in which Rhema is not afraid of ghosts
The carriage came on a Sunday, but sunny it was not. A dull, gray haze hid the sky and left no reflections for the shivering ducks to disturb in the pond. They didn't lift their heads when the carriage slid up the Cottage drive, driven by one Mr. Felix, who was so alike with his daughter Becky in face and manner that there could be no mistaking their kinship. In the time it took Rhema to finish packing her bags, Jonathan had already introduced himself to Mr. Felix, and they had taken a great liking to each other. There was so much joy in the Cartweller and Felix families that it overwhelmed whatever sorrow there was to be had among the De Freeses, who prepared for the final departure of their youngest daughter.
“I will be fine,” Rhema said to her parents, Roger, and the Overtons, who had also come to see her off. “The best people will be looking after me.”
“But you will not only be guest, you will be the lady of the house. You must remember what I told you about behaving like a Lady,” said Lady de Frees.
“I remember,” said Rhema. She recalled very little instruction from her mother in regards to being lady-like. Thanks to her father and Jonathan, she probably knew much more about being a Gentleman. She did pick up some housekeeping skills from Neha and Yash, but where she was going, housekeeping would not be needed.
“I am in Iderburg at least twice a year. I will come and see how you are faring,” said her father.
“Please do. Anytime.”
Mr. Highwater escorted her into the carriage, and Mr. Felix took the driver’s seat. Becky stayed behind, in the capable care of the Cartwellers.
Rhema leaned out the window, where the spring wind fell thick and uneasy. She could not decide whether to shout goodbye or cry out for help. Jonathan though, who became younger whenever Becky was at his side, shouted, “Try not to burn down the kingdom while you’re away!”
Rhema called back, “You are not any fun at all!”
The wheels of the carriage jerked forward, and Rhema waved goodbye. Behind her, light fell gently on the Cottage and its inhabitants as the clouds uncovered the midday sun. Ahead of her, a gray mist rolled across the dirt road from the direction of Fairfax Pond. She heard ducks quacking but could see none of them.
Her destination, Westbridge Manor, capped a tall, green hill immediately west of Iderburg Castle. Westbridge had been the traditional home of the royal family for generations, but in recent times it became the guesthouse for secondary royals or foreign dignitaries. Since King Harold was of the habit of keeping his short-term guests close and long-term guests far, Westbridge went through many long periods of emptiness. Rhema had never been inside, but she and Charis had often joked as children that it was the ‘ghost house’. No matter what secret, gloomy passages they found in Iderburg Castle’s ruins, they were never afraid because, as they told each other, all the ghosts lived in Westbridge.
Rhema considered herself too old to still believe in ghosts, but a thrill of danger filled her chest as the horses pulled her up the hill and under a brick arch covered in ivy and pink and white flowers. Stones of varying shades of gray made up the walls of the manor, and it had a red roof, which matched well the rest of the city of Iderburg.
Inside, Westbridge was so much like the inside of the palace that Rhema felt more like she had wandered into an unexplored room rather than an entirely different building. Fields of glowing, yellow, electric orbs shed light on the halls and rooms. Ghost lights, Rhema thought to herself. She could not wait to describe it all to Charis.
A wide balcony circled the second floor, separating itself from the inner hallway with nothing but a long row of white columns that Rhema weaved in and of – light, shadow, light, shadow. At the north-eastern corner, a wall stood between the end of the balcony and the tail of the roof. Her new bedroom tucked neatly into that corner. Its door unobtrusively angled into a shadowy place in the hall.
The room was not so big as the Princess Suite in the palace, but more than large enough for a single occupant. The spirals of the carpet shone with green and gold, and sheer white cloth clung loosely from the canopy above the bed. There were electric lamps in the corner and by the nightstand, which Rhema enjoyed turning on and off after the servants left her alone. The vanity came fully stocked with shining new combs and jewelry, and the wardrobe was full of new outfits. Each piece made Rhema’s country clothes look like rags. She took note of the texture of every stitch. She had had dreams like this, of suddenly coming upon great treasures, but in the dreams, she had always woken up.
“Miss Baroness,” said a man’s voice. Rhema’s heart fell into her stomach when she heard him. The prince leaned against her doorframe, hands in his pockets and a light in his eyes.
“Welcome to my home,” he said. Satisfaction hung on his lips as he said it. It wasn’t an obvious satisfaction, but Rhema detected a delight in him at the idea of welcoming somebody to his home for the first time. He had a twinkle that seemed to say, ‘We have a secret, you and I.’
“How do you like them?” he said, indicating the dresses still in the clutch of her fingers.
“These are all for me?” Rhema asked, already knowing the answer.
“They are a welcome gift.”
“They are much better than the clothes I brought with me.”
“Better is in the eye of the beholder.”
“Some things are actually better.”
“You may be on to something.”
“You do not need to be a philosopher on my account.”
He nodded, running a hand over the doorframe.
“That green one there would be your best choice for the announcement party tomorrow,” said the prince.
“Made for that purpose, I have no doubt.”
He scratched the back of his head, thinking of something other than what was being said.
“How do you find Westbridge?” he asked.
“Very large for just one person.”
“It is that. That is why I did not want to live here until after—“ he stopped. Rhema’s insides tightened around each other. “I should show you around sometime before I leave,” he continued.
“Leave? Where are you going?”
“Back to England. I still have some months worth of school to complete.”
The news took her aback. What had she expected? That the prince would be there to hold her hand while she attended etiquette classes?
“I have a better idea. You stay in this house all year, and I will go to school in England.”
He grinned. He had a grin that stretched all the way from one side of his face to the other. “I am afraid that is not how it works.”
“Rhem--” The prince began, his eyebrows wrinkling with concentration for a plea that he could not pronounce. “Miss de Frees, I should return to the palace. If you find yourself in need of anything, send word, and it will be brought to you. Good night.” She continued to listen to each of his boot steps as they disappeared down the hallway.
Will he be this strange as a husband? A husband. The back of Rhema’s throat dropped into nothingness. The room, smaller than some but larger than most, transformed into something gigantic and frightening. She was nothing but a spot on its carpet. None of it was hers. Night crept in on her when her back was turned.
I am alone. I can do anything I want now. I am free, she told herself. But the only words that remained in her mind were: I am alone.
As promised, Prince Bastion returned the next day to show her around. Their time together was quiet, neither knowing how to speak to the other. We don’t have much in common, I expect. Whatever could there be for us to talk about?
He had little to say except for telling the name and purpose of every room they passed. Each was like a miniature version of a room in the palace, splendid, polished, and hardly ever used. It had the smell of a hotel about it. They came by one room on the third floor with two thick doors and brass doorknobs that curved like ram’s horns. The prince walked by it without pause.
“Wait. What is this room?” Rhema said, intrigued by the brass handles.
“That is our room,” he answered, affronted by Rhema’s boldness. She turned the handle and peeked inside. “That is, it will be.”
The thought ‘our room’ hovered between them, thickening the air. The prince cleared his throat and helped her push the doors fully open.
Nearly three times the size of Rhema’s current bedroom, their chamber-to-be was a world of its own. All three of its levels were covered in blue carpet and white columns. Cloth linens draped, ghost-like, over the furniture, hinting at shapes beneath. At door level was a sitting area, complete with couch, chairs, bookshelves, and a small dining table. The lower level comprised the bed area. The bed was wide enough to cover the entire lower level. Rhema would not go near it. Not with him there.
A heavy curtain hanging from a track in the ceiling blocked the third level from view, which meant Rhema had to know what was behind it. She took hold of the curtain and dragged it open. Sunlight instantly filled the chamber from a private balcony at the top of a small flight of stairs on the third level. She went up to look at it. The prince followed.
“What a marvelous view,” she said, drawn to the light outside. Outside, what at first had appeared to be a small balcony extended across the entire length of the east side of the roof. The second floor balcony lay not far below.
“I never saw this while I was down there,” she said.
“You should not have unless you were looking for it. This balcony was originally a watchman’s post. It was designed like this so that it would be unnoticable to the eye. When my grandfather lived at Westbridge, he had the separating wall torn down and expanded this chamber so that he could watch the hawks from the best view in the house.”
Rhema followed the lower balcony with her eyes.
“I think we are not far from the... where is my room?”
“Down that way, I believe. Northeast corner.”
The prince pointed down toward the northeast corner. On the corner was a narrow, rail-less, flight of stairs that led down over the roof from the corner of the upper balcony to the corner of the lower. Only a short, welded metal gate blocked Rhema from the stairs.
“What strange architecture. I can practically walk there.” She leaned over the rail as if about to try.
“I don't recommend it. Those stairs were useful when this was a watch post, but they are treacherous. That is why they are blocked.”
“I can handle treacherous.”
She squinted at him defiantly and leaned back over the stair.
“It does not look difficult. Easier even than climbing a tree.”
The prince pulled her away from the edge of the balcony.
“If you break another leg, we will not finish our tour.” With that said, he forced Rhema back the way she came. They took the long way to her room. All the walking made her leg ache, but she continued on without mentioning it. Enough attention had already been drawn to her injury.
When the hour grew late, they parted ways, each to prepare in their own way for the announcement party. Rhema put on the green dress that the prince had suggested. Its low sleeves exposed her chest and shoulders. She felt half naked. She wished her mother or sister or even Neha were there to give their opinions or make a fuss about its appropriateness. But she had no one but the servants, and they proved to be much less amiable than Becky. Even Mara, the waiting woman who did Rhema’s hair, avoided conversation. She had never been so lonely surrounded by so many people.
The announcement party came and went like a tornado. Rhema could not take a single step of her own choosing. A series of ‘come here’ and ‘go there’s ruled the evening. A great many people were introduced to her whom she did not know and would not remember. By the time the king’s official announcement of her engagement to his son came about, everybody already knew or had guessed. Everyone, that was, except for the Duke of Middelwey. His dark eyes snapped in her direction when the king made the announcement, as if she had previously been invisible and had suddenly appeared out of nowhere.
As they sat down to eat, the duke remained standing and announced, “I move for a moment of silence in memory of Her Highness, Dahlia Francesca de Frees.”
“I second,” said Prince Bastion. Rhema’s light mood fell away. The ghost of Dahlia judged her from beyond the grave.
“Departed but not forgotten,” said Harold, raising a glass.
“Departed but not forgotten,” the guests repeated. The prince drank first.
They were silent for an eternity. When he deemed it right, the king brought back his smile and said, “Now, let us have a toast for our Baroness of Sever.” He raised his glass once more.
“The Baroness of Sever!”
The prince, again, was first to drink, and the duke drank last.
Sad moods eventually fled, and the banquet resumed. The prince sat beside Rhema, which allowed guests to whisper among each other about how well they looked together.
“How is your leg?” he asked.
“It aches a little, but I will manage. I worry more about my rapport among this crowd.” She over-carefully cut her food.
“You are doing well,” he said.
King Harold spent most of the evening either talking loudly about the two of them or quietly with the Duke of Middelwey, who seemed urgent for his attention.
Somewhere in the midst of it, a waltz began to play. Before Rhema could decide how effectively she could pretend to faint, the prince already had her half way to the dance floor. His hand floated behind her lower back, guiding her. She had never had a man guide her in such a way before. How was she to respond to it?
“Your Highness,” she whispered, “Please, I am not a good dancer. Do you not remember?”
He swung her around and caught her right hand in his left and his other hand cemented itself on her lower back with control and strength. Jonathan had certainly never held her so when they danced. Of course, his touches had always been thin and his dances playful, typically ending with one or the other of them tumbling over the other. Princes did not dance to tumble. His hands held firm as he stepped smoothly and deliberately. Rhema wasn’t dancing; she was drifting. And Prince Bastion was the tide.
What am I thinking?
The next thing she knew, the prince had spun her around again, and they were bowing. The dance had ended.
At the end of the evening, he walked her to her coach and kissed her hand, quickly and courteously, before returning to his own room in the palace.
She hardly slept that night. The mill wheel in her mind kept her awake. The prince’s lips remained on her hand and his hand on her lower back. She tried to redirect her thoughts to Jonathan and Becky, but thinking of them did nothing but upset her.
She stretched her arms and legs out under the hospital-tight sheets. Her feet tingled in exultation that they were no longer in those tight shoes. She wrapped her arm around a neighboring pillow. Someday instead of a pillow there would be a whole other person for her arm to fall upon. What would she do then? She would not even have this most precious, private time of sleep to herself ever again. No, she decided. It is the courtly way for him to have his room and I to have mine. Except when he expects—expects what? That which men and women do alone in their bedrooms was certainly not a thing discussed in her family. Her mother had addressed it enough only to say that when the time came, she would know what to do. This was neither a help nor a comfort. She imagined the experience must be exceedingly different for those who love their husbands than those who are only casually fond of them. She tried not to think of it at all, but the more she tried, the more it became the only thing of which she could think. When she finally disappeared into a dreamless sleep, her pillow was wet with tears and her mind overwhelmed with dread of the next day.
But the next day came, as next days tend to do. Sunlight tiptoed on her eyelids. She turned over grumbling, “Stop it, Roger. I am awake.” She opened her eyes expecting to find her brother standing over her with a bright mirror and a wicked laugh, but instead she saw the sun beaming through the crack in her long curtains and a domed, frescoed ceiling rising above the posts of her bed.
“Oh. Right.” She pulled the sheets over her head.
Mara the House Matron pulled those sheets back down again. “It is late, Your Ladyship. His Highness wants to see you.” Mara was stern-faced and sterner-armed. Not a pleasant first sight of the morning.
Late? It is early yet. Rhema rose as one rising from the dead. Her arms and legs tingled in rebellion and surprised her with pain because of the previous day’s exercise.
Mara helped prepare her. She hardly knew what she was being dressed in. Was His Highness about to knock on the door or was she to go downstairs and greet him?
She opened her door to find the hallway empty. Thank goodness, she thought, still shaking the dizziness from her head.
“Good morning.” The prince’s voice echoed from nowhere. The screen to the second-floor balcony stood open. The shadow of his shoulder looked out over its edge.
“Good morning, Your Highness,” said Rhema, shuffling out to the porch to meet him. Dry heat met her in the air, as if spring had been skipped over, and April had leapt straight into summer. Rhema stayed in the shade. Her eyes were not adjusted. The prince leaned on the banister, not looking at her. His head followed a hawk flying overhead. She felt a tingle in her lower back.
“You may call me Bastion now, you know.”
“Because that is my name.” He again had on his traveling cap, coat, and boots that were made for riding, not for breakfasts with fiancés.
“Why do you always look ready to leave when you come to see me?” asked Rhema.
“Because I am ready to leave,” he said. “I wanted to ask you something before I left.”
“Ask it then.”
“Do you want to marry me?” His eyes held steadfast on the hawk.
Rhema blinked. It was too early. She was not ready to answer questions of that magnitude.
“This is probably the first time anybody has actually asked me that particular question.”
“Well, now that you have been asked, what is your answer?”
“Why does it matter? I will do what I have to for Gallia.”
With a stringent expression, he concentrated on his own clasped hands. His mind went somewhere that he was still not willing to share. “I told you before that you do have a choice. Nothing is irreversible, even now. It would be inconvenient, certainly, but you may still say no.”
“I do not think I can answer at the moment.” That she did not say ‘no’ right then was as much a shock to Rhema as it was, she was sure, to the prince. Certainly this was exactly the opportunity she desired. She had even whiled away hours imagining a long and eloquent berating in answer to just such a question. She could not remember a word of it.
“I will stand by my word,” said the prince. “I will not marry you unless you agree to it.”
“Thank you, Your High— Bastion,” she said.
He looked down and away from her, like a little boy who’d just been told he couldn’t have something he wanted.
“If I may ask,” said Rhema, “Why am I here? What is the purpose of suffering me to wait?”
“Because I have my studies, and you have the look of a child new-torn from its mother’s womb, unready to come into the world. So we will wait.”