in which old rumors come to new ears
There was never a time when Rhema was not somewhat recognized in her hometown. That was the price she paid for being the daughter of the local Lord. But there had once been many places that she could go and still enjoy her anonymity, walk down a street, duck into a crowd, have lunch at a cafe. Not anymore. No place existed where she could simply be herself and nothing of importance was expected of her. Invisibility is a privilege that the famous could not afford.
“Look this way, Madame,” said a photographer, half concealed by the tent over his camera. “Sit up straight. Try not to move.”
Rhema’s nose itched, and her prop chair dug into her tailbone. The glaring light in her face made anything else in the meeting hall dark and strange, even though she had been in the room many times in better-lit circumstances. Somewhere in the shadows, three more photographers waited on the sidewall. In a row of seats far ahead of her sat the gentlemen of the press. She knew they were there. She could hear them gossiping.
FLASH! Rhema became blind for three seconds.
“Your Highness,” a man’s voice on her right pressed through her ears. She squinted in the general direction of the voice, trying to see him around the swiftly fading green blob of light. “What was your impression of the Spring theatrical season?”
For a moment, Rhema wondered who this “Your Highness” was to whom the voice spoke.
“The Spring theatrical season, you say?” She answered the darkness. “As you are well aware, the prince and I did not return soon enough from our extended honeymoon to experience it in full, but I anticipate attending the Summer season. It is one of the many things I look forward to now that I am home in Iderburg.”
“We are going to try another one, Princess van Sever,” said the photographer.
“Very well,” said Rhema, after a brief, frightening moment when she didn't know who 'Princess van Sever' was. Her eyes only just adjusted from the first picture, she blanked her expression. No smiling. No frowning. No scratching of the nose. FLASH!
“Thank you, Your Highness. It has been a privilege.” The fuzzy blob next to the camera bowed.
She stood – finally she could stand! – and extended her hand in the direction of the fuzzy blob. The photographer kissed her fingers.
“I am grateful for your kind support,” said Rhema. The photographer gathered together his equipment.
“Princess,” shouted an eager young newspaperman from the front row. “How long do you think it will be before we can expect to hear of the arrival of a young Van Sever?”
Rhema blushed. “These things are best left to God and nature sir, but it is to be hoped soon.”
This response set pencils to scratching and tongues to whispering. They then bombarded her with a series of inane questions such as:
“What is your opinion of modern fashion?”
“Who designed your dress?”
“How is life different between being a princess and being a baroness?”
She answered each question to the best of her abilities, and her answers appeared to satisfy them. That nobody asked any questions of real relevance both relieved and annoyed her.
Do they think I am nothing but a doll? Do they not care about my beliefs?
At last, tired, hungry, and half-blind, Rhema found a break from the questions, and most of the questioners moved on. Most, except one very short old man with round spectacles who stood in the back of the room. The mediator pointed at him.
“Mr. Hartness, ma’am. Wenderry Chronicle,” said the old man.
“Proceed.” Rhema flicked her hand in recognition. Here was someone who, rest assured, would give her nothing but favorable reviews.
“Your Highness,” said Mr. Hartness. “I am of the understanding that you are Freesian-born. Correct?”
“Indeed, sir. That is correct.”
“I am also of the understanding, ma’am, that your family left Freesia under questionable circumstances.”
“You are not wrong, sir.” A pixie warning flickered in Rhema’s stomach. Questionable?
“Can you clarify the circumstances of this change of residence?”
“I was young, sir. I cannot. I must again express that I have long considered Gallia my true home.”
“I do not doubt your sincerity, Princess. Indeed, I do not. As to your ignorance on the matter of your family’s transferal, I am in the possession of information which may be of interest to both you and the public.”
The fellow press members, who had fallen into an inattentive stupor, like vultures who had finished picking their meal to the bone and were ready for a nap, sat up. Some of them retrieved their notebooks from their bags, which they had already put away.
“Shall we continue?” the mediator of proceedings said to Rhema quietly. Her advisers tried to signal to her, but she looked only at Mr. Hartness.
“It may surprise Your Highness to learn that your father, the Lord Joseph de Frees, was banished from the country of Freesia under suspicion of treason for his indirect involvement in the assassination of the late King Gervais of Freesia. Would you like to comment?” Mr. Hartness’s beady eyes glimmered at her like an owl surveying its prey.
“Assassination?” said Rhema. The bluebird flew into her window pane. Her tongue went slack.
“No more questions for today. Her Highness must rest. Thank you. You are dismissed,” said her suddenly attentive mediator. On his signal, a host of valets herded her out the back door to the nearest changing room.
“Is that it?” Rhema said. She stopped before they pushed her through the door. “Someone is spreading lies about my father. Why am I not addressing it?”
“Because the only thing you should be addressing is your outfit.” Something about Mrs. Delannoy’s voice had the constant effect of striking fear and silence into Rhema. A hat holding aloft an entire stuffed bird floated its way into Rhema’s face. Under the hat was Mrs. Delannoy, who shoved a new garment of equal formality, but different color, into Rhema’s arms.
“Your Highness,” said Mrs. Delannoy. The hat bobbed. “I am to offer you my services as personal secretary.”
“I am not in need of a secretary,” said Rhema to the bird hat.
The door slammed shut.
“Believe me, my dear, you very much are. I may even be a moment too late, based on what I heard in there.”
“Do you not have a school under your care?”
“All is well in hand. My ladies are well disciplined. No, I believe I will be a better service to my country right here, by your side.”
There had been a time, and that time was brief, when Rhema believed that after she became a princess she would have more choices, not less. Swallowing, she reminded herself that she had the love of Bastion, and that was all that mattered.
“Very well then. I suppose a secretary would be helpful. Thank you,” said Rhema. “Perhaps you can assist me. There is a man out there slandering my father—“
“Yes, yes. The Freesian matter. It is old news and will pass in time. You can know things are going well when the papers have nothing to gossip about except matters that happened over a decade ago. Come now. You must change quickly, Your Highness. There is only so much time in a day, and you have another portrait session with His Highness.”
Finally! Since their honeymoon, she hardly ever saw Bastion by the light of day. He managed to be invisible still, even in marriage. But she would be with him again and, somehow, that would make everything better.
As for this matter with her father, something would need to be done. If only she knew what!