10/28/13: General clean up.

Summary: Royale: (roy-al): of royalty, pertaining to royalty, the performance and or duty of a royal person or persons. Grava Efud Aston, Royale, the Crown Prince of Asturia. A man studying to become the next great King of Asturia; a man focused on his duties. At least, until he met the lovely Lady Therese.

Royale – Part I

Grava Efud Aston, twenty-seven years of age, Crown Prince of Asturia, strolled down the hall of the castle. The King's seventieth birthday was next month and he had managed to escape from the tailor's claws and pins early. Grava wound his way through the palace, headed for Meiden's office within the Merchants' Quarters. Meiden would join him in his excitement to have an extra hour to spend in the city.

They went to a different tavern each time they went out. Rotating taverns meant they could hide their identities more easily. Grava of course had a Caeli Knight nearby, dressed in commoner's clothing. But this route allowed both young men to have a merry good time without anyone noticing that the Crown Prince was in their midst.

Their evenings in the taverns allowed both men a chance to relax and to shake off the burdens of their duties. Grava could pretend he was a normal man out for dinner and a drink or two with a friend. He was no longer Asturia's Crown Prince, attending lessons left and right, with an ailing King father pressuring him to find a wife. Grava shook his head and pushed those thoughts away as he continued down the staircase.

No, tonight they would dine, drink, and watch the fairer sex.

Grava and Meiden employed the technique of 'look but don't touch' when it came to women. Both had their reputation to think about and both men did. They kept their wits about them. But looking and a little conversation was safe. And fun.

The other young men that Grava and Meiden often dined with teased them endlessly about this policy. Of course, Grava had insisted his true identity remain hidden. Had they known they were laughing at their future King; well, there went the camaraderie.

Besides, neither Grava nor Meiden were particularly interested in women. Their fathers were. But both men had their duties vying for their time and attention. Meiden enjoyed his merchant responsibilities more than life itself. While Grava did not vehemently wish to be a commoner, great Jeture had given him the Crown and Grava was going to do his damned best to be a great king.

They could have some fun on the side though. Nothing wrong with that; it was good for them! No one wanted to deal with a grumpy Crown Prince, Grava most of all.

That night during dinner, he saw the loveliest woman in his entire life. His forkful of food was half-way to his mouth when she entered the tavern. It hovered in the air, forgotten, as he watched this goddess float across the room to a table. Her sun-kissed golden hair cascaded in ringlets down her back. Lovely violet-blue eyes were set in an ivory face above a button nose and full lips. The pale blue dress with pink accents did not do justice to her beauty.

"Hey Erroll, you can forget her!"

Grava started back to reality at Jankin's referring to him as the tragic male love interest in a popular play. He put his fork to his mouth to continue eating as he turned to his friend. Those at the table laughed as Grava discovered he had dropped the morsel; luckily it had fallen onto his plate. "Who is she?"

"Well Fenton, that lovely dream is Therese Koit. Her father is Thoms Koit, the greatest horsemaster in Palas, second only to the Royal Horsemaster. You've never heard of her?"

'Fenton,' Grava's cover-name among his dining friends, shook his head.

The table laughed again; Meiden joining in only to keep from showing his own lack of knowledge.

"Many fine young men have tried to court her," Deirs continued the explanation. "Nearly all of us gathered here –" there were five total, not including Meiden and Grava himself, "– have tried."

"Rumor has it she'd make a fine wife," Gilles spoke up. "Therese is said to have a singing voice blessed by Jichia herself. She also has the talent and skill for dancing, table etiquette, and décor to rival the favored Gwenned de Aurthur."

The table nodded in agreement.

"Not to mention she is a gorgeous sight to behold."

The entire table agreed with that statement.

-R-

"Three weeks Meiden!" Grava slammed a fist onto his friend's desk. "It's been three damn weeks and I can't get her out of my head!" The Crown Prince slumped into a chair.

Meiden folded his hands on his desk in front of him and tried to hide a smirk. "Sounds like you've a fascination with this woman."

"Smirk all you want; I can't do anything without thinking of her. She's in my mind when I eat, during my lessons, distracting me while I'm practicing the Deniray… I even dream about her sometimes." Grava's dreams had never crossed any inappropriate line, though he did have to change his sheets once or twice. He was male after all. Meiden didn't need to know that though.

The Merchant chuckled. "Well Grava, you are the Crown Prince. Get in your royal carriage, break down the door, and make her father allow you to court her."

Grava sighed and shook his head. "She's not a lower price to be bargained for, Meiden. She's a human being. She's a woman."

Meiden shrugged. "I gave you my advice, what more do you want?"

"To be there when you are afflicted with this delirium!"

Both men laughed.

"Ah Grava, you know that my only love is numbers and stacks of gold coins."

Over the next two weeks, Grava rolled Meiden's advice around his mind. He was the Crown Prince. But he didn't want to just bang down the Koits' door and demand she court him. That was barbaric; almost as bad as their far away ancestors capturing women to bear children.

He wished his lessons had included a course on talking to the fairer sex. Of all the kingly things he had to learn, courting a woman was not one of them. But it should be. Talking to her would be a good place to start.

"Start what?" he asked his empty chambers. "Grave Efud Aston, you're infatuated."

"Well, nothing entirely wrong with that. It's what I do with this damned emotion that matters. So what am I going to do?"

"Well, finding out about this Therese Koit and her family would be the best place to begin. If she has some blemish in her family line then I can just kick this thing to the sea."

"Stop talking to myself would be a good thing to do as well… heh."

Despite the late hour of the evening, Grava left his bed, donned a robe, and traversed the silent halls to the Great Library. He wandered the rows of books, getting his bearings until he remembered where the Book of Citizenry Births was located. Now all he had to do was find the exit again.

It took Grava nearly half an hour to find the Koit Family's entry. Well, there went that idea. Not a single speck tarnished any part of the Koit Family tree. They were an old family, and wealthy. The males followed the family tradition of horsemastery. Some had gone into business for the feeds and materials needed for the animal.

Grava searched until he found Therese's birth entry. Her parents were Thoms Koit and Amide nee Naramiss. She had been born on Pink 24th, the first and only daughter; she had four elder brothers. She was nearly twelve years his junior, making her just over sixteen. That explained her father's protectiveness.

The Crown Prince slammed the book shut and stomped through the library. He had come here to dispel her from his thoughts, not shine a beacon on her! He went back to bed, attempting to keep the beauty from his thoughts.

If he was to endeavor to court her, Grava wanted to proceed without the pressure of future queenship. Her father might be impressed or inflamed at his title, but how would Therese herself feel? Perhaps he could befriend her in some safe capacity? That way her father's wrath wouldn't be aroused and he wouldn't have to tell her his title directly. He could get to know Therese.

But how?

Grava rolled over in his plush bed. That was a problem to solve tomorrow.

'Tomorrow' came and went. So did a second and third day. Grava spent another week deliberating over his problem. Meiden was still of no help.

"I still suggest you force Koit's hand. You're the Crown Prince for Jeture's sake!"

The Crown Prince refused. He decided that the next day he would at least do something considered active. He was the Asturian Crown Prince after all. Stubbornness ran in the Asturian line.

Grava's 'do something' turned out to be 'have a servant tail her discreetly.' Harkin had been his personal attendant for many years and could be trusted. Grava was sure that the elder man himself didn't follow Therese, but he knew the man wouldn't fail him.

Another month later, Harkin gave a full, detailed report of Therese's habits to Grava. The Crown Prince had grown anxious, but as Harkin had explained, such things took time. Grava understood, but he didn't have to like it. His infatuation hadn't let up, either. It had been almost eleven weeks since he had laid eyes upon the beauty and the vision of her had never left him.

He had never before in his life paid such intense attention to a report or lesson. Nothing else existed outside his private chambers. The gods could send the same Destruction of Atlantis to Palas and Grava would never know. There was only he and Harkin and the report of Therese Koit.

"Therese Klarita Koit, sixteen years and four months of age. Parents are Thoms and Amide nee Naramiss. She has four elder brothers. Therese enjoys attending the theater and is the youngest, and only female, citizen to have a seasonal account with the Theater Guild. Therese attends Candella's Lounge for Young Ladies at least three times a week, may times singing or playing the harp. She peruses Lady Perllis' Exquisite Gems and Jewelry and Madame Mascen's Dresses for Every Social Event on a weekly basis and visits the bazaar a few times a month. Much to her father's chagrin, twice a month she sits in on a meeting of the Philosopher's Guild; the particular meetings are usually led by Lord Quo Farqu. Therese has many female companions of noble status; the closest and most consistent is the Lady Chelsea Qual, daughter of Lord Omash Qual and Lady Vanessa nee Koantz. Lady Chelsea is being courted by Sir Delma Amia of Trellyx, son of Elyas Amia, Captain of the Guard, and Lady Eissa nee Avanel."

"Excellent Harkin! I shall write a note for you to take to Master Jacasin so you may retrieve whatever funds you deem appropriate as gratitude for your associates. Now, teach me to speak with the fairer sex without making a fool of myself and I'll hand over half the Royal Treasury."

Both men laughed.

Harkin was not married, but he was older and wise. He was friends with most of palace's population on some level and he had a wide network of acquaintances. The elder man did his best to educate Grava in the ways of women. Most of it consisted of what not to do or say.

With a bit of guidance from Harkin, Grava formed a plan to introduce himself to Therese. He cleared his schedule on the next week that she typically visited the bazaar. Grava dressed in high noble's clothes; a step down from royalty but several steps up from the clothes he wore to the taverns with Meiden and their companions. He wished to leave his personal Caeli guard behind, despite the cover of the swordsman's servant's clothes; but for the sake of his Safety, Grave kept the man with him.

Grava meandered through the bazaar, enjoying the feel of the sun on his face and the smell of sea air. His eyes searched the many stalls, ignoring the shining wares and yelling sellers, seeking the most beautiful jewel of a woman. Eventually, finally, his eyes alighted upon her.

Subtly he pointed her out to the Caeli. "She is a lovely vision, my liege. I wish you Jichia's blessing."

The Crown Prince took a deep breath and walked toward the jewelry stall Therese and Chelsea (that had to be the second woman) were fawning over. The gentleman with them ought then to be Delma Amia. Approaching the stall, Grava refreshed the image of Therese in his mind and finally received a closer look at her. He hadn't seen her in a little over two months! His heartbeat quickened as if a thousand horses were running across his chest. His throat tightened and went dry as he watched her daintily handle the jewelry. He felt like the desert he had visited once and wanted the ocean to quench his thirst.

Delma and Chelsea were occupied with each other as Grava neared the stall, unable to take his eyes from the goddess. He stood next to them for most of a minute before he mustered the courage to speak. "Excuse my interruption, Lady, but I saw you from across the way and the desire to gain a closer look, and mayhap a name, overwhelmed me. My feet carried me here of their own accord and now before you I stand, a humble man in awe of your presence," he spoke quietly. There was no charm, no sarcasm, no desire. Grave simply allowed his heart and soul to speak for him. It sounded overly tender to his ears…

Therese turned, a polite smile on her face. It changed to one of shyness as she took in his awkward demeanor. She inclined her head and partially curtsied. "My name is Therese, daughter of Lord Thoms and Lady Amide of the House of Koit."

Grava nodded, captivated by her heavenly voice.

"And you are, lord?"

'Answer her, lovesick fool'! "Efud. Efud of the House of Wilton. My father is Lord Naegel Wilton, a scribe in the palace, and my mother is the Lady Reece nee Tallah, a seamstress also in the palace," Grava puttered through his cover story.

"Efud?" Therese repeated.

He trembled at the way his name, even his middle name, rolled from her tongue and fell from her lips. He almost missed her next question.

"The same as the Crown Prince?"

"The very same," Grava tried to put a little emphasis in his reply, but not too much.

"It is my pleasure to make your acquaintance, Lord Efud Wilton." Therese curtsied again and extended her hand.

"Nay, fair Lady Therese Koit." Grava bowed. "The pleasure is all mine." He took her hand and placed a light kiss upon it.

Therese smiled.

Grava's focus was broken as Chelsea and Delma joined the conversation.

"Chelsea, Delma, please allow me to introduce to you Lord Efud Wilton," Therese began. "Lord Efud, this is my friend Chelsea Eissa and her suitor, Delma Amia of Trellyx."

Chelsea curtsied. Grava kissed her hand and shook hands with Delma. "It is a pleasure to make your acquaintances." He forced himself to not stutter. Harkin had informed him that he must make a good impression on Chelsea and her suitor Delma.

The other young woman smiled. "What a gentleman! We are pleased to make your acquaintance as well!" Delma nodded; apparently he was content to allow Chelsea to speak for him.

With the initial introduction over, Grava felt his nervousness slip away and he began to feel more comfortable with Therese nearby. Chelsea and Delma seemed to have accepted him well enough; Chelsea pulled Delma away to twitter over a jewel. No doubt the women, and Delma when he visited, had a plan to discourage or even drive away would-be suitors.

"Lord Efud, we were about to dine at Marlay's Dragonhead for the midday meal. Would you… would you care to join us?"

Grava had expected Therese to wave him off, not offer an invitation to lunch. He did notice Chelsea's questioning look. 'The chance to continue speaking with her! But… what on Jeture's name shall I say?' "If you wish for me to join you, I will, lady."

Therese blushed. Grava enjoyed being is cause. "I think I would enjoy your company very much, Lord Efud."

'Not "we," "I"…' "Then as the lady wishes." He bowed and ushered her before him.

The four of them talked all through lunch. Grava was careful not to give his full attention to Therese but to include Chelsea and Delma in the conversation as well. All three seemed surprised by this, impressed as well. While not well-versed in any affair not of the palace, Grava managed to have an opinion and hold a conversation on whatever topic arose.

They finished lunch and walked back to the bazaar. Not wanting to overstay his warm welcome, Grava was about to politely say farewell when Therese courteously asked him to wander the bazaar with them. This time, Chelsea gave Therese no questioning look. Grava accepted, thanking Jichia for her overflowing of blessings. This time, they paired off. Chelsea seemed to understand Therese's decision and unspoken request ('Women…'); not three minutes later, she spotted some pretty trinket and pulled Delma with her to investigate and away they went.

Grava followed Therese from stall to stall, the two of them conversing, the Prince hanging on every word she spoke in her lovely voice. Whatever question one asked, the other answered and then turned it back upon the askee. Grava learned that Therese enjoyed reading immensely and had read a wide range of literature. He told her the little-known fact that he loved chess but was a terrible player. He found he didn't mind when she laughed merrily at this. Grava could listen to her voice and laugh for days on end and never tire of it. He tried to keep her talking and took every opportunity to make her laugh.

The belltower chimed to fourth hour, all too soon. They had lost track of time and Therese's companions long ago. Therese politely excused herself, a touch of sadness in her voice.

"May I see you tomorrow, Lady?"

Her face lit up, brighter than the noonday sun reflecting off Palas' bay waters. "I would like that very much."

"As the Lady wishes."

They met the next day in the theater district. Two plays later, Grava suggested dinner at Cordiella's. Therese readily agreed. The owner recognized Grava but said nothing; he only made sure that a waitress gave them a private booth and that they weren't interrupted.

After placing their orders, Therese spoke. "Efud, I have a confession to make…"

Grava waited, his face neutral. "Go on," he said politely. He almost died inside.

"I – I greatly enjoyed our time together yesterday, today, as well. But… my father… will not allow me to court until my seventeenth year. We cannot see each other with any consistency until then."

Grava rolled her words around in his mind. She enjoyed being with him, wanted to be with him, but wasn't allowed. Yet. Therese wanted to continue to see him, but she couldn't. Correct? "Therese, I have something you must know as well. Yesterday was not the first time I saw you. I laid eyes upon you a little over two months ago. I was out with friends and I saw you in a restaurant. My comrades told me who you were, that your father wished to keep you from courting.

"I fell in love with you, I suppose. From that day on, I couldn't get you out of my mind. I thought about you during every waking hour. For two months, I could think only of you.

"Therese, I… I am going to be completely truthful with you." Grava glanced around them before pulling the chain bearing his signet ring from its hiding place beneath his shirt. Therese's eyes grew wide and she let out a little gasp of surprise. Grava took a deep breath and continued. "I am Grava Efud Aston, Crown Prince. But I come before you not as the Crown Prince and Future King, but as a man. A man who would die if he did not see you, breathe you, almost every day.

"Therese, I would like to ask your father permission t court you. Not for Asturia's future queen, but for a man madly in love with you."

Tears… tears of joy glistened in Therese's lovely violet eyes. Smiling, she nodded. "I think Father would find it in his heart to make an exception for such a worthy man."

"You think I should approach him?"

She nodded.

It was Grava's turn to smile. "As my Lady wishes." There was a long pause before Grava spoke again. "Therese, you are not angry that I did not tell you my identity?"

Therese took her time in responding. "I think… I think I knew. I didn't know, but… I don't know how to describe it. I believe it was in the way you introduced yourself. Which I believe was intentional."

"That is correct, Lady. I… I have your forgiveness then?"

Therese smiled her goddess smile and Grava knew that he was. "You are Asturia's Crown Prince and were only guarding your station as such; it is understandable and yes, forgiven."

Grava informed Harkin of this development later that evening. Over breakfast the next morning, he informed his father of his pursuit. King Seith Galashin Aston gave his blessing and hoped for Jichia's as well. Over the next few days in a rush Grava attended to matters he had neglected over the past several days, still managing to find time to plan and prepare to meet with Thoms Koit.

Four days after speaking with Therese, in the evening Grava took a plain carriage to the Koit manner. His Caeli guard, for once in uniform, was his only accompaniment. There was no fanfare, no announcement in the streets. When a servant answered the door and asked who was calling, Grava simply answered 'Efud.' He had worn his noble's robes, the only clue to his royal heritage his signet ring worn plainly on his right hand. He was brought to the parlor to wait; his Caeli instructed to wait at the front door. The Crown Prince sat in a chair and attempted to restrain himself from twisting the ring about his finger in anticipation.

When Thoms Koit entered, Grava stood and knelt to one knee. "Master Thoms, I am Grava Efud Aston. I kneel before you this day as a humble man deeply in love with your daughter, Therese. I understand your desire to keep your daughter close to your heart and home, but I beg of you sir, spare me months of a broken heart and allow me to court her."

Thoms blinked and his eyebrows rose until they were nearly lost in his receding hair line. "Aston? Grava Aston, the Crown Prince?"

Grava nodded.

"Why didn't you tell the servant? Please rise Sire; you should not be bowing to me."

With a shake of his head, Grava remained kneeling and explained. "Sir, I did not wish to bring guards, break down the door, and force you; all because I am the Crown Prince. I came to ask permission, as a man in love; not force your hand as your ruler."

Stunned, Thoms sat. "Many an arrogant man has come to me, lusting after my daughter. None have treated me or my wish with the respect you have shown me. They desire her beauty and body, but I hear in your voice that you desire her heart and happiness. Rise, Sire, for you have proven yourself a worthy man. I am honored to call you a Prince, and someday King, and perhaps all too soon son-in-law."

Smiling, Grava stood. Thoms also stood and he bowed deeply and they shook hands. Thoms offered to send for Therese to tell her the news but Grava declined. He desired to, of course, but he wished and needed to converse with Thoms a bit longer.

The men talked at length for nearly an hour before Therese was called for. She was shocked at Grava's swiftness in speaking with her father. Thoms' heart swelled at the joy on his daughter's face when he announced the news. She hugged her father, flashed Grava the most radiant smile, and ran to tell her mother.

"You have made my daughter very happy, Prince Grava. In turn, her mother and I are happy."

"Please, call me Grava."

Thoms nodded.

Later that evening, Grava informed his own father of the meeting's results.

"And you are sure she would make a good queen?"

"Yes Father. She was taught and has learned well all of her etiquette. She is polite and refined. Therese is also a lovely vision to behold."

"Splendid. I look forward to meeting her, and announcing your engagement when the time is right."

Grava was grateful his facial hair hid his blush. "Yes Father."

The situation did not go as smoothly with Meiden. The merchant relentlessly teased his friend. Grava was more annoyed at Meiden's childish antics than embarrassed or angry. "Just you wait Meiden Fassa, your time will come." Meiden simply laughed.

Being Grava's best friend, Meiden was obligated to actually meet the girl. Four days later, the dinner out on the town went smoothly enough. Meiden attempted to control the conversation, asking Therese about her father's business and politics. Therese answered well enough on her own, but Grava felt the need to protect her.

After dropping Therese off at her home, Grava turned to his friend "You didn't need to be so rude to the woman, Meiden. Practically ignoring her as an individual an only being interested in her father's horsemastery and topics that only suit your interests," he rebuked.

Meiden chuckled. "I'll forgive you for jumping to conclusions, old friend. I was simply making sure that she wasn't a fishscale. She held her own and knew a fair amount about her father's business and general politics. You'll want that if she's to be Asturia's Queen. She's a woman that can hold her own against a formidable 'opponent' as I and she'll do well during a ball when a foreign dignitary speaks to her."

Grava blinked. "I hadn't even thought of that."

"Of course not. You're too blinded by your silly emotions to think properly."

The Crown Prince nodded. "And I do believe in my pursuit of Therese I have been neglecting our friendship. I apologize for that, old friend. Shall we go out to the city tomorrow night, just the two of us?"

"I accept your apology and extend my forgiveness. I also accept your invitation. Brilliant idea, Grava."

The next two months were a maelstrom for Grava. They were filled and overflowing with spending time with Therese. They attended plays, the symphony, and had picnics every other week. Therese meet Grava's father and likewise Grava met her mother and brothers. Grava spent whatever spare time with Meiden; sometimes he stayed up late into the night to complete paperwork for his princely duties the next day.

The brisk, cool evening was the perfect unnecessary excuse for Therese to be just a touch closer while they walked to her home after another play. Grava had finally gathered up the courage that this night he was going to kiss this lovely woman. His Caeli already had been told to stay back a little this evening.

They entered through a side gate onto the Koit property and made their way through the lush gardens to the house. Mindful of the thorns, Grava plucked a deep red rose and passed it to Therese. "A beautiful rose for you, my dear. Though it could not possibly compare with your loveliness."

Therese blushed and shyly smiled. She accepted the rose and brought it to her nose, inhaling its fragrance. She twirled the stem between her fingers and watched the petals dance.

The prince's eyes were on the woman before him; he was captivated by her lips, fixated upon the way they pushed together in thought as she focused on twirling the rose. Grava was hyper-aware of each time Therese breathed, each time she blinked her eyes.

Swiftly, suddenly, he pulled at her elbow. She released the rose, gently pricking her finger on a thorn as it fluttered to the ground. Grava pressed his mouth to hers, closing his eyes while Therese's eyes widened.

Grava brought his hand up to her chin, tilting her head up and deepening the kiss. Therese closed her eyes and placed both of her hands on his cheeks. He drank her in, enjoying the bliss of their closeness and the taste of her lips.

He pulled away after a moment. He basked in the look upon Therese's face. For a split second, he thought he saw a look of don't leave me flit across her face. She opened her eyes and they smiled at each other, he boldly and she shyly.

Grava took Therese's hand, then bent over and plucked the rose from the ground and handed it back to her. Hand in hand, they walked to the house.