ONCE UPON A TIME …
… there lived a duke and a duchess in a remote corner of Wales. It was a cold land, rugged and wild, known more for its strange weather than anything else. A sunny day could become windy and rainy and turn to snow just as quickly, then clear away to blue skies again, full of rainbows and bright golden sunlight. Fields were few and carefully tended; most of the land was hilly and overrun with half-wild ponies, shaggy and fierce. There was an abundance of nothing but landscape, sheep, and canal boats carrying coal from other parts of the country.
Yet the people of Kenigh lacked nothing; they had their pubs and their dances, their gossip and their holidays. They were an independent people beholden to no one, and only grudgingly did they acknowledge the queen of England.
The duke and duchess lived on a large estate in a positively enormous old house called Kenigh Hall, partly built into a real castle made from the same stones ancient invaders used for roads and temples. They had a proper staff, with servants, maids, cooks, butlers, and dozens of others. They had a huge kitchen in which feasts were occasionally prepared, libraries filled with old books occasionally read, velvet-draped studies decorated with French furniture, stables with expensive horses, game parlors, and dozens of bedrooms. Like royalty in the rest of the world they passed their hours usefully: The duchess ran the house, wrote letters to friends, and embroidered and sewed. She spoke French with important visitors when they arrived and was as perfect a hostess as one could imagine. The duke managed the estate and the finances, spoke with his retainers, and invested in exports from the Caribbean. Their leisure time was spent mostly with each other, except when the duke went on foxhunts or the duchess made the long trip to visit a friend in London.
In the rest of the world far away, time marched on relentlessly through its new mechanical clocks, but at Kenigh Hall life went on much as it had for hundreds of years.
The only thing it could be truly said that the duke and duchess lacked was a child and heir. For many years they consulted doctors, midwives, priests, and spiritualists, all to no avail. Neither the duke nor the duchess had family, not even distant cousins with sons who could inherit the estate. The people of Kenigh were likewise apprehensive; as far as the whole buisiness of royalty was concerned, these two were polite, generous philanthropists who employed almost half the town, from scullery maids to expensive orders from the butcher. Once they died the Crown might very well auction off the title to some rich nobody who would use the place as a summer retreat and spend most of his time in London. And where would they all be then?
But as the couple and their town began to lose hope, the duchess at last conceived a child. For nine months she was treated delicately, like the sickest of invalids, coddled and cooed over by the servants and lavished with kisses and presents from her husband. During the rare times that no one was around to keep her from leaving the bed, the duchess would rise and stand in front of her largest looking glass, hold her belly, and imagine what her son or daughter would look like. She herself was slender, with pale cheeks to her husband’s rosy ones, and dark hair to the duke’s mane of orange-gold.
“I hope he will be handsome. I hope she will be beautiful,” she would say. Gazing out at the wintry landscape she would add, “With skin as fair as snow, lips as red as blood, and hair as black as shadow.” Identical twins, boy and girl, played in her head. Then she would shake her head at her silliness. “I hope he is brave like my husband. I hope she is kind, like—like I hope I am.” She willed the baby inside her to be strong, to live out the nine months and be born healthy. The duchess knew the duke was expecting a boy, but she would be grateful for either, and secretly she would have been pleased with a daughter.
Finally, one chill winter morning, the duchess did indeed give birth to a girl. She had just enough time to cradle the baby in her arms and kiss her neck before slipping quietly away to the dark lands. “Jessica,” she murmured with her last breath, her lips already gone cold.
The duke came running in, throwing aside the midwives and nurses. When he saw a maid gently removing the baby from her dead mother’s breast, the duke howled in despair. “Mary,” he cried, rushing over to his wife and kissing her hands. He wept and stroked her hair. Everyone in the room averted their eyes, allowing him some semblance of privacy.
He kissed her brow one last time and stood, shaky, spent, and almost as pale as her. The baby made the softest noise, more of a sigh than anything else.
The duke turned to glare at it, all his anger at his wife’s death directed toward the tiny thing.
“Well, what is it?” he growled.
“It’s a girl, Your Grace,” a nurse spoke softly as she curtsied.
“Even that is denied to me.” His eyes flashed. “Not even an heir, a hope of the future now that my past is dead.”
“My Lady’s last words,” an older maid spoke evenly, knowing the things that must be done even in unpleasant times, “were to request that she be named Jessica.”
The duke’s face went soft for just a moment at the mention of the duchess’s last act on earth. Then he scowled.
“Jessica, Elizabeth, Constance—it makes no matter to me. Call her what you will. Just keep her out of my way while I mourn.” And he strode out of the room.
A wet nurse was found for the baby Jessica. The first time she was brought outside, it was to attend her mother’s funeral. A maid held her as she slept, woke, and made small noises. They stood at the back of the crowd where they would draw little attention.
But Jessica showed none of the sickness one might expect from the child of a dying mother; she was obstinately healthy and smiled early. The wet nurse and the other maids and servants doted on her; it could well be said that Jessica had a multitude of replacement mothers, fathers, uncles and aunts, and brothers and sisters. Her own father showed little interest in her fate or development. Once in a great while—on a holiday, for instance—Jessica would be dressed in long white clothes and presented to the duke. He would lean over and see her black hair and black eyes, so reminiscent of her mother, and his face would soften for just a moment. Then the baby would smile or gurgle, full of life, and he would send her away again.
The duke demonstrated no growing love for his own daughter; if the cook gave her. Warm smells and big, friendly faces surrounded her early childhood. What mischief she made was little; at most, she would pretend to sneak out of the kitchen, only to be run after, caught up, and hugged in a fit of giggles by Dolly, the fat old cook.
Once in a while the local priest or a friend would come by and mildly suggest that the kitchen was no place for a child of royalty. For a fortnight thereafter the unhappy Jessica would be confined to a large, drafty bedroom near the duke, cared for by an equally unhappy butler. As soon as the duke stopped noticing or caring, off Jessica would go, back to the kitchen where she was happy again.
The problems of the estate, far from being a concern to the little duchess, were nonetheless strangely felt by the duke and the town. There was still no royal heir. Girls and women could no more inherit property than men could bear children. At the very least the old duke would have to live until Jessica grew up and married so the estate could pass to her husband if he were high enough royalty, to her own son if he was not. But that was many years off, and as the poor duchess was an example, there are no guarantees in life or death.
So the duke was obliged to find another wife—one who could still bear him a son. He was not inclined to do so; for all of his many other faults he had loved his wife dearly and had no desire to replace her. He took his time—some would have said dragged his feet—as secretaries and advisors suggested this match or that, and foreigners came from as far as France to offer their noble daughters and sisters as his bride.
Jessica was still a child at this time. But unlike many duchesses, by the age of seven she could bake bread, doing everything herself from weighing the flour to slashing the top for steam to escape. She could churn butter, make jam, carefully weave pastry lattices for the tops of tarts, and expertly carve a paper-thin slice of rare meat off a leg of lamb if required.
Her favorite kitchen task was turning meat on the gigantic spit over the kitchen fireplace. The fat would drip and sizzle, and the herbs would roast and fill the room with intoxicating smells. It was the warmestplace in the drafty old estate house, and while staring into the fire Jessica would make up stories about the people and dragons she saw in the flames. Where other duchesses wore silk and velvet, she wore rough linen smocks; where they learned to sew and curtsy, she painted her face with flour and played catch-the-sack with the stableboy and the servants children.
Little did visiting nobles, presenting possible brides to the duke, realize that their meals were prepared, and sometimes served, with the help of a duchess.
When she reached nine and ten the servants and maids who had been her family finally began to feel that a kitchen was perhaps, after all, not the most appropriate place for her. It had been a long time since any royal children had been in the castle—not since the duke himself had grown up, with his cousins—so the protocol was uncertain. Jessica was forced into a proper bedroom in the main hall near where her father slept, but not too close. She was lonely and scared the first few nights, and gathered as many of the hunting dogs as she could to sleep in bed with her. Maids tried to fit her with more appropriate clothes, switching from shifts to dresses, barefoot to slippers. They tried to make her brush her hair.
But exile from the kitchen meant freedom on the rest of the estate grounds. Soon—every moment she wasn’t under direct supervision, in fact—Jessica was running wild, from looking out the highest gable windows in the attic to jumping in the hay in the stables, from catching frogs with the servants’ children to tiptoeing about the great hall when it was empty, spooking herself with the empty suits of armor that stood guard there.
Her happiness was not to last.
The duke finally began correspondence with a woman whom he did not immediately dislike. She was Duchess Anne of Mandagor, from England and therefore at once distrusted by everyone. The duchess was, however, childless, which brought some relief, eliminating the fear of a complete invasion of the duchy. She was older than Jessica’s mother would have been by a number of years, some said almost as old as the duke himself. The estate flew with rumors about her: that she was a spy for the Queen, that she was the most beautiful woman in Britain, that a delicate hand and an unheard-of skill with the needle.
The duke traveled to see her with his most trusted advisors and secretaries. Jessica was only vaguely concerned about the goings-on regarding the duchess; the duke himself was merely a scary man she was supposed to like and who, having gone away, she wouldn’t be forced to see for a fortnight or two.
Upon his return he announced his betrothal to Anne, who was making arrangements and would join him in a month for their wedding. Parties were planned, despite his annoyance. It had been far too long since his few friends and colleagues had anything to really celebrate. The stableboy, Davey, told Jessica that there were plans for cakes and great fox-hunts. They were debating the various merits of the different kinds of possible cakes when she was summoned to the duke’s presence.
Maids rushed to prepare her as best they could, combing her hair with their fingers and patting down her dress, removing ash and flour. A little frightened at the summons, Jessica entered the duke’s private office with her head down but remembered to curtsy and mumble “My Lord Duke” as she approached him at his chair and desk.
“My Lord Father,” the duke corrected. He looked her up and down as if she were a stranger, no fault escaping his eye. Her face was smudged, her stockings crumpled, and her dress the length of a child’s—not the calf-length dress an eleven-year-old should wear.
“You are to have a new mother,” he said, gazing at her levelly.
Jessica’s mouth hung open in shock. Her mother, as everyone told her, was dead and interred in the church. She had never known her. Dolly was the closest thing to a living mother she had, and Jessica loved her with all her heart. She didn’t understand why she needed another.
“Close your mouth, girl. This will not do at all. Too long have I neglected your education, left it in the hands of incompetent and lally-minded maids. We shall have to shape you up before the duchess arrives.”
“The duchess …” The realization came upon Jessica slowly that the woman who was to marry her father was also to be her mother . This was a connection she had not made before, listening to all of the servants’ gossip. “Is she very … nice?” she asked meekly.
“She is very beautiful. And wise,” answered the duke. “And she may be able to turn you into a real lady yet.”