[This post was previously posted on my Patreon blog.]
February! An ace/aro patron requested a short story about a fantasy princess who doesn't want to wed but is facing pressure to do so. Content notes for capitivity and the threat of forced marriage, but I tried to keep this piece light and hopeful. May it bring you joy, and blessed be to you for your paronage.
Small acts of activism: Did you know that "aromantic" is not in the Merriam-Webster dictionary? (Search link here.) Please consider contacting the dictionary here and asking they include an entry for aromantic. Sarah Elkins has a Twitter thread here on why dictionary support for orientations is so important. Thank you!
They took her arrows but not the bow over the hearth; they confiscated her hunting blades but not the knife she used with dinner. "Captivity" was too ugly a word to use for a princess of the blood and heir to the empty throne, so instead she was "under guard" in her rooms until the formal coronation was held. Certainly she was not a victim of illegal house arrest after refusing to marry Lord Nedon, ruler of the northern territories and strongest among her late father's advisers. Such a state of affairs would be a coup, and the economic and political stability of the kingdom depended on such whispers being suppressed. Parliament would be too cowardly to demand access to her, afraid of forcing the issue if Lord Nedon refused.
She scowled and leaned into her work. Her posterior hurt from sitting on the floor, but here by the hearth it was easier to hide the fruits of her labor if the chamber doors rattled open. The firewood pile covered both the dinner knife and the tiny pile of sticks she'd collected when first shoved in here for her own protection after an assassination attempt over dinner. The attempt had not actually occurred, but several members of Lord Nedon's retinue swore to have witnessed it. In the three days hence, only Nedon's servants had been allowed in her presence. None followed her orders or acknowledged her authority in her own home. She was trapped.
Only a handful of firewood had sported offshoots as long as she needed—a finger-length longer than the draw of her bow—and of that number only two had been anywhere near straight. She'd already ruined her first attempt when the dull knife sliced downward instead of up and the fledgling arrow had sundered into two pieces. Now all her hopes were pinned on this last thin sliver. Filing the damn thing down to be smooth on all sides would be easier with the right tools, but the last three days had taught her patience. She sawed in gentle, repetitive movements at the final nub and—ah! There! The knife jerked in her hands and the nub snapped off.
Holding her breath, she ran her fingers over the wooden shaft. Maker be praised, she hadn't marred the body. The new arrow was smooth and whole, as straight as she could make it with the knife. Now she needed to put on as many gloves as her hands could fit and hold the wood near the fire. It would soften from the heat, making it possible for her to push against the natural curves of the branch. Then it was just a matter of holding it away from the flame until it cooled, and repeating as necessary. Father had taught her how to make arrows when she was as high as his knee, and though she usually had better tools at hand she could improvise.
She didn't bother to fletch the end or worry over a metal point; she'd carve a tip in the wood and that would be enough. The arrow didn't need to stick fast or fly silent. She worked through the night, not stopping to sleep. In the morning Councilor Jacen would hunt as he always did just within sight of her window. Not so close that she could lean out and yell, but within range for an arrow to fly with a short message: a thin sheet of parchment, tied with ribbons from her bodice, spelling out her plight in plain ink.
Help would come.
She had expected Jacen would send return word to her through a bribed maid. She had not expected to hear him announced at the door to her chambers and let in like a distinguished guest. He deserved every cordiality, but Nedon had to know the eastern courtier wasn't loyal to him. His guards might be cowed into letting Jacen pass, but word would be sent at once to Nedon and his grip would only tighten. Ris bit back her initial burst of anger that the man would go about this situation with such clumsiness.
"Leave us." His order was directed to the maids in her room. He didn't bark—he never barked at his lessers, which was a quality she admired in him—but simply stated his command in a calm expectation of being obeyed. The girls hesitated, but Ris glared daggers at them and they retreated out of her rooms with laundry in their arms.
"What are you doing?" Ris' voice was a low hiss, unsure how much the guards outside could hear. "Please tell me you have soldiers on your heels? When Nedon learns you've visited me, things are only going to get worse! Do you know how hard it was just to get a message to you? Now he's likely to move me to one of his own castles. Jacen, you're risking everything just being here!"
The councilor seemed unconcerned. Sinking into a seat at her table, he pulled out the chair beside him and motioned for her to sit as well. She blinked in shock at his lack of decorum—sitting while she still stood, and ordering her with a wave of his hand—but she sank into the seat with misgiving. Cold wariness was settling into her face; she could feel a shivery tingle in her cheeks.
"Your Grace, I beg pardon for upsetting you." His voice was soothing, even as his actions unsettled her. "I am sworn to protect you, and consider it an honor to fight and die at your feet. You are the princess, your father's heir, and your claim to the throne is without question. Yet I must confess I do not understand your note, and know not whether to take it as a jest or a brain fever. How can a princess be held captive in her own home?"
Her brows knit into a frown so tight she could feel a headache gathering behind her temples. "Sir Jacen, I am not jesting. Lord Nedon holds me here under guard. He asked my hand in marriage at the feast of Saint Elihes' Day, not even a week after Father's passing. I gave him an unequivocal no, and made no secret of my anger at his presumptuous request. Shortly after, I was bundled up here for my own 'protection' by his guards. I have been barred from leaving and from sending messages or receiving guests. Lord Nedon has visited once to dine with me and pretends I have accepted his proposal. I have not and I will not."
Sir Jacen nodded, looking as grave as she felt. This soothed her somewhat; he was taking her seriously now, even if he'd begun with such a wild error in judgment. "I see. And will your grace re-consider this position?"
Ris blinked at him. "What?"
He was unruffled by her shock. "He offers you marriage. Will your grace re-consider your refusal?"
Her corsets felt too tight and she regretted allowing the maids to lace her up. "You press suit for him?" She could barely breathe the accusation. "You would be his ally? But Father trusted you. He told me I could trust you."
Jacen's eyes were cool. "Your Grace, I must consider the welfare of our kingdom. Lord Nedon is a powerful man, with a large standing army loyal to his interests. Our country could fall into civil war if you continue to reject him."
"Then we will oppose him, as we would any such brigand!" She shoved away from the table, leaping from her chair to pace the carpet. "Have you lost all your honor? Father would not have sold me to the loudest pirate willing to rattle his sword!"
He watched with the calm gaze she once found so reassuring and now found so infuriating. "Then don't marry the pirate." His sudden reversal startled her to a halt. "Civil war will be upon us, but you and I will rally our allies and raise the troops you are owed. If you trust me as your father did, I can make you safe from any man who would abduct you. You will be queen in your own name, as is your right. We need only one thing settled and then you and I can flee this place with the help of my guards at the door."
Her heart leaped at the mention of guards. So he had come prepared after all, and had not doomed her with rash stupidity. He had pressed Nedon's suit because it was wise to at least consider the option, but he accepted her refusal. Father had been right after all; Jacen was loyal, and he would help her. "Yes," she breathed, poised to gather up the small pack of belongings she'd already packed and stowed under the bed. "Tell me what we need, and then we go."
Jacen slid from his chair to the floor, dropping to one knee with all the grace he showed at the court dances Ris so loved. "Your Grace, will you take this humble servant as your consort?"
Ice ran through her veins, cold and sharp and horrified. She jerked her hand away as he reached for her. "No," she whispered, her voice caught in her throat. "No. Sir Jacen, I don't- I don't want to marry. Not Nedon, not you, not anyone. I just want to leave this place, gather my armies, and rule my people. I shouldn't have to marry to do that." She shook her head, swallowing back the bitter lump in her throat. "Your aid shouldn't come with such a price."
He didn't rise from the carpet. "This is not the price of my aid; it is the price of your freedom, your grace. If you remain unmarried, you will always be a target. Nedon is not the only pirate willing to abduct a bride and rule in her place. Nor will the people accept a virgin queen; you must provide the kingdom with an heir. For your own safety and for the good of our people, you must take a husband." Cool eyes studied her face as he gave voice to the fears she'd spent eighteen years trying to stifle. "I promise you will have far more power as my wife than as Nedon's. I seek only to be your consort; he will stop at nothing less than a king's crown. You will be locked in a tower to birth his heirs, trotted out only on formal occasions and otherwise powerless."
She didn't meet his eyes, her hands balled into fists at her side. "I believe you. But I won't do it. I won't marry either of you, and I won't bear heirs. I'll rule as a virgin queen, and I'll designate an heir from among my cousins." She had a good dozen to choose from, most of them infants. "That is my will. You are my courtier and you will carry out my wishes. Now we leave."
A soft chuckle, almost sad, rose from his throat. "No, Princess," he said, pulling himself back to his feet. He bowed and turned to go. "I leave. You will remain here. I wish you the best in your wedding to Lord Nedon and I urge you to accept his proposal soon. The longer you wait, the more angry he will be."
"You turn your back on me?" He was lucky, she realized, that she didn't have a hunting knife handy; her heart demanded blood for this final insult. She'd fought in a duel once and had done well, even considering that her opponent had held back for the young girl. "And Sir Bandoliam? Lord Werdri? Lady Lithryth? Do they know you allied yourself with Lord Nedon to subvert my father's will?"
Jacen did not turn to look at her. "Your Grace, I pray you soon learn a princess' place in the world. I loved the late king, but he did you no kindness to raise you with the will of a prince. You are a girl, not a man, and you would do well to accept that."
With that, he swept out. Ris could hear him talking with the guards on the other side but she couldn't bear to listen to the words.
Perhaps Father had raised her as a prince. She was no boy, and had no inclination to become one, but she'd been brought up with the expectation that she would be treated with respect. When fear whispered that the people would not accept her if she did not wed and bear children of her own, she comforted herself with the belief that what mattered were her actions. She would be a good ruler to her subjects and they would realize they had no need of a king-consort or princes of her body. Many a king before her father had adopted a nephew or cousin as his heir when his body could not produce one. Why shouldn't a queen be allowed the same prerogative? She had repeated these truths to herself in the darkness at night until she found faith others believed as she did.
She'd been wrong, or at least she'd been wrong to trust Jacen. Fine; she was princess enough to admit her mistakes. It pained her to leave home but she would not accept the fate others arranged for her. She was her father's daughter and a princess. She knew how to hunt game and cook meat over a fire and cut her own arrows. She knew how to pin up her long hair so it would not catch on trees in the thick forests that lay west of the castle. She knew how to tear bedsheets into long strips, how to braid them for strength, and how to tie them together to make a rope. She knew know to climb out her window and disappear into the night.
She did not know what would come next. She would head for Lord Werdri's domain, for he was old enough to be her grandfather and had only daughters as his heirs; if she chose to trust him, she could do so knowing he would not offer himself or his sons in marriage. But she would keep her ear open as she traveled. Nedon would not be able to hide her disappearance for long. If the people didn't outcry for her return, if they would not rally for the young queen to take her rightful place, then she knew what to do. She would cut her hair and dress as a boy and live life as a fine and happy bachelor, fletching arrows for minor nobles who would not recognize her.
But if her people could accept her as she was, she would answer the call. Her feet touched the grass beneath her window as she reached the end of her makeshift rope, and she inhaled the wild earthy scent of freedom; her grin was fierce in the sliver of moonlight that illuminated the path she would take towards her future. The moon, goddess of the hunt, was a virgin too. Perhaps one day Ris' enemies would learn to fear her as much as the sky-bear and star-lion feared the shining mistress who chased them nightly across the sky. The moon was patient in her heavenly pursuit; Ris could learn to be patient in hers.