"I owe you this much, Velibor, for your honesty with me, and guiding myself and these young ones to the safe and loving arms of a man I've known long enough to call Father. The story is long, I must warn you. But I will trust you with the truth, as I have trusted you with my life."
Maria took a deep breath. Thank goodness the children were sleeping, she prayed silently that they were comfortable and warm, for she knew there was no way she would be allowed to check on them until she had been honest with this man.
"You are very close to the Serbian Royal Family, I have come to understand. So if I do not explain places and names to you, will you understand?"
"I will ask what I want to know when I want to know it. Hurry up and tell me your story, my patience is wearing thin." Velibor said in a cold, menacing voice.
Maria understood now that she had hurt him. She wanted to reach over and touch his shoulder, but she knew that would be out of line. "Well, I shall begin" she said slowly, "from the very beginning."
"Queen Ivana had fallen pregnant with a child before her and King Vladan were to be wed. Should the child have been found out, they would have been portrayed as a child of evil, a bad omen on the country, and a bad omen for the King and Queen themselves. The wedding was delayed, and Queen Ivana was sent to the Spring palace under the pretense that 'she needed time to be sure of her decision in marrying King Vladan'. For two years she stayed here, Marius served as her butler, and only a few trusted servants around to keep her company and help her care for herself and the child. Vladan visited often, spoiling his child, which turned out to be a beautiful, strong, healthy girl. She had his eyes. In between his visits, Ivana would grow sad and lonely, and she began to sow the tapestry you saw, among others, to help decorate the court. People of the court began to grow weary of her and the Spring palace, which was once a very popular destination for nobility to travel to; renowned for the magestic waterfall, and vibrant forestry beyond that. After six months of her being alone, King Vladan bought with him on his next trip a maid called Carol. I'm sure you may have met her in the city while we were at Marius' house. Together, Carol and Ivana managed to decorate this entire hall with beautiful tapestries, and many of the other key rooms also. Queen Ivana began to feel so at home here, that the palace became known as Ann's palace. The child was now a year old, and as visitors began to visit the castle, Ivana would tell them that Carol was her distant cousin, and the child was Carol's daughter. Her husband had passed away, and she couldn't leave them to fend alone. The story caught on quickly to the courts, and all seemingly believed it.
Vladan never let on, but the story hurt him. He wanted to tell people the truth, and introduce his beautiful young daughter to the world, once his wife and he were to be married. He planned to marry Ivana, and then not long later have Carol killed, so that they could seemingly adopt their daughter back into their family, without any scandal. Ivana refused, but Vladan was persistent. She urged Carol to take her daughter away into safety, while she returned to the courts and married Vladan. The story she told was that Carol had taken her daughter on a vacation, and they would return in time. Vladan and Ivana had a beautiful wedding, it was told. They returned to the Spring palace for a month after their wedding with many members of the court following. Vladan's sole intention for returning was to find his daughter. Marius was sentenced to never leave the walls of the Spring palace, to keep a constant eye out for his daughter. On the last day, Carol returned to the castle in tears, claiming that something had happened to the child. Vladan was furious, and ordered the entire castle to be evacuated except for his wife, Carol and Marius. As everyone returned to the main city, he locked them all in a room, and ordered his general to attack the palace, but make it look as though the castle had been in mourning for a week, when rumours reached the castle that Queen Ivana had walked from the Spring castle with the help of a maid. Vladan, excited to hear that the woman he loved was alive, searched the town looking for her. She was found, along with his daughter and Carol, staying at a small house out in the country, owned by a gentleman named Lukas. You would know Lukas now as the castle's gardener.
Ivana begged Vladan to give Carol a second chance. She suggested that they all come to the castle together. He refused, but Lukas and Carol threatened to reveal the truth of the child to the people if he didn't agree. The young girl was introduced to the castle as an orphan, to be trained as a maid when she came of age. Carol became a nurse, taking care of the orphans and young children of the castle. Lukas was appointed castle gardener. The King grew further and further into depression, until one day, Queen Ivana announced she was pregnant with a child. There was great celebration in the castle. The Spring castle had long been forgotten, it had been ten years since it was destroyed. Carol and the first child had long been forgotten. Queen Ivana would sometimes send her small gifts, but could never bring herself to visit the child. King Vladan sent a small token on her birthday only. She was old enough to know now who she was, and why she was the only child receiving these gifts. She grew more and more beautiful as each year passed. Carol struggled to hide her resemblance to the Queen; cutting her hair short, making sure she was always thin, and that her skin was dark from the sun. A year after the birth of Princess Antonya, the King decreed that the first daughter was to leave the castle and return only if her life was in danger. She was given a job just outside the town, as a maid for a noble family. Struggling with her new life, the girl wrote often to Marius and Carol looking for support and affection.
Everyone inside the castle and out had heard of Princess Antonya's rebellious attitude, and the knight who was rumoured to not be going to war purely because he was her lover. The girl hated hearing it, how Antonya could be loved by her parents, how she was turned away because her parents made a mistake, not her. The war grew closer and closer to the residence she was staying at. The girl feared what she should do, should the war come too close to the house. Neither the Lord nor the Lady of the house were home to ask, and they didn't reply to her letters. She received a letter to Lukas, telling her that Carol was unable to write due to preparations at the castle being made: the Princess was leaving to Russia with her Uncle Marco. It was two days ride from where she was to Lukas' house, and his son would be there waiting for her."
Maria took a breath. That was the whole story, as best she could tell it. Although they were ten years apart, Princess Antonya was her younger sister. She was nervous. If Velibor didn't believe her, she would be without help in trying to protect these children.
"You... expect me... to believe..." he said slowly, thinking through his words, "that whole... story?"
"I, it's a lot.."
"You have no idea. The conspiracy that you are? How could you tell me this knowing what and who I am to the Princess? You make it sound as though she is your sworn enemy, and if you say so, that makes you MY sworn enemy!" He yelled, absolutely furious. He had no idea what to believe. He was cold, tired and hungry; heartbroken and had just had his trust betrayed; his head was a mess.
He stormed out of the hall, back towards the waterfall. The sun had begun to rise, soft rays shining through the trees onto the water. The birds were singing softly. Slow, heavy footsteps could be heard from the other end of the corridor.
"Velibor" his voice sounded, warm and soothing. "It is a lot, I understand. Walk with me, may I show you more of the castle that is not ruined?" Marius stood only a few paces away from him now, his arm outstretched. "You must understand, although it is hard for you, it is also hard for Maria, who is not allowed to be who she truly is; burdened with an identity she can never reveal to any one. This is also her first time back to Ivana's Palace. I am yet to show her what I wish to show you."
He accepted, not knowing what else to do. Maybe there would be a fact or two he could see, that would help him understand what was the truth. As they walked through various passages, some of them seeming untouched by time, others with walls collapsed, or holes in the floor, Marius told him of the history of each room and pathway. He had been in this castle since he was born, and had always tried to take care of the remaining rooms as much he could while he was still able to move. He admitted to not having been down here in a few months now, the weather had begun to hurt his old body.
They walked passed a kitchen, an old gallery with some of the paintings still intact. On the wall he noticed a large portrait of King Vladan and Queen Ivana on what looked like their wedding day. There was a painting of a cute little girl not far down with a very young woman, he assumed this was Carol, as Marius was in the background in his unmistakable uniform of a Royal house steward.
"Baby Maria, that is the little girl here in the picture. When she was born, she was named Ana, after her mother. We had to change her name as she started to grow older, for she looked exactly like the Queen, except that she had Vladan's eyes."
"Antonya looks more like her father" Velibor thought out loud.
"I am yet to see the Younger Princess except for the paintings that have been in the markets. I have, of course, added a painting of her to the gallery here. I believe, that you are the young knight she chose to pose with for her coming-of-age ceremony."
Velibor turned and saw the newer painting up on the wall. It was indeed Antonya and he, two years ago. She was so beautiful. Instinctively, he reached out to touch her face, but caught himself before Marius noticed; thankfully he was pre-occupied staring at the painting of Carol.
"Forgive me for asking..." Velibor paused trying to find a polite way to ask. "Ah... Carol was a... very close companion of yours?"
"Did I love her? I think that is what you are trying to ask young man. And yes, I do believe so. She was so polite. I'd never seen Ivana so happy. Carol and her Highness seemed to fit together perfectly. The entire palace brightened up, she woke up each morning with purpose, and Carol had the most beautiful smile. Alas, the stewards' life is a lonely one, boy. But I do not regret a single moment of my life, except that I allowed myself to grow old!" he laughed at the last comment, his eyes still on the painting of Carol.