“Once upon a time, in a castle by a great, foamy sea, there lived a kind-hearted king and his beautiful queen.” Mateo knelt on the dirt floor of the castle’s dovecote, surrounded by the children of servants. The doves cooed and swooped, and a few of the older boys ducked their heads, but the youngest were far too rapt to take much notice.
“In sets of two and three, the queen gave birth to eleven girls, each more beautiful than the last, and finally to one handsome, healthy boy.”
“Does that mean you think Princess Luz is the prettiest, sir?” a tall, dark boy interrupted.
“Silencio. I’m telling a story. Are you looking to get me into trouble with my sisters?”
Mateo was accustomed to being accosted by the children during his walk from the castle to the dovecote. He was known for spinning a good yarn, and he’d long made himself available to the young ones of the kingdom in a way he generally refrained from with the adults. Unlike unscrupulous courtiers, the children never asked for favors greater than an apple or another tale.
In some ways, he thought of himself as more like them than not. He was young and didn’t yet suffer from the heavy weight of many courtly responsibilities. Just last month his sister Blanca had gone so far as to pinch his cheeks before the knights. It had been humiliating, if rather expected. A knot of frustration grew in the pit of his stomach. He and Luz had come of age several weeks past, so no matter how young at heart he might be, his family should treat him accordingly.
“More, sir?” a quiet, shy one asked, her eyes bright with hope.
Mateo had planned to spend the morning working with his doves, and he hoped to send the children away sooner rather than later, but how could he refuse such a face?
“Of course, naturally, all the king’s children were vibrant, intelligent and sometimes mischievous creatures. “
The children all laughed and tittered at his description of himself and his sisters, but Mateo spoke the truth. While he thought his own appearance was pleasant enough, what with his dark, curly hair, warm brown eyes, fit form and an eye for fashion—his sisters were in truth remarkably beautiful and much sought after despite their wayward tendencies.
“Laugh all you like, but the king loved them all with every beat of his heart.” Mateo tried in vain to keep his mind from the fact that his father’s heart was old and failing now. “And as the prince and princesses grew, the king and queen agreed theirs was a charmed life.”
Mateo glanced up at the doves that seemed to be listening along. One of them cooed, and Mateo sighed. No good story came without sadness—not even his own.
“The king and queen also knew that like all beautiful things, it was too good to last.” The children’s gazes fell to the ground, for the whole kingdom had suffered the loss. “One dark day their fears came true. Fever ravaged the court. But the kingdom was lucky. Only one was lost. The queen fought bravely, but in the end she left the kind-hearted king and their handsome children behind.”
There were other, far more pleasing and fantastical stories Mateo could tell about lands of fae, and nights of dancing, stories passed on to him and his sisters from their old nurse, but he often found himself telling this sad, all-too-true story instead. In some way it gave him comfort.
“After the queen’s passing, the king became even more attached to his outrageously handsome son,” here Mateo stopped and feigned arrogance, “and his eleven astoundingly gorgeous daughters.”
The young ones laughed again, and Mateo continued. “He hated to let his children out of his sight, chafing even when they ventured into the village or the seaside. He worried terribly any time the princesses and prince left the castle itself, pleading with them to stay at his side. Despite the many suitors requesting their hands, the king always refused, much preferring to keep his children near him than to suffer the loss of their company.”
Mateo smiled a little bitterly at this. The only people who had ever talked to his father about asking for his hand once he came of age had not been to his liking. The first had been an older, widowed king who, having found through the years that his taste ran in such a manner, hoped to start a new life with a young, handsome prince of the same persuasion. The second was a princess that Mateo believed was actually much more interested in his sister Adelita, but everyone knew Adelita’s tastes did not run that way, given how she flirted with the knights.
Mateo’s wants and needs had been little considered by either contender for his hand, so when his father refused on his behalf without even consulting him, Mateo had felt only relief. As a child, he’d dreamed of one day meeting a man who cared for him and for whom he felt admiration and love in return. But time passed, and stifled as he and his sisters were by their father’s affection, Mateo no longer looked to love and marriage as a path to freedom and happiness. Rather he saw any such commitment as a smothering restriction at worst and a recipe for crushing grief at best.
Mateo sought instead a man for whom he might feel a mild affection or an enchanting affinity, and with whom he might slake the natural desire burning in his loins. For now, he was content to indulge in heated fantasies featuring one or two of the most attractive of the knights. The king and his people did not care if he married a man or a woman, so long as the marriage benefitted the kingdom.
His sisters were another matter. They had become so restless that the oldest set of triplets especially argued for their father to let them go to a husband—or a wife, in the case of Herminia. Or even to go beyond the castle’s walls. Mateo could not blame them, for he yearned to spread his own wings. Yet of late, all such complaints had halted utterly. Mateo frowned, thinking of his sisters’ mysterious behavior.
As if summoned by his thoughts, a voice, worn and ragged, cried out, “Mateo!” The children all stared, likely wondering who would dare to address their prince by his first name.
“Lámina,” Mateo said softly, rising from his crouch to better see his old nurse above the heads of the children. She was barely as tall as the oldest of the bunch, her fuzzy hair looking thinner than ever, and her skirts muddy from her dash across the wet yard. She was panting, eyes wide, and held her hand over her heart. He feared she might collapse. “What’s the matter?”
“Sir, your father.” Lámina paused to catch her breath.
Mateo’s heart wrenched. His father had so many spells of late. Had he collapsed? Was he all right?
Lámina alleviated his greatest fears. “He’s quite angry. You should go to him immediately.”
Mateo left the telling of the story, the doves and the children behind, knowing even as he raced toward the castle and into his father’s court just what the crisis would be.
“You will tell me where you’ve been going. You cannot deceive me with sweet looks and lies.” The king’s face was red and his second chin wobbled with righteous anger. His long red robes glowed in the sunlight streaming in from the windows overhead, and his finger shook as he pointed it at each offender one by one.
Mateo skirted around the edges of the room, moving through the dark recesses beneath the columns, pushing past courtiers, who watched and listened avidly. When Mateo finally stepped into the open area before his father’s dais, he saw his eleven sisters standing in a line before the throne, dressed hastily in unkempt clothes, their hair still tied into braids for sleeping. On the floor before them, their slippers rested soles up, revealing holes worn all the way through each pair. Mateo walked past, pausing only to try to catch Luz’s eye for some kind of explanation. Finally, he stood next to his father and put a hand on his unsteady shoulder. Despite his father’s health and advanced years, Mateo suspected pure rage caused the tremors.
“These slippers were given to you new yesterday morning. And this is not the first time, my daughters. Every morning for two weeks you say that you go nowhere, that you do nothing, and yet look! Explain these holes. They do not come from ‘nowhere’ and ‘nothing’.” He smacked his palm against the arm of his throne.
Mateo squeezed his shoulder. “Calm, Papá.”
“Papá, we have slept in our beds every night,” said Adelita, the eldest and their father’s favorite. She appeared a bit ragged around the edges—though somehow still vibrant—as she bowed her dark head and lowered her eyes. “We swear it.”
“Yes Papá, we swear it,” Blanca echoed. She was born fourteen minutes after Adelita, and her usually white cheeks were as flushed as hot-pink roses. Her eyes glowed with the obvious lie.
“Catalina,” the king addressed the third of the eldest triplets, born ten minutes after Blanca. “You have always been a steadying influence on your siblings, a mother to the younger ones and a friend to the older. But now it seems you’re an accomplice. You bring me shame. Redeem yourself and answer your father with the truth.”
“Papá,” Catalina said softly, her hands trembling along with her voice. “Please, Papá.”
“Every night. We, all of us. We go.”
The king leaned forward in anticipation of his most dependable daughter uttering the answer to his very simple question. Mateo waited too, certain that Catalina—who had never been able to tell a lie—would confess their sins. He watched his sisters squirm under their father’s gaze.
“We go to sleep. In our beds. Where we remain until morning, Papá,” Catalina said, lifting her chin to meet his gaze with a defiant eye.
Down the line the king went, questioning them all as Mateo silently watched. The second set of triplets—Delfina, Elisa and Felipa—and the quadruplets—Gracia, Herminia, Imelda, Josefina—and finally his twin sister Luz all insisted they’d spent the night in their beds.
“Every evening for the last two weeks you lock us in and put guards at the doors, Papá,” Luz said, tension crackling in the air. She met Mateo’s eye and added with a bit more shame on her face, “How could we go anywhere?”
“Yes, Father,” Imelda said. She folded her arms over her chest and growled. “We don’t know what happens to our shoes. Perhaps the fairies borrow them to dance.”
A titter went through the court, and Mateo glanced toward Lámina, who had staggered in looking sweaty and on the verge of death. Lámina’s fairy stories had been their nightly fare as they grew up and had no doubt inspired Imelda’s comment.
“Please, Papá dear, may we be excused?” Herminia asked sweetly, obviously hoping to soften her sister’s impertinence.
“What more do you want from us?” Imelda said. The other sisters shot her a warning look. “We’ve told you all we know.”
“What more do I want?” The king’s voice was so loud the doors rattled at the back of the room and every person within flinched, covering their ears with their hands. “The truth.”
The king turned to Mateo then, his rheumy eyes burning with hot rage. “Mateo, you and Luz have always been thick as thieves. Do you have nothing to add to this conversation?”
“No, Father,” Mateo answered, his eyes focused on his twin sister’s face. If only he did. The king had only been the best father, gentle, kind, loving—if overly possessive and too protective by half—and it saddened Mateo to see his sisters deceiving him thus.
The king rose. “So be it. Let it be known!”
Each ear in the room turned to the king, awaiting his proclamation. Mateo saw the hopeful brightness in each eye, and noted which courtiers stepped forth from the dark shadows in anticipation of whatever drama was about to unfold before them.
“No matter how they come about the information, whatsoever man or woman can tell me where my daughters go at night, and what they do to leave their shoes in such a state, will be rewarded with a residence befitting royalty, horses and household servants.”
The crowd murmured, eager voices rising until the king silenced them with a glare and continued.
“And a chance as heir to my throne with the choice of any of my children to take as wife or husband.”
In the stunned hush, Mateo watched his sisters’ faces, seeing panic flash through them as they understood the implication of their father’s decree. Then he realized with a twist of his gut that his own fate had also been offered up to whatever rogue might manage to solve the puzzle.
“The prince too, sire?” a voice called out.
“Indeed,” the king answered.
Heat surged through Mateo—anger mixed with adamant rejection of his predicament. It wasn’t fair!
The king looked about, clearly anticipating that someone would come forward with information now that a general pardon had been given and such an extravagant reward offered. Mateo half expected one of his sisters to finally betray the others, perhaps by bargaining for the rights to her own hand. But their claim to innocence held fast. No sister stepped forward.
Mateo’s eyes fell on Sir Franco, a knight whose strong shoulders and arms had featured prominently in Mateo’s midnight fantasies. He held his breath, hoping Franco might take up the challenge, even though the man’s tastes ran invariably toward women. But alas, Sir Franco turned to move deeper into the shadows. Mateo didn’t know if he was relieved or disappointed.
The king gritted his teeth. “Leave me. All of you. Girls, retire to your room and remain there.” To Mateo’s surprise, none of his sisters moaned or wept about their confinement, but instead scampered off as though they could think of no better place than their chambers to spend the rest of their days.
Alone on the dais after his father exited as well, Mateo was immediately set upon by the courtiers, all with questions about his sisters—did he know where they went, did he have any ideas? Mateo knew that it was only a matter of time before one or more of them took up the gauntlet and tried for his father’s proffered reward.
When the distinct sound of the court messengers trumpeting the king’s proclamation to the village reached him, Mateo finally broke free from the insipid courtiers—none of them Sir Franco, which he decided was not disappointing. He was a grown man now and didn’t need a knight to fight his battles for him. He had to convince his sisters to reveal their secret or find a manner to discover it himself. With steps fueled by determination, Mateo returned to the dovecote to feed his birds and create a plan.
Copyright © Leta Blake & Keira Andrews
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