This story will be told in three parts, from three perspectives. The first is Malerie's (whose role in the story you will discover shortly), the second is Princess Rose's, and the third is the mysterious boy she meets.
"I love sleep. My life has the tendency to fall apart when I'm awake, you know?" -Ernest Hemingway
The Tale of Malerie
Malerie was shaking, sweating, trembling. She felt light headed. Maybe that was because she couldn't seem to stop taking in breaths, one after another after another, faster and faster.
"Where is he?" she whispered. Her head ached from the stress of forcing her eyebrows together. Everything in her face was tight, tight, tight.
The ground raced by as she skimmed it with her eyes. Under that table? Behind that chair? Hiding? Run away? Invisible? Dead?
"No, no, no, no…" she muttered. He was just in his room! And now she'd raced around the whole palace. Outside? Please, please!
Malerie pushed open the servant's exit and stumbled out onto the springy green grass. She skidded to a stop and whipped her head this way, that way. The Rose Garden. It has to be.
She gathered her skirt and apron in both hands and started to sprint down a dirt path. It led to the very center of the castle complex, where the most beautiful garden in the world had been cultivated. He was sure to be there. Her charge. If he wasn't… She'd be thrown into the Deep Woods, for sure.
Malerie started to encounter people, and she raced past them, dodging arms and legs, and the faces of other servants as they frowned and tried to stop her, asking her what she was doing. Why didn't the Rose Garden have a more private entrance? If anyone found out, it would be the Deep Woods. No matter if he was in the garden or not. How could he do this to her! No, she couldn't blame him. He was only a child. And it was her job to show him that he didn't have to run away from her.
She doubled over, hands on her knees as she finally reached the entrance. The Rose Garden was walled by brick and wrought iron. Thorny vines climbed those heights, making them impossible to scale. The only way in was the main gate. She wiped her forehead with her apron, then looked up.
If it had not already been lost, Malerie's breath would have been taken away. The Garden was wild in a way, which somehow made it even more beautiful. Brick paths twisted in looping designs; it was not strict or ordered, but flowing, untamed. The roses bloomed high and twisted around each other and spilled onto the paths in glorious, colorful ecstasy. Lords and Ladies milled around here, but also servants, townsfolk. The Garden was open to all visitors who could afford to buy tickets. Malerie took off running again. What was she searching for? A secluded corner. A quiet space. He would want to be alone, wouldn't he? Where no one would think to look for him? Well she knew him too well to be tricked.
"Carisse, let me find him," she whispered. The name of an ancient faerie queen. Malerie had never been one to pray, but she'd take any and all help at this moment.
She plunged into the garden, tearing down path after path, whipping past hedges and tripping over vines, until finally, finally, she came to a place where there were no more people. The air was dark and cool, and the roses arched over the path, forming their own trellis, dense and drooping. Off to the side, almost completely in shadow, there came the soft sniffles of a crying little boy.
"Harold!" Malerie gasped, falling to her knees in the dirt. He was there, curled up beneath a solid marble bench inlaid with carvings in a strange written language. His nose and face were streaky with tears.
"Th-that's, th-that's…" he hiccupped. "Prince Harold. Prince. P-prince." He sucked in a breath, then squeezed his face as tight as Malerie's had been. Tears leaked out.
"I'm sorry Your Majesty," Malerie replied softly, her heart sinking to her knees, to the dirt. One hand curled around her apron while the other reached out to smooth the boy's wiry black hair away from his face. He let her, and her hand relaxed. She wiped the tears from his dark face, but more kept coming. His hand took her wrist and squeezed it. She took hold of both of his shoulders, gently, and pulled him out from under the bench, into her apron. He clutched it like it was his lifeline.
"Please don't run away again," she whispered to him as he wiped his never-ending stream of tears on her dress. "I was so worried."
"Why can't they be worried?" he said through clenched teeth. Malerie's eyes narrowed. Her mouth dragged down.
"They would be, if they knew," she lied. "I'm sure they would."
"Why can't they be like you?" he whispered, his breathing finally steadying. She stroked his hair. Back and forth, back and forth.
"The King and Queen are very busy. They have to take care of so many people…" She smiled. "That's why they leave you to me."
"Never leave me, Malerie," he said into her apron.
"Don't worry," she promised, laying a kiss on his forehead. "I never will."
Many Years Later
Malerie had kept her promise. The funny things was, Harold had been the one to push her away. And she still wasn't sure why, even after all this time. She thought of that day, when he had run away and she had made her promise to him. She had loved him so much. She couldn't explain why, even to herself. How could she not love him when she had always been there for him? From the moment he was born. Hadn't he loved her? But here she was, listening to the announcement, and she didn't understand. How could everyone celebrate? She didn't understand the parade, or the roses that people held in their hands, regardless of the thorns that must be digging into their palms.
The Kingdom of Roses. They called it the Kingdom of Roses for a reason. Malerie saw the flowers flung into the air, so many, she didn't know where they'd all been plucked. Of course, roses only grew in the Kingdom. Maybe, if she'd been younger, she would have smiled, tried to jump up and catch them, but now her joints were just a bit stickier, her muscles a bit stiffer. She had already left youth far behind when she heard the announcement.
"Come witness the wedding of the century!" A town crier exclaimed, waving his scroll of paper in the air as a parade marched behind him. Floats and carts full of more roses, tossing more out. A band marched along, strumming a joyful tune. "Come see King Harold wed the lovely Lady Florence! To be held before the Rose Garden! Reception is invitation only!"
Malerie's hand squeezed into a fist. This was the first formal announcement of the wedding. She'd tried to ignore the rumors. She was the one who'd raised him! Wasn't she? He was like a stranger now. She was learning about one of the biggest events of his life, and the news wasn't even coming from him.
"Malerie? Dear?" Joran asked, putting a hand gently on her shoulder. Malerie looked up at her husband and blinked several times.
"Oh? I'm fine," she assured him. He rubbed his hand up and down her back, and she relaxed into his shoulder.
"I know this must be hard for you," he said under his breath. "But we can go see the wedding ceremony like everyone else."
"Everyone else," she repeated.
"Do you want to go home?" he asked. She nodded, and he guided her through the crowds, still with that one hand placed comfortingly on her back.
Their home was on the very edge of town, next to the Deep Woods. It was the cheapest land in the kingdom. Which was why Malerie and Joran owned it. He worked, but couldn't do as much since he was older, and he had to travel to the castle and back. She tried to work… but it was hard to find said work when there were quicker, stronger people looking too.
"Do you think if I got another cleaning job, we'd be able to get a new house?" Malerie asked. Joran shook his head and opened the door into their small, rough home.
"I don't want you to strain yourself," he said as they both walked in. "We aren't as young as we used to be, you know."
"Oh, don't remind me…" she said, forcing a smile and sitting down on a wooden chair. In here, the roar of the parade was nearly silent, but she could still just hear a hint of the drums if she held her breath. Joran looked down at her.
"Is something the matter?" he asked. She closed her eyes and leaned back.
"I…" she started to say. But then the false, logical explanation for her feelings slipped through her fingers. She stuttered, opening her eyes to anchor herself to something. Joran drew a stool up in front of her and sat down, his hands clasped in front of him "It's just…" she continued. "My old job…"
"You left the castle years ago," he said, the skin around his eyes tightening. "You still miss it?"
"I don't know if I miss it," she replied, pushing herself to her feet, then turning away from him to face the window. "I just miss… I miss him." She was the one he had turned to. She was the one he had hugged and smiled at, with the adoration, the gratefulness inherent in everything he did. Through the cloudy glass, she could just make out the tips of the castle towers. So far away. "I was forgotten."
"Malerie…" Joran began. She turned around and found him standing, staring at her, his face creased.
"I don't care how long ago it was," she insisted. "I was so sure that… that when he outgrew me…" She couldn't voice it. It was a strange fantasy, an ugly desire. But she'd expected something in return. The way he'd looked at her, needed her. Why wasn't he there for her now? Instead, after the death of his mother, he'd let her go. When he'd needed her most! Another servant had given her the news, that her services were no longer needed. That was the phrase used. She would have to find another job, no other places in the castle. How could this happen. What had she done? She'd done nothing. Nothing except everything.
"He's not your child," Joran stated. Malerie blinked. Her mind had been running down a tunnel and suddenly tripped, falling flat. She pursed her lips and crossed her arms, looking off to the side at the ancient spinning wheel in the corner, an heirloom from her mother. There was a cobweb between two of the spokes. "I'm sorry," he said. "I shouldn't have said that."
"No, you're right," she replied tonelessly. Some of the bitterness inside her spilled over into her next words. "We have no children."
"No children…" Joran echoed. She looked up, and saw that he was the one staring off to the side now, his face tight and trembling. She felt guilt like a punch to the gut, taking away air and words. She closed the distance between them in two steps, then put her hands on both sides of his face.
"Please, please don't be upset," she said, turning his head so he would have to look her in the eyes. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have brought it up. I shouldn't have brought any of this up." He took a deep breath and forced a smile, placing his hands on top of her own.
"I just can't bear it," Malerie went on in a quieter voice. She lowered her eyes. Her head was a clutter of regrets and old dreams, and one of them, the most pitiful one, slipped out between her teeth like a snake. "He didn't even invite me to the wedding."
Joran sighed through his nose and stepped away from her, letting their clasped hands fall between them. "Malerie," he said. "This isn't like you. Let this go. He's a king."
"I know," she replied, studying her shoes. That was the problem.
"And you don't need him," Joran went on. "You have me."
Malerie jerked her head up to look at him, her mouth hanging open. More guilt, for acting like he wasn't enough, for thinking that she wanted and needed something so much. It made her feel sick, but somehow lucid at the same time; it cleared away the resentment. "You're right," she said, shaking her head. "Of course you are. I'm sorry! It's the wedding, I know it. I've been so caught up in myself..." She squeezed his hands. "You're too good for me."
Joran gave her a small smile, bent down, and kissed her. She tried to forget everything, just lean into him and be present and be content. But the wedding. But Harold. Why?