in which Rhema eats a delightful cake and a bitter truth
The sun burned red in the morning. The clouds, supple as lamb's wool, retreated from its edges as if it were an altar for sacrifice. Fairfax Pond reflected them serenely, spreading its waters wide to welcome the sky to its bosom and make room for a flock of ducks coming in from the south. They divided the waters with their feet and, surprised by the lingering coolness, put up a raucous splashing.
"There is more than this.... isn't there?" Rhema de Frees whispered to them, comfortably removed from the weather by the chilled glass of her bedroom window. The ducks answered by rolling in the ripples and quacking at each other. Rhema could not speak duck. She instead shut her eyes and imagined what it would be like to dive naked into the water.
March 25th came and went. The sun rolled up, and the sun rolled down. Rhema did not experience any pond diving; however she did experience cake, and there is no room for discontent in cake. Still licking the last bits of sugar from a stolen slice she had secreted into her room, she considered the implications of this indulgence. Each granule that slid over her tongue came with the insurmountable fact that she was now sixteen, which meant she was a woman.
With one hand, she traced the path of ducks against her window. With the other, she draped a thick, blue dress with too many buttons over the front of her body. It had a cuirasse bodice and more layers on it than a duck's down. The neckline came too close to her chin and the hem much too close to her toes for Rhema's comfort. Fashion was well enough for the court, but Rhema questioned whether or not Jonathan liked girls who wore dresses with too many buttons.
It doesn't matter. He will probably never see me wear it.
She dropped the garment unceremoniously into her suitcase.
Rhema gazed once more through the window. Tom, her favorite brown-headed duck, scrambled up the bank and slid chest first into the new grass. Rhema would have laughed, but now that she had come of age she did not, for propriety's sake. After all, proper ladies were not supposed to spontaneously laugh at ducks.
Still, they were too excited for the early hour, as if they knew something she did not and wanted to be there for the event.
What could it be? Rhema thought as loudly as she could in their direction. She had been 'of age' for a whole day, but there was not yet enough space between her and childhood to let go of the imagining that the ducks could understand her thoughts. Tom fluttered his wings. You are not early; you are late. You have missed my birthday and are barely on time to see me off to the castle.
Then Rhema wondered how much longer it would be before breakfast.
The De Freeses were an unusual sort of family. They were friendly, though not very sociable. They were intelligent, though none of them could claim to have attended a notable school. They were members of two royal households, but could not be mistaken for royal. Their family home was large, but unpretentious, and their children were pleasant, but not very civil. They lived near enough to the capital to be invited to Iderburg Castle for major events and far enough away so that these invitations came rarely, to the disappointment of Lord de Frees' children and the relief of Lord de Frees himself.
Their home was known as the Cottage, with a capital 'C', by anyone who knew the family. (Although, in the legal sense, the property was named the Fairfax Estate.) On days proceeding a visit to the castle, the Cottage came alive with visitors. Friends squawked in foyers and patios, trying to get as much information out of each other as possible concerning the upcoming nuptials of their beloved prince. Relatives flurried in kitchen and parlor, examining and reexamining the family's choices of apparel. They poked their beak-like noses into Rhema's room to make a remark about how much older she looked, or how much cleaner, or how she should wear her hair up instead of down now that she had come of age.
What do you think, Tom? she thought, tying a yellow ribbon around her reckless curls.
Tom disappeared under the water and came up again, fishless and wet.
Don't let him think me too changed. Not yet.
If she wanted to see Jonathan alone, she had no time for delicacy. She pounded her toes into her boots and pulled the lacy hems of her dress off her ankles. Then flinging herself through the door and down the stairs with more determination than the ill-conceived excuse of "just going for a walk in the garden" supported, she ran for the back door.
Mrs. Cartweller caught her at the bottom of the stairs. An imposing but gentle-souled woman, Mrs. Cartweller used her amazingly strong arms to lift Rhema completely off the ground in a hug.
"Sixteen! Sixteen! I have not yet been able to congratulate you, darling little Rhema -- Oh, pardon! Little Rhema, no longer. I now have the pleasure of addressing the young Baroness of Sever."
The word stuck to Rhema's throat like old frosting, although old frosting may have been there too. The title went back to Rhema's great-grandmother and had been passed down the generations like other families might pass on a piece of jewelry or an antique clock. Back when they had lived in the country of Freesia, her father held the title of Baron of Sever. After they moved to Gallia, he abdicated the title to Rhema's older sister, Charis. But Charis married a commoner, and she also abdicated. The position, feeling rather ill-used, plodded about in moniker limbo until Rhema came of age, at which time it fixed itself to her skirt tails. The title meant little to her. Only having been to the small barony of Sever once in passing, as far as she knew she had no special privileges there. She considered following family letting her brother Roger have a turn at it.
Then again, where was the harm in trying out being a baroness for a while?
Mrs. Cartweller gave Rhema back her feet, if not her space. "What? Not a word for an old friend?" Mrs. Cartweller said, "Where are you going in such a hurry at this hour? Breakfast is almost ready, and the opposite way, besides."
"I am sorry. My mind escaped me. I was just going to have a walk in the garden. The ducks are early this year, and I wanted to see them before I left."
"Ducks? You are a funny thing! Well, make use of your trip. I believe Jonathan is in the garden now. Will you fetch him?"
"Yes, of course."
Rhema offered a polite curtsey before she hurried away, reproaching herself for nearly being rude to Jonathan Cartweller's one and only mother.
No flowers bloomed from the beds of dirt lining the garden walk, but all around, sprigs of the purest green pushed up from the soil with the hope-filled innocence of untried flowers. Rhema walked between them on round stepping-stones that she had personally attempted to help her father lay many years before. A cool, but not uncomfortably cool, breeze mingled with her ankles and gave her upside down chills. She inhaled the smell of wind and dirt, which to her far surpassed the smell of royal potpourri or expensive perfumes.
Jonathan's favorite bench, the one to which he liked to retreat in the event that his visits coincided with the visits of many people he did not know, was beneath the wooden frame of an arch grown over with dead vines. Sleeping vines, Rhema reminded herself. Not dead. In a few months time, they would be covered in white flowers and thick leaves. For now, they remained cold, thin, and exposed. Jonathan fit in well with them. His boney shoulders hunched over the book in his lap, protected by nothing more than a flimsy jacket.
"Is it almost time to eat?" Jonathan said before turning around.
"You are not any fun at all. How did you know I was here?"
"How could I not? I am certain they can hear your tramping from here to America."
Jonathan closed his book and stood. His height impressed on Rhema the image of a young willow tree. He looked at Rhema with a somewhat bored expression, as if it had been minutes, rather than weeks, since they had seen each other last.
All Rhema saw were his sensible, blue eyes.
Jonathan was two years older than herself, which made him infinitely more interesting and mature than the boys her own age. He was lean and crowned with sun-stroked hair that curled boyishly in all the wrong directions. Youth suited his features well, but he held himself upright, as a man should, and liked to talk about manly things such as business and politics, in which Rhema delighted to pretend to be interested.
"Tom and Sarah are back," she said. Sarah was Jonathan's chosen favorite duck, a white one with speckled wings.
"Already? Let's go see then." His manly boredom faded as he transformed once again into the boy who had been her constant childhood playmate. He extended his arm, and Rhema slipped hers through his. Every time they did this, Rhema secretly imagined the two of them, aged and withered, holding each other up on a final, happy stroll through her garden.
"I had a dream a few nights ago," started Rhema. Jonathan rolled his eyes and smiled. "Tom and Sarah were people. Human people."
"What did they look like?"
"Just people. It doesn't matter. They were getting married, and we were all invited to the wedding. They had the service in the middle of the pond at midnight. Everybody walked on top of the water. But when I tried to go out on the pond, I fell right in! What do you make of that?"
Jonathan was the only person Rhema had ever known that never called her rants about dreams 'silly talk'.
"I think you either have an irrational fear of ducks, water, or marriage," he said.
"You are ridiculous, Mr. Cartweller!" Rhema turned her face so that he wouldn't see her cheeks change color.
"Am I Mr. Cartweller now? You have grown up, Baroness."
They came to the edge of the pond, stopping right before the muddy soup of grass that marked its edge. The mist still clung to its dreary perch over the skin of the water.
"You do know, Rhema, that no matter how old we are, you can still call me Jonathan."
Rhema's heart stopped. Her world muted. Even the paddling of Tom's feet stood still as if his life also depended on what words were spoken next.
"Although, I can't say I will always do the same for you. You're a baroness, after all, and I.... I suppose I'm not anybody really. Not yet," Jonathan said. "But we have been friends for almost our whole lives, and even though I am the son of a buckle-maker and you are practically royalty, I always imagined you as my little sister."
Rhema's world became no longer mute, but full of noise, the noise of a thousand voices reverberating with the words: little sister.
"Rhema, promise me," Jonathan said. Rhema felt black on the inside, as if a light that had been burning were suddenly snuffed out. "Promise me that no matter what happens, when we meet again, I can call you sister and you can call me brother."
Rhema could not look at him.
"Privately, of course. That wouldn't be proper in a public forums," Jonathan added.
She looked into the water at Tom, who fluttered once and bobbed his head. In her own way, Rhema let her fearful thoughts flutter away so that she could continue to be charming.
"Of course, brother!" She laughed and kissed his cheek. He jerked in surprise. She turned toward the path and extended her arm, like a gentleman would to a lady. He played the game and gave her his arm.
Breakfast served up the usual before-journey chaos. Yash and Neha Boralho, the family's only housekeepers, scrambled between kitchen and dining room, trying to accommodate all the guests. Lady de Frees continuously got up to help them, which forced her husband to continuously make her sit down again.
On any other morning, Rhema would have enjoyed this breakfast. The dining hall had tall windows lining the two walls parallel to the table. Each stood open to let the orange sunlight fill the room with what was certain to be a beautiful day. Jonathan sat next to her. For possibly the first time in Rhema's life, she wished that he wouldn't. All she could hear were the words: little sister.
On her other side, her brother Roger greedily disposed of a roll. Round even for his age, Rhema considered elbowing him to eat slower, but it would be no use. She groaned inwardly. Charis would have occupied his chair had she not done such a selfish thing as to get married and move away.
Down the table, Rhema heard her mother saying, "I agree. It is most unusual." A faint teasing of a German accent lent the Lady Elizabeth de Frees a heavy sophistication, a sophistication that her country manners often lacked. Dark red braids circled her handsome face in the style of the border Galls. "The invitation is for a private party, but the purpose of such a party this time of year is beyond my knowledge."
"I wonder that my girls did not receive an invitation. We are, after all, of the house of Gall," said their guest, the Lady Lydia VanGall of Lomly, pinching her already disconcertingly close-set face. Rhema wondered why Lady VanGall ever visited at all. She hated fresh air, detested Freesians, wasn't especially keen on travel, and had once referred to Rhema's mother as 'disagreeably naïve'.
"LadyLydiaofLomly, LadyLydiaofLomly, LadyLomliaofLydy -- blast!" Roger spoke quietly into Rhema's ear.
"Two points," whispered Rhema back.
"Two. You fobbled the last one."
Gwenyth VanGall, one of Lydia's twin teenage daughters, glared at them from across the table. Rhema returned her glare with venomous silence. Gwenyth leaned to her sister Adele, who busied herself stirring the otherwise untouched food on her plate. The girls had identical noses and voices that in many ways resembled chipmunks. Rhema wished she had some acorns to throw at them.
"--freesies," whispered Gwenyth at such a volume that it wasn't a whisper at all. Adele curled her upper lip in Rhema and Roger's direction. Roger, having less restraint that his newly ennobled sister, chucked a scone at them. It bounced off Adele's shoulder and fell in her porridge.
She threw her hands in the air and squealed, "Mother!"
Lady VanGall either didn't hear her daughter or else chose not to.
"A private party..." Lady VanGall let the words wash around in her mouth. "It will not be much more than a foreign policy meeting, I suspect. You, my dear friends, are of course invited because you are Freesian blue bloods. I am certain it will all be a great bore, and I am not sorry that Lord VanGall and I will not be able to attend." Lord VanGall hardly ever attended anything, including this breakfast. It was generally assumed that he was much too important of a man to attend his wife's social outings. Rhema sometimes had the notion that he didn't exist at all.
"She may be right," said Lady de Frees to her husband. Lord Joseph de Frees maneuvered morsels around his graying beard and did his best to stay out of the conversation. He listened to his wife's chattering with a measure of interest and a measure of concern, as he was wont to do. His downward sloping eyes, which were like Rhema's, always made him appear a little bit sad. "Though I did imagine our visit might have something to do with the prince and Dahlia. Perhaps they are preparing to move forward with the wedding."
"Yes, my darling. It may be the case, but have you not also considered that such a meeting might be called in the event that the princess' health has declined?" said Lord de Frees. His heavy eyes darted to Rhema.
"Fiddle-faddle. She is well cared for."
"The Flower of Freesia and the Bastion of Gallia... It will be such a beautiful wedding," burst Mrs. Cartweller from her end of the table. The three VanGall women turned up their noses, as if she were a dead rodent that had suddenly learned to speak.
"Do you know that Princess Dahlia is a skilled player of music as well as a beauty?" continued Mrs. Cartweller, unabashed. "I read that she can play pianoforte, the violin, the cello, and is having lessons on the flute. And Prince Bastion is reputed to have such a fine voice. There could not be a better pair."
"Hmph!" snorted Lady VanGall. "Flute lessons? In her condition? I do not know what Mrs. Cartweller has been reading, but I cannot imagine a thing more cruel than forcing the flute on a girl with such fragile lungs. I doubt that she is learning much more at the moment than what is written on the surface of her pillow. I will never understand the ways of those Freesians. Why must the prince go all the way to Freesia for a bride when there are plenty of eligible, well-bred Gallish girls from which he can choose?"
The VanGall twins giggled.
Jonathan murmured to Rhema, "I would rather become a freesie than live in a country where either of those two became queen." Rhema nodded her full agreement. She, of course, was technically already a 'freesie', but she would enthusiastically give it up if it meant she could be a simple, full-blooded Gall, just like Jonathan.
After breakfast, Yash and one of the coachmen loaded the luggage into the backs of two over-adorned coaches, while a tall, stoic man in black supervised their progress.
"Good morning, Mr. Highwater," said Rhema to the stoic man. Somebody who didn't know Mr. Highwater might better have mistaken him for an undertaker. He was quiet, orderly, and on his nose sat a pair of immaculately polished spectacles. Rhema had never been certain what his occupation was. She only knew that as far back as she could remember, Mr. Highwater always escorted them Iderburg.
"Baroness," said Mr. Highwater with a slight bow. "I trust your birthday was satisfying."
"Delightful, even," said Rhema. Mr. Highwater bowed again, allowing the corner of his mouth to smile in such a small degree that only Rhema would notice. Then he opened the door of the back coach and extended his hand.
"Your coach, Baroness."
"Um, thank you," said Rhema, looking at his hand as if she did not know what to do with it.
Roger shoved her from behind. "Get on. I don't want to hang around here all day."
Rhema barely touched Mr. Highwater's hand as he helped her up the coach steps. He had never done that for her before. It must be because I am a baroness now.
Roger scrambled in behind her and laid claim to his side of the coach, going on about how much more room they both would have now that Charis was no longer around. The door snapped shut, and Rhema heard Mr. Highwater's long strides as he joined her parents in the front carriage.
She leaned out the window. The Cartwellers stood in front of the house, eager to wave them goodbye. Rhema inhaled a light and adventurous wind. It made her want to shout something, anything. As loudly as she could, she shouted to Jonathan, "Take care of the Cottage for me! I don't want to hear about you causing trouble!"
Jonathan shouted back, "Try not to overthrow the monarchy while you're down there!"
"You are not any fun at all, Mr. Cartweller!"
The wheels of the carriage jerked forward as the horses pulled away. She instantly wished she had thought of better final words to Jonathan -- more serious, mannerly ones. No wonder he thought of her as a sister.
The flock of ducks flew into the sky overhead and conformed to the shape of a V, but no less free-spirited in their unity.
Wait for me, Tom. I will come back. And even if I change, I will never change for you.