in which a light goes out forever
The Flower of Freesia was dead. She was not coming back. No more trips to Paris, London, and Berlin. No more articles about her famous taste, good nature, and excellent sense of style. No more theaters would have her as a patron. No more artists would paint her portrait nor photographers line up to capture her image. No princess would ever be so loved in Freesia, Gallia, or the world again.
Rhema did not cry. When so many people grieved, the majority of which had neither seen Dahlia nor heard her voice, Rhema could not cry. She contemplated the empty spot left vacant by a girl she did not know. The vacancy was terrible, but the guilt for not being more upset by it was even worse. The fairy tale of the prince and princess uniting dueling nations was over, leaving nothing except despair. Rhema still could not cry.
The day after the announcement, guests of the king gathered in the entry hall either preparing for departure or bidding farewell to those departing. Conversation whispered and scattered between the groupings of nobles. The De Frees family, as usual, formed their own group. Few, except Charlie, attempted to join the conversations of others, and his attempts were embarrassingly presumptuous.
“Bauen&Raums!” Charlie half-shouted at the Marquis of Verni on the other side of the hall. “The finest piano makers on this side of the Rein. But that is all about to change, I’m telling you, now that we’ve gone into transportation.”
“There he goes again,” Charis said, adjusting her black shawl to mask her eyes, red from a night of crying. As half-second cousins of the late princess, their family was obligated to go into a period of mourning. Unprepared for this eventuality, none of them had packed the appropriate garb. Charis made do with her black shawl and gloves, while Rhema tied her bonnet with a black ribbon and had another ribbon around her upper arm.
“Your Mister Overton is certainly gregarious,” said Lady de Frees.
“That he is,” said Charis. “Though I had hoped he would have better sense than to try to sell motor coaches to grieving families. Still, I do wish we could go with them to attend the funeral. Can we not go even now, Papa?”
“I cannot return to Freesia,” Lord de Frees answered. This was always his answer when one of his children asked him why they never revisited the country of their birth. After years of his silence on the subject, Rhema had begun to seriously doubt if it was a place worth visiting.
“You may go with your husband, if you like. I have no objection. Though I dare say, Mr. Overton may not be the best man to reintroduce us into the graces of the Queen.”
As he said this, Charlie’s voice could distinctly be heard saying, “The prototype is right outside” and “If you could spare five minutes...”
“Mister de Frees, I think it is time we offered a few words of condolence to your relatives,” Lady de Frees said to her husband.
“I spoke with my relatives only yesterday. Is it truly necessary I do so again?”
Lady de Frees answered this by slipping her arm through his and encouraging him to escort her over to the Marquis, who looked as though he could use relief from Charlie’s sales pitch.
Rhema searched the solemn faces of Freesian nobles for anybody familiar. She nodded in the direction of Miss Eliza Emmanuel, a sensible but not particulary comely woman in her thirties. Eliza was Rhema’s second... third... Rhema could not remember which number cousin she was. Eliza nodded back to her and continued to stare anxiously at the door.
In the shadows behind the wide, white column opposite Rhema stood a figure so still and sober that he could have been mistaken for one of the portraits. In fact, Rhema first thought it was no more than the prince’s portrait that lingered on the edge of the foyer surveying the crowd. His head moved. She trembled.
The prince’s face had no color left in it, but otherwise displayed no deep signs of grief. Rhema had been right in thinking that his portrait had flattered him. A man of twenty-four, Prince Bastion was pleasant to look on. In fact, every other woman in the room would have immediately agreed that he was exceedingly handsome. Rhema, however, thought of him as an ‘ordinary handsome.’ She had seen more princely profiles on the heads of stable boys. His chin was somewhat too short and his nose somewhat too long. His haircut was closer set to his head than the one in his portrait, which, in her personal opinion, made the real haircut less flattering. More than anything else, the knowledge that everyone else found him pleasing strengthened Rhema’s resolve to be displeased.
“Is that Bastion?” Rhema asked Charis, even though she already knew the answer.
“Oh my, it is. I thought he would have left last night. Poor man.” Charis raised a handkerchief to her eye. “Do you think we should say something to him? Offer condolences?”
“You are asking me about the rules of etiquette? Have you forgotten me completely? All I know is that when it comes to tragedy, indiscretions are more readily overlooked.”
“Or less readily,” said Charis. “Can you imagine what he is feeling now? I mean, if anything ever happened to my Charlie—“ Charis could not finish that sentence. The prince glanced sideways in their direction.
“He is looking at us, Char. What do we do?” said Rhema. She froze as if she were a deer in the sight of a hunter.
They bobbed into curtseys. Rhema nudged Roger until he bowed also. The prince nodded gravely. His presence became noticed by a majority of the guests. Bows and curtseys flowed down the hall as if they were meadow flowers under the influence of a sudden gust of wind.
Annette, the Duchess of Devon, approached the prince. In form and fashion, she exceeded perfection. She wore a stylish black dress with thin black boots and a black shawl. Over her hat hung a veil sheer enough to allow her bright yellow hair and thin green eyes to pierce through the solemnity. She curtseyed so deeply that the prince had nothing to talk to but the large pink flowers in her excessively broad hat, which were the only points of color in her morbidly chic ensemble.
“Your Highness, allow me to express my deepest sorrow for your loss,” Annette said in a heavily accented bell of a voice. Rhema, who at one time had an admiration for the Duchess's style, scowled deeply. Annette touched the prince’s arm.
“That is grossly inappropriate,” whispered Rhema to Charis.
“What is?” said Charis.
The prince did not move his arm nor, it seemed, any other part of his body. “Thank you, Duchess Devon, for your kind consideration,” he said.
The Duchess repeated her long curtsey and backed away from him with a ballerina’s grace. Her hat, however, did not share this grace and caught on a protruding candle sconce on a column, tearing off one of the pink flowers.
Roger laughed so loudly that the attention of the whole room fixed in their direction. Rhema shushed him, but it was too late.
“I apologize, Your Highness.... and Duchess,” Rhema said quickly. “He is quite out of sorts, you see.” She squinted at Roger until he eventually said, “My apologies, Duchess. Um, condolences, Your Highness, sire. Condolences all around.” He smiled hopefully at the shocked faces of the nobles, who could not have been more stunned if he had stripped naked and stood on his head. Roger happened to be one of those blessed individuals who was born without a sense of embarrassment. Rhema blushed for her brother’s sake.
“Thank you for your condolences, Master—“ began the prince.
“De Frees. Roger de Frees.” Roger bowed.
“Thank you, Master Roger. Try to enjoy your stay in Iderburg,” said the prince. He suddenly looked at Rhema. The prince watched her as if he were developing a thought about her. Whether this thought were favorable or unfavorable, she could not tell. Her throat constricted. She could not speak a word.
“If you will excuse me,” Prince Bastion said to the room, putting on his traveling cap and buttoning his overcoat. The cap added dimension to his gaze, which erred in her direction more than once but never lingered. Rhema’s uneasiness did not lift until he had departed their company.
Three days later, the people of Iderburg held a public memorial service on the lawn of Iderburg Castle. Being among the very few members of the royal family not attending the official funeral in Verni, the De Freeses served as officiates. The iron gates opened, allowing the public to swarm over the part of the lawn between the moat and the castle wall. From a platform erected between the hoard and the entrance to the palace yard, men and women of import spoke many heartfelt words, most of whom Rhema did not know and was certain that Dahlia never knew either.
When speeches appeared to be over, the Duke of Middelwey smoothed his hair, stood up, walked to the podium, and said, “She is gone.” The Duke had a fast drawl of a voice, as if nothing he said was worth completely opening his mouth. He paused a moment to let those words settle into the minds of the crowd. “The princess of Freesia is gone, but not what she represents.” The Dukes and the Lords, who occupied the rows of chairs immediately in front of the stage, shifted nervously. “I remember the last time I saw Dahlia. On that occasion I asked her if she felt like she was giving up anything by marrying a Gall. Do you know what she said?” He paused as if he were actually expecting someone to respond to his question. “She said, ‘I am not giving up anything more than a bride gives up when she joins with her husband. In that way, I do not really give up anything, but I gain. We live under the yoke of old prejudices and heavy times. If our countries can join in unity, then we both can know a freedom that neither of our lands have known since our separation.’ So with that in mind...”
The Duke gestured toward the Iderburg Boy’s Choir to begin their song. They looked at him in confusion. Their conductor hesitantly stood up, tapped his wand, and led the boys in a transcendent a cappella chorus.
The Duke returned to his seat. As he did, his dark eyes lingered briefly on Rhema, as if he were looking right down inside of her. She felt frozen in time until he broke the gaze.
One by one the candles lit the stage and illumined the hands of the gathered spectators, who filled the streets like a tide engulfs every crevice of a rock jetty. After the crowd settled into glowing silence, the Gallia Symphony Orchestra played the Freesian national anthem for what Rhema suspected must have been the first time in history. She stared into the candle in her hand and thought of Freesia. Her mouth moved silently to the words of the anthem: “....Freesia, Freesia, mon seul pays, va maintenant et pour toujours être libre.”
A glow of pride flickered inside of her. A piece of her missed the homeland she could not remember. The flame that represented Freesia’s last star danced and dripped wax onto her glove. Her hand absorbed the heat. She would not flinch. Then the anthem ended, and, in accordance with ceremony, she blew the candle out.