A Princess For Peace
– A Tale of the Modern Renaissance –
by Nick Lucas
It is the year 2045, in the South East of what was once England thirty years after the great plague that killed 99% of the world’s population. Charlotte Montague, daughter of Charles Montague of Maidstone, head of a small community of survivors in the county of Kent, has accompanied her father to Horsham Palace, the home of King Stephen I of Sussex, a man who is driven by the need for the disparate groups eking a poor living from the land to come together and build a new world together. King Stephen has been forcibly extending his influence, and Charles has travelled to Horsham to form some kind of allegiance, well aware that the growing power of Sussex will overwhelm him by force if he does not negotiate a lasting peace. Upon arrival at the gates, Charles is taken off to talk to the King’s ministers, whilst Charlotte was offered the chance to freshen up after her long and exhausting ride.
Part One – The Princess is Prepared
Mica dressed me. She told me that she was a gift from the King himself, and that she would always be there for me. I accepted her ministrations as an honoured guest should, nervously allowing her to help me out of my best dress and sitting in the hot bath she ran for me, whilst she washed off the dust and grime of our long journey to Horsham Palace. I was to be presented at court as part of our negotiations, with my father, and I must say that these generous and friendly preparations impressed me. Hot water is a luxury at home. I bathe often, but usually in the river, or in a metal tub, in front of the fire. My guest suite had running water, in a proper bathroom, and Mica dried me in warm towels as soft as fur. She said I was to be dressed as a Sussex gentlewoman, in the popular court style. I purred with pleasure and drank the tea she offered me, and then I was nervous no more. I had been given a sedative, I presume. For my own good, of course. Mica had a lot to do, and I would have resisted her, I am quite sure. By the time I awoke, my life had changed forever, I suppose. I was betrothed to the King’s son and heir, and I was to be a princess. But this is not a fairytale, and I did not even know my fate at that time.
My eyes seemed to be open, but I could hardly see. I tried to lift my hand, to brush something away from my face, but it could not move. Not far, at any rate. It was too hot, I struggled for breath and there was something stuck in my mouth, something very hard and smooth holding down my tongue. I tried to scream, to shout for help, but a strong hand held me down and then a sour liquid started to pour down my throat, as if from nowhere. I tried not to swallow but there was too much, I had no choice. I had no choice in anything anymore.
Shush mistress, you do need your strength…I doubt if I will be able to feed you again, for hours.” Mica’s voice reached me, but it seemed muffled and indistinct even as I turned my head towards the sound on my right hand side. I started to realise that there was something on my face. It felt stiff, and smooth, and I could see a dark edge, around three pin pricks of light, as if I was looking out of a salt shaker. “Soon they will come to take you to court, to see the King my mistress. I do so hope your modesty mask is not too uncomfortable. It is not your size. I have taken measurements, and a new one will be made…if his majesty the King sanctions the expenditure. I also tried not to lace you too tight, mistress. I can see you have never worn a corset before and I had no detailed instructions as to the waist expected of you…but I had to get you into your gown, you see. Everything else is in place, so, you have no need to worry mistress…all you need to do is walk in front of the throne, curtsey and kneel, and you will always be leashed, so you should be able to manage.”
None of what she said made sense. I tried to shout at her, after the liquid stopped, but, I could not make a sound, because of the protuberance in my mouth, which, as far as I could make out, was part of what she called my modesty mask. My father had told me that all ladies at court dressed to please God and the King but he had not known the details. I had feared being dismissed as if I were some sort of country bumpkin, but my father was a Lord in his own right and I had pledged to make him proud of me. He would not be proud, if I made a scene. Mica was my servant, and only doing as she was told, and my dear father could not know or understand what was happening to me. I tried to calm down and think about things. Meeting the King of Sussex was awfully important to my father and our people. He did not want all out war. He had come to parlay and negotiate. I was his assistant and scribe. I did not much like being prepared for my presentation, but local customs had to be respected, and, I decided, as I got over the great initial shock of waking up, that I had to go along with our hosts until my father was aware of my situation, and had any chance to intervene. Not that I had much choice. I had no choice in anything anymore.
Good mistress…now that you are calm, I can help you up and finish dressing you, my sweet mistress,” Mica continued, as my brain worked overtime. She took my elbows, and almost lifted me to my feet, and, it was only then, as I moved, that I felt a great tightness around my waist, and chest, and the weight of my first court gown on my shoulders. “Can you see yourself, mistress, in the mirror in front of you…oh the King honours you mistress.” It was hard to see. My eyes were not aligned with the holes in my mask, but I bent my head slightly and finally located the glass. My court gown was an extravagant emerald green velvet creation with skirts billowing out from my impossibly thin waist, as wide as a table. I could not see my feet, and my arms were held out of sight behind me in what felt like some sort of glove. My long hair was hidden beneath a matching velvet hood and my modesty mask was white, with three tiny holes over each eye, and only one for each nostril, and the end of a small plastic tube where my mouth should have been, through which the sour liquid must have been forced on me. “See…how beautiful you are…but, now I must get you into your cloak and mantel, my sweet mistress. I am afraid you will not be able to hear, or see…but, put your faith in God, my mistress. He blesses you by bringing you here.”
She passed every examination…she is confirmed as suitable.” Peter of Balcombe informed me as soon as he took his seat at the table. He was my guide. Not an entirely objective one but he seemed to share my desire for peace. I did not trust him but I clearly needed his assistance.
Can I see her?” I asked, but he just smiled and shook his head, as if I had told a bad joke.
Of course, but not quite as you might wish, Charles of Maidstone.”
She is still my daughter…nothing has been signed as yet…I need to talk with her.”
Oh you can talk to her…later, after you have been presented to the King perhaps, but she cannot talk to you, my friend…not if you want her to be married to the Prince.”
She cannot talk to me…her own father?” I was perplexed of course. I did not understand the ways of court and I was afraid for Charlotte. I knew I was using her, but for the greater good, of course.
She cannot talk to anyone…except her slave, and only then in the privacy of her own rooms when her mask is removed…she has no need to speak at all, anymore. She is pure…all the gentlewomen of Sussex devote their lives to God and to the rebuilding of our people. Our princesses must be purer than anyone. She will receive the holy seed God willing and join the Queen and all the other princesses in setting the right example. King Stephen will allow the human race to make the same mistakes we made once before, Charles. Law and order will be imposed, justice too, and decency will be a core value. Here, within the palace, we have all started afresh…we set the standards the people must all learn to follow, in the future. If Lady Charlotte pleases my good King…and you agree to sign our treaty of trade and cooperation, together we will build a better world, Charles.”
My world was a dark and silent place. Kneeling as best I could, in yards of velvet, I really had no idea where I was or what was happening to me. I had been leashed, as Mica said, after she had finished dressing me, and all I could do was respond to the harsh pulls at my collar. I had walked, and then curtsied, at a sharp tug of the leash, before I was eventually pulled to my knees. After all that, I just stayed where I was, boiling in my ridiculous costume. I fidgeted once, but the leash pulled tight, and I gathered that I was not allowed to move. Blind, deaf and dumb, I had no choice anymore.
Part Two – The Princess at Court
She has done well…see…the keeper is moving her, to kneel with the Queen…it is a great honour, Charles.” Peter of Balcombe whispered to me, leaning close. I had to admit that it was quite a sight to behold, with the King on his massive marble throne at the end of the vaulted room, and the fine ladies of his court arranged along the left hand side. I was not used to such finery and if the pageant was designed to inspire awe in those petitioning the King it was succeeding with me. My people are simple people who work hard to survive. Our clothes are homespun and functional, and although our women, my Charlotte included, make an effort with their appearance, when circumstances allow it, even their Sunday best paled in comparison to the ladies of King Stephen’s court arranged before me. Extravagant, impractical gowns with voluminous skirts, flowing cloaks and impenetrable veils filled my eyes. Kneeling before their monarch, they were nothing but mounds of fabric, all leashed, with pretty young boys in golden tunics standing behind them, holding the other ends of the chains in their hands. It was such an ostentatious display of wealth and power by King Stephen, of course. My people work hard, every day of their lives, and we cannot afford to let any of our citizens rest during daylight hours, but these courtiers could not work dressed as they were. I stared in horror at my dearest Charlotte, just a mountain of emerald green velvet, and prayed to a God I had never trusted that she would forgive me for using her as a bargaining chip, for the greater good, to ensure our peace.
Deaf, dumb and blind, all I could do was exist, straining to feel another tug on my leash, with hot sweat soaking my body and draining my strength all the time. Minutes or hours could have passed, but I had no idea how long I had been there. My beloved father might be there, and I imagined him demanding my release, but he would not want to cause offence. I could wait, for him to act on my behalf, but I was confused, of course. I had heard stories about Horsham Palace most of my life. King Stephen was a ferocious enemy but a good friend, they said, and his kingdom was the strongest, wealthiest place left on Earth, offering security from bandits, law and order, and a chance to build a better future. But the people who told those stories had chosen not to stay within the ever-growing boundaries of Sussex, for their own reasons. I found myself wondering why.
King Stephen honoured me with a private audience. Peter of Balcombe bade me approach the throne, accompanied by him as my contact, and the King took us into a private chamber behind his seat of power. He was an impressive, personable man, but I was wary of him, of course. I bowed, and then we shook hands, before a servant gave us all wine.
Charles…I must apologise for all the pomp and circumstance. I have learned that the people expect a performance from us at every turn…to be their king I must always feed their lust for spectacle.”
Of course, your highness…I understand,” I lied, because I had no idea what he meant.
Good…that is good…and you have delivered your beautiful daughter to me. I am so pleased, Charles…I think the link between our families can secure the heel of England…it is another step towards peace.”
Sire, all we want is peace.”
Of course…and my garrison is already ordered to move from Uckfield to Dartford…to protect both of us. I already have strong positions along our northern borders, which we will replicate on yours. My fleet is still woefully small, but at least one ship will sail to Dover, whilst I have ordered a mission to patrol the river Thames. Clearly the inner city is still a no go area…I have no wish to clear it house to house…but the water is a danger to us.”
And what do you expect in return…of me?” I asked, sipping a rather fine wine.
Governor Charles, Earl of Kent…I expect of you what I would expect of a brother…loyalty, and wise governance. I expect the laws of the land to be enforced, I expect taxes to be paid and I expect your advice. I am not a monster although some of the things I have had to do have been monstrous. I need your help restoring our civilisation, building our population along sustainable lines whilst avoiding the myriad mistakes of the past. Horsham Palace is a microcosm of what we can achieve. I hope that you can stay here with us whilst Charlotte is prepared for her marriage. It will give you a chance to learn about our ways, so that you can go back to Maidstone and help me build a better future.”
Finally the tug of the leash allowed me to struggle to my feet, stiff from kneeling for so long. I am not sure how long it was but it felt like hours, and my legs shook with the effort of standing up. My father could not be there. He could never stand to see me suffer like that. No man could, certainly not a man who loved me. I was confused, and getting scared, but still all too aware of the purpose of our mission to the palace. I told myself I had to go along with things, until I could speak to him, although in truth of course, I had no choice. I just walked to the tug of the leash, until I felt a hand on my shoulder. In a moment I felt the heavy cloak being lifted off me, and I could hear again, and it was a little cooler.
Oh well done, mistress…I know you are tired, but things are going well, I believe.” Mica’s voice said as I felt something being attached to my mask. “God knows you are honoured…you are to be prepared for a private audience with the King himself, and your father. So you must feed before I change you, and you must use your nappy too. I really am amazed you have lasted so long without relieving yourself, but you have pleased the King…and I will make you look beautiful tonight for him. I am sure your father is so proud of you, sweet mistress.”
I tried to shake my head, to make her take some sort of notice of me, but she was busy I suppose. My mouth filled with the same sour liquid again and I had to swallow or choke.
Of course, these are uncertain times.” King Stephen sighed, sitting back in his chair at his private dining table. “Since the great plague of 2015 the human race has been reduced to the level of base savages, but here…in Sussex, I have started to try and rebuild a meaningful civilisation, recognising that the challenges we face require a new approach to life. Deprived of power, and fuel and technology, we need to work together to survive. But not in any democracy, of course. In this world, the strong have to rule the weak…in short, it is a feudal system, because of we do not produce the goods we all need and protect what we have, none of us have any future. I protect my people, but each man, woman and child have to have their role in society. I cannot have hangars on, layabouts…everyone has to have a place, and they have to know their place. It seems harsh, but it is actually fair. Even the lowliest serf has their own land, but they are tied to it, under a landlord, and all pay taxes to the King…and in return, I provide security and law and order. I do not allow abuse by my lords, and I rule. It has taken twenty years to perfect and grow but we are now of a size to each out, to the rest of the country…the next phase is to unite and live in peace.”
I understand that, your majesty…and I am pleased to bring my people under your protection, of course.” I replied, all the wine having given me the confidence to question my new ally further. Not that he was my ally I suppose. He was my master, my lord and master, and although my objective was peace, I wanted to know what I was letting myself in for. “But the things I have seen today…the way my daughter and the ladies of the court were dressed…and treated…I do not understand…”
Charlotte is to be a princess, a great lady of our renaissance, Charles. But, in this brave new world of ours…a lady such as her must be unsullied…pure if you like. She is a virgin, and my doctors tell me she should bear my son many children, and the blood lines of our new aristocracy are vital to our success. My serfs are rutting in the fields, like animals. In this palace, we are creating a new elite, but as I said before, we will not make the mistakes of the past. That is why I seal all my alliances with a marriage to the royal line. I am creating a dynasty here, Charles. My lords will be masters in their own homes, as I am. Here, our ladies are waited on, dressed in the finest clothes so that the people understand that they are a class apart, but they are also obedient…they must set an example, a lead for others to follow. Charlotte has entered a world of unimaginable luxury and I can assure you that no girl in this world could ask for more.”
Enveloped in my court gown, I had not even noticed that I was wearing a nappy. Perhaps because I was unconscious when I was first dressed as a princess. But I was awake during my preparations for my private audience. I cried and screamed bitter silent curses at Mica, but I was not allowed to struggle. My arms were still held behind my back, and my corset was laced so tight that I could hardly breathe, let alone struggle. I could not see very much through the small holes in the mask, but I felt what Mica was doing to me. I soiled myself like a baby and she cleaned me, and then she started to wrap me up again, like a present for King Stephen.
Calm yourself…my princess. I cannot lace you down…if you are panting like this.” Mica scolded, after a while. “I need another inch, to get you into this evening gown…oh, we have so much work to do…but the King must see you tonight…and you will look so beautiful when I am finished, I promise. I do not mean to hurt you, my princess, but we have so little time. I have given you a clean nappy and undergarments, but I cannot oil your body until later. I am sure you are sore where I shaved you, but you must be brave. Everything is such a rush, princess, but I will make you all better before you are dressed for bed, I promise. But first, we have to present you to King and your father.”
Part Three – The Private Audience
My daughter arrived like a dog being led on a leash by a boy dressed in a golden tunic. I frowned as soon as I saw them, partly because he was not gentle with her and partly because I could not believe it was Charlotte. I was quite a distance from her in the court chambers, but in the small dining room she was much closer, and it was quite a sight to see. Not that I could see anything of Charlotte. She was dressed in lilac silk, with the skirts somehow stiffened and held out in a bell shape. On top of that she wore a floor length cape, in a similar material and colour, which was fastened at her neck with a crown-shaped buckle. Beneath it, as it hung away from her body, draping over her wide skirts, I could see her waist, impossibly narrow, but no arms, and no face. Her hair was covered in a hood that was apparently part of the cape. She moved slowly and with obvious difficulty but the boy tugged sharply on the leash and she fell to her knees in a heap of lilac silk, her skirts settling gently around her. It was strange, and an unfamiliar sight to me, but it was rather beautiful.
She has had a long tiring day Charles, and her keeper here has not had a chance to train her, yet…but given a few days of hard work I think Charlotte will make a fine lady of my court…and a fitting bride for my prince.” King Stephen commented, as we all watched Charlotte settle. “She will want for nothing here. She can spend her days in prayer at court and her nights bearing us strong grandsons to help us rebuild this world of ours.”
Can she hear us…or even see us?”
She has no need to see…in fact, none of the court ladies are allowed to look on a man other than their husbands. I believe my wife allows them some time unveiled in the Queen’s rooms, but our ladies are above such trivialities…they must not be tempted by lustful thoughts, or indeed tempt my lords or the servants. Normally at court sessions, they cannot hear, because the affairs of state are nothing to do with them…I have them in attendance to set an example…to show the people that we practise what we preach and that the standards of behaviour we promote are most strictly imposed within the palace. But tonight, I wanted her to hear us, to know what she is to become. Her union with my son ensures peace across the south east, Charles. Charlotte, my dear girl, nod your head if you can…let your father see that you understand your place.”
I could not easily nod, or shake my head, but at a pull on the leash I leaned forwards, feeling my corset eating into my side. I had heard my father’s voice. I had heard his doubt, and his concern for me, but I was the price for peace. He had no choice, and no one seemed to be giving me a choice. I had never thought of myself as a lady before. I was a survivor, born into a group of people who were struggling to live in a world gone insane. My father was our leader. He had fought and talked for peace and if we were to build a future we needed the strength and protection of someone like King Stephen of Sussex. I knew my duty as a daughter.
She has had a difficult first day at court, Charles. Everyone here is part of the performance we must put on for the people, to show them something to aspire to, so that we earn our right to rule. She has a lot to learn, but she will be safe here, and loved my friend, not only as part of my family but by the people.” King Stephen continued, as Charlotte prostrated herself at our feet. It was a hard thing for a father to watch, of course. “She will live a good life, pure, pious and productive. She will be a symbol of the love and peace that exist between Kent and Sussex, and an example to every girl in the Kingdom at large.”
Of course your majesty…she is the bond between us, the princess of unity and courage.” I replied, as we shook hands on the deal, bringing safety and security for so many innocent people. I had fought enough for one lifetime. Bandits and other so-called leaders, but King Stephen was different to anyone else. He really was building something in Sussex, and he was creating law and order. I wanted my people, my friends, who had put their trust in me, to have that too. If Charlotte was the price to pay I hoped she would forgive me for the life she would lead, and I prayed she would find happiness in it.
But there is more…my friend, an Earl needs a wife. Before Charlotte is ready to marry her prince, perhaps we can find one of our ladies for you, to travel back with you to Maidstone. I am sure I can suggest someone. Now Keeper, take the princess to her bedchamber, and let her bathe and rest, whilst her father and I toast the union…to happier times, Charles…to happier times.”
Part Four – The Training of a Princess
My long day took its toll, I suppose. I barely remember leaving the audience with King Stephen and my father. I woke much later, lying down, unable to move. It all seemed like a dream, or perhaps a nightmare. It could not be real, I told myself, in that trance-like state just after a deep sleep, but then reality hit home. I could not move. I could not see. I tried to talk, but there was still something in my mouth, and I could not make a sound beyond a feeble whimper. My legs seemed to be help together in a tight bag like a cocoon, and my arms were held at my sides.
Shush my sweet mistress, my beloved princess…let Mica free you…I am to let you bathe.” Mica, my slave, spoke excitedly as I felt her hands dancing over my covered body. “Queen Margaret ordered me to put you in your sleeping gown last night, as you were so tired…it prevents you from moving and allows us to lace you into a night corset, to help with your waist…so please do not be scared, it is good for you, sweet princess. I am to bathe you, feed you and dress you…before your keeper arrives to take you for a walk, so that you can get used to things. The court is not sitting this morning and you will join the Queen this afternoon, so it will be a much easier day for you, Princess. I promise.”
She did not remove my mask or whatever was worn on top of it, and she did not free my hands, but slowly I felt my body being set free. It felt wonderful, and I relaxed, flexing my leg muscles and stretching as soon as I was able. She unlaced the corset and I could breathe again, and then my hands. “Please Princess, do not try to touch anything at all…it is not seemly. I will get you into the bath before I remove your hood and your mask, and then I have some fresh strawberries dipped in chocolate for you to eat whilst you soak your muscles.”
Mica was as good as her word. She helped me up and after a few steps I climbed awkwardly into a bath of warm water, and she helped me sit down before I felt light bracelets being snapped on my wrists. Finally she removed what she had called my hood, and I could see through three tiny pinpricks in front of each eye. I did not struggle. I felt so tired and weak I could not have fought off a butterfly and I quickly saw that my wrists were attached to the side of the huge bath. But that was an irrelevance. I was a princess. I reminded myself I was the price for peace. I could not make a fuss. I could not disgrace my father and risk the safety of our people. Mica kept telling me that I was honoured, and I tried to believe it, and behaved like a princess should, ready to be fed my treat of strawberries and chocolate.
I loved my wife. Her death at the hands of one of the many bandit gangs that now roam the countryside preying on people just trying to rebuild some sort of life hit me harder than I could ever explain, and the daughter she gave me was my pride and joy. I had never thought of losing Charlotte, and I had never even considered taking another wife. Not for the sake of peace, at any rate. I married for love. But the stakes were higher than ever. King Stephen had the power to police Kent, to drive all the bandits north, as he had driven them out of Sussex and parts of Hampshire. My people would be safe. Everyone could start to think of the future again, rather than just surviving day to day. As I talked to other gentlemen at court, I began to understand the King’s desire to seal his treaties in blood, tying his allies to him for the sake of security and peace. He had done it himself with Queen Anne. She was the daughter of the Governor of Hampshire, as he was by that stage. With all three of us linked by marriage, the south eastern corner of the British Isles, the most fertile land in the whole island, would come under one powerful banner. It reminded me of history lessons at school, I suppose. I could see the logic. I knew King Stephen could be ruthless and even cruel, but as I learned more about him I could see that he followed his laws. I could argue with the severity of some of his punishments, of entire villages slaughtered and enforced servitude, but in all instances I could investigate the supposed victims had flouted the King’s laws.
I did not see my daughter the day after our private audience. Instead, with the court not formally sitting that morning, I went hunting with the King and his friends. I saw more of Horsham outside the palace. I saw the start of civilisation rising out of the ruins of the old world, like a phoenix from the ashes. It was what my friends and I used to dream of as we fought to build a community that could survive on their own wits. Not much was left of the old world, of course. Resources lasted for a few years and scavenging was the main pastime. But that could not last forever. We had to learn to farm, to hunt, to ride and to fight if we wanted to survive. For every good man or woman who joined our community there were two bad, people who did not want to work and thought only of themselves. Someone had to act for the greater good, as I had tried to do. King Stephen was just doing it better than me.
I did not fully understand the ways of his court, but I began to see the principle. He believed that people needed a hierarchy in life. His people needed security and he needed their trust, and he could not earn that by slaving in the fields beside them. He had to be strong and he had to give them something to believe in, something to aspire to. His serfs could rut in the fields, and produce children like rabbits, but the new aristocracy had to be visibly above that. He wanted his ruling class to be pure. He wanted the people to see fair Lords enforcing justice. He wanted the people to see modest, chaste ladies, following the word of God, starting the world again in His name after the great plague. He also did not want to repeat the mistakes of the past, where courts regularly plotted against kings, and the women would do, or say, anything to marry the right man to gain power. Riding across the fields in search of foxes I learned that the King had devised a way of life for his court that achieved all his goals.
Her majesty Queen Anne greeted me with warmth and kindness in her private chambers. I arrived, fully dressed, masked and hooded, led by my keeper, but unlike my appearance in court the day before I was able to hear. Kneeling at her feet, I was welcomed as her new daughter, as the Queen was apparently not gagged, and told that I would reign at her side for many years to come. But first, she told everyone, I had to be trained and prepared for my marriage. I did not know who was there, as I could not see, but Mica had said that all the ladies of the court would be there. I could sense them as the Queen ordered my young keeper to put me through my paces. I had to learn to respond to the leash, as my public life would be spent gagged and blinded to honour God, the King and my modesty. Like a horse in a bridle, I had to learn my commands. I did my best of course. Despite my heavy, cumbersome attire, I walked up and down, falling to my knees and rising up again, as directed by the leash, until I felt that I could walk no more. The Queen ordered someone to give me a drink, and I sucked gladly as the cool liquid entered my tube. I knelt at her feet, blind and mute, and listened to her extolling the virtues of modesty and grace.
Horsham Palace was a symbol of King Stephen’s power, ambition and style. It resembled a castle with its high, grey walls, and it was certainly secure, but inside it was more of a town centre, the bustling meeting place for politics and commerce. I marvelled at the effort it must have taken to build it, because it was an entirely new construction, since the plague. My people in Kent had cleared and adapted existing buildings, scavenging on the ruins of the past, but King Stephen had started over again, building the bright future in his own image. I enjoyed walking through what was called the market place. People were buying and selling all manner of things, safe in the knowledge that their property and earnings were protected by the laws of King Stephen, and I appreciated the atmosphere of security that seemed to surround everyone. It felt safe. Even at home, surrounded by friends, I was used to living on my nerves. No one could ever be sure when the bandits would appear, and our greatest fear was losing what we had worked so hard to grow, nurture or create. In Horsham, I did not sense any fear.
Come sir, taste my wine.” A large, red faced man suggested, as I approached his alcove. Lots of little stalls had spaces almost built into the walls, and his was full of small barrels. “Our finest vintage yet, Sussex wine is the finest you can get, and you look like a man who enjoys the finer things in life.”
It’s good,” I smiled, taking a sip from the cup he had handed me. Producing wine was a luxury my people could not afford, of course. We spent our time growing food, and I was starting to see that King Stephen was not only offering us peace. He was offering us life. “Is that your wife or daughter pouring your samples? How can she see what she is doing in that hood? I thought such things were reserved for the ladies of the court?”
Oh she can see enough…and it is the fashion these days.” My new friend replied, glancing back to where the woman was struggling with the tap on the barrel, her gloved hands clearly hampering her dexterity. “Everyone here admires King Stephen and our lords…the depravity of the plague years has to stop…our women should be modest and pious, and they should be obedient to their husbands. I cannot afford to have her live as a proper lady but she is veiled, as are my daughters, and we live to please God…as long as he likes my wine.”
I moved on, relishing the opportunity to see the sights, for once free of the pressures of everyday survival I continually felt at home. Horsham had a substance, a permanence, that I had forgotten existed, and I was getting used to it, I suppose. I strolled through the market and down to the main gates. I could see some men on horseback just coming through, surrounding what looked like a carriage. Petrol and diesel had run out years ago, although I had heard that King Stephen had a stockpile. Everyone rode horses again, as the plague turned back time. It was a fine carriage. Not the sort of workmanlike vehicles my people and I had constructed to haul our crops. It had a sort of canvas awning but it was pushed half back, and as it came closer I could see it contained a woman obviously destined for the court, since she was extravagantly veiled and hooded, sitting regally on a mound of cushions. I smiled at her. It really was a beautiful sight to behold.
Back in my rooms, Mica fed me and then said it was time for my massage. I was undressed and laid on a bed, as naked as the day I was born, apart from the mask which she did not remove. I was not bound or restricted in any way but I was too tired to take advantage of it. She put cream on her hands and started to rub me, soothing my aching muscles.
We need to cream you every day my princess. It stops your hair growing back as well as being enjoyable.” Mica said as she worked on me. I put my hand to my head, stunned by her words, but my hair was gone. I had not even noticed before, but it made sense. I had been hooded and masked all the time. My long hair would have got in the way. “And then you are to meet the princesses, your sisters-in-law to be. The Queen has permitted it, for an hour or two, before you must all be prepared to attend a dinner with the King tonight. I will put you in a new mask princess, one that allows you to speak…I know you will love it but you must remember that a princess only speaks when it is necessary to do so. You must be modest, and take your lead from the Queen herself.”
I took Mica’s advice. I did indeed love the new mask, because without the protuberance into my mouth it was much more comfortable, but I did not speak to her. I was beginning to understand my place. Mica was my slave. I did not need to speak to her, because she was beneath me, as were the mundane irritations of everyday life. Instead, I said my prayers. I was never a particularly religious person, but the Queen obviously was. Most of my training session took place whilst someone read aloud from the bible. I decided to make an impression, a good one. Maybe the keeper would tell his friends, and the news would get back to the King or the Queen, because I wanted them to like me. I wanted more treats.
Charlotte dear, we are to be sisters…there, can you see? We are alone, so we are allowed, dear. I am Rebecca, King Stephen’s eldest daughter…don’t be afraid, your keeper has gone, we really are alone.” A mountain of red velvet said, moving to stand in front of me so that I could see her. My keeper had left me facing a wall, after lifting the heavy front veil back over my head. Mica said I was wearing a day gown, without the court cape and hood, and I had seen that my gown was dark blue velvet.
I am honoured to meet you, Princess Rebecca.” I murmured, leaning forwards as far as my corset would allow.
As we are to meet you, Princess Charlotte,” Rebecca laughed, leaning forwards herself and rubbing her veiled cheek against mine. “Mama let us watch you arrive…my brother is a lucky man, and everyone says you have taken well to your training. But let me introduce the others…in the green, my sister Samantha, and in the royal blue, my cousin Sophie.”
It was such a joyous meeting. My sisters made me most welcome. They chatted on about the court, their lives, my future husband and King Stephen, assuming that I knew much more than I did, but it was just so good to have friends. I did not say much to them, because I did not know what to say, but I listened and learned, and it was nice to talk about things other than the crops, or bandits, or the weather.
Another dinner with the King but this time not a private one. It took place in a large, wood-panelled room, at a long table set for fifty people. I was sat at one end, next to the King himself, who sat at the head of the table. Opposite me was a man I knew by reputation, Michael of Hampshire. It was clear that we were both valued allies of the King and we talked as friends, discussing the difficulties of providing food, shelter and security for our people. It started as an informal affair. Everyone was talking to their neighbours, all the guests being men, of course, and servants hurried around pouring wine. But then there was a banging at the door and everyone fell silent.
Gentlemen, please welcome our ladies.” King Stephen announced, and everyone started to applaud as the doors were flung open and keepers appeared, each leading a woman dressed in a brightly coloured gown. I clapped my hands and wondered if Charlotte would be there. No one had said she would be. But I recognised the keeper leading the fifth girl in line, a shapeless form enveloped in sky blue silk, and he brought her straight to me. There was space between the chairs and the keepers were urging their charges to kneel beside their fathers or husbands. King Stephen had three at his side, presumably the King and his two daughters, Rebecca and Samantha. Michael of Hampshire had two. “She can hear you Charles.”
Oh thank you, your majesty.” I had not thought about that, but most of the men were leaning down and speaking to their females, so I did the same. “So good to see you, sweetheart…I hear you are doing well.” I put my hand on what would be her cheek and felt her nuzzle into me. “I hope it is not too hard for you Charlotte, remember, we are doing this for peace.”
I longed to speak with my father, and tell him that I understood, and that I agreed with him. It was hard, of course. But I was being trained, and it would not last forever. The other girls had told me that we would meet daily and assured me that other than at court, which only sat for a few months a year, their lives were pleasant and luxurious. But even if that was not the case I could see that we needed to be allies of King Stephen. We had known that even before we left Maidstone, and whilst I had not imagined that I would be vital to any alliance, I could see that a marriage between Kent and Sussex made sense. The girls had talked of it quite freely to me. King Stephen was uniting the people again, and by tying his Lords together through their families he hoped to ensure loyalty and purpose. My father would be the father-in-law of the next king and that could only be good for the people. We needed protection, so that we could work to provide enough food and resources to rebuild our civilisation, and the King offered that protection, but the bargain had to be sealed in blood. Rebecca, Samantha and Sophie all expected to marry one of the King’s allies. It had happened since time immemorial, because it worked, and I could not think of my comfort and happiness alone.
I sat proudly at his side. Like a Princess should, of course. Her majesty the Queen had joined us, and she had urged me to set an example. I was an important person, a future queen myself, and I had to put on a performance. My father patted me, and leant down to whisper to me many times, and I melted at his touch, trying to tell him that I would do my duty. It was not what I expected when I arrived in Horsham, but it made sense.
Part Five – The Preparations for Marriage
My days settled into a routine. Four or five mornings a week, I attended court with the Queen and the other female members of King Stephen’s family in full regalia, our modesty, piety and obedience honouring the King and our people. In the afternoons, normally after half an hour of training with my keeper, I relaxed with Rebecca, Samantha and Sophie, attended by Mica and their slaves, enjoying our only solid meals of the day, a long bath and a massage. Her majesty the Queen even allowed us to spend some time unmasked and unfettered in the privacy of the royal suite, as a reward, she said, for our deference. I started to learn that I did not have to do anything for myself. Even when I was allowed the use of my hands, which was not often and never for long, I did not have anything to do with them. My role in life was ceremonial and decorative.
I was nervous and shy with the others at first, but after some days I started to talk more. Eventually, as Rebecca and I were being massaged one afternoon, I asked her about her brother. He was to be my husband, and although our union was a political necessity I would be tied to him for life. My curiosity, as I came to terms with my future, was understandable.
Sebastian is a man of action, a soldier…a general who leads the King’s army into battle.” Rebecca replied, with obvious pride. “I think you will like him, he resembles my father the King in looks and temperament, and he believes in God and the love of the people.”
He is a religious man?” I asked as Mica rubbed cream into me. Religion had become much more important to all survivors since the great plague. My father had told me that the human race had largely told its back on God, and that all survivors saw the plague as a sign that God was displeased with us. But religion in the fields in Maidstone was a prayer for the crops, and a rough sermon from my father around the fire on a Sunday evening. Life had been a struggle. I was sacrificing myself to make that struggle less onerous for our friends, our people, but religion in Horsham was different to anywhere else. I had visited the great chapel several times, and prayer and worship there were done with a lot of pomp and circumstance.
Of course he is…like our father, he believes he is doing God’s will.” Rebecca sighed, as her slave rubbed her shoulders, the joy of such luxury in her voice. I had heard a lot about God’s will in the palace. Rebuilding our civilisation was much more than a practical exercise there. In Maidstone, our ambitions were to grow enough food, and improve the infrastructure of our town as much as possible, whilst protecting ourselves and our valuables from the bandits. In Horsham, fortified and protected by the soldiers of King Stephen’s army, the major dangers of theft, murder and pillage were removed, and with a larger population working together, producing food for everyone was no longer a problem, so King Stephen had been able to put more resources into rebuilding the fabric of civilisation. But he was keen not to repeat the mistakes of the past. Rebecca, Samantha and Sophie had explained that the King wanted a moral structure just as much as he wanted new buildings, machines and luxuries. He was of the opinion that our ancestors had lost the love of God, and that since what was called the industrial revolution mankind had been intent on destroying itself. He had imposed draconian laws prohibiting the sins of drunkenness and adultery. He insisted on modesty and decency. He took his directions from the bible. In his court, he had created a society where women knew there place, and were prevented from interfering elsewhere. I had listened to a sermon in chapel linking the story of Adam and Eve to the world destroyed by the plague. King Stephen feared temptation, perversion and loose morals. He did not want his men distracted by lustful thoughts, or perverted by their lovers whispering in their ears, seeking power and influence. I could see that it worked in Horsham, and I was resigned to playing my given role for the sake of peace, but it was not easy. I was not sure that I wanted to be married to a man who thought like King Stephen, but I had no choice. Sebastian was returning to the Palace after leading his troops into a skirmish with bandits in Hampshire. I counted the days until his return, both longing to see him and dreading meeting this paragon of virtue.
King Stephen took me by surprise. We had been hunting north of the town, chasing deer and foxes through the ruins of the old Horsham, but it was hot and as the sun rose we headed slowly back to the palace. I found myself riding with the King himself and Michael of Hampshire. We shared water and laughter as we rode. I felt like I was on holiday. I had not deserted my responsibilities, but I did feel almost free of them there. King Stephen had sent patrols out to police our borders, and I knew that the bandits who had tormented my people would not threaten Sussex troops. My people were safe. I intended to remain in Horsham for Charlotte’s wedding and then return to Maidstone, to start working on our alliance. But, in the meantime, I had no work to do. It was a heady feeling that I had not known for many years.
So, Charles…tell me…how are you feeling?” King Stephen asked as we rode.
Oh…relieved…and sad, at the same time.” I admitted, well aware that he was not asking about the hunting or my personal welfare.
Charlotte is my only daughter…her mother died in a bandit attack not long after she was born, sire. Leaving her here will be difficult for me.”
Good grief man, you are a leader…you should have a dozen children by now to ensure your line.” Michael of Hampshire guffawed, clapping me on the shoulder. “She is a princess, and she will be a Queen one day my friend…she will have a life none of us could have dreamed off five years ago, let alone twenty years ago.”
She is still my daughter, Michael…I miss being able to talk to her, and the thought of leaving her here makes me feel so very alone. I know it is a weak response, but it is how I feel…although I am honoured by the match and relieved that my people will not have to live in fear any longer.”
Well said, Charles…and I appreciate your honesty and your friendship.” King Stephen replied, smiling at me. “Of course this is not what you wanted for Charlotte. I am the same with my girls…they will have everything in life except independence. But there are some luxuries that we cannot afford anymore.”
I know and I think I see what you are doing here.” I said, but he cut straight across me.
Charles, what we are doing here.”
Yes sire…what we are doing here.” I corrected myself, because it was true. I was a part of his plans. I was giving my daughter up for the cause. “I can see the good…I have talked to people who are building proper lives again…people who look up to you and see the ladies of the court as virtuous, pious angels…something to aspire to.”
So you should have no regrets…take a new wife, have more children…embrace the future.” Michael of Hampshire almost bellowed, a man full of life and bonhomie. “I have a daughter Charles…if his majesty would give us his blessing I should like to cement our alliance by linking Kent to Hampshire.”
Oh…I don’t…” I began, but I never had a chance to finish my sentence.
Good idea, Michael…a fine match, the southern counties joined in one family forever.”
Mica dressed me to meet my husband, although I soon realised that I would neither see or hear him at court that morning, as my outfit was the most extravagant I had worn so far. I wore the corset as always, and a nappy to take care of my mundane needs during the morning, beneath a silk shift, silk stockings and long leather boots. On top of that came a heavy embroidered gown of yellow velvet, with a matching hood and cape. I could only respond to the deft commands of the leash, as my keeper led me into court and knelt me before the King and his son. I could almost sense them. I kept my back straight and my head high as I believed a princess should, and imagined Sebastian admiring me. Mica told me I was the talk of the town, the Kentish beauty that came as a symbol of the unification of the counties. I was their symbol of peace. I tried to feel proud, I tried to feel honoured, but the world was changing for the likes of me. But I accepted my future. I was the price to be paid for peace. I could not help wondering what my life would be like, but it did not really matter. The end justified the means, and King Stephen of Sussex was building a brave new world for everyone.
THE END of this Modern Renaissance tale