Mother was sitting next to Rose, papers spread out in front of her on the coffee table. They were statistics and stories about how the common people lived, how much food the farmers brought in, arrest rates, how well traders and businesses were doing. It was a portrait of another life.
Since the King and all his chief advisors were away, Rose was supposed to follow her mother. But nothing was ever as interesting or real when it was with Mother. She was much more concerned with making sure Rose acted like a proper lady than a ruler.
The King was away for a week making a small trip to the shore to inspect the workings of their most populous cities, making a stop at the closer city of Noulanville, which had suffered a pirate attack. That had put everyone a bit on edge, seeing as it was so close to the Capitol. The Capitol was farther away from the coast, along the Gardner River, edging the Deep Woods. It wasn't supposed to be threatened by pirates looking for easy plunder.
Rose's mind started to wander as her eyes glazed over. What was it like to be a pirate? A trader? What was it like on a farm? What was it like in the village? What was it like to walk around instead of being driven in a carriage?
"Have I ever left the castle?" Rose asked her mother. "Not to go to parties or things like that. I mean have I ever just spent time… in the village, or in nature, or anywhere?"
"Hm…" her mother sat back. "I don't think so."
"I'm sure you can say it more eloquently than that, Flower."
Rose's lip curled behind her mother's back, but when the woman turned, Rose made sure her face was smooth. "Whyever not?" Rose simpered.
"That's not a word," Mother replied, picking up written account of wheat production.
"For what reason have I seldom left the castle?" Rose said in a monotone. Mother smiled, very small.
"You'll make a good Queen yet, Flower," she said.
"What makes you say that?" Rose asked, sinking down in her armchair with a bent back. It was hard to do in a corset. Her back ended up staying straight as a rod, while her neck curved down, making her chin touch her chest.
"You didn't snap at me or become enraged after I kept insisting your wrongdoing," Mother said, setting the paper down and setting her eyes on Rose once again. "Sit up straight."
Rose lifted herself into the proper posture and folded her hands. She didn't obey her mother because she wanted to. She did it because she had nothing better to do. And it was becoming habit. It was easier. Easier than fighting and easier than trying to prove that she deserved to lead, and that to lead and be valuable was more than sitting up straight and using long words. But it was part of the package. Sadly.
"I'm so bored by my life," Rose groaned. They were standing on top of blank ground. "I can't even think of something to make!"
Theo shrugged and smiled. "Well let me tell you about my adventures then," he said. Rose tilted her head.
"Adventures?" she said with a grin. "What did you do?"
He grinned back. "I went hunting. For the first time in a long time."
"That's good!" Rose cried. "What's it like?" She bounced on her toes, swinging her arms. It felt so good not to have any eyes on her.
"Like…" he frowned. "Inside the forest, Everything's twisted. Things are the same, but they're not. You'll see a tree in a clearing, and out of the corner of your eye, it'll move, and the next thing you know, you realize it's poisonous, and it's moving, and it's trying to stab you with poisonous thorns, and—"
"Slow down!" Rose laughed. "Take it one step at a time. That's the way to a good story. Build it up."
"Ok," he sighed. "First thing's first then. When you go out into the Deep Woods, you need to carry a lot of stuff. My mom and me made leather and fur jackets and coats that are probably no good against anything out there, but it feels nice against the chill. It's dark in there. The leaves block out almost everything, and sometimes you can see black smoke rising from them, but then you blink and it's gone."
He grimaced. "I think it might just be the magic that makes the Deep Woods so strange. It's in the trees. The ground. Everything. But anyways, we had bows, and arrows, and we traveled to this one stream. Animals always come by water eventually. Then you have to wait. You honestly just sit there and wait for hours. We fish with some poles a little, and set up traps, but further downstream, we keep still. Eventually, some big animals came. A herd. I don't know what to call them, but they had three horns, looked a little like a horse, but softer, smaller."
"So did you kill one?"
"Oh," she said, biting her lip. "That's too bad."
He shook his head and crossed his arms, smiling at her. "Those things we saw can make you see things that aren't there, or make themselves disappear completely. I was staring right at one, then its horn started glowing, I blinked, and it suddenly wasn't there anymore."
"That's unbelievable," Rose said, raising her eyebrows.
"I thought I knew a lot about what the Deep Woods held," he said, rubbing the back of his neck. "But living it is different from my mother just telling me about it. Different from only exploring just outside the cave."
"But isn't it exciting?" Rose insisted. She leaned forward, clasping her hands.
"I'm scared of every shadow," Theo replied. But he smiled. "It's different. Interesting. Not as bad as I thought it would be." He looked down at the floor and held his arms by the elbow. "I'll just keep pushing myself. A little bit at a time."
Rose watched her mother while she worked. They were standing in a sitting room that Mother often disappeared into but Father seldom used. When Rose had first entered, she noticed that the walls were bare stone, and the floor had only one plain rug in the middle. And there was no fireplace. It must get cool when the rainy season starts. All in all, the plainest room Rose had ever seen. She felt like she'd suddenly walked into a peasant's room. Mother had said she'd only be a moment in here, but then Duchess Julette had walked in.
Mother was talking to Duchess Julette now, a large woman with pouty lips and a sharp nose. Rose had made sure to remember the names of the important noblemen and women. They always expected Father to know them. Perhaps that was fair. Rose expected everyone else to know she was a princess.
"It is ridiculous," The Duchess said, rapping fingers on the jewels embellishing her hips. "How am I supposed to send taxes to the King if the troops my taxes pay for can't protect my city from pirate looters?!"
Rose pinched herself to keep from insulting the woman in turn. She was by her mother's side, and Mother could probably handle this, but Rose still felt personally attacked whenever someone thought the crown had made a mistake.
"Julette," Mother said softly. "I am so sorry about what happened in Noulanville. I can only imagine what it was like to be in the city while pirates broke through the walls."
"Your condolences are appreciated," the Duchess said through pursed lips.
"However," Mother said with a frown. "I do recall reading something interesting in a report of that attack."
"Oh, you do?" Duchess Julette asked, narrowing her eyes.
"I do," Mother replied. "You may not be aware of this, but the army regularly sends written records of key battles, a part of an initiative I started to chronicle our kingdom's history."
"The army?" The Duchess echoed. Her eyes, which had previously been widening and narrowing with each change in Mother's voice, had suddenly stilled.
"While the bulk of the troops are at sea…" Mother said, smiling just enough to make Rose shiver a little. What was happening? There was more to this conversation than anything Rose had witnessed before with her mother. "There remains a puzzling bit I do remember… Didn't a battalion still remain in Noulanville?"
"You are correct," Duchess Julette said quickly. "Although the troops were not nearly enough for a river city like mine."
"I'll concede that point," Mother responded, tilting her chin up and her head a bit to the side, as though examining which way best to cut a roast. "They must not have been enough in this instance. Although I must say that I've heard my husband remark many a time that river cities like yours are usually too close to the well-armed Capitol, too far upstream to be of much temptation to foreign pirates."
"I wish every city could receive ample protection," Mother interrupted. Rose glanced up at her. Mother's face was like it always was, composed, serene. But her words and tone did not match that face. "However, sacrifices must always be made, as, sadly, the Kingdom does not have an unlimited supply of troops. My husband makes sure that each city receives the proper amount of troops, based on logical calculation of risk."
"Well clearly this was an event outside of logic," Duchess Julette snapped.
"Clearly this was outside of logic," Mother said, her smile disappearing and being replaced by a colder expression that Rose had never before seen. "Going back to my original statement, the report from the army I received stated that the pirates did not bother sneaking in; they attacked in full daylight, and they attacked a marketplace full of witnesses."
"And they ransacked the place!" Duchess Julette spluttered, taking a step back just as Rose did. Mother's hands clasped each other behind her back as she watched Julette, who seemed as shocked at Mother's transformation as Rose.
"But they did not touch the port," Mother said slowly. "The port, at which docked twenty ships from Oloikos, all carrying crates of rare cloth, ready to be traded. They were within easy reach of the pirates, large, obvious, promising a huge profit, and yet the pirates did not touch them."
"So, they were very stupid pirates!"
"Very merciful pirates," Mother replied. Duchess Julette opened her mouth, but Mother spoke before she could say anything. "I have a proposition for you. Do not bother trying to evade what little the crown asks of you, and perhaps I will not write a report of my suspicions for the Panel of Representatives. You know how harshly they punish collaboration with our enemies."
Duchess Julette's eyes shrank to slits. Her hands shook, then were still. "You are kind, my Queen," she said, and curtseyed, then turned quickly and made to exit.
"Hold on a moment!" Mother called, now with a winning smile in place, one that could have lit up a ballroom. Duchess Julette looked over her shoulder.
"Your Majesty?" she asked.
"Be a dear, and close the door on your way out."
Julette's mouth opened a smidge, then snapped shut. She then marched outside the room, grasped the door handle and closed the door so fast that Rose felt the rush of air wash over her from the impact.
Mother sighed, then fell into a cushioned chair in the center of the room. Rose did not sit down. She stared at the stranger she had thought was her mother.
"What was that?!" Rose asked. Mother looked up.
"Lower your voice, Flower," she said. "I'm sorry you had to see that, but I only thought I would look into this room to grab some papers. Of course, the Duchess seems to know where I am at all times…"
Rose stared. Her mother had always been the perfect lady. Uncomplicated. She wanted for Rose what Madam Lairra wanted. She gave Rose everything she wanted except lower expectations. And here she was… being a ruler.
"I didn't know you knew so much stuff about the kingdom," Rose stated. Mother blinked, then started to laugh.
"Oh Rose, do you really have so little faith in your own mother?"
"I… uh…" Rose shook her head. Mother closed her eyes and put two fingers to her temples.
"There is a reason you don't know this, Flower," she said. "I am your father's master of intelligence. It is my job to tell him everything that is going on in the kingdom, my job to keep tabs on the inner workings of all the lands not directly under his control. I write up those reports for him. I counsel him."
"I can't believe it," Rose whispered.
"Of course, the job has an aspect of secrecy to it," Mother continued. "The spies all report to me. And that brings me to a matter of great importance." She paused, leaned forward in her chair, reached, and grabbed Rose's hands in a tight grip. Rose's eyes locked onto her mother's, and it seemed that great metal chains bound her to her mother, chains so strong she could not look away if she'd tried. "You must not repeat this information to anyone," Mother said. "Not the Panel of Representatives, not your friends. Of course, your father and you are not the only ones who know, but I prefer to have you keep quiet to as many as possible."
"Spies?" Rose repeated. "We have spies?"
"My position is dual," Mother said, ignoring Rose. "I am a public figure, and also an invisible cog in your father's government. It must stay that way."
"I-I" Rose stuttered. "I didn't even know… It's a lot to think about."
"I know," Mother said. She let go of Rose's trembling fingers and leaned back in her chair, at least as much as an iron rod can lean back.
"I thought…" Rose began. She took a breath. "I thought you didn't care about anything really to do with ruling. I thought you only liked parties and clothes and talking to people, and that was all you cared about for me too."
Mother frowned while she smiled. "Rose, it is my job to make sure I don't appear much more than competent. And of course I care about your training. I am simply kept busy, just as your father is. My position was solidified just after you were born, so while I was able to care for you for a few months, I had to leave the rest to Malerie once you were a bit older. I am so sorry for keeping a secret from you, but—"
"How did you get into this?" Rose asked before Mother could finish. "I thought you came from Farrenstar, I thought—"
"My marriage to the King was arranged," Mother interrupted, smoothing out some folds in her gown. "Partly to smooth some troubled relations between our nations, but my family also has connections all across the sea and perhaps even some faerie blood. And I was well studied, well prepared for the work he needed me to do… Even if he didn't know it."
"What do you mean?" Rose asked. Mother smiled and even chuckled a bit.
"Oh," she said. "Just that in the beginning, he and I didn't get along very well. We hardly knew each other… I felt very alone, and I suppose he did as well, having just taken over the Kingdom. But once we got to know each other's strengths…" Mother shook her head, even blushing a little.
"So… so…" Rose couldn't speak. Mother rose, and placed her hands on Rose's shoulders.
"It's a lot to take in, I know," she said. "I was going to tell you of my true position when your father returned, but it's just as well."
"Arranged marriage?" Rose asked, staring up into her mother's delicate, beautiful face. Calm and serene now, like it always had been.
"Yes," Mother said. "Don't worry, it's not so bad. In fact, I came to love your father. Harold is a good man. We'll find someone just as good for you."
All Rose could hear was the ringing in her ears.