Valerie felt like she was suffocating.
She stood in her room, facing the full-length mirror, completely alone. The pale glow of the sun filtered through the lace curtains of her window, sneaking across the weathered stone floor to lap at the edge of her purple and red dress.
The royal Lupess took one very slow, very deep breath, held it, and then let it out again. She could see herself in the mirror. Her eyes were red-rimmed and her lips were pale. Regardless, she’d clothed herself very carefully that morning; the dress was smooth and crinkle free. Every hair was in place. Her tiara was symmetrical.
Valerie’s hands shook as she picked a small velvet bag off the table and tipped the contents into the desk. One letter. One key. One map. A dozen small coins- as many as she could be confident of smuggling out without arousing suspicion- wrapped in felt to prevent them from jingling.
The Lupess sighed as she let her fingers slide over the objects, her gentle brown eyes blurring with tears. “Such a small birthday present,” she muttered.
Someone knocked at the door and Valerie swung around, shielding the precious objects from sight with her body. “Yes?”
A maid pushed the door open and curtsied. “Lunch is ready, ma’am.”
The maid curtsied again and backed out of the room. As soon as the door closed, Valerie turned back to the gifts and slipped them into the pouch. Her hands shook as she did so, and she inadvertently knocked the letter to the ground. It fluttered down, opening as it landed on the stone. Valerie blinked back frantic tears as she knelt down and picked it up, glancing at the carefully written words for a second before placing it back into the satchel.
Marcus, my dear son,
I know you must hate me by now. I’m sorry. I don’t think there is anything I will be able to do to earn your forgiveness, but please do not scorn me for trying.
I have seen so many other families torn apart by this feud; it kills me to think we have fallen to the same level. This war- this useless, stupid war- has divided us like I thought nothing ever would.
Which is why I am doing this. Why I am betraying my people- these people who I’ve lived with for all of my life- for you and your band of rebels. I tried for years to believe that I was on the right side, and that we nobles were the good people, that you freedom-fighters were in the wrong. I’m not sure anymore.
Nothing is black and white like I thought it was. There is nothing but varying degrees of grey. All I know is that I can’t stand to live in this palace anymore, poring over the death and capture records every morning in search of your name.
Valerie pulled the ties of the satchel closed, sealing the contents inside. Glancing around her room again- eyes scanning the blues and reds of the tapestries and curtains anxiously- she then slipped the package under the skirt of her dress and tied it in amongst the folds of the fabric. She turned back to the mirror and scrutinised her appearance. The thick red and purple fabrics hid the bulge of the parcel well.
She tugged her white gloves on, and swung around in front of the mirror to check that the bag would not become dislodged with movement. It didn’t. Valerie sighed, smoothed her dress one final time, and turned to the door.
The map shows all of the secret passages around the castle. These are secrets that have been held in the royal family for generations; the map would have eventually been passed to you if you hadn’t joined the rebel force.
Regardless, I’m giving it to you now. You will be able to block the escape routs and get into the treasury and dining room with it.
There was an eerie silence haunting the hallways of the palace as Valerie made her way to the courtyard. Maids curtsied as she passed, but the Lupess ignored them as she navigated the stone passageways. Every step she took felt like she was killing a part of herself, but she couldn’t stop now. Not when hope for her son was so close.
She had never been able to deny him anything when he’d been a child. A single pleading look was enough to make her buy him new clothes, toys, food, whatever it was that he wanted. He’d broken her heart when he’d left to join the rebels. He lived in the forest now, constantly hiding from the king’s scouts, constantly fighting just to get enough to eat for one day. He’d broken her heart, but Valerie couldn’t bring herself to break his.
The king, the queen, the dukes and duchesses and other nobles who lived in the castle were lost to her. Whether she was on the wrong side or right side didn’t matter; all she cared about now was Marcus.
The key is the master key for all the locks in the castle. Like the map, my mother handed it down to me. Use it to unlock the trapdoor hidden under the elm tree at the back of the palace; that will get you into the cellar, and from there you’ll have access to the other secret passageways.
The money is to buy food. I can’t stand to think how thin you must have grown during these years.
The courtyard was full of mud after the rain from the night before. Valerie picked her skirt up, being careful to keep the satchel concealed, and squelched through it as best as she could. A tall gnarled tree stood in one corner of the square, and Valerie stopped under it to wait. It was a safe place; behind the thick trunk she was hidden from the view of the windows. Valerie clasped her shaking hands to wait.
It only took a few minutes before she heard the clopping of a coal-black Messenger-Uni. Valerie waited until he’d stopped beside her, then she pulled the precious satchel out from between the folds of her skirt with trembling hands.
“How is he?” she whispered. “How is my son?”
The Uni met her eye for a second and then looked away as though he hadn’t heard. Valerie understood; as the rebels’ spy, he couldn’t afford to be caught talking about them. The Lupess nodded and blinked back tears as she tied her gift onto the pack on his back.
The Uni, once again, said nothing, but turned and trotted away with the same carefully measured casualness.
I don’t know how strong your army is, but we have a full battalion of guards here. Be careful. Please. Be careful.
I know you will probably never be able to forgive me for rejecting you when you left, but please know that I have forgiven you.
I love you. I always have, and I always will.
Happy birthday. Good luck.
The trip back to her room seemed to be longer than the trip down. Valerie locked the door behind herself and collapsed on the bed to cry.
To cry for the friends she’d betrayed, and to cry for her only son.
Valerie had no doubt that once they’d received the parcel, the rebels wouldn’t hesitate to attack. She only had hours before they came.
She was lost, no matter who won the fight. She couldn’t live with the nobles, after her betrayal. And she couldn’t live with her son’s people, if they won the fight against her friends.
In sending her birthday present to her son, she’d sent him everything she had.
Happy birthday, she thought sadly, before rolling over and covering her eyes against the sun.