Luna shook her head and allowed herself to be led out of the room. Viv followed behind them, shutting the door firmly behind her. Thirty-five minutes passed, and the entire royal family stood at the palace gates. Viv was chasing Candace around as Victor egged them on. A string of topazes sparkled form her neck and a pair of silk slippers kept her feet out of the gravel. Marigold was the only family member missing, but she was bound to arrive at the last second. She was so scatterbrained; she was late as often as she drew breath. Finally, Viv managed to scoop a squealing Candace up in her arms. After tickling her for a second or two, she handed the toddler back to her mother.
“I don’t know how you handle that little piece of soggy celery,” said Viv to Elizabeth, tweaking Candace’s nose. “I wouldn’t have the energy to try to contain that for one day, let alone all of them.”
“Well, some days are better than others,” said Elizabeth, smiling at her squirming daughter. “The fact that she can’t get hurt accidentally is helpful.” Elizabeth snorted, as though laughing at a joke that she’d just told herself. “My mother told me I was always bumping into things, tripping over my own two feet, pinching my fingers in things, stubbing my toes. I was just a magnet for pain.”
“You still are, Hun,” said Victor, taking Candace into his own arms. Elizabeth gave him a playful swat. Viv shook her head, recalling every time Elizabeth had broken a bone, or cut herself, or fallen off her horse. “It’s almost impressive but it’s mostly pathetic.”
Viv laughed. She would’ve gladly kept laughing with Victor and Elizabeth, but Luna pointed out the Alterran carriages rumbling up to the main gate. Everyone organized themselves. Viv took her place between her parents as the first carriage rolled up in front of her. It was by far the most ornate of the four. The manservants began to bring Viv’s trunks towards the other three carriages. The footmen on the sides of the carriages jumped off, helping the servants. The one from the ornate carriage bowed deeply to Viv. She returned with a curtsy.
“Your royal highness, I will be your footman for your three day ride to the port, and you three day ride from the Alterran port to the capitol of our great Kingdom,” said the man. “My name is George Descartes. If you need assistance with anything, anything at all, please let me know. I will be honoured to come to your aid, my Lady.”
“Thank you George. Your kindness does you credit,” said Viv. She had hated her aunt for insisting she teach her the language of the Alterran court, but now she was glad to know exactly how to speak to an Alterran. She sounded dignified and regal, two words she’d never associated with herself. She would have to sound like that all the time. George kissed her hand and Viv smiled warmly at him. Her returned her smile, then joined his fellow footmen to assist with the luggage. With that moment, Viv turned to her parents and cousins. “I’m going to miss you all. So much. The wedding won’t come soon enough. I’m already looking forward to seeing you all then.”
Viv hugged each of her family members in turn, took her father’s hand, and turned back to the empty carriage in front of her. Viv took one last look at the palace grounds. The immense polished marble building; with it’s soaring spires and flying flags, was all she’d ever known. The surrounding forests, filled with trees whose leaves had put on their coats of red, yellow and orange, seemed to be beckoning to her. She wanted to play in their shadowy embrace one more time, as she had done countless times before. She longed to find the roaring waterfall within that foliage and play in its rushing waters before she left. But she knew she couldn’t. She had already had her ‘one last time’ for everything that she couldn’t do in Alterra. Now, it was time to go on, see new landscapes and make new memories. As George pulled open the door to the carriage, Viv took a breath, grabbed onto the handle next to the door, and…
“WAIT!” bellowed a voice just behind the group. All eyes turned to Marigold, rushing down the palace steps. She was dressed in a pair of riding pants, riding boots, and a crimson riding jacket. Her golden blonde curls cascaded down her back. A hastily wrapped box was in her hand. “Hold on, hold on! Let me give my niece a gift!”
“Oh, sis, late as always,” said Arthur, shaking his head. Marigold made a face at him as she passed him.
“Don’t leave without this,” said Marigold. She shoved the box into Viv’s hands and crushed the girl in a hug. “Oh, I am gonna miss you so much, kid. I’ll see you at your wedding. I hope you like your present. Have fun, if you can.”
With that, she released Viv. She had to take a deep breath afterwards. Her aunt’s chest wasn’t exactly a breathable area. Once she returned to normal, Viv smiled up at her aunt.
“I’m going to miss you, too, Aunt Marigold,” said Viv, looking down at the box in her hands. “Thank you so much for this. Whatever it is, I’ll love it. Well, I’ll try to love it if it’s horrible.”
Marigold laughed and offered Viv a final wave as she hoisted herself up into the carriage. Arthur was right behind her. George closed the carriage door behind them. As the carriages began to move, Viv and Arthur waved to their family. Everyone waved in return. Victor placed Candace on her feet next to Elizabeth and chased after the carriage. Viv couldn’t help but laugh, even though she could swear she saw tear tracks glistening on his cheeks. He stopped when they reached the very end of the main road. As soon as they thundered out into the town, Viv looked down at the box on her lap. Gingerly, she removed the gold wrapping paper and opened the lid on the cardboard box within. With a weak smile on her lips, Viv removed the small book from inside. She recognized it instantly. It was the book of stories that Marigold used to read to her and Victor at bedtime. She leafed through the yellowed pages, reliving long-ago memories with each of the watercolour illustrations. The tears that had been held at bay all day long began to brim in her eyes. A little note written on Marigold’s personal stationary sat at the bottom of the box. It read:
My dearest Vivika, I hope you take comfort in these stories like you used to when you were young. It seems like it was only yesterday that my little brother was handing me his daughter, all bundled up in a yellow blanket. You were beautiful then, and your beauty has only grown. I hope your future husband can see it as plainly as I can. I know you’re going to miss home, and we’re going to miss you like crazy as well. But try to be happy in Alterra. I know it’s no Underland, but find one thing that you like there, if possible. By the time of your wedding, find yourself one reason to stay, one thing that’ll keep you from wanting to run away at the next opportunity. Whether it’s Reginald or one of his siblings or a maid, or your new room, or even the view from the highest room. Anything that you’d miss if you left. I promise, it’ll make things so much better. Until we meet next, I’ll miss you. Never forget your old auntie, because she won’t forget you. My heart will always love you as though you were my own, until it stops beating.
All my love,
At those words, Viv’s throat tightened almost painfully. She felt her chin quiver and blinked furiously, trying to hold the tears back. She’d shown everyone in Underland that she wanted to leave, that she was happy to serve her fellow Underlandians before herself. That was how she was raised to think. She had convinced her father to ease off because she wanted to marry a stranger. If she cried because she didn’t want to leave behind everything she’d ever known, he would protest even more strongly than he did before. She didn’t want him to worry about her. She turned to face the window, trying to conceal her heartbreak from her father. He wasn’t fooled. He saw more than Viv gave him credit for.
“What is it?” asked Arthur, placing a hand on hers. “Is something wrong?”
“No,” said Viv, her eyes glued on the passing trees outside her window. Arthur wasn’t buying it.
“You’re sure there’s nothing wrong?” asked Arthur, putting on his comforting tone. Viv bit her lip, biting back a sob.
“I’m fine, Papa,” said Viv. Her voice broke on the last word, and the sob she’d been trying to supress reared its ugly head, giving away her true feelings.
Now that she’d been found out, she saw no reason to keep up her façade. When her father extended his arms to her, she eagerly melted into his embrace. Arthur didn’t say ‘I told you so’, or begin his protests anew, he only held his daughter as she sobbed bitterly into his shoulder.
“I don’t wanna get married, not now. Not to a stranger,” said Viv in between sobs. “I just wanted everyone to be safe. But I wanna go home, I wanna go back. Why couldn’t I be selfish, just this once?”
“Oh, Darling,” said Arthur. He stroked her back gently as her sobs started back up full force. He wanted to say he knew, but he couldn’t say that, he’d be lying. He wanted to say that all he ever wanted was for her to be happy, but he didn’t want to make this situation about him. So, he said the only thing he could think to say as a parent. “It’s going to be alright, I promise.”