Cassandra had rushed back to her room with the intention of collecting up some items and then hurrying down to the harbour to meet with Spencer. However, shortly after she had arrived at her room she was followed in by some of her maids. The maids did not acknowledge Cassandra, instead they just funnelled into the room and began taking dresses from drawers and placing them into trunks. While they worked at packing the entire room into separate trunks, Cassandra decided to change out of her wedding dress. She looked over at where her dresses would have been kept but found them all packed away in trunks already. That was when she caught sight of the brown trousers and boots she had worn that morning for hunting. Without thinking very much about it she slipped on the tattered brown clothes and laced up the boots. As she got to her feet she saw Peter appear at the door with a few servants behind him.
“Has Spencer managed to secure a boat?”
“We shall sail as soon as you are ready.” Cassandra looked around the room as the maids folded and placed a few last items into the large wooden trunks. Cassandra nodded and, as soon as the lid of the trunk slammed shut, the servants outside took over from the maids and began carrying the trunks out in a line.
As Cassandra followed the line of servants out into the courtyard she was greeted by a huge array of people who had gathered round in various areas of the castle to see what was occurring. She could overhear whispers of “what is she wearing?” and “do you think the King knows?”. The questions were answered when King Marcus came out of the church as Cassandra crossed the halfway point of the courtyard. Immediately their eyes met, like destiny had forced their path to cross at that moment. Cassandra stopped walking but instructed Peter to take the maids and servants down to the boat and load the things.
“Will you return?”
“For what purpose?”
“Our marriage, of course.” Cassandra bit her lip and refrained from saying what was on her mind. She could not possibly explain to him that she was only marrying him because it was what her father wanted. She was not sure she could do that to any man, but this man was stood in front of his people and Cassandra did not want to humiliate him like that.
“When destiny forces us together, I shall return.” It did not please her to be ambiguous but she had been taught, as a Princess, that she was to be ambiguous if asked awkward questions.
“Destiny may will it but if you leave then I may not.” He turned away momentarily and then looked back at her. Cassandra could see herself reflected in his shiny buttons. She knew the reason for the King turning his nose up. Her outfit was less than regal and she looked much like the common people who had gathered around to see her exit. “Maybe your father’s death was for the best.” He spoke the words with a sneer and Cassandra felt anger build up in her stomach. The anger flickered momentarily but then disappeared, after all she couldn’t be angry at him for the comment when she had been thinking a very similar notion shortly before.
“Maybe so.” She nodded her head and turned away from the King. As she exited from the courtyard she could still hear the gossip and the disbelief flowing around the crowds. “How can she leave?”, “What about the King?”, “Will she be back?”. Whilst Cassandra could answer all of their questions, there was no time.
She reached the dock and the servants were loading the trunks on under the supervision of the Duke of Bantham. Spencer was over to one side, no doubt negotiating a fee for the boat and trying to convince a Captain to agree to the journey. The latter proved more difficult as how could he explain why the Princess was leaving the Captain’s King on their wedding day? Eventually, after some discussion that Cassandra could not hear, she saw Spencer drop a bag of money into his hands and the Captain boarded the ship.
“I shall compensate you for this when we arrive home.” Spencer was about to reply when Peter approached.
“The Captain is ready to sail if you are.” Cassandra nodded and boarded the boat with the Duke, Spencer, the maids and the servants all following behind.
The crossing took days and Cassandra could not shake the overwhelming nostalgia that set in no the way. She tried not to think too much about her father or how long he had been dead for. She wished she had been able to receive news that he was ill so that she would have at least had a chance to make it home to spend the last days with him. She had been there when her mother died and she had felt the comfort of being there with her when she needed her. Cassandra could not help but wonder what her father’s last words were, or how long he was ill before he finally passed. She wondered if she would even ever get answers to these questions, or even if she wanted the answers.
When the ship docked on Arastonian land, Cassandra knew she was home. Her feet somehow fit the ground better than they did in Dolor, and the air seemed much more natural for her. The air in Dolor had been heavy and overbearing, but in Araston it felt comfortable and familiar.
“I have managed to acquire us carriages. Your Page, the maids and servants can all follow us behind with the trunks.”
“Spencer rides with us.” The Duke looked at her, offering her the chance to divulge any more information or a reason, but Cassandra turned her head and walked over to the carriage. Once helped inside she could see the Duke talking to Spencer and presumably explaining how he was to ride up front with them.
It still took them an entire day to cross from the harbour to Araston’s capital, Pentheus. Along the way Cassandra took note of everything she remembered. The bushy trees that populated the forests, so thick that you could not see further than the first row. The people who were happy to see her carriage pass by rather than those in Dolor who always questioned her presence in their land. The carriage rattled along the dirt road and nobody was sure what to say. Cassandra’s mind was too busy thinking about her father. She had never considered her father a man capable of death. She had seen him contract fevers in the past that would have killed a lesser man, but he had merely brushed them aside and continued his job as King.
“What is on your mind, Princess?” Cassandra looked back from the window and saw the Duke’s eyes focused on her. She chewed her bottom lip, something the Duke had always discouraged her from doing.
“Araston.” She gestured out of the window at the wide open lands surrounding them. “And what will become of it now my father has passed.”
“Your father and I often talked of his passing.” The Duke had never sounded so wistful before. “But we had both assumed I would go first.” This brought a smile to his face and, although she would never admit it, Cassandra had assumed that too; it was not an unfair assumption for he was a few years senior to her father. “He wished for you to run Araston in such a circumstance.” Cassandra laughed but noticed he was not joking when his facial expression did not change. She looked across to Spencer who was sleeping against the side of the carriage; she wished she could ask him what he thought of the suggestion but she did not want to wake him.
“My father did have a sense of humour.” She turned her gaze back to the window, dismissing the suggestion entirely.
“He did not joke about his Kingdom or his daughter.”
“Peter, you know that Araston has never had a Queen by inheritance. Why do you believe I should be the first?” The Duke shook his head as if Cassandra had completely misunderstood what he was saying.
“This is not my opinion, Princess. This was your father’s wish and I am merely relaying it to you.” For some reason this was not the answer Cassandra had wanted. Her heart had gone on a journey since leaving Dolor and she had finally felt it settle down until Peter had informed her of this wish. She took a deep breath and lay her head against the side of the carriage. She had not expected to, due to the bumping of the road shaking the framework of the carriage, but she soon found her eyes heavy and closing shut.
Cassandra was awoken by Spencer when the large stone wall of Pentheus came into view. They were emerging out of the neighbouring forest and the city of Pentheus stood tall and proud in front of them. The wall had stood for centuries and served as a constant reminder to Cassandra about where her home was. She could already begin to see the market stalls and houses lining the dusty streets with the citizens selling their wares. In the heart of the city was Pentheus Palace, which had been constructed by her great grandfather and stood as the royal house ever since. Her mind began forming a map of the city, taking in all the small details of every building. She knew every strange mark she would find and every statue that stood, right the way from The People’s Statue in the front square all the way through to the ornate lions that stood proudly outside the palace.
The carriage came to a stop at the moat that circled the town and they waited for the drawbridge to be lowered. It came down slowly but with every turn of the crank Cassandra felt like she was a step closer to being home. Finally the drawbridge clattered against the ground and the carriage proceeded across as the gate in front of them was drawn up and the wooden doors retracted. Usual proceedings would have had the carriage drawn directly up to the palace so Cassandra would not have had to walk amongst the people, but she insisted the carriage stop just inside the city walls. As the gate and doors were closed behind them, Cassandra dismounted from the carriage and smiled when her feet first touched the floor beneath them. But something felt strange, it seemed to corrupt the sense of familiarity she had been expecting.
She had not expected to feel the sense of despair that seemed to cloud the city. But of course she should have, this was a city in mourning. Whilst she did not know just long they had been without a monarch, she knew the impact her father had and that his loss would surely be felt for a long time after. The city was so consumed with their loss that no one came out of their house to welcome home their Princess. It may have been the shock of seeing her, for she was not due back again, but they seemed resigned to watching from their houses through the windows. Cassandra, seizing the opportunity, crossed the square to The People’s statue that her father had erected in his second year of monarch.
The statue was of a man, a woman and a child, all stood upright on a podium. The child clutched a crown in his hands and all figures were smiling towards the entrance of the city so that everyone who entered would feel the warm smile of Pentheus upon them. Underneath the people was an inscription in an ancient language.
Sor Regaltus Cano Mai Lit Ve Tu.
Cassandra, whilst not being well versed in the language, knew the words to mean “The King Is One Of You.” As Cassandra stood in front of the statue she wondered if her father could still see her, would he still be watching over his people? The entire base of the statue had been covered with flowers of brilliant colours of all varieties. The base looked like a rainbow dedication to her father. Some people had left messages of scribbled words on paper tucked in between their flower dedications. Cassandra had meant to pick one up but was interrupted by footsteps not far away. She could see guards approaching but, unlike in Dolor, did not fear for her safety.
“Please move aside.” There were only three of them and Cassandra knew they meant no harm to her and so she agreed. One of them, following shortly behind the others, was carrying a large satchel over his shoulder. Cassandra did not have to ask what it was for as the two in front began picking up handfuls of flowers, tearing them up with their hands, and dumping them into the satchel. Cassandra threw herself immediately back in front of the guards and Spencer and Peter began approaching the statue too.
“What do you think you are doing? This is a tribute to my father and I shall not have some uneducated grunts destroying it.” She had expected an angry reply for most people would not have taken kindly to such words, but instead they continued their job.
“We mean no disrespect, we are just following the orders of the King. He asked us to clear the area so the statue could be removed.”
“My father would never insist on such an act, regardless of how poor his health.” Cassandra glanced around at Peter or Spencer for support but both of them seemed to understand what was happening more than she was.
“Your father is not King.” The guard’s words were blunt and to the point, so much so they hit Cassandra with a thud to her chest. She was lost for words and so was thankful when Spencer escorted her back to the carriage and she felt the wheels start rolling beneath them again. All she could do was watch as the men began destroying the beautiful tribute that the citizens had left.
The carriage rolled through the street and Cassandra noticed something more than just mourning. Houses were not in a good way, some with holes in their roofs and some with large bricks chipped away at their walls. The town had fallen into such a disrepair that mourning was no longer a viable excuse. Such a mourning may have allowed houses to become dirty or stained, but she could not think of a citizen that would have such little pride in their house that they would let it fall around them. This was no longer just mourning.
Everything about the palace seemed normal but to Cassandra something was not right. The lion statues that lined the steps up to the palace were perched in their usual position and looking more cared for than she ever remembered them. One of them had lost a tail when Cassandra was a child and her father had insisted that a lion without its tail did not make it any less of a lion and so he refused to replace it, deciding the money was needed elsewhere. As they walked up the steps Cassandra noticed that the lion’s tail had been replaced and both statues had been repainted a bright gold. At the top of the steps, where Cassandra would usually just walk on inside, they were halted by more guards. Neither guard said anything, they just held their halberd directly across the doors so they would not open.
“My name is Princess Cassandra of Araston and I demand to speak with the man who calls himself King.” Once again neither guard made so much of a movement. It was clear they were under orders not to let anyone in, even when stood face to face with a Princess, a Duke and a Page. “Did you not hear me? My name is Princess Cassandra of Araston and I demand you let me inside.”
“Your name holds no weight in these parts any more.” These parts? This was Cassandra’s home city, where she had been born and raised as the Princess of the people, now she was being treated like some hostile intruder.
“I am your Princess-” She caught herself and remembered, she was not technically the Princess any more. “I am your Queen and I demand you let me speak to the imposter King.” Neither guard retracted their weapon and Cassandra was beginning to give up hope, that was until Peter stepped forward.
“Peter, Duke of Bantham, and until your King formerly dismisses me I can still enter the palace whenever I wish with the escorts of my choosing. These two are my escorts and I would like to enter the palace to speak to your King.” The guards, after a brief surveying of Peter, retracted their weapons and opened the doors for him and his ‘escorts’ to proceed. Cassandra did not agree with Peter calling her an escort but it allowed them entry into the palace so she felt unable to dispute it too much.
They were escorted through the palace by some more guards and Cassandra was noticing more and more tiny ornate ornaments scattered around; a vase here or a music box there. The heavy guard presence was making Cassandra uncomfortable. She had been escorted around before but rarely in Araston did she ever have to have so many guards present. Her father had insisted that a heavy guard presence did not reassure the population and that they should make alliances and friends rather than increase their military.
“Your Majesty, The Duke of Bantham is here to see you with his escorts.”
“Do show them in.” Cassandra almost lost her temper as soon as she heard the voice.
As they entered the drawing room Cassandra’s suspicions were confirmed. Sat at the table was her cousin Thomas of Adley and his wife Alice of Pefferidge, however they now went by the title of King and Queen of Araston
Spencer glanced over and could see Cassandra’s temper flaring from the way she wrung her hands so tightly she could crush marble between them. Thomas and Alice sat on one side of the drawing room table and instructed the guard to seat the guests opposite them.
It had been many years since they last saw each other but it was clear to see the relation between Cassandra and Thomas. They both had the same auburn hair and the same piercing emerald eyes. “Am I right to presume that this meeting was not arranged on behalf of yourself, Peter?” Thomas sipped from a tankard in front of him. “I am sorry, can I get you anything to drink?” All three denied a drink but Thomas sent a servant away to fetch them all some wine anyway. “Did you enjoy your wedding, cousin?” His lips thinned and formed a twisted smile as he spoke the words.
“I did not marry King Marcus. Upon news of my father’s death I set sail immediately.” The servant returned with their drinks and set them down in front of them. They were to drink from goblets, in fact the only person not drinking from one was Thomas who insisted on having his drinks in a tankard.
“You must have received word rather late then, it seems he has been dead for a month now.” Cassandra picked up the goblet and could smell the fruit and spices mixed around. She had never been fond of wine, preferring instead the taste of beer, but it was unladylike to drink beer in the presences of others and so she often found herself forcing wine down at meals. She decided to drink the wine, to show some hospitality to her cousin. It pained her to do it and remembered then that Thomas would be one of the few people who knew of her disdain for the beverage.
“And it seems you wasted no time in claiming the crown.” Cassandra could have sworn she saw a glint in Thomas’ eye as the words entered his ears. “But I am afraid my father wished for me to take over his legacy.”
“Is that so? Do you wish me to just hand over my crown and leave the city immediately?” It was exactly what she had expected but knew it would not go down like that. “While you were away playing wife to King Marcus, I was here tending to a broken city mourning for its King. I gave them a new King and a new face to adore.” A servant entered the room and placed some papers down on the table in front of Thomas. It seemed they had interrupted him during his ‘busy’ time where he appeared to do nothing but drink wine and scribble on random pieces of paper that came his way. He always made sure, when signing, that he would benefit from whatever was proposed. Whenever something came his way that he did not agree with his brow would furrow and he would hand it back to the servant with disgust, never giving a reason why he refused it.
“My father did not have to give you any territory but he knew you were family and gave you the province of Adley. He did not have to do such a thing. How do you repay his kindness? Like a vulture you arrive mere moments after his death and help yourself to everything he owned. You, dear cousin, are a lousy excuse for a man.”
“And you are not even a man at all. As a male it is only right that I inherit this throne. How do you think your people would react to an unmarried woman running their country? They would think it disgraceful for that is exactly what it is. A woman is fit for birthing a child. A woman’s body is not prepared to run a country, a woman’s mind could not possibly cope with the complications that come from such a task. You feel you are capable of birthing a child and ruling a country, you must consider yourself superior to all men, is that what you are suggesting?”
“I feel myself as the rightful heir to the throne and I would have expected you to honour such a tradition. My father was a good and honest man-”
Thomas slammed his tankard down onto the table and the contents sloshed up the sides and threatened to spill over. “Your father was a fool! He pandered to peasants and was the laughing stock of the entire world. A man too afraid to go to war, he had the courage and fortitude of a woman.” Cassandra followed suit, slamming her goblet down onto the table and managing to spill some of the contents.
“How dare you tarnish my father’s name! He was a better man than you will ever be. He gave you the land you governed over, without which you would never have had an army to claim the crown in the first place.”
“Cassandra,” With the cousins both on their feet, glaring at each other over the table, someone had to step in; no one ever thought it would be Alice. “A woman is not suited to running a country without a man beside her. Should you marry and then return for the crown then this discussion may end differently, but for now your plea for the throne will forever fall on deaf ears.”
Cassandra could not believe what she was hearing. She had always known Alice to be of a weaker will than herself, there were not many women who were stronger, but she did not ever consider that she would betray her like that. She should have expected it though, Alice was Thomas’ wife and so she had to be, by law, subservient to him.
“I shall propose an offer for you. If you return to Dolor and marry King Marcus then we shall negotiate this situation with the crown further.” Thomas had calmed down and a servant presented a paper to Cassandra. The entire proposition was drawn up as a legally binding contract explaining that she would have to marry King Marcus before having a viable claim to the throne. “If you do not sign it then you shall be exiled from Pentheus, never to return.”
It was a difficult decision, one she had not expected to be presented with. On one hand she could marry King Marcus and use him as a husband to gain her country back, but she did not want to marry him and wondered if exile was a better option than a lifetime of marriage with him. The only reason she had been prepared to go through with it previously was because her father, a man she trusted and respected, insisted on it for the good of the country. She knew Thomas better than most and knew there was very little chance he would abide by his promise. As King he could make the contract disappear as soon as she left the city, meaning she would then be married and still without claim. Rather than consider it any longer she simply ripped the papers into small pieces and threw them onto the floor.
“A man holds no legal claim over this throne. This throne was promised to a woman, to the King’s daughter, and as Princess Cassandra I am the rightful heir.”
“Escort her from my city.” The guards grabbed Cassandra and dragged her to one side. She only made it to the doorway before the guards stopped upon hearing Peter’s voice.
“What about us, your Majesty?”
“I have heard many good words about you, Duke of Bantham, so you may keep your title and place in this court if you so wish.” Thomas looked over at Spencer who had not spoken a word since arriving. He quietly sipped his wine until he realised he was being watched, at which point he placed the wine on the table and began to worry. “Who are you?” Thomas smiled and rested his feet up on the table.
“Spencer, your Majesty. I am Cassandra’s Page-boy.”
“Well, since you belong to Cassandra, let us have her decide what happens to you.” He got up on his feet and walked across the room to where the guards held Cassandra tightly by the arms. She struggled but still could not manage to free herself from the grasps of the two larger and well protected men. “What shall we do with your Page? He is free to stay here, with me, and serve as one of my many Page-boy’s, or you can take him into exile with you. Which shall it be, Cassandra?”
It was another impossible choice. Leaving him meant she would be exiled alone with just a handful of maids or servants to keep her company, but letting him go with her meant she was sentencing him to a life of exile. She could live with herself in exile, but if she made sure Spencer was exiled too she wondered if she could ever live with that.
“He stays and serves you.” Spencer looked like he wanted to protest the decision but it would do him no good. If he protested it then he would be speaking out of line, questioning the King’s decision to have Cassandra decide, and could be thrown into prison or executed. He did not wish to step out of line before his services even began.
Cassandra could not have felt more guilty. Was a life of exile worse than a life serving Thomas? She could see under the blond curls that Spencer did not agree with the decision, but she had already decided.
“Wonderful. Guards, take him to the other Page’s.” The guards escorted Spencer out of the drawing room, although his escort simply led him to the room rather than the rough treatment Cassandra was experiencing.
As the guards dragged her through the streets she couldn’t help but wonder how the situation had come to this. She had only wanted to see her father again and now she was being exiled from her own city. The city had served as her home for many years and now she was being dragged through the streets and physically thrown out. She lay on the cold hard ground, as she watched the drawbridge retract, and wondered how she had gone from having her life planned out for her to having no future prospects.