An orphan no longer
By Hannah Ruth
Northendral Castle, early 1500s
“Happy birthday, Cassie!”
Cassie grunted and cracked open one eye. With a smile as bright as the sunrise, Queen Marian glided into Cassie’s room and pushed aside the heavy gray curtains. A warm stream of sunlight fell over Cassie’s face. She pushed back her covers, rubbed the sleep from her eyes, and sat up. “Good morning, Your Majesty.”
Queen Marian’s wide smile showed her shiny teeth. “It is a big day. We had a dress made for the occasion.” She waved a servant in from the entrance and lifted a pile of fabric from the servant girl’s arms. Sure enough, it straightened into a gown.
Cassie’s eyes widened. This was a dress made for a queen. It was not one fit for an orphan like Cassie, who was only there because of the king and queen’s generosity. Shimmering white silk with flowers embroidered on the bodice and skirt in matching thread called her attention. Its laces went up the sides instead of the front, and its sleeves went to the elbow. Cassie stood and took a step toward Queen Marian, her eyes affixed on the beautiful gown. “Your Majesty, it is only my fifteenth birthday. Why a new dress?” And such an elaborate one at that.
“You will see.” The queen’s eyes twinkled. “Put it on.”
Cassie held her arms up for Queen Marian to put the gown over her head. The maidservant laced up one side while the queen tied the other. Cassie kept her arms high and distanced from the pure white material. She didn’t dare touch it, lest she somehow stain it. Queen Marian’s maid styled Cassie’s hair with a few tiny braids then covered it with a thin veil she pinned on with a row of pearls.
Tucking a few stray strands behind her ear, Cassie nervously laughed. “My lady, I am not getting married, am I?” She couldn’t imagine her queen arranging a marriage without her knowledge or consent, but she saw no other reason for such finery. It wasn’t as if she were one of the king’s sisters or daughters, though she did get lessons from King Christoph’s siblings’ tutor. Most of her time was spent helping Queen Marian at the Northendral Orphanage. She had no reason to wear this dress.
“No, no, silly girl. Just wait. You will see.”
Why did she keep saying that?
King Christoph and Queen Marian both were unusually happy at the breakfast table. When the king’s mother, brothers, and sisters bid Cassie a happy birthday, her chest tightened. What right did she have to be wished a happy birthday by the king’s family? This feeling had been tormenting her for a few months now. The queen had been generous to let her stay at the castle, but how long could such generosity last?
She did not belong here. Everyone around the table was related to King Christoph either by blood or by marriage. Everyone but her. What reason did she have to eat at the king’s table, to sleep in his castle, and to be given such a beautiful gown? None. In the building behind the castle, nearly fifty children ate plain pottage together every morning. Cassie, like them, once had lived on the streets, scrounging for any food she could find. So why was she here? She should be at the table in the orphanage.
She blinked rapidly and lifted her glass of peach juice to her lips—her favorite fruit and a special treat for her birthday. But her lip trembled, and the yellow juice dribbled down her chin. Her heart stopped when it landed on the dress and left a peach-colored splotch.
She pressed her handkerchief to it as tears welled up. Her gaze flew to Queen Marian. “Your Majesty, I—” She stood and dabbed at her wet eyes. “I should go.” Instead of running to her room, she scurried down the long corridor that led to the orphanage.
The other children and the servants who cared for them watched with wide eyes as Cassie flew up the steps. From the servants’ bedchambers, she took a plain kirtle and apron. She unlaced the beautiful, once snow-white dress and put the kirtle over her underdress before examining the stain.
Her fingers clutched the ruined material. How had she made such a silly mistake? The peach juice would never come out—not from white. Would the queen ever forgive her?
“Cassie?” a voice called from the hallway. Cassie sniffled and straightened her back in time for Queen Marian to nudge the door open. “Oh, my dear.” The queen slipped inside and closed the door behind her then sat on the cot beside Cassie. “Whatever is the matter?”
Cassie held the stained spot out to her. “I am so sorry, Your Majesty. I should have been more careful. It is such a fine dress. Please forgive me.” The tears ran again, hot and embarrassing.
Queen Marian pushed the material aside and put an arm around her. “There is nothing to forgive. I should not have had it made white. I didn’t realize it would worry you so.” Her blue eyes met Cassie’s, and she put her other hand on Cassie’s knee. “Why did you come here?”
Cassie focused on the pattern of the tile squares of the floor. “I should live here, not in the castle with you and King Christoph. I am just an orphan. Why should I dine at the king’s table? And this dress, Your Majesty, it should be given to one of the princesses.” She sniffled again. “If it can be salvaged.”
Queen Marian took Cassie’s hand into her own. “Cassie, do you know why we had that dress made for you?”
“No, Your Majesty.” She swallowed past the lump in her throat. “You would not tell me, remember?”
“You are right.” The queen took the dress from her and brushed the stain with her fingertip. “This is just a gown, something special to commemorate this day.” She set it onto the floor beside her. “The dress is not what makes the day special. You are. Cassie, you live with me because I have grown to love you during the years since your father died.”
Cassie had been only seven years old when her father, Queen Marian’s friend’s widower, had fallen ill and died. Queen Marian had promised him that she would take care of Cassie—though Queen Marian hadn’t held a royal role back then but rather had been a peasant girl.
If Queen Marian hadn’t been there, Cassie never would have survived on her own. The queen had taken Cassie home and held sole responsibility for her care. And in the eight years since then, she had never sent Cassie away or asked her to stay in the orphanage rather than the castle.
The queen stroked her hair. “Today is your fifteenth birthday, but it is also the day that Christoph and I have chosen to adopt you. To make you our own.”
Cassie turned her gaze back up to the queen. “What?”
“I suppose we should have told you, but we wanted it to be a surprise. Today you shall become our daughter in the eyes of the Church.”
Cassie’s eyes widened so much they began to sting—or perhaps those were tears again. “Your Majesty, how can I be your daughter? I am just an orphan. I am blessed enough to live with you and be cared for by you, but to be your daughter…”
Queen Marian wore a gentle smile and squeezed Cassie’s hand. “You will be Princess Cassie of Northendral. Like any other princess, you will attend balls, receive a dowry from Christoph—your father—and find a royal husband.” She winked. “Unless you are like your father. I am certain he won’t keep you from marrying a peasant as he did.”
Cassie’s mind raced. “But Your Majesty, how can I deserve that? I am just like any other child in this orphanage with no parents and nothing to my name. Why me? And how will I be a good princess? I ride my horse astride and spill juice on white dresses.” She couldn’t possibly have earned the love of the king and queen.
Queen Marian pulled her close. “Cassie, I don’t want you to be my daughter because of anything you’ve done or because I expect you to be perfect. It is a gift, something that cannot be earned, just like the righteousness given to you through Jesus’s death.” The queen stroked her hair so gently that Cassie thought of her father as she’d known him before he grew sick and weak. She had been so alone, so afraid. Queen Marian had given her food and drink as well as love and safety.
“King Christoph and I only ask that you accept our love. We want you to be part of our family. And besides, you are no worse than I.” The queen let out a laugh. “I used to always ride astride, as you well remember, and I was a disaster at the castle. I certainly was unfit to be King Christoph’s bride when we met, and I have spilled on many a dress.” She searched the material of her blue and pink silk bliaut then held a brown spot up for Cassie to see. “None of us are perfect, Cassie, and nobody is asking that of you. Please, won’t you be our daughter?”
“You love me?”
“Of course I do. Why would I keep you close all these years if I didn’t?”
Cassie stared into her queen’s eyes, remembering how Queen Marian had cared for her all these years—through the opening of the orphanage, her wedding to the king, and into her new life as queen. “But how? I am only an orphan…”
Queen Marian kissed her cheek and straightened out a few stray hairs. “You were an orphan. I already feel as if you are my daughter. That is why you live in the castle and dine at the king’s table—because we want you there. Not because you are worthy but because you are loved.” She lifted her head, and Cassie followed her gaze. King Christoph stood in the open doorway. He too had shown her much kindness. Sometimes he took her out on his horse or played chess with her. Often he and Queen Marian took Cassie for walks after their evening meals.
But could it be true that the king wanted her—messy, poor, clumsy Cassie—as his daughter?
King Christoph strode in with his usual dignified, confident gait, ever offset by the curl that fell across his forehead. He kneeled in front of Cassie and Queen Marian and took one of each of their hands. His gentle brown eyes searched Cassie’s. “It is time to go to church. Are you ready, Cassie?”
She smiled as tears rolled down her cheeks yet again, this time liquid drops of joy. “Yes, Your Majesty.”
As King Christoph held her and Queen Marian close, Cassie’s head tucked between his firm chest and his wife’s cheek. Two hours later, she again was wedged between the pair—her parents—as they stood before the congregation of the Northendral Cathedral.
There was only one thing to say. “Thank you.”
Thank You, God, for blessing me with a family.