Aimory paced about his room, alternating between raking his fingers through his hair and gnawing at a callus on his thumb. He was 30 years old today. He awoke to the breakfast bells, but always thought he’d be awakened on his 30th name day by the shouts of his young children as they burst into his bed-chamber, racing to see who could wish him a happy name-day first. He always thought he’d go to his name day breakfast with his wife, who has become a trusted partner, a beloved companion, and his closest friend. But those dreams are just that: Dreams. All because his father decided to be the first king in almost 1,000 years to refuse to carry out the Passing of Power process.
Every other king and queen in the history of the kingdom would announce who they have chosen to marry the heir to the crown by moonrise the first night of the Summer Solstice festival following the Heir’s 25th name day. By moon fall the third and final night of the festival, the heir and the Selected would present themselves to the citizens as the future king and queen - should they agree to the king and queen's choice, that is. The heir had the right to refuse the Selected, but none ever did. The magic of the summer solstice is believed to ensure that the king and queen make the best choice – for the kingdom, the heir, and the Selected.
Aimory had made several attempts to convince his father to initiate the Passing of Power process, each one thwarted with a grunt and dismissive wave of Thurl’s hand. Now that Aimory was 30 years old, he had waited long enough. He came up with a plan, which he would carry out the next day: Court Calling Day.
With the Summer Solstice Festival fast approaching, whispers were skittering through the capital city. No one, not even Prince Aimory, knew why the throne hadn’t been handed over. Most assumed that King Thurl wanted to remain in power, simple as that. In truth, King Thurl believed that his son was nothing more than a beautiful face, believing his son’s days consisted of gallivanting around the city, reveling in the attention he gets for his sparkling green eyes, silky chestnut hair, a cleft chin highlighted by a luminous smile. Thurl has heard tell of how friendly Aimory is with the citizens of the capital city and he was not impressed. The kingdom of Awenia has known peace and prosperity under the rule of Thurl and Rhiannon- it wasn’t going to go down the tubes because his son behaved more like a spoiled nobleman’s son than a prince of the people.
Court Calling Day
The next morning, Aimory dressed in his thread-bare work clothes – a simple tunic, a pair of cover-alls, and well-worn steel-toe boots. He tied his hair back with a strip of leather and set a large wide-brimmed hat atop his head that, when pulled low, would cover his eyes, disguising him for this mission. One last look in the mirror, mentally noting that he’ll need to ask for a new set of hand-me-downs this fall when he went to help the farmers and cattle ranchers during Harvest season. For the past decade and a half, he had been going to the farm or ranch that is in the most need of a strong back and steady hands to help with the season’s harvest. Once every few years, he’d ask the family for a set of hand-me-down clothes for him to work in, as it was surprisingly difficult for a prince to come by a pair of canvas coveralls and a white cotton tunic.
Aimory left from the servants’ wing so he could walk alongside the castle gate, circling around to take his place in line with the citizens awaiting their turn to call on the king. After six hours of standing, trudging forward, and standing some more, it was Aimory’s turn. Careful to keep his eyes downcast, he addressed the king in a loud, clear voice:
Your Grace, I come seeking your advice. I was born into a home where the family trade is inherited, the eldest child taking on a year of mentorship before the head of the family retires. Traditionally, the mentorship begins in the heirs' 25th year of life. I, however, am 30 years old. What’s more, I am educated and experienced. Not only am I classically educated, but I also spend time amongst the people of the city volunteering my time and my resources. Every Solstice and Equinox I organize and oversee clothing and food drives. I’m among the first to volunteer to help with harvest when farmers are short-handed. Two winters ago, I almost lost a toe to frostbite because I was standing outside for hours, passing out blankets and bundles of food to indigent families. Every Sunday, I clean my home myself so the household staff can take a longer break and go home early. I’m well-liked and admired as well. I have attended family suppers in many homes of the city, happily accepting invitations whether they came from a family of nobility or of poverty. Despite all this, my father refuses to pass the familial responsibilities onto me. What say you, King Thurl, what should I do?
The king sighed and tugged on his beard, contemplating the situation a moment before looking to the caller and saying:
Formally request that your father initiate your mentorship, gently reminding him that you are five years past the average age of inheritance after you inform him of your accomplishments. If he still refuses, send him to court the next Calling Day, and I will hear his justifications. Should they be insufficient, I will order him to carry out his obligation of mentoring you and naming you the new Head of Household.
Aimory removed his hat and looked into his father’s eyes.
Well, father, you have heard my accomplishments and have been reminded of my age, so now hear my request: Will you please initiate my mentorship, preparing me to take over the kingdom?
Thurl jumped to his feet, outraged.
What is the meaning of this Aimory!?
The king, flustered and furious, was unsure of how to proceed. Thurl looked to his wife for help – Queen Rhiannon made a feeble attempt to disguise her grin, but her eyes gleamed with pride. King Thurl raised his eyebrows at Rhiannon, indicating that he wanted her input, but she could only shrug. King Thurl looked around at the enraptured audience, hands balled in a fist. He must have seen someone or something that gave him an idea because suddenly his face relaxed and a smile played the corners of his mouth. He faced his son and said:
Well, clearly you aren’t just a beautiful face- you’re bold. All this time I thought you were just gallivanting around the city, spending your trust fund on goddess-knows-what.
Thurl sighed and continued.
As uncomfortable as you’ve made things, I must say I admire your cunning. I’ll tell you what, I will give you a mission. Should you succeed, I will begin mentoring you after the Summer Solstice festival. If you fail, then you will wait until I die to take over the kingship. Deal?
What is the mission?
Aimory stood motionless, back straight, eyes locked on the king, hoping he was doing well at hiding his excitement at a chance to prove himself to his father.
If you are to start your mentorship then we must arrange your betrothal. The Summer Solstice festival is the perfect event to find your future queen, so every eligible woman must be in attendance. Your job is to go to every household to make sure that every maiden of child-bearing age attends the festival.
Aimory already knew most of the families in the capital, so this should be simple.
Aimory rose with the sun the next day, laced up his favorite boots and rushed out of the castle. By noon he had been to over a quarter of the homes in the capital, each family eagerly accepting his invitation. Surely, he would have secured accepted invitations from every maiden in the capital by sundown the next day, so he returned home to lunch with his mother. They had just sat down to eat when he told his mother of his confidence in the mission. Rhiannon burst into laughter.
What’s so funny, Mother?
Obviously, you have forgotten about Sirona.
The witch who lives in the hut by the woods? She can’t be eligible, she’s old.
She’s actually several years younger than you are, my love. She’s not a witch. Well, she could be, but she’s a healer. Quite gifted, actually. When she was a teenager she created a draft that cured an illness that spread like wildfire through the city. Over 100 had died, and hundreds more, including you and me, were infected.
Yes, I knew that she saved our lives. I didn’t realize she was younger than me. Poor thing. She’s so homely, it’s hard to tell her age. They call her Sirona the Swine in town you know.
Rhiannon clicked her tongue and jabbed a finger into Aimory’s chest.
That’s not nice, Aimory! She’s uncomfortable with crowds, so, obviously, she’s not going to go to the festival. Your father knew that, of course.
Aimory sighed and excused himself from the table. He knew his dad wouldn’t negotiate the terms of their deal, so he was just going to have to convince Sirona to come. Before he could, however, he had the other women in the city to invite. He'd ask a few household staff to take care of that for him, he decided. He'd pay them well, and tip the remaining staff members, as he knew they'd have to pick up the slack. He was such a considerate, caring man, and this kingdom would do well under his rule. It's just a shame his father didn't see that.
With the list of names on one piece of parchment, names streets to canvas for women he may have overlooked on another, several coins jingling in his pockets, Aimory set off to the servants' quarters to find a few people to help him. Of course, several volunteered to be of assistance the moment he walked into their community room. With final instructions to secure a 'yes' before leaving and a request that they check the names off the list of all eligible women in the city hanging on the entrance to his living quarters, Aimory set off to Sirona's cottage, confident he'd have her convinced to come in under an hour.
He'd be home in time for morning tea, no doubt about it.
Sirona the Swine
Sirona was on her knees toiling in her garden when Aimory approached the borders of her land. Aimory stepped over the threshold of her property and Sirona spun around and popped to her feet, as though she sensed him coming. Aimory started to ask how she knew he was there, but she spoke first.
Are your mom and dad okay?
Aimory was taken aback. No one ever referred to his parents as his ‘mom and dad’- always the king and queen, or their highnesses.
Uh- yeah. Yes. They’re fine. I’m here-
If no one is sick then I have no interest in why you’re here, Aimory.
Aimory opened his mouth and snapped it shut. He wasn’t used to someone being so bold...so familiar with him. Seeing the puzzled look on his face, Sirona explained.
You were delirious with fever so you may not remember, but when we met you insisted I call you by name so don’t get offended. I’m sorry if I’m being rude, but you did come onto my property without an invitation. I’m busy.
I’m here to invite you to the Summer Solstice Festival.
No thanks. Goodbye.
Sirona picked up her basket and started walking towards her house, the breeze lifting her matted hair revealing a face pockmarked with a large nose and severe overbite.
Aimory called after her, jogging to catch up. Sirona ignored him, rushing inside and closing the door firmly behind her. Aimory knocked on her door, huffing to catch his breath. The window to the right opened an inch. Sirona called out that she was not interested and asked him to leave, snapping the window shut. Aimory cussed under his breath and turned to go. He would be back, he thought, every day if he had to. This woman would go to the festival. He had never been treated in such a way in all his life- and he loved it.
Aimory returned to Sirona's home every day. After the first week, she stopped running inside and put him to work instead. They worked side by side in the garden, talking about foods they liked, games they played as kids, dreams they have for the future. The solstice was growing near, and Aimory had yet to invite her to the festival again. If he was completely honest, he kept returning because he liked spending time with her. She made him laugh, her knowledge of the body, of the land, and of the people, impressed him and, most of all, her kindness melted his heart.
One day, when they were chopping and stacking wood for Sirona’s fire pit, Aimory looked at her and realized she wasn’t so beastly as he once thought. Her nose was a little big, but it suited her face. She had an overbite, but he loved the way her lips pursed over her teeth. The pockmarks he thought he saw that first day must have been a trick of the light because her beautiful olive skin was smooth and radiant. It struck him then, that he had fallen in love with her. It was then he realized the festival was but a week away. He had to complete his mission: make her his wife. If he didn’t get the crown, oh well, but she was his ultimate desire.
Catching him staring, Sirona brought a hand to her cheek.
What? Do I have food on me or something?
No! Uh, it’s just. No. You’re fine. You’re buh- there’s nothing on you. Sorry, I was just thinking.
Did he really almost call her beautiful? Sirona the Beast…beautiful?
Hello, earth to Aimory!
Sirona giggled and shook her head, dropping a load of wood in the bin. She turned to retrieve more wood when Aimory was overcome with courage he never knew before.
Will you go to the festival with me, please?
I already told you I don’t want to go.
I mean as my date.
Isn’t the whole point of the festival to find you a bride?
Sirona put her hands on her hips and glared at him suspiciously.
I don’t want a bride. I just want to…
Aimory blushed and looked away.
Sirona, realizing how he felt about her, blushed as well. She didn’t want to admit it, but this pretty prince was actually a good man. A great man. Dammit, she felt the same way, didn’t she?
Sirona’s eyes met Aimory’s, and when she smirked, he dropped the wood he was carrying and rushed to her. It was the first time either of them had ever kissed another, and they knew at that moment, they would never kiss anyone else.
The Summer Solstice Festival
Upon moonrise the first day of the festival, Sirona stood fussing with the dress Queen Rhiannon hand-picked and helped her into. Her hair was brushed smooth, and her eyes sparkled in the light of the flickering torches.
Don’t tell me you’re nervous.
Aimory teased as he came up to her, taking her hand in his.
Sirona rolled her eyes.
I’m Sirona the Beast about to be declared the future bride of Aimory the Beautiful. Why should I be nervous?
You know, I’m glad my dad was so quick to judge us both. It brought us together. You’re Sirona the Healer, and you will be a remarkable queen.
The two embraced, smiled at each other, and turned to walk down to the festival grounds. Nerves fell away as they reached the king and queen, for they knew that the magic of their love for each other and for the people would ensure a peaceful, prosperous reign.