Charming

Woodcut Our true selves are often not known to us or anyone close to us. Sometimes it takes a stranger to show us what is in our heart, and where our destiny will take us.

The King and Queen had no other children, so when I became of age it was decided that I must join the royal court.

“Charles, come with me,” said the King one morning as I arrived in the hall for breakfast. He arose from his throne and ushered me to the balcony behind the thick velvet curtains. The morning was bright and warm, a beautiful spring day lay ahead. Despite the fair weather, a storm hung over my father’s countenance.

“What is it, Father? Is something wrong?”

“You are becoming a man, and it’s time for you to increase your studies … if you are to be king someday.”

He told me this as if it was a great honor, but I saw it as a punishment. I had no interest in becoming a king. I knew well it would mean an end to my freedom, as the duties of my office as prince would consume every last hour of my day.

“Very well, father. If this is your wish.”

“It is,” he told me.

He returned inside, leaving me on the balcony alone. I looked out past the castle gates, beyond the hills, to the green forests and distant mountains. Then I closed my eyes, and let the morning sun warm my upturned face. I drank in my last taste of freedom. I would not see it again anytime soon.

From the time I awoke each morning – always too early – until the time I went to sleep, every hour of my day was accounted for. Dressed and presented to the Queen before morning prayers. Breakfast. Court. Riding lessons. Archery lessons. Lunch. Court. Language lessons. Close-quarter combat lessons. Vespers. Dinner. Court, sometimes with a bit of entertainment. Once a week or so, the King would take me hunting with his men. But hardly an hour to myself.

When I became old enough to marry, I traveled with the King and Queen to a small nearby kingdom. The land lay beyond the misty mountains at the heart of a rich and plentiful valley. The people there wanted for nothing, and we had heard they lived under the rule of a good and noble king.

Our families decided the king’s daughter and I would marry to unite our kingdoms. King Mithridates held a feast in our honor, offering us the finest wines and the freshest fruits his kingdom produced. As the groom-to-be, I was seated between our two houses with the princess, Aspasia, by my side. She was most passing fair, and when she spoke her voice reminded me of morning doves. Her grace was unparalleled, and she brought laughter and joy to the table with her stories and her songs. All would have been perfect if not for a beautiful maiden named Dayanira.

It was late at night, and I had spent the majority of the day in the company of our hosts. Unable to sleep, I dressed and left my chamber hoping that a walk through the castle would rid me of my nerves and allow me to rest. No sooner had I entered the main hall than I came across a young girl I had not seen before.

She was scrubbing the floors when I walked in. The sound of my boots on the stone stairs must have heralded my approach, for she was looking in my direction as I entered.

“My apologies, sire,” she said. And though on her hands and knees already, she managed to make herself more humble by prostrating herself on the wet floor.

“It is I who should apologize,” I said. “I seem to have interrupted your work. I will find another way.”

“Another way where, sire?” she asked. “The great hall is the quickest direction to any point in the castle. Tell me where you wish to go and I will show you the way.”

“Ah, well, that’s the problem. I must confess, I don’t know where I’m going.”

“Sorry?”

“Too much wine, I’m afraid. I need to clear my head. I thought a walk in the night air might do me some good.”

“You wish to go to the garden, sire?” She seemed eager to help, or at the very least to be rid of me so she could return to her work.

“The garden? Yes, that would be fine.”

“If you will permit me, I will take you there.” In a flash she was on her feet and by my side.

“Are you sure? You won’t get in trouble for leaving your chores?”

“Everyone else is asleep,” she said. “As long as the hall is cleaned by dawn, no one will know.”

She pointed toward the north passage, with a graceful bow that reminded me of how Princess Aspasia had welcomed me to the hall. Perhaps this young girl had seen her and mimicked the gesture.

I followed her through the passageway, down a long corridor that branched off in several directions.

“What is your name?” I asked.

“My people call me Dayanira. Here in the castle, they simply call me ‘Girl.'”

“These are not your people you serve?”

“No, sire. My people are the Aeridwynn, an island people from the sea. Our island was discovered by King Mithridates seven summers ago. Since then, we have been in service to him in this castle and in his fields.”

She paused a moment in her step, as if rethinking her words. When she spoke again, her voice trembled a bit. “King Mithridates is a great conqueror. As you can see from the flags in the hall, he has liberated many of the islands from the burden of self-rule. And he freely shares their treasures with his people.”

Her words sounded rehearsed, as if she had spoken them many times to many guests. She quickened her pace and led me onward through a series of twists and turns. We emerged, in the end, at a small entryway with an oaken door. The young girl pushed hard on the door, which swung open to reveal a beautiful garden.

“The garden, sire. Do you think you can find your way back? Or should I wait here for you?”

I stood beside her in the doorway, our bodies far too close together for polite company – especially considering my station as a prince. I should have moved on or turned aside, but the pale moonlight cast a shimmer on the young girl’s upturned face. Her eyes sparkled, and her dark hair reflected a river of stars. I stood transfixed, unable to stop myself from gazing at her soft skin.

“You are the most beautiful thing in this garden, Dayanira.”

She looked away, as if afraid to face me a moment longer. “Sire, you are kind to say such words to me.”

Without a word, I reached my hand beneath her chin and tilted her head up. Her eyes filled with tears, and I knew she had been touched by my kindness.

An anger rose up inside me, as I wondered what kind of king would enslave a people of another land to work in his fields and castle. I wanted nothing more to do with King Mithridates or his daughter. I wanted nothing to do with my own title as prince. I wanted only to stand beside Dayanira forever and protect her from the harsh destiny fate had bestowed upon her.

I took her hand in mine and led her into the garden, where we were free to speak our minds and our hearts.

#

Needless to say, my father and mother were unhappy with my news.

“Outrageous!” said the King. “We have a treaty with Mithridates. Our lands are to be joined together through your marriage to Aspasia.”

“And what kind of union would that be, Father? One built on lies and tyranny!”

“What are you talking about, Charles?” asked the Queen. She patted the seat beside her, asking me to sit. I was too filled with anger to hold still, and continued to pace like a wild animal in a cage.

“Mother, I implore you to find out more about this kingdom. The wealth and prosperity you see comes at a price. Mithridates is a brutal man, conquering small island nations in the Golden Sea. He steals their wealth, takes their food for his own, and enslaves the islanders to work in his fields.”

“Where did you hear such nonsense?” asked the King.

“From Dayanira, a girl here in the castle. She is one of the islanders. And she told me everything.”

“When was this?” asked the Queen.

“Last night,” I said. “I couldn’t sleep, so I went for a walk. I met a cleaning girl, and she showed me the way to the garden.”

“And now you’re risking the future of our kingdom because of a late-night romp with a scullery maid?”

“She’s not a scullery maid! She’s a young girl who has been taken from her family and forced to work here in this strange land. They don’t even call her by her given name. They simply call her ‘Girl.'”

“And you believe everything she said? Why?”

“Because she speaks the truth! I know it with my heart. I feel it in my soul. Look around the great hall. Look at the armor, the weapons, and the flags captured in battle. Taste the fruits on the table that are clearly not from this land. Look at the faces of the servants who wait on you here. Ask yourself if they are honored to serve – as they would be back home – or if they are being forced to do so against their will.”

“John,” said the Queen, placing her hand on my father’s arm. “Could he be right? Maybe you should discuss this with Mithridates.”

The meeting with Mithridates did not end well. The man hid nothing. He freely admitted he had conquered several of the islands of the Golden Sea. He bragged of his tactical triumphs against the natives and the riches he had acquired for his land. He saw nothing dishonorable in his actions, and considered the islanders his rightful subjects to be treated as he saw fit.

My father broke the treaty. Mithridates did not take it well and suggested we might be happier in our own kingdom.

I looked for Dayanira – but she was nowhere to be found. I cautiously asked about her among some of the cleaning girls, but they all turned away from me and said not a word. I feared for her safety, and would not leave until I was sure she was in no danger.

To my surprise, it was Aspasia who led me to her. The princess, finding me alone in the garden, led me to a private chamber where Dayanira waited.

The girl leaped to her feet as I entered. Turning to Aspasia, she said, “You found him!”

“It wasn’t difficult,” said the princess. “He was in the garden, as you supposed.”

“I don’t understand,” I said. “Why are you helping Dayanira? I would think your father would be furious with her.”

“He is,” said Aspasia. “That is why I have arranged to return her to her people. Despite what you may think, I am nothing like my father.”

“I didn’t say you were,” I said.

“And yet, you didn’t want to marry me once you found out about our kingdom.”

“That didn’t have anything to do with you.” Pointing to Dayanira, I said, “It was her.”

The young girl blushed at my words, and cast her eyes down. From behind her, she produced a small bag.

“What’s this?” I asked.

“A remembrance,” Dayanira said. “A small token of thanks to you for all you have done. Open it after you leave.”

As she dropped the bag in my hand, she rose up on her toes and kissed me on the cheek. She giggled, as Aspasia led me – dumbstruck – out of the room.

“Do you love her?” asked the princess.

I didn’t know how to answer that. Could I love someone I had just met? Were the tales of love at first sight really true? I wanted to believe that my feelings for Dayanira were not a reaction to her rare beauty or my desire to protect her. I felt something for her, but was it love?

“I’m not sure,” I said. “But she made me feel something I haven’t felt in years.”

“What’s that?” asked Aspasia.

“Free.”

#

Within a day, we left Mithridates’s kingdom and began the long journey home. In our carriage, once we had passed beyond the castle walls, the Queen broke the uncomfortable silence.

“You should marry someone from our kingdom,” said the Queen.

“Yes, Mother.”

“We’ll have a ball in your honor and invite all the eligible young ladies in the land,” said the King.

“Yes, Father.”

“I believe Lady Tremaine has two daughters who should be of age now.”

“Yes, Mother.”

I opened the small bag Dayanira had given me. Inside the pouch was a painted stone, wonderfully rendered flowers in a pattern that reminded me of the garden where we had sat and talked in the moonlight.

“What’s that?” asked the Queen.

“A gift,” I said, holding it up. “From Dayanira.”

“What’s that part there? It looks like a word, but I’m not familiar with it.”

“It’s the language of the island people,” I said. “I was told that in their culture, everyone has two names – one from the land and one from the sea. The land name is the name they call one another. The sea name is the secret name they share with the fish. This must be my secret name.”

I smiled for a moment, as I remembered Dayanira giving me my name in the moonlit garden as we walked beside a pool. She said my secret name had revealed itself to her in my eyes.

A moment passed, then the King said, “Well, Charles, are you going to tell us what it is?”

“My name is Charming.”

Kevin Wohler is a copywriter and novelist living in Lawrence, Kansas. During the day, he works at a digital marketing agency in the Kansas City area. When time remains, he likes to tell stories of the weird and bizarre. And sometimes, he writes them down for others to read.

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