Blue Moon’s Brew
My father has twelve daughters. I am the eleventh. What this might mean for any other family is unclear, but for us it has taken on one meaning as of late: He cannot possibly organize marriages for us all.
In the land of my birth it is vital that a father arrange all of his daughters’ marriages. For a king the importance is doubly so. Perhaps if our ages were spread out, it would be possible for him to take the time to find us each an appropriate husband, but my sisters and I are all far too close in age for him to do so.
This is due in part to the variance among our mothers. In Iglanthia it is the custom that a father takes responsibility for all of his children, legitimate or not, and takes the burden of their care upon himself.
There is Amara, Cosima and Ponina, and Cecilia and Elliona, all of different mothers and all older than twenty. There are eighteen year old Amber and Marcia, and seventeen year old Viola and Judith, the children of another woman he fancied. Myself and Sophia are fifteen years old, and the daughters of our father’s second wife. Sarlucia is the baby, thirteen years old and the last child of his second wife.
I had taken to wondering about all this. When our father announced he wished us all to have our supper together but with no other guests present, I felt certain the matter would be answered then for better or for worse.
I looked around the table and saw my sisters all felt the same. Next to our father’s seat at the head of the table, Amara was fixing her hair. A few seats away from me, Elliona looked at her cuticles like she always did when she wanted to pretend she didn’t care.
With a flourish of the doors, my father entered the room. For an instant the only sound was the scraping of chairs as we all jumped to our feet.
“Be seated,” he said with a good natured wave of his hand. He moved to his seat at the head of the table, right between Amara and Sarlucia and sat down.
The servants filed in to the room one by one. They placed covered silver plates and dishes upon the table and retreated as quickly as they had come. The meals were untouched while everyone waited for Orlon to begin.
King Orlon clicked against his glass. “Girls, as you may have noticed, all of you are nearing or are of a marriageable age.”
“Marriage?” Sarlucia’s eyes crossed and she blinked as if our father had suggested she do something truly outrageous.
Sophia hushed her. As the sister seated next to Sarlucia, my sister did that rather often. I’d never be able to be forceful enough to order anyone around like that.
“Yes,” King Orlon said, “Marriage.”
My sisters and I shared one room, but there was nothing cramped about the arrangement. The room was just as large as the ballroom downstairs, and the beds were evenly spread out along the circular wall. After nine o’clock, we all went to sleep at various times. This meant that I could slip out of the bedroom without drawing particular notice.
Talbot waited for me in the usual place. The usual place, for us, was a balcony behind a long abandoned guest room that most didn’t know existed, let alone that anyone still strolled through it on a regular basis.
Talbot smiled the second he saw me. We tried to make it out here every few nights but sometimes one or both of us couldn’t make it. The last time we’d managed to both be here was nearly a week ago.
Talbot saw the look on my face and his smile faded. “Hey,” he said, “ what’s wrong?”His gaze looked over me as if searching for injuries. “Did something happen?”
“You could say that.” I exhaled. “My father made an announcement today. He has come up with a solution to the marriage issue.”
Talbot’s face froze as if it had been covered in a layer of invisible frost. “What is it?”
The words clotted in my throat. I knew I had to tell him. He would find out sooner or later. Best he heard it from me.
“It’s a ball,” I said. “A music ball.”
Talbot frowned. “What does that mean?”
I tried to explain. “One at a time, each of us will come into the ballroom. All potential suitors-“
“What are the requirements for the suitors?” Talbot interrupted.
“They have to be male and unmarried,” I said.
“Is that it?” He sounded surprised.
“There’s an age limit.” I tugged at the ends of my hair. “For Amber and Marcia, and everyone older, the suitors have to be at least eighteen, and no older than thirty five. For Viola and Judith and Sophia and I, the suitors have to be at least fifteen, and no older than twenty. And for Sarlucia, the boys have to be at least twelve but younger than fifteen.”
Talbot nodded. “You were saying before…?”
“All potential suitors will play a song. We will step forward for the suitor we like the song of best.”
Talbot scratched his head. “That doesn’t sound so bad.”
I sighed. “We’ll be blindfolded. I won’t be able to see you.”
“I’ll think of something,” he promised.
I tucked my hair behind my ear and cast him a dubious look. Talbot had no skill with instruments, and no money to acquire one, much less receive lessons in its use. He was determined, for sure, but determination didn’t grant musical ability.
“I will not know it is you,” he warned. “I shall have to choose the song most beautiful to my ears, as my father intends.”
“I promise you,” he solemnly took one of my hands in his, “that I shall make you a song to make the angels weep. And when I play it at the ball, all of Iglanthia must accept our love.”
When he spoke so poetically I had to smile, though my heart remained fretful. “I trust you, my love, to do what you say. But now I fear it is time for me to depart. My sisters will notice if I am gone for much longer.”
He kissed my hand, and I left him behind. His promises were impossible, but I hoped he was right.
The night before the ball, my fear got the better of me. There was one person I knew that could alter my fate. My father’s fairy godmother, Lucille, could perform magic that could help my case.
She resided in the highest tower of the palace. While midnight struck in the clocks far below I climbed up the stone stairs. When I reached the top my hair had become disheveled. I knocked on the door and saw dirt gloves lacing my knuckles.
Lucille opened the door after the third time I’d knocked. She said, “Oh dear, what could you want?”
She grudgingly allowed me to explain my plight. By the time I had finished, irritation freckled her features.
“You are just like your father,” she grumbled under her breath. “Always coming to me to solve your romantic problems.”
“I would not have come to you were I not desperate,” I defended.
“Oh, I know.” She disappeared into her rooms but continued calling to me. “That’s why I didn’t slam the door in your face the second I saw who it was.” She reappeared with a bottle. She tossed it into my hands.
“What is this?” I held it up to my eye level. It was small and fit neatly into my hand. The bottle itself was translucent, but inside a blue liquid shimmered.
“Blue moon’s brew,” Lucille answered. “How royals like you have been getting around the music ball for generations. One sip and the only music you will hear is that from the one your heart is closest to.”
I hesitated. “And that’ll be Talbot?”
“Perhaps.” Lucille shrugged. “Perhaps not. The risk is for you to decide. Now go and leave me to sleep in peace before some other royal needs a frivolous favor!”
I had barely stepped out of the doorframe when Lucille slammed it closed. That was Lucille. Always so concerned about others’ welfare.
I made my way down the tower in silence. No one was up at this hour, and even if they were, they wouldn’t be Lucille’s tower.
None of my sisters were awake to see me crawl into bed. No doubt they were just as nervous as I, but I’d waited until they’d all fallen asleep to set out in the first place
The morning passed in a blur. I was put into a green dress, identical in all but color to my twin’s. Maids did and undid and redid my hair more times than I cared to count. No matter what they did, the nobles would never find me as beautiful as Amara or Cosima or even Sophia, but the only one I cared about would have told me I was beautiful even if I was covered in dirt and wearing dish rags.
The maids chattered as they worked, but my mind remained fixed on one topic. My bottle of blue moon brew had not left my hand’s grasp since I had woken up.
Should I or shouldn’t I? He’d asked me to trust him, but his task was impossible. But what if the bottle didn’t lead me to Talbot? I loved him with all my heart, but we weren’t particularly similar. We were from different worlds.
I remained indecisive even as my sisters and I waited outside the ballroom. One by one they filtered out until Sophia left, and it was just me and Sarlucia remaining in the room.
My breath lodged in my throat. I stared desperately at the swirling liquid. The roar of applause from the ballroom flooded over me. I should be making a choice right now, but I. Couldn’t. Think.
The curtain opened so slightly and a servant gestured for me to come forth. I uncapped the bottle. Before I could lose my nerve, I spilled it all into my open mouth.
I took a step and froze. Talbot’s face appeared to me in my mind, his voice asking me to trust him.
I opened my mouth and spewed out the liquid. It sprayed onto the marble floor. I hadn’t swallowed any of it, had I?
A maid with a cloth rushed up at me and dabbed at my face and dress. The steward anxiously motioned for me to follow him.
My fingers opened and the bottle hit the floor. I crushed it beneath my heel so there would be no evidence that I had almost been tempted to betray my trust in Talbot. I lifted my chin, forced out a smile, and strolled out after the steward.
The steward wrapped a blindfold around my eyes. He took my hand and led me out to the top of the ballroom stairs.
“Princess Ganelia,” the herald boomed, “of Iglanthia!”
My father’s voice boomed out from down the stairs. “Let the music, begin!”
The first song was pretty, in a shallow sort of way. It wasn’t awful, but it didn’t make the choice not to step forward very difficult. The second song was even worse than the first, played on my least favorite of all the instruments.
After the third song, a fear made its way like a worm in an apple into my brain. What if this song was the last song? What if I’d already rejected all of the suitors, and this was the last one? What if I had already heard Talbot’s song, and not selected him?
The musician finished his song. I held my breath and prayed that another song would begin. When it did, relief flooded my muscles, but other emotions came as well.
The song was being played on an instrument unfamiliar to one I’d ever heard. Music had been a central part of my education, and my father had gone to good lengths to ensure all of his children were exposed to a variety of music. But the closest I’d ever heard to the sounds this instrument made was a harp, or a violin, but that wasn’t quite right.
This sound was more relaxed than any other instrument. It brought images up in my mind of meadows and fields, of picnics my family had gone on when I was a child, of the few occasions Talbot and I had managed to sneak away together outside of the palace.
This was the song, I thought. A nasal voice in the back of my head warned that the notes were too particularly crafted, too technically advanced, to be played by Talbot’s hands, but that voice was silenced by the music. If I didn’t step up for this song, I knew, I would be a liar and a traitor to the principle of the music ball.
I stepped forward, my heels clicking across the marble. A hush grew over the crowd, that made second thoughts spring into my head.
The song faded to an end. I heard steward scurry to my side. His hands, clammy with the pressure of running such an event, removed the blindfold from around my head. I blinked a few times, my eyes adjusting to the bright lights of the ballroom.
My gaze landed on my father. The sight of him reminded me of what was next to come in the ceremony. I lifted up the hem of my skirt and descended the grand staircase. Agonizingly, the man I was now to marry wasn’t in my line of sight.
I came to a halt at the bottom of the stairs. My father smiled at me, but the expression failed to ease the tension out of my tightly wound muscles. If I had to undergo any more stress in this moment, I thought, I might snap.
A shadow moved behind my father. The instrument was the first part I saw, an oddly shaped thing with strings like a violin, but larger. A hand held this instrument, and the body that hand belonged to stepped out.
It was Talbot.
A relieved grin broke out over my face. It took every ounce of self-control I had built up over years as a princess not to throw myself into his arms at once.
“Princess Ganelia has chosen!” The herald announced to the ball. “She has chosen Talbot Wysteria of….” The herald trailed off. He must have realized that there was no ‘of’ to be added to Talbot’s name. He was no lord, and possessed no lands.
The ball burst into slow but growing applause. After all, I would never be queen. This commoner was no threat to them, even if he married me.
Talbot smiled at me, and the sight was more dazzlingly than all of the nobles in their bejeweled attire. He extended his hand and I took it in mine. A servant took away his instrument so that we could wave out the nobles side by side. He squeezed my hand once, and I squeezed his back, mentally vowing to never again be tempted by distrust.