On the sixth morning, Prince Simon returned. I was sitting on the verandah amidst several pillows, struggling my way through a book on court etiquette. I liked to read, but this book was full of details such as when the oldest son of a duke took precedence over a marquis, and after the first few pages it all seemed to swim together. I had just about given up when the door opened, and out came my godmother, with the prince behind her.
I never saw him but I was struck again with how handsome he was, and when I looked at him that day I could not even think for the breadth of his shoulders and the beauty of his eyes. I was so happy to see him, so entirely happy and relieved and in love, that I nearly forgot to stand, and did forget to curtsy, which I really should have done, seeing as he was, after all, royalty. I was vaguely aware of Mrs. Gainswood, saying nothing, but curtseying deeply and leaving us alone.
He seemed uneasy too, and we looked at each other silently for a moment.
"Are you well? How are your injuries?"
"They are healing," I said. "Bearable."
"Good. That's good."
Belatedly, I recalled my manners, and managed a stiff-backed curtsey. "Won't you sit?"
"Of course. Here--" he reached to support me as I sat again. Then he took the seat next to me, and I realized to my mortification that had I left my book there, as he nearly sat on it.
"Court etiquette?" he murmured, glancing at the title, and gave me a pointed look. I blushed and looked away. Then, unexpectedly, his hand found mine, and I clung to it gratefully.
"Was your--how was your trip to town?" I was intensely curious about it, but would not say so directly.
He frowned briefly. "It served its purpose."
"Oh, well…" I took a deep breath. "I missed you."
The frown was gone, and his handsome smile appeared instead. "I'm glad for that, at least."
"Did you..." I knew I was blushing, but I made myself ask. "Did you miss me?"
His hand tightened. "You know that I did."
We smiled at each other, probably foolishly, but there was none to see. He was back. My prince had returned, and truly, that was all I cared about.
It's difficult to recall what all was said during that visit. Not much of consequence, I'm sure, but it was consequential to us because it was the first occasion that we had ever met under relatively normal circumstances--the very first social visit. We were awkward at first, but that passed in time, and soon we were strolling around the garden, my hand tucked in his arm. My primary memory is of the warmth of that arm, and his profile in the sunshine.
He did eventually speak of his time in town, and admitted that he had seen my step-mother. He was evasive about what precisely took place, but assured me that I did not need to concern myself with her any longer. "She will not trouble you," he said firmly. "And if she does, then you must tell me at once."
"I would not like to--"
"Promise me, Ella. Promise me that you will tell me immediately, should your step-mother contact you."
He looked so earnest that I could only promise. Truthfully, I had hardly thought of my step-mother in the past week--or even before. The prince had driven her completely from my thoughts, and now it appeared that he had driven her from my life as well.
There followed a quiet, idyllic time when Simon called often at the country house. A few words to the servants and everyone understood that his presence there was a very great secret. What he told his companions I do not know; we never spoke of it, only of books and geography, history and politics--everything but the things that would, perhaps, affect us most in the long term. He held my hand almost always but never kissed me, though there were many times I thought he would. In the evenings godmother would give me etiquette lessons and drill me on the royal court. I learned how the king liked to be addressed, which ladies to avoid, which men likewise, what never to say at a dinner party, and that the queen mother hated perfume. It was bewildering, and daunting, and there were times when, my head swimming, I wanted to run hide again, but then the next morning Simon would come, hazel eyes so bright and beautiful, stroking my cheek, and my resolve was strengthened again.
After about two weeks of this, Simon brought someone to meet me. This other man was a little shorter, a little darker and a little younger, but the resemblance was still strong.
I looked from one to the other, swallowed, and curtsied. "Your highness."
"Edmund," said Simon, "may I present to you Lady Elisabeth Travers. Lady Elisabeth, this is, as you have already guessed, my brother Prince Edmund."
"I remember Lady Elisabeth," said the prince, with a gallant bow. "And you are as lovely now as you were then."
"Your highness is too kind," I murmured. I wondered what this reference to the ball indicated.
His formality suddenly broke into a smile. "We've all been wondering where Simon was sneaking off to. It make prodigious sense now."
Simon had spoken of his brother with great affection mingled with slight disapproval for his reputation as a breaker of hearts. I could understand both, meeting him. Edmund was at once very like and very unlike the Crown Prince. He lacked his direct manners and seriousness, but had the same natural charm. He was polished, dandified and dashing, but sweet-tempered and seemingly ready to be pleased. I was nervous at first, especially since Simon so obviously wanted us to get along, but he soon made he me laugh. He told tales of foppish courtiers' idiosyncrasies, and the grand duchess's wig.
"They say her servants scour the countryside for maidens with long, beautiful locks, and then she pays them to sheer them right off! Nearly every week, some poor, bald milkmaid is seen leaving her house."
Remembering something Godmother had told me, I smiled. "And how does Lady Saltash view such exploitation of the lower classes?"
He looked surprised. "With very proper disapproval, I assure you."
I felt inordinately proud of myself.
After nearly an hour, Prince Edmund bid me goodbye and Simon escorted him out to his horse. They had a low-voiced conversation while I waited, then Simon came back. "I would stay longer if I could," he said, "but I am afraid I must join my brother."
"Of course you must go." I tried to smile.
"You know I will come back when I can." He took my hand and kissed it. "Until then."
I watched them go, both straight-backed upon their mounts. The similarity between them was very pronounced.
It had been a test of sorts, I felt sure. A very first, mild test, with someone Simon trusted, but whose opinion could matter. When Simon appealed to his father for consent, Edmund's support or disapproval would naturally be of some consideration for their parents. Oh, I had no doubt that Simon genuinely wish me to know his brother, and for us to like each other for our own sakes, but there was no question that it was still a test--and I did not know how I had done.
I was surprised to find Simon on the doorstep that evening. I was walking down the hall, there was a light knock on the door, and there he was. He had a cloak thrown about his shoulders, his hair was ruffled, and I saw in the light from the door that his eyes looked happy.
Almost instantly his hand shot out and he grasped my wrist and pulled me out into the darkness with him. "Whe--Simon!" I laughed. "What is the meaning of this, sir?"
"I had to see you." His free hand moved to cheek, then down to my shoulder. I was standing very nearly within his arms.
"But it's late." My voice lowered instinctively. "Your people must be missing you."
"I don't care. I'm missing you." This time it was the inside of the my wrist that he pressed his lips to, and the sensation tingled all along my arm. "When will I be able to stop leaving you, Ella?" he demanded in reckless fashion. "Every deuced day I have to leave you. I don't want to leave, I want to stay... or to take you with me." His head dropped lower, and the hand on my shoulder pulled me closer.
I wondered briefly if he had--against all I knew of him--been drinking and peered at his eyes, but while they were bright they were also clear. "Simon--" He bent even lower and my breath hitched as his breath tickled ear, and his lips seemed to brush against my neck. "What--what happened?"
"Edmund liked you," he murmured, and my skin from ear to shoulder positively prickled from the heat and closeness of his mouth. "I know he would, but--" I felt it then, the first gentle press of his lips. "But to hear him--" Another. "--say so..."
I closed my eyes and wondered if I could bear it. I wondered too if he even fully realized what he was doing, as his attentions continued unabated. This was new and potent and dangerous. I felt nothing else, knew nothing else but his nearness, his warmth and height and hands, and the soft caress of his kisses on the skin of my neck and shoulder.
At length he stilled. I was nearly sagging against him. He gave a deep, quiet groan and said my name and at last his arms came all the way round me, holding me close. His hand groped in my hair and at my cheek, he said my name again, and then, finally; finally he truly kissed me.
Such things are difficult to describe--nor, perhaps should they be described. It did not last long, but it had changed everything. We both knew it had changed everything. I saw him smile, then there were footsteps through the still-open door behind me, and my godmother's voice. "Ella? Where are you, child?"
I drew back quickly. He let me go, but when I gestured for him to leave he gave me a look which said that he, soldier and prince, did not skulk around, and neither did he retreat into the night like thief.
"Ella?" The door swung open further as Mrs. Gainswood's figure appeared. "What--your royal highness!" She curtsied deeply, even while sending me a quizzical glance.
"Forgive me, madam. I simply wished to say goodnight to her ladyship." He bowed politely, giving no indication that he was just engaged in any amorous activity. I felt more flustered, and did not manage any coherent remarks.
"You are always welcome, of course, but there's no reason to stand outside. Will you not come in?"
"Thank you, but no. I must be returning." He bowed again. "Mrs. Gainswood; Lady Elisabeth."
We curtsied and murmured farewells, and I watched him mount his horse and disappear into the darkness. When we came back into the bright hall, Mrs. Gainswood shut the door and fixed me with a reproachful gaze.
"Don't look at me like that," I protested, my cheeks flaming. "I've done nothing wrong."
"Do you think me a fool? I know what you were doing out there in the dark." She shook her head. "Oh, Ella, be careful."
"Careful?" The warning confused and annoyed me. "What do you mean, be careful? You were the one who urged me to believe that he meant to marry me!"
"He does mean to marry you, but you are not married yet. Nor engaged. There is a king who has to give his permission first, lest you forget, and while I have no doubt that your young man will do everything in his power to get that permission, your path isn't clear yet. You have neither the freedom nor the protection of an engaged woman, and you mustn't forget it."
I knew she was right, but felt frustrated and defensive. "Do you expect me to push him away?"
For a moment she looked stern, then softened, and her eyes began to twinkle again. "I would consider you a very odd sort of girl if you did," she admitted. "But you mustn't encourage him. And no more meetings at night!"
I made the promise, but wondered as I did if I would be able to keep it.
The next morning, the two princes came again. I am sure I blushed a little more than usual on first meeting Simon's eyes, but I was able to greet his brother with more confidence than yesterday. Knowing that he liked me, that he had told Simon that he liked me, relieved my anxiety a great deal. He was a friend, and someday, hopefully, would be my brother.
So we chatted and laughed and ate cook's excellent biscuits (the young prince consumed a prodigious number of them). Mrs. Gainswood stitched quietly in her corner, watching everything with shrewd eyes. He stayed even longer than last time and this time, when he left, he left alone.
"Would you walk in the garden with me?" Simon asked when he had gone. Mrs. Gainswood, of course, had no choice but to allow it--it wasn't the first time I felt the advantage of a royal suitor who could not be refused.
We strolled amid the roses, saying little at first, perhaps both self-conscious. When we came to the far end, he drew me into an arbor, and looked at me seriously. "Do you want me to apologize for last night?"
I could only shake my head.
"Good," he said, and took me into his arms again.
As he bent his head I thought fleetingly of the promise I had made to my godmother, but what was I to do? It was all very well to talk of not encouraging him, but she wasn't the one standing here, within the bliss and fire of his embrace, feeling all of his tenderness and passion, and my tenderness and passion, and the soft touch of his lips...
It was hopeless. It was quite utterly hopeless, and I gave it up, without regret.
When he finished kissing me he buried his face in my neck. "If I were not a man of honor," he said presently, "I would have done that the first night I met you."
I could not but smile. "I must not be a lady," I countered, "for I would probably have let you."
"I'm sorry." He drew back a little. "Although you do not ask an apology, I know I should not be doing this. It is not proper--or right--when nothing is settled, but you know--you have always known my intentions."
I nodded, a little shy.
He drew back further and looked down at me, his hands still on my waist. "I will marry you, Elisabeth Travers," he swore, "if you love me."
"Can you doubt it?"
"A man in love always doubts."
I gave a tremulous smile at hearing his profession, made in so passing a manner, and spoke quietly. "Then doubt no more."
He kissed me again, lingeringly and joyfully, and then in time we sat on a nearby bench, and for the first time since that night he had tended my back, really and truly talked about the situation we were in.
"I know," I said, "that I am not a good match for you. Even if my father were still alive, and I had been brought up properly, an earl's daughter is hardly a proper conquest for the future king."
He could not deny it, but shrugged. "These things do not matter as much as they used to. You come from an old family."
"What will you do if your father refuses to agree?"
He frowned at that, and looked down at our joined hands, rubbing his thumb across mine. "I will not give up, I can promise you that."
"And will--is the queen--?"
He smiled. "When I tell her how madly in love I am," he said, now raising my hand to his lips, "she will be so happy, she won't care who you are."
Privately I doubted this, but blushed and thrilled to hear him say such things.
"I have to return to town soon," said Simon, "as early as next week, and I hope that you will make plans to return as well. I am sure that Mrs. Gainswood would be willing to go."
I nodded. "And then?" That was the very big question.
"I have thought this through carefully. I believe it would be best to approach my mother first. I will ask her to meet you. Edmund will be able to help me--he can assure her that you everything pleasing. Then she in turn can help me plead our case to the king. I think," he paused, "I think that perhaps you and your godmother should begin to go about in society as soon as possible. Let yourself be seen. I asked my brother his opinion on this, since he is much more familiar with upper society and the court, and he believes that a known quantity must always be more acceptable than an unknown, and that if you begin to appear at balls and dinners, and if I am there too, and show you attention--well, it will establish a public expectation of the match, and that, in turn, may influence my father."
As much as he spoke in a calm, reassuring way, I felt the unspoken implication behind all this scheming--the fact that consent for our marriage was not certain, nor easily obtained.
"What if I don't do well?" I asked. "What if I make mistakes, or fail to please?"
"You won't." He squeezed my hand.
"But I may," I insisted. "I've only been to two balls in my entire life, after all. I wasn't raised for this like you were. What do we do if your mother doesn't like me--or society laughs at me?"
"I am not afraid of that. You do not see yourself the way I do. But, Ella--I will stand by you."
We spoke some more about arrangements--what day he would go, what I and my godmother should do, how I could contact him if needed. I could not be easy, but I was comforted, by his confidence and promises. I did not doubt his faithfulness, nor the sincerity of the feelings he professed to me. It seemed incredible--as it had always seemed incredible--that he should have fallen in love with me, but nothing other than love could have motivated his actions so far, and I trusted him completely. When he left me at last, I really was beginning to believe that all would be well--that the sheer force of our desire to be together would be enough to conquer all obstacles.
It was late that same afternoon. Not expecting any more visitors, Mrs. Gainswood had gone out. I was upstairs trying to study the history of the monarchy, but completely unable to think of anything but the man I loved. There was a knock on the door, and Sarah, our maid, came in.
"There's a caller for you, madam."
She looked more amazed than she should have, as often as Simon came these days, but I put that down to his coming back a second time. My heart leapt and I felt giddily happy to think that he had returned--it meant he missed me as much as I missed him. I ran down the stairs like an excited school-girl--only to draw up short at the bottom.
There was a prince standing in the hall, but it wasn't Simon.
My heart sank when I saw him. I knew there could only be one reason he was here alone. We made the necessary greetings, but I am sure I could not keep the dread from my eyes. He must have seen it, for he looked at me soberly. "I can see that you are too intelligent not to realize why I'm here." He took a breath. "Will you do me the honor of showing me your garden?"
But I could not take him there, where Simon had kissed me and professed his love. Instead I showed him to the parlor. Edmund did not comment on the change of location, just entered quietly, and waited for me to shut the door.
I twisted my hands together and looked at him. "You told Simon you liked me."
"I do like you," he said. "I would not be here if I didn't."
I sent him a confused look.
"If I thought you foolish or calculating, I would not even bother. But you are not a fool, and appear to be as enamored as he is. Therefore I hope you might see reason."
"He would be very angry, if he knew you were here."
"That is a chance I have to take," he said.
There didn't seem to be anything to say to that, so I said nothing. Edmund turned away and walked to the mantle, where he began to inspect the various ornaments displayed on it.
"My royal brother, as you know, it the best of men, and will be a good king someday. But his years of military service, while admirable, have made him forget..." I jerked my head up, prepared to defend his character, "... not his place, or his duty. He could never forget those. But he has forgotten, I think, some of the realities of royal life... such as the fact that princes cannot marry where they choose." He fiddled with figure of a courtesan in wide skirts, face painted and hair piled high. "I know for a fact that my father the King has been some months in negotiating possible matches within other royal families. He has said nothing to his son about it yet because he wished to allow him some time to readjust to life at court first."
I could feel my cheeks pale. There she was: the foreign princess whose specter had so often filled thoughts. "The prince believes he can persuade his Majesty to consent," I managed to say.
"I know he does; he has told as much. But I cannot agree."
"Why did you not say that to him?"
"I did warn him that it might not be as easy as he hoped, but it was not my place to disclose what our father has chosen to conceal."
Except to me, I thought. "Then what harm can come from his asking? The worst the King can do is refuse."
"Because if I know my brother, he will not accept a refusal. Especially if he feels that he has made you a definite promise--" he looked pointedly at me and I flushed, "he will hold himself bound, and it could lead to a rift which may never be healed. There is a great stubbornness that runs in our family--though I believe myself exempt from it--and it is all too likely to become a battle of wills where the King is determined Simon shall not marry you, and Simon is determined to marry no one else. In the end, my father may resort to separating you by distance." At this point I could see traces of real distress in Edmund's voice and face. "He'll send him away--to Europe, or even to the wars again, in hope that he'll forget you. Or, he may find a way to place you beyond Simon's reach."
"Would he really be so cruel?" I exclaimed.
His face tightened impatiently, and I remembered again that I was talking to a prince. "Not cruel, pragmatic. My father is at heart a compassionate man, and he loves his children, but neither does he ever forget his responsibility to his country. Why should he let his son--his heir--marry an unknown girl of murky background when he could make a political alliance that would benefit the nation entire?"
It was true. His reasons were sound, I could not refute them. Pressing my hands together, I shut my eyes. "You want me to break his heart."
He did not answer immediately, and when he did, his voice was regretful. "No," he said. "No, I don't want it at all. But I fear it's inevitable, and it would be easier--better, for him and for you, for my mother, and for all England, if it happened now, quietly. He would be free then."
My thoughts swirled around and around, and I felt as if a great weight was pressing down on me. Images of Simon, of the palace's grandeur, of the king and queen who I had just glimpsed across the room at the ball, melded with the maps and lessons and political alliances I had so recently been studying.
No doubt seeing my struggle, Edmund pressed his advantage. "You are very beautiful," he said, "and you have both spirit and charm. It is easy to see why my brother is so much in love with you. If he were any other man, I would be positively encouraging him. But he's not any other man, and his wife will have duties far beyond a usual woman." His gaze was kind but skeptical. "Do you have any experience at all in navigating upper society?"
"No, but I can learn."
"Can you distinguish between those who are sincerely friendly and those who are not? Do you understand the nuances of long-running feuds between families, or matters of subtle precedence, or who's having an affair--or had an affair--and how to handle the situations arising from it? Can you even arrange the seating for a dinner without committing blunders?"
I pinched the bridge of my nose, fighting hard to remain calm. "My godmother has been giving me lessons."
"Forgive me, but Mrs. Gainswood has been in Europe for the last fifteen years. She may be up on all the latest gossip, but that doesn't mean her understanding is sufficient for your needs."
"A foreigner wouldn't know those things either."
"Perhaps, but a princess would bring far more to table than just her social skills."
I had been afraid of these things--if I were honest, I was still afraid of them. Edmund had effectively appealed to my every weakness--my insecurities, my love for Simon, my sense of duty to king and country.
Still in my mind, a kaleidoscope of images whirled madly--sneering courtiers, bloody battlegrounds, palaces, thrones, crowns, a wide stormy sea, the glittering chandelier in the grand ballroom--and a shadowy figure scrubbing pots that I knew was me. How much stronger would be Edmund's disapprobation if he knew my true history? Then, all at once, the whirling stopped, and settled with pristine clarity on one single image: Simon, my Simon, standing in this very parlor, his eyes filled with hurt and confusion that I had put there. How much greater would his feelings be now, after weeks of courtship, after I had kissed him and called him my love? He had come back to me, then, despite my twice rejection. I knew instinctively that he would not come back a third time; even his pride had its limits--but that was not what mattered. He was what mattered. Simon and his trust in me.
I breathed deeply and when I thought I could speak, I said, "If his royal highness wishes to leave me, I will let him go without a protest or question, and I will never try to contact or follow him. I know I am not worthy him. But do not ask me to leave him." He opened his mouth as if to protest, but I cut him off. "You tell me your father will refuse, you tell me terrible things will happen, but I do not know that. Perhaps you are right, but perhaps you are not, and in any case, I cannot be responsible, for Simon or your father, or any other but myself, and I will not betray him. He has the right to choose!" This last as he frowned and tried to speak again. "He has the right to choose for himself what he will do. How can I take that from him? How can you take that from him, who will be your king? Do you respect him so little?"
I thought he flinched at that, but he answered steadily enough, "Love has blinded him as it has you."
"Do you think he has no right to even try for happiness? That I have no right? I wish a thousand times that he was a simple colonel in the arm than a prince, but in either form he is the man I love! He seeks--" I was breathing heavily and had to gasp for air. "He seeks me, why I do not know, but I am firmly convinced that he needs me for his happiness, and is not the happiness of a king for the benefit of his people?" I pressed my hands to my eyes. "He trusts me," I almost whispered, "and I cannot betray him. I cannot hurt him again."
There was a long silence. I lifted my head and made myself meet his eyes. He did not look angry, just rather wry and resigned. "You are quite magnificent in your indignation," he said at last, in a dry voice. "I am sure my brother would be most gratified."
I lifted my chin.
"I cannot say I am terribly surprised, but I had to come. My conscience demanded it."
My sense of disdain was so strong I am sure my lip curled, and he laughed, though there was little mirth in it. "I may be a dandy, Lady Ella," he said, "but I do have a conscience." He bowed. "I will take my leave then, but I hope that, once your feelings have cooled, you might consider my words in a more rational light."
Because he was still, after all, a prince, I escorted him to the door and curtsied low before he left. Then I went back to the parlor and sat down on the sofa and took long, deep breaths, desperately trying not to cry. Had I done right? I couldn't believe otherwise, but dread churned in me. What if he was right? What if Simon's determination to marry me resulted in disaster? I couldn't bear to think of Simon, exiled to another country, sent into battle, just to separate him from me. I wouldn't let that happen, I thought. If it came to that--if the worst threatened--then I would leave. I would take whatever money I had and disappear. Then Simon would be safe. "I will keep him safe," I murmured.
Somehow I made it through dinner that night. My godmother looked at me keenly and asked if I had quarreled with my prince. I told her no, and as soon as I could, retreated to my bed.
I thought long and hard over whether to tell Simon about Edmund's visit, but in the end, I could see no purpose to it. It would hurt Simon, and cause a rift between brothers, which I would hate. I wondered what Edmund expected me to do. He would not, it seemed, stoop to beg for mercy or silence. But I truly believed he meant well, that he had acted out of affection. I had no wish for revenge, and in any case, it could only determine him more strongly against me. Whatever he said to the King when the time came, it would be time enough then to deal with it.
Simon did not come the following morning, and I wondered what it meant. I did not doubt his fidelity, but it was impossible not to imagine his brother attempting to dissuade him or even to actively preventing him. What if he had found out the truth on his own? Would he be angry? Hurt? Uncertain what to do?
By the time the afternoon finally inched in, I fled the confines of the back garden to the fields beyond. I had scarcely been allowed out in weeks, ever since my fall, and the expectation of Simon's calls had contented me. My back was still a little stiff and sore in places, and at times it itched unbearably, but I was healing quickly, and no longer thought of it much.
It was brilliant and sunny, but I could not think of that as I paced restlessly through the grass. Where was he? What was he doing? When would he come again?
I was so preoccupied that I did not hear the footfall behind me, and when someone touched my shoulder I jumped and gasped. I turned to see Simon laughing at me in the sunshine. I wanted to weep to see him, and so carefree, but instead I just said, "Simon!"
"You were very deep in thought."
"I was afraid you weren't coming."
"I could not keep away," he said with a smile, reaching for me. "If I could have gotten away sooner I would have."
For once I held back. "What kept you?"
A frown flickered across his brows. "Friends. Business. Nothing of consequence." He tried to draw me closer but I help firm.
"What friends? What business? I want to know."
For a moment he seemed to study my face, then nodded almost imperceptibly. "My companions wished to go shooting this morning, and I could not civilly refuse. It is the ostensible reason we came, after all. Then there was much conversation over lunch, and my presence was required for a time--"
"What about your brother?" It was out before I knew it.
"Did he--was he with you?"
"For some of the time. He assisted me in getting away, actually. He declined coming with me; I think he knew that I wanted you to myself."
I didn't know what to make of that. Was Prince Edmund expecting me to tell Simon what had happened? Or was he hoping that I had changed my mind and would break with him? "Are there any women in your party?" I asked, to cover my confusion. It was a question I had often wished to ask.
"Only one, and she is married." He laughed. "You are very curious this morning."
Perhaps for the first time since I had met him, I felt a flicker of irritation. Did he think I cared nothing for how his life was apart from me? Was I really so shallow? "I am curious about you," I said. "About your life. After all..." My voice trailed off suggestively.
Inexorably, he pulled me in, his hand sliding down my back. "I promise, you will meet everyone, when the time comes."
"But you know everything about me, and I feel I know so little about you."
"You know everything that matters, I assure you."
"Not to me." I held to my point stubbornly. "It matters to me."
He sighed. "The life of a prince isn't always pleasing, Ella. Even this, a supposed pleasure party, has been onerous to me at times. To come away here, to you, has been nearly all the real pleasure I've had from it. I love you for the fact that you are so unspoiled, so unaware and uncaring of court intrigues and jostling."
"But all that will have to change, if... Someday I will not be unaware or uncaring--I'll be a part of it. I'll have to be. Will you--" I looked away, unable even to articulate everything I feared. How would joining that world change me? Change us?
"Yes." He answered my unfinished question, and gripped me fiercely against him. "Yes, always," he repeated and, tipping my chin up, kissed me for some time.
When my prince spoke to me that way, and held me, my fears always receded, and I felt that I cared nothing for the opinion of the world, or any trials that might be ahead. When he was gone, though, they inevitably crept back. I tried not to dwell on them, or let them rule me; I had not been born to be a shrinking violet, I believed. However, it was fruitless to deny that I had good reason for many of my apprehensions.
I saw Prince Edmund once more in the week that followed. He came along with his brother, and behaved very much the same as he had before. I tried to do likewise. I could not really blame him for what he had attempted to do--I knew he loved his brother and worried that our attachment would bring disaster. I could only pray he was wrong.
There was only one time, as Simon was speaking to Mrs. Gainswood, that Edmund and I looked at each other silently across the table. Finally, unable to read his face and unable to bear it, I lifted my eyebrows questioningly. He glanced at Simon, then seemed slowly to incline his head a bit before reentering the conversation. I did not know how to understand the gesture, but hoped it meant good things. The same affection which impelled him to try separating us would hopefully impel him to support Simon when once he made me known to the king.
Mrs. Gainswood had, of course, agreed to the plan to return to London not long after the princes. Simon discussed it with her very civilly, both of them acting for all the world as if he were not a prince with the ability to command. She began immediately to speak of modistes and milliners and masters. I enjoyed her enthusiasm but could not share it; as pleasant as pretty gowns undoubtedly were, under the circumstances I was far more anxious than excited. I came across her more than once, sitting with a distracted sort of look on her face, a half-written list on the desk before her.
Inevitably, it came: Simon's last visit to the cottage. When next I saw him, it would be under very different circumstances. We took a walk together, a long, slow jaunt through fields and lanes where we spoke sometimes a great deal and often not at all. We stood under the same tree where I had taken refuge from the rain those weeks ago, and he kissed me. I let him kiss me far too much in those days; I knew it, but I had no heart to refuse him. It was like we were both grabbing at all the happiness we could.
And yet, my heart was light when I watched him ride away. He had spoken to me, very tenderly, with strong promises and such fire and purpose in his look, that I felt even the king himself must give him what he asked. I love him, I thought, as he turned and smiled his white smile at me one last time. I love him.
And so Simon went off to London with his friends. Mrs. Gainswood and I began our final preparations. She had decided that I needed not only a dancing masters but a singing master. There was no hope of teaching me to play at this late juncture, but my godmother had apparently decided that I had sufficient ability in singing to cultivate it as an accomplishment. I couldn't help but wonder how much time queens really spent singing.
Feeling slightly oppressed, I escaped the house for a walk one afternoon. I didn't even tell Mrs. Gainswood I was going, just slipped out while she was in the drawing room writing letters to all her numerous acquaintances, announcing the soon-to-be presence of her goddaughter in her house at town. The countryside was beautiful and peaceful, and I was loath to give it up.
I struck out over the fields, but eventually found my way back to the road. It was easier walking there, and I strolled along, enjoying the sunshine and blueness of the sky. After a time, carriage came along and rolled up beside me. It was a rather old and worn coach, without any crest on the panel, and the man who was driving it was hard-faced and plain, not dressed in any livery.
"Excuse me, miss." He tipped his hat. "Would you 'appen to know the way to Burbury?"
"It's west of here, I think," I said. "But you'll have to go back to the main road."
"And which way would that be, miss?"
"Why, back the way you've come, of course. Don't you--"
At that moment, my world went black.
The first thing I remember is being thirsty. I ached too, but it was the thirst that first penetrated my consciousness. As my awareness grew, I began to realize that I was thirsty because a musty cloth had been stuffed in my mouth, and panic set it. I couldn't breathe, I couldn't swallow, I was gasping for air but not getting it.
All at once I came awake, struggling against strange bonds, seeing little in the dim light around me. I really did feel like I was dying, for several moments, gagging on the cloth and too disoriented to realize I should breathe through my nose instead.
No one came to help me, but eventually my natural bodily reflexes asserted themselves; I began to breathe again, and calmed enough to realize my situation. I was lying on a bed in an unknown room, with my hands and feet tied and a gag in my mouth. A sharp pain hit the base of my skull whenever I moved my head in a certain direction, and I could only conclude that I had been knocked unconscious. I had been... kidnapped.
The idea that someone might want to kidnap me would have appeared funny if I wasn't in such a desperate situation. The only person I could imagine wishing to harm me was my step-mother, but common sense told me that my relationship to the prince may have made me a target in ways I could not know. Our association had seemed almost unknown, but if someone had been watching him, and watching him, seen him with me... how was I to know what intrigues larger than myself might be afoot?
Oh, Godmother. I thought of Mrs. Gainswood. I did not know how much time had passed, but it had been enough to convey me here, and if she wasn't frantic yet she would be soon. What heartache I was bringing on her!
Of Simon I tried not to think too closely. What he would feel, how he would act... it was too painful to contemplate. Besides, I knew I would cry if I thought of how much I wanted him, so I focused on practicalities instead. Mrs. Gainswood would doubtlessly contact him once her own search efforts failed, but all of that would take time. Even once he did know I was missing, how would he ever know where to look? Unless he was sent a ransom note, of course. I had time to think of all these things as I lay there in the quiet, but there were no answers.
I tried to dislodge the gag by rubbing my face vigorously against the dusty blanket, but it was tied too tightly, and the effort made my head swim. I did eventually manage to sit up, although that was difficult too, and inspected the room where I was being held.
It was a bed chamber, in what seemed to be a house. It had clearly been abandoned for some time, as heavy dust lay everywhere, and dust clothes covered the only two pieces of furniture besides the bed. The bed itself had once been a four poster, but the canopy was gone, and the mattress was thin and lumpy. Moth eaten drapes covered the windows. It could be anywhere.
I was sitting there, hands behind my back, legs twisted uncomfortably with my feet bound together, covered in dirt, when there came a noise outside the room. Up until then it had been utterly still, but now there was a shuffle and voices, muffled at first. Something banged and something else crashed, and there were footsteps, coming closer. I could hear other doors being opened--it seemed like someone was searching the house.
The handle moved on the door, but it was locked. Whoever it was on the other side began to strike the lock with something; the noise was loud. Whether it was the door or the lock that gave way first I didn't know, but with a crash, the door flew open at last. I had been sitting there with my heart pounding, full of hope and yet full of dread too, and could not help but jump and draw back, even as I looked eagerly at who it might be. A tall figure filled the doorway, and for a moment my heart leapt with joy to think it was he--but another moment showed that this form was too stocky to be the prince.
A man in a dark uniform of some sort came quickly into the room. "Your ladyship!" he said. His voice was deep, with a strong northern accent.
Although he had every appearance of a rescuer, I watched him fearfully as he came forward and began to untie the gag from my mouth. It was a great relief to have it gone. "Who are you?" I asked as soon as I could. My voice cracked, and I swallowed repeatedly, trying to work some up some moisture.
"My name is John Aiden. I'm a member of the King's Guard, and am one of his Royal Highness's personal body guards."
Now that he was closer I could see the insignia on his breast beneath his cloak. "Is he here?"
"The prince is in London, your ladyship." He had taken out a knife and began to cut the ropes around my feet. "He ordered me to stay and watch over you." My feet now free, he moved to my wrists, turning me gently. "Please forgive me," he said quietly. "I did not see you leave the house, not until it was nearly too late."
I was so surprised that I could not answer him at first. It appeared that more than one person had been watching my movements. "How long have you been guarding me?" I finally asked, rubbing my wrists.
"About a month."
A month! That must mean that... that Simon had first set him to watch me when he went to London last time, right after I told him the truth about myself. That meant this man had been privy to our entire courtship, even if from a distance. I could feel myself blushing in the dim. "Who is it who took me?"
"I don't know yet. But we must get you to safety."
He helped me to stand. I had to hold on to him at first, as parts of my limbs were asleep, and everything seemed stiff, but that passed quickly, and we went out. I had been right--it was a house, an abandoned farm house from the look of things. Downstairs, in a dirty and burned out-shell of a kitchen, a neatly trussed man lay unconscious on the floor. I expected, when I looked at him, to see the man who had been driving the coach, but it wasn't he. The man who lay there in so much the same situation that I had lately been in looked remarkably ordinary, like a farmer you might pass in the road any day. He was stout and middle aged, with an unshaven face.
"I've never seen him before," I said.
"Yes, there's another," agreed Aiden. "They were likely hired to do it."
"What do you intend to do with him?" I looked at my rescuer now. His form seemed broad and muscular, and he had intelligent face, with blue eyes and reddish brown hair. He was rather handsome.
He frowned. "I'm not certain. I don't like to leave the scoundrel here, but I've only one horse, and your safety must be my first concern. The other man could return at any time."
"Can you not take me home and then return for him?"
"I am sorry, my lady, but it is too dangerous for you to return to your home right now. I must take you to London directly."
"London!" I stared at him. "But Mrs. Gainswood--my godmother--she will be terrified!"
"We will get her a message," he promised. "I must also send word--at the earliest moment." He sighed. "I wish there were more of my fellow guardsmen left in the area. It chaffs me to make no attempt to apprehend the conspirators."
I thought about that a moment. "Why couldn't you?"
"I must get you to safety, my lady."
"But I am safe with you here," I argued. "What if I were to hide in another one of the bedchambers, with the door barred, until you apprehended the other man?" I did not doubt Aiden's ability to deal with anyone who might walk through that door. He had that air about him.
He hesitated, and I could see that he was struggling between his duty to protect me, and his desire to catch these men.
"I want to know," I said, as firmly as I could manage. "I want to know who did this to me, and if we ride away now, we may lose that chance forever." I looked him in the eye. "Please."
"Can you ride?"
"A little." I had learned as a girl.
"Very well." He came quickly to his decision. "But we'll wait only one hour. You'll hide outside, not in the house. I won't risk you being trapped if things go badly. You'll keep my horse with you, and at the first sign of trouble, you will ride away. You must give me your word, my lady."
I gave it, and he took me outside, beyond the garden, and found a place amid the trees where I could be concealed. He brought me his horse, adjusted the stirrups for my height, and made sure I had an obliging wall to mount from. Speaking quickly, he gave me very specific directions on which way to go, how to reach the nearest posting inn, and what to do once I reached London. Finally, he handed me his purse, and a breast pin with a distinctive design which he promised would get me in the gates of the palace.
All of this took surprisingly little time. He was an efficient man. I felt certain that he was ordinarily in charge over others--perhaps the prince's personal body guard, or else the leader of those assigned to guard him. Simon had left me the best he had.
After that it was waiting. Aiden went back into the house, of course, and I watched and anxiously watched for any sign of a rider or a carriage on the rutted lane. His great horse, which bore the rather amusing name of Albert, fidgeted and tossed his head, letting out the occasional whinny. I could only pray his would be quiet when the time came.
Finally, after what seemed like two hours at least to me, a figure appeared, but on foot. I wondered what had happened to the carriage. His approach was unbearably slow. I could not tell, from my hiding place, if he was the man who had spoken to me, but he went into the house. After that time slowed even more, every second, every minute like torture. Aiden told me that I was to wait no more than fifteen minutes, and that if anyone but he came back out, I must take off immediately. I twisted the reigns tighter and tighter around my hand, until they got so short that Albert protested, and I moved hastily to hush him.
When the back door swung open, I felt my heart drop like a stone--but it was Aiden who came out. I was so relieved I felt like running to him, but restrained myself to a few eager steps.
"All is well, my lady," he said, as soon as he came near. He had a cut across his cheek and a button on his coat was torn off, but I did not ask him about it.
"You have them both, then?"
He smiled. "I have them both."
I let out a long breath. "What do we do now?"
"With no carriage we cannot transport them. So we'll have to leave them--but not where they're likely to be found." He looked around speculatively.
In the end we put them in the root cellar. It was located behind the kitchen garden, so grown over that I don't think I would ever have seen its wooden door if we weren't looking for it. It was my idea--I felt rather proud of that. We hadn't really had a proper root cellar at the house I grew up in; it was only a small room off the larder. I had read of them in books, though, and the idea came to me, as we searched for some secure and unlikely place to hide the men. Aiden carried them out, one by one, across his broad shoulders. The one who had been in the house first--who he had knocked out and tied up before rescuing me--had come back to consciousness, and struggled some. I turned away, but still heard him moving, trying to yell around his gag. The other had a bruised and bloodied face, and I tried not to look at that either. Aiden dumped them in with little ceremony, barred the door securely, and I helped him pull weeds back up to cover it.
I was in a hired chaise on my way to London in scarcely more than an hour after that. Aiden took me up behind him on his horse, and we rode cross country to a posting inn in another town on a different road. The young maid who took me upstairs looked at me very strangely, but I did not try to explain, just smiled my thanks before washing my face in the welcome basin. The scratched mirror told me that I was very dirty indeed, and faint bruises were forming on the sides of my mouth. My wrists were also bruised, but not too badly, as I had not struggled against the rope as I had against the gag. After the ride I felt so tired, and my head hurt, and my back ached with still-healing wounds, but I tried not to think of those things. Physical suffering and hardship was one thing, at least, that I was well practiced at enduring.
By the time I finished washing the carriage was ready, but first I wrote a quick note my godmother, and Aiden wrote one to the local magistrate. "I shall tell him where to find our criminals, and charge him in the name of the prison to hold them for us," he explained. Riders were dispatched from the inn, and we were off.
I was alone in the carriage. We had a postilion, and Aiden rode alongside, a nondescript riding coat covering his uniform. I watched him out the window for a time, remembering Simon on his horse.
There was so much to think about, most of it leading nowhere. I did not know and could not guess who had had me abducted, or to what end. I was unsure how I felt about the fact that Simon had assigned guards to me without telling me, but in light of today's events I was in no position to protest. That was one more aspect of life as a royal that I would have to adjust to. I spent some time puzzling over how Simon might react when he heard what happened. He would be angry, I knew, and concerned for me. Beyond that I could only guess, and I could only guess at where Aiden might be taking me, or what this would mean for my future.
Eventually, it all caught up to me, and, slumped into the corner, I fell into a dreamless sleep.
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