“Nicholas”

By Anna Barrick

 

     The wind had picked up, blowing my freshly-cut bangs into my hazel eyes. I didn’t care, though, because that meant I couldn’t see the small, wooden casket being lowered into the freshly-dug soil beneath the earth. My memory of him would forever be trapped in a black box, six feet down where the sun could never reach him. I stood there, in my black suit attire, and I cried. I cried for my parents because they would never again be able to hold their little boy. I cried for the villagers because they would never again be able to laugh as he and I ran around, playing tricks on each other along the well-lit streets of Bellvia. I cried for Nicholas because he would never again take in another breath of the freshly cut grass in the gardens or of the baked bread the village baker used to give us or of the sweet honeysuckles that covered the bushes by the edge of the palace walls. I didn’t cry for myself, however, because there were no tears left to shed for someone like me.

     Suddenly, I felt another gust of wind blow in, causing the scenery colors to morph together. The muted blues, blacks, and grays transformed into brilliant shades of reds, oranges, and yellows. The sky became brighter and less cloudy. The wind, however, was still present.

     Now I was running barefoot through a golden wheat field as the wind blew my long, brown locks back and my faded cotton-blue dress trailed behind me. The sun gently sank below the sea of mountains as the burning sky witnessed this fleeting moment before leaving the rich darkness to tear these two friends apart. It was getting harder to see and I felt my chest burning. The wind was now icy cold, with every little breeze stinging my red cheeks, but I had to keep running. As for why I was running, I do not remember. Was I running away from something, or towards it?

     I awoke in a cold sweat, my palms were clammy and I could feel my damp, curly hair pressed against my forehead. I ran my fingers through the knots in an attempt to tame my lion-like mane, but it was in vain as my fingers got caught midway through. My maids, the only people besides my parents allowed to see me in my private bedroom, would be coming in soon to bring me my breakfast and I had to make sure that I looked more like the future ruler of Bellvia. Throwing back the silky white covers, I climbed out of my king-sized bed and slipped on an ornate red kimono (a gift from some Japanese emperor’s son) and my well-worn pink slippers, which my father has told me to throw away on multiple occasions, as they were considered “too feminine” for me.

     I walked across the room and pulled back the ten-foot tall velvet curtains to reveal a sight many would envy. The first rays of sun shone over an impressive array of rich, colorful cottages that dotted the green landscape below. To the left of the town was a beautifully clear ocean that caught the warm reflections of light on the crest of each wave. My eyes wandered back down to my balcony outside at the sight of seagulls nesting on a stone statue of Persephone, goddess of the Underworld. I remembered reading about her once. She was kidnapped by Hades, god of the Underworld, while playing in one of her mother Demeter’s wheat fields and pulled into his dark world beneath the earth’s crust. She had to leave behind her friends and her mother every fall and winter as she lived half of her life underground. Persephone never had a choice in the matter. Six pomegranate seeds had sealed her fate.

     Ring.

     Just as I was considering turning the brass balcony doorknob, a familiar ringing sound alerted me to my maids’ arrival.  

     In order to quickly scrutinize my appearance, I turned to the floor-length mirror beside the balcony door. Its ebony frame was inlaid with sparkling diamonds, like miniature trapped stars. I tried to flatten my hair, but my efforts were in vain. I still looked like a ten year-old stable boy. I rested my head against the mirror’s cool surface for a moment. It was at times like these where I felt closest to my twin brother. Some days though, I couldn’t tell who was looking back at me in that cold, reflective mirror.

     Ring.

     A second sound of the bell brought me back to the present.

     “Co-,” I said coughing, “Come in.” The large, double-doors gently swung open as a small army of gray uniformed maids marched in, two-by-two. In their hands they carried silver trays of strawberries covered in white sugar, an array of finger sandwiches, plates of freshly-baked croissants, cups of smooth vanilla yogurt, and a small plate of pomegranate seeds among other various sorts of exotic fruits that lined the sides of every shiny tray. The aroma of freshly brewed coffee, imported from East Africa, effectively dissipated any lingering grogginess I might’ve had as I walked over and sat on my bed.

     “Here you are, your highness,” said Paola, the head of my personal maids, as she set up a small circular table, the exact color of the silver trays, in front of me. One at a time, each maid set down a small sample of what they were carrying on their respective trays. By the end of this ordeal, the poor table looked as if it were about to collapse under the weight of twenty-something china plates covered in specially-prepared breakfast foods. I glanced up at Paola with entreating eyes to which she immediately nodded.

     “Ladies,” she said, “let us leave her highness to breakfast in peace. Please follow me back to the kitchens for the Coronation dinner preparations.” Paola gave me a small, reassuring smile as she turned back and led the other maids out of my bedroom before closing the double doors. I looked down at the miniature feast before me. It smelled heavenly but my nerves got the better of me, forcing me to pick up the cup of coffee and take small sips. I gingerly grabbed a few pomegranate seeds and crushed them with my teeth. Bursts of bittersweet juice exploded in my mouth and mixed with the lingering coffee flavor. The result was less than appealing. Now even the smell of coffee was beginning to overwhelm my senses.

     I looked to my right at the balcony, its view too picturesque to ignore. On rainy days when I was younger, I used to stay inside and watch the raindrops form puddles by Persephone’s marble feet. The houses would be dimly lit as the rain blurred the small dots of light and the ocean’s waves rocked the boats to sleep. The memory of this comforted me, so I made my way across the cold marble floor and gingerly laid my hand upon the cold knob. Although it was never locked, I had not once opened it since my brother’s death. Perhaps it was fear that kept me from opening the door and stepping outside. Not once had I stepped into the light as myself, Princess Olivia of Bellvia, since that national tragedy twelve years ago.

     Today would be different. By the time I had realized it, my right hand had opened up the forbidden door and my feet had led me to the edge of the balcony outside and next to the marble Persephone statue covered in pigeon droppings. I smiled to myself. Unlike Persephone, I wasn’t made of stone, no matter how many times I might’ve thought otherwise. Unlike Persephone, I was a real person, with a beating heart and a free-thinking mind who could fight back. Unlike Persephone, I could still feel the pain my brother had unknowingly left me all those years ago.

 

     Three hours later, I found myself getting dressed in England’s finest imported robes. The maroon velvet coat, the last addition to my ensemble, was decorated in gold filigree accents on the edges of each billowing sleeve and besides every ornate little button. Only my maids and the immediate royal family knew what lay beneath all of the clothes I donned for the royal coronation ceremony today.

     Ring.

     The sound alerted to the arrival of my father. As soon as he had entered, he waved away the maids to give us some privacy. My father now stood a few feet away as he stared at me, yet his eyes were cold and the silence between us was deafening. I wanted to scream at the top of my lungs. I wanted him to do something, but all he did was make the few feet between us feel like an empty ocean.

     To end the unbearable silence, I cleared my throat, which finally prompted my father to speak.

     “Nicholas,” he declared, “today is a very important day, as you well know.” I shuffled my feet. I could already tell it would be a long, arduous speech. “It is a day that you will forever remember and one that history shall never forget. As the 231st King of Bellvia, you will need to be able-bodied and mentally sound to handle ruling a kingdom, which is not an easy feat.” As soon as he had said this, my eyes drifted over to the balcony window. From the balcony, I could see Persephone greeting the harboring ships with her outstretched palm as the sun lit up their canvas sails. I used to wonder why Persephone always stood there, like she was ready to greet anyone with a dignified-yet-friendly look upon her face. The warm, sculpted facial features almost made her seem real.

     My father continued to drone on, “Of course, as you know, it is tradition that on the eldest prince’s 18th birthday, the crown will be peacefully passed down from father to son in a public ceremony held right outside the palace doors for the people of Bellvia to witness. I recognize the fact that you’ve endured a lot, but remember, what past kings have suffered, you will experience twice those hardships.” My ears suddenly perked up to this. Had my father finally recognized how hard the last twelve years of my life had been? Was it possible that he was tearing up?

     However, he continued to say, “Not only will you soon hold an entire kingdom in your hands, you will also hold this family’s reputation and royal title in those very same hands. I expect you to remain as collected as a king and as secretive as a priest who hears confession. Remember, put up a friendly front but never, under any circumstances, reveal… well, reveal our family’s secret.” My father, once again, had revealed his true colors just as a pirate ship would change its flag back to black as soon as a British convoy approached. It was clear what he was after and, as always, his ambition would get him what he desired. In this case, it was our familial control over the kingdom.

 

     After his lecture-laden speech, he hesitantly approached me.

     Click, clack, click, clack...

 

     His footsteps echoed until he had stopped a mere eight inches away from me. I held my breath before he lightly patted my left shoulder. I thought that would be the limit of our physical contact but, out of nowhere, he leaned in and wrapped his arms around me. The warmth from his body and his steady heartbeat brought tears to my eyes. For the first time since the accident, he let go and looked me in the eyes, the same hazel eyes I had shared with my brother. Maybe it was the light, but I could’ve sworn his brown eyes lightened as a sheen of tears produced a film over his eyes.

 

     “I know you’ll do what’s right,” he said before giving me one last pat on the shoulder and slipping past the doors in one smooth motion.

     As soon as he left, I allowed myself to breathe again. Suddenly, I felt my eyes water and my face burn up. I dashed to the mirror again and found my face had become blotchy and my brows furrowed in an attempt to banish the tears that had begun leaving warm, salty trails across my cheeks. I didn’t give it a second thought when I used the expensively tailored coat sleeves to wipe away any trace of physical sadness or remorse that I felt at the moment. I wasn’t sure what I was feeling at the moment, but I knew I had to hide these tears from everyone else. As long as I appeared strong and confident like a proper ruler, all would be well. I took one last look at myself and allowed my eyes to wander over my red, patchy face. This face didn’t belong to me, though. It was the face of Prince Nicholas VI, King of Bellvia as of tonight.

     A light knock on the door made me jump before a large, toothy grin spread across my face. Only one person would knock on my door and it was a visit that I really needed at the moment. I tried remaining composed as I walked towards the doors before I gave up and sprinted across the room in my newly-shined buckled shoes. By the time I had opened up one of the heavy mahogany doors, I was breathless but my burning lungs were a minor inconvenience as I embraced the beautiful, middle-aged woman before me. Her peacock blue dress enveloped me like a large quilted blanket as we hugged. Her warmth was the only thing that was keeping me tethered to reality at the moment and preventing me from bursting into tears again. Her soft hands began stroking my short hair and the pressure of her lips against my forehead was all it took for me to break down again. My mother only held me tighter and allowed my tears to find a home on her covered shoulders. For the first time in twelve years, I felt like myself. At least in front of her, I was not expected to play the part of somebody else.

 

     Now I am Princess Olivia. Nicholas suggests we go outside to play our version of “Rescue the Damsel.” As usual, I will play the role of the gallant knight as my brother plays the distressed prince, trapped somewhere by a witch’s spell. We wander through the palace gardens’ maze of freshly pruned hedges to discover a secret alcove of trees, shaded by a large willow on the edge of a wide, dark river. My twin looks at me with a mischievous smile and dashes across the long, swaying grass until he reaches the trunk of that giant willow tree. I can see his small silhouette as he begins to climb up the old, gnarled branches. The hanging leaves dances to and fro, calling me to join in on its secret dance. I cautiously step forward, little by little, until I am looking up from the base of the scary tree, where I can clearly see Nicholas, who is now triumphantly laughing on one of the highest, slimmest branches. The wind has picked up at this point, blowing my long hair about my face and making it harder to watch my brother.

     Splash.

     Hours later, after a fruitless effort to find my brother Nicholas’s body, my father calls off the search. It would be the first and last time I would ever see his tear-streaked face as he sobbed onto the shoulders of my grief-stricken mother. My father would never again call me by my name. My mother would never again smile the way she used to. Nicholas would never again play with me. I would never again be Olivia.

 

     The sudden flood of this memory left me paralyzed in my mother’s arms. My tears had stopped and, for a moment, so did my heart. My mother must have sensed something was wrong, as she squeezed me one last time before holding me an arm’s length away. Her pale blue eyes searched my face before realization hit. A tear escaped her left eye before she pulled out a handkerchief and wiped it away.

     “Olivia,” she whispered, “No matter what happens, no matter what happened, I love you. You are my miracle child. This burden you’ve had to bear for so long was- is something I would never have asked anybody to undertake. Your father, the king, he,” she hesitated, “he loves you. I know that for a fact. It is only his pride and his ambition that keeps this charade going. That, and the possibility of a rebellion is what’s keeping your true nature hidden. He wouldn’t have done any of this if he didn’t think you could handle it.” Her arms pulled me in for another hug. I felt something wet fall onto my ear as her cheek pressed against the top of my head. Sadly, I had heard all of this before, and they were starting to feel like white lies she told to comfort not me, but herself.

     “I know,” I whispered as I rubbed her back. I hesitated only for a moment before asking. “Mother, you love me, correct?” I searched her eyes for a clear answer, some rock to secure myself onto before drowning in my own tears. She merely looked at me with a quizzical expression on her face.

     “What do you mean, of course I do. My lovely child, I always have, always will. What’s wrong?” I took a step back and gathered up my courage. I had been practicing in the mirror for months now, repeating the same phrase over and over again. It was my chance now. This could be my spring.

     “Please,” I whispered, “Don’t let me do this. Please.” Taking my shaking hands in hers, she gently pressed them to her lips. I could feel her teardrops hit the back of my hands and my heart sank beneath them like a wrecked ship. I could feel my last chance slipping away. “You know how hard it was keeping all of this a secret, so please be reasonable! What will happen when it’s time for the next heir, my son? Please, listen to me!” My mother had turned her head away from me and had let go of my cold hands.

     Her answer was barely audible. “Your father has taken care of this already. Trust in him as I do, so please, for me, listen to him. I know you can do at least that much.” And just like that, she turned away and left me stranded in front of my room.

     Blinking hard to prevent another stream of tears, I looked up at the cavernous ceiling. Her words were icy daggers to my heart. Perhaps Nicholas was watching over us right now or, at the very least, watching over our dear mother as she gently cried in front of his betrayer. Maybe our father really did love me as much as he had loved Nicholas, or maybe he was trying to quell another rebellion, only this time, inside of me. Maybe my mother was looking out for me, or maybe she was too much of a coward to help me escape this life. Either way, I had already accepted the cold, hard truth the day Nicholas left us.

     An old memory of him resurfaced and the thought of him running around the village as we played with the younger children who lived in those warm, colorful cottages stirred up my insides like a torrent of emotions. His blond hair catching the sunlight as I looked back to make sure he was always there. His beautiful hazel eyes looked just like mine, but I had always thought that his were prettier, even more girlish, than mine. His smile was captivating and he never once complained when I would drag him around the cobblestoned streets. Some days, it felt like I was his older sister, even though he was older than me by a mere two minutes. I missed those happier times. I was supposed to be his protector, but I had failed him.

 

     Dusk had set in once again as it had done yesterday and the day before that and the day before that. The dark, indigo skies looked ominous. Although it was June, the air was chilly as gusts of wind made their way across the sky. From the raised seat of the stiff throne, I absentmindedly gazed over the sea of people I would soon rule over.

     Their shouts of joy and laughter were muted as my pounding heart was all that I could hear. I looked to my left and noticed the sea beyond was now a black mass of waves that churned against the wind’s force and the ships were tossed about, their sails now dark. To my right, the colorful houses were now shrouded in a blanket of gray. Not a single window was lit as the townspeople had gathered here now, in front of the palace, to witness Bellvia’s 231st coronation of Prince Nicholas VI. The palace knights surrounded me and provided the only source of light from their handheld torches as the pearlescent moon was nowhere to be found.

     A trumpet sounded somewhere behind me.

     An army of feet marched up to the large, wooden throne I sat upon as the people below excitedly looked on. However, it was not me that everyone had gathered to see. It was Nicholas. It was Nicholas who received the golden crown dripping with rich rubies, deep emeralds, brilliant sapphires, and clear diamonds. It was Nicholas who accepted the equally opulent scepter of gold covered in fine jewels, a royal family heirloom. It was Nicholas who caught the eye of our proud father. It was Nicholas who made our mother beam. It was Nicholas who kept me trapped inside a cage of memories and regrets. As Nicholas, now King Nicholas VI of Bellvia, gave the crowd one of his handsome toothy grins, I was imprisoned in a dream, running alone across a golden wheat field as the wind chased after me.

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