Prologue : Making Decisions
The candles that surrounded the room, her study, had been burning for hours, and the wax was dripping off onto the surrounding floor. The bookshelves on opposing walls that were normally perfectly organized were missing half of the books, as books were littered around the room, with maps and papers taking up most of the tables. Even the simple chairs had stacks of books placed on them, along with a few tea trays that had been idly forgotten. The wall with the door on it had a large map of the kingdom with surrounding area, and she had numerous notes pinned to it. The opposite wall had a large window with a window seat, and that was the only surface not covered in mess. The curtains were thrown open hastily, and the light of the moon was shining in to grant more light than the candles were. Staring had become absolutely tedious and pointless. Regardless of how hard she stared, Eleanor would not come to a conclusion just from staring at a list. In front of her was the most basic of all the information gathered.
Walking over to the window, she stared out for a moment before climbing up onto the window seat on her knees, letting her elbows rest on the window sill. Her head fell into her hands, and she clenched her eyes for a moment, wishing that this burden was not hers to bear. Looking up from her hands, she brushed the stray hairs from her face, and stared out for a moment longer. The full moon's glow was illuminated across the lake to the North, and she could just barely make out the trees and field to the south. The road that led to the nearest village was underneath the moon, heading to the east, and she could see the last of the night lanterns being turned out. They were all relying on her, and she could not fail them.
She could choose foreign protection and an alliance that would secure peace and block all attacks. She could choose foreign trade and a growth in commerce and prosperity. Or, she could choose a domestic bonding of two great families and an influx of wealth, power, and land. Every option had benefits. Every option missed something that another had.
Spilling herself into the single chair in the room, Eleanor anchored her elbows on the table and buried her face into her hands. Squeezing her brown eyes shut for a moment, she opened them up to see the list again, hoping for some sort of revelation. Why had she been born an only child? Why did she have no siblings? Why did the only way to form a connection have to be herself? There was too much at stake to make the wrong choice, and it didn't even feel like she got to choose her future.
Rising up again from the chair, she balanced herself with her palms pressed down on the table, bending forward to stare at the simple list. The long brown braid that was resting on her back fell forward, and she let it hang over her shoulder. Straightening back up, she idly picked at the stray hairs that had fallen out of the braid while her eyes starred at the basic words. This was getting her absolutely nowhere.
Slamming her fist down on the table, Eleanor pursed her lips together and closed her eyes, silently whispering up a prayer for wisdom to support her. It was no use. She sunk back down into the chair, and called out for the guards that she knew were outside the door. They opened the doors quickly and bowed before her, awaiting her instructions.
"Send for my mother," she said simply. They both bowed and closed the door as they stepped back into the hallway, and Eleanor could hear the sound of feet running away to carry the message.
Her mother had always been the strong one that pushed for Eleanor's independence. When she was younger, Eleanor had loved that she could pursue whatever interest she had. When she wanted to learn to swing a sword, her mother had encouraged the king to purchase her a short sword she could wield. When Eleanor had wanted to take up foreign languages, her mother had sent for the best tutors. It was because of her mother that she was so accomplished.
It was also because of her mother that this decision lay before her. Most monarchs would prepare weddings without even asking other's opinion. Her father had done it with some of his nobles. Why, then, had she not been treated the same? Couldn't she just leave it to her parents to make this decision? Her father was too ill to care anymore, although no one outside of the royal family knew that. Her mother had always cheered on her independence, and would give not even an eyebrow raise to help Eleanor with this decision.
Eleanor walked to the small mirror that was just beside the window. It was not large, but she could see her entire face in it. Her brown eyes stared back almost without emotion, and she could see circles forming underneath her eyes. The light brown of her eyes matched the brown of her hair, and she tugged on the braid gently as it lay over her shoulder and between her breasts. Her chin was strong – one of the few facial features she had gotten from her father, as the rest was from her mother. She had to be calm. No matter how much she wanted to break down, she had to look strong. Yet, she did not feel strong.
Tearing her eyes away from her own reflection, Eleanor stepped in front of the windows to take one last look outside. She wished she could become a bird, grow wings, and fly away. The responsibility was too heavy for one girl, and she feared that the decision she would have to make for the benefit of the kingdom would result on a heavy burden upon herself.
A knock came at the door, and Eleanor turned quickly away from the mirror and said come. Her mother stepped into the room and closed the door behind herself. Eleanor sunk down into her chair again. She let her head hang forward for a moment and clenched her eyes shut, unable to look at her mother.
"What is it, Eleanor? Have you made a decision, my dear?"
Eleanor took a deep breath, knowing that her decision could change the fate of her land for future generations. For just a moment, she wished that she was not a princess. She wished that she was not the heir. And most of all, she wished that her father was not dying, leaving her to rule soon.
The air hung thick around her chair, and for just a moment, she considered just leaving the decision to chance… or even better, leaving it to her advisers. They had certainly argued about it enough before Eleanor had put her foot down and decided that the decision was hers alone to make.
It was no use. Staring at the paper would change nothing.
"Invite all three to court. I shall choose then who I shall take as my king."