A Matter of State; A Tale of Humility

A Matter of State; A Tale of Humility

When I asked my Facebook group which character they’d like to hear more about, they almost unanimously chose Rose.

After my Seven Deadly Domerins series, I played around with the idea of another series of Heavenly Virtues prompts. I only ever did one in the past, and they’re an interesting group of traits to consider. But I write a lot about Domerin (as you may have noticed) so I wanted to dedicate the project to someone else. At first, I wasn’t sure if I had enough available Roses to make it work. No one has quite as many incarnations as Domerin. But after considerable thought, I managed to find just enough.

The first Heavenly Rose featured the virtue of chastity. Today we’re going to tackle humility, which is defined as: modest opinion or estimate of one’s own importance; not proud or arrogant; modest. I’m also super excited to share today’s prompt because it features the original Rose (though she has transformed a lot since I originally wrote about her).
. . .

The face that peered at her from the mirror was not her own. It was still strange to blink her eyes and see the figure in the glass blink back. She was used to soft blue fur, dotted with bright spots of red, framed by a cascade of mahogany waves as her hair tumbled across her shoulders. Only the eyes were the same, deep blue and curious, watching her mother’s every movement as she folded midnight black hair into a series of intricate braids.

The hair sprang from Rose’s scalp, framing a pale-skinned face that seemed drawn and delicate, not at all the proper shape. She missed her muzzle, her strong, sharp teeth. Her eyesight was every bit as keen as it usually was; her eyes were even the same shape. But the irises were too small and the pupils were round instead of slitted.

“You get used to it,” her mother said softly from over her shoulder, perhaps noticing the look on her face.

“Do you?” Rose replied, lifting a pale-skinned finger to trace the line of her chin. “Don’t humans get cold with their bare skin exposed all the time?”

A faint smile touched her mother’s lips. “It’s why they wear clothes, darling. Maybe why we all do.”

“So because humans do something, we all have to?” Rose retorted, not bothering to veil her annoyance. That certainly seemed to be the case since her arrival at the Imperial Palace. Everything was perfect etiquette here. You had to know the precise moment to bow, and which direction to face. Had to know who you could make eye contact with, and what signal you had to wait for in order to speak. It made sense in the council chamber, and even in the throne room. But the fact that the rules seemed to apply universally throughout the halls and apartments that made up the visitor’s wing seemed absurd.

“While we’re in their territory, yes,” her mother replied, giving her hair a small tug, as if to warn her she was dancing a delicate line.

Rose gritted her teeth and set her shoulders. Her mother’s tone had been completely different three days ago when she showed her how to shape-shift for the first time. It was a skill inherent in all AlphaLaurans from the time they were born, and Rose had used it many times to take the cat form that she usually halfway inhabited. But she hadn’t realized it could go the other way, that she could look fully human if she wanted to. Apparently her mother hadn’t even realized the extent of their abilities because she had gasped softly when Rose shifted the hue of her hair.

You told me to imagine the way I wanted to look, Rose had protested. I didn’t realize I had to imagine myself with the same hair. In fact, her plan had been to imagine herself completely differently the next time they came to the imperial capital. How wonderful and refreshing it would be to don new faces like fashions. But her mother insisted that she had to take the same form each time.

Because humans won’t like the idea that you can look however you want whenever want, darling. They’ll think you intend to use that power to steal and trade secrets.

So not only do humans insist that we have to look exactly like them whenever we visit their territory, they also want us to look exactly the same every time? She had replied, exasperated. If that’s what they want, what’s wrong with my own face?

But Rose dared not bring the topic up again, lest her mother call her willful as she had the last time. It rather seemed like someone ought to be willful around here at some point, otherwise they might all drown in how stuffy this whole arrangement seemed to be.

It was time for a change of tact.

“Why does the imperial prince want to meet with me?” she asked instead, careful not to fidget, lest her mother tug her hair again and command her to sit still.

“I imagine he wants to get to know you better. It is your first time here, after all.”

“Plenty of people must move in and out of this place,” Rose protested. She arched one midnight eyebrow and infused her tone with as much skepticism as she could muster. “Does he meet with every new face who sets foot in his halls?”

“Only the ones he might potentially marry,” her mother replied curtly, apparently determining that the direct approach was the best way to handle this situation. She finished braiding Rose’s hair and wound it into an intricate pattern around the headdress she wore. Then she began the laborious process of pinning it in place.

The joke was on her mother; Rose preferred the direct approach for these conversations. She even relaxed deeper into her chair now that her mother only needed access to the top of her head. “I suppose I don’t see why he should be interested in me with the number of suitors throwing themselves at his feet every day. Besides, don’t humans only live a fraction of the time we do, even with magic to extend their lives?” Even from home, she noted the frequency of such transmissions, though she rarely paid attention to their contents.

“Don’t act like a foolish child who knows nothing of politics in his presence, daughter, or I’ll make certain you regret it. You know that the imperial family has been interested in marrying into ours for some time. But it’s rare that they have a child of age at the same time we do for that very reason. There are far fewer of us.”

Rose pursed her lips, knowing her mother would be able to read all of her swallowed responses from the stubborn look on her face. She didn’t want a political marriage. And she knew for a fact her mother hadn’t had one. She had chosen Rose’s father, and fought tooth and nail to keep him.

“You mean to tell me there wasn’t a single young emperor before you met father?” The words slipped free of her lips, and she instantly regretted them.

“My marriage solved other problems,” her mother replied tersely. “And don’t forget what you said about their lifespans. It means that you’ll have plenty of time for the marriage you want after you’ve wed the heir and raised him a few of his own.”

“Freedom to return to my own crown, you mean?” Rose muttered, receiving another tug against her hair for her efforts.

“This is not a matter of pride, child,” her mother insisted, exasperated. “It is a matter of state. Try to remember that.”

Rose resisted the urge to make a face when her mother said mater of state. She was rather sick of matters of state dictating  her entire life, from who she could speak with to where she could go and when. If it weren’t for the ease with which she slid out of her personal chamber back home and beyond the watchful eyes of her royal guards, she didn’t know what she’d ever do with herself.

But her mother was right; this was not the time to argue about whether or not she should be able to marry for love or forced to pair like a brood mare simply expected to produce offspring. She was only meeting the prince. She’d have plenty of time to make him hate her later when he proved to be dull or arrogant, or some horrid combination of the two, as most nobility usually turned out to be.

Her mother opened her mouth to say more, perhaps to mend the bridge that suddenly stood broken between them, but a soft knock at the door interrupted. AlphaLaura’s queen sent her daughter one last dark look in the mirror, then turned to answer the door.

Rose shifted, leaving the skewed vision of herself behind in favor of viewing the prince with her own eyes. She had seen him once before, during the council meeting, of course, but he had been sitting quite distant. Her planet may have been a powerful trade partner within the empire, but they didn’t have the same kind of political clout other royal families boasted. Rose thought her mother preferred it that way; she didn’t need to post a permanent representative to the inner council, and her visits to the imperial palace remained short and infrequent.

But all of that was bound to change if she became engaged to the imperial heir. And Rose couldn’t tell if it would please her mother to gain that kind of prestige for her single planetary kingdom, or if her hand was as forced by imperial decree as her daughter’s.

To his credit, the prince was handsome. He had none of the haughty air Rose expected a pampered imperial prince to possess. He even bowed his head in her queen mother’s direction, flashing her a charming smile and making eye contact when he spoke.

“Forgive me, Lady Luraine, I hope I haven’t interrupted something.”

“Not at all,” Rose’s mother insisted, flashing the boy a charming smile of her own. “My daughter was just on her way to meet with you. I hope she didn’t keep you waiting?”

The prince chuckled and shook his head. “I simply thought the princess might be more comfortable meeting with me here.” His eyes strayed in her direction and she nodded, keeping her answering smile subtle.

At least she didn’t have to worry about staring at a table or the floor for the duration of the meeting. That would have gotten boring fast.

Her mother glanced over her shoulder. The two of them locked eyes and Rose nodded slightly. Her mother offered her a tight smile in return and fled the room, though Rose couldn’t help wondering how many spies would have their ears pressed to every nook and cranny of their private apartments, hoping to glean some details about their interaction.

Of course, there were also the Unseen to consider. Three of them, at least, would have entered the chamber at the same time as the prince, the magic that hid them so powerful, even Rose would be hard pressed to penetrate it; and she knew better than to try.

As soon as the door swished closed behind her mother, Rose swept to her feet and offered a deep bow, the ends of her braids brushing the floor as they tumbled from her shoulders. “Your eminence graces me with his presence,” she said, careful to sound grateful when she said it.

His royal eminence laughed and shook his head, motioning quickly for her to rise; not the reaction she had expected. “I would prefer if this was an informal meeting,” he said, sliding onto one of the room’s plush couches and patting the space beside him. “If you don’t mind?”

Rose allowed a more genuine smile to creep across her features. She glided across the room and lowered herself onto the indicated cushion in the way of ladies, crossing her legs and folding her hands together as she placed them on her knee.

She used this opportunity to examine her new companion, just as she knew he was examining her. His eyes were blue, but a far lighter shade than her own. They reminded her of the sky when it was splashed with clouds, the lightest, brightest blue she had ever known. There was an intensity of intelligence in his gaze that instantly changed Rose’s mind about how she expected this meeting to go. It seemed this imperial heir was as starved for interesting interactions as she had been since her arrival. And he had to live here – poor thing!

His skin was slightly darker than hers, probably because he had plenty of time to tan beneath the light of the planet’s sun. Rose was new to this skin, since she was usually covered in fur, and it made her feel slightly exposed to realize she was off-hue. Dark hair framed the imperial heir’s face, left long on the sides and bound at the base of his neck. It terminated midway down his back, glossy enough to catch the light whenever he shifted. Odd that she had somehow made herself the perfect match for him without even realizing it.

“So…” she said softly when he didn’t speak again. “My mother says the two of us might be married one day.”

The prince winced. “My father told me not to mention it. But it is rather hard to ignore, isn’t it? My name is Russel, by the way,” he added, extending a hand in her direction.

“Rose,” she replied, grasping his hand firmly. Another perfect match. “And I’m pleased you don’t seem to mind speaking plainly. All the rules for conversations people seem to observe around her must make things awfully tiresome for husbands and wives.”

Russel laughed again, the sound flowing so freely it could only be genuine. “Husbands and wives are generally allowed to ignore them. At least behind closed doors.”

“How convenient,” Rose replied, grinning. “And what about friends? Are friends permitted to make similar arrangements?”

“Depending on how close their bond is, I don’t see why not.” But he was careful when he said this, his eyes narrowing slightly, his fingers pressing lightly against his leg. Guarded. Good; he wasn’t foolish then, even if he was spoiled.

“I wouldn’t presume to make an assumption about the two of us when we’ve only just met,” she replied, lowering her eyes and turning her head in a great show of humility. She didn’t yet know how haughty this prince would allow her to be in his presence, and she didn’t want to press her limits. Not yet.

Russel let out an explosive breath. “I… thought you were about to proposition me,” he admitted. “That’s usually how these meetings go.”

“Proposition you?” Rose didn’t bother to hide her surprise as her gaze snapped back to his. “What could I possibly ask you for if our parents are already considering joining us by marriage?”

The prince snorted. “You’d be surprised. Usually it’s court favors. Sometimes it’s paying off a debt.” He shrugged. “The smart ones usually wait a few days. Try to convince me their interest is genuine. Half of them don’t even really want to marry me, they just want the influence that comes with our association.”

Rose swallowed against a throat gone suddenly dry. “And here I spent the afternoon lamenting the fact that my mother wants to choose my husband for me.” She allowed a single, bitter laugh to escape her throat, not wanting to slide directly into pity. “I’m sorry,” she added softly. “It must be dreadful if every young woman you meet treats you that way.”

“And a fair few young men,” the prince replied, though he was looking at her strangely now. “I can’t tell if this is some kind of act to throw off my suspicions or-“

The crimson splash that rose on her cheeks must have answered that question for him. “What? No! I mean…” She shook her head. “Forgive me, your emi- Russel. Please. I am not exactly well known for holding my tongue. I’ve spent the entire time I’ve been here hating how stuffy and formal it all is – if you will pardon my saying such a thing about your home. And in the midst of all that discomfort, I utterly failed to consider what it must have been like to grow up in the middle of all of it.”

A hint of a smile crept back across the prince’s lips and Rose could see she had been forgiven. “You mean that you expected me to be a spoiled brat, don’t you? To come in here and start making demands of you? To act as if I owned all the universe.”

The hint of red in Rose’s cheeks grew deeper. “Well, don’t you?”

“Not in the slightest.” Russel flicked his wrist as if in dismissal. “I don’t even own more than a small chunk of this galaxy. All of this,” he waved his hand at the walls surrounding them as if to encompass the entire palace, “is held together by tenacity and good negotiating skills, I’m afraid.”

Rose relaxed, sliding deeper into the couch as some of the red bled from her face. She was beginning to like this prince. Enough that she wouldn’t begrudge speaking with him again. At least, not in private. “You’re right, I did expect this meeting to go differently. But now that we’ve both got our preconceptions out of the way, I think we’ll have a much better time with these meetings… If there are to be more.”

“I don’t think I’d be opposed,” Russel admitted, leaning forward. “You’re well-trained in court etiquette, but you still don’t act like the other ladies.”

Rose stuck out her tongue. “I’d rather not be a proper lady, if I could get away with it. An unfortunate accident of birth forces me to be one, I’m afraid. Don’t tell my mother I said that,” she added, holding up one hand. “She’d murder me on the spot.”

Russel made a small gesture with one hand as if he were zippering his lips together and locking them with a key. “Your secret is safe with me, my lady. Truth be told, I’m no more keen on the idea of being emperor. My father says that will make me a good leader, but I’ve never been convinced.”

Rose rolled her eyes. “My mother says the same thing. She seems to think I just need to ‘settle my wild tendencies,’ she made a gesture with  her fingers when she said it, “so that I can focus on what’s really important. I can’t seem to get her to understand that I’m just not cut out for the important bits. I don’t want to make decisions that impact people’s lives. What if I make the wrong one?”

Russel leaned forward. “That’s my worry too.” He shook his head. “My father presides over courts of justice. He sentences people to death. If it later turned out that someone were innocent…”

Rose shuddered. “We have nothing like that on AlphaLaura, thank the goddess. But people could lose their livelihoods if I took the planet in the wrong direction. Everywhere I go, everyone I meet seems convinced that being a ruler is all about getting your way all the time. But it’s actually about making sure that the most people are fed and sheltered and safe. And the worst part is, if I mess up, it won’t be me who suffers. Things for me will just keep right on going, the same as they always have, while someone else scrimps and begs to get along.”

“I’ve never heard someone so perfectly echo my thoughts,” the imperial heir breathed, suddenly seeming awed by her presence. Rose wasn’t sure she liked the way he looked at her, as if she were shrouded by golden light. “And you know, my father says that people like you and I make such good rulers because we won’t ever forget the common people. He says it’s critical to keeping a kingdom healthy. There are hundreds of common folk for any one of us with noble blood. It’s them that do the real work.  Without them, we’d never achieve anything.”

“I wish I were one of them,” Rose murmured. “I wouldn’t mind getting my hands dirty. At least I’d get to pick something that interested me and follow it through to its end.”

“I’m sorry, Lady Rose, I don’t think you could ever be one of them.”

The red returned to Rose’s cheeks. “And why is that?” she demanded, careful not to speak too sharply, though her heart was suddenly beating rapidly within her chest.

“Oh, you’re far too spectacular to pass. I barely know how you can walk through a room without turning every head in your direction.”

Rose’s face blazed. In fact, eyes often did turn in her direction whenever she passed through a room, but it usually had to do with some comment she had made rather than her appearance. Knowing how to seem regal wasn’t the same as actually being regal, or so she still believed.

“You are far too kind, your eminence-“

“Russel,” he insisted.

“Russel,” she agreed. “But I’m afraid I must disagree with your assessment. I am only a humble ruler in training for a planet that would never be part of your council if it weren’t for is strategic placement among critical trade routes.”

He chuckled. “And your gift for negotiating peace between five other factions that tend to war quite frequently. Not to mention the unprecedented level of peace and prosperity experienced by your entire planet for more generations than any other can boast.”

“The accomplishments of my ancestors,” she insisted. “A legacy I can only pray I live up to-“

“And modest,” the prince added, grinning. “No, I can safely say I’ve never met anyone like you.”

“Shall I ask you to throw me a party?” Rose retorted, unable to help falling into old patterns when she grew flustered. She had never met anyone who threw her so off balance as this would-be emperor.

Perhaps he detected her sarcasm. He leaned closer, his voice soft and his breath hot as it graced her cheek. “Maybe you should. I might even throw you one. You’re the first person I’ve met who seems worthy of the effort.”

As Rose’s cheeks flared red again, she couldn’t help thinking how difficult the grand success of this meeting was going to make her arguments against marrying the imperial heir.

Then again, if she had to live with someone she hadn’t chosen, it might as well be the young man with the glimmering eyes and quick smile sitting across from her now.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.