A forlorn, soft piano melody enveloped her as the book lay at an awkward angle in her lap. As her eyes remained closed, absorbing the musician's brilliant performance, she had no idea her step-brother was watching her.
"Ah, Princess Catherine--there you are!" he said, barging into the room as he had many times over the previous two years.
Princess Catherine inhaled before his gravelly voice could release her daydreams. Sitting straight on the stiff sofa in the parlor, she placed the book next to her.
"Yes, good afternoon, Malcolm," she replied.
Malcolm supplied her with a half-smirk and proceeded to lean against the sofa on which she sat. Princess Catherine couldn't help but experience an ever-so-slight tingle when she peered into his crystal-blue eyes.
Although her step-brother's nose was somewhat too large, his lips thin, and his face angular, Malcolm had a strong jaw, well-groomed silver hair, and a smile that could draw women from countries away. At times, his boyish half-smirk made it difficult for Princess Catherine to recall he was seven years her senior.
"I heard about your meeting with the suitor this afternoon, and I must say I am intrigued," he said.
Catherine donned an immediate scowl. "Malcolm, is this going to be another instance such as when you barged into this room as I was learning that piano and tell me I am causing a ruckus, or will it be reminiscent of when I returned home wearing rouge and you mocked me endlessly?" she demanded.
Malcolm feigned ignorance, putting a hand to his heart. "Why, dear step-sister, I am saddened by your accusations! I merely wished to extend my...condolences that the meeting did not go as hoped." He suppressed a half-hearted chuckle.
"Of course," Catherine replied, clearing her throat. "I'll have you know our feelings were requited. I did not much care for the man."
"Oh? That's not what was told to me. I was told he stifled a laugh at first sight of you, and then appeared bored and lazy the remainder of his stay," Malcolm said, pulling on a lock of Catherine's brown hair.
She pulled away and supplied him with a sharp stare.
"My, my, you certainly are a harbinger of rejection, aren't you? Inquiring minds are dying to know, Princess--what's that like?" he asked.
"I suppose you should ask the multitude of women at your feet, Malcolm; perhaps they would be a more fitting choice. Tell me, how many with whom have you been?" she demanded, attempting to quell the sting of emotion forcing its way through her middle.
Malcolm stopped for a moment and furrowed his brow. "I don't know; I don't count," he replied smugly, turning his attention back to her.
"Of course not."
"Oh, poor Catherine," he continued. "No man will ever desire to be the Prince of a woman as plain as you. Why, your ridiculous freckles and mousy brown hair will never draw in a man of merit."
Catherine inhaled a sharp breath and straightened her back. "How dare you! I am an educated woman, I speak three languages fluently, and I am heir to the Cannary throne!"
"Oh come now, you're seventeen and still have yet to find a husband. How many suitors does that man make, anyway?"
At his words, Catherine stood and clenched her fists at her sides. "I will not stoop to your level of...affectionate teasing, Malcolm!"
For a moment, her step-brother said nothing, seeming to be surprised by her sudden outburst. However, after regaining his composure, he was hit with a fit of laughter so powerful he was forced to double over and clutch his belly.
"Affectionate! Oh, you are much too entertaining!" he said between chuckles.
Wanting no more of his belligerent behavior, Catherine stormed from the parlor and down the hall to the Queen's study, the familiar twinge of despondency trying to force tears from the well behind her eyes.
"Princesses do not cry!" she told herself before knocking on her mother's door.
Once she heard the unmistakable soft voice of her mother granting her entrance, she pushed the door open and barged into the room.
"Oh, Catherine, dear!" her mother said, a warm smile on her face. She pushed aside a pile of papers and supplied her daughter with her full attention. "I apologize about that abysmal meeting between you and Mr. Elgar this afternoon."
"It is fine, Mother," Catherine replied, seating herself in a plush chair across from the large maple desk at which the Queen worked. She straightened her back and folded her hands in her lap.
"You must understand that I feel you are at an age where you must find a husband." The Queen smiled again, gentle wrinkles creasing into the skin around her eyes and mouth.
"It is no bother, Mother. However..."
Queen Victoria leaned forward, awaiting her daughter's next words. "What is it, dear?"
"Well...there is this...man..." she stumbled with unease.
"Ah ha!" her mother cried, standing from her desk. "I knew it! I would recognize that look anywhere!"
"Nonsense! Why did you not tell me of this man sooner?" Queen Victoria demanded, rounding the corner and embracing her daughter.
"He does not share my feelings," Catherine replied with a sigh. With purpose, she omitted the fact that this man was also her step-brother.
Her mother pulled away and looked deep into her daughter's emerald eyes. "Any man who does not find you perfect is utterly mad," she said with a smile.
Catherine returned her mother's gesture with a strained smile of her own. "But, I am convinced he is the only man I desire, Mother."
The Queen took a seat in the other plush chair adjacent to her large desk and sighed.
"Catherine, I'd like to tell you a story," she began.
The Princess nodded and allowed her mother to continue.
"When I was not much younger than you, I married your father. I believed he was the handsomest man in the world. I doubted I would ever find another love such as he gave me. But..." she paused, a frown creasing into her long face, "when he died...well...I was torn, you know this."
"Yes, but I would rather not speak of Father," Catherine replied, her voice tight with decade-old anger.
"Of course, I understand. At any rate, when I met Malcolm's father two years ago, my belief in love was renewed; Callum is a wonderful man. Catherine, I am sure one day you will find a man who will return all the affection and love you hold in your heart."
After a late supper that night, Catherine was studying her books in a small den across from the castle's dungeon. Many of the words and phrases in the books were familiar to the Princess, and she found herself submitting to a brief chuckle at the Cannary License Act of 1872, which prohibited civilians to operate bovine while intoxicated.
Soon, as often happened on late nights when studying, she found herself intimidated by a particular clause in one of Cannary's oldest policies. Placing a piece of parchment between the pages to mark her place, she stood from the plush sofa and made her way down the hall toward the bedroom of the Queen and Prince.
"Mother?" she called, knocking on the door.
Silence followed, so the Princess rapped again.
"Mother?" she said with more force.
When no one answered, she turned the brass door handle and peeked into the room. What she saw was unimaginable.
Blood was spattered on the painting of her great grandfather and the pink striped wall above the four-poster bed. The sheets were soaked with the sticky red substance as it dripped off of the bed skirt into a puddle on the floor. The Queen and Prince of Cannary lay motionless, bathed in the crimson fluid. Catherine stared unmoving at the scene before her in utter terror.
Her lungs froze as she tried to call for help. All her prior schooling and instincts left her as she stared at her mother and step-father's lifeless bodies before her. She was unable to remember whom she was to call in a situation such as this. At last, when her head began to swim, she pulled in a labored breath and opened her mouth.
Her step-brother was the first person who had come to mind, and she shouted his name with all the strength left in her body.
By chance, his room was just across the hall and he emerged a moment later, raking a hand through his tousled silver hair.
"For what reason are you shouting, Catherine?" he demanded, yawning wide.
"Moth...mother..." she stuttered.
Malcolm let out a sigh and trudged across the hallway to Catherine's side. She was vaguely aware of his presence, but couldn't tear her gaze away from her poor mother.
After what seemed like an eternity of silence, Malcolm pushed Catherine away and pointed down the hallway.
"Go, Catherine! Go to your room! Whoever's done this may still be here!" he shouted at her.
Startled by the force of his voice, Catherine's composure returned, and she scampered toward the end of the long hall, followed by her step-brother's shouts for the guards.