Therefore the day had come; one Deirdre had looked forward to with both impatience and a certain kind of fear. Although she had learnt a lot during those months spent at the prince's castle, she still did not feel exactly confident; she was afraid that her behaviour would make Gerard miserable, or that it would cause an avalanche of questions about who the girl had been before she had become the candidate for a princess. And to such questions, she truly did not know what to answer.
For lying was simply out of the question; and if she were to tell the truth, it would simply sound terrible. She did not believe that she could ever be treated seriously if she confessed that she had been but a servant at the very beginning – and it was not even the worst. The truth could destroy the prince's reputation, and she had already learnt that his reputation was much more valuable than the good opinion on Mr Bragg's family.
That day, Gerard had cancelled all the lessons Deirdre had been to take. He hoped that his fiancée would get a chance to sleep at least slightly longer, yet Deirdre woke up at the break of dawn, and for a couple of hours paced nervously around the room, pondering over the most absurd issues and worrying about every trifle.
Finally, it was cut short by the maid who knocked on the door and asked whether the young lady did not wish her help with getting dressed. Then, Deirdre remembered that there were still the very same rules applying to her and that she had really little time to put something on so she could walk to the dining hall with the prince.
The maid was just slipping the last pin into her hair when the knocking echoed around the room and Gerard, following his custom and not waiting for the invitation, entered the room. Having noticed Deirdre in her simple, beige dress, he smiled softly.
"Good morning, my dear," he said brightly. "I would swear that day by day you become more and more beautiful."
"And I, that you pay me way too many compliments," answered Deirdre, blushing even more; however, something in the tone of her voice betrayed that one of the said compliments had just pleased her quite a lot.
The maid, hearing such an exchange of words, chuckled, which resulted in Gerard glaring at her rather sharply.
"Leave, Anna," he ordered, and the girl, understanding that she had crossed some boundaries, quickly bowed and left. Then, the man glanced at Deirdre. "You should keep her in line, my dear. Otherwise, she will get out of hand, and instead of a servant, you will have an audacious girl with whom you will have nothing to do."
Deirdre bit her lip and turned her gaze towards the door behind which Anna had disappeared before a moment. After a while, she looked at Gerard.
"Come, I have ordered to have some special tea prepared for you," he said before he led her across the corridor, then down the stairs, to the dining hall.
After breakfast, they parted. Gerard wanted to see to the last preparations for the ball, Deirdre, in turn, had a while for herself. Although at first, she offered that she would help the prince, he assured her that it was not necessary; from the manner in which he uttered that, the girl deduced that he wanted to be alone, therefore she did not push him and returned to her chamber.
Soon, though, she understood why the prince so much did not want her anywhere near him. She was just sitting in the bay of her window, reading a book, when she heard a knocking on the door. Astonished, she glanced in that direction and asked the unexpected guest to come in.
It turned out that it was one of the boys; he was carrying a huge box which he lay down in silence on Deirdre's bed, then he bowed deeply and quickly left the room, having said not even a word, as though he was a bit scared.
Deirdre was not quite sure what actually had just happened, yet too curious to leave the box untouched on the bed, she put her book aside and stood up. Once again, she glanced towards the door but no-one came in laughing and saying that it was but a joke. She concluded, therefore, that it was, in fact, something for her; her heart was hammering in her chest as hard as if it wanted to escape it, and her hands were trembling when she was reaching for the string with which the package was tied.
She took a deep breath, trying to decipher what could be the content of this parcel before she could open it, yet nothing at all appeared in her mind. Finally, she managed to undo the knot on the string and slowly, she opened the box.
What was inside was covered with a thin tissue paper, on which lay a letter. Although Deirdre truly desired to unwrap the paper and get to know what was underneath, curiosity about what might the envelope contain was much more intense, therefore first, she opened it, and on her hand landed a tiny note.
I thought that for our tonight's ball you might have wanted to put on something special; after all, it is a special occasion which happens only once in the lifetime, if the fate will be kind. I do hope very much that it will hit your fancy and that it can, at least to a little extent, illustrate how happy I am that we had the chance to get to know each other.
Only then did Deirdre realise that until now never had she received a letter from her betrothed; she felt both some kind of warmth in her heart and something else, less pleasant, considering that she had been receiving correspondence before – just not from him.
It did not change the fact, though, that said note only enhanced her curiosity. The girl knew now that inside the box there was a gown for the ball that night – she wanted, therefore, to see what it looked like.
With a gentle motion of her trembling hands, she removed the thin layer of the tissue paper and felt her heart skip a beat. However, she forced herself to take the delicate fabric from the box. It unfurled, as though the gown was made of water – or rather, of something utterly insubstantial. Deirdre knew perfectly well that such attire she would not find in just any store; it looked like it had been created by the greatest master of the craft, but would Gerard really have allowed himself to be so extravagant...?
Biting her lip, Deirdre once again glanced at the note lying on the bed and the answer came all by itself. For her... just for her, Gerard would have done everything.
Now, that she could pay a closer look to the gown in its full glory, she decided that it was the most beautiful garb she had ever seen, and she doubted that anyone could ever create anything like that. It was made of agleam, navy blue velvet, adorned with silvery ornaments and pearls, so it was shimmering with all the colours of the rainbow with every motion; it was also edged with snow-white, as soft as fluff fur.
She had never deserved anything so splendid, and at the same time, she truly wanted Gerard to see her in this outfit. She wished to see a smile on his face when she entered clad this way into the ballroom... and deep in her heart, she hoped to see the same expression of sheer adoration in his dark eyes once again.
When she realised that, she immediately scolded herself in her heart, and gingerly put the gown back into the box. She could not have accepted anything so magnificent...
Someone knocked on the door, and Deirdre unwittingly answered, "enter," not even knowing whom she was letting in. It turned out to be the maid.
"Oh, good heavens... what a miracle is it," she spoke, clear admiration ringing in her voice, as she noticed the gown folded in the box.
"Indeed," answered Deirdre quietly, not even turning to her but still staring at the gift from the prince with a certain unease. She was afraid of accepting it... but if she did not accept it, would she not hurt him?
"It's High Highness who gave it to you, my lady, isn't it?" asked Anna, easily deciphering Deirdre's expression. "He loves you very much. I have never seen him this happy before."
Something flipped in Deirdre's stomach; she was not certain whether or not it was a pleasant sensation. For she did want to hear exactly those words. And yet, had she ever deserved the prince's love? And why did she desire so desperately to hear someone ensuring her that the man held any affection for her if not so long before she had not even cared about it – perhaps she would have even preferred him not to like her?
"You do love our lord, too, do you not, my lady?"
Although Anna asked this question in a whisper, Deirdre heard it perfectly; and yet, as if it did not reach her ears completely. She felt strangely hollow inside. Her hands stopped trembling but she still kept playing with them restlessly.
Was it the reason why she needed someone's assertion the prince did love her? Despite all that had happened between them, had she really given her heart to him?
"I hope it is so," continued the maid, and Deirdre did not hush her, even though according to Gerard's recommendations she should have done exactly that. "His Highness deserves someone to love him. He... sometimes is difficult... but deep in his heart, he is a good man. A very lonely one. Especially since his father died."
Deirdre suddenly realised how little she actually knew about her fiancé – and that, in fact, she wanted to get to know something more. Although she was not exactly certain whether she should have done that, she sat down on the bed, right next to the box, and having folded her hands on her lap, she looked at Anna.
"Since his father died?" she repeated tentatively. "What actually happened?"
"Oh, my lady, I... I am not sure if I should..." muttered Anna, looking around nervously, but since the prince was nowhere to be seen, she licked her lips and locked her eyes on the floor. "It was some ten years ago."
Deirdre asked the girl to sit down and she, with some reluctance, took a seat on one of the chairs nearby.
"His Highness was a young man like any other back then. He liked playing even though he has never fancied crowds. Much more he liked the company of his horse or perhaps a good read. It's been like this forever. He was said to like the future of a painter, or maybe a scholar more than succeed to the title after his father... and it must have been so."
A faint blush emerged on Deirdre's face.
"A painter?" she asked.
"Aye." Anna nodded. Apparently, she had begun to feel more at ease telling her story. Now, as the initial fear was over, it seemed the girl had had no chance to talk to anyone in quite a while. "His Highness painted pretty much back then. It was also said that he wrote poems but they have never left his study if it was indeed so. I could show you which of the paintings in the estate were painted by our lord."
Deirdre blinked; until now, she had seen the majority of the castle, and she had been regarding the paintings hanging on the walls; she had been convinced that all of those had come from under the brush of some remarkable artist. No wonder that she was at least astonished, having heard that a part of them had been created by the prince himself.
"Not now, Anna," she answered, though, even though curiosity scorched her from the inside. Right now, she mainly wanted to know something more about Gerard's past.
"Whenever you want, my lady," answered Anna, then, she continued. "Back then, he was said to be going to get married. There was a lady from a prominent family chosen for his son by the late prince himself (bless his soul). I was but a little girl back then, but I remember her perfectly. Tall, very round – you know, my lady, some people say that it's a good omen for the family's future. She had dark eyes and hard hair. Truly, she was a beauty, and when she danced, no-one could be compared to her."
A faint smile raised the corners of Deirdre's mouth; she could not help but think of Breanne. Such a description matched her almost perfectly, if not for the fact that Breanne had never been very round. And yet, she now understood that if not for the twist of fate, the eldest Miss Bragg truly had had some chance with the prince if he had fancied his previous fiancée.
"Back then, I knew very little of love, and I couldn't tell whether they were in love," Anna went on. "I know that they spent a lot of time together, and the late prince was doing literally everything he could to bring about this marriage. His Highness, though, was in no hurry as he thought that he still had lots of time... well, he was less than twenty then and not so eager to get married so soon, and honestly, one couldn't be surprised."
Deirdre nodded her head and admitted that Anna was right, even though she felt a blush on her face; she was not certain whether the maid was aware of her interlocutor's age, though, Deirdre did not want to change that.
"Anyway... apparently, the lady His Highness was to marry at some point got tired of waiting for one day, she was found in a completely different man's bed. Later on, it was discovered that it was not the first time... moreover, that it was not the only man this harlot was getting mixed with!"
The blush which had appeared on Deirdre's cheeks before now turned an even deeper shade of red. She was not certain if she wanted to know more about the subject; she was not accustomed to hearing such rumours, even though Anna did not seem to realise that. Although not much older than Deirdre, she did not appear ashamed of such matters.
With nervous motions, Deirdre kept smoothing down invisible crinkles on her lap, even though it could lead to anything. She did not interrupt Anna, afraid that she would not tell her anything more.
"His Highness was devastated. At first, he said nothing to his father who was lying in the bed at that time, fighting some illness... but rumours quickly cross even the greatest distances... and finally one of the servants spilt everything. I remember that it was the first time when His Highness caned all of us for gossiping, and the guilty one was dismissed and left with nothing."
Only now did it become clear why Anna had been so afraid of saying anything without Gerard's awareness; Deirdre truly did hope that it would never reach the prince's ears, for she did not want to be the cause of the young maid's suffering.
"It was a very difficult time... due to those ill-fated tidings, the late prince's state worsened. His Highness was back then away on his father's business. He was shattered for he had been forced to break up his engagement with a lady he really liked and who had deceived him so horribly... to make things worse, he had been torn away from the things he liked so he could take care of things he genuinely loathed... and then, the news about his father's state... I've got the impression that it was exactly then when he became the shell of a man."
Anna took a breath and fixed her eyes on her lap. Deirdre, in turn, kept eyeing her, not quite sure what to say. However, it was not Deirdre who soon broke the silence.
"Finally, the medic owned that the late prince was agonal. His Highness was called for. That night when he was getting back there was a storm and he... he was in a real hurry," whispered the maid with emotion. "It was not a safe journey at all, and in such a hurry... you see yourself, my lady... it couldn't have ended well."
Deirdre felt a knot in her throat.
"What happened?" she asked.
"The horse slipped on the mud," answered Anna, and Deirdre had a feeling that her stomach must have completely vanished, leaving nothing but a void in its stead. "It broke its leg, bucked off its rider... there was no-one with him for he had set off without a boy. When he was not coming for a long time, someone went to look for him. At first, we thought he was dead, but when they managed to move him to the castle... it turned out that his heart was actually beating. However, he was lethargic and no-one knew if he was to survive... the medic, who then almost lived here because of his father... owned that he would leave this world even before his father."
Anna stopped for a moment, and Deirdre realised that for a long time she had been clutching her dress.
"However, our Maker watched over His Highness who miraculously survived. But when he woke up from his coma, he learnt that his father had passed away to eternity," whispered the maid. "Despite his apathy... His Highness was getting better quickly even though he was no longer the same man we had used to know. He became tenser... some even said that cruel – all for that punishment – but I believe it would be too much, one could not call him cruel. But that's since when his leg has been bothering him. The only part of his body that has never truly recovered. At first, he also avoided horseback rider because it reminded him of those difficult times... well, he lost his most valuable horse, too. But at last, someone managed to convince him to get back to his sport... although, I've got the feeling that it's because of those hard times our lord never takes anyone for those rides," explained Anna. "Or rather, never has."
The maid smiled softly, and Deirdre returned the smile, but she needed to force it. Thoughts rattled around in her head, and the sense of guilt burnt her from the inside, as though someone had lit a great fire inside of her and could not quench it now.
She had been unfair, having judged him so hastily. When she thought of it now, she understood that his youth had been brutally and irretrievably taken away from him, just like his love and dreams. He truly did deserve more than what the fate offered him. And yet... yet, she could give him at least a little happiness.
Or rather, she could have, if not for the fact she had decided otherwise. She still could not get rid of the thought of Quinnelly – because, at some point, she would need to tell the prince about him. And then... would the prince still be so lenient towards her?
The voice that rang in the room was so cool that the girls trembled. The maid squealed in terror and jumped to her feet; nervously, she bowed down in undefined direction, then rushed out of the chamber without a word. Deirdre, in turn, stiffened completely and closed her eyes, as though it could make her invisible.
"I could have foreseen that," whispered Gerard, and the girl could not name the emotion in his voice. "It had to finally happen... but... by God... I would rather like you to ask me... not to listen to the servants' rumours."
Deirdre lifted her eyelids ever so slightly and glanced to the side. The prince was standing nearby, his hands clenched in fists. His heavy breathing betrayed that he was trying to calm down.
"I thought you trusted me, Deirdre," he said quietly, clearly disgruntled.
"I do," answered Deirdre, her voice almost inaudible.
The prince snorted sarcastically.
"If it were so, you would have come to me... not to the maid."
For a moment, the girl remained silent. Only after a while did she wipe her watery eyes with a swift motion and then, she stood up, forcing herself to raise her eyes. To her surprise, she discovered the prince staring right at her.
"I... did not do that to hurt you," she spoke up, at last, her voice not louder than a whisper. "I sim... simply wanted to understand you better... I wanted to get to know about your past... and I was afraid that it was something you did not want to discuss."
"I would prefer you to first ask me before you assume that I do not want to discuss something," replied Gerard coolly.
For a long while, in the chamber there was silence. Deirdre lowered her eyes, certain that the prince had left, but he stayed there, motionless and still looking at her.
"Have you not unpacked the gown?" he asked after a moment, the tone of his voice evidently changed; it had become milder, as though the man had finally managed to tame his fury and chagrin. "Has it not hit your fancy?"
"It is magnificent," the girl answered quickly. "I... I only did not know if... if I could accept such a splendid gift."
"Why would you not?" wondered Gerard. "I would be very glad if you put it on tonight but the final choice is yours."
Having said that, he approached Deirdre and kissed her forehead, then retreated from the chamber, leaving the girl completely bemused.