The sleepy-eyed herald cleared his throat as he put his hands on the door handle, ready to do his job. Catalina had arranged herself regally behind him; every single aspect of her appearance was perfect, from the smoothed auburn hair beneath her veil to the rich folds of her skirt. She would not let this ill-bred king see her tired eyes and the softness of her young face. In a way, this was a dangerous masquerade. She would curtsey and smile while speaking and negotiating like a hardened queen, charming them all into a crucial alliance. She bit her lips and then pressed her pale hands together, stilling the last flutter of nervousness in her stomach. The herald pushed the great oaken doors and held it apart for her, his voice loudly announcing her presence.
“Her Royal Highness the Princess Catalina of Wilderose, Duchess of Astrini, Countess of Aquintir.”
She swept in, mentally willing herself not to show any sign that she was shaken. A smile curved on her lips, a polite and engaging smile that stretched just the right amount. She curtseyed, a deeper one for the king and a smaller dip for the prince. Already she did not like the look of her future father-in-law, a lean middle-aged man with a cunning glint in his eyes. As he bowed to her, she could feel his gaze assessing every inch of her as though she was some cattle. She lifted her chin up slightly, partly due to her pride and partly because she did not want to see that disturbing look in his eyes.
“Your Majesty, I am honoured to have your presence here tonight,” she said demurely in Latin, “could we offer you any refreshment? Some ale or some wine?”
“Wine would be good,” said the old king, reseating himself in the best chair.
“And you, your highness?” she turned to the young prince.
“Ah, wine would be lovely,” he replied in Wilderosean, blushing scarlet under her gaze.
She laughed inwardly as she decanted the wine and poured three goblets. This was no hard prince, for he was already spell-bound by her blue eyes and her voice alone. He was handsome, for sure, and she was glad. They would be a good match for the public at the very least. The handsome Crown Prince and his beautiful bride. She could hardly wait to see his reaction when her veil was finally lifted. Well, he could scarcely blush any more, his face was as red as a Norwyn rose. She smiled to herself as she handed him his goblet, imagining a hundred silly things he would do when he saw her lovely face at the altar.
“I hope you fared well on your journey, Princess,” said the King, his casual eyes telling her they he did not care at all.
“It was a hard journey, Your Majesty,” she said, determined to get back at this old man, “I was exhausted by the wind, and was quite seasick. In fact, I was just about to retire when I heard a commotion downstairs.”
“That would be me,” said the King unabashedly, “You should really train your servants better, that housekeeper of yours dared to tell me that I may not see you tonight.”
“Oh, it was you?” she said with feigned surprise, “I thought it was a couple of drunken porters knocking at our doors.”
The young prince snorted at this, and all eyes turned to him. He hurriedly picked up his goblet and pretended to be absorbed in the wine, but Catalina saw the laughter in his eye. He inclined his head ever so slightly at her, a small gesture that told of his appreciation at her daringness. The old king was not so amused.
“Well, our language here in Norwyn do tend to sound a little guttural,” he told her, trying to recover from her obvious insult, “Anyhow, I am here today to request a face-to-face meeting with you.”
Request? More like an invasion, thought Catalina, but she smiled at him nevertheless.
“What could be so urgent, Your Majesty?”
“We have a tradition of greeting the royal bride-to-be on the day she arrives on our shore,” he explained, “It’s a meeting between the betrothed, the place where you’ll see each other’s faces for the first time.”
“Ah,” Catalina said serenely, “But surely you must know that a Wilderosean bride never shows her face to her betrothed before their wedding?”
“Princess, you are in my land and is about to be married into the Norwyn royal family,” he told her, his voice betraying annoyance, “You will do as a Norwyn bride would do.”
She wanted very badly to say “Or what?” but she knew she couldn’t. She also knew the answer to her unspoken question. She would be sent back home, and the alliance would be broken. Subduing the rebellious feeling inside her, she slowly undid the pins on her veil under the watchful eyes of the king and his men.
“Princess, you can’t,” Mistress Elvira whispered, her face aghast at the thought of Catalina unveiled in front of all these men.
“I don’t really have much of a choice, do I?” she said back just as softly, and saw the young prince wince out of the corner of her eye.
Setting the handful of ornate pins on the table, she slid the gauzy veil off her head in one smooth movement. Her glossy hair tumbled down her shoulders as she dropped the headdress into Mistress Elvira’s arms. The room was in silence as she turned around to face the king, her face as naked as those of a common girl’s.