A/N: Please note: the last chapter mentioned a ball that was happening that very night. Realizing the impracticality of throwing a gala on the spur of the moment that way, I changed it to note that the ball would be happening in three days - two of which have now passed. Sorry for any confusion.
28th of Edrinios, full moon
This evening, while I was musing over my dinner in my room and wondering if it would cause too much talk among the servants if I sent Rhun a private message asking him to meet me somewhere to talk, I was startled by a knock on my door. When I opened it, one of the menservants stood there – I don't know which, I can't keep them straight, as it seems to be one of their duties to be indistinguishable from each other.
"A message from the Prince, my lady," he announced, holding out a small sealed scroll. I took it, thanking him hesitantly – I can't get used to those bland-as-wax faces the servants maintain, as though they take no interest at all in what their masters are up to; I know quite well it's a sham, at least the way Eirlyss tells it. He stood there, waiting, I suppose, to see if it was a message that needed answering. I scowled at him a little, though it didn't do any good, as he was, like any good servant, looking at a spot on the wall across the room, not at me.
Turning away, I broke the seal and glanced at the message – not long, just scratched out in a spidery scrawl, a request to please meet Rhun on the battlements that evening if I were able.
I almost dropped it, and found myself feeling a bit strangled, wondering if fate were handing me an opportunity or dangling me over a parapet. It was one thing to ask Rhun to meet me – I knew exactly what I wanted to talk to him about! It was another entirely for him to ask; something he'd never done before, though we'd often met on the battlements by chance, both enjoying a bit of an evening prowl, in the weeks before he left. It had to be something momentous and serious, and the only possibility that came to mind was not one I anticipated with any eagerness, unless perhaps a grim determination to have it over with could be called eager.
I set my face and looked out the casement; nearly sunset. He was likely already there waiting.
Dismissing the manservant (who bowed and departed with the same unchanged indifferent expression – blast him!), I downed the rest of my wine in one swallow and determined to make the best of things. I threw on a cloak – it was windy – and hurried up the corridor.
Rhun was there when I arrived, pacing in a disorganized way but brightening when he saw me. "Hullo, hullo!" His customary greeting lacked a little of its cheer. "I'm glad you could come. That message was a bit ninth hour, wasn't it? But it was all I could think of." I murmured something polite, too distracted by his unusual manner to think up anything clever. His smile was nervous, and he would not meet my eyes, turning instead to gaze out upon the plains beyond, his hands clasped behind his back.
A sudden rush of pity surged through me, even as I grew ever more certain about what was coming. It was so unlike him to be uncomfortable with me. For a brief moment I hated his parents for forcing him into what he was about to do.
There was no point in dancing around and prolonging both of our awkwardness. "You're upset about something," I observed, leaning against the wall beside him. "Do you want to tell me about it?"
He laughed, as though relieved at my intrusiveness, and really looked at me for the first time. "Well…yes, and no." He ran a hand through his pale hair, standing the curls wildly on end. "You see, it concerns you, and I'm not sure how you'll…" He stopped, gestured in the air with one hand, and cleared his throat.
The silliness of the whole situation suddenly broke upon me and I found myself relaxing against the wall, chin in hand and elbows propped on a merlon. I grinned at him. "Shall I make this easier for you? Let me try to guess."
Rhun's eyebrows rose, and I shut my eyes. "Let's see…it's either that my progress has been deemed hopelessly slow, so your mother has determined to indenture me to the beekeepers…" I paused, and he chuckled. "Or…the king and queen think that the upcoming ball would be the perfect opportunity to announce the betrothal of the Prince of Mona to a certain Princess of Llyr."
His breath came out in a great whoosh of air. "You knew?"
I opened my eyes. "I've known since…well, a long time. Nobody keeps secrets very well around here, you know."
"I—well," he said, and then ran his hand through his hair again, looking at me as though he wanted to say several things and wasn't sure what to put first. Abruptly he turned around, put his back to the wall, and began speaking very quickly towards his own feet.
"I told them it was no good, of course. They're set on it, so I told them I'd ask, to please them, but…I know quite well you wouldn't…wouldn't…well. You wouldn't, would you." It came out like a statement of fact, not really a question at all, and his eyes did not leave his feet.
Oh dear. I scowled at the rising moon, hating myself for not being able to give him a different answer. Hating the world for expecting me to be something I'm not. But I couldn't hate him, and so I said it as gently as I could. "I can't, Rhun." He was quiet, and, feeling like I had drowned a whole sack full of kittens, I reached out to touch his arm. "You are a dear, kind, excellent—man," (I had almost said 'boy'!) "and you will be a wonderful king. But I can't marry you."
"I know," he answered, straightening up and smiling at me – a real, sincere smile, with only a trace of regret. "I've known since…quite early on." He shrugged. "It appealed to me, when I first found out Father's plan for you. Bit of a romantic notion, you know, the joining of the houses and tradition and all. That was before I even met you, of course, and then after we met it was even more appealing." He turned a little pink, and grinned at me. "But…well, I may not be the brightest torch in the hall, but I'm not blind. And I'm not about to insist on a marriage to a girl whose heart belongs to someone else."
My turn to blush. And change the subject. "I'm sorry to disappoint so many. Your parents have been so generous and kind to me. It's a poor way to repay them."
He waved this away. "They didn't bring you here just to see me married, you know. Their hospitality will stand for as long as you want it. Or Dallben wants it. Or whoever made the decision. Mother will rampage a bit, and Father will say you take after your mother's side, and that one stubborn woman in the family is enough." He laughed, freely, joyously, his true, real, lovely Rhun-laugh, and I don't know what came over me, but I obeyed a sudden impulse and threw my arms round him, hugging him quickly, and smacked a kiss squarely on his cheek. "You really are a darling, Rhun."
He was pleasantly stunned, and put a hand to his face where I'd kissed him, turning pink again to the roots of his hair. "Um…well. Thank you."
As he rather looked as though he were going to ask if I were sure I couldn't marry him, I took advantage of his momentary confusion to begin my own machinations. "About the ball…"
"Mmm?" he murmured, shaking his head as though to clear it.
"I've heard a rumor that you'll be expected to dance the first dance with me, as the guest of honor," I told him. "Is that true?"
"Yes," he admitted, "but of course it was also to lead up to the big announcement."
"I thought so," I sighed, "but -circumstances being what they are - I wonder if we could get out of it somehow. I'm an abysmal dancer, you see, and will make you look like a complete fool." It's true enough. Nobody picks me for a partner in the lessons; they've learned better.
"I'm not much of a dancer myself," he confided, "so you needn't worry about that."
Oh, delicious, a perfect opening. "All the more reason to choose someone who knows what she's doing, then," I urged confidently. "You are the crown prince, and one day will be king. It wouldn't do for the court to see you looking idiotic in the first dance. A good partner could save you that shame."
He looked thoughtful, considering, but then hit a snag. "But as guest in the house, you really are owed the first dance. Tradition dictates it."
"Oh, Llyr," I sighed. "I've been here three months now. I rather think I'm past the 'guest' stage, don't you? Or isn't there anyone else here who would qualify? What about…" I made a face as if wracking my brain. "What about that…that distant cousin of yours? Maelona? She's a guest, isn't she? Isn't her home on the mainland?"
"Mae?" he repeated, looking surprised. "Oh…well. I never thought of her as a guest. But I suppose she is, now you mention it. Mae…" He bit his lip. "Do you think she'd mind?"
Belin, I thought. You blind, idiotic, blundering, lovable boy. "I think not," I answered, "but you couldn't do any harm asking. She's a good dancer, and nobody would think it strange. She is family, after all."
"That's true," he said brightly. "She's a friend of yours, isn't she? I've always liked Mae. She's different, somehow, than the other girls here."
Very, I agreed silently. "I like her, wonderfully. And you could do worse than ask her. She'd make you look like a proper king. In the dance," I added, hoping I hadn't said too much. But Rhun didn't seem to notice. He was looking at me with an affectionate, rather wistful smile, and took my hand in both of his in a friendly, brotherish sort of gesture.
"You'd have made a good queen, you know," he said, looking me unabashedly eye-to-eye. "And you'll make him look like a proper king."
"He's not…" I stammered, warm-faced and confused by the sudden shift, but Rhun only squeezed my hand, and bowed to me.
"I wish you a pleasant evening, Princess." And he leaned forward, kissed me lightly on the forehead, and turned and strode off down the outer wall.
I stood there a while, after he'd gone, until the battlements were all limned silver with moonlight. My thoughts were all jumbled-up exclamation points, a mixture of relief that it was over and he'd taken it so well, of mild satisfaction over his reaction to my suggestion about Mae, annoyance at how quickly he'd changed that subject, and absurd amounts of pleasure at his parting words. It was a sweet thing to say. Never mind that Taran will never need to look like any kind of king.
Now it's early in the wee hours of the morning, and I am too anxious over the coming day to sleep. Rhun was entirely too noncommittal over that dance with Mae for my liking; he was approving but not really enthusiastic, and if he mentions it to Teleria she will be sure to talk him out of it. And Teleria! Llyr, how I dread our next meeting. Rhun is sure to have told her and the king of my answer, and though I don't particularly mind their disapproval over small things, having to stay indefinitely as a guest in the household of the son whose affections you've refused does not strike me as a comfortable arrangement.
I suppose it beats Achren's dungeons, though.
I'm falling in love a little bit with Rhun, which is going to make The High King even sadder for me from now on. He's the epitome of the "nice guys finish last" proverb, which I don't even agree with, and I refuse to have him go out without some happiness in the meantime.
I wasn't even planning to get to this point yet, but out of all the plot threads I tried to follow after the last chapter, this was the only one that unraveled itself for me. So there it is. It occurred to me that the king and queen would see no point in waiting, now that Rhun is home, to get him safely married, or at least betrothed. Of course this will make the remaining year or so at Dinas Rhydnant rather awkward for Eilonwy, but it can't be helped.