Queen Ingonida having been in the arms of her ancestors for more than a year, parliament decided that the King’s Majesty needed a new wife. King Armand himself was less than keen, but, as his ministers held the purse strings, he found it politic to acquiesce.
Accordingly, proclamations were sent to all the surrounding kingdoms, which process resulted in a dozen offers of eligible brides. As was the custom, each candidate was represented by a portrait painted by her country’s foremost artist, and a letter written in the hand of the princess herself.
Once the portraits and letters had been gathered together, they were delivered to an apartment in the north tower of the palace and the King was summoned.
The Prime Minister spoke: “Your Majesty. There are twelve candidates for your hand. The choice is yours.”
The king stared at him.
“When we leave this room, you will read the letters and study the pictures. From that information you will make your decision. However, you will not leave this place until your decision is made.”
With that the members of the Royal Council turned on their heels and progressed with studied dignity out of the suite of rooms. The king picked up a small stool and hurled it at their departing backs, which at least served to dissipate their dignity. Then the door closed behind them.
The king opened the door by which his ministers had exited, to find himself faced by a couple of men at arms who shuffled their feet and looked a bit embarrassed.
“You are all right, lads” His Majesty said genially. “I’m not going to be awkward. I was just curious. And I could do with a snack. Bread, cheese and beer.”
“Ain’t there wine and stuff in there?”
“There is, but there’s no bread or cheese or beer.”
The brighter of the two guards grinned a gap-toothed grin.
“I’m on it.” And he scooted to the end of the corridor from whence he could be heard bawling for a servant in truly stentorian tones.
His Majesty grinned appreciatively and went to sit in front of the fire in the room with the twelve portraits. It wasn’t long before his snack arrived and as he munched he ruminated on the task before him.
“What do I do now?” he mused aloud.
“Well you could try talking to us.”
His head snapped around as if it was on a spring.
“Talk to who?”
“As if you didn’t know.”
The voice was female and sarcastic.
“Maybe he really don’t know…” another less angry woman.
“Ingonida” the first voice snarled.
King Armand was nothing if not quick on the uptake.
“Is that portraits talking?”
“Don’t play the innocent with us. You must have chosen your first wife in this room.”
He laughed sardonically. “You think I chose Ingonida?”
“Why not? She was beautiful and wealthy.”
“And cold and miserable” he said bitterly. “I’d have traded twenty Ingonidas for a plain face and a merry heart.”
“So why did you pick her portrait then?” The first voice was less angry now.
“I keep telling you I didn’t pick anything. I got up on the morning of my fourteenth birthday to be shoved in a white satin doublet and frogmarched to the cathedral. I was married before I even had my breakfast.”
“Oh. But why didn’t you get the Choice?”
“Think about it woman” it was the man’s turn to snarl. “The fourth son? The third spare heir? I was lucky to get hand-me-downs and my father could never bother to remember my name.”
A third female voice chimed in. “And that will teach you to jump to conclusions Araminta.” Then the tone of that voice changed from mild censure to genuine curiosity. “Did nobody explain the Choice to you my liege?”
“Nobody explained anything. I wasn’t supposed to be king. You can add it to the list of things I have had to make up as I went along.”
The first voice made a sound of disgust deep in her throat.
“Bloody Ingonida could have told you…”
“Bloody Ingonida never told me nothing in twenty years of marriage. So maybe one of you would be kind enough to explain.”
First voice actually sounded conciliatory.
“Very well. This is how it works. The portraits and the letters are brought to this apartment, which is only ever used for this purpose, and the ancient magic that resides within the walls links us to our portraits so that we can both see you and speak to you.”
“I don’t know that I like the sound of that. It seems to me as if you are being manipulated without your consent.”
“Oh we are. And as far as I know you are the first of your line to recognise that. Makes you a much more interesting human being. But we digress. It would be good if you cut the numbers down a bit, twelve egos over here is a bit crowded.”
“Okay. I’m thirty-four and I’ve been the young half of a lopsided marriage. I didn’t like it. So. Anybody under twenty?”
“Six of us are.”
“Who? And how do I go about cutting down the numbers?”
“If you decide a princess isn’t for you, just take her picture down from the wall. Those who are under twenty will show up red.”
He stood up and looked towards the portraits, six of which were now tinged with blush red. The first five left the wall gracefully and with almost a feeling of gratitude, but the last one adhered to his fingers.
“What lady?” he asked gently.
“I would stay longer if I may. I am close to my twentieth birthday and in all that time I have never heard a male gentleman of a royal household even consider the feelings of a woman.”
He thought for a moment then bowed his head.
“Very well lady. You shall have your wish. It ill behoves me to ignore your wishes if I am not to be as bad as all the other men you have known.”
“And then there were seven” the first voice purred.
“Behave Araminta” the third voice was gently chiding.
Armand laughed. “My next question is this. How many of you have a man you love, who you might even have been allowed to marry if this stupid contest for my hand hadn’t cropped up?”
Three pictures blushed red and he lifted them gently down from the wall.
“And now there are four. Would you mind introducing yourselves?”
He moved to stand in front of the first remaining portrait.
“My name is Araminta. I am twenty-five years old. On the shelf even.” She laughed a bit nervously. “I’m not usually this aggressive, and this is how I really look.”
The picture changed subtly, the girl was still pretty but her face was rounder and her figure less slender.
One by one the girls introduced themselves and the pictures changed to reflect the true appearance of the princesses. The last girl was the young one who had pleaded to keep her place, and her picture was the one that changed the most dramatically. The elf-slim beauty was replaced by a plain faced girl with broad hips and a quantity of mouse-brown curls.
“The picture” she explained softly “is my older sister, who is already promised to the crown prince of a neighbouring country. My father sought to cheat you. But I do have a merry heart.”
Armand was impressed by how she had taken on board what he said, but he felt it was too soon to single out one of the remaining quartet.
He carried on talking to the four, but time and again he found his eyes returning to the picture of the plain, dumpy girl with the engaging giggle.
In the end the other three grew quieter and quieter until the first voice spoke without a trace of its former abrasiveness.
“I have a feeling that three of us are wasting our time. Maybe you really do want a plain face and a merry heart. And I can vouch for the fact that Lyonette does have that merry heart, even living in a household where she is less regarded than the kitchen maid.”
Armand bowed his head, then removed three pictures from the wall leaving only the image of Lyonette de Bouchard.
“My lady, will you do me the honour?’
© jane Jago 2017