Clever Arula: Chapter Four

As I easily traverse the geometric turns of the dense hedges comprising the maze at the center of the palace gardens, I marvel that a whole year has passed and that somehow, even this early in the season, the manicured maze surrounding me is vibrantly alive with green. I breathe deeply, enjoying the dewy scent of early morning, as I near the heart of the maze.

When I make the final turn to my destination, I am startled to see someone has clearly been here before me. There is a dark wooden box sitting on my favorite bench. Since it is my birthday today, I know the box was placed there for me. Unable to contain my excitement, I hasten to where the box sits.

I take the slim box in my hands to examine it more closely. I hear the sound of many small objects rattling around inside, and I quickly find the latch, curious to see what is hidden within. When I carefully lift the lid, a folded paper falls out and I notice that the wooden object is not a box, but rather some fabrication that when unfolded has fourteen compartments, two large ones on either end and six smaller ones spaced evenly down either side of its length in the area between. The side I considered the bottom contains a multitude of small glass jewels in a shining rainbow of magenta, red, orange, gold, green, blue, and violet sitting dispersed between the compartments. I count forty-eight in total, fingering their smooth surfaces as I tally.

I am positive the object is a game, and excitement swells in my chest.

Intrigued, I retrieve the paper that came loose during my investigation, careful not to spill the beautiful gems. Unfolding the note, I instantly recognize my husband’s elaborately curled hand.

Come to breakfast and I shall show you how to play.

Curious to learn what kind of game is concealed within the box, I walk briskly to the palace. When I pass through the terrace door and know no one will see me, I break into a run, only slowing when I see the door to our private dining room at the end of the hall. I gather myself and smooth my hair back into place. When I enter, I school my features into a neutral expression.

“Happy birthday, darling,” Darien says. “I see you found my gift.”

I smile obligingly at my husband. “I most certainly did.”

“How was your walk?” he asks with a wink.

“Lovely, thank you,” I say as I sit across from him at the small table set for two. I place the interesting box between us on the table and look at him expectantly.

Darien smiles at me, and asks, “Would you like honey on your scone?”

“Yes, dearest,” I answer, taking the proffered pot from him. I butter each half of the still-warm confection on my plate and drizzle honey on top, fighting the desire to demand Darien explain the new game to me immediately rather than tease me so on my brithday.

As always, my eyes surely betray me, and Darien chuckles knowingly, but he quickly takes pity on me. “The game is called mancala, and it comes from the desert beyond the mountains.”

“How do we play?” I ask, no longer able to contain my question with the subject broached.

Darien unfolds the box between us and begins distributing the colored glass gems evenly between the twelve inner compartments. He then explains how each player must move the gems from the inner compartments with the goal of collecting the most pieces.

“Shall we play?” Darien asks.

“Of course, but what shall be my prize when I win?”

Darien feigns affront. “You wound me,” he exclaims dramatically, but when I lift my eyebrows slightly he continues, “The answer to any question to the winner.”

“You may have the first turn,” I offer in agreement, already thinking of what I might ask him.

Darien does not hesitate and makes the first move. He ends his turn with two gems in his collection, one red and one gold. I take a bite of my scone, contemplating my first maneuver. Finally, when all the pieces have been removed from the inner compartments, the game is over and we count our loot.

I have six more glass gems than Darien.

“You have bested me, Arula, so you shall have the answer to your question. What would you ask of me?”

“This brings back memories,” I say with a sly smile. After nearly a year of marriage we know much about one another, and I scour my brain for a sufficient question worthy of my victory. “Perhaps I shall test out my newest riddle,” I jest.

The laugh I expect him to share with me does not come, and I detect a darkness in his eyes, dimming their usual fire.

I want to ask him if everything is alright, but it will have to wait until I have asked my allotted question first. Darien chews another bite of his third scone when I finally ask, “What do you regret most in your life?”

Darien stops chewing, and I watch his lustrous eyes fill with more shadows. I want to retract my question, but before I can offer to choose another or call off the game altogether and ask if he is alright, he says, “What I regret most in my life is that I coerced the perfect woman into marrying me.”

“Darien,” I reassure, “I married you of my own volition. Do you not recall that I tested you as well?”

Darien looks at me earnestly. “You truly believe that I did not force this marriage upon you? I gave you little choice when I arrested your father and presented you with my ultimatum. What option did I leave you but to do as I asked to ensure your father’s safety?”

“I remember things a little differently,” I counter. “You would have respected my wishes if I declined and returned my father in perfect health.”

“But how could you have known that at the time?” Darien demands, his frustration apparent in the set of his jaw and intensity of his eyes. “For all you knew, your father was rotting in a dungeon, or worse!”

“Sometimes we must assume people are inherently good and place our trust in them before we come to know them fully,” I say. Despite my words, Darien’s brow remains deeply wrinkled with concern, so I attempt to lighten the mood, “Besides, people do not begin to rot as quickly as that.”

My humor softens the creases in Darien’s forehead almost imperceptibly, and I can see that he wants to believe my words. “I love you, Darien,” I add, unsure how to help him through the battle he fights against his own emotions.

His expression is almost pained. “I love you too, Arula, but how am I to be sure that what we have is real?”

My nose prickles as I fight the sudden onslaught of angry tears, and my right hand hovers over my stomach as I worry the wedding band on my left with my thumb. I want to scream at Darien that waiting an entire year after our marriage to reveal these thoughts is callous and shortsighted. I swallow back the emotions and insults threatening to overtake me and dig down to the rational part of myself that knows Darien loves me and this stems from care rather than a change of heart.

“What can I possibly do to prove my love?” I ask softly. I force myself to bite back the retort trying to claw its way up my throat, the words asking what I could possibly do that I have not already done.

Darien rubs his face as if trying to wipe the agony away. “I truly do not know,” he says, for once seemingly unable to decipher anything from my expression or nervous motions.

“I will do anything you ask of me,” I offer, keeping my voice steady. “Consider it an early gift for our anniversary, and a reminder of the reason we are together. My only condition is that when this is over, you never question my heart again.”

I watch the emotions play darkly across Darien’s face. For an instant, I think I see a spark of the Darien I first met, a mischievous twinkle in his eye as he contemplates my offer, but when he speaks, his voice is rough and lacking his usual emotion, “You shall leave the palace and return home as if none of the events of the last year have happened.”

I do not tell Darien that this is absolutely foolish, since neither of us can forget the past, nor can we undo the occurrences of the last year and our many shared experiences that have led us to this moment. Instead, I allow him to continue, and although I keep my thoughts to myself, part of me hopes Darien has enough of his usual acumen to see what I am thinking.

“Since you are now accustomed to a life of luxury, you shall be permitted to take with you that which you value most, but you shall take only that which you can carry.”

“As you would have it,” I agree.

“You shall also dine with me for one last meal before you leave,” Darien adds, his expression painfully sad.

“Are you sure this is what you want, my love?”

He closes his eyes, I suspect so that he does not have to look me in the eye when he says, “Yes, Arula. It is my will that you do this.”

“Then I shall leave you to contemplate what I shall take with me.” I round the table to stand before Darien, the husband I thought I knew. I bend to kiss his forehead, and for a moment the creases smooth and he exhales slowly, a calm before the storm. “See you for dinner, Darien,” I say, using his name because I know if he were his usual self he would love to hear it from my lips.

When I am in the hall, I allow my tears to silently fall. The tears are both for Darien and for myself. I swipe at the wet trails on my cheeks, several drops escaping to drip off my chin.

My quarters feel austere and much too large as I pace. Loneliness is a tightness in my chest. I feel as if the darkness of night has descended upon me, yet outside it is only midmorning, the sun just beginning to travel to its zenith in the sky. I know for certain there is but one thing I cannot live without, and I mean to take him with me upon my departure.

Setting my jaw to harden my resolve, I sneak from my rooms before Annalise can fetch me for luncheons or other courtly frivolities. I duck belowstairs, taking the servant passageways to avoid notice as I wend my circuitous route to the kitchens. Nearly to the door of the vegetable garden behind the palace, I quickly tuck into the larder, narrowly avoiding Danby carrying a tray of delicate cucumber finger sandwiches, presumably for one of the events I shall invariably miss later today. Peeking from my hiding place, I observe the portly chef stow the morsels safely away and return to his work table to begin whisking together my favorite raspberry lavender punch. With Danby occupied, I silently creep to the door and slip outside.

From the garden, I sneak from the keep and begin the long trek to the treeline. As I walk, I build an intricate image of what I seek in my mind, adding details until I feel like I can reach out and touch the plant my mother showed me many years ago. She used the herb to remedy insomnia, but in the correct dosage, valerian is a powerful sedative. The season is still too early for the clusters of small white flowers to be more than buds atop the tall stems, but the pointed leaves of the valerian plant are distinct without the telltale blooms. I remember my mother taking me to a clearing near our home to find many plants and herbs, but today that would be nigh impossible for me to locate, for even if I could dredge up the memory of its exact location, I am much too far away from my old home to reach the glade in time. On another occasion, my mother took me to a stream to find valerian, so now I seek similar geography.

I trudge stubbornly through the forest, rays of twinkling sunlight streaming between the branches overhead. After a time, I hear water rushing smoothly in the distance. I quicken my pace, tearing my gown away from grasping sticks and twigs.

When I reach the creek, I scan the banks. Knots of valerian grow along its length, and I nearly laugh with relief, thankful my memory has led me true. I drop to my knees, digging at the nearest cluster until the roots are exposed. I rip the roots from the plants and move on to another bunch, digging and ripping until my fingers are sore. I rinse my hands in the cool creek, enjoying the numbing coolness of water fresh from the mountains. Fingers chilled into forgetting their aches, I gather the fruit of my labor and begin the long walk home.

The simplest part of my task is complete, and I mull over the logistics of what I mean to do, turning the plan over and over again in my mind. As my plan solidifies, the afternoon gives way to early evening, and I return to the keep, sneaking back to the garden undetected.

“Danby,” I announce as I enter the kitchen, trying not to startle him as I close the garden door behind me. Despite my efforts, the rotund little man jumps halfway to the ceiling and flings a spoonful of dark brown batter from the bowl he stirs across the kitchen. I swipe my finger through the thick glob now sticking to the tabletop, gambling that the batter is chocolate since it is my birthday after all. I suck the delicious batter off my finger while I wait for Danby to collect himself.

“Your Highness!” Danby exclaims, setting the wooden spoon in the bowl of batter to attend to the mess. “You gave me quite a fright.”

“My apologies, Danby,” I offer. I give the man a moment to right his workspace and straighten his apron before going on. “I need you to bake this into your masterpiece,” I say, placing the valerian roots on the work table and indicating the bowl of chocolate batter. “Not all of it mind you, just the serving for the king,” I clarify.

Danby wrinkles his brow. “T’will taste right awful, your Highness,” he objects. I fight the smile tugging at my lips that the cook says nothing of the sedative properties of the herbs, his only concern for the quality of his confections.

“Then I suggest you add more chocolate and do your best to make it taste better than awful,” I say. “Perhaps adding raspberry preserves like you did when the duchess visited would salvage the flavor. The preserves may help mask the…,” I pause searching for the correct word or phrase to describe the distinct sensation of imbibing valerian.

“Offensive taste, your highness?” Danby inquires.

I sigh, rubbing my temples. “Precisely,” I agree. An expression of displeasure is writ plain on Danby’s face at the prospect of one of his creations being intentionally sabotaged, one meant for the king and queen no less. A single cake, however, is a sacrifice I am willing to make in this most recent game of wits. Nothing the cook says will sway me, but a solemn promise never to interfere with any future creations sets Danby reluctantly to work on destroying the cake. “And, Danby,” I add before making my way to prepare for dinner, “please be sure to remember which dessert is for the king. I do not fancy my plans being ruined by an unforeseen nap.”

“Of course, your Highness,” Danby says, lamenting the destruction of perfectly good cake as he begins to sullenly stir the essence of the valerian roots into half of the batter.

“I shall have more birthdays, Danby, and there shall be more causes to celebrate,” I assure him to ease his unhappiness, and then I exit the kitchens.

Annalise is in a panic when I glide silently back into my room.

“Where have you been, and what happened to your clothes?” she demands, taking in my torn and muddy dress.

“Anna,” I say, gripping her by the shoulders to hold her steady, “I have not the time to explain.” Her mouth snaps closed on whatever she was about to say, and I continue, “Please help me prepare for dinner with the king, for if all goes ill, then this shall be my last night at the palace.”

“He is turning you out?” Annalise asks angrily, her ire clear by the fire in her eyes. “What with–”

“Not if I have anything to say about the matter,” I interrupt. “Now help me out of this mess.”

Annalise does as directed. As she works, I whisper the details of my plan to her, for I need her help. She solemnly takes in every word, never pausing in her ministrations.

“You look perfect,” she says when she is finished tucking away a final strand of my hair, the last pieces of my plan revealed only moments before. “The king will surely think twice before sending you away.”

“Thank you,” I say, grasping her hands between my own. “And thank you for your help. I could not do this without you.”

“I will be there when you need me, Arula,” Annalise promises.

I give her hands a tight squeeze before making my way to the private dining hall. When I arrive, I hesitate but a moment before entering to take my usual seat across from Darien, however I am early as planned and Darien is not yet present. I pour myself a full goblet of water, then I brush my skirts aside and take my seat to await him. I must not wait long before he enters, bowing to me curtly before assuming his own seat.

“Good evening, Darien,” I say as he folds himself into his chair.

“Good?” he asks sadly. “I do not think the word appropriate for the present mood.”

I suppress a sigh or a groan, I am not quite certain which. I wish to silence such talk once and for all. “Darien, it is by your request that we dine together this evening,” I say, “and as such, I would request that you affect a more positive countenance in light of the circumstances. It is still my birthday.”

While Darien silently contemplates my words, I pour him a generous goblet of wine. I take a sip of the water in mine as Darien takes a long drag from his. I smile and refill the goblet for him. “Better yet,” I muse, “we should celebrate. One more night without a care in the world.”

“All right, darling,” Darien agrees, settling into a more typical demeanor.

“Wonderful,” I commend. “Danby!”

As summoned, the robust chef appears, carrying in his arms two small yet ornate cakes, each aptly sized for one. He carefully places the dishes in front of us, giving me a woeful look when his back is to Darien. Bowing, he says, “I hope you will enjoy my…” he stumbles for only a moment before going on. “Newest creations,” he finishes.

“I am certain we shall find them to be quite satisfactory,” I say, not wishing to raise Darien’s expectations too high for fear he will find his cake to be all the worse. “Thank you, Danby,” I say to soften the blow of my dismissal.

“Cake is an interesting choice for the first course,” Darien observes, but he does not hesitate to cut out a bite-sized piece with his fork.

“There is nothing more celebratory than enjoying dessert first,” I note, surreptitiously watching Darien chew and scanning his face for any sign of displeasure as I take an absolutely divine bite of my own cake.

Darien chews another piece of his cake, and I must admit Danby is a truly remarkable cook to successfully disguise valerian in a dessert. I take a few more bites, almost too nervous to eat, as I watch Darien blink with increased frequency after the valerian takes hold. Soon, Darien slumps in his chair.

“Darien?” I ask to ensure he sleeps. Then louder, “Darien, my love?”

When I receive no answer, I go to his side, giving him an experimental shake to see if he will rouse. He does not so much as twitch. Satisfied, I call Annalise. She enters from where she hid behind the door, awaiting my summons.

“Is everything ready?” I ask.

Annalise smiles conspiratorially. “Sure as sand in the desert,” she assures me.

“Help me with him,” I instruct, as I grab Darien by the armpits and attempt to drag him from his chair.

With Annalise at his feet, we half carry half drag him to the wheelbarrow Annalise has waiting in the garden. Somehow we manage to get him inside, although his legs dangle out the end. His neck appears to be at a horribly uncomfortable angle, so I remove my overskirts and wad them up under his head as a makeshift pillow. The entire time, Darien sleeps so soundly I almost worry I gave him too much valerian, but his breathing is even and steady, reassuring me.

“Good luck,” Annalise says, giving me a tight hug. “Your father is expecting you at the farm. Now go, you have a long night ahead of you.”

I set out, and by dawn I finally see my father’s home in the distance. My back and arms ache from pushing the wheelbarrow full of Darien’s dead weight, but I need to make certain he is abed before he wakes. My father runs to meet me in the yard, helping me carry Darien, now awake enough to grumble in his sleep, up the stairs to tuck him snugly into my old bed.

I hug my father, and begin to thank him, but he quickly hushes me. “We shall have all the time to talk in the morning, dearest Arula,” he assures me, stroking my tousled hair. “Stay with him and rest.”

I sink to the edge of the straw-filled mattress beside Darien as my father descends to his own bed below. I stroke Darien’s hair from his eyes, hardly able to keep my own open.

§

I awaken with my head on Darien’s chest, his breathing slow and steady with slumber. My back screams a protest as I straighten to sit upright beside him once more. The morning light limns his face, relaxed and free from the creases of worry.

As I gently stroke his cheek, his eyes flutter open, eventually alighting upon my face.

“Good morning, my love,” I whisper, almost afraid to speak.

“Arula?” he asks confused, propping himself up on an elbow. “Where am I?” Sleep still clouds his eyes and his speech is slightly slurred.

“The farm,” I state simply.

Understanding lights his eyes, clearing away the vestiges of drugged sleep. Darien laughs, deep and full. “What a fool I have been,” he scoffs. Then he sobers, scooping my hands into his. He looks into my eyes and says, “I was wrong to question you, and I was wrong to doubt us.”

“I was under the impression you were past your doubts, but perhaps I misunderstood and that only applied to your lack of faith in your own judgment?” I say.

“Love makes men fools,” he says. “I have no other excuse.”

“I love you, Darien,” I say, the words slipping off my tongue like a promise.

“And I you, Arula,” Darien says.

Relief floods through me. Until he spoke those words, part of me was still uncertain how this would end. Feelings rush through me faster than I can process, and I frantically grasp at hope, anger, joy, frustration, and so many other emotions all pent up inside me and begging for release. “You are a daft idiot, but I forgive you,” I say.

Darien chuckles, and I relish the rekindling of the usual spark in his eye. “Not for the first time, but I am glad I have you here to set me straight.”

“You don’t know the half of it!” I berate him. “First of all, you were asleep for the majority of it. More importantly, it is horribly improper to take a woman as your wife, and then leave her to raise the future sovereign of the kingdom on her own!” I am practically yelling, but I do not care.

Darien’s eyes momentarily dull with shame before alighting with excitement. “Why did you not tell me?” he asks.

“I was planning to tell you yesterday, but after our fateful game, I was afraid of placing you in the same position you felt you had placed me,” I explain.

“Surely you did not carry me all this way in your condition?” Darien asks.

“I’m not going to break, Darien, but no,” I admit. “You were rather unceremoniously stuffed in a wheelbarrow.”

Darien rubs his neck as sudden realization shines in his eyes. Then he turns those eyes on me, disapproving. “You cheated,” he accuses. “And that still seems like far too much exertion for the woman bearing the heir to the throne.”

“Semantics,” I say plainly, blatantly ignoring his second statement. “A good farmer knows when tools will serve the job better than bare hands. Besides, farmers have been using wheelbarrows to carry heavy loads for hundreds of years,” I add teasingly, with a gentle poke to his midsection.

Darien laughs. “Alright, I concede.”

“No more doubts?” I ask.

“No more doubts,” he affirms. “Besides,” Darien says, pulling me into an embrace, “a good king knows what is best for his country, and who could be better for Rheinhold than a clever farmer’s daughter?”

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