Pain and confusion exploded in your chest, searing through bone and flesh as you stared at the hooded figure, eyes wide under the shadows cast by draping cloth. Blood roared in your ears, yet you felt as if you had been dragged away from the real world, all sounds oddly muted and shuffling as echoes ricocheted in your skull.
Amelia stood there as if made of stone, mouth curled in a sort of half-apologetic, half-determined expression, shadowed by the hooded cloak she wore. She didn’t move, barely breathing as you sighed, stuck the candle in a holder some absentminded servant had left on the table, and crossed a few steps to her side. There was no protest as you took her elbow firmly and pulled her towards the light of the candle.
Only when the wavering light of the candle flame reached her eyes did you notice the glassiness in Amelia’s eyes, light glimmering off the surface of the tears welling over her corneas. Yet beneath the liquid sheen over her eyes there lay steel, glinting in the blue of her irises like Excalibur beneath the waters of its lake.
“I cut my hair already,” she said suddenly, her voice raspy but strong. You looked at her in confusion, hands moving like spindly birds to her shoulders, fingers comprehending before your mind. Before your fingers could touch her forehead or hairline, Amelia shoved back her hood and glared at you with a defiance that was still nearly apologetic.
Your mouth dropped slightly open as her hair was revealed; your daughter’s brassy golden curls, brighter and more saturated than Arthur’s, had been shorn off by an unsteady hand, choppy edges floating above her ears and neck. A sound not quite like a laugh escaped your throat and you pulled Amelia to you, hugging her close and burying your face in your arm behind her so that the tears you felt pricking your eyes would not fall to her skin.
She did not return the embrace at first, but after a few seconds, Amelia’s arms curled around you and your daughter squeezed you tightly as you wished she would never have to let go. When you finally pulled back to examine her handiwork, it was with an odd sense of detachment that you were able to tut at the uneven angles and lengths she had chopped away. Amelia’s hair was softer than goose down between your fingertips as you considered it for a second before asking the golden strands,
Their owner started, apparently not expecting the sudden query, but answered, “They’ll be looking for a princess with blonde hair, not a peasant boy with short, dark hair.”
Your fingers paused in their gentle combing as you took in for the first time the ill-fitting, colourless tunic and trousers she wore under the cloak and you commanded sternly, “Explain.” A sudden chill ran through you as you realized that your words mirrored Arthur’s, but Amelia’s answer stopped you from wandering too far in your mind.
Her voice was more hesitant this time, her muscles tensing beneath you. “I don’t want to live in a cage like this forever. I’m nearly of age, and I know we are close to war. Princesses are good trades; put a ring on their finger with a white dress and they’re worth peace. If they’re pretty, maybe even another war.”
Amelia’s voice wavered for a moment, but she continued, “Princesses are pretty things men decorate their countries with. They can’t be people, or valuable as people…their value comes from whose lips are allowed to touch theirs and whose hands they are bound to.” She turned slightly, large blue eyes pleading silently with you through their glistening steel. You wondered if she realized that princesses sometimes became queens, or that her own mother was one such instance.
“Madeline is content to live as a songbird, wings clipped in a gilded cage. She sees it as her fate, whether she really likes it or not, and so she has reconciled herself to destiny. But, Mama,” her voice broke and the first real traces of tears tore through Amelia’s voice, “I am not like that! I want to fly by myself, I want to be a falcon—not the poor dears I hunt with, with those hoods that blind them so they can only fly to the edge of the tether, but think they still own the sky—but the wild ones, the ones we see when Papa takes us hunting and they lift up from the forest like arrows.”
You didn’t bother reminding her that the last time Arthur had taken your daughters hunting had been nearly a decade ago. There was no point in pouring salt to a wound already scarred over.
“I want to be free,” Amelia whispered, her hands reaching for yours suddenly. “I want to be in control of myself. If I have to become a peasant boy to find my independence, then so be it. I’d cut off my hair and fight in a thousand wars a thousand times over to be free.” Her fingers grasped yours tightly and she sank into you, repeating her liberation like a chant to the ears of your breast.
You stared at the crown of your daughter’s head, rendered molten gold in the candlelight, salt and agony rising with the image of the foreign peasant girl Arthur had thrown out of the throne room earlier that day. Her cries resonated in your skull as Amelia’s soft chanting melted to a chorus in your mind.
“We have nothing,” you whispered, clutching Amelia closer to you, the desperate urge to keep her shielded overcoming every other thought in your brain. The peasant girl’s screams echoed and you saw your daughter fall to her knees, beaten and bruised at the hands of guards who dragged her mercilessly from the room. “They have nothing.”
You blinked and her bruises disappeared, replaced by a heavy crown of Russian filigree, gilded robes weighing on her shoulders like lead weights. A faceless husband barked garbled orders at her and the steel in Amelia’s eyes flared, only to vanish under the suffocation of the man’s open palm, silenced again and again.
Your breath came in ragged gasps as you clutched Amelia in the feeble light of the sole candle, only the solid, tangible feeling of her corporeal being under your fingers keeping you from weeping. In this world or the next, your daughter could not rise, no matter how many tears you shed; all that mattered were how many she was forced to cry.
A girl traveling alone was not something you wanted to think about, so instead, you turned your thoughts to the petitioners who had come beseeching you and Arthur today.
“There is a farm,” you told Amelia suddenly, ignoring her confusion,” by the forests to the west in need of labour. If you follow the river we went boating on last summer to the north, you will come to a crossroads—are you listening to me, Amelia? At the crossroads, take the road heading towards the forest, but when the path turns red beneath your feet, strike out west, off the path. You will come to an inn where you can spend the night. From there, the farm is half a day’s journey, and but a day from the neighbouring village. Work hard and they will not turn you away.”
You paused and cast a critical new eye over Amelia, surveying the shorn hair and worn clothes anew. She had been careful, you had to admit; the trousers were worn appropriately thin over the knees, threadbare and pale; the tunic bore the same level of wear and both articles of clothing had been carefully splattered with mud, dryer dirt rubbed into patches across the cloth as well, dark and dusty under the grass stains streaking it. She was so young, too young to be doing this…yet if she were any older she would already be bowed under a hairnet of Russian pearls.
“What were you going to use for your hair?” you asked softly, resisting the urge to reach out and run your fingers through the thick, bouncy strands. A dark-haired peasant boy….Amelia’s voice rang in your head again insistently.
She paused, tugging at the hem of her tunic to straighten it almost self-consciously; in the action you recognized your daughter in her barest, rawest form—suddenly Amelia was six years old again, biting her lip as she nervously showed you the nutcracker she had painted (Arthur had whittled the frame just days before, from a cedar tree that smelt of sharp green sap and cool air).
A small smile touched the corners of your lips and time blurred before your eyes until you weren’t sure exactly how old the girl standing in front of you was; years had not changed the lopsided tilt of her uncertain smile or the twist over her nose and eyes that showed a degree of self-consciousness as she answered, “Walnut ink.”
Her hand flew—quick fingers, you thought, and how did she come about those—to a pocket, bringing out two vials of the dark brown liquid, a few stains blocking the glass panes. Her grin widened almost imperceptibly as she continued, a hint of pride coming into her voice, “It’s what the stable boy uses to darken his stubble so the village girls fall over themselves. I diluted it so it would dry faster.”
You took the vials from her hand, pursing your lips as she looked at you in a mixture of indignation and confusion. “Don’t,” you said flatly, kindness warming your voice as you explained, “Hair grows. As easy as it is to find a blonde princess or a brunet farmboy, it’s a million times easier to find a farmboy with a princess’s hair.” You set the ink on the table with a pointed look.
Amelia looked away, a faint flush coming to her cheeks even as her jaw hardened. “Do I have your blessing, then?” she asked, determination covering any trembling hesitation her voice may have betrayed.
You found that your answer stuck in your throat, mutating every few breaths to its opposite and back again. Your eyes roved over your daughter again, her image flashing between the shorn-haired girl who stood before you now, an elegant prisoner of misery bound by some faceless man’s hand upon her waist, and the foreign girl who had begged for a position.
“Yes,” you answered finally, the single word thick with emotion. “Yes,” you repeated, fiercely this time, as you seized Amelia in a final embrace, fingers tight and desperate. “Go now, and go with all my love.”
Your breath caught in your throat as you gazed at her, trying to memorize every detail of her features, soaking in the sparks of absolute conviction in her eyes and the hard set of her jaw so that you could convince yourself of her happiness in the absence of news.
“Don’t look back,” you heard yourself saying in a stern whisper, “and don’t try to send word. Your father will not stop searching for you, and I can only do so much. I can send them in the wrong direction, but that will only buy you a few days at the most. Let—“ You broke off, unsure if you could claim that God would guide Amelia on such a treasonous path. Yet she was a child of purity and goodness and love just as any other, you reasoned, and so you swallowed and finished, “Let God guide you, Amelia, and trust in your soul.”
There was so much more you wanted to tell her, but if you even began to think of how much you loved her, you would never let her go, so you forced yourself to drop your hands from her shoulders, allowing yourself only to tug at the shoulders of her cloak to straighten them before stepping back and devoting your attention to staying the tears you felt brimming at your lower lids.
She nodded once, a sharp little jerk of her chin, and pulled her hood up again, obscuring her face. Her voice was tiny but firm, each word solid and strong when she spoke. “Thank you, Mama.”
And then she was gone, in a single sweep of her cloak and the silent swing of the servants’ door to the black, black night beyond, and you were left alone again to stare into the darkness, remembering how she, at the age of three, had leant up and pressed fluttering kisses to your hands or cheeks, wherever she could reach, and laughed in joy afterwards.
Amelia’s giggles haunted you that night, her smiling face hovering in the stinging quasi-haven of your closed eyelids. You could only wonder what was to become of her sister. And yourself, a soft voice whispered in your mind, sweet malice clinging to every syllable.