The throne room was full of nobles, rank upon rank of them assembled, their rich finery aswirl in a colorful sea that dazzled her eyes. The air of festivity that had accompanied last night’s ball had vanished, and now they all stood, proud and solemn, all eyes turned in silent attention to the throne. Up at the front with the rest of the unmarried girls, she would have had choice view of the man who sat upon it, had it been permitted for her to look. Heads bowed, the young women around her all wore identical expressions of quiet, studied reverence, but she could feel the tension all around her. Unlike the rest of the crowd in the audience chamber, their eyes had to remain cast downward, and both expectation and dread crackled along the rows of waiting girls.
Her mother along with her older, married sisters, had spent hours dressing her so that she would be well turned out for when she took her place amongst the girls at the front of the throne room. She was hyperaware of the way the dress of hunter green velvet clung to her body and the depths to which its neckline plunged. The layers of skirts beneath it were stifling. Her long red hair had been piled and arranged artfully so that some of it twisted elaborately upon the crown of her head, the rest falling in a fiery spill down her back, all of it woven through with ropes of bright green peridots. Her eldest sister had fussed and lamented that it should have been emeralds, but their father’s lands had not produced as well as they ought the last few years, and so she had been stuck with the ignominy of the peridots. She rather liked them, though, as the brightness of their green was more visible in the light of the torches where emeralds would have looked black, but her sister had scoffed and said that though the peridots were pretty enough, emeralds would have spoken for her quality in a way that the less precious gems could not.
Though she had known it was forbidden, she had looked up a few times toward the throne. There was no way she could not. After all, the ruler of the land sat awaiting the signal before he would walk amongst the girls and make his choice. So she would glance up surreptitiously from beneath her long auburn lashes for only the briefest moment at a time, fearing discovery and fearing to be publicly taken to task for disrupting the ancient, time-honored ritual. For all her trouble, though, she had caught only a glimpse of the crown of beaten gold and glittering gems atop the blonde head, of a wine-colored doublet, sumptuously brocaded, over a shirt made of the finest cloth-of-gold money could buy, and a perfectly tailored coat and breeches of the same wine color as the doublet. She had been to court many times before and had seen the king before, but today was different. Very different. She had taken these few details in, in a rush of color and shape, and hurriedly cast her gaze back downward, where it belonged. No matter how hard she had tried to focus in those brief moments that her eyes had left the tiles, she never seemed able to see his face.
Her own father was a baron in exile, from a different land, and he found the ritual custom of this day to be barbaric in the extreme. No matter how many years he had been here, and no matter how many times he had stood in this throne room when his other daughters had had to be put forth for the previous monarch, the idea that a daughter of his might be the one chosen to be the king’s concubine caused him no small amount of outrage. Even after all this time, he still did not understand that it was looked upon in his wife’s native land as a great honor. Not only did it bring esteem to the girl chosen, but to her house as well. And upon this day, the king’s choice would carry even greater significance than usual, for he had not yet wed and it was not unheard of for a ruling monarch to take an especially beloved concubine to wife. The thing that was most important was that the sovereign of their land must be always coupled in some way with a woman of their land, for he was, in many ways, looked upon as divinity made flesh, and so he must always be intimate with the land he ruled, so that it and its people would always be blessed and flourish. They believed that if the king did not have a concubine, or at least a wife, who was native to its soil, the land would weaken from neglect.
She shifted demurely, careful to keep her eyes on the intricate design of the parquetry floor. Certainly, she was honored to be here, to be one of the noblewomen deemed worthy of the possibility of being chosen, but she was unsure of how she would feel if she were. She was already very different from all these girls arrayed around her in their finery. Unlike them, she had a calling and had begun to carve out a niche for herself that was more than simply the ambition of being wed to a noble husband and continuing the lines of a House. She had the gift of music and wished to be a musician. Of this, her father did approve, though her mother thought it common and beneath her. If she were chosen, there would be little time to pursue her music, for her life would be spent in pleasing the king, in whatever ways he wished her to please him, until he tired of her or she fell out of favor, as the woman standing beside the throne had.
Oh, what a terrible humiliation for Lildrianne, to have to render this one last service in choosing the girl who would replace her! No one knew what had happened, for that was the one place where court gossip was not allowed to penetrate. The relationship between a king and his consort, or with a concubine, was sacrosanct, and any person who looked to be disrespecting it by so much as engaging in idle gossip about it could find themselves stretching their neck out upon the headsman’s block. Certainly everyone wondered and speculated, but no one dared utter such thoughts aloud, let alone speak them to anyone else.
No matter. She felt sure she would not be chosen. The girl beside her, Jehan, with her lavender gown and her raven hair bound up in a net of silver and amethysts was far more attractive than she, and while she knew she was not homely or plain, she also knew that there were plenty of girls here whose looks surpassed hers. No, she would not be chosen. She breathed a sigh of relief. It was a bit too loud, and Jehan looked sideways at her, sympathy in her violet eyes, mistaking her relief for mournfulness. So many of the girls here were pinning all their hopes on the possibility of being chosen, and she felt a secret thrill at knowing that her music gave her enough pride in herself that she could afford to detach herself from such desperation.
So caught up in her reverie was she that the silvery peal of the long slender trumpets nearly caused her to jump out of her skin. Crisp and regal, she knew automatically that their voices would precede the king’s seneschal, Rhaine.
“This night His Royal Highness, Lucien I, Sovereign of Occitania, shall choose a new concubine,” declaimed a robust, imperious voice that thundered through the audience chamber. “This custom has a long and honored history in Occitania, for it is in choosing among the flower of its maidens that the sovereign brings vigor and blessings to the land. Watch now the flowers of the field await the rising of the Sun. May he pluck the most beautiful of them all and let his pleasure be known!”
At the ritual words, the group of young women knelt as one. There was silence, and then the sound of rustling that must be that of Lucien, the king, and his soon to be former mistress Lildrianne, descending from the dais to wade amongst the young women in front. She knew it would be a long wait upon her knees, and for once she was glad of the velvet and the layers of petticoats now cushioning them. She felt herself slip into something resembling a trance as she relaxed, as still as a statue, and waited while the pair began the inspection. This time, she did not steal a glance, for she wanted to do nothing that might call their attention to her, and so she stared quietly down at the wooden tiles and the golden slippers of the brunette girl in front of her, her long chestnut hair spilling down the back of her topaz-colored gown. It seemed like forever, and a few times the sky-blue hem of Lildrianne’s gown swished across her vision, peeking out from between the kneeling girls ahead of her, along with the slow stride of black-booted feet and wine-trousered ankles which accompanied her.
She had slid into a timeless state as she stared at the wooden tiles. As the king’s boots and Lildrianne’s hem advanced steadily through the kneeling girls, row by row, it seemed as though both an eternity and only a mere instant had passed since the pair of them descended from the dais. Her head remained bowed, but her gaze swept upward to mark their progress, and she saw sky-blue and wine-colored cloth had stopped in front of the girl with the topaz gown who knelt directly in front of her. With them so close, she dared not glance up high enough to really look, but the lower part of the girl’s body was in her field of vision, and she noted the slight quiver in her hips, as though her thigh muscles were having trouble supporting her as she knelt under the gaze of the king and his soon-to-be-former mistress.
Many here were frightened. She had noted that the moment she had come amongst them to take her place. She, too, was nervous. After all, the notion of the reigning monarch scrutinizing one’s appearance and bearing would make anyone nervous. But she had sensed also from the tightly strung undercurrent that had been present that there was more to it all than just the natural awe of the king and the fear of not passing his muster. This puzzled her, and she wished that she had paid more attention to court gossip since he had taken the throne the year before. But she had been preoccupied with her music and most times she had found herself at court, she had been performing and had been too busy worrying about that to even really chat with anyone, much less hear the latest gossip about the king.
She wished she understood now what was going on, this unspoken fear which thrummed along the columns of kneeling girls. She felt foolish now for not having made the time, somehow, to keep her finger on the pulse of court, but it was too late for that now. She would kneel and endure this brief discomfort of inspection, the king would choose his new mistress, and then she, and the rest of the girls, could get on with their lives. At least she could thank Fate that she had a life to go back to that amounted to more than the obsession with catching a husband.
Somewhere behind her, standing in the crowd, were her father and mother, he seething once more as he always seethed when one of his daughters knelt for the inspection, she radiant with pride and hope that one of her girls might be the one selected. Today was a bittersweet day indeed. Her mother had lamented that there would not be many more chances after this, as this was the last of her daughters to be offered up and it was too soon to predict how fast the king went through concubines, as this would be only his second since assuming the throne. Her father, on the other hand, had said with a mixture of grim triumph and naked relief that he was more than glad that he was coming to the end of having to endure this barbaric ritual. For his part, he had declared to his daughters, he hoped that every last one of them continued to bear their husbands sons so that he would never have to be a witness to this again.
Frustrated and heartsick with disappointment, her mother had turned on him with savage reproach before abruptly lapsing into tears. Her sisters had all flocked around her, murmuring soothing words, while they shot disapproving glances at their father. All four of them had bred true to their Occitanian blood, and they shared their mother’s deep reverence for the custom their father found so loathsome. He had tried to look chastened, for he really did not wish to hurt his wife, but his smug triumph had been too much for him to fully contain and it had leaked out in his grim smirk, causing their mother to repeatedly lapse back into sobbing.
She herself was not sure how she felt about the custom, though certainly she was more her father’s daughter than any of her sisters, for she did at least was capable of understanding why he felt the way he did, whether or not she was of the same opinion. More Iernian in looks with her red hair and creamy skin than her dark-haired sisters with their pale golden complexions, she also seemed to take more after her father in temperament as well, being more independent and fiery in thought and deed than her sisters who conformed more to the genteel Occitanian ideals of how ladies should comport themselves. Though there was certainly that about this ancient ritual which flew in the face of all gentility. Admittedly, she had a certain titillating curiosity about it, although she knew that by all the rules of propriety, it was not to be looked upon with any sort of titillation. It was a sacred function of the king, wherein he and woman he chose presided symbolically as High Priest and Priestess in this land where there was no church or clergy. Her mind veered away from that, not wishing to contemplate that part. She would not be chosen, and that was that.