Chapter 4 - The Spring Garden
Within the Xenon Empire, the standard of beauty was to have blonde hair and blue eyes. Aris, born with brown hair and equally brown eyes, did not quite fit that standard. She had heard that Violet had shimmering blonde hair and eyes as blue as the ocean and figured the crown prince would prefer her over Aris.
She relayed her thoughts to her father. “I know I’m not ugly, but Lady Violet is blonde and has blue eyes.”
“And what about the crown prince’s mistresses? Are many of them blonde?” she asked.
“The majority are,” he agreed, nodding.
“Then we have nothing to worry about!”
At Aris’s cheerful words, Ian smiled. She had a point. “You’re right.”
He silently apologized to Louison and proceeded to enjoy high tea with his daughter.
* * *
“You were invited to the palace?” Lucine squealed with excitement. She couldn’t believe it; Lady Aris had not even debuted yet, but she was already receiving invitations! “But your dress! What will you wear?”
Lucine began going over her mental catalog of her lady’s wardrobe. They were pretty enough to be worn every day, but they were far too simple for visiting the palace. Most palace women wore exquisite dresses with low, swooping necklines.
“You should get fitted for a new dress first thing in the morning, my lady!” Lucine said, concerned.
“I was thinking that too.”
“Then you really should get some rest,” Lucine said, watching Aris study late as always. “I think you should postpone all of your classes for now. You’ll need at least a week to prepare for the palace.”
There was much to prepare before the palace visit. Not only did Aris need to be dressed to the nines, but so did Lucine. No matter how extravagantly a lady dressed up, she would surely attract criticism if her maid looked shabby and unkempt.
“Get some rest!” Lucine nagged.
“Well… alright,” Aris said, shutting her books with a tiny smile. Since she had decided to postpone classes for a week, she didn’t have to complete her homework for tomorrow. “I really should finish this though…”
“It will be fine! You’re always so diligent, I’m sure nothing will happen just because you didn’t do your homework for a day.”
“Right?” Aris replied, relieved. The idea of not attending history classes for an entire week excited her. She tried not to let it show on the outside and pretended to sigh heavily before climbing into her bed.
“Should I turn the lights off, my lady?”
Lucine turned off the lamp and exited the bed chambers. Finally alone, Aris stared at the ceiling and murmured to herself, “What’s going to happen to me now?”
She had tried so hard to change her fate, but now things weren’t going as expected. Who would have imagined that she would be selected as a candidate for the crown princess position?
“I need to be careful.” She murmured. The mere thought of becoming the crown prince’s wife gave her a full-body shudder. The prince was not a loyal man, what with him having several mistresses around. He would probably treat her with as much respect as her position deserved, but that was not what Aris wanted.
Not to mention that if she married the prince, she would become the empress someday. The job entailed so many tiresome duties to carry out and was such a heavy role to play that Aris knew she would never be happy as an empress. She wanted a peaceful and leisurely life.
“Besides, I like the male lead.” She chuckled. He was loyal to the one woman he loved, listened to what she had to say, and always believed in her. What a man!
Unfortunately for Aris, there were still two and a half years left before she could meet him. She had to make it through those years safely. She decided she would keep a low profile at the tea party, take a walk through the Spring Garden, and leave.
There was just one chinch in her plan. If the emperor wanted her to become the crown princess, then the crown prince would certainly approach her. What would she do then?
After racking her brains for a suitable answer, she closed her eyes. It was late, and she was getting tired. ‘I’ll figure it out tomorrow.’
Aris fell into a deep, peaceful slumber.
* * *
The week flew by without Aris even noticing it. She had been too preoccupied with fabrics, jewels, and shoes.
After much deliberation and several trips to the capital’s finest dressmakers, Aris had finally decided on a lovely white dress with a ribbon adorning it. The swooping neckline exposed her collarbones and showed just enough skin to be appropriate, while still adhering to the latest trends.
‘16 might be too young for this dress.’ She mused.
The dress was better suited for a young woman than a teenager, but Lucine had boldly insisted on it.
“I’m hungry,” Aris whined.
“You can’t eat yet,” Lucine said sternly.
“Can’t I have some water, at least?”
“No, my lady!”
Lucine was unrelenting, entirely committed to making sure her lady would be the most beautiful girl in attendance. She even took it upon herself to regulate her eating habits. Aris was restricted to one meal a day to maintain her slender figure, and Lucile would not budge on this rule. Aris had to forfeit her breakfast and lunch to have high tea and dinner.
‘Why do I have to do all of this?’ Aris wanted to cry. She couldn’t believe she had to give up her meals to look good for some crown prince. How horrible this situation was!
It was all the crown prince’s fault. If he hadn’t decided to host his stupid tea party out of the blue, none of this would be happening. And why on earth did he choose to host the party in the evening? It would have been so much better to start the party in the morning and have it done before lunch.
The late start time was because the crown prince had an appointment in the afternoon. This was the best he could do to accommodate everyone’s schedules.
“You’re not the only person that’s hungry, miss.”
“I’m sure all of the other ladies are as hungry as you right now,” Lucine said, offering what support she could. “I haven’t even eaten in front of you once!”
“But that doesn’t mean you’re not eating.”
“I can eat because I’m not a lady,” Lucine explained as she helped Aris into her dress.
Her brown hair was pinned up, exposing Aris’s slender neck and shoulders. The jewels in the bodice twinkled like stars, and the skirt flowed beautifully. Aris always insisted that she wasn’t that pretty, but to Lucine, her lady was the most beautiful woman in the world.
“All we need now is to do your makeup,” Lucine said.
“Right,” Aris nodded weakly. Having skipped breakfast, she hardly had the energy to stand, let alone speak. She wondered if she would die of hunger on the way to the palace and stared at Lucine balefully.
For a brief moment, Lucine’s resolve faltered, but she remembered her ultimate goal. She had to be stern for the sake of her lady. “Let’s start your makeup now,” she said firmly. Aris pouted, realizing her sorrowful expression had made no difference.
A makeup artist entered the room. “I’m just going to make you a little paler,” the woman explained, patting a fragrant powder onto her skin.
Aris glanced at the mirror and saw that she really did look whiter. After applying the powder, the artist tinted her lips with a light coral color. Then, an assortment of pale oranges and warm browns was brushed on her skin. The whole process took far longer than Aris had expected.
“All done,” the woman said finally.
When Aris took a good look at herself in the mirror, she was shocked. Gone was the girl of a few moments ago. Now she looked youthful and sophisticated.
“Since you’re still young, I tried not to make you look too sultry.” The woman added.
“Oh my,” Aris murmured, reaching out to touch her reflection. She wondered how beautiful she would look to everyone else.
At that moment, Ian knocked on the door. “Aris, are you finished?”
“Yes, Father.” Aris was unfamiliar with the palace grounds so Ian would be escorting her to the Spring Garden.
She sprang up from her seat and put on her coat. The nighttime air was still cold, and she didn’t want to risk catching a chill on the way to the palace. When the door opened Ian, who stood in the doorway, stared at his daughter in surprise.
“My daughter, you look so beautiful.”
“Yes.” He nodded.
She may not be blonde like most beauties, but she was gorgeous regardless. Aris grinned at her stunned father. “I’m sure the other ladies will look lovely too.”
“The crown prince won’t even bother to look at me.” At least she hoped so.
She linked her arm with her father’s and descended the staircase. On the way down, Ian cleared his throat and observed his daughter’s appearance. Seeing her dressed like this, he realized that she did not look as young as he thought she was.
‘But in any case,’ he thought, ‘She’s still too young to get married.’
The two stepped into the carriage and set off for the Spring Garden.
* * *
A large arrangement of flowers greeted the Horissens at the entryway. The Spring Palace was just as the rumors had said— there were countless leafy green trees and flowers in bloom as far as the eye could see; it was a floral jubilee. Freesia flower petals, which symbolized spring, drifted dreamily through the breeze. The sight before Aris was so beautiful she felt that perhaps her hunger and pain had been worth it.
“You can go now, Father.” She told him since Ian looked worried. “I have Lucine. Everything will be fine.”
Around them, other girls began to arrive with their fathers. They also looked a little gloomy, as if they’d been hungry for a long time. All of the girls gazed longingly at the decadent food piled atop the tables. Unfortunately, they could not allow themselves to start eating before the crown prince arrived.
“Be safe,” Ian muttered to his daughter.
Ian finally left the garden. He was still worried, but he trusted Lucine. As tonight was a special event and so many noble ladies would be present, palace guards were stationed around to ensure maximum security. As soon as Aris saw her father get into the carriage, she made a beeline for the food, but Lucine grabbed her wrist. “Miss.”
“You can’t eat yet.”
“Why not?” Aris whined.
“You haven’t shown the crown prince how lovely you look,” Lucine said sharply.
She wanted the crown prince to see Aris as she was right now.
“But I’m so hungry,” Aris replied weakly.
“You’re normally so composed. Just wait a little longer.”
“I can’t stand being hungry.”
Aris could tolerate most things through sheer willpower, but hunger was not one of those things. She gave Lucine her best puppy eyes. “Just a little bit?”
Lucine felt her resolve crumble slightly. “One drink,” she relented.
“I’ll take it.”
Aris began scanning the tables and grabbed the largest drink she could find. Another girl picked up the beverage next to hers.
The young lady had long blonde hair and eyes like blue lagoons— a classic beauty. Her dress was pretty, with a modest neckline. She looked young, but Aris was sure she would become an absolutely gorgeous woman someday.
The two ladies glanced at each other before taking small sips of their drinks, savoring the taste.
“Good evening,” Aris said, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear. She gave a dazzling smile to the other girl. It was the smile she rehearsed every day in the mirror.
“Yes, good evening,” the blonde replied, smiling shyly. That smile didn’t seem as well-practiced as Aris’s, but it was still rather cute. “These drinks are quite good.”
Aris watched the girl drink elegantly, with the grace expected of the nobility. As she brought her glass up to her lips, she tucked a strand of her long blonde hair behind her ear. She looked weak, just as Aris did.
“To tell you the truth, I haven’t even had breakfast or lunch today,” Aris whispered. She knew Lucine was watching her like a hawk, and she didn’t dare look at food at the moment. “I barely got permission to drink this.”
The younger girl sighed. “Me too. My maids found out I was going to the palace and stopped feeding me since yesterday,” she lamented, gazing sadly at her drink. “I don’t know why I have to deal with this.”
Then she glanced at Aris again. “You are Lady Aris Horissen, correct?”
“Yes,” Aris replied, wondering how this girl knew her name.
“I’ve heard much about you from my father.”
“Is that so?”
“My name is Violet d’Essel.”
Aris’ father had said that Duke Essel often spoke of how angelic and charming his daughter was. He boasted of her golden hair and how she had the bluest eyes and that she was beautiful, just like him.