Penelope returned from looking out the side window of the rustling carriage. The untamed countryside held novelty for the first leg of their journey, but the long, drawn out hours had numbed her mind to all of the greenery. Instead, she looked down at the chestnut brown backs of her hands and ran her thumb across the joint of her index finger. It was her body, but every once in a while a person might examine the fine details of the most innocuous part of their body simply out of curiosity and boredom. Her skin matched quite well with the vermillion shawl her ladies in waiting had suggested. And despite her dress being a subdued flaxen, a completely different color, it matched all the same.
She compared it to her father across from her in the carriage: a royal blue tunic with silver lining to accentuate his outline. His was a rugged, strong frame. While many of his peers had grown fat by the second half of their life, King Lorn of Artori had remained sturdy and fierce. Unlike her appearance, his clothes seemed to melt into his skin.
The shadows from his tunic and quite possibly the carriage obscured where the dark blue stopped and his flesh began. It didn't help that the tips of his hairs also had a silver lining to them. Some might think it made him look like an old dog needing to be put down, but Penelope had often thought of her father's gray whiskers more like that of a mountain lion's. He surely had the frame for it. But there was no disguising the jowls beginning to sink beneath his neatly trimmed beard. His skin was cracked both with wrinkles and time in the sun, and she could see the vast difference between their hands. Wrinkles had not claimed his hands quite yet, but the rough embrace of time definitely had. She could see it in how he tapped his finger on the armrest. It wasn't smooth; it jerked ever so slightly on the upswing and the initial press down. Penelope looked back at her own hands and mimicked the motion. Her fingers moved as smooth as warm butter.
Her father had become the epitome of the old, wise king. And stoic, too. He was still looking out of the window, but she could tell he was looking at nothing. Was he thinking about the trip? The future? The risks? Her? For a moment, she thought he was going to speak to her. Lorn sighed before turning his gaze onto his daughter, his only child. His gaze. That was the only thing that had remained youthful. His deep, brown eyes sparkled for the briefest of moments as they beheld her appearance. She could see the slightest bit of pride in them. But they turned back to the window, content with their glimpse of her. Instead, his hand moved slightly over to the queen's and squeezed it tightly.
Queen Sylva was reading a book as her husband took her hand. She immediately smiled warmly though continued reading. When it came time to turn a page, she gently wiggled her hand out of his (as he playfully tried to keep her from doing so), turned the page, and then placed her hand back into his. Penelope looked quite like her mother. The long, curly brown hair, the oval facial features, a slightly fairer skin tone than her father, the way their lips parted when they smiled (according to the ladies in waiting. Penelope had tried multiple times emulating the smile in a mirror to no avail. Perhaps forcing it ruined the comparison.), and now even their dress. Sylva's dress was even more subdued than Penelope's. After all, this was her courtship, not her mother's, a fact she was painfully aware of every time she looked down at her exposed decolletage. Her maids had repeatedly told her the dress was quite modest. Most nobility went for even more risque styles. Penelope didn't have to take their word for it; she had seen the kinds of dresses ladies would wear at the balls her father would put on for the kingdom of Artori.
That wasn't the issue. A decolletage showcasing a bountiful bosom was scandalous; showcasing meagerness was ludicrous. She felt as though the dress had been made for a princess, and she had failed to live up to physical expectations. If it were only that, she might have let the feelings of inadequacy fall away like water droplets on a duck's down. The regal demeanor had escaped her, and this dress made her feel more like an imposter than a beautiful princess. If fate had destined her to be married, would she find it looking as preposterous as she did? It all felt fake without even meaning to. Love based on such a facade couldn't possibly work, could it? She wanted desperately to have a husband who would hold her hand like her father held her mother's, to be able to enjoy each other's company without even having to share eye contact. They weren't looking at each other with their eyes; they were looking at each other with their hearts.
That...is the stupidest bit of poetry I've come up with yet.
Penelope shook her head to knock the melodramatic thoughts out of her ears and into the aether. The scene in front of her did warm her heart in more ways than one. At the beginning of the trip, father had agreed to take a book and read with mother, maybe have something to talk about during the long journey. Instead, she read circles around him, already two inches into the tome, and he had to stop for feeling mildly nauseated. Apparently not everyone could read as quickly as mother
But the silence simply couldn't continue.
"Father," she said. Lorn started before focusing his gaze on her.
Penny. If she were a few years younger, just barely an adult, she would have protested against such a 'little girl' name. Now, she only wondered how she would feel if both her father and her suitor called her by that name. The pit of lead grew in her stomach.
"I know you told me everything before we left...but…"
"You want to hear it again? I suppose it couldn't hurt."
Penelope nodded. "You don't know anything about prince Horace?"
"I know his father, Kartor, and he is a splendid statesman, a gentleman of the highest degree, and has an honest face. Kartor has overseen several decades of prosperity for the kingdom of Terrencia. As for Horace, Kartor said he was a rebellious sort but had an ironclad sense of right and wrong. According to him, Horace always wanted an explanation of orders when he was younger and would not be satisfied with mere authority."
At least he won't indulge in vices. "What did he mean by 'rebellious'?"
"Always doing things his own way, trying to reinvent the wheel so to speak, and only wanting as much affection as he needed. Quite a peculiar one. Kartor told me a story of how he used to crawl over to the nursemaid as a babe, get a hug, push her away, then crawl back to his blocks only to repeat the cycle a few minutes later!"
That got a giggle out of Sylva. She smiled warmly. "He sounds like someone who would grow up to speak his mind and speak honestly."
He sounds like someone who won't grab my hand. Penelope noticed her parents had yet to release each other's hands.
"Kartor also proclaimed his son's strong, responsible disposition."
"Really?" queried Penelope. "Is he the captain of the royal guard?"
Lorn relented, "Well, no-"
"What about a leader of some department?"
"In what manner is he responsible then?"
"Penny, I am just relaying to you what Kartor told me."
"But Father, if I am to marry him-"
"Penelope," interjected Sylva in her soothing voice, "we've been over this. You don't have to marry him. Your father and King Kartor saw mutual opportunity. If you don't like even a freckle on his nose, you can end it right then and there, and we'll never consider it again."
Penelope knew her mother was being honest, but it didn't assuage the lump of fear in her throat that burned like lava just next to her heart. Yes, the decision was completely up to her. Her father did not believe in marrying her off to the highest bidder like many lords did below them. It was completely under her control. Absolutely.
Except not completely.
"What is bothering you, Penny?" her father asked.
"I…" she started. The words didn't make it out of her mouth. She simply pursed her lips and looked away at some interesting bit of cushion on the seat to her left. Lorn frowned slightly. Whenever Penny got like this, it was best to leave her be. That was one thing she inherited from him. Of course, Sylva wished nothing more than to reassure Penelope into submission.
"Penelope, dear, please what's going on? Are you afraid he might not like you?"
"No," Penelope shot back with more force than necessary. "Just...I'm tired is all. The journey has been long."
Lorn gripped Sylva's hand tightly and looked at her poignantly. He shook his head ever so slightly, but it sent the message across. Sylva looked down as if the mood of the carriage had an oppressive weight and resumed her reading albeit more slowly.
Obviously her mother had hit the nail right on the head. Penelope did not keep up with the last fashions. That was her handmaids' jobs. Who was she to think she could seduce a man, any man? The depth of her confidence was born purely out of reassurance from other women, not any experience with a man seeing her for what she truly was. Would he like her hair? Her scent? Did she even have an attractive perfume? What about the dress itself? What about things she couldn't change like her eyes, her skin tone, or her other bodily proportions? She was known to be a rather lithe woman for her age...Whenever she thought of her appearance, the rest would all tie together, and suddenly she would have a tapestry of misery to stuff back haphazardly into its proper box, never to be examined until the next questioning of her worth as a princess.
But why did she have to say it out loud…
The rest of the journey proved to be stone silent aside from Lorn occasionally coughing into his hand (pollen was a little devil this year), Sylva turning the pages of her book, and constant rumble of carriage over the road. So, not silent. But it was just noise. Penelope pushed the sounds out of her mind and tried to focus on what was to come. She had never met her suitor or Kartor. Their appearances would be as much a surprise to her as their personalities. What kind of man was rebellious but morally strong willed? Was he loud and boisterous or quiet and precise in his words? Would he judge her clothes appropriate or scandalous? The journey was a day by carriage, but it wasn't that far. Their customs ought to be more or less identical, right? It would be mortifying for her suitor to reject her because he came from a more conservative culture and thought she was dressed like a woman of the night.
I can't think about that. It'll be fine. We'll meet, probably nothing will happen, and I go home. He'll probably not be too interested in marriage, I can decline-
Penelope then realized that in the miraculous event she did succeed in getting his attention, what about her own desires? What if he was just some fat, pudgy prince with a hooked nose and a long drawl on his o's and a's? About a third of the nobility looked cursed from all the cousins marrying each other. The thought of meeting someone outside of her family in itself brought a wave of relief over her. She knew she shouldn't judge people's appearances after languishing over her own inadequacies...yet she also couldn't help but assume if the prince was handsome and unmarried, he held some dark secret. And if he were of good character...there was no chance he was both handsome and of good moral standing.
A handsome prince is a philandering prince.
As if called by an eternal duel of the cosmos, the opposite fantasy came to the forefront of her mind: what if he was everything she dreamed in a man? Penelope turned to face the rolling countryside in the window and proceeded to dream of such a reality. Before, her mind had been preoccupied with the what if's, the worries, and the anxieties. Now, the presence of such a fantasy gave her mind permission to go wild. She could see herself seated on a loveseat in front of the fireplace on a cold winter's night while a strong man whose face was hidden by the haze of her imagination wrapped his arms around her and pulled her close. His hands gently stroked her arms, and she clasped his fingers. His hands would be bigger than hers, and she imagined them pressing their palms together just so she could take in the size difference. They would sit in the royal garden and eat pastries the chef, Foundant, had crafted in his eccentric laboratory of a kitchen. Her beloved husband would feed her chocolate coated strawberries and then she would feed him a cookie with her own mouth.
"Penelope?" asked her mother. "Are you alright? You're positively flushed."
Penelope jerked awake. Apparently, she had been dreaming. "What? Huh?" Her mother was looking at her with a quizzical look."I said you're positively flushed. Do you feel alright? Are you hot?" In contrast, her father glanced over her expression, blinked once, then looked in front of him. Almost nothing escaped him, and she prayed to heaven she could be the bit that did just this once. Blushing furiously, Penelope nodded. "Yes, I'm a bit warm. That must have been what made me sleepy."
The excuse didn't satisfy her mother. She frowned slightly, trying but unable to perceive the true reason for her daughter's red cheeks.
"I'm fine, mother," Penelope repeated while cooling herself with a purple lace fan. "Just a bit warm. And a bit sleepy, I suppose. I will be fine once we arrive."
"That's quite a turnaround since we're already here," her father said slyly.
Penelope quickly straightened herself. He might as well have flung a bucket of freezing water at her. They were here? Already? The anxieties and daring hopes came rushing back like a whirling storm. She pressed her fingers against her right temple and closed her eyes as the sound of their escorts and carriage driver hummed around the outside. It was a mixture of shouting orders and negotiations. They must have been speaking with the guards of their host's kingdom.
"I'm sure King Kartor will let you lie down for a while before meeting his son, dear," Sylva began. Penelope only grumbled irritably. "I'm fine, mother. I'll be fine." Lorn suppressed a grin as Sylva all but huffed at her daughter's rebuffing. He held her hand once more and led her out the door once the carriage driver opened the door. Penelope waited for her parents to leave the cabin completely before making a move. Her body didn't like the idea of moving after heaven knew how many hours. Every muscle in her lower back and legs protested the completely outlandish and unreasonable act of stepping out of the carriage. Even the bright spring sunlight pained her eyes accustomed to the dimness of the carriage. How her mother managed to read in those conditions, she had no idea.
Once her eyes had managed to adjust to the outside, her eyebrows shot up. Terrencia's castletown bustled with activity. Everyone had gathered around the carriage to get a glimpse of the new arrivals. It was all the guards could do to keep the crowd from pressing closer. And every single person looked as pale as snow.