By Arundhuti Das Gupta
Lady Penelope Harlington walked through the hallways of the manor with her head held high—a Harlington after all, of noble birth and peerless virtue—her hands clasped at the front and her shoes tapping against the stone floor, knowing all eyes were on her. She looked resplendent, the skirts of her most lavish gown rustling appealingly as she moved. The servants had yanked her into a corset and pulled at her curls all morning with little regard to whether they hurt her, preparing her for the most pivotal moment of her life.
She remembered the conversation she’d had with her father the previous night.
“Finally,” he said as if the wait had made him weary.
“Father?” she asked, bowing low. Bend. Bend, so you don’t break.
“The king wants to see you,” her father informed her, barely looking up from his papers to spare her a glance. Yet, what could almost pass for affection crossed that one short glance, obscured by the impassivity of his features. “You know what to do, I hope.”
“Yes, Father,” she replied, bowing her head. Silence reigned once again, dark and oppressive within the confines of her father’s study. She kept her lips sealed even as they almost split open under the pressure of her private burdens.
What if I hate him? What if he hates me? What if…
Her father dismissed her with a nod.
Penelope turned around and walked out with one last bow, but not before she heard her father’s murmurs.
“Finally,” the relief was palpable in the cadence of his voice; relief at the thought of her blessed absence. “Finally, someone has use of you.”
She made her way back to her chambers.
As Penelope prepared to retire for the night, her mind was consumed with thoughts, thoughts she knew she shouldn’t be having.
Miss Dahlia, her tutor, had once told her that there were only two reasons men ever did anything—love and power, and one is always far more likely than the other. As much as she would like to think that the king had glanced upon her at some party and hopelessly fallen in love with her, having come to sweep her off her feet much like those gallant heroes in the fairy tales her nursemaid would narrate to her during bedtime when she was a girl, she knew that wasn’t the case.
Then, that left only one other option.
It was true that they weren’t blessed with wealth, but they were rich in land, and strategy for those who could see clearly. Despite all her practiced silence, Penelope was no fool. She knew that games did not end at the edge of a board or disappear behind the contours of a map. She knew that the battlefield was not the only place war was fought and that a king’s ambitions stretched far beyond the vast expanse of land she called home.
Her father was the lord of the Borderlands, the Harlingtons having kept this position for centuries; one of the oldest and most noble families in the entire kingdom. If her mother had borne sons, they would have been members of the court or served in the royal army. But, unfortunately, Lady Harlington, chosen for her beauty and her youth, had given birth to a single daughter, her delicate body having given out, being unable to take the strain of childbirth; and died soon after, failing her husband in the end. Nevertheless, as the faithful daughter of an ancient and noble family, Penelope had grown up with the best of tutors, trained perfectly in every sphere of noble etiquette, and made acutely aware of the expectations of her. She knew she was expected to be dutiful to whatever man her father dredged up for her to marry, to serve him in the best way possible, never to let down the prestige of her family.
But to marry a king…
She could have been too old or too young, but she was perfect; the highest-born and flawlessly bred.
But to marry the king…
She’d heard the rumours going around, whispered by the servant-girls, by her father’s attendants, as they went about their work. They said the king was a foreigner; a conqueror from unknown lands of unknown lineage, who usurped the kingdom from the previous king, backed by a formidable military prowess and an even more formidable personality; a ruthless man who crushed even the slightest bit of dissent.
What kind of a husband would a man like that make?
For a second, Penelope wished she could go back to being that foolishly hopeful young girl, the one who listened with starry eyes and rosy cheeks to the bedtime stories of her nursemaid. She wished she could delude herself with ideas of romance; that she could dream, just for a little while. But she was a Harlington and Harlingtons, in their noble birth and peerless virtue, never gave in to such silly notions.
Besides, marriages in real life, unlike in fairy tales, rarely had room for love or affection. She would be a queen, and her children would be princes and princesses. What had been the meaning of the sanctity of her lineage, the brilliance of her pedigree, if not for this?
Penelope prepared to retire for the night. She ignored the fears rolling around in her mind, filling every crevice, every corner of her being; begging to be let out, to be voiced, to be recognised.
What if I displease? What if I falter? What if I fail, just like my mother? What if…What if…What if…
What if I break?
She forced herself to get into bed and close her eyes. She had a long day tomorrow and it wouldn’t do to have rings under her eyes.
Penelope forced herself back into the present as she reached the double doors leading to the entrance hall.
The pivotal moment had arrived, the moment when Lady Penelope Harlington, the manifestation of Lady Harlington’s inadequacy and Lord Harlington’s embarrassment, would not only maintain, but heighten her family’s prestige like none before her, and finally—finally—prove her worth.
She could hear the voices of her father and another man, a stranger—the king—as she walked in. In the back of her mind, she was aware of the fact that her father would never find himself in such close proximity to him if it hadn’t been for her, but she knew better—in her noble birth and peerless virtue—than to expect his gratitude.
She kept her eyes on the ground as she approached them, stopping when she noticed the edge of a boot; the gilded base of a king’s golden throne. “Your Majesty,” she greeted, sinking into a low curtsy. Bend. Bend so you don’t break.
Silence, that cursed silence, oppressive even in the grand space of the entrance hall. Penelope observed the place from the corner of her eye, taking in what details she could as if it wasn’t part of the home she had lived in her whole life. Though it was true that she hadn’t been here several times. A Harlington lady was made for the inner chambers; the exclusive elite, not a commonplace object to be paraded around. However, she had participated in a dance or two in this hall, which also doubled as their ballroom, the few times she had to arrange one, as part of her training. She supposed she would have the opportunity to attend—and host—a lot more dances as the new queen.
Her musings were interrupted by the sound of rustling as the king shifted in his seat, no doubt looking her over, gauging the value of his purchase, the cost of his reign, determining if sharing a bed with her was a price he was willing to pay.
“Up,” he commanded, and she rose, a puppet on his strings—bendable—her eyes demurely cast at his feet. Then he stood up and started walking towards her; her breath caught in her throat as he approached.
Suddenly, she remembered the instructions of her dance teacher. A bold step forward, a shy step back. The last step is always a bow.
She stood tall, finally looking up to face the king—her soon-to-be husband—looking him in the eye, the man who until that moment had only been an intangible figure existing solely in her mind and on people’s tongues, so privy to gossip; powerful and mysterious; the cumulative of her father’s greed and her own anxieties.
The face she was greeted with was a handsome one, young, with sharp cheekbones, a defined jaw, and a Grecian nose. He looked like a noble, worthy of his station. A foreigner, of unknown land and unknown lineage. Yet, there was something dark residing behind that handsome countenance. She looked down at his hands, imagining what they would feel like wrapped around her at night, but she could only picture them gripping the hilt of a sword, stained by the blood of anyone who got in his way. A conqueror.
“I wonder, Lady Penelope, what are your aspirations, your innermost desires?” he whispered lowly in her ear.
I want you to get away from me. Unknown land…unknown lineage…
I want to leave. I want to sleep. I want someone to loosen my corset. I want to run. I want…I want…I want…
Bend, so you don’t break.
“My only desire is to serve, Your Majesty,” she replied. A step backward; a familiar dance. Noble birth and peerless virtue, she offered, burning fiercely in her pride.
The king looked at her, an incongruous smile on his face.
The music had stopped. She hadn’t missed a beat.
She’d been bred for this dance her whole life.
Arundhuti Das Gupta is a first-year in the English department of Lady Shri Ram College for Women, New Delhi. An avid reader, occasional writer, otaku and pulp horror enthusiast, her interests lie in speculative fiction, feminist fiction, and any and every kind of fiction under the sun. She can be found on Instagram