Awkward didn’t begin to cover what Celedria was feeling. She was truly regretting inviting the prince to eat with her again, just as she seemed to every time; the first few meals had been uncomfortable enough and they were not getting any better. She should have stuck with her policy of ignoring suitors as much as possible and, really, it would have been easy to do just that. He had already been there for just a little over a month, escorting her to parties in the city, buying her trinkets, quietly observing her in the hallways with her squawking band of female companions, and, while he wasn’t as obtrusive and bizarre as she had feared at first, the relationship really wasn’t going anywhere beyond tolerance. She could stand him, but she could never marry him. And he didn’t seem to mind so much on the several occasions she had seen fit to tell him that. So why was he still here?
Enthiln cleared his throat comfortably and she looked up at him, expecting him to say something. Instead, he shoveled another forkful of lemon pie into his mouth.
Finally, Celedria asked politely, “So have you heard much from your family since you got here?”
He nodded, swallowing. “Mostly Ulanis.”
“Your younger sister?”
“Mm-hm. I am pretty close to her and Envier, the next youngest, but he does not write much. And Romadia and I like and put up with each other in about equal portions.”
“It sure seems like you get a lot of letters.”
“I have friends who write, too.”
Celedria knew exactly who he was talking about and wasn’t sure how to respond. Again, there was a long pause. There was still that one question, the one that bothered her incessantly, the one that kept prompting her to invite him to her side and kept her from simply sending him home, but she wasn’t sure if she wanted to ask. Rosemary, taking unusual notice of this suitor, had vaguely told her that there was another girl he was interested in and kept her informed when he received a letter from her or when he sent her one. So far, not that she cared, he had sent her twelve and she had sent him fifteen, all within just seven weeks. Just a few days over one whole month: it was ridiculous, and probably monstrously expensive as well. That was probably what he was doing during the countless hours that she didn’t see him: writing endless letters. The girl seemed to have every intention of waiting until her prince returned home to marry her, and he seemed to be in keeping with that plan. Which drew the question again to mind, because he wasn’t interested in Celedria and she wasn’t interested in him, but he was still sticking around. Not that she was complaining, but he generally left her alone; she saw him chattering away with the servants more than he idled the time with her. Unlike the other suitors that had come through, he was usually content to let her approach him, which wasn’t an all too common occurrence. And, shaking her head over a thick slice of blackberry bread, it brought her back to that same burning question, the question that remained despite her ignoring him and him ignoring her and him missing his girl and her probably missing him and everything locked in a maddening standstill: “Why are you still here?”
He laughed darkly. “I am not even sure myself.”
She looked up at him, shaken from her thoughts and a little surprised he had finally decided to strike up a conversation. “What was that?”
“I said I am not even sure myself,” he repeated. He waited a moment, and then clarified uncertainly, “You asked why I was still here.”
She flushed bright red and a hand automatically shot up to her mouth. “Did I say that out loud?”
He laughed again, nodding. “A little muffled, but, yes, you said it.”
Feeling humiliated, she apologized quickly, “I am sorry, I did not mean to.”
He shrugged, turning back to the last morsel of his meal, and, unembarrassed, he admitted, “It is a legitimate question. We are not exactly friends, let alone in love, despite the hopes and pressures of our parents.”
Shaking her head, she insisted, “Still, it is not my place to pry.” And she really believed that, even though, of all people, there was maybe one other who could possibly have more of a right to ask, and Celedria didn’t like thinking about her too much. Another heavy pause settled as Celedria struggled to get over her mortification and find a way to salvage her dignity.
Enthiln slowly replaced his fork beside the empty plate. Still staring down at it, he told her very honestly, “Because you are not what I was told you are. I am intrigued. I would like to meet the real you, the one that nobody outside this palace seems to know.” He looked up at her. “I have spoken with nearly every person who has so much as cleaned your shoes. Without exception, everyone here adores you, but, forgive me for saying, I do not understand why. I have heard the most ridiculous things about you, but not one of them seems to be true. The things I have seen and heard here… I just think you are worth knowing, even if there is no future in it.”
Celedria didn’t know how to respond. She had never felt so simply and sincerely complimented before in her life.
Still watching her solemnly, he said softly, “And now the next question is this: why have you not sent me away?”
I am sorry I have not written for the last several weeks. I have had some deep thinking to do and I guess I lost track of how much time that was taking. The conclusion I have reached is not the one I was hoping for and there is no gentle way to put it. I have been here for four months and I am sorry, but things are not turning out as I had expected. The princess’ name is Celedria, as I am sure you have heard by now, and she is not exactly what I had been told that she was. In fact, she reminds me of you in many ways. But the point is that things with Celedria are getting more serious than I would have thought. I am so sorry to have to say this to you, but we both knew the risk of my coming here, as distant as we both thought it was. You have always been so wonderful to me and I will always appreciate that. If you want to, I will gladly remain your friend and exchange letters with you, but I can no longer offer you anything more than that. Please do not think poorly of me. This has nothing to do with Celedria’s position or anything like that and I hope you knew me well enough to believe that. I came here loving you with all my heart, but that has changed in a slow and subtle way that I could not begin to explain or even understand. I can only apologize again and assure you that there was nothing you could have done differently or better. I will always think of you fondly, but I can no longer think of you as a sweetheart. I have all the best wishes for you in my heart, but otherwise, my heart is no longer yours.
Enthiln sat back from the desk with a sigh. After a moment’s deliberation, he picked up the letter and read it over again. He shook his head. This was his third draft and it still didn’t feel sufficient. He knew this would hurt Laurel, hurt her badly, and she hadn’t done a thing in her life to cause anyone pain. He had thrown every mental capacity into trying to find a way to make her feel okay about this, to make her understand that this wasn’t in any way her fault, that she was still perfect in his eyes, just different, but he couldn’t find the words for it and was so exhausted with thought that he felt ragged just deciding what to have for breakfast in the morning.
It really would be easier to marry Celedria than it would be to marry Laurel, but that had so little to do with it that it almost didn’t exist. The position, the wealth, the prestige, the family connections and the political ties: he didn’t need any of those things to be happy. He was Heir Prince; they could go swim in the Sea of the Dead for all he cared. They were the obvious, the crass, the easily said things that were so blatant but so unimportant. The things that really did matter were the sorts of things that he couldn’t ever describe. A feeling, an instinct… a glimmer of unexpected beauty, a lesson slowly learned: what he wanted to say didn’t have words to describe it and he would have given anything to just open his heart for a moment, just one carefully guarded glimpse, and let poor Laurel see because he knew she would need it.
Celedria shuddered, another sob wracking her thin shoulders, so young and childlike from Rosemary’s point of view. The princess’ red and wet face was buried in her lady’s lap, unable to face the world.
Rosemary tenderly stroked her hair. “Darling, I think you are overreacting.”
“But, Rosemary, he hardly ever talks to me!”
“He has never spent much time talking with you, dear,” she reminded her. “He just likes to watch.”
“He talks to you.”
“I am a servant.”
“No, you are not.”
“Yes, I am. He speaks with the servants and with your friends-”
“They are not my friends.”
“-and with the nobles that frequent the Tas-Halth. It has always been this way and you have never minded before now. Why does it suddenly bother you so much?”
She muttered that she didn’t know.
Rosemary lifted her princess’ face, studying the familiar features streaked with tears and misery. The girl couldn’t have been more precious to her if she had been her own daughter. She had taken her as an infant; she had nursed her; she had protected her; she had raised her; she had been her closest companion and the only bearer of the few secrets she chose to share. There was nothing in the world she wouldn’t do to assure that her little girl was happy. She gently wiped her cheeks and whispered kindly, “My goodness… he certainly has you in a mess, Lady Midnight.”
Her face dissolved into tears again and dropped down to her lady’s lap, and Rosemary couldn’t help but smile and suppress a little laugh.
“Could you just talk to him about it?”
“Because he might not…”
“He might not what?” she asked softly, getting to the heart of the matter. “He might not love you?”
“Nanny, please… Please.”
She didn’t know.
“Prince Enthiln,” Lady Rosemary laughed, frustrated and amused and incredulous all at the same time. “You have been here for four months now. You talk to the kitchen hands about her eating habits more than you talk to her! If you are so curious about her, why do you not talk to her? I have told you everything I can, as has everyone else in the palace besides her and her father. Go talk to her. She stopped being rude to you months ago; it is safe now. If you want to go up on the west tower with them tonight, you should ask them instead of badgering me about it. You do not see me up there every night.”
Prince Enthiln ran his fingers through his short curls impatiently. “Well, of course I will, but are you sure they would not mind the intrusion? I mean, it is a very personal thing to them.”
“You cannot be serious. King Galandorn thinks you would be a wonderful son-in-law and Celedria enjoys your company, even if she is yet to admit it.” Her smile became just a touch confused and she added, “I honestly do not know why you have not asked her to marry you yet.” She wanted to say more, mostly about having never seen so many tears and woes on a male’s account in her life, but didn’t feel like Celedria would appreciate her sharing that.
Enthiln shrugged helplessly. “Well, so far I only know about her, the things others say she is, the things I have seen her doing. Now that I know everything about her, I will get to know her, what she feels, what she thinks, what she hopes, and I think all of that starts up on that tower with her father at night; from what I have been told, things are different since they started doing that together and I wanted to see what the magic is. Then, once I have her figured out and if I think she will accept,” his voice dropped to a whisper. “Then I will ask.”
“Well, that seems like a nice safe plan,” she said amusedly and resisting the urge to playfully call him a coward.
He smiled, catching her meaning. “Do not tease me. Half a year is hardly enough time to become acquaintances. You cannot expect me to marry someone I have only known for four months.”
“Was this your tactic all along: exuberant oddity to warm things up and then painfully slow acquainting and maybe something more later if you get bored?”
He laughed. Rosemary had a knack with words; she used them like arrows and had a good aim. “Frankly, I did not even want to marry her when I first got here. I am sure you remember. The only reason I was so funny was because I thought it would annoy her.”
She smirked slightly. “Clever. Your plan seriously backfired.”
He laughed again, a little more helplessly than before. “I am glad the rumors were so wrong about her.”
“Rumors are rarely correct, anyway.” She patted his shoulder, kindly not mentioning some of the less savory rumors she had heard about him. “Nobody has tried that approach yet. Of course, nobody has succeeded in winning her over yet.”
He grinned. “Well, I plan on being the first.” He heard voices and glanced out the doorway of the kitchen into the dining room. The king and princess were just seating themselves at the large oak table and chatting merrily about how beautiful the moon had been the night before, as they always did when they thought nobody else was there. People usually were around so it was a rare treat for them to be able to speak freely. The nightly vigils on the tower were often their only chance to escape from their daily tasks and stresses. The prince hated to ruin it for them. Just asking for it felt like sullying it, whether they accepted him or not.
“Enthiln,” Lady Rosemary whispered, sensing his hesitation. “Ask them about this evening. I doubt your request will be denied.” If she had to listen to her precious Lady Midnight weeping out her sorrows one more night, her heart would break.
Still looking at Celedria through the doorway, he nodded. Lady Rosemary was rarely wrong in gauging the royal family; she was practically a member herself. “You are right, Lady. I will ask after we have eaten.”
They walked into the dining room and sat down in their respective places: Rosemary next to her princess and Enthiln across from her. Soon the table was laden with steaming platters of food. Plates were piled high with eggs of every sort and style, wild game sausages, hot cereals with fruits, honey, nuts, or fresh maple syrup, salads with wild honey, fresh bread, moist apple fritters, small crumbly cakes and many other delightful foods. Everybody selected his or her choice of food for the morning. Princess Celedria had scrambled eggs and fruit salad, rolling the grapes around her plate as she stole glances at her suitor. After everybody had finished and conversation was at ebb, the servants quietly came to take away the dishes. The first of the guests began to excuse themselves, leaving in pairs and clumps. After a few moments of watching them go, King Galandorn got up as well to leave for a morning meeting with the farmer’s guild, but Prince Enthiln asked him to wait.
“I have a quick request,” Prince Enthiln began carefully, glancing awkwardly at a noblewoman who lingered curiously behind Celedria. “I hope that you will not be offended by my asking, but…” He rolled a half-eaten boiled egg around his plate momentarily, taking a deep breath, and continued quickly. “I was wondering if you two would mind if I were to join you tonight on the tower.” Enthiln began talking quickly in his nervousness. “I mean, I know it is a personal thing and, if either of you does not want me there, I perfectly understand and I will leave it alone, but I just thought that I might ask because I was hoping… hoping that it might be okay.” He ended clumsily and glanced up, adding quickly, “Just for tonight. Then I would leave you alone again. I just want to see what it is like.”
The king looked a little uncomfortable with the idea. He liked the young prince, but that was his and his daughter’s time together when they worried about nothing else. Having him there would make things more complicated. It might bring up old worries that he had previously found relief from on the tower.
Enthiln shifted uneasily. He had thought the king would be the easy one to win over and had spent his time worrying about the princess’ decision. He was starting to wonder if he had made a mistake in asking at all. He looked in mild alarm at Lady Rosemary who was guiltily looking at the floor with flushed face. She had thought he would be easy, too. After just a few moments, Enthiln was nearing panic and was about to recall the request.
“I do not mind,” Celedria said suddenly, forcefully. She looked humorlessly at her father and asked with obvious warning, “Do you mind, Papa?”
Just as slowly and carefully as Prince Enthiln had initially asked, King Galandorn said, “I can see no harm in that.”
She smiled, looking at her suitor with bright eyes. “Perfect.”
Prince Enthiln smiled happily, more relieved than Celedria would ever know and loving her all the more for her support. Meeting her gaze, he felt certain that she felt the same way he did. He echoed faintly, “Perfect.” He exultantly thought about how she must love him and how everything would work out perfectly. Maybe a little sooner than he was planning, they could be married and live happily ever after. He felt he had already won.
King Galandorn watched his daughter, noting the light in her eyes as she stared at her prince, and smiled in spite of himself. He knew it meant he would be losing her soon, maybe too soon, but he couldn’t think of a better-suited husband. He was the eldest son of his strongest ally and friend. He already loved Enthiln as a son. He knew his daughter loved him, too, and her potential happiness eased the pain of losing her.
Lady Rosemary was beaming. She had been worried for a while at the king’s uncertainty, and then she sat in wonder at the princess’ absolute lack of hesitation. She would have been sure that Celedria had fully given in to Enthiln’s advances even without the sobbing frustration she had to endure at least once a week. But still, her princess was usually more subtle than that in public. ‘Maybe things are getting more serious than I had thought,’ she mused.
All Celedria knew was that it was just one more opportunity to be with Enthiln and that was all she wanted. A distant part of her mind worried that he still spent so little time with her and so much with the servants, (Who was he courting anyway?) but she felt confident in knowing that there would be no servants on the tower that night or any other. Then he would pay attention to her. To be perfectly fair, she talked with his servants often, too, and they happily told her all she wanted to know, but it was far past the time that they should be asking each other the questions. She smiled, imagining the beautiful night sky on the tower with her suitor. She closed her eyes and dwelled on the dreams.
The small group, practically a family, was blissfully lost in happy thoughts. They stayed at the dining table after the dishes had been cleared and all the servers and kitchen hands were making their recurrent pilgrimage to the washing room. The banging of pots and pans did nothing to stir them, nor did Galandorn’s impending meeting. But then an elf supported by a pair of guards rushed in and shattered their daydreams like glass in a tornado.
He was gasping for breath as if he had run the whole way there. Maybe he had. His clothes were torn and there was blood on his right sleeve. He had a nasty laceration on the bridge of his nose that was starting to bleed again. The sword that hung at his side was broken in half leaving nothing but a pitiful stump of what once had been a beautiful blade. He was terribly pale and thin, as if he had not eaten or slept on the two weeks’ journey from his home to the palace. Tears of stress and sorrow streamed down his worn face. He looked wildly about himself in search of aid until his eyes fell on the shocked king. He surged forward, breaking away from the guards.
“My home: we are under attack,” he whispered hoarsely and stumbled weakly to the floor.