in which the hackberry branch breaks
The trill of the winter wren let in a golden-flecked sunbeam on Rhema's waking eyelids. The scent of the pond wafted through the window. She could smell the flowers beginning to bud in the garden and sense the streaks of light that painted the side of the Cottage.
Rhema thought for a moment that it had all been a dream. She imagined that she would walk downstairs to find the family preparing once again for their trip to the castle. Dahlia would still be alive, and none of the events of the previous week would have happened.
She dressed herself and went downstairs to find nobody at the breakfast table. She wandered to the parlor, where Neha sat alone, humming and knitting in a chair by the sleeping fireplace. Her glasses sat crooked on her wrinkled tan face, and her black hair was pulled back in a wiry bun.
"Where is everybody?" asked Rhema.
"Oh!" Neha jumped up, knitting and all, and bowed clumsily. "Mistress Rhema, you were so silent. I could have had you for a ghost!"
"It is rather a quiet morning."
"Morning, Mistress? It is afternoon. Your mother thought you were ill, but I told her, 'No, you wait. She is only tired. She will be like herself again soon.' Forgive me, Mistress. I have forgotten." Neha bobbed into a curtsey. "I am now to address you as Your Highness."
"Please don't, Neha." A nauseated feeling came over Rhema.
"Yes, Mistress Rhema. I am sorry. It is a secret. Do not worry. I will tell no one." She winked.
"Where has everybody gone?" Rhema asked a second time.
"Mr. Boralho is driving the Lady and Mrs. Charis to the telegram office. The Lord and Mr. Roger walked out toward the pond."
"I think I will join them."
"Of course, Mistress. I would go with you, but springtime is a bother to my health. I do much better here with my knitting. Wait a moment, dear. There is something I was supposed to give you. Let me see." She got up and went over to the roll-top desk where the family kept all their letters. She lifted the lid and plucked a letter from the top, one sealed shut by golden wax in the shape of a falcon -- the royal seal.
"Mr. Highwater left this for you."
"Who is it from?"
"Somebody important, I would guess." Neha's large brown eyes gleamed behind her spectacles as she said this. She leaned forward with clutched hands. A smile as bright as her eyes formed in the corners of her mouth. She was no longer the nanny, housekeeper, cook, and friend Rhema had grown to love. She was a star-struck fan, glowing with her proximity to a celebrity.
"Thank you. I will read it in the garden." Rhema said as she took the letter with bloodless hands.
"Of course. Of course. You will want to read it alone. I guess that the prince's love letters are nothing but personal business. Go on. Go on. You must tell me later, when you are done, how the letter is." Neha all but pushed her out the back door.
Love letters? Could it be? Nobody's ever written me love letters before.
Rhema tore at the top of the envelope, not minding the damage done to the seal. Her eyes skipped to the bottom, where she found the name "Bastion" scrawled in a fanciful signature immediately below the words "Yours Affectionately." Her stomach panged. She needed to sit down.
Rhema's favorite tree in the garden was the hackberry tree, which hung over the far side of the pond with a stout, bumpy trunk and long, crooked branches. Its roots were thick enough to step from one to the next, like stepping stones, without ever touching the ground. Rhema and Jonathan used to have long talks there, talking in circles and walking in circles, root to root to root. It had been an easier game when they had smaller feet.
Rhema nestled in an inviting nook between two of the largest roots and unfolded the letter again, enjoying the notion that His Royal Highness probably never expected his fancily printed letter to be read in the dirt under a hackberry tree. She set her eyes to what he wrote:
To Miss Rhema de Frees, 3rd Baroness of Sever.
You will by now have been informed of the situation, which invariably links your person and my own in the bond of engagement. I must extend my deepest apologies for not discussing this matter with you in person. I beg your forgiveness for communicating with you in the form of a letter.
On the day of Dahlia's death, I was approached by my father, the king, on the subject of the necessity of choosing another wife. Though I had suspected that such a discussion would be imminent, I was then in no state of mind to make a hasty decision. Even so, it was made evident to me that a preliminary decision should be made within the week, because plans such as these take time to be carried out properly. I cannot express what stress and misery this week has pressed upon me, nor can I fully explain at this moment what led me to select yourself. I will say only this: You will never wear my ring except that it is by your choice.
You are young, and my conscious cannot condone forcing you into such a large role before you are at the point where you can understand it. Plans will move forward for our engagement, as it must be, but I promise you that the day of our wedding will never come to pass unless you are prepared for it. If we must wait ten years, and spite my father, so be it. However, I cannot undo what events have already been set into motion.
This matter has not been made public, as it would not be fitting to discuss such a thing in public so soon after the funeral. All announcements and so forth are to be handled by the state at the timing of the state. Therefore, your discretion on this matter will be greatly appreciated.
"Some chivalrous prince!" moaned Rhema, folding the letter with little care for its preservation. "Affectionately? I find no affection here except for that of pity. And what coward, knowing of the rudeness of expressing this in a letter, does so anyway? That settles the matter. I will not marry him. If he truly desires to save Gallia, he will marry Annette. She at least wants him!"
Rhema looked up and saw nets of budding leaves and stair-like branches beckoning her to join them. It had been at least a year since the last time she had climbed the hackberry. Why should I not? Will the prince send his army to stop me? Off went her slippers and stockings too. Up she took herself into the hackberry tree. Her bare feet gladly accepted the roughness of the bark, and her fingers hungrily curled around its sinewy branches. The trunk curved itself outward in the direction of the sun. Rhema laid across it, cat-like, seeing that the sky had already begun to turn orange. It reflected itself in Fairfax pond, like one heart made into two, severed by the horizon.
"I could do nothing but lie here forever."
She closed her eyes and leaned into the coming wind.... catching nothing but a series of hard knocks and an unpleasant greeting from the ground.
It happened so fast that she could not tell what, and if, she was injured. She flinched her muscles. Origin-less pain took a fast grip on her. She opened her eyes to dry, rough dirt and thin, dagger-like grass. She moved each joint one by one and discovered them intact. When she got to the legs, her right leg resisted her first urge to bend the knee, but with some coaxing it relented. Now for the left leg--
A spear of pain shot up Rhema's body. It paralyzed her gaping mouth and consumed her brain. A terrifying lump pressed outward on the skin of her calf, and her knee leaned in an unnatural direction. Once the second wave of pain passed, she tried to cry out for help, but she had no wind in her lungs. Eyes full of dirt and tears, she tried again, as loud as she could. Nobody was close enough to hear her. She had no prince to catch her from falling, nor any sign of Jonathan to ease her distress. She was alone in this misery.
What am I to do? she tried to think, but even thinking hurt. She dug her bark-burned hands into the dirt and attempted to pull herself up the path to the house. Pain seized her nerves again. She cried and clenched the grass for solace. The blood left her face and a sweat formed on her paling skin. Dizziness swept around her like dry leaves in a whirlwind. It was suddenly so very hot. I will not faint, she told herself, determined to reach the house--
She didn't wake again until after sunset, when Yash came out to find her.