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The maroon velvet draperies framing Marian’s window rustled as a late summer zephyr swept into her room. Outside, the majestic oaks were beginning to turn their colors, accented by the soft gradient of the setting sun, matching Marian’s auburn hair. Beneath the eaves, a paved walkway ran past the palace fields and into the city beyond.
Marian closed the window and latched it shut. Immediately a yellowish film distorted the scenery, forming a veil she always yearned to breach. She pulled down the draperies, shutting out the dimming light from outside, and sat on her bed, igniting the lantern beside it. The flickering orange light would provide at least half an hour of entertainment.
“Excuse me, miss,” a heavily accented voice said.
Marian turned. She had forgotten to close the door to her chambers, and a servant was peering into the room. “Your mother Her Highness requires you to come to the main dressing room in preparation for your sending tomorrow. Her Highness very pointedly stated that you are to come at seven-fifteen sharp, no later. I suggest you hurry on.”
Marian blinked, retaining a mask of indifference. “Ok, tell her I shall arrive shortly.” The servant gave a curt nod and left the room, closing the bulky wooden door behind him.
“Stupid sending,” Marian muttered. She collapsed backwards onto the bed, tracing the silk embroidery of her blanket. She glanced at the clock built into her wall. Three minutes afterr seven. If she ran, she can make it in time if she left at eleven minutes afterr seven.
She used those eight minutes lying in bed, fumbling with her elaborate braids, not bothering to refine herself in her personal dressing room. Every woman with status in the castle had a personal dressing room. Even the maids had an entire hallway of them.
Eleven minutes afterr seven. Marian leapt off her bed and rushed out the door, dashing through the garnished, carpeted hallway. She nearly collided with a cluster of gossiping maids, but did not bother to apologize. She dashed down a series of spiraling stairs and into a wide atrium, illuminated by a grandiose chandelier dangling thirty feet above her. Then she sprinted into another hallway, to the entrance to the main dressing room, an intricately carved door bordered with gold-plated metal.
She gently pushed on the door, revealing a similarly adorned rectangular room. Mirrors with dressers brimming with cosmetic products lined the two walls left and right of her, while countless racks of clothing stood waiting directly opposite of her. All but one of the plush seats before the mirrors was vacant.
“You have arrived just in time, Marian,” her mother turned from the mirror, applying a copious layer of deep crimson lipstick. She dabbed a tissue on a smudge besides her upper lip, “You already know the basics of the sending and the proper etiquette, and have already mastered every step. However, you still have not mastered style.”
The queen stood, her silky dress shimmering in several shades of purple, the creases slightly tinted yellow with the light that suffused the room. Always, the queen was the perfect one, the priceless gem, the very quintessence of beauty. The person every single female in the kingdom wanted to be. As if her social status weren’t enough.
“What do you mean by that I still haven’t mastered style?” Marian asked.
“Look at you! Your braid is too thick, making your face appear elongated. Why couldn’t you actually look into the mirror when doing your hair? And I could see you haven’t applied the moisturizers in days. You want the princes and noblemen to see you at your finest. Only then can the sending be successful and festive.” The queen explained.
Marian sighed. Another indirect result of the queen’s beauty was her constant criticism of everyone else. If this were a normal event, such as the establishment of a new trading post, Marian would have absolutely no say over how she wanted to look. However, during sendings, the princesses had some freedom, so she wouldn’t be completely helpless in her mother’s meticulous hands.
But her mother wasn’t going to allow Marian to be completely liberal. The queen assumed a stern look and said, “But there is no point explaining all this to you until you understand what exactly is your finest, so you don’t look grotesque tomorrow.”
The queen took Marian’s shoulders and sat her at the mirror. Without releasing her hold, she said, “Examine your features. What do you see?”
Marian gulped. “Green eyes, red hair—”
“No, no, no! Be more specific. How many people in this world have green eyes and red hair? No, your eyes are special. They are sap green, with flecks of turquoise, which give you an aquatic flair. Now describe your hair with more detail!”
“Auburn hair, medium-thick, that’s slightly wavy and prone to frizz. I’m guessing that also helps with this exotic flair,” Marian exhaled.
“Yes, your hair does pair well with your pupils, yet it is not prone to frizz. Frizzy hair is a result of dryness, not ignorance. Hence you simply have to take care of it more often. Now to your eyebrows!”
The conversation dragged on for an extended amount of time. Always, something was wrong with Marian’s description. Her nose was not broad and triangular; it was broad and triangular only from the side, while in front it appeared as a slender rectangle. Her lips were petite but not subtle, and definitely not pale pink in color. Her neck was not long and muscular, it was long and lean. When it came to matching her features with assorted cosmetic products and colors, she fared no better.
Finally, afterr what seemed like forever, her mother sighed and said, “Marian, you obviously do not look in the mirror enough. I might be occupied with running this nation, but not occupied enough to not observe every single one of my daughters. I do not expect you to be a natural stylist, but you need to realize your style to perfect your style, especially since you are the oldest. Come an hour early tomorrow morning and allow me to mention several minor details before you take over. Now, see your elder brother and tell him that I require his audience ten minutes afterr nine, in the throne room.”
Marian strode out the room and closed the door. Once the doors shut, she broke into another sprint, back through the hallway, back up the stairs, back through the hallway towards the chambers of the royal children. Finally, she opened the door to her brother’s room.
“Mom needs you to come to the throne room at ten minutes afterr nine,” Marian muttered. Then she closed the door again without waiting for a response.
She couldn’t waste any time. At ten, everyone in the royal family was to be in the sacred hall perform their nightly ritual. She couldn’t be absent, especially before the sending. So she sprinted through the hallway, past rows and rows of study halls, writing rooms, and to a small porch. According to the moon, it was approximately eight-forty. She then turned and dashed down two flights of stairs, into another doorway, through the same atrium. The guards at the entrance glanced quizzically at her, but she ignored them, and she entered the hallway branching off from the distant corner of the atrium.
Instantly the lights dimmed. As she slowed, Marion felt inexplicably whisked into another world. The tiles were smeared with a layer of grime, the walls ominously bare and gray. Several squeaks originated from the ceiling, followed by the pattering of rodent feet.
At the far end of the hall was a sliding glass door, yellowed with age. She yanked it open, sending a shower of dirt raining onto her. She shook it off and stepped across the threshold, and onto the bed of hay lining the palace stables.
“Fernan? Are you here?” Marian whispered, glancing about.
Some shuffling, then a confirmation, “Yea, I’m here, Marian.”
“Tomorrow’s the sending. I’m ordered to report early to the queen, so I cannot discuss final plans with you tomorrow. We have an hour.”
Fernan stepped out from behind a wooden beam and straddled the fence separating the stables. He was thin, but in comparison with the other stable boys, he was stocky and well-fed, being the favorite of the royal family. His hair was uncombed, sitting like an umber bird’s nest upon his head. If one can ignore his hair, his appearances—entrancing blue eyes, clean-shaven, and just slightly tanned skin—can win nearly every young woman in the entire nation. But no one can ignore his hair.
“No other changes have been made, though, am I correct?” Fernan asked.
“Yes,” Marian asserted.
Fernan nodded and leaned against the wooden fence blocking the outside world. The world from which he was torn from, eight years ago, to serve the royalty as an all-around stable boy, breeding horses, grooming horses, training horses, whispering to horses, cleaning their stables.
“Why couldn’t we just leave today, right now? Why must you wait until the sending?” Fernan asked, sighing.
“You know why. Despite my feelings for you, I cannot completely betray my parents, this country. They have prepared for this sending for nearly five years, and I cannot be inexplicably absent the day of the sending. I would prefer that the reputation of this country be preserved.” Marian answered.
Fernan shook his head, “Marian, do you actually think they won’t get suspicious?”
“They won’t. The ruse is perfect,” Marian insisted.
“Maybe they will. The window shatters and the princess shrieks, seemingly because of an abductor, and is somehow gone without any guards noticing? And during that time, a suspicious guard and I leave apparently to report the kidnapping to the guards stationed beyond the castle. And I am the specific stable boy that never returns? No, they’ll likely be suspicious, even with the stories I had Tom and Beatrice fabricate. Let’s leave now.”
Fernan took Marian’s left hand in both of his, sighing, caressing her delicate fingers. Without meeting Marian’s gaze, he continued, “If we’re lucky they won’t recognize me among the other guards and stable workers exiting the gateway. But they’ll realize I’m missing within two days. We’ll be safely away by then, but what about my family? Upon your insistence, I have my fellow workers, honest workers, deceptively confess they witnessed a guard accidently shoot me, believing I’m the kidnapper. You even convinced several guards to play along. But you cannot forget, my mother and father have already bitterly endured the deaths of three children, and were forced to sell me for financial support. They can’t tolerate another death.”
“Then tell them. Visit their quarters and inform them of your situation, and then leave. It won’t take very long, and they definitely will not reveal our whereabouts.”
The caressing stopped. Fernan looked up, seemingly lost in contemplation. Finally, he dropped the hand, allowing it to fall against the folds of Marian’s dress, “Alright then, but only if we make efficient time. I cannot risk visiting such an obvious location if something has hindered the execution of the ploy. The faster we leave the better.”
Marian felt disembodied the next morning. The servants walked about with the usual tedium. Meanwhile, her mother badgered her with a garden variety of criticisms and suggestions, ever commenting on her cosmetic choices, chastising her for her indifference to the sending.
“Marian, this coral cannot be matched with shimmering blue eyeliner,” her mother insisted.
“It can, just apply a lighter coat,” Marian sighed.
And so they were.
When the sending finally began, Marian stood, uncomplaining, as dozens of possible royal suitors stood in a gawking throng, listening to the oration. Flanking her from behind were her brothers and sisters and parents. Despite the audience’s apparent interest in the speech, Marian knew that were itching to begin personal introductions. Only during the introductions could the noblemen freely scrutinize their possible future wife, as if she were a tender steak.
The introductions flew past. Sitting in a study just off the throne room, Marian dully repeated her banal introductory phrases to a parade of wealthy men. Luckily, a decision was made quickly. Her mother then ushered her into her room to; theoretically, wait patiently as the suitor signed a multitude of papers.
“The final terms shall be ready within an hour. Now just relax and smile about the glorious, happy life ahead of you,” the queen chirped. And then she closed the door.
Marian quickly switched into a guard’s clothes, a simple uniform of rough indigo leather. She opened the window and, sitting on the windowsill, gave a piercing shriek. She then shattered the window glass and scaled nimbly down the castle walls. Once she was eight feet off the ground, she leapt down, landing on a patch of neatly trimmed turf.
She immediately took off towards the stables, where Fernan would be waiting…
“Quickly, get on!” Fernan cried as he mounted the steed. “Once we see another guard run out, we’re leaving.”
Marian leapt onto the horse and steadied herself in the rugged leather saddle. Just as she grabbed the handholds on the sides, the first guard and his stable boy galloped into view, heading towards the gate. As predicted, they abruptly stopped at the entrance and gave a brief explanation of the situation to the sentinels before continuing into town.
The horse burst through the gate, whinnying. Under Fernan’s seasoned hand, the horse trotted to the threshold. The sentries gave Fernan a curt nod as he passed, to which he responded with a salute.
The horse broke into a gentle amble, kicking up small clouds of dust as it headed obediently into town. Marian glanced back at the guards sympathetically, knowing they, and those at the postern and possibly even those stationed in town, would be falsely accused of carelessness. Marian nodded once, and before she could stop it her sentry’s hat slid off and onto the ground, revealing her lavishly ornamented hair.
“Look, men! There’s the first princess!” One of the sentinels exclaimed. The others quickly joined in a bickering clamor, pointing and nodding assertions.
“Oh, great, we’ve been disclosed. Now hold on, because we’re showing no more mercy on this horse,” Fernan commanded. Marian immediately wrapped her arms around Fernan’s shoulders as the horse entered a full sprint through the city’s bazaar.
“Halt, thief!” A voice rang out from behind.
“You can’t outrun me!” Fernan cried back.
Marian tightened her hold. With one hand, she reached back, and yanked off all the garish décor from her hair, sending the myriad clips, ribbons, and pearls clattering to the ground, allowing her hair to flutter freely behind her, like a blazing streamer.
And in that one moment, everything fell silent. They had become deaf to all.
They had become deaf to all but their breath, their heartbeat, and the rhythm of the gallop.