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[16] The Lily Garden

The meeting day comes much too quickly. Even though it feels like she's dwelling on the worries every second she's awake, hardly any time appears to pass before Elaine's decision is on her shoulders and waiting.

She has a choice.

Nikola wants to see her. The prince wants to see her. But obeying his wishes and making that possible involves sneaking away from her job to meet him in the gardens, where she'd never normally be allowed. Elaine has never done anything of the sort before, and she's terrified. At the same time that she can't bear to say no to Nikola, how could she ever sneak away?

After deliberating over it for three whole days, she's no closer to making a choice. Either way, she'll be suffering somehow. And it all depends on if she gets caught.

But the morning of the meeting arrives, and Elaine's heart seems to have made the choice before she ever could.

That day, she's assigned once again to scrubbing out pots by the waterway. That... makes things easier. There aren't many people around that area, so no one will be there to pay attention. to what she's doing. Elaine gets up earlier than she ever has, skips breakfast, and bolts down to the waterway before the sun is even up in the sky. From there, she gets to work with a passion she's never before had. Even if she sneaks away today, her work will still need to be done to cover for it.

By the time the pots are done, it's almost the time of morning where she and Nikola were supposed to meet. Elaine, shaking, hides the clean pots nearby, then makes a decision that she has an awful feeling will come back to bite her.

She runs away from her job.

From there, it's a lot of scurrying through the castle and trying to find how to get out to the gardens.

There are a lot of places Elaine has never been, and she's traversing through many of them right now. The richer decoration and clear status of the areas make her even more nervous, especially when she thinks of what'll happen if she gets caught. Oh, she'd be in so much trouble...

Just say she's on an errand. If someone asks what she's doing, make up a name and say that that person sent her on an errand. That's all she'd need to get ignored.

And... she has a bad feeling. No matter how much she thinks of ways that she could get out of trouble (even that Nikola would protect her), Elaine can't shake the sinking feeling that something awful is about to happen. She doesn't know what to do. Disobeying Nikola's wishes would be bad, but could what's coming be worse? There seems to be no going back now, though, and Elaine has no choice but to work with what she's done.

Eventually, she makes it to the gardens. Elaine is... terrified. To put it simply, she's terrified of what could go wrong.

Even so, when she steps out into the endless flowers and perfectly arranged plants, it takes her breath away. Is this what the higher-ups get to see every day?

Jealousy surges in Elaine's chest; the familiar feeling of knowing that this is what she'll never have. Nikola's life and hers are separate, no matter how much she wishes otherwise. She just has to live with the fact that she'll never have this, and that she'll never have the part that she wants more than anything else.

Soon, she sees him. Nikola is resting on a bench, leaned back, his legs crossed at the ankles and stretches out in front of him, and his eyes closed as he looks up at the sky. Once again, it strikes her how beautiful he is. Maybe it's just because of her feelings for him, but Elaine can never ignore Nikola's softness and charm. Every part of him looks gentle, and even though she knows he's much more than that, she still can't help but see it. He's been gentle with her, at the very least.

So she approaches him. Elaine moves to stand in front of the prince, then clears her throat lightly.

Nikola's eyes open. For a moment, he's merely drowsy and a little bit confused... then he realizes who it is that's standing in front of him— and his whole face lights up.

"Elaine!" he shouts, jumping to his feet.

The next thing she knows, Nikola is pulling her into a hug.

Elaine can't help but squeak. This is the exact opposite of proper, but Nikola's arms around her feel so good. No one's hugged her since she was a child, and for him of all people to break that streak is a blessing in a way she can't put into words.

Even so, she can't bring herself to hug back, and Nikola lets go of her much too soon.

"I'm so happy you're here," Nikola says. "I almost thought you wouldn't be able to make it, but you did! You came to see me. I'm really happy that you were brave enough to try."

Even though what Nikola's saying isn't exactly the truth, Elaine can't help but be spellbound. People are never that happy to see her. She's just an easily forgettable servant who no one thinks twice about. Having anyone, especially someone like Nikola, caring so much that she even showed up does things to Elaine's heart that she's having trouble keeping contained.

He doesn't think of her that way, does he? Could he? Even if it was an option, would it be possible for feelings like those to lie in Nikola's heart as well? Just thinking about it makes Elaine nervous, so she pushes the thoughts aside. Right now, she wants to think of Nikola and nothing else.

"I tried my best! I-I'm worried that I'll get in trouble, but I snuck away! It's... I'm glad that you're happy." She tries to smile, but it doesn't quite seem to work.

"And I'm grateful," he says. "Thank you."

From there, the two talk for a while, Elaine settles on the bench next to Nikola, and they let the conversation wander. It's small-talk for now, but that's just fine with her. Hearing Nikola's voice sets her nerves at ease and makes this whole scare feel worth it. It's hard to think about fear when Nikola is right there.

Eventually, Nikola suggests that they get up and walk around the gardens a bit. Elaine might like to see the flowers, right? Shyly, she agrees. The idea of walking around the royal gardens like she actually belongs there is intimidating, but just the same, Elaine doesn't want to pass up a chance to even pretend like this could be meant for her. It's Nikola's invitation, so she can let herself think that she's wanted, right?

So they stand and find a path that looks appealing. Nikola guides her through the gardens, past flowers of all colors and shapes, until they're on a walkway surrounded on both sides by white lilies.

"They're so pretty..." Elaine lets her fingers brush one bloom.

"Do you like lilies?"

"Maybe? I don't think I've seen any this close before," Elaine admits. She feels stupid, but at least it's the truth.

"They have a nice meaning," Nikola tells her, stepping around to touch a flower as well. "Innocence. Commitment. Beauty. Purity. They're nice flowers for girls, but I think they're lovely too."

Elaine stares at the flower for a moment or two. Her fingers brush the petals, and she sighs. Just being here feels wrong, but again, Nikola is treating her like she belongs right by his side. Even though she's a pitiful servant who's never so much as seen flowers (beyond the wild ones that grow near the servants' buildings) up close, he's explaining it all to her patiently.

"That is lovely," she says, trying to ignore that pressing feeling of nervousness and self-hate. "I like them."

They keep walking, from there. Elaine follows Nikola and spares a quick glance back at the lilies. Nikola seemed to think nicely of the flowers... maybe he feels something similar for her. It's a daydream of a thought, but Elaine thinks that she'd like to be as admired as a flower. As one of those.

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