Clever Arula: Chapter Three

I clutch the king’s cloak with both fists in front of me, rubbing the fine cloth between my fingers to ease my nerves. I cannot think of anything to say that will salvage the situation, so I remain silent.

After what seems an interminable pause, the king offers me half a smile, one corner of his mouth lifting slightly. “I suppose I deserve that,” he says, for my ears alone, “but please reconsider, Arula. Rheinhold needs a queen who will help shape her a bright future.”

The crowd grows restless and stirs, uneasy at my lack of response, and the hum of discord grates on my ears. I would be a fool to deny the king, although somehow I know he would respect my answer if I were to refuse his proposal.

“Yes,” I whisper. Then louder, so everyone can hear the words, “Yes, your Majesty. I accept.”

The crowd erupts into cheers, nearly drowning my own thoughts in the cacophony.

The king slowly rises from his knee and reaches for me, one hand outstretched. I slip my own out of the warm comfort of the cloak to take his proffered hand. He pulls me nearer, deftly tucking my hand into the fold of his arm to guide me up the steps into the palace. He bends toward me to be heard above the roar, his breath brushing my ear. “I realize we do not know one another, but I look forward to answering all of your prying questions,” the king says.

I am unsettled by the king’s familiar speech and hesitant to speak so freely with him now that my words are no longer fueled by the pressure to outwit him and fear for my father. “That is very kind of you, your Majesty,” I reply.

I hear the king sigh beside me as we pass through the gaping doors of the palace. The king waits until the enormous portal closes behind us and we are encased in silence, the noise of the crowd shut outside the thick doors, before facing me. “Arula, I beg you speak openly with me,” he says, again plainly giving voice to my thoughts. “And please address me as Darien,” the king insists. “I am your equal, Arula. I hate the formalities of court, and I certainly do not want my future wife to be so stilted with me.”

I cannot deny the king, for the emotion held captive in his eyes is utterly compelling. “I will do my best, your–Darien,” I correct.

The king smiles, seemingly satisfied with my effort. “I am sure you are eager to see your father, but perhaps you would like to put on something more comfortable first?” the king asks.

“Thank you, but I would like very much to see my father now,” I say, pulling the king’s cloak a little tighter around my shoulders, shocked to have forgotten what I am wearing. Although I want to be rid of the briny net chafing me from all sides, at this moment I wish for nothing more strongly than to see my father.

“I suspected as much,” the king admits. He gestures to a guard across the hall, and the man steps aside to open the door at his back. “I will give you some time alone,” the king offers.

My legs beg to run, but I instruct them to walk. When I clear the threshold, I wait until the door closes behind me before I sprint the last distance to my father. He puts his arms around me as I collide with him. I squeeze him so tightly he lets out a small groan. “How have you fared?” I ask, needing to hear the answer from my father, whole and well before me. He is wearing fresh clothes that still hold the crisp smell of soap, more than I can say for myself.

“Everything is as it should be, dearest Arula,” my father assures. He takes me by the shoulders, pressing me gently away from him to look me in the eyes. “The king has explained everything, and I hold nothing against him. He has treated me far better than I deserve for how I wasted the years away.”

“Father,” I reason, disliking when he speaks of the past like this when I know the topic hurts him deeply and he regrets his actions more than anything.

My father shushes me and continues, “I know I was wrong, Arula, and I am prepared to face my dishonor and atone for my poor choices.”

“You were grieving,” I insist.

“It is alright, Arula. It is high time you lived your own life out from under the shadow of what I have done.” My father takes my hands and catches my gaze before going on, “I will be forever grateful for everything you have done and given up for me. You pulled me from the darkest place in my life, showed me light, and gifted me with your unconditional love. Now I must do this for you in return: I give you my blessing in your marriage.”

“Father,” I say, tears gathering in my eyes. I shake my head, at a loss for words.

“I always wanted the best for you, and I thought I could find a way to give you the perfect life, but now I see that you are more than capable of providing for yourself. You shall have the life I wanted for you, not because I handed it to you, but because you earned the opportunity to marry a king who can give you the world as I never could.”

Tears drip silently down my cheeks. “Father, promise me you will have some honey,” is all I can say.

His laugh sounds raspy, and I cannot tell if it is with tears or disuse. “I shall, dearest Arula.” Then he is serious again. “I do not deserve you and your unrelenting kindness.”

I cannot formulate a response to such conjecture, so instead I ask, “Are you leaving me, Father?”

“Not forever,” he soothes. “You will have much to occupy you here.” He gestures to the fine room around us, indicating the palace and vast grounds. “But I intend to return to the farm and work the land to repay my debts. I will manage, and I will strive to become a father deserving of your love.”

“You are a wonderful father. Do not allow one mistake to tarnish all that you have done right,” I reason. “You taught me how to work hard and keep pushing forward no matter what was or will be done.”

“Thank you, Arula,” my father says. He strokes my hair fondly as if I were a little girl again, saying, “You truly are your mother’s daughter.” Then he swipes the back of his hand across his eyes, and clears his throat. “And now that you have seen my wellbeing for yourself and I have got these weighty words off my chest, I will take my leave,” he says.

I carefully wipe my own eyes, dabbing the tears away before I must reunite with the king outside. Ready, I hold the door open for my father, who bows deeply to the king. “Thank you, your Majesty,” he says gravely, and too soon he is gone, leaving me alone with the king.

Feeling overwhelmed and hoping for some time alone to process all that has happened, I say without prelude, “I would like to freshen up now, if I may.”

“Of course, I shall arrange it,” the king offers. He beckons to someone waiting  a respectful distance across the foyer. A woman dressed in the plain yet well-made frock of a palace servant comes to stand before us. “This is Annalise,” says the king. “She is to serve as your personal maid. She will show you to your quarters and help you in any way you require.”

Annalise drops into a deep curtsey before me. “If it pleases you, my Lady,” she says, eyes downcast.

I tuck a strand of loose hair behind my ear, unsure how to address my new charge. Unprepared to deal with the fact that I now have a personal servant, I say to the king, “It is as if you were certain I would complete your ridiculous challenge.”

The king laughs, “I ought to keep you on edge forever, Arula, if that is how I shall have the honor of casual conversation with you, not to mention the delight of observing you wield your quick wit.”

“There could be ill consequences of such action,” I reply. “Future husband,” I add, feeling the thrill of the game we play reignite within me.

The king’s eyes widen and I see the mirth and surprise warring within. “You have the audacity to threaten the king?” he asks. “You ought to know better than to play games with me, Arula,” he says, watching me closely for my reaction.

“You ought to know better than to challenge me to games you cannot win,” I retort.

“The results of one game do not provide a large enough sample to suggest you would win the next one,” he counters.

I suppress a laugh, for the king is truly persistent. Face straight, I inquire demurely, “What do you intend for us to play at next, Darien? We could settle this now.”

The delight in his eyes when I say his name makes me ache to stop this banter and ask him a thousand questions so I might know this fascinating man even a little better. His eyes slowly shift between either of mine, and I wonder if he gleans what I am thinking from something within. He merely smiles and says, “Dinner. We shall have dinner.”

“As you would have it,” I concede.

“Annalise, see to it that Arula has everything she needs, and please help her feel at home here.” The king turns to me. “I will see you tonight, Arula. Perhaps at dinner I can provide you with some answers.” Then he winks roguishly and is blissfully gone before I am forced to utter another word.

Now, however, I must address Annalise. “You may proceed with whatever the king has in store for me,” I tell her, attempting to instill confidence I do not feel into my words. When Annalise opens her mouth to speak, I interject, “But please do not call me ‘my Lady’ anymore. There will be no more titles and definitely no more curtseying.”

Annalise smiles. “Would you have me address you as plainly Arula?” she asks.

“I shall feel much more at ease if you do,” I assure her.

With a wider smile, Annalise says, “You will love the queen’s apartment! Follow me. I shall draw you a bath and help you into something suitable for dinner.”

In my chambers, I instantly cross to the balcony on the opposite side. The view before me is breathtaking. I have never seen so much of Rheinhold at once, and in the evening sun the city is glorious, awash with light and pure gold. Directly below, I spy a vast garden and an intricate maze of hedges. The king certainly enjoys intrigue, so much so that it is reflected in the groundskeeping.

Annalise opens the billowy curtains fully to afford me a better view and indicates the far side of what I can now see is a spacious terrace. “The door just there leads to the king’s chambers,” she says with a conspiratorial grin and a giggle before ushering me into the bathing chamber.

Finished helping me into a finer gown than anything I have ever owned, Annalise clips back my hair with gold hair ornaments and pronounces, “You are beautiful enough to stand before a whole gauntlet of royals.” Then she ushers me out of the newfound safety of my chambers and leads me to the king’s private dining room.

Before leaving me outside the closed door, Annalise checks my hair one more time, squeezes my hand, and whispers, “You shall be brilliant, I am sure of it. All of us belowstairs are rooting for you, Arula.”

When she is gone, I have a few blessed moments to myself. I press my forehead to the cool wood of the door, closing my eyes to simply breathe. I inhale slowly, then exhale for the same counts. When I am composed, I open the door and enter.

The king stands upon my approach. “I am glad you are joining me,” the king says. He rounds the table to pull out the chair across from him and gestures, inviting me to sit. When he is again seated himself, he says “I promised you answers to your questions.” Spreading his hands before him, he asks, “What is it that you wish to know?”

A hundred questions bombard my mind, but if we are truly to be equals as he claims, then I must not go along so easily with his plans such that I fall into his hands like everything else a monarch is accustomed to having at will.

“Would you abide by my choice if I decide not to marry you?” I ask, lifting my eyes to meet his gaze in challenge.

The king hides his shock well, but I catch a glimpse of it in the slight widening of his eyes. “You would rescind your agreement?” he asks, searching my face.

I keep my expression neutral and survey the king. “Perhaps. You did put me in an uncompromising position, asking for my hand in front of a crowd. But you promised me answers, your Majesty, not more questions.”

“So I did,” he says with a rueful smile. His eyes pierce mine with his next words, “I would accept your decision, for my queen must remain by my side willingly. I would not keep her in a gilded cage.”

“Wonderful,” I say with a mischievous smile. “You may win my heart yet, but I could never marry a man who insists on testing me without first giving him a test of my own.”

My statement lights the fire in his eyes. “Well played, my Lady,” he chuckles. “You continue to impress me. I hope that I am found worthy.”

“That we shall see,” I say. His excitement and the fact that, for some reason, I am what he seems to want most is thrilling. “Now answer me this, your Majesty. I never was but always will be. I cannot be seen but everyone knows I exist. I give people hope for better and the motivation to improve. What am I?” I ask.

“And I was sure you would ask me for the tale of the day that changed me,” the king laughs, shaking his head without taking his eyes off me.

“I would never deign to be so predictable,” I reply. “But it seems you are stalling, your Majesty. Perhaps it is because you do not know the answer?” I suggest to goad him further. I catch the telltale gleam in his eyes in response, and my lips quirk upward on one side unbidden.

“Tomorrow,” he answers, returning my smile. Servants arrive with platters of food, but he waves them away. “The answer is tomorrow. Now, my Lady, how will you challenge me next?”

I do not have to think long. “I am lighter than a feather but cannot be held for long. What am I?”

“A breath,” he says quickly.

“I take you by night and by day set you free. None suffer to have me but do from my lack. What am I?” I ask without hesitation.

“Sleep,” he answers with nary a pause.

Our eyes are locked as we verbally thrust and parry.The king appears relaxed, but the focus and determination in his eyes tell a different tale.

“I run but never walk. I have a bed but never sleep. I have a mouth but never eat. What am I?” I ask.

The king replies easily, “A river.”

“I go through cities and fields but never move. What am I?”

“A road.”

“I have cities but no houses. I have mountains but no trees. I have water but no fish. What am I?”

“A map.”

The king is lightning quick, and his intellect invigorates me. I know my verbal challenge is nothing like the task he set me, however, I can imagine an exciting and fruitful future with this man, and I think he must see the same in me.

“I am more important than life and worse than death,” I say. “Content men desire me, poor men have me, and rich men need me. What am I?”

The king thinks for a moment, then he says, “Nothing.”

“You are nearly through my gauntlet, your Majesty, but I cannot allow you passing marks until I have had a glimpse of your soul.”

“You are ready for me to tell you my story, then?”

“Certainly not. I said, ‘nearly through.’ I have a few more questions for you yet,” I say. I laugh softly at his eagerness. “If I did not know better, I would say you have wanted to tell me all along.”

The king smiles, unperturbed. “I am at your mercy, then, my Lady. As you would have it.”

“Then, tell me. I can be swallowed, but I can also swallow you. What am I?”

The king’s brows draw together in thought, and I am pleased I have finally given him pause.

“Do not tell me I have stumped you, your Majesty,” I tease.

“I think not, my Lady,” he replies, stroking his beard, his elbows resting on the table. “My first thought was fear,” he admits, “but fear only swallows you, so I believe the answer is pride.”

“Not bad, your Majesty,” I allow. “Now, for my final riddle: I slay regrets, old and new. I am sought by many but found by few. What am I?”

He does not answer right away, instead gazing at me intently while he mulls over my question. I worry my eyes scream my secrets, for the king has an uncanny ability to steal my thoughts from a mere glance, but he does not seem to glean anything from me now as he sits and ponders in silence.

After some time, he admits, “I do not know, my Lady.” His tone is resigned but firm.

“A noble answer,” I reply.

The king gives a dry laugh, “But I did not answer your final riddle.”

“Admitting shortcomings and facing failure is more difficult than answering any riddle, I wager.”

“I would be wise to think twice before accepting your wagers in future,” says the king with a wry smile. “May I know the answer before I must bid you farewell?”

“The correct answer is redemption, your Majesty,” I offer with a smile. “And do not worry overmuch. Had you answered correctly, you may have failed my test, but I will not be taking my leave so soon.”

The king lets out an incredulous laugh and blinks slowly as if to confirm I truly sit before him. Running his fingers through his hair, he sighs. “You are remarkable, my Lady.”

“Shall we eat?” I ask, finally at ease and finding I am quite hungry.

“I think a meal would do us some good,” he agrees, and soon, the servants return with the sumptuous trays of food.

“Now that all that is behind us, you may tell me about the day that changed you,” I relent, taking another bite of braised venison and roasted potatoes.

“Back to that, are we?” The king laughs softly. He pours himself a goblet of wine, offering me the same, but I decline with a subtle shake of my head. He takes a drink and then says, “It is quite simple, really.” I lean forward in my seat slightly, watching the memory play across the king’s face, poised to receive the explanation but equally happy to sit in this moment with him while his mind is caught up in the past.

“It is not nearly as riveting as I allowed you to believe,” he admits. “I was riding through the market when a dispute broke out before me. A horse farmer and an ox farmer argued heatedly over a foal so young it could not possibly have been taken from its mother. The ox farmer claimed it was his because it was standing by his oxen, and of course the horse farmer claimed the foal as his, and I was called upon to choose. I realized then that I had the power to affect someone’s livelihood, to completely change someone’s life for better or worse, and that my every decision was of utmost importance.”

“But you could not possibly have doubted yourself at all,” I say.

“Not in that moment, no. With the foal, the answer was obvious, however I knew that my choices would not always be so simple nor so easy,” the king explained. “But even in my most difficult decisions, I understood then that I could not waiver and I could never allow my insecurity to impact my reasoning. I knew that I had to put aside my feelings, be rational, and find solutions in order to protect my people and their interests.”

“I suppose giving up because you face a difficult problem would not make you a very good ruler,” I agree with a laugh.

“I would not dare to call myself a king if I ever considered such a thing,” he says. “Can you imagine?”

“Would be near as daft as fishing on dry land,” I nod.

The king huffs a laugh. “Near about,” he affirms. “And the same applies to my consort. I must marry a woman who will fight to improve the lives of our people as I do.” The manner in which the king looks at me now, with such intensity and respect, takes me aback.

The king’s interest sparks an excitement within me. Inspired, I ask, “If you could solve one problem in this kingdom right now, what would it be?”

“As if I had a magic wish that would solve a problem in the blink of an eye?” he asks, brow raised.

I nod, “At least it is a place to start. We can work out the details later, but for now, tell me what good you would like to see done for your people.”

“It is difficult to choose but one thing,” the king says. After a moment, he answers, “I would like for all children to know how to read.”

“A wise answer,” I say.

“What else would you like to know, Arula?” the king inquires.

“Everything,” I reply. “If I am to be your wife, must I not know more about you?”

His smile is brilliant. “And as your future husband, should I not also know more about you?” he asks slyly.

“What is it that you would like to know?” I say, imitating his earlier words.

“If you could solve one problem in this kingdom right now, what would it be?” he asks, eyes twinkling with suppressed laughter.

“I would like for there to be due process for all accused criminals,” I answer, looking up at the king from under my lashes to see if he will take the bait.

We both laugh, unable to hold back. All too soon the hour is late, dessert long since cleared away, and I find myself concealing a yawn behind my hand. My jaw cracks and the haze descending on my mind reminds me I did not sleep at all the previous night. I do not want to give up the moment we are in together, but I need to sleep for fear of drifting off where I sit.

“Goodnight,” I say, interrupting the king mid-sentence.

He smiles softly. “I have kept you up much too late after what I asked of you today,” the king acknowledges by way of an apology. “Goodnight, my Lady. Sleep well.”

“I think I could love you,” I mutter before my foggy mind can stop my mutinous tongue. I am too exhausted to be mortified, but I have enough clarity left to be grateful the king does not laugh.

“Until morning, Arula,” the king says.

I find my way back to my room and collapse into my new pillowy bed before falling into a deep sleep, free from worry for my father and untroubled by what the future holds.

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