Prompted by this photo, I just wish I could remember where I found it…
Marie clutched the folds of her new cloak close as she wandered the neatly paved paths of the castle gardens. While the stones were in good order, none missing or raised to catch an unwary foot, the bushes on either side were starting to encroach and she had no wish to incur the wrath of the seamstresses after all the trouble they’d gone to.
There had been eyebrows raised at her request, not for a winter cloak, that was an obvious need, her old one was terribly worn and in no way suitable for a young lady of her station. What was questioned was her choice of colour.
Well-to-do young ladies had thick, warm cloaks in bright shades of red, or sky blue for those who wished to be different (and incur the ongoing displeasure of the laundresses who had to clean it after muddy excursions). Although, Marie acknowledged to herself, those girls were unlikely to venture past the terrace on days cold enough to warrant the cloak’s use. They didn’t venture anywhere near mud unless there was some disaster on a shopping expedition in town.
She, on the other hand, needed space, and trees, and she needed a cloak that didn’t broadcast the fact to all and sundry. So, after much cajoling, here she was, slipping away from the artificial lights and artificial smiles in a thick woollen cloak of dark, dark green.
She loved it and, once the seamstresses saw the colour on her, they loved it too. She was a child of the woods and fields, for all she was meant to forget that now, and it showed in the colours that kissed her skin and brightened her eyes.
In truth, she could wear most colours and look well, but the ones she felt comfortable in, the ones that echoed the landscape she’d grown up in, she relaxed into those and the happy curve of her lips suited her better than anything else.
She had been wandering further and further through the gardens each day, slowly getting to know their labyrinthine pathways and devising a route for escape. Not a forever escape, just a chance to step beyond walls and architectural planting into the fields and wilder woods of the country beyond the garden’s bounds.
Today, she’d found the path to that boundary, she was so close. As she turned a corner in the path, she saw an archway piercing a tall wall. Her path went through it, on along it’s shrub-lined way, but beyond that, bare winter trees, branches splayed against the sky in a way the castle’s gardeners would never allow. No more walls, no more neat rows and trimmed edges. She was so close.
As she passed through the archway, something caught her cloak. She turned to snatch it away from the offending branch, to find it held by a hand instead. A man in soldier’s garb, his expression demanding an explanation.
She had none she cared to give, so she tugged the fabric free of his hold and continued on her path.
He followed. He didn’t speak, merely dogged her footsteps as she walked on, then stood silently at her shoulder as she tried to decide which way to turn at the bordering hedge.
It made her nervous. Should she turn back? Why was he following her?
She turned her head. “I came out here to be alone.”
He shrugged. “You can be as alone as you like inside the walls. Outside? It’s not safe.”
“In what way?”
He frowned, gazing down at her as if trying to understand why she asked the question.
She raised her brows and waited.
His eyes dropped.
She huffed impatiently and turned right, there was a dip in the hedge a little way down that might turn out to be a way through.
It was. An arch cut into the greenery, a little raggedy now, with a waist-high gate and a simple latch. She rested her hand on its wooden top and looked out at the real world.
If she stepped through the gate, it would be onto the edge of a ploughed field, dark soil churned and left to sit for the winter. Beyond that, more fields, with the edge of a wood over to the left. The trees she’d seen through the brick arch.
Her unwanted companion stood beside her, all attention on her face and tense as a hunting dog. She sighed. “I’m not going out of the gate. I just wanted to see the country.”
He opened his mouth, eyes curious, when the bells in the clock tower tolled out. He snapped his shoulders back.
“You need to be back in the castle in short order Lady Marie, especially if you don’t want those guardians of yours to realise how far you roam.”
She shot him a sharp, frowning glance. “Why do you care?”
Nonetheless, she turned and began briskly walking back the way she’d come.
“Your expression when you looked out. You need it.”
He was walking beside her now and grimaced as something caught his eye. “Come on, duck through this way, you can pretend you lost track of time with the kittens in the stables.”
She saw the movement he’d seen, someone emerging onto the terrace, and well able to see how far she had gone. She followed her mystery companion through a door in a wall and into the kitchen gardens, then through and out the other side, into the stable yard.
They’d just made it to the stall at the end of the row, where the stable cat’s litter was housed when one of her guardians entered, sighing impatiently at the sight of Marie leaning over the door of the stall, peering down at the mewing balls of fluff.
“Marie, this is not a suitable use of your time. Come.”
Then he caught sight of Marie’s soldier companion. His expression changed from annoyed resignation to surprise, to worry and then to some form of still politeness.
Marie looked between the two of them. The solider was smirking. It was only a little smirk, but it was there and she was suspicious. He caught the start of her question with a tiny shake of his head, this time his eyes seemed to hold warning.
Her guardian bowed. “Your Highness. We had not looked to see you here so soon.”
Marie’s eyes widened and she pressed back into the door of the stall.
The soldier laughed. “I’ve been here a week Lord Alisdair. You look in the wrong places.”
Lord Alisdair forced a small smile. “You’ve been getting to know our lovely charge then. Without the pressure of titles. How charming.”
The soldier, now Prince Tristain, snorted. “I first encountered Lady Marie two minutes ago when I came in to check my horse and found her gazing at kittens.”
Lord Alisdair turned his fish-cold gaze to Marie. “Which is why I prefer you not to spend time in unsuitable places. You were lucky it was His Highness who accosted you this afternoon and not some grubby stable boy.”
Marie smiled sweetly. “You mean like the boys I grew up with and have no trouble keeping in line if they say something, or try something I don’t appreciate?”
Her guardian set his jaw. “We do not mention such things Marie.”
Prince Tristain laughed, then offered his arm to Marie. “Oh I think we do. This is exactly the type of intrepid spirit we need in a lady to be sent to Farenor in marriage.”
He walked her out of the stable, past her silently fuming guardian. The other four would, she hoped, quell any talk of punishment in the face of the Prince’s approval.
It seemed Prince Tristain was a mind-reader as well. He turned to look back at Lord Alisdair. “Do not think to punish the Lady for her poise and strength. As I said, she needs it, and so do we.”
Marie cast a worried glance up at him. His face was sternly set and did not invite questions. She bit her tongue and wondered how to find out what was going on.
They strolled across the stableyard and into the castle, Lord Alisdair trailing behind them.
Marie spoke. “It is normal at this time of day for me to take tea with all my guardians, in order to discuss my lessons and upcoming activities.”
Tristain shuddered. “Sounds hideous, may as well deal with all of them at once though. You’ll have to steer me in the right direction.”
This time Marie bit her lip on a giggle. “The Rose Parlour, Your Highness.”
His “Of course” was as dry as the deserts she’d been learning about that morning.
Tristain looked back over his shoulder. “Lord Alisdair, do you wish to chaperone us, or go on ahead and warn your associates of my underhand activities?”
Lord Alisdair who, until then, had been trying to manoeuvre past them, visibly paused at the word ‘chaperone’. Marie again saw the smirk that Lord Alisdair missed. Her country’s prince was a tricky individual indeed.