"Why does he keep me waiting? Who on earth does he think he is? I may not be the richest princess in Tikaea, but never have I been cast aside and disregarded in this way! It's enough to drive one mad! I'm not some kind of pompous ambassador that visits during spells of peace to acquire a free meal while under the guise of having something worthwhile to say. I'm a princess and a lady. A prince should know better!"
Dahlia's lady in waiting nodded with the proper mingling of dignity and accord. "I beg your most gracious pardon if this is above my station to say, but I cannot consider it appropriate to keep a person waiting in the same room for over an hour. Least of all your own fiancé."
"It's not above your station to have an opinion. Besides, anyone with half a wit would think the same." Candice was the newest addition to Dahlia's company of gentlewomen, and her mistress's liberal views towards servants saying what they wished had not caught on with her as quickly as it had with the others.
"What sort of man makes appointments and then breaks them? My father set the day of our meeting almost a year in advance. Do you think he could have forgotten?"
"Men have far less to worry them in arrangements such as these, but I can't imagine even the stupidest of them forgetting altogether. He does have an appointment book, I'm sure."
"I thought he'd at least be interested in looking me over. If he's anything like the score of other princes I've met, there's no doubt he'll rave like a fool about my beauty while happily pretending I have nothing to say besides, "I thank you your highness. Your castle is perfection, and your sword the broadest I have ever seen. I do hope you let me keep to my rooms and out of your way, except when performing my womanly duties. To live such a way would be the pinnacle of my aspirations."
Dahlia folded herself neatly into the chair which sat before a gauze covered window. She undid her hair from its netted coil, shaking the length of it behind her back. Candice took up the most important tool in her traveler's satchel and began to brush out the new tangles which had amassed in the handsome umber threads. She did not question Dahlia's choice to sit by the window rather than place herself before the great mirror standing a short walk behind them. The first thing Candice had learned in service was not to question Dahlia's oddities.
She was only glad there was no wind today, for when the sea breeze roared and blustered its way through the gaps in stone which were windows to King Breck's castle, Dahlia was unyielding and oft times perverse about standing close enough to let the wind whip mercilessly around her, until at last it had left her garments and hair in such tragic state, the princess looked more like a peasant who was wont to wrestle with her brothers on the floor.
"At least he has the sense to put a seat by the window. Do you think he did have the sense, or merely left the setting of my room to the servants?"
"I find it improbable that he would trust his servants to do anything but move furniture. The proper preparations of a lady's rooms are always of the greatest importance."
"Braid it as you did for my birthday, Candice. I want most of my hair to be free. Stuffing it all in a net makes me appear old and wise. Since I am not old, and never in my brief life have I been perceived as wise, I may as well have it as I like."
"Yes your highness."
"I told you to stop calling me that. Milady will do just as well for me, thank you."
The fixture of Dahlia's silvery lily comb was followed by a dignified knock on the door.
An oddity of a man stepped in from the corridor, dipping his head slightly to Candice, lowering and elongating his bow to Dahlia. As he bent, a gold tassel bobbed up and down on the cap he wore atop his head, threatening to leap off at any moment and head for the door. His dark skin looked even darker whilst covered in robin breast red; unnaturally straight he held his flattened palms before and behind his torso in customary reverence.
"My Prince Leo will see you now."
Dahlia pressed her gown, a smooth, grey field broken up by well spaced cornflowers against her waist and hips. She touched the family crest corded against her neck to remind herself of the reason she was here. What an inconvenience to have your entire family counting on you.
The red walled antechamber was uncomfortably warm and close. Relief met Dahlia in the form of a small draft as Marcus led them quickly through it and into a well brightened hall. An army of sconces directed where the light and shadows pooled onto richly decorated rugs, none of which were a hand width smaller than the length and breadth of a man. Neither a seat nor a throne was present in the room, but a long oak table trailed the wall far right of the fireplace. A mellow fire danced in that hearth, but the hall was of prodigious size and it was cool in the corner where Dahlia and her handmaiden stood.
Marcus stationed himself by the second of four pillars in the middle of the room; he seemed to be content enough to wait for his master until next morn's dawn if necessary.
Not so for Dahlia. She restlessly strode farther into the middle of the hall. Here was a better position for seeing all angles of the door across and any entrances made through it. She knew also that her complexion was at its best advantage under the soft glow of the fire. For viewing and being viewed she would endure the extra warmth a while longer.
Footsteps slow and heavy dropped from beyond the closed door. Rhythms told there was more than one person approaching. Dahlia stood up straighter and garbed her face in royal composure. Whatever kind of man her fiancé was, she would not be caught in surprise. If Leo was to be classed with other sons of kings, Dahlia could already see what would occur. Torturously safe greetings would be exchanged, subtle appraisal would take place on both sides, and if further discourse was desired afterwards, something mild and polite would be said, such as, "I hope you will dine with me tonight," and, "I look forward to the pleasure."
She had heard of other betrothal greetings that had not gone according to pattern, of course. Alaine's husband had begun their engagement by roaring his disproval of weak, cowardly women, and swore with a vengeance that as long as Alaine didn't sniffle and blubber whenever he yelled about things not going his way, he'd love her for the rest of his life. So far he was keeping his word.
Some betrothals had started better and ended worse. Such as Nina's lord who looked every bit like a sculpture crafted by heaven's angels, but spent the entire interview with his nose in the air and ice on his tongue. Dahlia didn't like to think about her summer visits to Lady Nina of Quell.
Still more stories of perfectly happy betrothals could be found in the records. The Queen of Sharda was said to have endeared herself so quickly to King Walter that he moved the date of their marriage up by a month, and they died at ninety, wrapped in each other's arms. Dahlia had no desire to think of the regents of Sharda. She would not imagine such a tale was hers for the living.
Two of the prince's bodyguards strode in with watchful eyes. Their faces were covered by the matching red turbans they wore around their heads; their arms bulged beneath bindings of black and crimson. Designed for battle, trained to kill. Dahlia couldn't see the threat of death behind the four amber orbs that peeked out from the coverings. Indeed, one of the bodyguards showed traces of something altogether striking in his wary eyes. It was more concern than any other emotion would fair describe. She wondered if the prince had been wounded, and felt mild pains of guilt for the angry thoughts she'd indulged before.
Then something struck her as not quite right. One of the bodyguards stood before the other, partly obscuring his line of sight. This was wrong. It was a bodyguard's duty to keep parallel with his fellow; none higher than the other, giving way to no one but their prince.
It was then Dahlia saw the crest of Anthedron dangling from a cord on the forearm of the bodyguard nearest her.
Prince Leo was dressed as his own bodyguard. But why?
Dahlia couldn't control the look of questioning that stole into her face. She fought it back and moved towards him on soft, cautious feet. She held out her hand, wondering how he would bring it to his lips with the coverings on. Prince Leo shrank from the milk white offering, sighing as he did so.
"Your highness, is something wrong?" A temptation to withdraw the worry in her voice came upon her. Never had lord, prince, or king refused her hand.
"Your father did not receive our message?"Though muffled by the wrappings, his voice was pure and light; as music humming softly on strings.
"No. We have heard nothing from you since this day was arranged."
He did not want her. His mind had changed, and she had been rejected. One lost letter had caused her the horrific embarrassment of being sent miles away to a fickle prince, only to travel back the lonely roads in shame.
Prince Leo looked as deep in thought as a man with only eyes can be.
"I apologize for the confusion." Dahlia struggled to curb the bitter sting fighting for dominance through her lips, "If one of your servants can direct us to the stables, my maidservant and I will be gone within the hour. I will not linger where I am unwanted."
"You misunderstand the nature of the letter." The voice was so beautiful, the words uttered in such precious, harmonizing tones that Dahlia almost forgot to ask where lay the misunderstanding.
Prince Leo dipped his right hand into his sleeve and pulled out of it a round, silver symbol. He held it by the bottom, reaching it close enough for Dahlia's eyes to catch, but no closer. Dahlia saw the intertwining circles and solid silver piece in the center and finally she understood.
"May we send the others out, your highness?"
Prince Leo turned to his companion and nodded twice.
"All of them."
"Marcus is like a brother to me. He is free to do as he wishes and only serves me by choice. I trust his discretion in all matters and will not send him away like a servant."
"Now it is you who misunderstand me. I consider my ladies in waiting to be my friends and companions, but I would have Candice go as well. I am in no way offended by Marcus's presence, but I feel we have things to say to each other that would be better discussed privately."
The eyes tightened for a moment before falling on Marcus. Marcus smiled with a share of trust and went with Candice to leave the pair alone.
Prince Leo breathed deeply, shifting his posture in both agitation and distress. "Am I to understand you are still willing to discuss the arrangement?"
"I am." Dahlia glanced at his gloved hands. "Of what nature is this illness?"
His head shook solemnly. "My physicians cannot tell me. They have no indication of its origins, the possibility of contagion, or in what way it will take its course, besides that which already ravages my hands and face.
"You see now why I sent a message to your father to end the arrangement."
"I see it very clearly, yes. You would have rather I bear the full shame of that letter than taking the risk of having to hear yourself rejected."
"Are you portraying me as a coward," he asked thoughtfully, not a tinkling of anger in his words.
"No, forgive me. But I am glad the letter was lost."
"I did not think of it before." He spoke as if to himself. "The hurt it must cause a lady to have such a missive sent for her. Indeed, if I had thought of it, I would have devised some other method of informing your family. Perhaps I might even have explained my reasons for our breach of agreement so that womanly feeling could be spared. I see that such letters are not right. They should no longer be kept as a part of tradition."
Dahlia was astonished. "I am… most pleased that we agree."
"Yes. Thank you," he said. "I would not have thought of that on my own. Now, onto the unpleasant truths. I want no more misunderstandings, so forgive me if I speak too bluntly.
"If we were to marry still, it would be with the knowledge that I might never be healed. I would not expect you to care for me, but wedding oaths are sacred and no matter how my condition worsens or repulses, I would not allow one syllable of those vows to be broken. You may keep your white robes, but I do not abide oath breaking."
Dahlia inclined her head with growing respect.
"However, were we to be wed and this disease prove incurable and fatal, you would inherit my entire kingdom upon the death of my parents."
"Stop." Dahlia's hands hovered over her elfin ears. "I will not abide talk of my benefiting from anyone's death. If you please, I would like to hold discussion as if we all are to live very long lives and the crown will be handed down for the convenient shift of responsibility alone."
"It is only the facts of how things could be. But your discomfort is understood. What are your thoughts?"
"I see no reason to dissolve this arrangement. All things considered, I'm rather in awe that you would give me a choice at all."
"Not give you a choice? The idea is entirely foreign to me. No, that is not true. My lady has no choice in many matters, but none I hope are very unreasonable. A marriage is between two willing people. Anything else is a slave holding.
"Now, since you have not run away to the stables like I expected you to, I think it only right that I give you your present."
Of all the things Dahlia was not expecting to hear, those two words were foremost. "My present?"
"Of course. One doesn't keep a princess at his castle without giving her a present. I feel especially indebted to you for starting everything off in such a clumsy manner. How very awkward."
A small box was brought out from the folds of his tunic and held out to her. "Don't worry; I did not touch it with my hands." His eyes smiled, and Dahlia's lips curved upwards in return.
Nestled inside the ivory box scattered over with brightly painted flowers was the white figure of a whittled swan. The long, slender neck was raised upwards, and the wings spread high in flight.
"It's the emblem of our kingdom, Anthedron. If you still decide to leave, you may keep it. In… friendship," he stumbled for the word. "Yes, friendship. I still wish for our kingdoms to be on good terms with each other."
The bird's neck was smooth as window glass. Something in its posture cried of wordless longing. It was flying high above the world, but still it wanted more, never satisfied until he reached the first height of heaven. Dahlia clutched it in her palm before her eyes grew watery. Quickly, she moved her notice to the copious blossoms on the box.
"These are lilies and dahlias!"
"I would have found a way to send this to you, as I don't know anyone else who could appreciate the significance of the flowers. I know Dahlia is not your given name, however… may I ask, what is your given name?"
"Andahlia Fraewyn. In addition to my homeland, 'Tikaea,' it grew too difficult for my poor people to remember in full. I was in no way disheartened when my braver subjects began to call me Princess Dahlia. I've embraced the name as my own with gratitude for its simplicity."
"Would you believe that Leo is not my full name, either?"
"What is, pray tell?"
"Leonitus. Is not that pretentious? The closest I came to deserving such a mighty name was when I swore punishment on anyone who called me by it."
Dahlia laughed without restraint, "I don't understand how parents can be so cruel with their children's names."
Leo held out his hands questioningly. "Does this disturb you?"
"How could it? I can't see anything."
"Oh, no. I don't mean that I would be disturbed, were you to take them off. I only mean that the thought does not disturb me."
"If I did show my face, you would be disturbed."
"I don't know."
"You would. I know it."
"Well, I won't make promises I may upset. Whatever your coverings are hiding, it won't alter my thoughts of you."
"And what are your thoughts of me?"
"You are altogether nothing like I predicted."
Leo laughed when Dahlia did not answer further. "But I mean what I say, so you have no reason to fear me. You know this, do you not?"
"I do," she said.
"Then step away from the fire and stand closer to me. I want to see the true color of your eyes."
Dahlia obliged unflinchingly.
"Don't laugh my dear, but those are the loveliest shade of green I have ever seen. Although, it could be the dress giving an illusion."
"For certain it is. My eyes look like little frog ponds when I wear brown. But you, sir, have cheated. You're wearing your color right up against your eyes so that I have no choice but to be awed by them."
"Would you ask me to take these wrappings off?"
Dahlia grew serious. "No. I would not ask that."
"I would like to show you. Strange as that sounds."
"If you're ready for me to see."
He closed his eyes. "I am."
There was stillness in the room that gave neither a thought of tension or impatience. Understanding seemed to connect the two in ways that needed no words. If tempered bird songs were to fill the silence, it could not have been sweeter.
"There's but one thing."
"Is it something I can make easier?"
"I can't seem to bring myself to do it. If you think you can manage not to scream before backing away, I would have you help me."
"Are you certain?"
He drew out the longest breath he had thus far - inhaling, exhaling, and keeping his eyes closed like heavy curtains. "Yes. Please."
Dahlia put her smooth, steady hand on the turban, unwinding it ever so slowly, holding her breath so as not to shock herself with an unwanted outburst. When the turban was reduced to long strips of fabric in her hand, she gently let her breath out again.
"There. I did not scream, and you can open your eyes."
For anyone who cares to know, this was actually a full dream that I had one night. I didn't alter any part of what my subconscious fed me, except adding some minor details that I'd forgotten by the next morning, and naming the previously unnamed characters. Influences I can blame for the dream would probably start with the 1990 Arthur Kopit version of Phantom of the Opera. Prince Leo's voice was suspiciously similar to Charles Dance's from that film. All of this just just to prove that I'm a hopeless romantic, even in my sleep. ;)