“ONCE UPON A TIME there was born a little girl, in a palace. A princess. At one day old, she was declared a beauty and, at one month old, was introduced to her handsome fiance.
’In those days, Eaeyndale was in an ongoing battle for the territory between the river behind the forest, and the neighbouring town. Of course, the only way to settle this was to join the two little countries, or tribes, into one through marriage. And who better to marry, than a handsome two-year-old prince and a beautiful one-week-old princess?
‘Of course, they didn’t marry right then. But Eaeyndale and its neighbour, Laen, enjoyed several years of peace leading up to the princess’ sixteenth year.
’When she’d been born, the treaty had said the marriage should take place when the princess was fifteen. But her parents thought her too young as she reached the established age, and the prince had not been ready to settle down. No. He was still young, and free, and wild, proving his strength through daring escapades and acts of rebellion. He was not a pleasant young man to raise, but he was wildly popular with the female population of both countries, even as he stayed honourably true to the fiancee he’s never met.
‘The princess, however, had not met him since they were young. She had grown up in her palace, studying history and learning the varying countries’ customs. She had taught herself how to speak different languages by reading and writing, had experimented with the breeding of new roses and crops, and had roamed the forest surrounding her palace with her horse, finding freedom in among the trees.
’But the day came when the two met, albeit accidentally. The princess was riding, clad in a beautiful, but simple, white gown, more resembling that of the common folk than of royalty. She had decided against bringing a guard and had set her tiara aside. She was here to forget her duties for a second and to enjoy creation around her.
’The prince had no such motives. He had deliberately wandered into the forest surrounding his fiancee’s palace, intent on doing some mischief. He had decided against bringing his best friend and had foregone his sword, but tied to his back was a pack of supplies. Just as he crept among the trees of the forest, stumbling onto a well-worn path, something hard knocked into him and sent him sprawling to the ground.
’The princess was only confused as her horse bucked suddenly, throwing her backwards, and then prancing in nervousness along the path, turning in tight circles. She recognised this as the habit he had when he was frightened, but he wanted to stay with her.
’A groan made her look away from her horse, to a boy lying near her. He was getting up onto his feet, slowly and painfully. He took one step, limping, and then sunk back down to the ground with a curse.
’The princess stumbled upright and over to him. She knew he was a good-looking boy, but she sincerely hoped he was not conceited or prone to lashing out. That might make for a bad situation.
’“Are you well?” She asked, crouching next to him, still concerned about his welfare. “My horse saw you too late and I didn’t see you at all.”
’The prince looked up at her, struck by her beauty. She was not the usual pretty of the girls he knew, but rather a striking lass who would stand out in any crowd. Not just because of her flaming red hair, coiled into tight curls, but also because of her delicate features and petite form.
‘He shook himself free of his thoughts, remembering the ring on an unknown princess’ finger. Instead, the prince glared at the lass. “I am not well. Your horse had fairly trampled my one foot and I’m sure I have bruised ribs.”
’She had the audacity to roll her eyes at him. “I think you are well enough to survive.” She stood up, gave him a nod, and then walked over to her horse, calming him.
’He groaned. “I will die if you leave me alone, unable to walk.”
’The princess glanced back at him, wondering if he was speaking in jest, or if he was really unable to walk. He sat there, crouched over one foot, inspecting it. It was already bruised and swollen.
’The princess sighed. “I know of a cabin near here, where I can leave you with supplies. I’ll even send a healer if you would like?”
’He looked up at her and then stood up again, testing out his bare foot. “I think I’ll be okay if I travel slow. But thank you.”
’She smiled. “You’re welcome. But what were you doing here?”
’“I was on my way to Eaeyndale,” the prince replied, not able to admit his real reasons. Besides, he was on his way to Eaeyndale, just not officially.
’“Ah,” the princess replied. “We could walk together?” She knew she needed to get back to her palace, but she had an irrational desire to know more about the stranger.
’He looked at her for a second and then nodded. “Of course.”
‘They set off at a relative pace, the prince limping and the princess leading her horse. Neither knew who the other was, but the princess felt guilty about the boy’s injury, and the prince knew he might need the lass’ assistance if his foot gave way.
’But his foot stayed strong... and the weather decided to give way instead. Rain, true Eaeyndale rain, poured from the sky, beating down on them. The rain was goaded on by the wind with force, while trees swayed and branches groaned. Animals skittered by nervously, as the weather had not only changed abruptly but maliciously as well.
’The princess knew the cabin would be closer and changed their course towards it. By the time they arrived, they were both soaked through and shivering.
’The prince entered the cabin upon arrival, removing his soaked boots and placing them next to the door. He knew the lass was out, tending to her horse, so he gathered some dry wood that had been stacked inside the cabin, and placed it in the fireplace. He deftly started a fire, satisfied as the flames ate the wood.
’The princess darted inside the warm cabin, relief flooding her as the heat of the fire warmed her skin. She retrieved two blankets from a shelf and carried it towards the fire, seating herself on the fur hide opposite the boy. He thanked her as he took the blanket, and they both basked in the silence and warmth, listening to the rainfall.
’“Are you married?”
‘The abrupt question broke the silence, startling both the prince and the princess. The prince hadn’t meant to speak so bluntly, but he’d noticed the ring on the lass’ finger, and he didn’t want to risk the reputations of them both. It was problematic if they weren’t married, but it would be scandalous if she was.
’“Oh, no!” The princess exclaimed with a laugh. “I am betrothed, but I have never met him.” She smiled, shrugging slightly.
’Of course, the prince could relate, but he said nothing of his own predicament. He inwardly sighed in relief of not having to leave for propriety’s sake.
’“Do you think...” the lass trailed off, avoiding the eyes of the prince. “I’ve heard he is handsome, but what if we don’t like each other?”
’The prince turned to look at the fire, finally thinking of his own position. “I don’t think it is right to marry based on what you feel towards one another. In twenty years, those feelings may just as well change. Then where would you be?”
’The princess narrowed her eyes in thought. “But how do you choose to marry him? Or her, in your case.” She added on, shrugging slightly. The lass looked embarrassed, but the prince understood.
’He rubbed his neck. “I didn’t choose my own fiance, either. But I trust the judgement of my parents, and I know that if I choose to love her, I will. It will come in time. I just hope she will make the same commitment.”
’The princess sat in thought, listening as he spoke. She agreed with what he said, but still, she doubted- if you didn’t like their looks, then what?
‘The prince read the lass’ thoughts as they flickered across her face- agreement and disgust. He decided to add; “Thinking them attractive is a part of it, I think. You can’t marry someone you think look blasted ugly. That would be an uncomfortable situation.”
’They both chuckled, settling into a comfortable silence yet again. The flames crackled joyfully. The rain beat against the windows with a mighty force. It was cosy and warm, blissfully silent until the prince spoke again.
’“Wait. Can I see your ring?” He had noticed it, in the beginning, finding it familiar. But he’d been too worried about their predicament to care about trivial details, such as identifying a ring. Now, however, he couldn’t shake the feeling he had seen it before.
’The princess pushed aside her slight confusion as she nodded and offered her hand. “My betrothed picked it for me, even if we’d never met before.” She smiled slightly. “If we judge by his choice, I think I will find him delightful. But he might have asked someone to pick for him, so you can’t say for sure.”
’The princess was baffled by the boy’s reaction to the ring. He stared at it as if he’d seen a ghost, still lightly holding her hand.
’“What?” She asked, taking her hand back and looking at her ring. It looked like it always did- a simply designed band with a green gem, set in silver. “Is something wrong?”
’“You’re the princess of Eayerandale?” asked the boy, focusing on her face. He’d been staring vacantly, but now he seemed alert. “Why didn’t you say so?”
’“B-because I don’t know who you are!” She responded, feeling a little anxious as to why he cared. “Why do you need to know?”
’“Because I’m your betrothed?” He asked, eyes wide. He groaned slightly as he shifted his position, looking at the flames again. “The prince of your neighbour. The other half of the treaty. The little boy who pulled on your red braid when we were barely walking.”
’“W-what?” stammered the princess, feeling slightly lost in this barrage of information. “Are you... this is...” She couldn’t find the right words. “Not many people know of... that is, you couldn’t be lying, unless-”
’“I’m not lying,” he responded promptly, standing up. “And we need to leave the confines of this cabin, lest they think-”
’The cabin’s door burst open, wind entering with force into the cabin. The flames leapt in response and the prince crouched into a defensive position.
’”Princess!" Came the cry, laced with shock and judgement. “How could you spend your time alone with a stranger! In a cabin! Alone!"
’They were escorted to the palace and thoroughly drilled on all matters of propriety and social conduct. They were also married within a fortnight, promising to love one another for eternity and both agreeing to the commitment. But, as it turned out, it wasn’t a hard promise to fulfil.”
MYRTLE FINISHED HER TALE, watching Lilly-Ann’s face in amusement.
“But how did she become Ceana, the Keeper of Beauty?” asked Lilly-Ann, frowning at her companion. She had enjoyed the legend thus far, even if it was a chance meeting like many others.
Myrtle shrugged. “Life happened, Lilly-Ann. The prince and princess lost their first child. The prince passed away due to an illness before they could have their second, and Ceana almost died from grief. Then Athena came to her-”
“Athena?” asks Lilly-Ann, interrupting Myrtle. “The Grecian goddess?”
Myrtle froze slightly and then waved a hand. “No, no. A different one. Anyway,” she shifts slightly. “Ceana is told that she has to learn the meaning of true beauty or become a teacher of it. No one was ever told why she was chosen, but that she was. Many believe it was because of her own story, but that seems a little odd.”
Lilly-Ann nodded. “Her story was quite straightforward. I wonder what she’s done to mine.”
“Let’s hope you find out soon, dear.”