Turning over the stiff parchment page, she breathed in a salty scent, which hinted of the places the book had traveled on its journey to come to rest on the bed of a Kievan princess. Laying on her belly, she rested her cheek on her palm and sighed dreamily, as a warm breeze entered through the narrow window nook of Golden Gate castle. Pressing her finger onto the next page filled with Arabic words she was still learning to read.
Arabic wasn’t part of her studies, focusing mostly on Cyrillic, Greek and Latin, however, upon receipt of coveted copy of Ring of the Dove, a treatise on love written by Muslim scholar, Ibn Hazm, teenage Anna was determined to learn. Unlike her elder sisters, she found love to be an important study, as important as politics, medicine and religion. Although, she was not interested in for its romantic poetry, but in a pragmatic sense. Learning all aspects of love could garner her marital success in any region of the world where her father secured a husband. With the recent rejection from the young Holy Roman Emperor, she was determined to make herself an excellent option to any nobleman, a wife that couldn’t be refused.
Anna read aloud, careful of each word, ‘“Love: reunion of parts of the souls, separated in this creation within their original higher element.’” She sat upright contemplating the words, imagining a love so true it united her soul with that of another and wondering what kind of man he would be.
Across a large room with log walls and a few scattered Persian rugs on a wood-paneled floor, her older sister Anastasia lounged on a rocking chair, pressing a cold tumbler of kvass against her cheek and her feet propped on an ottoman. Anastasia wore a casual, yet cerebral expression, similar to that of their mother who had garnered herself a saintly reputation, yet she had the sharp wit of their father. “Anna, since when can you read Arabic, or are you just pretending?” she questioned in jest.
Without lifting her head from the book, Anna replied, “I am learning.”
Their middle sister, the one known for her exquisite beauty, Elisa sat on a stool by a table, brushing her flaxen-colored hair. She whipped her head around toward Anna. “Is that my book you are reading?”
Anna rolled onto her back, taking the book with her and reading from upside down. “It’s mine now.”
Elisa stood from her chair and attempted to grab the book from her younger sister. “Harald gave it to me.”
“Oooh, Harald Hardrada, the great warrior,” Anna mocked with a swoon. You don’t even like him. What did you say about him, a pompous pretender?”
“Still, it was a gift to me,” Elisa argued trying to tug the book away from her younger, yet albeit stronger sister. Anna always had the grit and guts, in which Elisa could never compete, most likely the reason their father cherished Anna above all his children. Anna had the wit and she had wildness about her, which set her apart from nearly everyone.
Anastasia sat upright in heat chair. “Harald can’t speak Arabic either, can he? Where did he get the book?”
Elisa shrugged defeated, unable to wrestle the book from Anna. “He bought it from a merchant in the Byzantine.” She turned toward Anna with a scolding glare. “He bought it for me.”
“Don’t tell me he gave up writing you poetry? He failed with his words; he is now attempting to use the words of another?” Anastasia asked.
“It was a gift,” Elisa defended. “He buys me lots of gifts.”
“And yet you give nothing in return. What are you going to do with it anyway? You don’t like him? You don’t read Arabic and you don’t even care,” Anna argued.
Elisa stood firm, with her hands on her hips. “It’s a matter of justice. You are stealing what is mine.”
Anna sat with her legs folded on the bed and coyly opened the book, pretending to ignore Elisa as she read silently from the book.
“I’m going to tell father,” Elisa tested.
Anna paused to lick her finger and turn the page. “He will only ask if you can read Arabic and when you say no, he will allow me to have the book.”
“What can you speak of love and marriage? The Holy Roman Emperor turned you down? You have no prospects,” Elisa replied.
Anna knelt on the bed. “I am only fourteen and besides, he didn’t turn me down. He turned father down. We can’t help it if the new emperor doesn’t understand the benefit of having Kiev as an ally. That is the emperor’s failing, not mine.”
“Oh, you are simply so smart,” Elisa replied. ‘I feel sorry for the man who father offers you to.”
“You, dear sister have the love of a handsome man who wears his affection plainly. It is seen in his poetry and his power. It is seen how he kneels before our father, and yet you dismiss him at every turn,” Anna said.
“Soon he will leave to retake the throne and become King of Norway. Why would you pass on a king who adores you?” Anastasia asked.
“Because a man’s love is fleeting when it comes to his own power. Besides, it’s cold in Norway and I want to stay in Kiev. I want to stay with father and mother, with you two. Why must father trade us for a plot of land or political ploy? I don’t love Harald. Petty pronouncements of love do not make for a good husband.”
“What does make for a good husband?” Anastasia asked. “Harald is a handsome warrior who writes you poetry, gives you exquisite gifts, and will be king. Tell us, what do you want?”
“Someone who doesn’t want to buy me. Someone who doesn’t believe I can be lured with pretty words,” Elisa responded quickly and glanced at her sisters. “What about you two? What do you want in a husband?”
Anastasia reclined casually. “Kindness. Security,” she said as a wily smirk crossed her face, “And a warrior as a lover. You can marry Harald; I will keep him company.”
“Stop,” Elisa said with a sigh. “What about you Anna? What is your perfect husband?”
Anna fell back onto the bed and said with seriousness, “Agility.”
“You want a husband who is flexible?” Anastasia said unable to control her laughter.
“A man who can slay with his sword and his words, dances the line between seriousness and folly, stands with both confidence and humility,” Anna replied.
“And where do you expect to find such a husband?” Anastasia asked.
“Books. Only in books. My book. He is a fairytale for a juvenile mind,” Elisa said, making one last attempt to retrieve the book from her sister, but with no luck.
Anna sat upright and raised her finger in the air as she read from the book, ‘“Love my friend, starts jestingly, but in the end, it is quite serious.’” She closed the book on her finger and rest it on her lap. “It’s what I want, a friend to frolic, but the passion becomes dreadfully serious.” She sighed falling back onto the bed, staring at the ceiling. “It is a big world outside Kiev. Only God knows my future, our futures.”
“As father’s favorite, I’m sure he will only sort out the best husband for you.” Elisa replied, giving up retrieving her book and back to the task of brushing her hair. “He tried make you Empress.”
“All any of us can hope for, is a husband who isn’t crude and pleasant enough to be a consort,” Anastasia said before taking a sip of her drink and setting on the table beside the chair.
With the sentiment, the sisters fell into their own silent day dreams of what was to come.