He gave a covert glance at Mirelle. She sat with her hands folded atop each other in her lap as she looked out the coach window. One would think she had always been a lady, as calmly as she sat.
Ronan suspected that her tranquility belied her. He believed that inside, she was bubbling with anxiety. Enough that she had been taken from Luvian and Ruthie, South Fairview, and The Brew House and Tavern she had called home her entire life. But to find that the King and Queen of Romeny were her true parents? Ronan couldn’t imagine anything more severe.
But in two months, Mirelle had transformed completely. A new girl, a Princess now sat before him, dressed in full Court attire, a pale blue gown of lace and silk, trimmed with cream and cloth of gold. Her golden hair was piled atop her head, ornamented with hair combs. Two golden ringlets hung gently around her neck.
And those Romeny blue eyes that hid her true feelings stared out the window.
Ronan remembered her first week at Emberly. He was leaving his chambers for a late-night snack one evening when, down the hall at the Ladies Quarters, he spied several maids rushing away from what would only be Ellia’s chambers.
He had stridden over to her chambers and knocked. The maid outside was horrified. Ronan had asked, “What’s wrong with her?”
She had whispered, “The lady has been crying, most every night. We bring her warmed milk, sugared with honey, and mulled cider, to help her sleep at night.”
“I’m a friend. I should be able to help.” Again, the maid was horrified at a man’s presence outside a lady’s quarters.
He placed his hands in the hair. “I’m only going in to speak with her, relax. Please leave us.”
The maid curtsied and left.
Ronan knocked at the door again. “Ellia, it’s me. Open the door.”
Ellia came to the door, her face red and wet with tears. “Ronan! What are you doing here! It’s not fitting! Go away before someone sees you!” she hissed.
“Ellia, let me in,” he told her and placed his boot in the door. “I’m not going away.”
“Ronan, it’s not right! Go away!” Ellia stuck her head out of the door and looked down both sides of the corridor.
“Ellia, let me in, it’s all right.” And Ronan pushed the door open gently. “It’s easier than me standing in the hall begging.”
She stood in her night dress and robe, her hair let down in waves, her face blotchy and wet.
“What’s wrong? Why are you crying?” Ronan asked, though he suspected he knew.
Ellia’s lips quivered and her eyes filled up. She sniffled. Ronan handed her his handkerchief.
“Come on, you can tell me.”
“It’s – it’s this –” and Ellia swirled her arm all about her at the chamber. “It’s you, it’s me now, it’s, it’s everything.”
Ronan’s heart went out to the girl, for then she started crying again. “Oh, Ellia.” He knew it was wrong to hug a lady.
“Come, come here.” And he pulled her down against her bed, for he certainly wouldn’t be found atop the bed should a maid walk in. He would never stain her reputation before she ever entered the highest of society, whether Lady Elenorina trusted these maids or not.
Ronan held his arm about her shoulder. “Just – just forget it, all right, now? Just think of yourself as Ellia, and me as Ronnie right now. And just cry, let it out, girl.”
Ellia looked up at him with her blue eyes and then leaned on his shoulder and cried herself out. Occasionally, he said useless things such as, “There, there” and “You’ll be all right,” but she wasn’t listening.
Finally, as a storm blows past, Ellia sniffled a few times and the last of her tears rolled down her cheeks. She looked up at Ronan, then down at his surcoat. “I’m sorry,” she whispered as she tried to dab at it, for its green woolen shoulder was wet clear through.
At a weak attempt at humor, he smiled a little. “I have others.” He stood up. “Now, let’s see about putting you to bed, shall we?” And she took hold of his outstretched arm. Ronan lifted her up and placed her in her bed. She stared at him as he pulled her covers up. “You get some sleep, now, you know she’ll have you busy tomorrow.”
Ellia had nodded and Ronan left. A maid carrying a tray of milk saw him leave.
“Shh,” Ronan said. “I’ve just put her to sleep.” The maid’s eyes grew wide but she saw Ronan’s wet, tear-stained shoulder and nodded. She curtsied and told him “Yes, my lord,” before she turned to leave.
The next morning, Ronan was summoned for a private meaning with the Lady of Emberly. He was not surprised.
“Ronan,” she’d greeted him. “Tea? Fruit juice?” she’d offered him from her breakfast table.
“Thank you, no, I’ve already eaten.”
She nodded. “I admire early-risers. They get their days started soon, with the sun, before anyone else is about to pester them. A nice, peaceful, quiet time.”
The Duchess of Emberly poured fruit juice into her tea cup. She really knew how to draw out the suspense of a moment. Finally, she looked up at him. “I understand you went visiting last night, young Ronan.” She sat back against her cushioned chair, holding her tea cup with both hands as she studied him with those implacable gray eyes.
Ronan had had the feeling she would find out. “I did. The Lady Ellia was in need of consolation, and I am a familiar face. She was crying, my lady. I only gave her a shoulder to cry on.”
The Lady of Emberly took a tiny sip from her tea cup and lifted her eyes back up to Ronan again. “Ronan, child, I understand how true your intentions were. But you were seen by two maids of mine. As fortune would have it, they are faithful to me only, and so will not repeat such a story. But imagine if they were to.
“However honest and true your intentions, and however kind a friend you are, I must ask you never to do so again. You must remember that she is, whether she wants to be or not, a Royal Princess. And you are both a Crown officer of Romeny and a Crown Prince of Ghiverny. I expect you to act as such at all times. Her reputation must not be stained in the least, ever.
“I’m sure you understand me, Ronan.”
And Lady Elenorina bowed her head and looked down her nose at Ronan, implying a suggestion that Ronan understood only too well.
He’d seethed at the implication but understood an elder’s need to remind him of it.
And then spent the most boring two months of his life there. Shooting pheasants, practicing swordplay, a bit of hunting on occasion. Ronan was responsible for teaching Ellia her horsemanship, which had turned her into a fair horsewoman, so long as she never went on a hunt. That was probably the most interesting time he’d spent there.
But now. Kimbur and Lady Elenorina had worked out a plan with him. Should at any time Mirelle be in some sort of danger, Ronan was to take her immediately and covertly back to Emberly. He’d balked at that initially. For that was treason, stealing a King’s daughter, that was kidnapping, and Ronan liked his neck attached to his body, and he also wanted to live the rest of his life freely, not in a dungeon. He suspected no amount of bargaining between King Rhutgard and his own father in Ghiverny would make up for kidnapping a royal daughter.
But the Lady of Emberly consoled him by telling him the King expected her to keep Mirelle safe at any cost, and she would intervene. After all, Mirelle would be safe at Emberly, as opposed to anywhere in the Palace. The entire reason for all of this was to protect the Royal bloodline, after all – daughters carried the bloodline truest, she reminded Ronan, and how could Mirelle do that from the Palace if some plot arose to harm her or worse?
So, unbeknownst to Mirelle, and indeed, her royal parents, a plan was ready to steal her off to Emberly if necessary.
Abruptly, Mirelle took in a deep breath and stared at a place inside the coach between Ronan and Kimbur. At the same time, the bumble of cobblestones they had been traveling on suddenly stopped and the horses started on a smooth pavement.
They had arrived at Fairview Palace.
Ronan stepped forward. He saw his uncle, somehow related, he knew, and his aunt, King Rhutgard and Queen Principea standing on the landing of gleaming landing of a back staircase.
Ronan knew this castle almost as well as he knew some of his own, for he’d spent so much of his time with his cousins, Keldrick and Kendrick here. He didn’t recall this back staircase, but he enjoyed returning to what was a second home for him. Its highly glossed marble and gold trim, beautiful ornamented candelabras, all were welcome sights.
Ronan strode forward.
“Your Majesty Rhutgard, Your Majesty Principea.” He bowed very low.
“Ah, Ronan,” called Rhutgard. “You look more like your father each time I see you.”
Ronan had only a glance at them but saw that age had treated them both kindly over the last few years.
Ronan bowed again for the courtesy. Then he called, “Your Majesties, I have the pleasure of introducing your royal daughter, Her Highness, Princess Mirelle Ginnessa Rochilda Firthing.” Then he stepped back and held out an arm for Mirelle to move forward.
Ronan saw Rhutgard and Principea grin. Principea grabbed his arm and they laced hands.
Mirelle stepped forward daintily, her eyes staring up at her royal parents.
“Your Majesty. Your Majesty.”
Then Mirelle dipped into a flawless curtsy before them.
Mirelle had met her parents.