in which the prince melts the snow
Bastion van Sever could not tolerate not knowing what he did not know. ‘I have decided to marry him,’ she had said coolly, as if she were deciding on what to have for lunch. He paced back and forth across the music room, unable to take solace from the inviting instruments.
“You’re pacing, friend,” Marcus said from the door. Snowflakes clung to his loose scarf. “Will you miss me that much?”
“Confound it! How long have you been standing there?”
“Long enough to see you giving the devil’s eye to Westbridge more than once now.”
Bastion turned away from the west window, which had a nearly clean view across the lawn towards the baroness’s manor.
“Women,” he said. “What are you supposed to do with them?”
Marcus grinned. “I can think of many, many things—“
“Aside from that.”
“Then I have no idea.”
Bastion sat down behind the grand piano that dominated the center of the music room. He ran his fingers up and down the silent ivory.
“I have become convinced that they have a secret club in which they discuss the many delights of confounding and torturing men,” said Marcus. He strolled to the window and admired the view of Westbridge. Bastion grunted, less amused by the joke than he had been the first dozen times Marcus had told it.
“On that matter, did I tell you that I got a letter from our dear Mariana this week?” Marcus continued.
Bastion’s stomach churned. Mariana had not crossed his thoughts for weeks, and he was trying to keep it that way.
“Whatever did she write you for?”
“Because her ‘darling prince’ has not written her a single word, so she’s turned to her dear, cousin Marcus for some cheering.”
“She did not say that, did she? She did not say ‘darling’?”
“Well, no. I added that. But you get the meaning. I am never going to hear the end of it unless you end it with her proper.”
“One cannot end what one has never begun.”
“Quite right. Quite right,” Marcus nodded. “Just not so sure she knows that.”
“I explained very clearly before I left. Could we please not talk about this anymore?”
Bastion commenced with ramming the keys with his fingertips until something resembling Grieg’s Vektersang pervaded the atmosphere.
“Is that supposed to be a song?” Marcus said. He drummed on the windowsill trying to guide Bastion back to the appropriate rhythm.
Bastion played louder, missing more notes with each measure.
“Maybe you should tell her,” Marcus said.
“Tell who what?”
“Our baroness, the tree squirrel. Maybe she should know why you want to marry her. Why you wrote her all those letters. Why you play this badly when you’re thinking about her.”
“You seem to know better than I. Enlighten me.”
“You’ve fallen for her.”
Bastion’s playing slowed and picked up again. “I am her fiancé.”
“Stuff it with that gab. I mean really fallen for her. In a sunshine and bad poetry sort of way.”
“You would know all about bad poetry.”
Marcus stopped thumping.
“It’s not all bad, is it?”
To call Marcus’s poetry bad was an affront to bad poetry. So much so that Bastion was convinced there was a special level of hell dedicated to the recitation of it.
“It is.... improving.”
“That’s enough,” said Marcus. He smacked the piano’s lid prop out of place and let the lid smash downward. The resulting dissonance broke Bastion’s song.
“Are you mad? Do you have any idea how much this thing is worth?” Bastion sprung to his feet and examined the instrument for damages.
“You are not being fair to her,” said Marcus.
“You are not being fair. I have been more than generous to her.”
“I didn’t say generous, friend. I said fair. Would you rather she go ahead and marry you thinking you don’t like her at all? You’ve got it all topsy turvey.”
“Damn it! This is my life, my marriage, and my house, and you will respect that!”
Marcus raised his hands in surrender, put on his hat, and went out the door muttering, “Touchy wanker.”
Bastion smoothed his hand over the scuff in the piano lid and sighed.
“O’Connell, wait a moment.”
Marcus had disappeared.
“Have a look at this view!” Marcus’ voice shouted from the hall.
Bastion followed Marcus’s voice out to the second floor palace hallway, which was lined with half-arch windows overlooking the southwest lawn. Marcus looked out one of them, hands in his pockets, hat on his head.
“I didn’t mean that,” said Bastion.
“I did,” said Marcus, a rare seriousness set on his eyebrows. “Come look.”
Bastion pulled his feet up behind Marcus. Far below, the figure of a woman in a voluminous dress walked alone across the snow-sprinkled lawn. Baroness de Frees. She met two of the wall watchmen half-way. They escorted her toward the most broken portion of the old wall.
Bastion punched Marcus in the arm. Marcus broke and laughed.
“I am not going to do it,” said Bastion.
“Now you have to. Look at that. It’s fate. She’s come right to you.”
One of the watchmen must have said something funny, because Rhema appeared to be laughing as she disappeared into the west tower.
“What is she doing?” Bastion said. He pressed himself closer to the glass. “Where are the guards I assigned her? The wall-watch are not trained for protective duty.”
“Too far to tell. Ah well,” said Marcus. He took his gloves out of his pocket and started pulling them over his fingers. “Goodbye. See you in another lifetime.”
“Yours or mine?”
“Can’t rightly say. We’ll see what my mood is come summer.”
Bastion shook his hand firmly.
“I am not going to do it,” he repeated.
“Write me and tell me what she says,” said Marcus, walking away.
“Confounded Irishman,” muttered Bastion after Marcus was gone. Then he turned his attention back to the west tower.
The thin layer of snow on the lawn had dissolved into ice. Bastion lifted his feet with each step he took through it. He grimaced when the crunch of solidified grass gave way to the slush of icy mud and undid the sheen of his boots. He had walked to the west tower many times, but never before in his dress shoes and dinner jacket, and certainly never in such unpleasant weather. Somewhere, Marcus was climbing into a carriage and laughing at him. Curse him.
As Bastion thought about the fires in Sever, the assassination attempt, the fights in the House of Gentlemen and House of Lords, the constant berating from his father, and the slosh in his shoes, this question floated to the top of Bastion’s mind: Is she worth it? Is a clumsy baroness from Wenderry who may or may not so much as enjoy his company worth it? The answer returned to him as clear as the question.
Why? Because he could no longer imagine marrying anyone else.
Men and women of stone gazed on him through layers of ice as he progressed. The statues gave Bastion the impression that if the ice melted, they might come alive and try to prevent him from reaching his princess in the tower.
A frozen root crunched painfully on the sole of his shoe. Ridiculous notion!
Since Bastion was a child, the skinny doorway at the base of the west tower had been boarded up for safety reasons, but the boards were gone now. He ducked inside and coughed at the sudden inhalation of rock dust. The steps, which had seemed so perfectly suited to his boyhood feet, now lay so precariously close together that his heel and toe could not fit on a single stone. He never understood why old staircases were not built to suit a man’s feet.
From light to darkness to light again he ascended, pausing when he was high enough to see into the garret at the top of the tower. Half its wall was missing, as was half its ceiling. Above that was the broken ledge attached to the castle allure, where he had once saved the baroness from falling. Clusters of moist snow dripped from the edge of the ledge and ceiling fragments. An ancient wood table occupied in the middle of the room, and a display cupboard stood fast against the standing wall opposite the gap. An abandoned bird’s nest was the cupboard’s only treasure.
The baroness stood alone in the center of the room. One hand she stuffed comfortably into a fur muff and with the other she traced blueprints laid across the wood table. She hummed to herself. The tune was unfamiliar. She took a couple of turns about the room and limped slightly as she did. She sat on top of the wobbly wooden table, fiddled with the blueprints, and made the trip around the room again with her eyes.
Bastion stepped into the garret slowly, afraid of frightening this bird from her roost.
“That did not take very long, Mr. Hodgins--” she said, looking toward him. “Oh, Your Highness!” She slid off the table.
“Good afternoon, Baroness,” he said.
“To what do I owe the pleasure?” she asked. When she exhaled, streams of white mist floated from her mouth. Such a nicely shaped mouth.
“I came to tell you...” said Bastion. The baroness stuffed her hands in her muff and stared at him with her wide, frightening eyes. “I came to inform you that Mr. O’Connell is leaving. He sends his regards and wishes you to know what an honor it was to make your acquaintance.”
“I was not aware he would leave so soon.”
“I hardly think he knows where he will be from one day to the next.”
“He will be missed.”
One of her hands floated behind her and supported her against the table. Her leg must have been bothering her again. He wondered if she would accept a chair if he offered it. By her look, he thought not.
Something creaked in the walls. Bastion eyed the cracked and cobwebbed corners.
“What are you doing here, Rhema?” he said.
“I could ask you the same thing.”
“After Sever, you know you should not be going places alone.”
“I cannot waste my life waiting on an escort all the time. If I did that, surely I would never get anywhere.”
“The watchmen have not gone far, have they?”
“They have not gone far, no.”
She looked away from him, at the floor, at the ceiling, at the crumbled wall. Anywhere but at him. “As long as you are here, come see the architect’s plans.”
She turned around and flattened the blueprints for him.
“There has been some debate as to what to do with this space. Some say to rebuild it like it was, like the other towers, but I thought perhaps we could utilize the space for a library or a observation room of sorts. Here is the second blueprint.”
Bastion came to the side of the table as she pointed.
“They left me these so that I would make the decision, but I could hardly make such a decision without examining the space myself, could I? Mr. Hodgins let me in.”
“I was under the impression this entire tower was condemned,” said Bastion.
“It was,” said the baroness, “But its foundations are solid. I am told repair is entirely possible. Besides, I think this room is beautiful. Do you not think it is beautiful?”
“Yes,” said Bastion. The baroness certainly had an annoying knack for finding his secret places. When he was a boy he used to climb down into this room from the broken allure above and pretend it was his pirate ship. It was strange to find anyone else in the room, much less calling it beautiful.
The baroness’s feet wandered again, her limp undetectable. She ran her fingers over the display cupboard. Bastion held his breath. Few besides he knew that behind that cupboard was evidence of his boyhood escapades.
“Look here,” he said, drawing her attention to a window on the finished half of the room. “You can see Mr. O’Connell’s carriage.”
She pushed her neck in close to his so that she could see.
“Yes. I see it.”
The horses trotted away, taking the Irishman into the city. Bastion did not know when he would see his friend again. The baroness’ shoulder touched his. Her neck was so white. Her cheek was so soft...
She stepped away as soon as Marcus’ carriage was out of sight. She repositioned her hands inside her muff and faced the open gap in the wall, which looked the other direction, out over the frozen, open country.
“Is there anything else Your Highness requires?” she said.
“Mr. O’Connell is only just left, and you already return to treating me as a stranger?”
There it was. His tongue was faster than his tact. He stoned his face in preparation for a rebuttal.
The squint of the baroness’ tear-shaped eyes sounded her objection better than her words ever could, but she had words none-the-less.
“Do you want to play philosopher again? Very well then, Mr. Tennyson, have it your way. We will be honest. I treat Your Highness like a stranger, because you are one. Always busy. Always vanishing. It seems I cannot talk to you except in the company of your more honest friend or under a different name. Even then, all there is to discuss is politics and philosophy. How very like a prince!”
“I am not just a prince,” said Bastion. His fingers curled in irritation, and light glimmered from his signet pin. “That is, I am. Obviously. But that is not me, not all of me. I am.... more. Do you think you can understand that?”
“Yes, I think I can.” The baroness looked at the ground. A pink hue crawled over her face. She could be so still, so terribly still. What does it mean when women are still? Is she sad? Is she nervous? Is she angry? Can I comfort her? Should I leave?
She suddenly moved to the edges of the cracked wall, flickering her fingers by its edge.
“Marcus said you mentioned me when you were in England,” the baroness said, her back toward him. Only her silhouette expressed itself.
“I may have mentioned you a few times,” said Bastion.
“He said that you.... never mind. It is not important.”
“What did he tell you?” Bastion could not feel his hands.
“It is not important. I should not have mentioned it.” She looked at the outline of the ceiling. “This room is too small to be a library, I suppose.”
“I want to know what he told you.” He pronounced his words one at a time. Something burned inside Bastion’s chest.
“Honestly, it is not important.” She gestured to the ridge of the gap in the wall. “It is hard to guess the scale without a wall here. Would it be a silly suggestion to make this a sunroom? I could have them place a window here--”
“If it is not important, you can say it.”
Her shoulders lowered. “He said that you.... fancied me. That is all. You see. I said it did not matter.”
“He was wrong.”
“Of course. That is what I told him.”
“I do not ‘fancy’ you. I love you.”
Bastion had only meant to think the words, but they escaped the boundaries of his thoughts before he could find a better way to phrase them. The sensation was like pulling a hot iron out of his chest, frightening to think about, but what a relief after it was said and done! Left behind where the hot iron had been was an exposed, burning heart.
“What?” stammered the baroness, her breath suddenly weak. A lifetime passed between them. Bastion’s veins ran with molten fire. Not even the freezing draft blowing through the open wall could quench it. Though she did not look at him, he found he could not stop smiling.
“You astonish me,” said Bastion.
“I astonish you?” When she turned her head, her eyes were wide and wary. He didn’t care. She would hear what he had to say.
“Yes. You astonish me greatly, Baroness de Frees. Rhema.” The baroness's name touched his lips like an elixir. “I have met many people in my life, Rhema. Strange, beautiful, surprising, wonderful people. Some I loved. Some I hated. All them perfect in their own bizarre ways. But if I had never met any of them, yet was told that they existed, I would have believed it. I never once doubted that there were people in the world who behaved like Marcus or Dahlia or Miss Felix. But you.... how is it that you exist? I did not believe someone like you was possible, yet here you are. Right here, in arm’s reach. How are you possible? Let the sun be the moon and the moon be a cabbage. I do not care. I do not think anything will ever surprise me again, because you are so astonishingly real.”
Rhema could not have appeared more shocked if he had punched her in the chest. She stopped moving entirely. Her eyes, wide and glistening, gazed like a deer staring down a hunter’s rifle.
“There. It is said,” said Bastion. If he had taken even a moment to hope, her reaction would not have been what he had hoped for. But he could not stop smiling. The more he said, the more he wanted to say. “Why did I not say anything before? This feels great!” Bastion shouted like a drunk man. Rhema flinched and held a hand over her breast. “I should have been honest from the beginning. Not to say I have been dishonest. All I have told you before is true, but so is this. In the beginning, I had determined to choose to love you, but as it happens, it was never a choice at all. When I did not know you, I wanted to know you. When I let myself want you, I loved you. When I let myself love you, I got to know you. And when I knew you, you absolutely astonished me. I am sorry. I am rambling. Please stop me if I am rambling.”
She said nothing. Bastion’s feet took him every direction. It was all he could do to keep them on the floor. He scratched the back of his head where his hair met his neck.
“I have been a selfish man, Rhema. I can no longer, in good conscious, force you into a life that you obviously do not want. There is no simple life to be had with me. They will stretch you, watch you, and hunt you. I know. That is what they have done to me.” Her face convicted him. The burning in his chest found its way to his head, and his feet slowed. “You do not have to decide now, nor must you go if you do not want to.” He looked at her hopefully. No change. “I release you from your promise. You are free to do as you choose. I hope one day you will forgive me for my selfishness and whatever turmoil I have already caused in your life. I hope we may one day continue as friends.”
“Friends. Yes, of course,” said Rhema in a whisper. Friends. The word stung.
Bastion bowed. Rhema, pale and stunning under the clouded winter light, curtseyed in return. He waited for a sign, anything from her, but she added nothing to her words. He pushed away what other urges remained in him and left before they too expressed themselves without the assistance of his brain. The staircase swallowed him like the throat of a dragon. The broken door bit him like its teeth. Before he knew it, he once again stood in the front lawn. Ice melted through his dinner shoes.
Rhema, half-blinded in astonishment, groped for the floor, found it soggy with snow, but sat anyway. She kept watch on the darkening stairwell long after the prince’s shadow had left it. Her heart turned over.
“Did that just happen?” she said out loud to nobody in particular.