming!” The midwife began to sound frantic. The lantern light dimmed for a moment, and she moaned in despair.
“Don’t you pay attention to her, little Felice. You’re a blessed child, because you were born.”
In her arms, the infant sleepily gummed her own fat, wrinkled fingers.