“Who is she and what is she doing in my sight?” I tapped one finger against my gilded throne while rubbing my other hand across my stubble. It was just thick enough to add a sharp shadow to my face without being unkempt. My gaze was practiced perfection. A combination of condescension and indifference.
“She was caught in the fields, Your Majesty.” A thin guard stood just to the right of the girl in front of me. A comical pair those two were. The guard shaking, visibly nervous and unable to meet my eye, and the girl, covered in dirt with wild hair sticking up everywhere and an angry stare penetrating my skull.
“And I should care because...?” I moved my hand from my stubble to my arm rest, perching my elbow on it and resting my chin in my hand.
“Well, she was trying to set them afire.” The guard gulped.
“She did what?” The corner of my mouth twitched, threatening to curl into a frown.
“She was caught in the act of burning the fields, Sire.”
“This little thing made it past the guards? She should have been shot dead before she even reached the outer gates.” I was a portrait of constrained rage. This tiny little rag doll had almost made a fool out of me, almost torched my crops that were surrounded by my guards.
“She’s small, Your Majesty. She was unnotic—”
“Unnoticed? I’ll show you unnoticed!” I shot out of my throne, glancing at the castle reporters in the back to make sure their cameras were poised to catch my wrath. “You’re banished, stripped of your citizenship. I want you gone before the last light fades.” I turned my gaze to the small figure next to the sniveling guard. “As for her? The dungeon. Until I can decide on a punishment suitable for our little arson.” I straightened my lapels, then gripped the edges of my cape and descended my dais. As I brushed past the guard and the girl, that penetrating glare was still plastered upon her face. I slammed the back doors open and stalked out of the hall, dismissing court.
I stalked up and down the length of my opulent bed chambers. Gold clung to every surface. Only the best for the King, of course. But I was not distracted by the luxury that surrounded me. All I could think of was that audacious girl. My skin ran hot just remembering that traitorous glare adorning her face. I was the King! She should have groveled at my feet.
Wham! I slammed my fist into a carved bedpost. It came away bloody, my skin no match for the gold inlays, but my anger masked the pain. I could not let her get away with this. My people needed to know what happened to people who defy me. I must not look weak.
I threw open my door and stomped all the way down to the dungeon determined to invoke fear in that wretched girl.
Standing tall, I marched right up to her cell doors expecting to be met with that hard stare once again. What I saw instead made my steps falter. The anger was still there but two dirty tear tracks led up to red-rimmed eyes.
I didn’t know what to do.
I had come to the dungeon ready to break a proud spirit but had stumbled upon a spirit that was already broken. Or was it? Maybe it was all a trick. Or perhaps her anger was the true mask hiding her fear. I was at a loss for words.
She startled at my presence, but her mask of anger snapped into place, eyes hard despite being framed with tears.
“His Majesty has deigned to grace me with his presence. How lucky I must be.” She drew her legs up close to her chest, hiding her bare feet beneath her skirt.
“Such a small thing. However do you possess so much anger?”
“You seem to manage it just fine. After all, this small thing seemed to cause quite the display of anger in you.”
I narrowed my eyes. I don’t know exactly what is going through this girl’s head, but no one insults me, I thought.
“You hate me so much? Then I know exactly what to do with you.” I turned toward the guard but not before glimpsing fear peeking through the cracks of her mask. “I want her assigned to my service. Bring her to Madeline. She can teach her what to do. But keep her in irons and when she’s not working, she goes back to the dungeon.” I turned back to the girl. “You’re going to carry out your sentence by waiting on me hand and foot.” I smirked. Take that.
I didn’t wait around to hear her protests. My word was final.
The next morning, I found myself pacing the length of my chamber once again. Why did I think this was a good idea? I didn’t need a temperamental girl in my personal space. What if her real mission here was to assassinate me? There was so much that I didn’t know about this girl. So much that I didn’t need to know about her. I should have sent her to the stocks.
I was still pacing when a light knock sounded against my door before it breezed open and a train of maids streamed in, the girl at the back accompanied by a guard. Her shuffling steps were punctuated by the clank of metal on metal. Her gaze was downturned. She refused to even spare me a glance as she joined the seemingly choreographed dance of the maids. They flitted here and there, making the bed, straightening my desk, dusting the flat surfaces.
The head maid, Madeline, came to curtsey in front of me. “Shall we prepare for the day, Sire?”
I nodded once and followed her into my closet. Madeline’s skilled eyes skimmed my many outfits, plucking out a tie here and a buttoned-down shirt here until she was satisfied with the ensemble. After I dressed, I met her in the bathroom where she gave my hair a much-needed trim. Another of the maids, finished with her other tasks, wandered in and set to giving me a clean shave.
When my face was coated in a rich lather, I heard the telltale clank coming closer to the bathroom. The girl perched against the doorframe before stalking closer.
“May I, Lily? I’ve never shaved someone before.” She stretched her hand out to Lily’s hand which was quickly approaching my face. I intercepted her hand, gripping her wrist tightly before her fingers could touch cold steel.
“I don’t think so. Don’t think I’m dumb enough to let you anywhere near my face with a blade.” I quirked an eyebrow at her. Her face pulled down into a frown.
“I’m surprised you let anyone near you with sharp objects. What with your temper I can’t fathom that you would have many admirers.”
“My temper? My temper? You are surely one to talk. I don’t think you have any emotion other than hatred.”
“That’s because you only ever see me when I’m around you.”
“Annabelle.” Madeline made a face at the girl, Annabelle, widening her eyes.
Annabelle reluctantly shut her mouth.
When the maids were done straightening my chamber and prepping me for the day, they all formed a line and curtsied before heading for the door. Before I could register what I was saying, words were tumbling out of my mouth and plunking loudly onto the floor, echoing about the room.
“Not Annabelle.” They all turned to look at me. “She stays with me.” I could feel before I could see Annabelle’s fiery wrath pointed in my direction. The other maids scurried out of my chamber leaving Annabelle behind.
“To what do I owe this great honor?” Her mask of anger was on so tightly it was easily mistaken for true hatred. But the sliver of fear in her eyes always betrayed her.
“I’m keeping you around. Just in case I might need your service.” A lie. Against my better judgement, I wanted to know more about her. I was already mentally kicking myself. I worked hard to maintain my chilling cruelty. I did not need my curiosity to unravel my image.
I left my chamber, leaving it up to the guard to make sure she was following me. My schedule was quite uneventful today, unlike most days. It would be riddled with meetings, the first of which was with the general of my army.
“General Fletcher,” I greeted him from where I stood at the entrance to the armory.
“Ah, Your Majesty, I’m glad you were able to meet me. We have a serious problem on our hands.”
“What is it?”
“Your citizens, Sire, have been restless. My soldiers have been catching more and more people in acts of open protesting. Treason, Sire.” General Fletcher’s eyes flitted to Annabelle before darting back to me.
“People protest. That’s not news to me, General. Deal with the problems as you see fit.” I turned to leave.
“But wait! I don’t think you understand what I am telling you.”
“I meant that with the utmost respect, of course. I have reason to believe that the citizens plan to revolt. They don’t believe that you have their best interests at heart. Perhaps if you were to show them kind—”
“Kindness? Towards the citizens who plan to move against me? Who do you think I am, General? I am not a dog! I will not roll over at the slightest sign of unrest. Quash the radicals. By any means necessary.” I heard the slightest of gasps slip from Annabelle’s lips.
“Do you mean to question my decisions?” My voice echoed off of stone.
“Of course not.” General Fletcher bowed his head.
“Good. Give me a report when you are finished.” I turned to Annabelle. “Let’s go.”
It was hard to distinguish between the fear and the anger upon her face. The cracks in her mask were now fissures. When we exited the armory, Annabelle whirled to face me.
“‘Any means necessary?’ You mean to kill people who are unhappy with you?”
“I am king. I am to be respected, and if my people can’t do that, then they are no longer my people.” My own anger flared. I should not have to explain my actions to her.
“Fear,” she spat, “is not the same as respect.”
“No, it’s better than respect! Respect can be lost, but no one ever stops being afraid. Just look at you, you’ve been hiding behind your anger this whole time, but I see right through you. I know you’re truly terrifie—”
“You’re a tyrant! Wielding your crown like a sword above your people’s heads, using their fear to keep them compliant, just like my father!” Annabelle clamped her hand over her mouth as though to hold back the words she had already spat at me.
“You’re not afraid of me.” I brought my hand up to my chin. “You’re afraid of your father. Why? Why are you afraid of him?”
Annabelle shook her head, her hand still clamped against her mouth.
“Tell me.” Another head shake. “Tell me!” Annabelle backed away from me but for every step she took back, I took one forward.
“I am your king. You will do as I ask.” It registered somewhere in my mind that I was scaring her into doing as I said but I couldn’t stop. I was finally looking behind the mask.
Her back hit the wall of the hallway and she stilled. “My father…is a father only by name…not by character,” She spoke to the floor. “He is not a kind man. I don’t even think he knows what it’s like to love. He’s very clever, never one to get his hands dirty. No, that duty always seems to fall on me.”
I could see the tears pooling in her eyes, begging to fall.
“The field. Your father made you do that?” She let out a dry laugh.
“He doesn’t like you very much. He wanted to make sure you knew that.”
“So he sent you. How did he make you do it?”
“Fear of course. I know better than to doubt a death threat that falls from my father’s lips.” She paused. “I hate you, you know that? You remind me of him.” A tear crawled down her cheek. “It’s a lesser of two evils really. Be sent home to the real evil or stay here with someone who only reminds you of it.”
“And how are you so sure that I’m not just as bad as he is?” My heart zinged painfully. Whether I wanted to be or not, I was invested in her story. For some reason, I felt the urge to make her father pay.
“You say I wear a mask.” She looked up at me. “But so do you.”
There was a beat of silence. I didn’t know what to say.
“You hide behind your iron fist, but you care.”
“You don’t know what you—”
“You could have killed me. Instead you gave me a palace job.”
“No I did—”
“I should thank you really. As long as I’m here, I’m not there.”
I did not appreciate my soul being so easily read by someone who barely knew me. She should not understand me so well, and yet she did. It hadn’t even been a full day, and she had already exposed that which I so desperately tried to hide. Were my emotions so obvious? Or had she seen enough of her own demons to recognize one that was fake?
I was a king. I ruled with fear, just as my father did and as his father before that. But, for some reason, Annabelle’s words burrowed deep beneath my skin, flayed it open, showing that deep inside I am not, in fact, made of steel. I was soft, like everyone else.
I told myself that I didn’t care about Annabelle as I removed her irons. I told myself I didn’t care about Annabelle as I told her that for as long as her father lived, the castle would be her sanctuary. I told myself I didn’t care as I told General Fletcher to dismiss my earlier order. I don’t care. I don’t care. I don’t care. But maybe I did. Just a little bit.