I shifted in the soft bed and winced as the pain radiated through me. It was physical reminder of the night before - had it only been one night since then - that I knew, in time, would heal and fade. If only the memories would fade as well. My eyes were so badly caked with grime and probably some of my dried blood that I couldn't open them.
"There now dearie..." a sweet, voice croaked nearby. Although she sounded gentle and kind, I found myself scooting away from the voice until a felt the warm wet cloth pressed tenderly against my eyes. Slowly she cleared away the gunk until I was able to open my eyes and gaze on my nurse. "See, tis not so bad." she said. She smiled and I noticed a few gaps in her teeth.
"Where...?" I croaked it out. I'd meant to say more but every word seared my throat.
"You're in the castle lass, under the Prince's care...don't you remember?" she asked, studying me closely.
"Vaguely." I lied. I remembered most of that night all too well. Even after I'd closed my eyes and tried to black out what was happening to me, the memories were still pressed into my mind as if they'd been branded there with a hot iron.
The nurse nodded and seemed about to say something more when there was a knock at the door. I pulled the thick covers up around me tighter as Prince Adam walked in and smiled. "I'm pleased to see you awake - it's been nearly two full days."
"Really?" I asked in surprise and then winced, bringing my hand to my throat. My throat felt like it was on fire! Prince Adam nodded to the nurse who waddled off to pour a bit of water for me. The water was cool as it slid down my throat and soothed the ache. "Two days sire?"
"Mmhmm." he said, then encouraged me to drink a bit more. "Anne here," he motioned to the nurse, "has been taking fine care of you though."
Unfortunately my period of wakefulness was not to last that time and for the following days I think I slept more than anything else. But slowly I felt better and I noticed, with each passing day, that my cuts had begun to heal and my bruises had gone from a dark purple color to a sickly yellow color.
I must have been in the castle nearly a week before I had the presence of mind to inquire after my uncle. Prince Adam frowned and carefully sat me down on a chair. "I am sorry Miss Su - he's passed on." he said, holding my hand tightly. Somehow I knew it would be the case yet I was doubled over in frightful sobs. Nurse Anne had stepped out of the room before and Adam was the only person there to witness my fit. He wrapped his strong arms around me and let me sob on his shoulder while he whispered reassurances to me.
In all that time, I rarely ventured outside the small apartment of rooms. While I was assured that I could, I knew that Prince John and the Queen both lurked within these walls and I did not wish to encounter either of them. "Come on now..." Prince Adam tried once more to coax me beyond the bounds of my sanctuary. "There's so much I didn't get to show you before that I think you'd like to see..."
I shook my head quietly and turned away from him toward the window. Outside I saw the object of my hesitation - one of them anyway - being led away by the very guard who stood outside my cell so many times. "What's this?" I asked, pressing myself into the small window trying to get another view.
"He's been exiled. My stepmother begged for mercy for him and likely saved him from a more dire fate." Adam said, close behind me.
"But why? He's a prince..." I protested. I was thrilled to see him leave of course but had never expected anything to happen to him.
"Even Princes must follow the law Suk." Adam said. I must have looked skeptical because her smiled slightly and nodded back to the window. Together we watched as Prince John left in a carriage, flanked by several royal guards who would see him to his next destination - whatever it might be. "NOW will you come see the castle?" Adam asked after the carriage rolled out of sight.
With Prince John and Queen Azula staying mostly hidden following the shame of her son, I was free to spend my days under Prince Adam's care, with my good nurse always close at hand to watch over me.
"There, I like that bit there." the prince said, leaning close to me to point to the area on the canvas.
I smiled at him, "If you smudge my painting sire, I'll be very put out." I said with a laugh.
He nodded solemnly and bowed slightly. "I wouldn't dream of it."
"Besides, I don't think it would be very proper for a Prince to walk around with paint on his hands." I teased. We'd fallen into an easy friendship in the passing weeks and I found I missed him when we were forced apart. While the days were easy and carefree, the nights had become impossible as I knew, eventually, I'd have to leave this place and make my own way in the world. I no longer even had the cottage to call home.
While my nurse always made sure there were clothes available to me, I found myself choosing those which I was most comfortable with instead of the more lavish dresses and gowns.
But there was one dress that the prince brought to me specially after I'd told him what had happened to my Aunt's dress when I was first arrested. "It's not the original of course - the color might be a bit off..."
When I saw the lovely green dress I swept it from his hands and cradled it close to me. "Oh thank you! It's perfect!" While I knew it wasn't my Aunt's dress I knew she would appreciate the sentiment of this one as much as the original. "Thank you your highness." I said solemnly after I'd composed myself.
"Would you do me the honor of joining me on a picnic in the orchard?" he asked.
"Yes, of course. It would be my honor." I said. My nurse insisted I ought to wear the green dress as he'd brought it specially and I nodded and hurried to get changed.
Neither of us were exceptionally hungry it seemed as we both picked at the food but we were never at a loss for conversation. He told me of some of the ocean adventures he'd been on with John and then blundered over an apology for mentioning his exiled brother. I told him everything about myself - even the fact that I had no memory of anything before I'd come here. He seemed very interested in this and peppered me with questions - many of which I sadly couldn't answer. After packing away the remains of the food, I noticed a book of fables tucked into the basket and pulled it out.
Together we read, sitting under those expansive trees, until the sun was near setting and it was time to return to the castle.
After that I found more dresses tucked into the armour and found more compelled to wear them. While I could never see myself as a princess or a fine noble lady, I wouldn't mind if he saw me as those things. Nurse seemed pleased by my sudden change in style and I found that she started staying just a little further away from us when we Adam and I were together.
"You look lovely today." Prince Adam said as my fingers moved deftly over the keys.
"Just today?" I teased and then quickly blushed and turned my attention back to the keys. I hadn't intended to be so forward or flirty but the words had slipped out.
The prince chuckled and tried to follow my fingers on the keys. He was a clumsy piano player at best but I didn't mind the closeness I felt when we had to share the bench together for these little lessons.
"I don't think you've been practicing your highness." I chided good naturedly. "See, there you've missed another note..."
"My apologies." he said with a smile. "I admit my attention has been quite diverted as of late."
While I was the teacher in regards to the piano, he was my instructor of the stars. I'd shown and interest in one of the scopes during our walks about the castle and soon he was dragging me out of the castle after full dark to show me the stars. "My father ensured that I had a firm knowledge of the stars from a young age. So I might always find my way home." Prince Adam said. "You see those three there..." and he went on to detail so many things I'd never even seen in all my years of looking up into the heavens with my amateur eyes.
"It's just a small dinner party" I told myself as I looked into the mirror. Then why did I feel like a fool? The Queen had decided to host a small gathering of people at the castle - a small gathering of noble people I should say. The whole thing was to honor the visit of a princess from another territory so of all those assembled, I'd be the only person of common birth. So why was I going to this when I could stay holed up in my apartment? Because his Royal Highness, Prince Adam, had asked me...what a fool I was.
With a great deal of resolve and nerve, I found my way to the table and sat down with as much grace as I could manage though I was the only one to be announced without any sort of title or escort. I was seated next to the Queen, which made no sense to me but I tried to avert my eyes from her without it seeming obvious. The last thing I wanted was a confrontation with her as I was just as likely to trip over my feet as I was to spit in her face.
After dinner, the others disappeared to do whatever it is people of high birth do with themselves. Though Lady Hannah did extend an invitation to join the ladies in the parlour, I graciously declined and retreated to the library to compose myself in peace. "That was the worst of it." I muttered. After this there would be dancing and such and I could easily keep myself away from Queen Azula and out of trouble. I hoped.
I could hear the beat of music and laughter as I approached the doors to the ballroom. I paused outside the doors and shook my hands nervously a few times. "You can do this..." I said softly and then quickly looked around to make sure there wasn't someone lurking about that might declare me crazy.
I had hoped to make a quiet entrance and scoot along the wall so I might disappear but as I stepped into the room I swear seven pairs of eyes turned toward me. Most were curious though at least one pair looked on me with hate and another pair seemed to lave love - or maybe I was just hoping as much.
Adam looked toward me apologetically as I found a seat near the piano. His time was currently devoted to the Princess and I understood.
For some time I sat on the bench, merely watching them dance but eventually was approached by Lord Robert - Lady Hannah's brother. He escorted me onto the dance floor and was very kind and careful as I fumbled my way through the dances.
We were in the midst of a dance when I heard the stewart at the door announce the King and the Queen. I glanced around awkwardly - sure they'd just been in the room amongst us. But I felt a tug at my arm and heard a shuffling of feet. I realized there was some sort of protocol for this and scrambled to fall into line hoping to follow the examples of others.
Unfortunately the only empty spot in the formation was at the head of the line so I looked across to Lord Robert and saw him bowing deeply. I followed suit just as the doors opened. "His Majesty King Thomas and Her Majesty Queen Azula!" the man bellowed. As they passed each row of people, they bowed as well until the King and Queen had been seated.
After this procession was done, the small assembly of guests scattered to resume their merry making. Lord Robert was engaged in conversation with his sister so I turned back toward the piano. Prince Adam captured my hand and smiled. "Might I have this dance m'lady?" he asked.
After a few dances, the current person at the piano begged pardon to take a small break. Though the assembled crowd claimed understanding, many of them grumbled after she'd exited the room. "His Royal Highness tells me you are quite an adept player Miss, would you honor us with a song or two to pass the time?" the visiting Princess asked. I wondered, briefly, if she was setting me up for failure and ridicule but her voice and face were full of truth.
"I fear he may have greatly exaggerated my talents, but if it will please the court..." I looked toward the dais, specifically the King who I had no quarrel with, and he nodded. "It would be my pleasure." I said with a slight incline of my head.
"She's rather modest Adam." the princess said quietly to the Prince. "I find I rather like her..."
While I didn't consider my song beautifully executed, I managed to bury the mistakes before they ever reached the party's ears and they applauded me when I concluded the first song. They were calling for another before the clapping died out and I obliged them.
By the end of the second song, the original pianist had returned thankfully as I didn't fancy the idea of spending the whole evening at the keys. As I stepped away from the instrument, I felt a firm hand on mine and looked up to see Adam looking at me. "Walk with me?" he asked, his voice low. I swallowed a lump in my throat and nodded, letting him lead me out of the ballroom by a side exit.
"You were magnificent in there." he said after we'd walked along in silence for a bit. I was glad it was fairly dark so he couldn't see me blushing. While I'd known all along how I felt about the Prince, I'd convinced myself he'd never see me in the same way. He was kind to be sure but I was just a commoner with no family! So when he leaned toward me in much the same way George had at one point - though I knew he'd never hurt me like George had - I pulled away from him.
It was his turn to blush. "My apologies" he said quietly. "I thought...damn it..." he muttered and then turned from me for a moment. "I...I've been, I adore you." he said finally, turning back toward me. "I love you and tonight you have...you have made me love you all the more..."
I held my hand to my mouth so it didn't appear to be hanging open as he made this pronouncement.
"But clear you don't...feel the same. I'm a fool..." he said, hanging his head.
"No! No it's not that! I do! I mean I...but I don't even know who I am, I'm nobody...and you..." I said lamely.
"Well now you're the one being foolish." Adam said with a faint smile. Once again he stepped closer to me and put his arm delicately around my waist. "You're not nobody, you're everything to me..."
Wow, good reception :P