Celedria, despite her best efforts, began to attract the attention of many young suitors, who were known to make up urgent business so that they could to travel to Alekasyl to catch a glimpse of her and make their plans. She was forty-eight, after all, and one must be ready. It irked Celedria on several levels. Once she finally reached the age of fifty, the acceptable age for marriage in her culture, she was constantly hosting one prince or nobleman after another as they tried desperately to win her hand. One by one, they were all turned away to their own land. They all lacked the same thing: none of them really knew her. And frankly, she did not want them to know her, nor to get to know any of them. She was well aware of her position in the kingdom. She would be ruling queen some day. What did she need a husband for? To boss her around? To try to run her kingdom for her? She knew what they all wanted: a pretty wife and a shiny crown. More than anything else in the world, Princess Celedria disdained the idea that she was not in control of any given situation. Besides, grasping suitors did nothing to fill her void of loneliness. So why bother with them? She was polite, but distant: familiarity was to be avoided at all costs. Her cold demeanor and icy glares deterred even the most power-hungry or love-sick among them. One by one, they all turned away and went sulking and weeping back to their own homes.
Secretly, King Galandorn was relieved; he loved his Celedria very much, and the thought of losing her to another broke his heart. She was all he had left of her mother, even though she looked little like her. Their personalities were very similar, but almost all that they had in common physically was that they were both unusually beautiful, more like members of the lost strain of true elves than the part-human heritage of the remaining tall elves. Celedria took after her father in every aspect from her ridiculously double-jointed knuckles to her hair and skin and eye coloring, from her prominent collar bone to the slightly embarrassing inability to curl her tongue; some days she bemoaned the fact that she was practically her father on a female frame. Despite her worries and tender vanity, there was inarguably something about her that left no doubt in a person’s mind that she was Celedrail’s daughter. Maybe it was her demanding, powerful presence, softened by an essentially kind and despondent heart. Maybe it was the light that always shone from her or her noble expression that expressed how important she knew she was. But Celedrail truly shone from her daughter in her eyes; it was that peculiar light, the divine splendor of that power which linked them. Everybody who had known the queen could immediately recognize the parallel divinity of her and her daughter. Those who hadn’t known her, who only knew her daughter, knew there was something special about the light in those eyes. All the young nobles knew was that there was a luster captured by them that was worth all the wealth of the world and more. They were even more precious to King Galandorn: a reflection of his queen in her glory.
Watching Celedria listen to another suitor’s jokes in the foyer with characteristic primness and forced boredom, Galandorn hunched gloomily against a column beside Rosemary and sighed. “I am going to loose her soon.”
The lady looked over at him in surprise and asked, “What are you talking about? Look at them: she hates him.”
He shook his head. “No, not him. But someday she is going to come across someone that is just too wonderful to scare away and she is going to marry him. She will leave us and forget us and we will once again be without our Lady Midnight.” He looked down at his feet and muttered softly, “I do hate being lonely and left behind all the time.”
She gave him a gentle push and said, “You need not worry about that. Yes, she probably will find someone and she probably will get married and leave us. But she will never forget us. We will always be with her, even if it is only in thought. Yes, she is selfish and proud, but she is not cruel or forgetful. Besides, she will certainly visit and, since this is her kingdom, there is no reason for her to leave at all.” She paused, then added emphatically, “And we will never be without our Ladies. They are always with us. You know that better than I.”
For sake of their wounded prides, some nobles who had tried unsuccessfully for the princess’ hand were spreading rumors that she had sworn herself to a life of maidenhood. Since it was unfounded and ridiculous gossip about a celebrity, most people believed it and she did not have to deal with suitors for almost another year. She was highly pleased with the arrangement and made no efforts to deny the false rumors. Therefore, it came as a bit of a surprise when, on a cold, dreary night when no stars could be seen, another unwanted nobleman appeared. Princess Celedria sighed in disgust when she was informed, but prepared herself to meet him anyway. She knew that her father would be down in the practice halls with the soldiers and might not be suitable to greet guests by the time they entered the palace. That left the unpleasant job to her. She and her lady went to the front doors and, just as Celedria had predicted, soon after received a short message from her father asking her to look after the guests until he could get there. True to her mood, the full storm broke out over the Tas-Halth, soaking the approaching party within moments. As the wet procession trooped into the torch-lit entryway and out of the storm, she grumpily strained to discern the suitor from the crowd of soaked cloaks.
The nobleman himself was also trying to find her from among the pale faces gathering on the raised dais above the entryway. He did not dispense too much effort on the task, though, being more concerned with how very numb his toes were. His long dark hair was wet to the very tips, his cheeks were flushed a bright crimson and his lips were turning a slightly purplish hue. Silently thanking the gods that they were finally there, he gave himself a few moments to enjoy the warm dry palace as he dismounted his horse and turned to see that the rest of his small company was inside. They were all used to a comfortable palace in the warmer climates of the south, not the road on which they had been traveling to reach the princess. Satisfied that his people were also receiving the comforts of the indoors, he turned back to his own cold misery, wondering glumly if this travesty was worth the effort and assuring himself that it was not.
The young elf came with doubts in his mind. There were plenty of perfectly acceptable females closer to his home, and there was one that he was particularly fond of. He had no desire to try for this stranger, this foreigner that he had absolutely no recollections of.
His father insisted that he try for the princess. He had straightly charged him to do everything within his power to win her. He had even made the prince swear to it. Their fathers knew one another from the Giant Wars over a century ago and his father had refused to allow him to settle for another. And so he had come, desperately hoping that she was not as stiff and boring as the rumors implied. His father had assured him that Galandorn’s daughter would be wonderful for him, a perfect match. Still, he harbored doubts and was sure they would soon solidify into unhappy certainties. He sighed to himself and, trying to turn his thoughts to something more positive, paused to admire the beautiful carvings along the stone entryway. What these Alekasyl elves lacked in size and strength, they made up for in intricate detail.
Most of the hoods had been thrown back and Celedria watched closely, her eyes well attuned to the signs of a suitor on the prowl. There was one person near the front of the group that seemed to be more aloof from the bustle and chaos of finding room for everything and everyone. While the servants of the two Houses meshed and went about the necessary work, he stood surveying the palace entrance as if he already owned the place. It was all she could do to keep from sneering. Rosemary leaned closer and whispered, “That elf there at the doors, the one with the golden clasp: do you think that is him?”
“I am afraid so.”
“Let us go say hello.”
“Do I have to?”
“Yes. He has come a long way to see you, I am sure.”
She sighed. “I know. Disgusting, is it not?” She glanced around once more, hoping that her father had come. No, he still was not there, and the duty could no longer be delayed, lest they be considered rude.
The two females wove their way through the bustle, walking toward the one who seemed in charge. He was so absorbed in reading the inscriptions on the walls that he did not even notice them until Celedria asked coldly, “Did you come all this way to read the door posts?” Rosemary elbowed her lightly in the ribs, a silent, motherly reminder to behave herself.
Assuming she was one of his servants, he dryly replied without turning, “Perhaps. It may prove to be the most interesting and noteworthy thing here.”
Looking for excuses to hate him, Celedria instantly flushed dark red and rounded him quickly, wanting to face her foe head-on. Rosemary, already dreading what might prove to be the most interesting expulsion yet, hurried to stay at her side. When Celedria was offended, Rosemary was often her one tie left to sanity.
He looked down at her in surprise as she pushed in between him and the wall. He fell back a step and, in an instant, he knew who she was. He was again surprised to find that she was even more beautiful than he had been told. His dark blue eyes strained to grasp every detail in an instant so that he would not have to injure his pride by staring too long. Long lashes rimmed her bright green eyes: eyes that made him feel small and powerless before her. Her full lips were deep red and her cheeks were rosy, the remainder of her angry blush. She was pale, as most elves this far north were, but she did not look sickly, as he had always imagined the paler elves would. She wore a green dress that brought out her sparkling eyes. The top fitted her perfectly, showing off her feminine figure to the greatest advantage. Her brilliant red hair curved and twisted past her hips. The edges of her sleeves and her neckline were lined with tiny dark emeralds. A thin draping belt looped her waist, made of the same perfect gems. She was crowned with an array of intricately strung emeralds draped around her head. Matching earrings hung from her thin, perfectly shaped ears. Such a show of great wealth and intense beauty he had never seen and he doubted existed throughout the whole world. He had already stared just a moment too long; he shook his head subtly, trying to compose himself, and looked away, busily admiring the workmanship of the palace. Clearing his throat, he shrugged and said, “You must admit, they are lovely.”
Still fuming, Celedria was very aware of Rosemary tugging subtly at the fabric over her back. Taking a deep breath, Celedria asked tightly, “I take it you are my next charming suitor?”
“Charming? You are too kind. I thought I was being somewhat rude, for which I apologize.” A slight grin in his eyes, he bowed low.
The grin made her wary. Still annoyed, she barely bowed, saying through gritted teeth, “I am High Princess Celedria var Ethperok. On behalf of my father, King Galandorn var Ethperok ab Amdoren, son of King Rathonel and Queen Hazel, I welcome you and your party to the Tas-halth of Alekasyl-Keritnas.”
The smile passed over his whole face. It was obvious that she hated him already. “Thank you.” Her annoyance was somewhat amusing. He looked back to the wall as the lady at the princess’ side leaned forward and whispered something softly. The princess visibly calmed and he could practically see a porcelain mask slip over her pink face. Her features drained of blush and emotion and she asked him coldly if he would join them for supper, an invitation that he gladly accepted. A little more of the strain went out of her and it was all he could do to keep from laughing at her. She was terrible: either offended and angry or cold and emotionless. His smile widened as he decided that he could have some real fun with this. He wondered how long it would take him to get himself kicked out, harboring wicked disregard for his father’s wishes and his own grudging promises. A person like Princess Celedria deserved mocking.
“I fear the weather is not kind tonight,” she said soullessly. He could tell that she really did not care about how kind the weather was to him at all. “I will have a servant take you to a room. How long do you plan on staying?”
“As long as it takes. Tell me, princess, how long will I be staying?”
Slightly perplexed, she glanced up at him and asked, “What do you mean?”
“However long I stay is entirely your fault; I will stay until I am either forced to marry you or to leave shamefully empty-handed, whichever seems the least painful.”
Deeply surprised, Celedria stared for a moment; he had made it infinitely clear which one he thought would be the most painful of the options. As a girl who had never truly experienced any degree or form of plain cruelty, his continued derision and harshness were especially brutal. She experienced a tiny moment of pain and embarrassment, the sickening feeling of falling backwards. Then her awareness of indignity roared to life, flooding her, lifting her; the flush of blood returned to her face and a deep glare descended over her delicate features. Rosemary, also angry, made no move to save him this time as her princess snarled, “You vile, pompous wretch! How dare you come to my home and-”
King Galandorn cleared his throat and the three of them finally noticed him as he seemed to appear from a near-by clump of servants. Celedria pointed accusingly and whined, “Father, this arrogant fop-” She bit off her words as the king cast her a disapproving glance and glared back at the suitor. Looking slightly betrayed, she focused her gaze on the toes of the nobleman’s boots. Hadn’t he heard what the monster said? She indicated vaguely to Galandorn, introducing, “My father Galandorn var Ethperok ab Amdoren, king of Alekasyl.”
The nobleman straightened his back and bowed politely in greeting, which the king did not return. Galandorn’s voice was firm, slightly dangerous. “If you have had enough entertainment mocking my daughter, now I will ask you. How long will you be staying?”
His mind was racing to find some way to rescue the situation. His father would kill him if he offended his best friend, assuming King Galandorn didn’t kill him himself. The best way seemed to be to pretend sincerity out of what had previously been a mockery. “I cannot say, Your Highness. As I told your daughter, I am determined to stay until I either leave alone at your insistence or until I leave as a son-in-law. That, as I told the princess, is completely in her power. Until then, I am your servant and in debt for your hospitality. Thank you.” He bowed again, more nervously this time. King Galandorn was rumored to have no sense of humor when it came to his only child and he knew he had stepped over the line, giving the king plenty of reason to be in a black mood.
Arms crossed, Galandorn studied him carefully, deciding whether or not to send him away right then. All involved would have been relieved if he had. He had been quietly watching, hidden within a gaggle of servants, as the whole conversation had taken place, from the inscriptions on the wall to this plain disdain of the courtship. The boy was obviously here against his wishes. Nobody appreciated that kind of courtship and he had so far been able to shield his daughter from them. The longer he looked, however, the more willing he was to forgive. He finally asked, “You come from the House Sievurn, correct?”
He was a little surprised at being identified so easily, but definitely pleased. With a hint of inherent pride, he stood a little taller. “I am Heir Prince Enthiln var Sievurn ab Hethen of Paleithois, son of King Enthiln and Queen Cedis.”
Galandorn still wasn’t smiling, but he said with less austerity, “I thought so. You have grown since I last saw you, but you still look like your father. How is he?”
Enthiln began to breathe again and answered a little more confidently. “Quite well, my king.” Remembering his secret desire to be as ridiculous as possible for the stuffy princess, he continued, “He sends his blessings, and hopes you will consider, oh, how did he put it?” Deepening the tone of his voice to match his father’s, he recited, “Giving those rowdy giants another run if they try to get out of hand.” He smiled winningly at Galandorn, knowing by his expression that the old king felt the same. “He says he is terribly bored being a king.” Against his will, King Galandorn finally relented a faint smile, understanding perfectly and pleased that his friend had not changed at all in the years since their last meeting. Enthiln grinned with him for a moment before adding almost grudgingly, as if only for the sake of filial duty, “He also hopes that you will consider my offer. Then you truly would be brothers.”
The king laughed softly at the remark. “I suppose we would. May I speak with you in private for a moment?”
Prince Enthiln knew he was in trouble. His smile disappearing awkwardly, he nodded and King Galandorn led him a little away from the two females. The king’s smile was gone and his voice dropped to conspiring levels as he said seriously, “Judging from your demeanor, you are here at your father’s insistence.” Enthiln glanced down and nodded. Galandorn shook his head and said severely, “I must say, I am disappointed. I would have thought that Enthiln and Cedis would have raised a better son and heir. You shame your father’s name.” He couldn’t have hurt the prince more if he had hit him. Galandorn sighed at the boy’s crestfallen expression and continued more softly, “I will admit, I had hoped that she would marry a son of King Enthiln, but if you are only here to mock her and enjoy her embarrassment, then I will treat you as I would anyone else. Your father’s name will not save you concerning my daughter’s happiness.”
Enthiln nodded, his eyes still on the floor. “Of course, my king.”
“I will forgive you this first offence on your father’s merits and the hope that you share them; do not dare prove me wrong. Tell me truly right now: is there any hope for this union?”
He hesitated. His promise and his honesty struggling within him, he finally admitted, “I had always hoped to marry someone that was not so… Well, what I mean is that… of the things I have heard of her, she is not the type of person that I had ever imagined myself marrying.”
Galandorn smiled slightly. “If you are referring to those beastly rumors, then there may still be hope.” He paused, thinking, and then asked, “Do you have a girl back home you are fond of?”
Enthiln swallowed and started to say something, then sighed, nodding his head slightly.
His voice softened. “I am sorry. Did your father make you swear?”
He nodded again. “I promised I would try.”
“You are in grave danger of breaking your word,” Galandorn replied gently. “Celedria is the kind of girl that is not used to having equals. Mocking her is not what I would call ‘trying’. Humor is not lost to her, but she is a proud elf.”
A trace of a grin on his face, he said solemnly, “Then I will have to mock myself.”
Galandorn laughed. “That she might appreciate, but be warned that she has no intention of marrying a self-deprecating harlequin; there are plenty of those about for one with as much coin as she has, and none of them require the same commitment that you would. How long did you promise to try for her hand?”
He finally looked up at the king and said almost fiercely, “As long as it takes: it is as I said earlier; she must either expel me from her home or accept my proposal. I will not break a vow to my father.” He glanced down again and said softly, “I am sorry about what I said to her. I was not thinking and it just progressed before I knew what…”
“As far as I am concerned, it is already forgiven and you can thank your father for that; Celedria, however, will take more persuasion. Just remember to never direct your humor at her tender pride.”
Enthiln nodded and followed the king back to the waiting females. As Galandorn passed them, he leaned closer to his daughter and said softly, “I do believe you will have a harder time warding this one off.”
Celedria nodded grumpily as he left. This once, she knew, her father would be no help in dispelling the unwanted attention. By power of name alone, this prince had already won him. She would have to ward him off alone. Addressing the prince again, she said primly, “One of our servants will show you to your room. Dinner is to be served in a few minutes and I expect you will be in rather a rush trying to be on time, so I will not keep you. Excuse me.” She emphasized her words meaningfully, demanding punctuality. With that duty taken care of with as much formality as she could muster, she and Lady Rosemary turned and walked into the dining room without a second glance.
“I expect,” he repeated, watching her go with a more sobered expression. She might be just a boring witch, but her father was plain scary. He would have to be more careful.
A tall, willowy boy with wild brown hair timidly walked up to the prince and took hold of a few of the bags. Some of the prince’s own servants carried the rest while the remainder of the party looked after the horses or went to help the kitchen prepare for unexpected guests. Prince Enthiln turned and sighed. His playfulness had backfired concerning the king. Instead of seeming confident and in control, the face he had wanted to present, he had come off as a careless idiot that liked to pick on younger females. However, it seemed to be working with the princess: she regarded him with a charming combination of haughtiness and disgusted disbelief. Enthiln sighed again. How could his father ever ask him to marry her? Just because he had known the girl’s father didn’t make her the best candidate for marriage. Enthiln and his family hadn’t even seen her for over twenty years and he personally had no recollections of the red-headed, demanding child. Now he was expected to marry her? He shuddered at the thought, desperately hoping that the rumors about her were not true. Even more, he hoped the princess would send him away soon so that he could get back home to marry his sweet Laurel.
Suddenly, his step faltered. Was this behavior really what his father had had in mind when he had made him vow to try to for her? King Galandorn was right. He was putting forth no effort and therefore breaking his word. He inhaled slowly and decided that he must at least put forth a token effort. Besides, he could still have fun. He would just have to find other things to be humorous about. He would not let her ruin him.
The king had said something about the rumors being untrue. He could only hope it was so. Judging from what he had seen of her disposition, however, he was afraid that she might really be that way and the king’s denial of it was only a loving father’s blind eye. If he were to keep his word to his father, he would have to find out. Her personality would almost completely control his for the next few months; of that, he was sure. The thought was enough to make him ill.
Enthiln glanced sideways at his young guide. The boy was nearing adulthood, but had the shy expression of someone in unfamiliar surroundings; he was probably new. As they walked, Enthiln decided to make him acutely nervous by actually talking with him. He was fairly certain that their darling princess was above such things so he wasn’t sure how his sociability would be received.
“What is your name?” he asked conversationally.
He looked up at him, a little surprised, but not unduly startled. “Me? Willow, sir, from the House Srinoris.”
Enthiln stopped in mid-stride and stared for a moment, repeating incredulously, “Srinoris?”
He shook his head, already knowing what the prince was thinking. “My ancestors were never part of the royal line. They just missed it by two generations.”
The prince laughed. “Still, you and I are related: terribly obscure relatives, but relatives nonetheless.” He shook his head and started walking again. “Imagine that…” He looked over at the boy again. “How long have you lived here?”
“At the palace? Only a few months.”
“Ah.” He was relieved at being able to put it all off just a little longer. “Then I do not suppose you know much about your princess yet.”
Willow piped up instantly, as if in defense of his princess. “I know she is very kind to me. She is very kind to everybody here.” He did not seem to notice Enthiln’s expression of doubt. Plucking up his courage, he looked at the prince and said proudly, “She is teaching me how to read the ancient script on my days off. Lady Rosemary arranged it.”
That was a surprising detail, as was evident on Enthiln’s face. Maybe she did have a heart. “Is she? Wonderful.”
“I think Lady Rosemary just wanted to make sure Princess Celedria was actually studying her own lessons more than she wanted to further my education with stuff I will never need to know, but…” He shrugged, smiling amiably.
Not sure where to go with this, he asked, “So, the princess: do you know what she likes? Besides not studying, apparently?”
He paused and thoughtfully looked at the ceiling. “She likes the moon, stars, and the nighttime, her Papa and her lady… and silver jewelry… stories about her mother, and legends, the older the better and mostly about the nighttime.” He paused to think, and then added as if it were obvious, “Oh, and eggs.”
Enthiln chuckled. So she had a personality after all. “Eggs?”
“Yeah, eggs; she loves eggs.” He awkwardly scratched his chin with a thumb, the bag he was holding bumping against his chest, and added confidentially, “It is kind of weird, really.” Enthiln laughed even louder. Encouraged, Willow continued, “She will eat them any way. That is what she usually has for breakfast. Or any other meal, really. You would think she would get sick of them, but she insists that the cooks keep making them, and some of the weirdest recipes, too.” Willow then commenced to name every kind of egg he had ever seen her eat. “… boiled, omelets, egg soup, egg bread, baked, scrambled, fried this way and that, all kinds of stuff. And those are just the more normal things. I do not even know what to call half of it. The price of eggs went up in the city just because they knew that we would still have to pay it. The princess would have it no other way. Finally, her father just got the palace its own chicken coop. She- Oh, the room!”
Glancing furtively over at the prince, he blushed crimson as he led them back down the hall, feeling terribly humiliated until Prince Enthiln said in an embarrassed whisper, “I cannot believe I just walked past my own room. I never did this kind of thing at home.” A few of his servants chuckled as Prince Enthiln grinned broadly and Willow smiled in gratitude.
They went inside the lofty guest room in the nobility’s wing and Enthiln’s servants started to arrange things in ways that they would be easy to find and easy to pack. They, too, were expecting a quick deportation. Prince Enthiln himself went about finding the clothes he wanted to wear, all the time keeping up a conversation with Willow.
“Do you know what her favorite colors are?”
“Silver, black and dark blue.”
He nodded. “Silver, black and dark blue: of course. What else would a night-obsessed, egg enthusiast like? Should I have someone embroider silver eggs across the bottom of my tunic?” Willow grinned at the joke, but faithfully did not laugh. Enthiln silently reminded himself not to make fun of her as he set aside a dark blue shirt and black pants and went off to find some suitable shoes with the young boy at his heels. He found them and kicked off his riding boots. “She certainly picked convenient colors: the Paleithois crest is blue and silver, and my own House is black and gold.” Willow nodded, watching the prince dig through a box momentarily before pulling out a silver clasp for the collar of his tunic. Examining it momentarily, he asked the boy, “Do you know what makes her happy?”
He shrugged. “Well, the nighttime. Sometimes the people she is close to call her Lady Midnight, she likes it so much. She goes up and star-gazes every night with the king and she is always in a good mood after that.”
That was mildly interesting, but not helpful. “No, I mean in people,” he specified. “What makes her like a person?”
“I do not know. She likes everybody here.” He crossed his arms and seriously informed the prince, “She really is pretty agreeable most of the time, despite what you have probably heard. Just… do not annoy her.” He shrugged again. It was true that she got along with everyone at the palace; suitors just seem to aggravate her for some reason.
Enthiln looked over at him, carefully considering. Perhaps there was more to the princess than the rumors and tense greetings implied. Finally, he decided to just go for it and see where it led. “Willow, dear cousin, may I be frank with you?” A cautious nod was his answer. Enthiln sighed in defeat. There was no room for retreat now. “I am here, against my better judgment, to try to win the love of your princess. Unfortunately, she seems to regard me and every other poor fool who tries to win her heart with roughly the same distaste as she would a slug crawling across her favorite shoe. What would help me soften her aversion?”
Willow was not surprised. There were dozens that had come before him who wanted the same thing. Even though Willow was relatively new, he had heard about some of the more interesting dramas. Many suitors had come and gone, but few of them had ever thought to ask the servants before. Prince Enthiln seemed nice enough. Perhaps Princess Celedria would like this one if she gave him a chance. Willow looked carefully at the prince, a shrewd look that Enthiln found mildly comical. After a few seconds’ scrutiny, Willow had the answer. He smiled slightly. This could both improve the prince’s chances and prove his determination. “She likes short hair,” he said, pointing at Enthiln’s long black hair. “She told me so when we were reading a book about a poor man whose only joy was his hair that was as long as he was tall. She has always favored shorter hair.”
Enthiln grinned. “So she likes the military boys, then?”
Willow smiled as well. “I could not rightly say. All I can say is that she might like you more if you were to cut it short, like her father’s is.”
Enthiln’s grin faded as he realized that Willow was serious about this. He doubtfully played with the curly tips of his shoulder length hair, trying to find a loophole in his father’s phrase, ‘at whatever cost’. “Are you sure?”
“Because I will probably have to murder you if you are just-”
“No, really,” he insisted, unruffled by the ridiculous warning. “She probably thinks you look female. That is what she usually says about long hair, anyway.”
“I see.” After several painful moments, he made a compromise with himself: he would do this, but he reserved the right to be as brutally blunt with the princess as he deemed necessary. With a reluctant sigh, he said, “Well, we cannot have me looking female, now can we? Will you go fetch me a pair of scissors?”
Willow nodded and, with an almost mocking grin, said, “Only if you are sure.”
The prince nodded, looking down. “Be quick before I have time to think about it.”
Practically laughing, he took off at a run.
Enthiln turned to one of his own servants with an unusually depressed expression and rested a hand on his beloved locks. “Lavender, I need you to cut my hair. Just… make it look good.”
While they were making the preparations for their prince’s first actual haircut since childhood, Willow ran into the seamstress’ room and took a pair of scissors without pausing to ask. He dashed out as she shouted a brief protest. Willow ran out the door as he yelled an excuse back at her and ran right into Princess Celedria, knocking her back into the wall. With a short shriek, she fell backward into a defensive posture against the stone wall, startled and frightened. Willow shrank back in dread, but still faithfully slunk along the wall toward Prince Enthiln’s chamber as her fear quickly turned to anger.
She practically shouted, “Willow, why in the world are you running through the halls with a knife? You could have killed me!”
“It is not a knife, Princess, it is a pair of scissors! I am very sorry, I will never do it again!” He slowly gained speed through the hall, walking backwards so he could still talk with the irate princess.
“Well, what are you doing with scissors anyway?” she demanded grumpily. “You are supposed to be helping Prince Enthiln get ready. He is already late and we are hungry.”
“He wants to cut his hair.”
“Well, hurry. It is rude for us to start without him and the food is getting cold.” It took only a few seconds for Celedria to make the connection between her liking of short hair, Willow and the prince. Almost refusing to believe it, she followed him hurriedly around the corner, shouting after him, “What? Why does he need scissors? Willow!” He had already disappeared into the room. “Willow! What did you tell him?” The door slammed shut. Muttering darkly to herself, she stomped down the rest of the hall and pounded on the door. A puzzled-looking servant answered it. Celedria demanded impatiently, “I need to speak with Willow. He is one of our servants and he just came in here with a pair of scissors.”
A nervous face peeked at her from inside. Celedria inhaled sharply and demanded, “Willow, what did you say about the prince’s hair?”
Not quite looking at her, he replied softly, “That, uh, he wants to cut it.”
She folded her arms dangerously. “And why would he want to cut it?”
He hesitated, still avoiding her eyes, and said slowly, “It could be partially because I told him you like short hair as opposed to long.” With a false smile, he said brightly, “Maybe he thinks it is a nuisance. Because, really, it is, I am sure.”
Just then, Celedria heard the prince saying in mild annoyance from within, “No, I do not want to think about it. Just cut it; quick, before I do think about it.”
Intent on averting a crisis, Celedria pushed past the servant holding the door and snapped, “Would you just-”
Surprised, the prince looked up at her with wide eyes, clutching a sheet around his shoulders, and she immediately fell silent. A female servant stood behind him holding a pair of scissors, also staring. The bustle of the servants stopped as they all turned to look at Celedria. She watched with a feeling of failure that was ridiculously disproportionate to the predicament as a thick lock of black hair hit the floor. There was a long moment of silence.
Unable to stop himself, the prince asked coolly, “Do you invade personal chambers frequently?”
“Stop,” she commanded again, more forcefully. She turned and glared at her servant boy trying unsuccessfully to subtly hide back behind the door. “And you, Willow, will come with me. Keep this up and I will never read with you again, no matter what Lady Rosemary says.” She grabbed his arm and marched him out of the room and down the hall without another word to the Paleithoic visitors.
Willow, seemingly unashamed now that her eyes were no longer on him, was babbling on about the prince the whole time. “… really nice. I think I might want to be one of his servants when I am old enough to leave home without Mama and Papa’s permission, which is not too far off. They would never let me leave the country at my age. I like him, and I think you will, too. He is really funny and all his servants say he is wonderful. When I told him you like short hair, he hardly hesitated for a second! I told him your favorite colors, so I think he may be wearing those…”
“He is worse than the others,” Celedria complained to her father over the chatter of the Alekasylic royal table. Her elbows were firmly situated on the table, supporting her head. Her face was buried in her hands and her words were muffled. “Willow told him I prefer short hair and the next thing I knew, I was nearly stabbed by an overanxious Willow delivering the scissors to him.” She shot the boy a glare and, even though he couldn’t have heard her, Willow blushed from his place in the corner.
The king laughed, winking at the boy. “If he is anything like his father, you can rest assured that he does not plan on leaving this palace until you have consented to marriage. His father did the same thing to poor Cedis. He harassed her for nearly four years before she finally said yes. This one will be difficult.” He paused for a moment, thinking. He was suddenly very serious. “He would be able to take good care of you. I am getting old. I will not live forever, you know.”
She smiled and said lovingly, “Papa, you have at least a century left in you. Besides, I can take care of myself now. I am plenty old enough.”
“But a husband-”
“Papa…” She glanced down at her plate and said softly, “You know I do not want to get married. Not now, anyway.”
Galandorn nodded. “Just a suggestion. I could not recommend anyone higher.”
“Papa,” she accused gently, “You do not even know him. You recommend his father.”
“True. But sons tend to come out like their fathers. If he is anything like his father, I would recommend him.” She sighed and he continued softly, “I know that you probably do not remember him from the few times you saw him as a child, but he is not a complete stranger. His family adores you and you used to play with his siblings when we went to visit.”
“But not with him?”
“Well, no,” Galandorn admitted. “He is older and it was quite a bit more apparent back then. It was over twenty years ago. He was nearing adulthood by then and you were still pretty young.”
“So he had no interest in me. Why the sudden attention?”
“Celedria, I am just asking you to give him a chance. I think he would be a good match for you.”
She rolled her eyes. “Now we are a pair of fine horses.”
“Do not be so dramatic. He would be a good match. You know he is not just after your crown; he already has his own. He is not after you for your beauty; he could have his choice of any maiden in his nation. He came here himself instead of sending a delegation, recognizing you as his equal. You can offer him nothing he does not already have and he can offer you nothing you do not already have. He is here for you and you alone.” He started messing with his food, nothing more than another focus for his gaze, and repeated, “I think you should give him a chance.”
She hesitated, trying to decide whether she should share her with her father the continual void of loneliness in her heart, the reason she could not bring herself to marry any of her suitors, the ache that kept her aloof from the other nobles’ children and asking decades of questions about the one who had loved her more than life. “It is just that…” She glanced to the perpetually empty seat at her father’s right. She lost her nerve, unable to open herself that much, and said instead, “I do not want to marry someone I do not know, whether he is the son of your best friend or not, and whether I saw him a few times as a child or not. He is still a stranger to me.” She glanced up at her father and asked with sincere pleading, “Papa, please do not fight me on his behalf.”
He smiled a little sadly. He knew there was something deeper than mere association that she was going to say, but he also understood that there were some things that she would never discuss with anyone. Nobody understood that better than he did. He nodded, still smiling to her with all the love his broken heart had left to give. “I understand. You take your time, little nivah, and wait for the right one. You will know when he comes.”
They both fell into silence and, in their awkwardness, each turned their attention to their surroundings. The dining table was already set in array. They had not received warning of a visitor, so it was just the usual fare and the usual crowd. In an effort to pass the time waiting, they had already dished themselves up, but the prince still had not come and the food was cooling faster on the plates. Finally, they heard the prince coming and looked up as he rounded the last door post and came into the dining room, the porter calling his name.
Princess Celedria groaned and King Galandorn stared for a few seconds before launching into gut-shaking laughter. Rosemary looked at him in disbelief, and then began giggling helplessly. A rumble of laughter rose from the other guests, the usual visiting nobles and dignitaries, at the table. As for the prince himself, there wasn’t a hint of humor in his face. Celedria continued to stare; he couldn’t possibly be serious. He met her eyes without flinching and finally a small grin forced itself across her mouth. His eyes narrowed and her smile widened. Her cheeks flushed and, before she could contain it, she started to laugh quietly beside her father, her eyes clenched defensively shut. Then Enthiln grinned, relieved that she wasn’t entirely made of stone.
With a slight blush of embarrassment and a comically proud smirk, Prince Enthiln came closer and said softly to her, “You did tell me to stop.” He reached up and carelessly tossed the half of his hair that hadn’t been cut mercilessly short back behind his shoulder.
Still smiling, she asked, “Would you do any stupid thing I asked you to?”
He was surprised to detect a hint of flirtation amidst the mockery. Pleased, he replied in a whisper, “You will never know unless you try.” Standing, he suppressed his smile and masked his pleasure with a face of haughty pride, saying with exaggerated dignity for all to hear, “This fashion is very popular in my kingdom. All the young noblemen are doing it.”
King Galandorn stood and patted Prince Enthiln on the back, still laughing. “Young Enthiln,” he laughed, “One could mistake you for a traveling clown! Come, we will give the kitchen time to warm the food again while we give you a proper haircut.” His voice faded as he led Enthiln back to his room. “Whatever possessed you to…”
The princess watched them leave. She was still smiling when they passed out of sight. In her periphery, she noticed Rosemary watching her with an odd expression that Celedria feared the meaning of. Celedria forced her smile away and cleared her throat. After a few moments of silence, she said softly, “I hope they do not take too long. I am hungry.” She looked back down at her plate as Rosemary continued to stare, trying to divine her thoughts.
‘What a strange elf,’ Celedria thought, flicking one of her bright orange curls out of her face. ‘First, he is the consummate brute and then he goes out of his way to be entertaining and funny. Ridiculous, really. I cannot decide if he is doing this for my sake or if he is insane. Still, at least he has a sense of humor, unlike some of the stiffs that have come here. And he will certainly look much better with short hair.’ She realized the direction her thoughts were taking and mentally berated herself for it. She pushed the notion out of her mind and rolled her boiled egg around her plate and hummed a lullaby she distantly remembered from her crib side. Without realizing it, she didn’t feel so alone.
They came back a short while later, Enthiln bearing a proper haircut and taking the seat across from Celedria. She watched in masked amusement as he took a long, awkward glance down the length of the gender-segregated table and then a smaller relieved glance down at the familiar utensils beside his plate. Dinner that night was a much louder affair than usual. Prince Enthiln kept up a steady flow of conversation, confidently shifting from one subject to the next, usually finding humor in them all as well. Whenever Celedria tried to discuss something seriously, he refused to go along with her and soon had them all laughing again: all except Celedria. After the initial shock of the haircut, she refused to be friendly or even amused. She noticed that he did end up wearing dark blue, black and silver, which greatly complimented his dark features. She stole quite a few appraising glances and, though she was careful to be subtle, Rosemary noticed. The lady also noticed how forcibly formal her princess was in her dealings with the poor boy.
King Galandorn was completely smitten by the young rogue. Willow was in rapture from his corner. He mentally swore himself loyal to Prince Enthiln through thick and thin when the prince made a point to call him his accomplice. Even Rosemary, Celedria’s last hope for support, seemed to like him. Enthiln greatly praised the food and, receiving the king’s permission, marched straight into the kitchen and gratefully clasped the hand of each of the surprised cooks, calling them all sorts of ridiculous pet names, if for no more reason than such familiarity shocked the princess. He did not know that, much like the haircut, the shock was intriguing, perhaps even pleasing.
Enthiln smiled a little in his sleep, dreaming about his girl back home, and rolled onto his side contentedly. The still figure resting beside him stirred suddenly at his movement and Enthiln sleepily opened his eyes. With a yelp of surprise, he jerked upright, suddenly very awake. Staring in horror for a moment, he then looked over at the slightly ajar door and back down at his peacefully slumbering bedmate. Cautiously, he pulled the blankets back from the stranger and a dog glared up at him reproachfully for letting the cold air in. He sighed, shaking his head and laid back down, letting the blankets fall back into place. The dog nestled closer, pushing a wet nose at his hand, and he frowned down at it as he pulled his hand away. “You know, darling, I had always hoped you would be a little prettier.”
It stopped and whimpered.
He rolled his eyes and sat up. “What kind of palace is this, anyway?” He pulled the dog out of his bed, leading it toward the half-ajar door of his room. “Constant cold, dogs in the beds, fur mattresses instead of nice, soft feather mattresses…” He pushed it out the door and glared when it didn’t leave. “Go on! Shoo!” It still stared up at him with large wet eyes. “Go!”
“Come here, girl,” a voice called gently.
Enthiln looked down the hall. The princess was standing at her door in long loose nightrobes, light, airy clothes that made her look fresh and pretty. The dog hurried to her, joy in its stride, and she scratched behind its ears welcomingly. Celedria watched the prince blankly for a few moments before she remembered to glare at him for offending her animal. Then she lifted her chin and walked down the hall toward the baths, another pair of dogs following devotedly from her room.
He laughed a little, muttering, “Very nice.” He went back into his room, but found that he was no longer tired. He dressed slowly, choosing dark clothes with a sigh, and rubbed his face with his palms, saying to no one, “Oh, I want to go home.” It was still too early for breakfast so he wandered the palace until he came to a library. He skimmed along the rows of spines, noting with a little confusion that they were organized differently than they were back home, if they were organized at all. He didn’t find anything that he had a strong desire to read, but he did find a stack of clean paper and a set of inks and quills. Briefly scanning the empty library, he seated himself at the desk and began to write.
Ridiculous prose soon sprawled across half the paper and, realizing just how stupid it would probably sound, he folded the paper and pocketed it, intent on burning it later. He was terrible at writing letters, he reflected with a sigh. He tried to imagine she was actually there with him, sitting across the table and watching him with that sweet smile she always reserved just for him. He started another letter, but was almost as dissatisfied as he had been with the first. He sighed again, folding the second sheet and depositing it with the first. He hated being away from her. His thoughts were always so mixed up. He started again.
My Darling Laurel,
You have no idea how much I miss you. Being around this snobby princess is awful; it just makes me love you that much more. So far, she absolutely abhors me. I am sure I can get her to refuse me within a week and then I will be on my way home. Once this nightmare is behind us, I am sure Father will give me permission to marry you. The possibility of this princess was his biggest argument against you, after all. Sweet Laurel, you will make the most beautiful queen in history and I will devote my life to you. Please keep ignoring your brother’s idiot friend until I get home. My love, if you knew how desperate I was without you, y-
“Who are you writing to?”
Prince Enthiln jerked upright and slammed his hand over the letter, smearing the wet ink in his palm. Lady Rosemary smiled knowingly and sat down at the table across from him. “I see. You know, those kinds of letters should probably be written in your personal chambers, not the library.”
His face turning crimson, Enthiln demanded, “What kind of letters, my Lady?”
Rosemary snorted slightly, rolling her eyes. “Oh, calm down. Anybody within a mile could see it on your face. Who is she?”
If he could have blushed more, he would have. He watched her seriously for a moment, her expression of innocent curiosity (and amusement at his discomfort) unwavering, then laughed quietly and looked down at the letter. Waving his ink-smeared hand over it, he admitted with a grin he didn’t entirely feel, “A nobody: that is the problem.”
“Ah.” She paused a short while, then said softly, “Tell me about her.”
He laughed again. “No.”
“Oh, come on. I am not going to report you. Is it really that scandalous?”
Still smiling, he said smoothly, “Nothing of the sort. I just thought that, as the lady of the princess I am supposedly trying to woo, you are perhaps the… third to last person I would want to discuss her with.”
“Right behind Galandorn and Celedria?”
“No, right behind King Galandorn and my mother.”
She nodded, grinning, then leaned forward, firmly planting her elbows on the table. “Well I can be every bit as stubborn as you royal stock and I want to know about this girl. Judging by your behavior, you think that wooing my princess is hopeless anyway, so what is the harm, hm? You will feel better.”
He watched her silently for a few moments, amused, then sat back and sighed contentedly, prepared to shock the proper lady. After all, he reasoned, this might help him get kicked out sooner. “Her name is Laurel. Her great-grandmother was a lesser lady, but she is perfectly common: just a girl in the city outside the palace. I met her when I sneaked out of the palace because I was fighting with my parents. She thought I was a traveler in need of a place to stay for the night and offered me her family’s spare bedroom, at least until they got me in a good light. Her parents thought it was perfectly awful and sent for my father immediately, but Laurel thought it was hilarious and helped me sneak out the window in her room. After that, we just repeatedly ran into each other in the city. My mother assured me we were causing the whole kingdom shame, and that was before we even started leaving the city together.” He shrugged, smiling slightly and waiting for Rosemary to tell him how terrible they both were and then go tell the princess to send him away at once.
She was quiet, and then asked, “Do you miss her already?”
He hesitated, a little thrown off by the personal question. “Lady Rosemary…”
“No, you are right,” she said, standing. “None of my business.” Planting her hands on her hips, she scanned the library with a brisk sigh.
Enthiln watched her, then glanced around and asked, “Were you looking for a book or something?”
She smiled. “No, actually. I was looking for you.”
“Me? What for?”
“Celedria asked me to invite you to lunch with her later today.”
He raised an eyebrow. “Celedria did, or you did?”
Her smile widened and she fingered the spine of a thin volume, saying innocently, “Oh, now, you are perhaps the last person-” She laughed briefly at his expression and said more seriously, “It was her idea. I think she found last week’s supper more amusing than she would like to admit. She really is not so stony-hearted as people say she is.”
“So I keep hearing.” He glanced back down at the smeared letter, spoiled by a large handprint down the middle.
Seeing his hesitation, Rosemary gently assured him, “Prince Enthiln, I highly doubt anything will come of it. You can go to lunch and still send your letter with a clean conscience. The girl is more curious than interested, if that is your concern.”
Slowly, he carefully folded the ruined letter into quarters and placed it reverently with the others.