The smell of food wafts through the entire castle letting everyone inside know it is time for the banquet. The lads had made a great hunt out of the day and a feast had indeed been announced upon their arrival. They regaled those at the table with their story of the hunt. The stag was difficult to bring down, it had taken the longest but was their most prized kill. They had also come back with a few smaller boars, their tusks stained red with their own dried blood. A rabbit or two had also been taken down by their party; apparently, the rabbit had been almost as interesting and difficult catch as the stag. The rabbit zigged when they zagged, evading their grasps and arrows. It attempted to evade capture by jumping into its rabbit hole where it would be safe down in its depths, but they would never let a burrow stop them from their chase. Pulling it from its hiding place, they captured another kill to add to their stockpile.
I couldn’t think about the mouthwatering spread before me. One word was going through my head over and over. One image accompanied it.
I’ve never encountered anyone like her. Someone so kind, so confident and brave. To talk to a complete stranger in the woods and not be afraid to speak her own mind. That is not something very easily found amongst the girls that father sends for me to meet. All of them princesses with nothing on their minds other than their jewels, gowns, and getting to sit on the throne as my queen.
But Ella. She hadn’t even known who I was. She had talked to me as simply Theo, not how people talk to their Prince Charming.
I am taken out of my reverie from a nudge by Captain Samson. He was the only one who saw me for who I was now. After years of pretending I was the charming young man they all saw, or wanted to see, that he was beginning to see through the whole act. He was a trustworthy man I was glad to have on my side. Samson flicked his head towards the head of the table where my father sat, looking straight at me, a glass of some overly expensive alcohol in hand and one eye brow raised like he was waiting for an answer.
My father was still one of the most regal men I’ve ever known. Before my mother passed, we were so close. I could never picture being anyone besides his little prince, learning everything from him. Regardless of our relationship now, he was still the best king a kingdom could ask for. I respected him the way a son should, but the replacement of his wife with alcohol and a short temper continually pushed me away, which was usually the reason I kept to myself at dinners and other events where I was kept in close quarters with him. This time, I can see, I had been caught in the disrespectful act.
“I’m sorry, father, I’m afraid I was lost in my own head. What were you saying?”
“Oh, young people,” his father said, looking around the table for approval of his joke, which he eagerly found. “I was just talking about my getting older and still not having heirs for the future. For after you, my dear son. It pains me to be so alone, and to see you so alone.”
Well, that is unexpected to say the least. Father had actually noticed my loneliness? The lack of actual people of substance in the castle for me to associate with? “What are you saying, father?”
“I’m saying that I think it’s time for you to find a wife.”
Of course this is what he meant. He didn’t care about my happiness. No, this was all political. Taking a wife to give the kingdom an advantageous alignment with another kingdom. For the rest of dinner, I refused to say anything and no one pressed me for anything more.
When the king announced his leave, Captain Samson once again nudges my arm and nods his head towards my father’s retreating form. I get up as well and, Samson by my side, walk after my father who was heading towards his study. Which meant the conversation at dinner wasn’t over quite yet.
Ahead, the huge wooden doors open and my father strides inside and within a few moments so do we. I’ve always loved his study. As a kid, I would find excuses to make myself almost a permanent fixture in this room. Hundreds of books fill the ornate wooden shelves that line the walls of half the study. The other half is full of portraits and pictures and windows that overlook the grounds and what lays beyond. My favorite place is the large nook in the corner window. It gives a nice view of the outside world from every angle available. The burgundy and gold color scheme takes hold of the whole room, except the dark wooden desks my father loves, the biggest of which he sits behind now in his huge golden chair.
“Son, I have brought you here so that we can have a civilized and more private finish to the conversation at dinner. As you know, you are my heir but after you we have a large empty space. That needs to be fixed. And the way to begin is by getting you a wife.”
Even though I knew what words were going to come out of his mouth, I still didn’t want to believe it. A wife. I suppose I am old enough to marry, but I can’t bring someone into this world. My world. They would think they are getting someone they aren’t. It would be a lie. A sham. I’m not sure how much longer I can keep the allusion of Prince Charming alive and well while the inside of me falls deeper and deeper down a rabbit hole every day. The image of the rabbit in my men’s story flashes through my mind. It couldn’t escape and neither can I.
“I’m well aware of the dilemma you have gotten into your head to face, but I do not wish to marry now. I am not in love and have not found someone that I wish to rule beside one day.” My father opens his mouth to make a comment on what I just said but I beat him to it. “I know you will say that to marry for love is near impossible for someone like me. But give me a chance before you arrange something.”
King Thomas stares thoughtfully at the glass in his hand, containing one of his favorite amber liquids. He takes a drink and looks me in the eye for the first time since the conversation started. “Quite right, boy. And I will give you that chance. A week from tonight, I will hold a ball in your honor. Every beautiful young princess from across the kingdoms will be invited. Any of which will make a good connection for us and a lovely queen for you. You may have all night to fall in love, but I will require the name of the lucky girl at least by the day after the ball.”
“Fall in love in one night? Within a matter of hours? Father, that is just not possible. You can’t possibly be serious.”
“Oh, on the contrary, I am quite serious. Yes, this is a great idea. One of my best, for sure. Now, I have business to attend to on whom to invite.”
I turn to leave, but before I can a beautiful young woman with blonde hair runs through my mind. “Father. If I am to go through with this, I ask you to invite the whole kingdom. Not just royalty, but every eligible maiden in the land. It would be good for the people, bring us together with those who do so much for our kingdom. It is one night where they, too, can feel like royalty. At least on the outside, perhaps.”
He looks at me for a moment, contemplating my suggestion or perhaps reeling from the amount of drinks in his system. He is silent for so long I give up and turn towards the large doors once again to make my exit.
“Yes. Yes. As you wish. A very good idea. Captain Samson, retrieve the royal crier. We have a decree to be read.”
An actual smile lights my face as I leave the room.