The Storm Brews
The Storm Brews
The sea lapped the shore tentatively. Its waves made no sound. The wind was still. All was silent, as if the earth were waiting, watching, for something unknown. A castle loomed on the horizon, large and dark in the faint morning light. It was rectangular in shape, made almost entirely of gray stone, with four spires reaching toward heaven. A wall surrounded it on three sides, the fourth guarded by sea’s natural barrier. A cold mist hung over the castle. A woman moved through it. She walked slowly through the garden, uncaring of her surroundings. This was Catherine, queen over all of Kanto, and lady of the castle. She was tall and slender, and moved with the grace of a dancer. She wore a simple brown frock, dress unfitting for a queen, but her beauty shone through her shabby clothes. Long dark hair framed her pale face. Her expression was pensive, but she did not cry. Catherine was much too dignified for that. Besides, it would be much too unladylike. Ladies did not cry, no matter how heavy their burden. And her burden was heavy, for today was her thirty-fifth birthday, and she had not yet borne a son to her husband. Her doctors were beginning to fear that she was barren, and the her husband had no legitimate heir. King Ashton’s only child was Philip, the illegitimate son of a courtesan, the result of an affair that was a disgrace to his father’s name. Catherine remembered his birth well. Her attendants had been livid over the wrong done to her. Catherine herself, however, was surprisingly calm about the matter. She loved her husband dearly, but he was thirty years her senior, more of a father figure than a lover. Besides, it had been a short affair, borne out of passion, not love. Ashton had been deeply sorry, and Catherine had forgiven him at once. Unfortunately, the rest of Kanto was not so understanding. It was not that the people faulted their king on his misdeed. Quite the contrary, they relished in it. Commoners were always fond of a scandal. But this was an unwanted fame. It wouldn’t have been so terrible if Ashton had other children. But if Catherine could produce no heir, then it would be Philip who succeeded to the throne. An illegitimate king would be a taint on the family and an embarrassment to the kingdom. Catherine was saddened that she could not restore honor to her beloved husband. Ashton did not blame her, she knew, but she wanted to repay his kindness. He had always been so good to her.
She thought of the day she had first arrived in Kanto. How frightened she had been! Catherine had been only sixteen, a child, when she was forced to leave behind her family’s castle in Johto. The journey was long and the sea vast, and Catherine sensed that she was very far from her native land. Everything she had ever known was a world away. Her familiar home no longer existed for her. She could never return her room, or her father’s library, or the summer rose garden covered in buds. She would never see her mother, or her father, or her younger sister, Elizabeth again. Catherine had never been so afraid or so felt so alone. She had nothing to comfort her but her memories of home, and these only made her miss it more. The only friend she had was her nurse, Anna. Everyone in Kanto was foreign, even the man who would soon become her husband. Catherine worried over him more than anything else. This was the man with whom she would spend the rest of her days, whom she was supposed to love and obey above all others. But what if she couldn’t? What if he were ugly or cruel? Catherine feared a marriage of strangers. She spent her wedding day with a knot in her stomach and a lump in her throat. But her fears were soon put to rest. Ashton had been kind and understanding beyond her expectations. He did not rush her, but gave her all the time she needed to adapt to her new life. He let her be alone whenever she wanted. Catherine was sure that he would have slept on the floor of their marriage chamber had she asked, if only to make her more comfortable. Ashton showered his bride with gifts and soft words. He even changed some of his own customs to suit those of her old home. Everything was done to ensure her happiness. Ashton was so gentle and so devoted to Catherine that she began to forget her worries. She came to love him, for he had made her very happy indeed.
Catherine, in return, wanted to bring happiness to her husband, and this was why she longed to be a mother. At least, this was what she told herself. But it was not the true reason for her wish. She of course would have been glad to give a child to Ashton, but it was not so important as she pretended. Her husband’s dishonor was not the cause of her unhappiness. The heart of her desire lay deeper. Her yearning was the one that burns in all women: she wanted a love that was complete and unconditional, the kind of love only be experienced by a mother for her child. When Philip was born, Catherine had watched his mother with sad eyes. She saw herself caring for a little one of her own: feeding him, cleaning him, singing him to sleep. Catherine hoped that it would someday become more than a dream. But with each passing year, her hopes faded a little more. All that was left of them was grief. Catherine would never truly be happy if she remained childless. Without a knowing that love, she would always feel empty. Nothing else could complete her.
Catherine was reflecting on these things when she heard a small cry. It was a soft cry, a whimper. She moved toward the sound, pushing away dry stalks and crunching over brittle plants as she walked. The sound was growing louder as she neared its source; Catherine followed it until she arrived at the azalea bushes. Oddly, they were flowering, despite the cold winter air. She carefully pulled back their branches, and found a wonderful sight. There, crouching to the earth, was a small girl of about a year. She had red, flame colored, and eyes as blue as the sea. She was quite lovely, despite her dirty face and ragged clothing. Catherine thought that she had never seen such an enchanting child.
“Hello there,” she cooed, extending her hand to the girl, “what’s your name?”
The frightened child backed away from Catherine’s extended hand and curled herself into a ball.
Catherine drew back.
“It’s all right. I’m not going to hurt you.”
Slowly, the child looked up. She was afraid, but her curiosity was starting to take hold.
“It’s all right.” Catherine repeated. “You can come out.”
The girl rose and took a hesitant step, and then another, until finally she met Catherine in the open garden air. Catherine gently patted her head.
“You see? Nothing to fear.” She said quietly. “But where did you come from? Is your mother nearby?”
Then Catherine scooped the girl into her arms and strode toward the edge of the garden.
“Hello?” She called. “Is anyone there?”
But there was no answer. Catherine could not imagine how a small child could have gotten to such a remote place on her own. The girl must have been an orphan. Catherine could not leave her to fend for herself. She knew immediately that she must raise this child. Strangely, she did not find it a burden, but welcomed the idea. She felt sure that the gods had answered her prayers. All of a sudden, Catherine’s pain was eased. This girl was the answer to her troubles. This was the child for whom she had longed. A gift from the sea. She would not help Ashton, but that mattered little to Catherine now. She had found her own joy at last. It hadn’t come in the way she had imagined, but she would love this girl as her own..
Carrying the girl, she turned and walked inside the castle door, her steps hasty with resolve. She walked down the stone hallway until she came to the kitchen. It was cluttered, with pots and pans strewn all over the counters, but it was full of wonderful fragrances and warmth. Several cooks hurried around the room as they prepared the afternoon meal. Catherine strode toward a rather large woman who was busy cutting vegetables.
“Anna!” She called.
The woman turned around and quickly met Catherine.
“Lady Catherine, where have you been?” Anna fretted.
“I was only out for a stroll in the garden.”
“You should have told me, I could have escorted you!”
“I’m not a child anymore, Anna.” Catherine laughed. “I am able to take care of myself.”
“But look at what you’re wearing, you’ll catch your death of a cold going out dressed like that.”
Catherine smiled affectionately at her old nurse. Anna had raised her since infancy. Catherine was grown now, and Anna a rotund old woman, but she held fast to her motherly tendencies.
“I’ll be more careful next time.” Catherine conceded.
“And where did you get that misbegotten child?”
“I found her in the garden.” Catherine said, stroking the girl’s hair. “She must have been abandoned. I saw no one else.”
“But what do you plan to do with her, my lady?”
“I am going to keep her here and raise her as my own.”
“Oh, his majesty will never allow it!” Exclaimed Anna.
Catherine simply smiled. She knew her husband all too well. She would have her way. The matter was already decided.
“We will see about that.” She said slyly. “I am going to seek an audience with the king. I will need to dress properly.”
Anna shook her head as she led the way down the hall and up the stairs to Catherine’s room. Once there, she helped her lady change out of her simple frock and into the dress she had chosen. It was Catherine’s favorite, and she knew it would please her husband. It was hunter green and swept gracefully to the floor. A low neckline showed off her bust, and long sleeves revealed her shoulders. Catherine stood in front of her large wall mirror and inspected herself. She then sat at her dresser, oak and carved with intricate designs, and pulled a gold necklace set with large emeralds from its drawer. She put it on and, standing, looked into the dresser mirror.
“There, how do I look?” Asked Catherine.
“You look splendid, my lady.”
Catherine smiled with satisfaction as she gazed into her reflection in the mirror one last time. Then she turned to the child. She was dirty and scrawny, and certainly not fit to be presented before a king. Catherine lifted her from her seat on the canopy bed and set her on the dresser stool.
“Anna, bring me some water and a cloth, please.” Requested Catherine.
Anna left the room for a moment and returned with a porcelain basin filled with water and a wet rag, and helped Catherine bathe the girl’s dirty face. The child protested and squirmed, but she could not escape Catherine’s grasp. When the bath was through, Catherine brushed the girl’s fine but bedraggled red hair. This was even worse than the bath, and the girl cried out in pain, but Catherine ignored her and finished the task. The child was still scrawny, and her clothes were in tatters, but she looked at least a little more presentable than she had when she arrived.
“I think that’s the best we can do.” Sighed Anna.
“Then we are ready.” Catherine announced. “Wish me luck.”
Catherine threw open the huge doors of the throne room. It was a grand sight; no matter how many times she entered, it always impressed her. The room was large and open. It stretched for yards and yards in all directions. The white marble floor was spotless, and covered down the middle with a long, narrow red carpet. The ceiling arched high above, supported by Romanesque columns lining the walls, and painted with scenes of gods and goddesses. There were beautiful windows that almost met the ceiling standing beside the columns, glittering in the sunlight. They looked over the sea, now shining in the sun. At the far end of the room, seated in his throne, was the King, Ashton Reginald Kanto VI. He was an imposing figure, and strongly built. He had chestnut brown hair and a thin beard, and brown eyes. He wore robes of purple, the color of royalty, and a crown of pure gold. Catherine waited for him to nod his approval and then stepped forward with determination.
“What brings you here, my dear queen?” The king asked.
His booming voice commanded authority and fear, but Catherine was not intimidated at all.
“I have a request to make of you, my king.”
“What is it, my dear?” His voice softened.
“This morning while I was in the garden, I found this girl. She is an orphan, and I wish to raise her here.”
King Ashton gazed at the child thoughtfully, as if noticing her for the first time. She seemed to somehow understand the gravity of the situation, sat passively with her fist in her mouth. The only sound in the court was the waves pounding against the shore outside. After a long moment, the king spoke.
“But look, she is so thin, and so dirty, she is obviously a peasant. If you want to save her, give her to one of the servants to look after, but she does not belong with you, who are of noble blood.”
Catherine was infuriated by her husband’s callousness, but she could not show her anger here. She spoke slowly and courteously.
“What difference does it make? I am not suggesting that she someday take the throne. She is small, and if I raise her, she will learn to behave like nobility. It will not matter whence she came.”
“But it is not your duty to raise the child of a peasant. You should not have to trouble yourself.”
“Duty has nothing to do with it, I want to raise her. I have no child of my own. Would you deny me the chance to have this girl, as well?”
“But, my queen . . . ”
King Ashton looked at the thin child Catherine held tight in her arms. She looked so out of place in the magnificent palace, but perhaps, with time, she would grow to become a lovely young lady. Then the king looked into Catherine’s eyes, and in them he saw the passion he loved so much. He had known from the beginning that he couldn’t win. His advisors often warned him against indulging Catherine, but he loved her so much. He couldn’t deny her anything her heart truly desired.
“If it is what you truly want,” King Ashton said, “then I will let you keep the child.” And then, to preserve his authority, “But be sure that she does not become a nuisance.”
Catherine smiled. he had won, as she had known she would. At last, she was a mother.
Catherine named the girl Misty, for the mist whence she had come. Now that she was being properly cared for, Misty lost her scrawny appearance and grew into a strong, healthy child. Catherine spent every day taking care of her and playing with her. She fed and cleaned her, and had wonderful clothes of satins and silks tailored for her. Misty looked less like a pauper and more like a princess every day. She loved her adopted mother and forgot that her life had ever been any different. But Catherine could not forget. It was on the day she found Misty that Catherine first saw it. When she was changing Misty out of her rags and into a new dress, she noticed a leather thong encircling the child’s neck and hanging beneath her top. Catherine uncovered it, and saw hanging from it a brilliant stone, translucent, and almost seeming to glow from within. It swirled with all the colors of the sea: dark blue and pale green and the white of the foam. She knew that it must have been given to Misty by her mother- her real mother. It was such a small thing, but it separated Misty from Catherine, a constant reminder of her foreign origin. Catherine was tempted to snatch the necklace away, but she couldn’t bring herself to steal Misty’s one connection to her past. Even if she had taken the pendant from the girl, she couldn’t sever Misty’s ties to her mother. Catherine felt distant from the girl, for no matter how well she played her part, she would never be Misty’s true mother. Catherine had thought that it would not matter. She had been sure that she would love Misty as her own. And she did. But the more she loved her daughter, the more painful it was. She was an outsider, a stranger who had no ties to Misty except that she had been the one to find her. It was a lonely, sad feeling. Catherine tried to conceal these emotions from Misty, but there were times when they got the better of her. Sometimes she would be playing with Misty, and everything would seem right. Misty would smile at her so happily, and Catherine could almost forget that she wasn’t her real mother. Then that accursed thing would slip from under the girl’s clothes and shatter the illusion. It seemed to mock her. Misty sensed her mother’s withdrawal, but she was too young to understand its reasons. It confused and hurt her when Catherine turned away, and she would cry. Catherine hated to cause the little girl pain, and so she learned to ignore her emotions. The tension between her and her child all but disappeared, and Misty was happy. But Catherine was still haunted by doubt. So it went for many months.
Things might have continued this way forever if not for what happened next. It started subtly. Catherine became sick to her stomach often, sometimes even vomiting. At first, she thought it a passing illness, but the nausea persisted. Catherine felt seasick as she had on the rocking ship that had brought her to Kanto. Still, she ignored it. But then something happened, or rather, did not happen, that she could not ignore. Now there could be no doubt.
Catherine strolled down the beach holding Misty by the hand. The sun was sinking under a calm sea. Gentle waves splashed her feet with foam as they caressed the shore, then carried her footprints back out to the depths. She walked into the wind, her disheveled hair streaming behind her. Gulls circled above or dived into the sea to catch their supper. The scene was perfect, but Catherine didn’t notice it. She had more important things to think about. A soft smile touched her lips, for the most wonderful thing in the world had happened- she had become with child. As soon as it was certain, a midwife was called, and she determined that Catherine would bear a son. Finally, she would give an heir to her husband. Never again would she see the disappointment in his eyes when, once again, she had failed to conceive. That was only a memory, now Catherine knew only joy. And pleasing her king wasn’t even foremost in her mind. More than that, Catherine was overjoyed that she was going to have a child of her own flesh and blood. She didn’t love Misty any less. Now that she was going to bear a child of her own, she found that her foster daughter’s past no longer concerned her. Catherine was at last able to love Misty wholeheartedly, without any thought to her lineage. She would not love this new child any more or any less. As the child inside her grew, so did Catherine’s anticipation. She became more excited every day, and shared her excitement with Misty. She spoke of the new baby to her daughter often, and let her feel the now restless child in her belly. Misty didn’t understand what was happening, but she loved seeing her mother so jubilant. It was a happy time for everyone in the kingdom of Kanto. The people held their breaths as the time drew near for their new prince to be born.
And after much anxious waiting, that day came. Catherine laid in her silk sheets, attended by those dearest to her: Anna, King Ashton, and even Misty was allowed to stay. The midwife immediately set about mixing various concoctions to help ease the birth, and administered them to Catherine.
“Not much longer now.” She said, inspecting the mother once more.
There was an air of excitement and joy in the room, but Misty, seeing her mother in such pain, was afraid. She hid behind Anna, clinging to her skirts. Finally, when Catherine was almost exhausted from pushing and straining, she delivered her baby son. Misty stared at the child with large eyes. He was such an ugly, red little thing, and his crying was so irritating. Yet when her mother took him in her arms, she looked at him as if he were the most beautiful child in the world. How could she love him after he had caused her so much anguish? Misty wondered this as she watched Catherine smile at the boy. Soon however, she was ushered out of the room and left in Anna’s care, leaving only King Ashton with his wife. Misty would never see her mother again.
The fever came on fast, and Catherine, already weakened from her labor, was unable to endure it. She was gone within only a few days; the once joyous event had turned to tragedy. Catherine had been such a caring and vibrant person, loved by all who knew her. She had brought her loved ones so much joy, now equaled by heartache. King Ashton suffered worst of all. He was devastated at losing his beloved Catherine, and became cold and withdrawn in his pain. He could not bear to even look at the son who had caused her death. Anna grieved, but in silence. She had no time for tears. She poured all of her emotion into caring for the new child, trying to forget her sorrow. And Misty, though she did not understand death, wondered where her mother had gone and missed her terribly. A dark cloud hung over the castle, and all its inhabitants fell into depression.
Outside, the sea hurled huge, dark waves against the shore. The sky turned an ominous gray and blew fierce winds from the north. This storm tossed ships at sea about like toys, dragging many a sailor to doom beneath the waves. It roared on for many days and nights. When at last it lifted, the sea had risen all the way to the castle grounds. Although the destruction was great, everyone sighed in relief and thanked the gods that it was over. However, they rejoiced too soon, for it was only a reprieve. The storm was the first of many that would batter the coast in the years to come.