Continued from Mourning in the Morning.
Her stomach felt like it had a large, rough rock in it. She regretted the nap that denied her breakfast, and more than that, the entire mourning business was the dullest thing. She had cried already in the night, and surrounded by priests who battered her with recited memories of her departed parents, she felt numb and empty. Their hollow voices seemed to come from far away as they spoke in unison, and every memory they recited was punctuated by the soft rolling vibrations of many small gongs being struck.
The priests recited and the priests ripped at her clothes and hair as she laid prone, hands on the ground and forehead resting upon them. Despite the lack of movement, she felt exhausted. A cold breeze brushed against bruises from the rough treatment, offering temporary relief. The hours were a blur until finally, some words yanked her from her reverie.
“Princess? Princess-Regent, mourning is over.” The voice sounded gentle and deep. She looked up.
“I’m not sure I can move.” Her throat ached.
“I’ll help you up, Princess-Regent.” He carefully rolled her onto her back, and a loud crack echoed in the stone chamber. Above her, a man with pointed ears stood. His bare arms were muscular, and his tunic laid against his thick chest loosely. His hair was black–unlucky– and his flesh was deeply tanned.
The princess yelped and bit her lip. “That feels…” She trailed off.
She nodded, and he rose, then bent at the waist to slide a hand under each of her armpits. He pulled her up with shocking gentleness as his calloused hands pressed against her ribs. The world spun as her feet touched the ground, and for a moment, he simply held her up.
The princess clenched and unclenched her fingers. “I don’t feel well.”
“Your chambermaid has an hour to fix that then, doesn’t she?” The stranger tentatively lessened his support, and when she sagged, he waited a moment.
She glanced toward the floor briefly. The rough stone made her dizzy. “Please escort me to her?.”
The man nodded. “Yes, Princess.” He removed his hands and instead offered an arm, which she leaned on gratefully. His sturdy body supported hers down the many long hallways and up the countless stairs to her lower chamber, where Ehla rushed to her and hugged her tightly.
“Those bruises! You look horrible, Princess!” She held her at arm’s length and looked her over, then looked up at the strange man. “And who is this?”
“I don’t know. He helped me get back here.” The princess looked at the man. He wore the browns of a priest, but a gem was embedded into his neck. “An sealed monster who works as a priest?”
The man touched the gem, bound in a gold bezel. “Yes. I was told to tend to her while the fancy men went to go wash.” He shrugged. “And then the Princess-Regent told me to escort her, so I did. She’s the highest authority.”
Ehla tilted her head, then looked to the princess. “You should be more careful.”
The princess shook her head. “I don’t care about careful right now.” She looked at the man. “Thank you for escorting me. You were surprisingly gentle.”
The man bowed.
For a few moments, there was silence before Ehla spoke. “It’s time for you to leave, priest. The princess was escorted and thanked you. Go.” She supported the princess and gave a firm nod, as if to show she could manage now.
“Right. Yeah.” He nodded, then stood in place a moment before he walked off, rubbing the back of his head and mussing his uneven black hair.
Before she could watch him depart for very long, Ehla led the princess up the final flght of winding stairs to the round bedchamber above. “You shouldn’t talk to people like that.”
“I was polite.”
“I mean people like him.”
Ehla sighed. “He’s a monster, for one. We don’t know what kind he is, let alone why he needed to be sealed. Even if he’s kind and gentle, he’s a monster.”
The princess looked down. “Honestly, I don’t care. He helped me get back to my room. Now, I’m tired, but I still have work today, don’t I?” She sighed as they reached the top of the stairs. “Who will be offended if I sleep the rest of the day?”
Ehla led her to the vanity and began to undress her. “Quite a few people, the emperor included.”
“My grandfather has the mind of a child.”
“Be respectful, he’s the emperor!”
“He’s my grandfather! He DOES have the mind of a child! He’s lost his mind to age!” The princess threw her arms into the air and nearly fell from the stool. “I will say what I want about him. It’s his fault that we’re all stuck in this position.”
The princess slammed her fists against the vanity. “I’m tired! I’m so tired! When I should have been mourning, I was studying, and now I have to be kicked and beaten and guilted by priests for not crying at an appointed time! I’m tired!”
The chambermaid took a deep breath and let it out. “I’m sorry. I just don’t want you to embarrass yourself in front of anyone. I want you to begin your rule in your grandfather’s name on a strong foot, so that you can lead and be respected.”
“I-… I know. I’m just so tired.” The princess hung her head as her maid finished removing the grey clothing of mourning and began to fix her hair, to apply makeup to cover bruises, and to finally dress the young heir in the proper whites of a leader.