Working Title: How Far
Characters: Natalia, Guy, Anise, Tear, Luke, Peony, Jade, Merton, etc etc
Part 8 of ?
All of them went to the dock to see Guy off the next morning. After a series of good-byes and see-yous, and extricating himself from Anise’s clinging limbs, he pulled Natalia aside for a quieter, more private farewell.
“So, I’ll be back in eight weeks,” he said, and she nodded. “I hate to leave you to organize everything yourself.”
This time she shook her head. “I have plenty of staff to assist me. As it is, most of the planning will be based on tradition and thus out of my hands. I’ll only be needed for endless dress fittings, which would have nothing to do with you, anyway.”
“I don’t know,” he mused, eyebrows raised. “I’d kinda like to watch that.”
She rolled her eyes even as she blushed a most becoming shade of pink. “Go do what you need to do. I’ll keep you informed as need be.”
“Or not as needed. Write to me just to say hi.”
A little smile played at her lips, and he noticed her move just a bit closer. “I will.” And closer still. “As you send your things, would you like them unpacked?”
“Why should your staff have all the fun?” he asked. “Merton will pack meticulously, and I’m sure no one will unpack to his satisfaction.”
“I’ll leave it for him, then.”
“Good.” They were lingering, it was obvious, discussing things that had already been discussed to avoid this last moment. Her hazel eyes held his, waiting for something. The space between them grew smaller, but he couldn’t take that last step with everyone watching, no matter how much he wanted to, how much he’d been thinking about it. “Anything else?”
“Kiss her!” Anise called.
Natalia giggled, the pink still in her cheeks, but the request in her eyes didn’t change. Why did everyone have to be watching?
He brought her hand to his mouth and ever so lightly brushed her knuckles with his lips.
“Boo!” Anise jeered.
“Lame!” Luke added, pointing a thumb downward.
“This isn’t a pantomime, you guys.” Natalia continued giggling, and Anise and Luke continued gawking. Only Tear seemed to have any sense of discretion, focusing her attention on two dockhands stacking crates nearby. With the weariest of sighs, Guy said, “Fine, but turn around.”
Of course they didn’t listen.
“Turn around!” Natalia commanded. When she was in full princess mode, no one would dare disobey. Even the dockhands stopped what they were doing to comply.
“Wow, you’re going to have to teach me how to do that,” he told her, eliminating the space between them at last.
“It’s all part of the job.”
Her lips were softer and sweeter than he’d remembered, which should have been impossible. Her fingers brushed over his cheek just as they’d done before, like it was a natural instinct to keep his face close to hers. His arm wrapped around her waist as he opened his mouth to run his tongue along the seam of her lips, and one of them shivered. When she took his lower lip between her teeth and gently sucked it like a cocktail cherry, he realized he was the one shivering.
Kissing her was almost like being drunk, making him light-headed. Everything was fuzzy around the edges, sounds muted by the blood pounding in his ears, but the one clear thing was how good she made him feel.
Had the shrill ferry whistle not sounded to call for boarding, he might not have stopped, despite their curious audience. “Aren’t we supposed to hear bells?” he murmured.
She shook with silent laughter against him before she pulled away, trying to appear composed instead of giddy. She even straightened his lapels like a mother sending her son off to school. “Have a safe trip.”
When Luke found out the girls wanted to talk about wedding things, he quickly excused himself to go spend time with his parents. Natalia couldn’t blame him. He was outnumbered three to one, and the last thing Luke would be interested in was dresses.
Anise, however, couldn’t wait to visit the royal seamstress and look at dress designs. She stood proudly on the dais in front of the mirrored wall, having her measurements taken. Everyone might treat her as a child still, and she’d been the latest of late bloomers, but she had the curves to prove she’d finally grown up.
“You were wrong, by the way,” Natalia said to Tear as they sipped champagne and laughed at Anise’s posing.
“Luke did thank me, in his own Luke way, of course.” After last night’s dinner, Luke had mumbled something about her letting him off the hook and hoping she’d be happy. Natalia had been so touched that she gave him a loud buss on the cheek, and more touched when he didn’t immediately wipe it off like he used to when they were children. “And I should be thanking you. You’ve been good for him.”
Tear looked down modestly, feigning serious interest in one of the sketches. “Maybe. Maybe he’s just grown up.”
“Haven’t we all.” Then she made the mistake of looking at Anise again. “Oh, Anise, no.”
Anise was admiring herself in the mirror, wearing only her underthings, a black sable stole around her shoulders, and a jauntily askew tiara. “What? This could work.” She straightened the tiara and tried again, striking what she was convinced was a sultry pose. “We have to wear tiaras. I want to be a princess, too.”
“Hmm, we’ll see.” Until Natalia had chosen dresses for her two attendants, she couldn’t choose accessories. She looked at the sketch Tear had been studying. “That one’s lovely. What do you think?”
“I like it.” It was modest enough that Tear wouldn’t feel conspicuous, but still Natalia was sure it would make Luke’s eyes pop right out of his head. “In red?”
“Yes, probably a burgundy shade.”
“I have your numbers, miss,” the seamstress said to Anise—who was reluctant to give up her time in the spotlight—before turning to Tear. “Now I’ll need yours, miss.”
“Um, shouldn’t Her Highness go next?”
“My measurements haven’t changed since last time, surely,” Natalia said, but she knew Tear would be embarrassed to have her generous proportions examined so closely. Perhaps she’d be more comfortable if they all did this, a sort of female-bonding ritual. “But just in case, let’s have a look, Louise.” After some help with her dress, Natalia stood on the platform just as Anise had, with just her underthings and stockings for cover. This was not a new experience for her, as she was often in need of special gowns for various functions, but it was important that this dress be perfect. It would be memorialized in the brushstrokes of oil paint forever, hanging next to her parents’ wedding portrait in the gallery.
“If I may show you my idea, Your Highness,” Louise began, and Natalia nodded. She always trusted Louise’s instincts. Along with being an expert seamstress, Louise came up with the most beautiful designs, and her gowns always flattered Natalia’s best features.
Louise returned with a sketch and a bolt of intricate antique lace. “I’ve been saving this for just such a day,” she said. Unwinding a bit of the lace, she tucked it under Natalia’s arms, pulled it just above her bust, and wrapped a section around her upper arm. “The bodice would be trimmed with the lace here, extending to the sleeves, while leaving your shoulders bare. The main body of the gown would be a simple white silk with an A-line silhouette, and the hem and train would be trimmed with a beaded, scalloped detail. The lace veil would drape from your tiara, like so.” Unwrapping everything, she then held the lace to the back of Natalia’s head and let it puddle on the floor to approximate the effect.
“That’d be gorgeous,” Anise said, and Tear agreed. “Boo, I want to get married.”
“You just want the dress and the attention,” Tear replied.
“So, what’s wrong with that?” Anise took a big gulp of champagne, indulging in adult activity as the occasion warranted. “You’ll be a duchess one day, Natalia will be queen… I’m going to have to marry the emperor to compete with either one of you.” Her brown eyes nearly glittered with gold at this thought, and she grinned. “Yeah, that’s what I’ll do.”
“Isn’t he rather old for you?” Natalia said. Though she was listening to the conversation, she couldn’t stop looking at herself in the mirror, picturing the completed gown and wondering what Guy would think.
“The older he gets, the younger a wife he’ll need,” Anise said.
“You know, Anise, you can’t be both the Fon Master and the empress,” Tear reminded her.
“Should such an unholy union come about, I don’t know who I’d feel more sorry for,” Natalia said, only half-kidding.
“Save your pity for the rest of us,” Tear answered.
As expected, the emperor’s main issue with the engagement was not being informed of it sooner. After a bit of pouting, he signed the contract with a grand flourish and called for a messenger to return it to Baticul immediately.
“I can’t believe our little Gailardia is getting married. How quickly you’ve grown up.”
They hadn’t even met until six years ago. “I’m twenty-seven.”
“Really. It seems just yesterday you were—”
“Yes. My, how time flies.” Peony let out a dramatic sigh and rested his chin in his hand. “Getting married before me. I shouldn’t allow that.” As if the emperor didn’t have his pick of women. His single status was a gesture of defiance at this point, while the pressure to marry and produce an heir constantly loomed. “If I weren’t getting something out of it, I wouldn’t. The sacrifices we make for world peace, yes?”
“I appreciate your generosity, Your Majesty.” Guy’s tone was completely serious, and his meaning straddled the line between sarcastic and sincere so perfectly that no one could take offense.
“You’re such a delightful suck-up, Gailardia. I’m going to miss you.” The emperor was also an expert at straddling the line. “As are the many lovely ladies of Grand Chokmah. You’re leaving quite a trail of broken hearts behind.”
More like broken dreams of new money for overextended families. “I’m sure you’ll comfort them better than I ever could, Your Majesty.”
“Bordering on obsequious now. Well, then, when Jade’s back, we’ll have to have a little man-to-man talk with you.” Peony steepled his fingers, and his blue eyes glinted with something that made Guy very nervous. “Yes, that’s exactly what we’ll do. I can’t send the princess a clumsy bridegroom, can I? It’d be a shame to have that beautiful woman in your bed and not know what to do with her. Not to worry, Gailardia; your big brothers will tell you everything you need to know.”
He knew it. He knew he wouldn’t escape punishment for running off to Baticul. “Oh, hell.”
“What was that?”
“Swell. That sounds swell.”
“Yes, I think so, too. All right, run along, now. My little darlings have missed going walkies with you.”
Even engaged to the future queen of Kimlasca-Lanvaldear, Guy was still on rappig duty. Like the line between sarcasm and sincerity, rappig walking was both an honor and a joke. “Oh, hell.”
“You said something, Gailardia?”
“And I as well.”
With the official announcement made, the kingdom began preparing for the celebration. The last royal wedding had been a generation ago, and everyone from the highest levels to farthest outposts was buzzing with excitement, ready for the parties and pageantry that went with such an occasion.
Natalia had been working nonstop for the past three weeks, in part because she was guilty about the time lost while Guy was here, and in part because she had so much to do. She attended hospital board meetings and council sessions while finding time for dress fittings and menu tastings. At night before collapsing in bed, she’d try to write to Guy and let him know how things were progressing.
It was her father who suggested she take a few days to visit her grandmother in Chesedonia. Now she felt guilty all over again for being too preoccupied to think of that herself.
“I’m getting married, Nanny!” she said the second they saw each other.
“I’ve heard, child,” her grandmother replied, wrapping her in a warm embrace. “It’s wonderful news.”
Wonderful was the last word she would have used when this whole process began, but now… yes, it was wonderful. “I’m so sorry I wasn’t able to visit sooner,” Natalia added as they moved to the settee in Astor’s impressive sitting room.
“Nonsense, you’re a busy young woman.” Her grandmother called for tea, then muttered, “Look at me, acting as if I’m the lady of the house.” Most people would excuse her for acting as such when her granddaughter the princess was calling, but it was clear she was embarrassed to be overstepping her place. “Now, tell me all about it,” she continued in normal tones again. “I know it’s someone from Malkuth.”
“Yes, Nanny. Do you remember Guy? Count Gardios? He was….” So difficult to explain. Would she remember that he’d been a servant in Luke’s household for many years? “He’s one of my dearest friends.”
“Ah, that pretty blond boy.”
Natalia giggled at such a description. “Yes, that’s him.”
“Even an old woman like me couldn’t forget such a charmer. Normally I’d tell you to beware the silver-tongued ones, but he seemed a kind, decent young man.”
“He is. We want the same things for our countries. He’ll be a good partner in promoting peace and prosperity for us all.”
“And he’s a good kisser?”
Natalia took a dainty sip from her teacup to distract from her blushing. “Yes, he’s very sweet.”
Her grandmother gave a short nod of approval. “Good. That means he’ll be a good lover.”
“Don’t you think I was young once? I remember sparkling just like you are. Yes, look at you, sparkling just talking about him. He’s very special to you, isn’t he?”
Sparkling. Perhaps she was. She could feel happiness bubbling inside her. She never would have thought it. But then something in her grandmother’s face changed; her tired eyes and creased forehead quickly quelled Natalia’s bubbling. “Is something wrong, Nanny?”
“Oh, no, child,” her grandmother replied, but there was sadness in her voice. “For a moment, you looked so much like my Sylvia when she said she wanted to marry. She simply glowed, bursting with joy and possibilities.”
“Oh.” She hadn’t considered that her news would bring back painful memories for her grandmother, memories of the mother Natalia never knew. Even her very presence must be painful.
“You have the best of your parents, Natalia,” her grandmother continued. “You have your father’s courage and strength, and you have your mother’s pure, loving heart. Knowing that they live on through you…. I have often regretted what I did, but when I see you, and see how you dedicated you are to your people… I hope you know how very proud I am.”
“Thank you, Nanny.” She hugged her grandmother tightly, feeling tears stinging at her eyes. There was so much in her life she had lost, but she would never take for granted what she had been given in return. She had her grandmother, her father the king, Luke, Tear, Anise, and especially Guy. How very grateful she was for all of them.
“Nanny,” she said after a long moment of reflection and remembrance, “will you tell me about my parents’ wedding?”
Her grandmother took her hands, her eyes still wistful and damp but filled with love. “Of course, my child.”
There were a lot of empty bottles around. Guy had lost count of how much they’d had to drink, and somehow it still wasn’t enough.
Jade and the emperor had taken their task as seriously as he might have expected, telling him things he already knew, and then, as the night grew later and the bottles grew emptier, telling him things he never wanted to know. It was like having a sex talk with the world’s most inappropriate uncles.
Not that Guy was allowed to talk.
“Now, this next part is complicated,” Jade said, careful not to slosh any whiskey from his glass while he retrieved a pen. “I believe we’ll need diagrams.”
“Ooh, diagrams, excellent.” Peony clapped his hands and poured another glass for himself. “Pay very close attention, Gailardia.”
Guy lowered his head to the tabletop with a quiet thud and prayed for unconsciousness.
In addition to everything else, Natalia had been spending plenty of time and money shopping. She found wonderful white and yellow linens and tapestries to send to the manor in Grand Chokmah, as well as the right fabrics to bring the prince’s chambers back to life after so many unoccupied years.
Guy had mentioned brown, but she found brown so very boring and uninviting. Who’d want to spend time in a room so colorless, much less sleep there?
In the end she chose some brown and blue paisley, matched with complementary brown and blue stripes. The fabrics were warm and luxurious, silks and cottons, masculine but soft and welcoming. She hoped he’d find this an acceptable compromise, because she was sure the colors suited the rooms—and him—perfectly.
And she tried not to imagine how it would feel to slide beneath the silky striped sheets and curl up next to him. There was no use pretending she wasn’t decorating for her own needs and tastes as much as his, or that she wouldn’t be spending as much time in the room as he would.
Still, the room seemed incomplete, and as Natalia studied her work, she twisted her engagement ring around her finger.
That was it. He’d given her this beautiful ring. She needed to get him a wedding present. She needed to get him something special and personal.
Down in the market stalls, nothing seemed right. Just as she was about to give up, someone bumped into her from behind.
“Your Highness. Good afternoon.”
Natalia felt herself nearly twitch with distaste for the young man standing too close to her. “Good day, Alfred,” she replied, a greeting and valediction both. She was too well-manned to say “piss off, Alfred,” but she certainly thought it.
Alfred Creemore had the appearance of a good-looking man who had been broken down into his component parts and then put back together just a little bit wrong. His eyes were dark and dim, his lips full enough to be sensual if they didn’t curl in such an unattractive snarl, and his black hair was too long and unkempt to be fashionable or even rakish. He was of average height, average build, and dressed in expensive clothes that tried too hard to impress.
Also detracting from any possible attractiveness was his childish, spoiled nature. He was much like Luke used to be, only that was horribly unfair to Luke. Luke had a stubborn streak that Alfred lacked because being contrary required too much effort. Luke grew up, while Alfred probably never would.
“So you’ve chosen to marry someone from Malkuth over your own countryman,” he said without further preamble. He was as subtle as a brick, and about as smart.
“The best decision I ever made. Please excuse me.”
He remained in front of her, blocking her path. “You know, Your Highness, I had a thought.”
“I suppose there’s a first time for everything. I really must be going.”
“It would behoove you to hear it.”
She doubted that. “Very well, Alfred. What is this thought that is so revolutionary that I must hear it this instant?”
If possible, his eyes grew even dimmer. “Oh. I’ve forgotten it.”
She wished he’d forgotten to bother her at all. “I’m sure it just got lonely and wandered off. As should you.” There were limits to how polite and patient she could be.
“Your Highness, good afternoon.”
The only thing worse than being cornered by a Creemore was being cornered by two Creemores. Natalia cursed her luck. “Lady Adele, it’s always something to see you.”
The duchess shared her son’s dark eyes but not his dimness. She knew a barb when she heard one, no matter how dulcet Natalia’s tone. “And it’s always wonderful to see you down here among your people. You seem to truly belong here.”
“That’s very kind of you,” Natalia said, knowing very well it was not intended as such. “I love my people and find inclusion with them to be a great honor.”
“Of course you do, Your Highness. May I offer my congratulations on your engagement?” Every word had a sugary insincerity that set Natalia’s teeth on edge. Were they fooling anyone?
“Thank you. We’re terribly happy.” She must remember to thank Guy every day of her life for not laughing in her face when she proposed to him. He had saved her from these awful people.
“Yes, you do have that glow about you. Or is that a different type of glow?”
“I beg your pardon?”
“No, I must beg yours, Your Highness. It was simply a harmless joke.” Yes, harmless to imply the princess had engaged in improper conduct before marriage. In the space of a few minutes she had been called common and a trollop. “Oh, and what an adorable ring. Is that a sapphire making up for the small diamonds?”
Natalia would not be provoked into making a scene. “I happen to like sapphires.”
“Of course you do,” Lady Adele said again. “They are very pretty, if ordinary.” Another dig at Natalia’s birthright. Every comment complimentary on the surface, but nothing but pure contempt underneath. At least the feeling was mutual.
“Well, it’s the thought that counts,” Natalia replied. “Isn’t that right, Alfred?”
Alfred had stood by silent during the exchange. “Huh?”
“Exactly.” At times she almost felt sorry for Alfred. He was stupid because his parents preferred him that way. He was spoiled and lazy because they made him that way. They might have wished he were more ambitious, but his lack of concern for anything made him biddable, moldable, suggestible. All traits that made him the last person Natalia would ever want for a partner, or even a friend.
And while Natalia felt horrible for thinking this way, she couldn’t help it. What Creemores had done to her, to her father, to Guy’s family… it was unforgivable, but her hands were tied by politics.
“Forgive me for taking up so much of your time, Your Highness,” the duchess said now, taking her son’s arm. “I’ll let you get back to your shopping. Tax-payer money won’t spend itself.” Her haughty laugh was ignorantly out of place. This woman would never comprehend how hard Natalia worked for her people. “We look forward to meeting your count at your birthday celebration.”
Thank goodness Guy would be by her side. She could draw on his strength to help her tolerate their rudeness. “We’ll look forward to it as well,” Natalia answered sweetly, then let out a sigh of exhaustion when they finally left.
As it turned out, she owed them her gratitude. Had they not delayed her in front of this shop, she might never have seen the painting.
With one week to go, Guy had finished his machine and was putting it through its paces before loading it in a crate for Baticul. He took it outside the city for a test run and was well pleased with his success. There were still a few adjustments to be made, but with any luck, he could get the kinks worked out in the next couple of days.
He couldn’t wait to show it to Natalia.
Wheeling it back to the workshop, he had to pass through the gardens. As usual, Pere was tending his flowers and clipping the biggest blossoms for the dining table centerpiece.
“Hey, I’ve been meaning to ask you,” Guy said, leaving his machine near the wall for now, “what sort of flowers do you think we should have in the countess’s suite? Natalia wants something yellow.”
“Yellow.” Pere considered this as seriously as any other matter pertaining to the household. “Sunflowers are always nice, but when I think of the princess, I think of daffodils.”
“Daffodils, huh?” Their bright yellow begged comparisons to her golden hair and the sunniness of her smile. “Yeah, I can see that. Will they be in bloom when we make it back here?”
“I’ll do my best to see that they are.”
“Good. I think she’ll like that. Thanks.” Guy slapped his hands on the back of his work trousers. “Okay, I’m gonna go clean up. See you at dinner.”
“Wait, Gailardia. Will you indulge an old man for a minute?”
“Sure.” He took a seat on the stone bench next to the pink and white camellias, watching the shadows cast by the late afternoon sun. Their garden wasn’t as elaborately designed as that at the palace, but it was one of his favorite spots to relax thanks to Pere’s expert care. Everything was always perfectly groomed, lush and tranquil.
“I know you’ve not needed my guidance for many years now,” Pere began, concentrating on his clippers, “but… well, I’ve known you since you were born, and….” More with the clippers, to the point where Guy didn’t know if he should be concerned or amused. “Well, I couldn’t be prouder of you if you were my own boy.”
“Aw, Pere, don’t go getting sappy on me.” He tried to make light of it, but he felt the same way. For many years, Pere was the only family he’d had, the closest thing he’d had to a father, and he owed Pere his life.
“Maybe it’s too late for this,” Pere continued as he exchanged the clippers for one of the flowers in his basket, “but if you were my son, I wouldn’t want you going into marriage unprepared.” He slowly, carefully, twirled the flower stem between his fingers. “I’ve never told you about, well, the birds and the bees.”
No, this was worse than sappy. Guy leaned his elbows on his knees and put his head in his hands. “Oh, man, not you, too.”
“You see, a woman is like a flower….”
By the end of Pere’s talk, Guy had learned more about botany than he had about sex.
Thank goodness that was over with. No other self-appointed big brothers or surrogate fathers should be trying to tell him any more about his husbandly duties. All he wanted now was a long shower, a hot meal, and some quiet.
“My lord, if I may have a word?”
So close. “Yes, Merton, what is it?”
“You have received yet another letter from Her Highness.”
Natalia had taken his suggestion to write for any reason to heart. He received a letter nearly every third day, and he did his best to answer her right away. It was funny how much he looked forward to hearing from her, and how often he found himself wanting to share even the smallest details of his day with her, to ask her opinion on things, or to amuse her with something he’d read. Before he knew it, he’d have five pages filled and more still to say.
“Thank you. Is that it?”
“No, my lord. If we may speak in private?”
In the library, Guy leaned against the desk and folded his arms. “It’s your meeting,” he told Merton. “Speak.”
“My lord, this is rather… awkward.”
“That’s never stopped you.”
“It’s about Her Highness.”
“Is she sending too much stuff? This will only be our secondary residence, but it’s natural that she’ll want her own furnishings.”
“Of course, my lord. And one never can have enough toile.”
He had to grin at that. The countess’s suite had been covered in more yellow toile than he’d ever seen.
“No, my lord. It’s about… your wedding night.”
The grin vanished, and Guy shut his eyes. “Oh, geez, are you kidding me?” He was twenty-seven years old. Why did everyone think he knew nothing on the subject? Just because he hadn’t been able to touch a woman until a few years ago without going into a complete panic didn’t mean he hadn’t been extremely hormonal throughout his teenage years. He’d used the time to become well acquainted with his own body, and he’d had enough dirty dreams to fill every book in this library. Hell, if Natalia knew the dreams he had about her back then, she might not miss the next time she aimed her bow at him.
“Perhaps it is not my place, but as your father is not here to tell you… certain things, I believe it falls to me to compensate for his absence.”
Over the past few days, Guy had been mortified, he’d been annoyed, and he’d been downright confused. The only option left was to be entertained by Merton’s severe discomfort. That might make one more lecture worth it. “Okay, this I have to hear. Wait one second.” After pouring two fingers of something amber into a crystal tumbler, he settled himself into his favorite leather chair. “I’m ready. Go.”
I might almost ship Peony/Anise a little bit, if only because they'd have the most hilariously bad ship name ever.
And I know the Natalia parts are weak. I'll work on fleshing them out. I'm just... tired of looking at this and need to move on to the making out parts.