Cerulia had not waited that night. She herself had also been detained the whole day.
That morning, she had been dressed in a proper gown, stayed and laced with her hair pulled up prettily around her head. She itched. She fidgeted as her ladies in waiting helped to dress her and rogue her cheeks and comb and curl her hair to perfection. She did not mind wearing gowns. She felt beautiful in gowns, with her hair curled about her face to accent her pretty features. She liked looking in the glass at herself when she was dressed like this. The fuss everyone was making of the arriving guests was what actually unsettled her. The whole castle was bustling with preparations, rooms to be made up, feasts to prepare, entertainment to be planned. She was also not fond of the fussing she received from her ladies in waiting about the prince. Since the painting of the royal family of Insulae arrived in the late winter season, the ladies had been gossiping about Prince Titus and his handsome portrait.
"Your highness, what will you say to him when he arrives?" Petra asked, the only one of her ladies brave enough to voice her excitement.
"Hello?" Cerulia said with a shrug of one shoulder. "He's only a prince."
Petra clicked her tongue at the princess. "You are a princess, your highness. He maybe be ordinary to you, but the rest of us can only dream of meeting a prince," she said, tugging at Cerulia's hair.
"You'll meet him of course, he'll be staying until after the ball," Cerulia said. She didn't know if he would stay longer. She didn't know if they would marry immediately, or carry on a courtship here in Duciest, or if he would reject her. She changed the subject. "They're bringing some of their royal couriers as well. Surely there will be one or two handsome gentleman among them." She smiled coyly to the other young women.
The ladies around her tittered with excitement.
Finally, she was dressed and proper, and set off to meet the queen in the throne room. It was a bright, sombre room with a vaulted ceiling and tall windows and a dais on which only two thrones stood now. Cerulean entered the room through a door set off one side of the dais. Her mother was already there, standing by her throne. Her eyes were looking at a blank spot where her husband's throne had once stood.
"Good morning," she said softly.
The queen took a deep breath. "And to you, my dear. King Morsus and Prince Titus have arrived and will be with us shortly. Do behave, Cerulia," her mother warned, her expression slowly lightening as she spoke to her daughter.
Cerulia smiled back, giving herself as proper an expression as she could manage. "Yes, of course your majesty."
A footman at the door announced the king and prince as they entered the room, then the twenty or so nobles that accompanied them. The queen and princess stood before their thrones, the princess set back slightly to her mother's right side.
Several of the noble families came as Cerulia had expected, with younger ladies and gentlemen close to her age and a bit older. Some were older but eligible bachelors and some widows who inherited their husband's titles. The queen offered welcoming words as they all were presented before her. Presented in order of rank, the king and prince were last to greet the women of Duciest.
"King Morsus, how well you look," said the queen, extending her hands to him.
He clasped both of them in his own and kissed her gloved knuckles. "And you, Queen Rose, are as beautiful as the first day we met." He smiled and released her hands. "May I present my son, Prince Titus."
The prince was as handsome as his portrait. He was rather tall, bright yellow hair, blue eyes like his father's, and a smile that was intimidating. His yellow hair and blue eyes reminded Cerulia of the young man in the forest. She shut the thought out for the moment. He kissed the queen's extended hand. "I can see where you daughter gets her beauty." His eyes met Cerulia's over her mother's hand and he winked.
She extended her own gloved hand to both men be kissed and they all were seated.
"Queen Rose, we are honored by your celebration," the king said, inclining his head regally towards the queen.
"Of course, we have much to celebrate in these times of peace," she said.
The king nodded. "On the subject of peace, we have much to discuss."
The queen agreed, beckoned the king to follow her, and looked at the prince and princess with a knowing eye. "Cerulia, why don't you give a tour of the castle to Prince Titus and his guests? I'm sure they would love to see our stables."
"That's a wonderful idea," the king joined. He prompted his son, "Titus?"
"I would indeed," the prince said quickly. "I am an avid rider, I enjoy hunting."
Cerulia was pleased. She herself enjoyed a good hunt, though she could not bare to watch the animal die after the initial arrow was shot. The noble gentlemen she rode with were usually more than happy to perform the task for her.
The queen also seemed pleased. "Well, you and Cerulia have much in common already. Perhaps you should go for a ride."
The younger two rose, bowed and curtsied to the king and queen, and left the greeting room. After making sure the guests more inclined to be settled in were seen to, Cerulia and the prince walked slowly through the halls, followed by five of the younger nobles and two older bachelor lords. At first she felt shy and awkward being alone in a group of strangers. She did not entertain unknown guests often and felt unequipped, but quickly the prince caught up to her and spoke.
"I've never felt more like a child," Prince Titus said in a low voice, the general chatter of the people around them loud enough to keep his words muddled to other ears.
"Nor I," Cerulia said, relieved the she might speak freely with him. "They might as well have told us to go and play while the adults talk."
He laughed quietly. "And already, they're pushing us together."
Cerulia laughed too, "I know!" She mimicked her mother, "'You have much in common already.'"
The prince placed a hand on his chest as he laughed. "He's been prompting me the entire journey on how to be a gentleman while courting."
Cerulia's laughter slowed until it disappeared completely. "So that's it then," she said solemnly. "We're to be wed."
Prince Titus glanced her way. "I suppose so. If you don't find a husband at the masque."
They walked in muted silence for a long time. The other guests seemed to understand the two highnesses needed to speak alone for the moment.
"It's not so bad, though, is it?" he asked finally. He looked over at her from under thick lashes. "From just this moment, I'm sure I will like you. And I think for the moment you like me?" he said hopefully.
Cerulia smiled a bit sadly. "I do." She looked away from the prince and back. "We can be friends at least, can't we?"
His lips parted into a charming smile. "I hope so."
"To be honest, I have no qualms marrying you. I've always thought I'd marry for my kingdom, like my parents."
Prince Titus nodded. "I have had similar thoughts. However, I think it would be better to marry for love, regardless of your rank."
"You're more of a romantic than I, then," she said, smiling. "I've never truly thought about falling in love." Thoughts of the young man from the forest came forward and she shook them off. "I think it's an honor to marry for my kingdom. I'll be helping my people, at least in keeping peace between kingdoms if nothing else."
"It would be an honor to marry you," he said, serious eyes focused on her.
She felt a blush come over her face and turned away shyly. "To the stables, then, shall we?" she said, raising her voice to include the others behind them.
He smiled wider as chorus of agreement rose. "It would be a pleasure, your highness."
They walked through the castle slowly, taking their time, exchanging stories and light talk of gossip and politics. Cerulia was drawn to the prince quickly. He was smart, handsome, witty, and he did not seem to mind her outspokenness. The couriers were all amicable, the ones that accompanied them. Two younger gentleman in particular who seemed closest to the prince were great fun and had Cerulia laughing harder than ever. Gerald, the elder of the two and to Cerulia's surprise her elder by several years, was the second son of the king's political advisor. He was slow to speak but when he did, others were apt to listen intently. Phillip, the youngest, was excitable and very agreeable. The three gentlemen had a fast-paced banter that warmed Cerulia so that when they arrived at the stables she was in high spirits.
The stable master approached, carrying horse equipment over his shoulder. He bowed to the prince and princess. "Your highnesses, lords, ladies," he said jovially. "How may I be of service?"
Cerulia glanced at the prince and comany. "We would all like to ride today, please. Ready my horse and I'm thinking specifically the black hunter for Prince Titus."
"A sidesaddle today, your highness?" he asked. His smile was teasing.
"Yes," she said smiling.
The stable master trotted off with a handful of stablehands to ready the horses.
"What did he mean? A sidesaddle today?" Phillip, the younger of the two close friends of the prince asked, a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth.
Cerulia flushed. "Usually I ride like a horseman."
The people around her looked surprised. Phillip laughed, "Do you really?"
She nodded. "I do. It's more thrilling."
Laughter came from all around her. A handsome baron who was starting to show gray at his temples asked, "In a full gown, skirts and all?"
She shook her head, feeling the loose strands coming out of her perfectly done hair to brush at her cheeks. She knew her riding habits were unorthodox, but she had never considered just how unusual they really were. "No. I wear trousers to ride."
The prince laughed. "What if people saw you?"
She shrugged. "They haven't yet. I stay to the grounds and in the woods."
The prince laughed and nodded. "There'll be none of that when we are married, I'm sure." The gentlemen and the two brave ladies accompanying all showed agreement as they were all being brought their mounts.
Cerulia frowned. She was not sure if his words were in humor or in seriousness. Would he be a controlling husband? From the beginning he had been witty and amicable. What if that was not his true nature? She was usually a good judge of character, but she could be mistaken this time. She decided to let the remark roll out of her thoughts, to be wary of the prince but not to accuse him so quickly.
The stable master assisted the princess into her saddle. The prince swung up with a practiced grace. Cerulia wished desperately to be able to ride as she usually did. The gown was restricting her legs, and though she knew she looked a pretty picture, she whole-heartedly wished to ride wild.
"Where should we go?" the prince asked as they waited for the others to mount. One of the ladies was having particular trouble getting onto her horse.
Cerulia hummed a moment, thinking. "What opinion does your highness have of lakes?" she asked.
"I'm quite fond of lakes and most bodies of water. I did grow up surrounded by an ocean," he said. He was smiling at her fondly.
She returned his smile. "Then I think your highness will appreciate our lake. The view might not be as magnificent, but it is breathtaking in the summer."
The prince seemed pleased. "To the lake we go then." Here he reached out to take her hand. "And please," he placed a kiss on her knuckles, "call me Titus." He did not release her hand.
"Titus," she said, trying his name on her tongue. His name was pleasantly sharp.
He released her hand and they urged their horses into a trot. She led him and the others slowly through the forest, past the clearing where she had met the young man the previous day. Her eyes stayed for a moment on the clearing, her mind bringing forward his face and those eyes. Eyes were her favorite feature in people and his were stunning.
"Where are you, princess?" the prince asked gently.
Cerulia took a breath and turned to smile reassuringly. "Just reliving fond memories."
When they approached the lake, Cerulia breathed in deeply. The smell of the lake was a favorite of hers. The way it smelled fresh and wet. She missed swimming in the summers. Her royal duties had multiplied since she was a child and her time and actions were restricted.
"Oh how gorgeous!" exclaimed the young lady who had trouble mounting.
"Isn't it? It's one of my favorite spots," she said. "I come here often to think."
The prince turned to her, his eyes serious. "It's beautiful," he said.
She ducked her head, suddenly shy in the gaze of someone who seemed to understand how important this place was to her. She played with the ribbons on her gown for a moment before saying, "Shall we all dismount and walk along the shore?" she asked.
Prince Titus nodded. "I would enjoy that."
He dismounted gracefully and tied his horse's reins loosely around a tree branch. The other gentlemen did similarly. The two young ladies were helped down by Gerald and the handsome baron as the others began to walk. The prince stepped forward to help Cerulia dismount. He reached out his arms and caught her round her waist, letting her down slowly, their chests pressed against one another. She'd never been this close to a man before, not one with which she was romantically involved, though the involvement was not exactly voluntary. They stood still for a moment, frozen in this pose, her feet suspended in air and his arms wrapped protectively around her.
"Though we are to be married without our input, I'm glad it's to you," he said quietly, their faces so close their noses almost touched. "You seem kind and understanding."
She looked down, again shy in the face of his open flirting. She looked up again through her lashes at him. "I'm glad you think so."
They laughed softly together.
He set her on the sand then, releasing her. He offered his arm. Cerulia accepted and they began walked together around the lake. They walked and the company chatted, laughter and votes echoing across the lake.
"It's beautiful this time of year," she said. "All the green and blue together, it's enchanting."
The prince nodded. "As are you, if that is not too forward a thing of me to say," he murmured, his mouth coming closer to her ear, which was vulnerable without her mess of wild hair for protection.
She felt her cheeks flush. She smiled shyly, her head tilting towards the ground again, something that seemed to be happening often in the short time she'd spent with the prince. He made her feel like a butterfly-bellied maid girl. He was not ashamed to flirt with her, though they were chaperoned. However, everyone seemed to know they were to be married, which seemed to make his advances more confident. The fact that his flirtations were public made them alluringly risky. She saw the others glancing their was and wondered how much they knew about the situation.
"You're quite bold," she said. It was not a chastising statement.
He stopped their walking gently. "Should I not be so informal?" he asked, his tone hurt.
Cerulia's brow furrowed. "I meant no offense. I'm just not used to such advances so soon after introductions. But I agree. If we're to be married I would like to have affection for my husband."
Prince Titus smiled warmly. "I hope the same." Then his expression became mischievous. "And since we are accompanied, I don't think I can be as bold as I'd like," he said.
"What do you mean?"
He looked at the group of others, a ways ahead of them but not far. He looked at her and gave her a wicked smile as he tugged her back into the trees. They were out of sight, but only just.
His eyes were unwavering in looking at her. He placed one hand tentatively on her waist. His face tilted very, very close to hers, his eyes moving from her eyes to her lips. His other hand rose to cup her cheek. His hand was big and his fingers slipped into the strands of her hair. His lips were so close to hers. She could feel the warmth of his breath against her whole face. He did not go further, pausing with his face so close and his eyes on hers, asking silently. She hesitantly leaned forward and they kissed. The kiss was firm, gentle, like the press of a hand to a door to close it quietly. His mouth did open, slightly, and the kiss deepened. He pressed against her and drew her closer with the arm he had around her waist. Her head drew back slightly, leaning on his hand while her hands found the lapels of his jacket. The kiss lasted a long moment before the prince drew back. His eyes opened slowly and he seemed almost sad as if he'd lost something.
"You are a beautiful girl. Woman," he corrected himself, tugging at a loose strand of hair. He wrapped it around his finger. "Any man would be glad to be marrying you."
She smiled back with the taste of the kiss still stinging her lips.