by Grace Huang
Art by Kristie Wu
Issue: Metanoia (Winter 2017)
They lived in a world where names were private.
Birth names were forbidden to be revealed. Many questioned why they were given these names, but ceremonies later on in life required these names. Thus, many created surnames. One well-known was the Royal Priestess, whom many regarded as the Ace of Hearts.
The most interesting fact about the Royal Priestess was that she had never revealed her identity before. In fact, only the queen knew what she looked like, and the next person who would know would be her prince consort. In actuality, her to-be husband would be introduced to her just before her revelation to the public at her coming-of-age ceremony.
Truthfully, it was a tradition – but it was strange to the new duke in the palace who went by the name of Asal Hugh.
How the Queen had recognized him as a worthy prince consort, he didn’t know. Also that he was currently waiting for the Ace of Hearts to appear before him for the first time.
“Excuse me! Duke Asal! The Ace of Hearts, Her Royal Priestess, will now meet you!” One of the guards shouted.
The lavender-haired man stood, nodding. “Thank you.”
The duke stepped through the white veil that enveloped the princess’s chambers doors, stepping out from the double-layered misty curtains and into the room.
The woman stood in front of a large mirror, her hands clasped, her eyes closed. Asal’s shoes made no sound on the golden carpet of her quarters; nonetheless she sensed his presence. She let her hands fall to her side, turning around.
The dress she wore twirled around her like the petals of a carnation flower. Her long raven hair fell along her back, streaming down in curls. A glittering net of crystals threaded through her hair, shimmering to no end.
“Ah… Duke Asal.” Her voice was flat, her deep blue irises betraying an uncertain gleam.
Duke Asal suddenly felt overwhelmed and very underdressed. “It’s a pleasure, Your Benevolence.” He bowed, his long lavender braid falling over his shoulder.
“You need not address me so formally.” Her almond-shaped eyes sparkled joyfully for a second before she sighed. Asal raised his head, looking at her curiously.
“Is something wrong?”
The Ace of Hearts wrung her slim, pale hands, gloved white fingers clutching together until she shook her head, allowing her hands to fall to her side.
“No, it is nothing. Duke Asal?”
“I look forward to seeing your ability as ruler of this kingdom professionally and personally.”
“As do I.” The duke smiled softly before asking, “So does that mean I can drop the formal act around you?”
“Yes, but have you not just dropped it by asking me such a question so casually?”
“Guess so…” Asal sighed.
They stood in silence, their eyes looking everywhere but each other until a royal guard from outside called into the room.
“Your Benevolence, Sir Duke Asal, you are to exit soon! Please prepare yourself!”
“Very well.” The Royal Priestess answered aloud, stepping forward.
“Ready to go?” The man asked, holding out his hand.
She nodded woodenly. “Whenever you are.”
The Ace of Hearts placed her hand in his. He spoke up.
“Valor.” His voice was thick with hesitance, and she could hear the doubt it contained.
“Come again?” She asked, frowning.
“Reus Valor.” When she looked up at him, his eyes twinkled with happiness and mischief. “That’s my name.”
“Ah!” She grabbed his collar, pulling him close. “Shh! You are not even supposed to say that!”
Reus grimaced at her grip, loosening the woman’s hold on him. “Woah! Your Highness, I-I know. I’m telling you because you’re the princess.”
The Ace of Hearts glared at him, unwrapping her fingers from his clothes.
“So? What about you?”
She looked up, startled. “What do you mean?”
Reus smiled. “I told you my name. Why not tell me yours?”
The woman looked down, her gaze saddened. “The truth is… I do not have one.”
Reus’s smile faltered, “What do you mean?”
“It is part of the tradition. The Royal Priestess, heir to the throne, will not receive a name until she has been crowned queen.” The Ace of Hearts looked away, chewing on the inside of her cheek.
Reus scoffed. “What good is waiting for your name going to do for you?”
The Royal Priestess glared at him, crossing her arms over her chest. “You are very… spacey, are you not?”
Reus chuckled. “Maybe. So? How do you feel about breaking tradition today?”
The black-haired woman clenched her fists over her chest, an enraged look in her eyes. “You… You…! These sacred laws have been preserved for centuries! How dare you! Simply because you were chosen as prince consort, you have not the permission to distort the laws that we hold dear to our hearts! Especially a foreigner such as yourself!”
“Oh… sorry. I guess you’re right.” Reus said apologetically.
The Royal Priestess sighed, glaring at the duke. “I have yet to understand what Mother saw in you.”
“Sorry, sorry.” Reus chuckled.
The woman sighed again, and the man raised an eyebrow.
“Alright, I know you said it was nothing, but I’m wondering, what’s wrong?”
“Oh… oh, perhaps… did I sigh again?”
“Yes.” Reus looked at her strangely. “I’m starting to think this is an unconscious thing you do.”
“It is nothing.” She replied curtly. “Excuse me. I must get my robe from my changing chambers.”
The Ace of Hearts walked away, her flowing long dress trailing a tail behind her as she disappeared behind a large door frame.
Reus exhaled softly. “Tough cookie, aren’t you, Your Benevolence?” He muttered under his breath, a chuckle in his throat.
The woman came back not a moment later, a layered silk robe in her hands. It fit snugly on her body, and the priestess grumbled as her gloves were caught through the sleeves.
“Say, why don’t you take off your gloves?” The lavender-haired duke gestured to her silken white gloves. “I’m sure it’ll be easier to put your robe on.”
The priestess visually flinched, pressing her lips together.
“I knew it… I could never have hidden this from you long.”
The duke blinked as she peeled the robe off of her, placing it into the man’s hands. With a swipe of her fingers, her bright white gloves were on the floor, and she took a deep breath. Quivering, she held out her hands to Reus, her bare pale hands on display.
A jagged scar raced from the edge of her middle fingernail to her wrist on each hand. A large “A” was carved on her right palm, and a heart covered the expanse of her left palm. A thin scar, almost like a cut, was sliced over her knuckles on both hands.
“These are the marks of… of a kidnapping.” Reus heard a tremble in her voice, and the lavender-haired man inhaled sharply.
“You don’t mean that incident from three years ago?”
The Royal Priestess nodded. “I see you have heard the story. Yes, it was three years ago. It happened just before you began your work at the duchy of Hugh. I was careless in my trust. I believed the castle guards would always protect me. It turns out that a large number of them were turncoats who believed my brother should be on the throne. My brother… he thinks nothing of the sort. He would never kill me. Even so… he wanted to take full responsibility for what happened… so he came and rescued me. Yet, by then… I had already been missing for three days. When he found me, I was unconscious with marks all over my hands.”
“And what of your brother?” The prince consort asked.
“Abolished from the royal family. He works as a bureaucrat for the neighboring kingdom.”
Reus shook his head, “That’s terrible.” He bent to pick up the gloves, lying on the floor and scoffed. “What a ridiculous situation.”
The Ace of Hearts raised an eyebrow at him, reaching for her gloves. The duke grasped her hand lightly. “I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
“What do you mean?” She asked, frowning. “Explain yourself this instant.”
“I believe it was you who said that the sacred laws of this kingdom are to be treasured?”
“What do you wish to say?”
“Isn’t the unspoken duty of this kingdom as the Royal Priestess to gain the people’s favor? Do you really think it’s smart to hide such a dark aspect of yourself to the kingdom? To your kingdom?”
The black-haired woman froze, her shoulders tense. Her hand, still in the duke’s grasp, clenched. “It is not for you to decide what I do.”
“Is that really true?”
The Ace of Hearts could find no answer.
The couple stood in silence, Reus’s eyes piercing into the royal’s lowered head. Finally, she lifted her gaze, her lip trembling.
“What do you know? What do you know!?” Her voice was loud, almost screaming. “You are not the princess! You know not of the struggles of the throne!”
“Perhaps not, but I know the struggles of the duchy. Besides, being king is a pretty heavy task in and of itself, isn’t it?”
The black-haired woman blinked, her breathing heavy. “Being a duke is not the same as a king.” She responded coldly.
“I know. Which is why I need you tell help me figure that out. First, though, I need you to figure yourself out for your kingdom. What is good? What is right and wrong? What is your choice in this matter? You wouldn’t want a kingdom that hates their king and queen for a simple flesh wound, do you?”
The Royal Priestess pursed her lips together before nodding. “You are right. Forgive me. I have forgotten myself in my need for attention and sympathy. Let’s… start over, shall we?”
The woman stretched out her hand to Reus. “My name is the Ace of Hearts. What about yours?”
“Duke Asal Hugh, or Reus Valor.” The man took her hand, smiling.
“Duke Asal! Ballroom, now!” The guards outside shouted the queen’s command into the princess’s chambers. “Your Benevolence, please be prepared to leave soon!”
“Then, I shall see you on the ballroom floor.” Reus bid her farewell, tucking the silky white gloves into his pocket.
And for once in her life, the Ace of Hearts smiled. “Yes… Mr. Valor.”
She followed his figure into the bright hall outside, watching him stop to throw her a sly smile. She giggled, a foreign sound to her.
With her robe coated over her shoulders, she turned back, ready to the face the judgement of the ballroom. The black-haired woman slipped through the curtains, drifting down the velvet red stairs.
Throughout the night, her bare hands met gloved hands, and the men she danced with looked at her strangely. Yet, she stood unashamed. She ignored the stares of the aristocracy, the flinches of noblemen whom were forced to kiss the back of her scarred hand.
Finally, she stepped to the middle of the ballroom, and the prince consort flashed her a quick smile as he offered her his hand.
Together they danced, drifting over the marblestone floor, and she laughed quietly. Reus grinned back, and for the first time the Royal Priestess felt like all the weight of her world had been lifted off her shoulders.