The Prince

Page 8


“As you were,” I said in a low voice. They cleared their throats and turned back to face the hallway. “Stay here unless I call for you,” I instructed, and walked into the garden.
I had a hard time seeing her, but I could hear her. She was breathing heavily, and sounded almost like she was weeping. I hoped that wasn’t the case. Finally I saw her collapse in the grass with her arms and head resting on a stone bench.
She didn’t seem to notice that I’d approached, so I stood there a moment, waiting for her to look up. After a while I was starting to feel a little awkward. I figured she’d at least want to thank me, so I spoke.
“Are you all right, my dear?”
“I am not your dear,” she said angrily as she whipped her head to look at me. She was still hidden by shadows, but her hair flashed in the sliver of moonlight that made its way through the clouds.
Still, face lit or hidden, I got the full intention of her words. Where was the gratitude? “What have I done to offend you? Did I not just give you the very thing you asked for?”
She didn’t answer me, but turned away, back to her crying. Why did women have such a high inclination to tears? I didn’t want to be rude, but I had to ask.
“Excuse me, dear, are you going to keep crying?”
“Don’t call me that! I am no more dear to you than the thirty-four other strangers you have here in your cage.”
I smiled to myself. One of my many worries was that these girls would be in a constant state of presenting the best sides of themselves, trying to impress me. I kept dreading that I’d spend weeks getting to know someone, think she was the one, and then after the wedding, some new person would come to the surface who I couldn’t stand.
And here was one who didn’t care who I was. She was scolding me!
I circled her as I thought about what she said. I wondered if my habit of walking would bother her. If it did, would she say so?
“That is an unfair statement. You are all dear to me,” I said. Yes, I’d been avoiding anything having to do with the Selection, but that didn’t mean the girls weren’t precious in my eyes. “It is simply a matter of discovering who shall be the dearest.”
“Did you really just use the word shall?” she asked incredulously.
“I’m afraid I did,” I answered with a chuckle. “Forgive me, it’s a product of my education.” She muttered something unintelligible. “I’m sorry?”
“It’s ridiculous!” she yelled. My, she had a temper. Father must not know much about this one. Certainly, no girl with this disposition would have made it into the pool if he had. It was lucky for her that I was the one who came upon her in her distress, and not him. She would have been sent home about five minutes ago.
“What is?” I inquired, though I was sure she was referencing this very moment. I’d never experienced anything quite like this.
“This contest! The whole thing! Haven’t you ever loved anyone at all? Is this really how you want to pick a wife? Are you really so shallow?”
That stung. Shallow? I went to sit on the bench, so it would be easier to talk. I wanted this girl, whoever she was, to understand where I was coming from, what things looked like from my end. I tried not to get distracted by the curve of her waist and hip and leg, even the look of her bare foot.
“I can see how I would seem that way, how this whole thing could seem like it’s nothing more than cheap entertainment,” I said, nodding. “But in my world, I am very guarded. I don’t meet very many women. The ones I do are daughters of diplomats, and we usually have very little to discuss. And that’s when we manage to speak the same language.”
I smiled, thinking of the awkward moments when I had to sit through long dinners in silence next to young women who I was meant to entertain, and failing dismally because the translators were busy talking politics. I looked to the girl, expecting her to laugh along with me for my trouble. When her tight lips refused to smile, I cleared my throat and moved on.
“Circumstances being what they are,” I said, fidgeting with my hands, “I haven’t had the opportunity to fall in love.” She seemed to forget I wasn’t really allowed to until now. Then I was curious. Hoping I wasn’t alone, I voiced my most intimate question. “Have you?”
“Yes,” she said. She sounded both proud and sad in a single word.
“Then you have been quite lucky.”
I looked at the grass for a moment. I continued on, not wanting to linger on my rather embarrassing lack of experience.
“My mother and father were married this way and are quite happy. I hope to find happiness, too. To find a woman who all of Illéa can love, someone to be my companion and to help entertain the leaders of other nations. Someone who will befriend my friends and be my confidante. I’m ready to find my wife.”
Even I could hear the desperation, the hope, the longing. The doubt crept back in. What if no one here could love me?
No, I told myself, this will be a good thing.
I looked down at this girl, who seemed desperate in her own way. “Do you really feel like this is a cage?”
“Yes, I do,” she breathed. Then, a second later, “Your Majesty.”
I laughed. “I’ve felt that way more than once myself. But, you must admit, it is a very beautiful cage.”
“For you,” she shot back skeptically. “Fill your beautiful cage with thirty-four other men all fighting over the same thing. See how nice it is then.”
“Have there really been arguments over me? Don’t you all realize I’m the one doing the choosing?” I didn’t know whether to feel excited or worried, but it was interesting to think about. Maybe if someone really wanted me that much, I’d want them, too.
“Actually, that was unfair,” she added. “They’re fighting over two things. Some fight for you; others fight for the crown. And they all think they’ve already figured out what to say and do so your choice will be obvious.”
“Ah, yes. The man or the crown. I’m afraid some cannot tell the difference.” I shook my head and stared into the grass.
“Good luck there,” she said comically.
But there was nothing comical about it. Here was another one of my biggest fears being confirmed. Again my curiosity overwhelmed me, though I was sure she would lie.
“Which do you fight for?”
“Actually, I’m here by mistake.”
“Mistake?” How was that possible? If she put her name in, and it was drawn, and she willingly came here . . .