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The Wedding Pianist
The Wedding Pianist watched as the duke said the fabled ‘I do,’ and leaned in to kiss some common girl as she played soft notes in the background. This was an uncommon wedding. For ‘love’. And between a commoner and a duke, no less.
She had played many weddings. She had watched so many, and she observed much. There wasn't really a difference between the wedding of the grandest king and the lowest commoner. She got paid more for fancy ones, the decorations were prettier, and more people showed up.
But they all had this confined feeling. The bride and groom were roping themselves in to spend the rest of their lives with someone they hopefully tolerated. Weddings were sad affairs. She had resolved to never marry.
But this wedding was different. It felt different, she and all the crowd could feel it. The same notes she played for a hundred weddings sounded lighter and happier. The crowd buzzed brighter. The couple's smiles glowed. It wasn't just the surprise at the duke's choice- it was some rare, special spark.
After she had finished all her duties she mingled with the guests, eating the fancy noble feast and talking pleasantly with the crowd. She sat beside a tall young man. It took her a moment to notice the gold circlet in his blonde hair and realize who she was bumping elbows with.
“I am so sorry, your grace!” she said as she collected her plate to move. Prince Brennan shook his head and smiled at her.
“No, no, stay. The spotlight today is on my cousin.”
She obeyed and sat, careful to avoid his elbows and eat politely.
“Look at him…” The Prince said. She followed his gaze to the duke. “So happy. I can't believe he had the courage to marry a commoner. Father was furious!” he laughed. “I wish I could marry for love…”
“I don't think it was very practic- I am so sorry, your grace, forgive me!” She had contradicted royalty? Was she asking for execution?
“No, please, continue.”
“I… I don't think it was the most practical choice for the duke. Love doesn't make money. Though the bride will.”
“You value money over happiness?”
“Forgive me, your grace, but I can't see how a prince understands the worth of money.”
“Perhaps, but I will marry for an alliance. I understand that. You intend to marry for convenience?”
“No, your highness. I do not intend to marry.”
“I've seen many weddings. I don't want to sign away my life. I have plenty of money.”
“Forgive me, I don't know you.”
“I am the Wedding Pianist, Mairi,” she blushed at how common her name sounded. Not grand enough to say to a prince.
“I've heard of you! You're rather famous.”
“I expect you’ll play at my wedding soon. Father is sending messengers to every kingdom with a daughter on the continent, it seems,” he laughed with no joy.
“That would be an honor,” she said, uncertain what else to say.
He returned his eyes to her and the shadows left. “Sorry. So, you say marriage is signing one's life away?”
“Please, stop with the formalities. I suppose weddings are rather stiff, but I would imagine commoners' weddings joyous events.”
“Pardon, but I don't find them to be. In some ways it's less stiff, and in some ways fun, but it's still signing your life away. Humans are humans, marriage is marriage- pardon, sire, I didn't mean to imply that you-”
“No, no, go on.”
“If it pleases my lord, I was saying that marriage has fundamental tones that are true in any circumstance. This is a rare exception.”
“Could you not marry for love?”
“I don't believe I would ever find it.”
“So tell me, if you did find love would you pursue it?”
“I don't know. I don't suppose I would, but I don't know love. Perhaps. Have you ever known love, sire?”
“Once- not with a woman, or at least, not a peer. My mother loved me. Love is a marvelous, marvelous feeling. I quite imagine loving a woman would be a different thing altogether, of course.” Mairi noticed he avoided the topic of the late queen.
He cleared his throat. “I must go, Father beckons me- oh dear, he has a young woman with him. Well, farewell Mairi the Pianist. I hope we meet again, you seem a very interesting woman.” He stood and left. She hardly noticed. She heard him say her name again. It sounded so grand when he said it, her common, lowly name sounded as if he spoke of the most important person in the world.
She was soon called away to play as the guests departed. She watched the prince as he left. He noticed her as well and waved. Her heart fluttered and she waved back a moment too late. He was gone. The prince of the kingdom cared enough to wave to her! A lowborn common girl!
She stayed in an inn that night then left in the morning to head to her next performance. She didn't have a home or family, she lived in a carriage large enough to hold all her possessions and traveled.
She had nothing but the carriage and the road. Her parents had been killed when she was four by a neighboring kingdom. They had for some reason attacked her village. Da had been in the forest with the Lord hunting. Mama had been bringing the men food. Da died defending the lord and Mama died trying to save him.
Her parents had loved each other. That had gotten them killed and left an orphan behind. Even if Da would have died, Mama would at least have lived. They could have survived. She hated love.
She became a ward of the nobleman who got her parents killed. She lived in cramped quarters with too many other children and not enough food, save for when they stole some extra. She had snuck out many nights exploring. One night, she found a piano.
She fell in love with the sounds it made. It was as if magic filled the air every time she pressed a key. She learned the sheet music herself and started clumsily playing real songs.
“It's a bit late for you to be out, is it not?” she jumped and whirled. Behind her was a tall, skeletal man. She thought she had seen him around but didn't pay attention to the courtiers. She jumped off the bench as if it were on fire.
“Oh- sorry, sir- I was just-”
“Hush, child. Who are you?”
“Mairi, a ward.”
“You like the piano?”
She smiled as speaking of a sweet. “Yes, sir, very much!”
“Come, sit with me.”
From then on the chorister for the small church adjacent to the castle trained her in music. He was a kind man. He taught her much. He taught her the wedding songs, which she knew by heart. She loved them dearly. She didn't care what they meant.
He had always loved weddings. On his deathbed, he made her swear to continue them(‘to bring more joy to love with your beautiful music…’). So she did. He was the only one who had ever been kind to her, and she loved him like a father. Every note she played was a terrible beauty, a monument to him. Each note felt like a tear she could not give.
She had no family anymore, if he ever counted. She had no friends or kin of any kind. Only the piano and the long road ahead. So she walked the dusty road in her heart and body and she imagined each step was on a key, ringing out beautiful sounds for her labors. A beautiful song nobody heard.
Her next wedding was some noble. She wasn't really paying attention, it was small scale. It yielded the same observations as any other. Next she had her favorite variety, the loose, casual common weddings. It gave her a taste of who she had been. When she was there, even though she brought a simple piano and wore a brown common dress, they were somewhat stiffer.
But she still watched the easy talk and folk dances with a sense of longing. The bride and groom still didn't seem to like each other, at best they were friendly acquaintances. It was still a wedding. But there was celebration because the commoners could be happy. In their halflives as servants to some lord with loveless marriages they could dreg up joy in a way nobody else could. She knew why. It was because they had nothing else to live for but the joy they chose. They had to have joy because joy gave life meaning.
The nobility with their riches and land were stiff and formal and had to put on a face. Only the most downtrodden could be happy in this backwards kingdom. The nobility would never be able to smile to act strange for the sake of it or choose for themselves.
Suddenly she was very glad she was common born.
Was there something else that gave meaning? Something worth living for even when you couldn't have joy? Something anyone could have, highborn or low? Prince Brennan knew. There was something he lived for that wasn't politics. He was alive in a dead, dead world. He was living for something and starving for it.
What gave her meaning? The piano? It was all that defined her, all she had left. She was living for nothing. But she held to her half life because she was waiting for something. Waiting for something but she didn't know what.
She was waiting for something like what the chorister had in him. And her parents, in her foggy memories. They had something special, some spark she couldn't place. She had seen it, she wanted it, but she didn't know it, and it was a stranger to her. Maybe she waited for it to take pity on her.
Her next wedding was between a middle aged baron and a widowed lady. She was enjoying the food and zoning out(there wasn’t much to pay attention to besides her food) when someone slid in beside her. She looked up disinterestedly and jumped to attention when she saw the Prince.
“Hello, Mairi.” He remembered her name?
“Brennan, please. Formalities are a minefield.”
“B...brennan? Yes, your grace.”
He laughed. “Brennan. So what's your favorite of the weddings you've gone to?”
“I-I don't know. The common ones, I guess.”
“Why?” he looked so interested in her answer she almost couldn't give one(why did he care?).
“They’re so lively. The couple don't love each other and everyone there hates their life, but they're still celebrating.”
“That sounds beautiful.” He was so sincere! Why did he care about her? What if she angered him and got banished? “What else have you observed?”
“Prince Brennan!” a deep voice called. The Prince sighed.
“Coming, Father! Sorry, miss pianist, I have to go.”
“Farewell. I hope to see you soon, Miss Mairi.”
The next wedding she attended he was there. It was a lower lord's wedding and not something royalty would be expected to attend, but he showed up for some reason anyway. He was completely swamped for the entirety of the wedding. She didn't speak to him, but she waved as he left. He waved back.
She attended a few common weddings and then an Earl’s. He and his Father attended, and the King's presence drew away the crowd. He sat beside her again.
“Sorry I wasn't able to steer away from the crowd at Lord Westons wedding.”
“Why would a prince seek me out? Your grace.”
“Actually, I convinced Father to let me attend because of you.”
“I felt it was rude I didn't let you finish your reply at the Barons wedding, so I tried to meet you but nobody would let me escape. Very sorry about that. Unfortunately, Father has taken my interest in weddings for me wanting to marry and has doubled his search for a bride. But see here, I’m talking on and on and not giving you a chance to talk.”
“Oh, no trouble, your grace.”
“Please, you were telling me at the Baron's wedding what else you've observed.”
“Oh, I’m sure it was nothing.”
“Very well. Why do you only play at weddings if you resent them?”
“My mentor loved weddings. I play them in his honor, he made me swear on his deathbed.”
“Your father is dead? I’m terribly sorry.”
“No, my da died when I was a toddler. My mama with him. I wish the man who taught me piano was my father.”
“I’m very sorry about your parents.”
“I’m not. They were fools. If they hadn’t been I wouldn't be an orphan.”
“So,” he changed the topic, “you said you enjoy common weddings because of the celebrations. Where else do you celebrate?”
“Then what do they do?”
“Sing and dance and laugh.”
“Can you show me how?”
“Here? I hardly think it would be appropriate- your grace.” She couldn't refuse a prince, but she also couldn't get him dancing like a commoner in the middle of an earls wedding. “But… uh…”
“Pppllease?” He made a ridiculous face and she couldn't help but laugh. “Great!” he smiled. She mock glared.
“I- oh, your grace, please forgive- forgive-” she burst out laughing again at the face he made.
“Let's go!” he caught hold of her hand and pulled her off to the center of the waltzing people(waltzing to a different band). Her hand burned at the touch of royalty. She reluctantly took his other hand and started spinning around and around, shyly kicking up her heels. Her face burned. This would be the end of her career, her life, her dignity!
Some of the band were common born like her and understood what she was doing. They started playing a livelier tune and the others, when they caught on that a prince was participating(however willingly) joined in.
The prince was laughing and hollering and overall behaving with the royal dignity of a monkey. She couldn't help but laugh. The duke and the commoner joined in and she linked hands with the common born girl. The circle kept expanding but she stayed linked to the prince as her other hand switched sweaty hand after hand and the group of stiff noble dignitaries were hooting and laughing and smiling and-
“WHAT IS GOING ON?” the king's voice boomed. He had returned from some errand. Abruptly, everyone broke apart. The Prince kept firm hold on her hand. At the worst possible time it occurred to her that she had danced with the Prince. And danced like an idiot, at that.
The king stormed over to the Duke's wife. “Have you done this?” The girl looked terrified and the duke outraged, but she spoke up before they could reply in a brave fit of stupidity.
“Sire, it was me. Deepest apologies.”
“And who are you?” he boomed, glaring at her.
“Father, I made her do it.” The Prince startled her as he spoke.
“You did what? Who is she?” The king said.
“I am the wedding pianist, Mairi.”
“I have half a mind to-”
“Father, I forced her. It wasn't her fault.”
“You are going to regret this, Brennan. And you, Mary or whatever your name is, you are to pay a fine of 100 crowns.”
“Silence! You’re in enough trouble as it is. Be glad I’m not imprisoning her.”
“But it isn't fair!”
“One more word and I will execute her!”
Mairis eyes widened. The Prince hung his head and dropped her hand. She silently collected the fine(and 50 extra, to be safe) and handed it to the king's servant, avoiding the king's eyes.
She didn't get any high jobs for a month, and she didn't hear a word of the prince being permitted to go anywhere in public for a long while.
The next time she played some big wedding, he wasn't there. She firmly squashed her disappointment. The time after that, he was. She sensed the king's eyes on them both as he slid in beside her. She silently stood and moved. He followed.
“Mairi- I’m really sorry. Please, please let me explain.”
“I think it's best,” she said in a cold voice, “if you didn't speak with me. You could get in more trouble, your grace,” and she could lose her neck. He stopped following her and she could feel his disappointment.
Could she get in trouble for that? She didn't think he would do anything to her, especially compared to what his father would do. She felt a bit sad, but kept walking. She heard footsteps behind her.
“I just wanted to say, I’m sorry.” He fell back. She sighed and sat down to wage war with herself. She knew all would be lost if she remembered the faces he made. So of course, that was all she could visualize.
But when she turned to accept his apology or something, he was gone. He had some errand or something. She didn't see him again. Before she left, a messenger gave her a heavy envelope, “from the prince, my lady’. On the road to her next wedding, she opened it and 200 crowns spilled out with a note. She couldn't read, so she stowed the note under her pillow.
She meant to ask him to read it to her next time she saw him, but he wasn't at the next few noble weddings she attended. When at last she found him, at some other duke's wedding(as loveless as the majority, though she had stopped noticing things about the weddings and started to watch for the prince), he avoided her. She had to seek him out, but was unable to because he stayed in proximity to his father.
She finally caught him away from his father. “I’m very sorry, I didn't mean to bother you, father dragged me here.”
“I didn't try to come to one of your weddings to pester you. Now I'm just making a bigger fool of myself.”
“Who am I to tell a prince where he can and can't be?”
“Who are you? Why your- a human, just like everyone else.” He had obviously caught himself before saying something. She wanted to know what but didn't press.
“Never the less. I just wanted to ask you to read this.” She pulled out the note.
“You can't- oh, of course. I'm a fool, of course you can't read. I'm sorry, sending that was insensitive.”
“Please? I'm curious.”
“What if I taught you how to read?”
“Teach? Me? To read?”
“This is a dream or a trick!”
“You mean to tell me I'm going to learn to read?”
“If you wish? Though if you don't want to have to associate with me anymore i understand. I could send a tutor.”
“No! I mean, if you're busy a tutor would be great. But I don't object to you teaching me.” She actually really, really wanted him to, but she didn't let it show. He smiled.
“Then, pupil, I believe we have some learning to do. Can you live in the castle?”
“Well if you lived on the road I don't know how I could teach you, but if you stayed in the guest wing…”
“Oh, no, a servant's room would be fine.”
“Nonsense, you’ll be my guest.”
“Great! Come as soon as you can. Father won't even notice, we have so many people in the castle.”
He left to appease his father and she stood there, stunned. Then she screamed in excitement(hoping he was out of earshot. He wasn’t.). She was going to learn to read! With the prince! In the palace!
She had already agreed to one wedding. She would go after that.
The road which usually felt easy under her wheels dragged on and on and she realized she didn't live on the road and notes any more. She lived to get to the palace. Or maybe the prince. He was funny and kind. Not very princely, but she liked that.
She hadn't been living for the road in a while, she realized. She wondered if she had found what she was waiting for. But the only thing that changed was the prince. That didn't add up. All her observations said you didn't live on a person. She was living on something about him. Friendship, maybe? But she had friends before. She was less empty when she had friends, but she wasn't alive.
She thought back to when she had felt alive before. When her parents were alive her life and home was humming with some special energy she fed on. When she was with the choirster. Had she just found a new paternal figure? No! Massively, disgustingly no. What then?
The wedding was a common wedding yet all she could think of as she watched the festivities was the wild look on Brennan’s face when he was dancing with her. And when they swung so close their faces crashed together and she ended up with a massive bruise on her forehead from his chin.
She had fallen on him and he lost his wind but he didn't stop. They kept dancing when he had no air in his lungs because he wanted every second of freedom before his father got back.
For some reason the image of him trying to kiss some girl but tripping and injuring her sprang to mind and she burst out laughing in the middle of the (actually solemn) vows. She felt a thousand eyes on her, though there couldn't be more than a hundred people there. She felt like she was about to start burning there and then, and she wished the ground would swallow her.
The couple's grins were glowing. This was one of those weird marriages too. The bride was glaring fire at her and the groom was sighing. She must have laughed harder than she thought.
The ground did not split open to accommodate her, nor did she combust. She just sat there enduring the stares and murmurs until the priest cleared his throat and people turned back to the wedding.
She was on the road to the prince and writing lessons but a wedding had come up. It was important and with powerful people. So she stopped and played it. The crowds were massive and the groom grinning.
She looked more closely at him and realized it was the prince. Odd. She kept playing, but no sound came from the keys. She realized no sound had come for a while and she was only now noticing. Suddenly so did everyone else. They were all staring at her, except the bride and the groom.
The bride's dark hair hid her face as she watched her soon to be husband. The prince watched her. The priest continued and got to asking if anyone objected.
She felt like she had no control over her body as she stood and shouted, “I object!” and they all turned to her. The crowd laughed. The king glared. The prince stared at her in horror and anger and disappointment. And when the bride turned, she recognized her. The bride was Mairi.
Suddenly the king shouted, “Off with her head!” and an axe flew from someone or somewhere-
She screamed and woke up. It took a while to calm. It was such a weird dream. How on earth did her brain come up with that? And that wasn't even remotely the weirdest. And how had she not realized it was a dream?
It didn't matter. She should record her weirdest dreams, it would be funny to look back on. She didn't though. She couldn't write, and even if she could she didn't want to share that dream.
She arrived that day as the sun painted the horizon red in farewell. She just had the driver stop the coach and waited to see what happened. Some people approached but didn't believe the prince summoned her and didn't let her in, so she just camped it a little ways off for the night.
She had no nightmares.
The next morning she heard a knock. She stumbled over to the door with her hair a mess and her eyes half open and opened it.
The prince was there.
She almost screamed.
She jumped and tried to straighten out her hair. She dropped her blanket and stood straight. He laughed.
“I guess you aren't a morning bird, huh?”
“So um, you can come in now, '' I spoke to the guards. When you're ready some servants will escort you to your rooms.”
She nodded. “Mleyhmm, majesttymn.”
“Alright, uh, get some sleep?”
She nodded. He chuckled and left.
She finally got all the tangles out of her hair and looked presentable. Dang it! He would never let her forget that. Wait, shouldn’t she be worried about the politeness of interacting with royalty like that? Somehow she wasn't at all concerned.
She drove in and a servant waited for her. Someone took her home to a safe storage site and put the horses in a stable. She was led to some rooms. They said they would move all her things to her room and that the prince wanted to see her as soon as possible. She wasn't really paying attention.
When they took her to Brennan he was waiting in a small but bright room with a small man with tight eyes.
She glared at him. Of course he laughed. “It was a long night!”
“Ah, don't worry about it. If Father didn't make me, I'd sleep til noon.”
“Somehow I believe you.”
“Alright, so this is Tutor Fussy Bossy- I mean, this is Tutor Sorrel.” then Brennan stage whispered, “but you can just call him Mr. Bossy-Pants.”
She laughed and the tutor frowned.
“But anyways, he's here to make sure I don't screw up and he can teach you when Father has me away doing boring stuff. Is the room to your liking? We could go to a classroom or something, but this is my favorite room.”
“No, it's beautiful.”
He smiled, “great! Ok, so here's the parchment. Now write an A, like this,” he made a symbol on the paper.
“Ahem.” Tutor bo- Tutor Sorrel said. “Highness, I believe you’re getting ahead of yourself.”
“Does she know what an A is?”
“Yeah, it's the word you say for things, like a cat or a piano.”
“See?” the tutor said. “Teach her the alphabet before you teach her to write it.”
“Oh you’re no fun!” Just then Mairi got the impression of a toddler being told off and stifled a laugh. “Alright, Mairi-”
“Ahem! Miss Mairi.”
“Really? She’s my friend.” The tutor just cleared his throat. “Fine, Miss Mairi, the alphabet makes up words. Like the word piano is spelled with 5 letters from the alphabet. P, I, A, N, O.”
And so on. By the end of the day she knew what a letter was. The tutor was not impressed with Brennans- the princes, tutoring skills and made threats of varying severity. Brennan just laughed and she got the impression the tutor couldn't or wouldn't act on any of them.
There was also a little bit of banter between them, though the tutor got him back on track often. They were closer than either let on. When Brennan walked her to her rooms he told her that Tutor Cranky had taught him since he was a child, and was more of a father to him than the king(he whispered the last bit).
The next day the Tutor suggested that she teach the prince piano. He more demanded it, but his words were polite. They conceded.
But though the lessons were interesting and his abominable attempts at playing the piano amusing(when her ears stopped bleeding. He seemed to find it hilarious), when he walked her back to her rooms were her favorite moments.
She knew the way, but he kept doing it and she never protested. They walked slower than they otherwise would have. She was near certain she had divulged every observation and theory she had, and she enjoyed his perspective. In fact, she preferred it when he disagreed. It was interesting, and he showed himself intelligent despite his foolish behavior.
“Tell me, then. Do you believe in love?”
He looked interested. “Why not?”
“Perhaps I believe in the thing people call love. I believe there is a state people enter where they are delusional fools and lose their common sense. And that is what orphans children.”
“Have you never been loved?”
“I have. Mother was the most wonderful woman before she died. I was seven. I remember warm kisses and hugs and feeling so safe in my cocoon of her love.”
“So then she died and you woke up and saw the real world. Loving just makes loss hurt more.”
“Love gives life meaning.”
“Maybe for you. I have some theories on it. I've been wondering what you live on.” he seemed starved for whatever it was. Was it love? Couldn't be. Or if he was, it made him a fool.
“Tell me more?”
“The nobles live on politics. The commoners live on the joy they dregg up from life. Some people live for something else. Some people live on something greater and more perfect, but i can't tell what yet. Without something to live for, you die. Or you become a shell.”
“What are you living for?”
“Half shell. Just traveling and waiting for something. I suppose right now I'm living to learn to write. My life has no meaning, and I give no meaning. I play at weddings that leach joy from life and bind people. I have no meaning, I give no meaning, I live to wait.” Maybe she overshared. But she didn't care, she was comfortable with him.
“Well what if love is the ‘something greater and more perfect’ that you say some people live on?”
She laughed, but there was no mirth to it. “Love failed me.” tears bit the corners of her eyes and she walked into her room, leaving him in the hall.
Normally their conversations ended reluctantly with an arrival and a very long goodbye that usually consisted of whatever it was they were talking about before he realized his father wouldn't let him get away with much more time in some forgotten hall. Storming into her room was the exception.
The days he wasn't there her heart wasn't in the study. The tutor did an excellent job and she may have learned some, but she wasn't focused.
She had also taken to playing in the background at court to keep her from getting rusty(teaching Brennan didn't count). Nobody seemed to mind, and if anything they were pleased. Observing the court gave her more mental notes.
Fear, for example. A very common thread. Low born nobles afraid of attracting too much or too little attention, high standing courtiers afraid to fall out, the awkward middle where most members were stagnant. And the king afraid to blow relations. She heard a lot of talk about a marriage alliance. Poor Brennan.
Greed and ambition were also universal, in almost every member of court. Almost, but not Brennan or his cousin. They seemed less afraid too. They both existed half in some other world, always at peace and calm. Maybe one other low noble had the same aura. She didn't know or pay attention.
That was another bonus of sitting up there. Watching Brennan in court. It was interesting. He certainly wasn't himself, either the one disrupting lessons(he was supposed to be teaching her but the role he took was pestering Tutor Sorrel until he was told to leave leading to a strange sort of argument where everyone knew he wouldn't leave and the tutor didn't want him too.) and acting like an idiot or the intelligent version she had deep conversations with.
She didn't dislike this version of him either. He seemed to be stuffed into a role he didn't want like a dog stuffed in a coat. Yet he somehow accepted it without donning it. He did exactly as he was supposed to, but he stayed serene and other. It was fascinating and strange.
She liked all three Brennans, and she wanted to know the others. She wondered what he was like with his fabled mother, long ago, and she wondered what he would be like with his imaginary wife.
His imaginary wife was just someone, anyone that he chose and that mutually loved each other(she scoffed every time he said that, but he pretended not to notice). They both knew that was never going to happen, but he dreamed and she let him.
The first time she called him Brennan was one of her favorite memories.
“Now, Brennan, put your finger on this k- what?” she looked up at the biggest eyes he had every made and a massive, stupid smile all across his face. She laughed, “what?”
“You called me Brennan!”
“Oh, sorry your-”
“You finally called me Brennan!”
“Well, since you're smiling like an idiot I assume that's a good thing.”
“I am in your debt forever, most fair maiden of the land of piano keys!”
She forced herself to keep a straight face. “Great, then focus on what I was trying to teach you.”
Soon after that he asked her to call him Bren. she straight up refused. Yes, she refused royalty. He smiled about it. Apparently no one was casual when addressing him and he wanted to be told no like a normal person. Though in his shoes, she would do the same.
She was so glad she wasn't. The better she knew him, the more she realized how hard his life was. In his place, she would crumble. He had a lot of strength.
The worst of it was the way people treated him. Valuable but fragile, stupid, and inhuman. They either feared or manipulated him. He had no friends, no peers. And he was cursed to marry without a word in edgewise. At least most people chose to rope themselves down.
Yet he was still cheerful. It was like the common folk, dragging joy out of empty, hungry pits. But he was alone, and his weight greater, and he bore it with a smile. What gave him the strength?
One day he caught her in the hall. She noticed no people passed and felt as if it were intentional.
“Can you not tell a soul what I'm about to tell you?”
“Uh… is it why you decided to talk to me alone in a dark hall?”
He laughed. It sounded forced. “Seriously do not let this get out.”
“Course. You know I won't.”
She waited but he just stood there. “So… you wanted to talk to me about something top secret?”
“Oh, yeah. So… oh, confound it, how do I say this? Well, uh… you're an amazing girl and, uh…”
“Spit it out Brennan, come on.”
“What? Was that Latin or are you terrible at english?”
“Latin! Yes, I wanted to ask if you wanted to learn math and latin!”
“I. Kinda. Like… you?”
He suddenly resembled a tomato(more so than before). She realized she probably did too. “But it's no big deal and i'm sorry for making everything awkward and you never ever have to speak to me again if you don't want to and please please please don't tell a soul or father will kill us both and i'm really really sorry.” he turned and started almost running. She reached out and made some strange sound of protest but he was gone.
She walked to her room to think. So he liked her?
She felt like crushing her heart when it fluttered slightly.
She couldn't have even entertain the thought of him romantically. For one thing, he was a prince. For another, he could never like her. And besides, after all their debates about love she was positive he would never even think about her, especially since he would be betrothed. But with this information everything suddenly changed and her world was upside down. Or maybe right side up?
No! No no no. She didn't like Brennan. He was also on the cusp of betrothal. He was also the prince! And Brennan! And she didn't want to be married anyway(right?)! And again, prince! And betrothed!
But if she rejected him she could crush him. And her heart, but she didn't really care anymore. It was only barely beating after the last 17 or so years. Besides, his famous imaginary wife loved him. He knew how she felt about love. And he knew it would never work.
He didn't show up to lessons the next day. She knew he wasn't busy. She couldn't seek him out because royal. She did pass him later that day in the hall though. She noticed his eyes flash with hope that didn't believe and then he looked away and turned slightly pink.
She couldn't just leave him to his embarrassment. Besides, royal or no, like or no, he was her best friend and she wanted things to not be awkward.
“Talk to me.” She used her normal friendly bossy voice. His shoulders relaxed slightly then tensed but he followed to an area where no one would overhear them.
“So.” she said.
“Because you're… you.”
She had no clue why that meant he would or could like her, but she ignored it. “And you think that we could ever be a…, how?”
“I know it's impossible, I wasn't asking you to like me back or anything. I wanted to be honest.”
“The fact remains if your father found out-”
“What if I said yes?”
“What do you mean?”
“I don't know, I'm just curious.”
“I have no clue. I would try to convince Father?”
“You know that wouldn't work.”
“Maybe it would. Are you saying yes to whatever I asked?”
“I still don't have a clue what that is.”
“Neither do I. I guess the question is how do you feel?”
“Awkward,” they both hesitantly laughed. “I don't know. On principle I’m opposed to… love? But I'm having a war inside.”
“It's ok, I didn't expect you to.”
“Yes, well, I'm still sorry. But should we agree to pretend this isn't happening until I work myself out?”
“Hm, this is less awkward than I expected.”
“I’m going to go pretend to be the perfect prince awaiting engagement now.”
“And I will do the same thing I always do.”
“Eh, wandering around wherever my mood takes me. Might take out my carriage. I always think better there and it's been a while.”
“You aren't going to leave for good to avoid… everything?”
“No.” But she gave him her most treasured possession so he knew she would come back. “I still haven't read it yet.” she handed him the note.
“I can read it to you, but it doesn't say anything special.”
“It's words from you, of course it's special. But no, I want to save it for the first thing i can read, and you can help me with the words i don't know.”
He smiled. “I shall keep it safe, my lady.”
She didn't think of anything new while she rode. But all the chaos in her drained until she could tell what she was feeling.
It was love. It was definitely love.
She didn't shout for joy or anything. She punched her pillow and felt as if she fell trap to a spider's web.
She didn't notice she was finally living again.
The next time they had a hall conversation, she jumped right in.
“So remember the boy we were talking about, the one i wasn't sure if i liked?”
“I figured it out, but i don't think you’ll like it, mr love is the greatest power in the universe.”
His face fell. “Oh?”
“It's definitely love. Funny thing is, I'm not happy. I feel like I'm trapped.”
“My parents. When they died it was because of love. It made them do stupid things and forget the daughter they were orphaning. From there I guess I just started hating love. And now I can't even rejoice when I know that I'm it's vic- that I have it.”
“So what are you going to do? If he could find a way to marry you would you say yes?”
“Stupid me, I think I would. I think I would ultimately be happy. But I would also have a lot of confusion.”
“Oh. maybe he shouldn't, then.”
“I don't think he has a way. But if he did, I think he should. I think maybe I want to learn how to love.”
“I still think it's impossible.”
“You shouldn't underestimate him.”
“Well, I decided to accept a wedding.”
“It's foreign. I won't be gone too long, but I couldn't turn down the opportunity, sorry.”
“Not too soon, thank goodness.”
“Alright… So tomorrow can you play the piano in the throne room?”
“Somethings going down.”
“I’ll be there.”
Later in her room she realized she never got back the paper.
The next day, as promised, she showed up at the throne room and played away. Before Brennan arrived, she heard talk of a betrothal between Brennan and Princess Lisandra. She ignored it with slight grief and jealousy until she heard which kingdom. Norfolk. The people who had killed her parents. A hard, ugly note slipped out as her fingers turned to stone, but it was payed no mind.
Norfolk was in the running because they were a warlike people with money and a large army. They had expressed interest in a betrothal, and they were the top candidate. Mairis blood felt like ice.
Late in the morning, Brennan showed up. The king looked surprised.
“Father, I have a proposal.”
“The common folk don't have any ties to the monarchy. How are they to know we have their best interests at heart? What's to stop a revolt?”
“An army secured through alliance with Norfolk.”
“What if they had someone on the throne?”
“What are you suggesting?”
“A ball, three balls, actually,” she couldn't wait to ask him why he picked three of all numbers. “To choose a wife. If they had a common woman on the throne they would be more at ease, and I would marry willingly.”
“Is this more of your love nonsense?”
“No, I'm suggesting we host a ball for only the common woman of the land, with all of them to attend, to keep peace and make the common folk feel at ease.”
“Yes.” Did Brennan just defy his father? He never did that.
“Brennan. Do not defy me.”
“I have done exactly what I was supposed to and been your perfect trophy for years. This is my marriage. You cannot force me. You will host three balls at weekly intervals. You will invite every commonborn woman in the land. And I will choose my wife from them, or I will not marry.” Had he lost his mind? Yet his father looked at him with respect.
“Very well, Prince Brennan. If you govern like that, this kingdom is in good hands. Perhaps I underestimated you. When would you like the first ball to take place?” What had just happened?
“In two days' time, on the night of Saturday.”
Mairi left as soon as she could about 10 minutes later. Brennan waited for her outside.
“Oh stop looking at me like that.” He kept his smug grin.
“Told you I could do it.”
“Why 3 balls? Of all the numbers in the world?”
“It's a fun number!”
“And there he is.”
“My little toddler masquerading as an adult.”
“Such grand compliments, fair lady. Oh! We should make it a masquerade ball!”
“Yeah do you really want to go back in and add more requirements?”
“Tell you what, little prince. I’ll wear a mask just for you.”
“Hooray! And I decided three weeks because I wanted to give you time to back out if you change your mind.”
“Thank you. I think it's made, but I’m glad anyways. But you better dance with other girls.”
“If you instantly start only paying attention to me, everyone will be suspicious.”
“I’ll tell them I was drawn to the mystery of my masked lady.”
“Fine. what, next you’ll say no folk dances either?”
“Oh, yes, because your dad would be so approving. But I suspect there will be a lot. The common women won't know how to dance. You had better not join any. In fact, if you can teach me to waltz quickly I can dance with you respectably and earn your da’s- fathers, approval.”
“That won't do it, but ok. Go get your dresses ordered before everyone elses orders are in.”
She ordered three dresses from the seamstress and bought slippers and jewelry to go with them. She choose a mask last.
It was simple but elegant, silver and white with a few beads but no feathers or nonsense. It matched the dress she ordered for the third night best.
Fortunately, she wasn't asked to play during the dance(Brennan probably reminded the king she was common too or something. If not she would just say she only played at weddings and made an exception for court.)
Her wedding trip was between the second and third balls, but she would get back in time. Brennan was disappointed but got over it.
He taught her how to dance to her own music. It should have been magical or elegant, but it was just fun. Of course it was, she was with Brennan. The last dance practice they had, they were alone. Brennan leaned in to kiss her- then she tripped. They each got a brand new set of bruises and winded from laughing so hard.
She managed to get out between laughs when she imagined him kissing a girl and tripping, which only redoubled their aggressive laughter.
“I… swear… I will never breathe…. Again!” she gasped.
“You… you tripped us! Wasn't me this time!” but then they doubled over laughing again.
The day of the dance he was busy, and she spent her time preparing. Her dress had been the first ordered and the poor, swamped seamstress had hers out first. It hung to the floor in sunflower yellow silk, and the sleeves were long but her hands didn't drown in them. The slippers were marigold and small but comfortable. They fit her feet completely without chafing. She wasn't sure where she got them but she had gold earrings and a necklace, so she wore that.
The mask was meant to be held but attached elasticity during dances. She was massively relieved, she had worried she would have to hold it the whole time. Somebody styled her hair and it looked pretty, but she was pretty bored. She wanted to see the prince. Which felt weird until she realized she had always been longing to see him; she just hadn't admitted it.
She didn't accept it now though, did she? She wasn't sure. She hated love, but he was so perfect. She loved loving him. And they were going to get married. No, there was no way. It was too good to be true, to perfect. He was too perfect to be real(he was having a lot of the same thoughts just then).
She walked outside with the palace staff and waited in the chilly autumn with hundreds of other girls. The doors were opened as the clock chimed 7 times and girls poured in. She noticed Brennan graciously greet each girl and smiled at all the giggles.
“Good evening, fair maiden of mystery.” She wanted to tell him to shove it and start bantering away, but couldn't in the present company. He seemed to notice. She spotted the glint in his eye and moved away before he could take advantage of the opportunity, deliberately elbowing him as she passed. She heard him laugh behind her.
Since the tables were flooded, she headed over there first, until a squire asked her to dance. She accepted to show off the dancing she had learned. She meet eyes with Brennan and silently told him to dance with a couple strangers. He did(reluctantly). She sat in the corner under one of the chandeliers until the second song finished and he asked her to dance.
“You look beautiful, miss mystery- or should i say, misstery?”
“Oh stop it,” she laughed.
“I wonder how many faces I would have to make to get you to circle dance with me.”
“You can try all night, but never again.”
“Aw… so, madam, any new theories?”
She tried to answer but with the music and the crystals reflecting a thousand golden lights across everything and the thrill of the dance she was breathless under the magic of it all.
“I can't remember just now. Does it matter?”
“I find your thoughts fascinating, but ok.”
“Hey wait a minute!”
“What?” By his false innocent expression she knew he knew what she was talking about.
“This isn't the same song.”
“You heard me mister. You trickster!”
“I wanted to keep talking to you.”
“Is it really that big a deal if Father knows I fancy one girl? I thought that was the point.”
“I don't think he believes in love any more than I do… or did… or do? If he knew you just proposed these balls as an excuse to marry a commoner would his answer have be different?”
“Ok so dance with other girls more often than not.”
“Can we do away with the schemes? It's too late to change things now!”
“Are you certain it's safe?”
“Fine. Wait- hey-”
“I just lost my top excuse to scold you! And it's so fun to scold you!”
“I can give you other reasons!”
“If you do anything stupid in front of everyone here I swear that will be the end of you.”
“Yes, I've heard it's quite dangerous to be in close proximity to pianists who explode in frustration.”
“You have that right. Have you ever been hit over the head with a piano key?”
“No, but I bet I will be.”
“Just you wait.”
“Oh, but you would have to catch me first.”
“Like I’d give you time to run.”
“But you would, you would have to go fetch a key first!”
“Is that a challenge? Do you want me to start carrying a key around?”
He laughed as the song ended.
“Right, I’m tired, this dance is hard work. I'm going to sit down now.”
“We could always-”
“Don't even. I’m not in the mood to get your father to have me hanged for corrupting a prince.”
“Maybe I was already corrupt and you're uncorrupting me,” he tried to kiss her cheek but she dodged.
“Do you want your father down on us?”
“You’re wearing a mask, he couldn't identify you.”
He was swept away by some lesser royalty. A young man appeared at her side. She faintly recognized him but couldn't tell from where. There was a mischievous twinkle in his eye suspiciously like Brennans when he was up to no good.
“Can I have this dance?”
“I'm pretty tired.”
They started dancing when he leaned in and whispered, “Brenni sent me.”
“Oh boy, this ought to be good.”
“I’m supposed to sneak you out.”
“Let me guess, he wants to act like an idiot where nobody will see him?”
“Yeah. My wife and I, and some of her friends, will be there too.”
“Can't imagine why. What is it about the circle dance he so loves?”
“An escape. He enjoys waltzes and Beethoven and princely things, but he just wants to be a common boy.”
“That makes more sense. In that case, I shall teach him to square dance and the rufty tufty.”
The man laughed. “He’ll love that. So, you’re the girl he fancies?”
“Yeah, I suppose so.”
“He talks a lot about you.”
She didn't know what to say to that, so she changed the subject. “How exactly does he intend to sneak off?”
“Oh that parts easy, he's calling it sneaking out because he likes the sense of adventure.”
She laughed, “that's my little boy.”
“Little boy would describe him all right. When he isn't around Uncle, that is.”
“Oh! You’re the duke! Brennan and I met at your wedding.”
“The very same.”
“So how is he going to get away with sneaking off? Won't his father, and everyone else, notice?”
“Yeah that’s the part he hasn’t thought through.”
“Well, great. Why does that not surprise me?”
Duke Charles chuckled. “Well, I can try to distract them. Don't you think I could pass for Bren? No, no, I’m too handsome to pass for him.”
“That's treason talk that is. Don't let Brennan hear that.”
“Wise cautions, good lady, he would overcompensate to defend his ugly face.”
She snorted but held in her laugh. “I’ll tell him you said that and he’ll have you thrown in the dungeons!”
“No! Please, my lady!”
She laughed. “You really are just like him.”
“Take that back! I'm ten times more charming!”
She rolled her eyes. “Do you have an actual plan or are we just going to hope that Brennan's excuses work when his father finds us?”
“Yeah I think we’ll have to put our hopes in Brenni this time. But remember, I, Char, am far smarter and better looking than him.”
“I wonder if your wife would agree.”
“Keep your voice down!”
“Oh so she does try to keep you in line.”
“If she catches me boasting I'm dashed! If she can catch me. And get over her laughter.”
“You sound exactly like Brennan- who is far more charming than any other man in existence. Don't tell him I said that.”
“I wonder if Kathy would agree.”
“Ah, it seems we have reached an impasse. Alright, so what is mr three year olds master plan.”
“Literally just walk out of the building. On our tip toes. And he said if you can wear black that would be great. If we’re caught he can lower us from the balcony by rope.”
“No, if we’re caught we’ll be taken for thieves. How about we walk out trying to act casual?”
“You're no fun.”
“Let's go before Duchess Kathrine comes looking and hears about your boasting.”
“Call her Kathy. The way Brenni talks you’ll be cousins in law in no time.”
Mairi blushed. “Oh… oh uh…”
“Ok, let's go.” He was totally laughing at her.
“Ok!” They walked out like normal people and no one gave them a second look(At this time, Brennan was walking out on his tiptoes glancing around corners and everyone was staring at him in confusion. He took off his crown so most people didn't recognize him).
They met up in the courtyard. “Were you caught?” Brennan asked.
“Oh hush. Nobody even glanced at us because we didn't look like spies,” she said.
“Speak for yourself,” Duke Charles said.
“But this idiot followed your instructions. You really are twin souls.”
“No we are not! I'm 10 times more charming than he is!”
“I knew you would say that.”
Mairi turned to a nearby woman. “You must be Duchess Kathrine. Nice to meet you. Should I tell you how much your husband was-”
“No!” the duke interrupted.
“Oh I can guess. What have I told you mister?” she caught hold of his ear. He grumbled and she let go, laughing.
“Ok, come on Mai, we got a lot of people at the town square for your circle dance.”
“Since when do you call me Mai?”
“Don't you dare.”
“Oh we can't call you Mai?” the duke said.
“Well you can't! Only her friends can,” Brennan said with too much smugness.
“Did I not just tell you no?”
“You aren't her friend!” the duke laughed.
“Shut up.” Mairi said to Brennan at the same time as Kathrine said to Charles.
“How do you keep him in line?” Mairi whispered(loudly) to Kathrine.
“It's hard. Primarily I threaten him with no food.”
“Don't you have servants to cook?”
“Yes but he prefers mine. Mostly he runs wild.”
“I seem to be doomed.”
They got to the town square. “Ok! Circle dance! Please please please!”
Mairi laughed. “You look like a dog asking for bacon!”
“No. I'm going to teach you to square dance.”
“You really look like a toddler with a sweet.”
“How do you know I'm not?”
“You would have had a massive growth spurt.”
Her words died as the crowd started dancing to flutes, bagpipes and drums with married couples who weren't eligible for the ball and men who hadn’t bothered to go.
The ballroom was magical with it's golden lights and crystals and fancy noble music in the bright light of chandeliers. It was so grand and gilded.
But under the stars with the loving music of common song and dance under weak torchlight, in community where everyone mattered and was seen and wasn't just a noisy background, this was magic. This was perfect.
They danced and danced until their feet were sore then danced and danced some more. At the end of the rufty tufty she felt arms around her and screamed/laughed as she fell back and her hair brushed the ground. Brennan was holding her and leaned closer, and she moved up, until a moment before their lips touched a loud, angry, and familiar voice shouted. The music stopped. Brennan accidentally dropped her but it didn't hurt.
“Brennan! What are you doing? You asked me to hold you a ball and then don't even attend?”
“Father, I'm with a girl from the ball. We needed some fresh air.”
The king's face was terrifyingly red and she was very glad for her mask. “And who is that?”
“One of the guests.”
“What were you doing?”
“Well we tried to kiss but you interrupted us.”
The king's eyes blazed and she realized he was out of accusations but still angry. That was scarier. “And why didn't you go onto the balcony if you wanted fresh air?”
“Because I was being immature again and thought it would be fun to sneak out. I forced Kathrine to gather a group of villagers because I wanted to circle dance because it looked like fun.”
“Take off that mask young lady! It's disrespectful to present yourself in a mask infront of royalty.”
“No father, I was talking to her about how it would be fun if it were a masquerade because I had a random thought that I said out loud. She humored me.”
“What is her name? I want her real name.” Both she and the king could see Brennans mind working to come up with a fake name.
“Mary,” he said.
“Mairi, sire.” she interrupted.
“Do you know her outside of the ball?”
“Yes, father. She teaches me piano.”
“And did you want this ball as an excuse to marry her?”
“Never do that again. Should you deceive me I will have you punished. And if she is involved again, I will have her killed. It's too late now. But keep up appearances for the peasants so they think they actually have a chance. And goodness sakes, stay in the building!”
Blandly, they followed the king to the castle, Charles and Katherine trailing behind them. The ball room seemed less perfect, and though she went to the balcony she still felt sad. Brennan did not dare to follow, for which she was grateful.
She left for her room before the ball ended. She felt Brennan's eyes on her but didn't turn, instead falling asleep in her room immediately and dreaming of what could have been.
She woke late the next morning but went to her lessons. Brennan was busy. Tutor Sorrel, however, tested her on her reading and writing skills. He proclaimed her literite. She was nervous that she had no reason to stay anymore, but Brennan had asked her to stay to learn math. Lessons dismissed early because Brennan had been determined to start teaching her math himself.
She wandered aimlessly wherever she felt least likely to encounter King Richard. The day ended early in an attempt to make up lost sleep.
The next day Brennan was there.
“Hello!” he said.
“I learned my lesson,” he said proudly.
“You never learn.”
“Well I did this time. I'm not going to start with addition, I'll start by asking you if you know what numbers are.”
“But you didn't ask.”
“Do you know what numbers are?”
“Yeah, I think so. One, two, three. One silver mask, two pianos, three keys to hit you over the head with, right?”
“Exactly. So this is how you write one.” he drew a line. She copied sloppily. He continued until she understood base tens and how to write numbers(base tens Tutor made sure of).
“Ok, so one plus one equals two.”
“I have one apple. I get one more apple. I put them together, how many apples do I have?”
And thus she learned he did know how to teach properly. He just wanted to give Tutor a hard time. But they quickly ran out of time and he walked her to her room(it felt like it had been forever. At most it had been 3 days.).
“So. Was I right?”
“I don't know. I suppose this is a marvelous feeling, but… well, I guess I wouldn’t give it up if I could. But maybe that just means it's poisoned my brain.” After she said it she considered how awkward it was. But somehow, in the halls they walked so many times and shared their innermost thoughts and ideas, it was just another idea. And feelings resolved themselves into purely what they were. And so in the moment, she just was. She just loved him, and he just loved her, and titles or awkwardness had no place there.
“So you don't hate love anymore?”
“I don't think I do.”
“The oldest debate lies at rest. So, good lady, what other thoughts have you?”
“How do you survive?”
“How do you mean?”
“How are you not crushed in that court? How do you keep yourself intact with everyone pushing you to be the perfect prince? With every eye on you? And you keep up exactly how you are expected to, yet you still don't succumb?”
“My mother. Her memory. She encouraged me to be different. And now you.”
Mairi thought on that for a minute. “Hm. Maybe I have a new idea of the world.”
“What if everything missing was love? What if that's what people live on? The last time I was happy was with the chorister who taught me piano. And before that, my parents. And now you. And every time in between, I’ve been miserable.”
“I actually don't agree. Not entirely.”
“Something is still missing. Some greater love that pulls everything together. But I don't know what, and I don't think very many people know it. But I don't know what. It just feels… right.”
They reached her door. “I just turned my whole world upside down then said it out loud, so I have thinking to do. See you soon.”
What? Wait… what? Did that mean she believed in love? Yes. yes, of course. But what about her world? Everything she believed since her parents died? What about her parents?
What if it wasn't love to blame? What if it were Norfolk? That didn't feel right either. What if it were hate? What if hate was why her parents were killed?
Then why didn't love stop it?
Because love wasn't a literal entity(though Brennan’s thoughts made sense somehow).
But it was because of love that Mama was dead, right?
She thought back on the story she had been raised on.
Lord Edwin was out hunting with his close friend, Da. They found a boar and tracked it near the Norfolk border. As they tried to kill the boar, men from Norfolk came out and attacked Lord Edwin.
Mama had come with lunch for the men, not realizing they had a boar cornered and that it was dangerous. They attacked and Lord Edwin fled. Da tried to slow their pursuit and was killed. Mama reacted and tried to fight them, but was also killed. Lord Edwin had made his escape while Mama and Da lay in blood.
The story was wrong somehow. She thought back.
Mama had come with lunch for the men and brought the baby because she was teething. When she saw what was happening she dropped everything, including Mairi. The boar was scared and angry and charged. Da was distracted because of the attackers, but Mama threw herself in front of the boar. Before Da could reach his wife and daughter, he was run through.
Lord Edwins men attacked and held them off. Lord Edwin snatched the child from her parents' blood and jumped on his horse, riding home. He dropped something on the ground nearby. All she could do was scream.
She was there? Her parents hadn't orphaned her for love, they saved her.
And she realized she had never seen Lord Edwin after that. She thought back to his blurry face. He had looked young at the time, but there was no mistake. He was the chorister.
The new version of her life made her dizzy.
So why did Norfolk attack? She didn't have the answer, but she ran out. Brennan was still in the hall.
“Do you know why Norfolk attacked Lord Edwin 17 years ago?”
“Your parents died in that attack?”
“Yes. I have to know why, please!”
“Lord Edwin's wife died in childbirth soon before. At the same time, the Countess of Norfolk had twin daughters. He was jealous and felt that one of the children should have been his. He stole one daughter in the heart of night. In a few years Norfolk discovered what he had done and attacked. The Lord survived, but no one else.”
“One other person.”
“You were there?”
“I remember it now. What happened to the kidnapped lady?”
“Dead. Norfolk still bears the grudge.”
“The chorister kidnapped a baby and got my parents killed?”
“We returned the child's body, many, many crowns, and deepest apologies but we couldn't undo the damage.”
“What was her name?”
“How did you find the body?”
“She had died of a fever shortly before the attack. Lord Edwin was carrying her with him to bury under the guise of hunting. A few years later, he officially adopted another child, Mary, but never presented her to court.”
“Because he never told her who he was or that he had done it.”
“The chorister was Lord Edwin. He was my second father.”
“Are you a lady then?”
“No! Just a pianist.”
“Nobody would recognize your claim anyways, even if I vouched for you. Father would shut me down instantly.”
“I don't want it anyways.”
“Alright. What else do you remember? If you're comfortable saying.”
“I remember him dropping the baby's body so he could carry me. When Mama saw the boar and the attackers she dropped the food and me. Then the boar attacked me and she got killed saving me. Da tried to save us and got run through. Lord Edwin turned and snatched me then rode away. I only just remembered.”
“I’m sorry…” He hugged her and she hugged back.
“Love… love saved me.” and jealousy and hate got her into the near death situation in the first place. And hate made Norfolk kill her parents.
“Are you ok?”
“Yes, I have the truth now.”
“If you need me, I’m here.”
She felt shaky. The chorister was the lord who saved her life after kidnapping a child that caused an attack that killed her parents who died to save her and she believed in love and was probably going to marry. She leaned on the wall and slid down. He sat beside her with his arm around her for a while. She didn't really think or feel. She just sat with him trying to process for at least an hour. He stayed still and patient the entire time, though he certainly had important things to do. At some point she yawned and he helped her get to bed.
She woke up the next morning fully clothed laying on rumpled sheets. Her dreams had helped her come to terms with everything, and again the simple, easy truth returned to light. She loved him. He loved her. Love was good. They could marry. And everything would be fine.
She walked outside where a maid waited. “Oh, good, you’re awake, miss! The prince has spent every minute he could waiting at your door, but he's busy now. I'm to fetch him when you wake, but he's busy…”
“Is he in court?”
“Don’t get him, his father will be furious.”
The maid left and she sat and waited. Brennan came anxiously down the hall. When he saw her, a massive, anxious grin split his face.
“Are you ok?”
“Yes,” she said with calm certainty.
“Oh good! Why didn't the maid fetch me when you woke?”
“She said you were in court and I didn't want your fathers wrath.”
“Well, you’re ok, it doesn't matter.
“Better, actually. I'm not confused anymore.”
“Oh good. I was so scared! I’m sorry I wasn’t here when you woke up.”
“Relax, I'm ok.”
“Yes! Should we do some math or something? Are you busy right now?”
“Tell the truth, mister.”
“Well I'm supposed to be meeting with some lords from I don't know where, but you're more important.”
“Go do that then. I’ll be ok.”
“You're absolutely sure?”
“Go on. If I pass out or something I’m sure I’ll end up at the healers- not that I’m going to.”
“Yes! I'm fine. You have to go to the conference, Bren.”
“You called me Bren!”
“One time thing.”
“Doubt it! Once you set your feet on the path of casual there’s no going back.”
“Shut up and get to your meeting.”
“Aw… yes ma’am.”
She watched him go and relaxed. He wasn't worrying up a storm anymore. She learned some math with Tutor Sorrel, and after about a half hour Brennan joined them. Aside from that she didn't do much.
In fact, most of the week she didn't do much, she was just preparing for the second ball and praying that it wouldn't be a disaster.
This ball she wore a blue dress, deeper and finer than the yellow one. She could easily wear it to a fancy wedding(No clue why this matters). The silk felt like water on her skin, cool and flowing. It reached to the top of her skin and her wrists and the floor, kissing her skin when it brushed her arms or neck(everywhere else had to many petticoats and whatnot).
She also wore slippers of the same blue and blue glass jewelry designed to mimic sapphires. The silver mask looked calm and gentle when it reflected the sleepy blue. Tonight she wouldn't look like a bee.
This ball felt final somehow. An ending of something. Probably because she would be gone the next week(but with math and writing to practice). Brennans eyes found her immediatly but he didn't publicly acknowladge her. He also wore a fancier crown than she had ever seen him in and truly princly apparel. He was clearly attempting to please his father. She hoped it worked.
He only asked her to dance on the third song. They jumped into words that meant nothing, certain of a thousand eyes upon them, most importantly King Richards. His father had definatly spoken to him before the ball.
She also noticed several girls wearing masks(apparently his ‘fair maiden of mystery’ comment had gotten out). Bren- Brennan made an effort to dance with more masked girls than not(he still danced with her the most and she didn't complain, despite his fathers eyes.). Bren was a one time thing!
The ball was boring. He didn't do anything stupid or funny or cute, he just danced like some stiff boring prince, and all they could say was “hello, fine evening isn't it?” and such nonsense.
Perhaps that was the feeling of loss, that things had turned into this.
Though she was bored, thought this was somewhat stupid, and had a long day of travel tomorrow, she stayed for him. He noticed and thanked her with his eyes across the room. She had pretty much given up on this ball, and there were 2 hours left to sit through.
No. No, she wouldn't just give up. She wouldn't. She would save this somehow. She still had two hours. She would do something.
She didn't dare try to sneak outside again- besides, that was something he would do. But the balcony was availbile. She positioned herself closer to him and he asked her to dance. He looked tired. She led him out to the balcony when everyone dances picked up.
“See?l thats how to sneak out.”
“I like my way better.”
“Well, your father won't complain that we’re on the balcony and nobody seemed to notice. I freed you from your prison, o prince.”
“Thank you, good lady.”
“Not a lady.”
“You’re my lady!”
“But it's true!”
“It's too true. I don't want to be a lady. I’m your pianist. Though I worry about the logistics, I don't know if I can play your wedding, I have something else then.”
He laughed. “Thats to bad.”
So they were officailly getting married. It felt so weird…
“Lord Edwin would be disappointed i missed such an important one.”
“He’d have to get over it.”
“You want me to fail my mentor/father figure?”
“I bet he wanted you to get married someday.”
“Yeah.” it felt weird talking about him. Brennan felt it.
“So, we still haven't kissed.”
“Don't you dare, thats a glass door.”
She just glared at him. “Moving on, i'm leaving tomorrow morning. Ill be back friday night.”
“Aw… where? You said another country?”
“Yeah, between their count and an earls daughter.”
“Um… I don't rightly know. I didn't read it myself, someone else read it and told me what it said. My coach driver has the directions.”
“Do you have it on you?”
He looked at it and paled. “This says Norfolk.”
“You accepted a wedding in Norfolk. Why didn't you read it?”
“I still haven't read your note. I wanted that to be the first thing I read.”
“Will you cancel?”
“I can't. It's to late for them to hire someone else anyway. But… it's ok, knowing what i know.”
“Really? If they find out he adopted you you’re screwed. The family that lost a daughter are now the king and queen. That child would have been princess. I nearly had to marry her sister!”
“Ok… thats bad, but it's ok. I have to do it. This will work.”
“No! You’ll be in the literal most dangerous place for anyone connected to Lord Edwin.”
“I don't have a choice!”
“You can cancel! These people killed your parents!”
“Lord Edwin killed their daughter!”
“Which makes it more dangerous! Why can't you cancel?”
“It's to late for them to hire someone else. I can't just strand them i have a code of honor!”
“Screw the code, you're not safe!”
“Don't!” she turned and glared at him full on, her face red and angry. She heard the door open but didn't care. “I will go! I have every right to! You do not control me!”
“Send her.” the king said.
Slowly, they both turned. “What?” Brennan said.
“You heard her. She has a right to go.”
“Beg pardon, sire, what?”
“Go. In fact, I command you to. Go and listen in on as much as you can.”
“Father, you want her to spy?”
“No! It's too dangerous! I won't allow it!”
“It's not up to you, is it? I still outrank you, prince.”
“Don't pull the rank card!”
“Brennan! It's still my choice!” she shouted. He turned from his father and her heart broke a thousand times at his expression, but she pulled herself together. “The king ordered me to go. I will go.”
“Excellent. Now stop disrupting the party and get back inside.”
“Yes, father,” Brennan said. He looked so, so broken. He moved to follow his father but she put a hand on his elbow. He pulled away.
“I'm sorry,” she whispered.
“I know.” he paused. “Me too.”
But she didn't have a chance to see him again. She had to head out early the next day for the road. She wished they had time to speak. But it didn't matter what they wished. It felt as if they had been dragged apart by chains, though she would see him soon and he was a prince in his home.
The road was long and tedious, and it didn't feel like she was riding to him, but away. Days were long and dull and she wished for the note from him to read. She started to wonder if she would ever get to read it.
She did send a messenger to ask him to have the note at the ball while she was thinking about it. The messenger was oral because she didn't have paper.
She arrived at Norfolk tense and tired. Everyone welcomed her with open arms(kinda. Not much welcome for a pianist with a strange obsession for weddings), and she wasn't the only foreigner. She got to meet the best specialists in the world, like a baker who primarily only made wedding cakes from Lidale and a wedding tailor from Ilmoor.
She was slightly awed but primarily at ease until she realized this meant she was considered the best wedding pianist on the continent(she wasn't sure how many wedding pianists there were, but that was beside the point). It was incredible.
And then she realized some of these people knew who she was and were watching her with awed eyes and she almost lost it.
That was, until she remembered where she was.
On the other hand, they only killed her parents because Lord Edwin kidnapped their daughter.
How did she feel about him anymore?
But, Norfolks princess did almost marry Brennan.
But she was probably just as unwilling as Brennan.
What if she wasn't?
And what if someone here found out who she was? Or that King Richard sent her to spy?
She staggered back to the wall, dizzy again.
She retired to her rooms after that. She collected herself(with a great deal of effort) and remembered she was supposed to spy. How? Was she supposed to put on black and sneak around or act normal?
Ah, of course. This was why they sent her and not Brennan. She wasn't going to act like an idiot in a potentially hostile foreign palace of a nation 5x larger than them with a massive military.
She would wander the halls casually and if stopped say she got lost. Actually, that might be a hazard. She was already walking though, she just kept going and trying not to puke(or look like she wanted to). She heard nothing, and did get lost, so a servant helped her back to her room.
The next day was the wedding. She was far less busy than normal(she was only supposed to play piano but wedding staff are usually called on to help with everything), surrounded by other people familiar with weddings and a horde of servants to help. After the wedding she didn't have to clean up at all(though a high class wedding usually had staff for that), so she went for another walk.
She sat on the bleachers when her feet got sore in tight wedding shoes, but heard something. She listened closer in curiosity.
“When is the invasion, Father?” a girl asked.
“Keep your voice down! This place is crawling with foreigners. It's in 10 days.”
“Is it really a secret?”
“But it's soo obvious. We wouldn't have tried to make a marriage alliance with Westfeild anyway if we didn't want their land.” Westfield was her home! Brennans kingdom!
“Be that as it may, they’re idiots. If they don't know yet and if Westfeild is stupid enough to refuse us, we’ll invade.”
“Why did they anyway? Things were going so smooth.”
“The idiot prince. He’s on about love or something.” Nobody called Brennan an idiot except her!
“Does it matter? They said no. We can kill them easy. Make an example of the royal famliy.”
“Or what's left of it.” They laughed. She desperately wanted to hit them both.
“Princess Lisandra! King Ashton!” a voice called.
“Yes?” the voices below called.
She stopped listening. That was all she needed to know. The royal family were going to attack Brennan. What if she escaped with him? Where? How?
No, he could never actually get away. And he wouldn't leave everyone else.
What else could she do? Warn them? Pfft. Norfolk would crush an army twice the size of Westfields.
And why did King Richard know she should spy?
She remembered their line about idiots. The king wasn't! He knew something would be up. How on earth did Brennan manage to convince him not to make the alliance? Did King Richard love his son somewhere?
It didn't matter, they were screwed. She had a strange desire to turn herself in to Norfolk so she wouldn't have to deal with trying to come up with something.
She couldn't tell Richa- King Richard, he would just force Brennan to marry Lisandra. Lisandra- who was saying they should make an example of Bren and the king.
The only thing she could think of was run away. But where? She could just hear Bren suggest they pretend to be humble peasants and that she could teach him the ways. She laughed, despite her white face and horrible fear filling her. That would never work.
Run away where?
Anywhere would be better than his fathers castle with the armies marching toward it.
She could leave with Brennan. She wouldn't like it, but she could leave with him and live in the woods somewhere or some foreign country. They could take Charles and Kathy and live happily enough wherever they ended up.
Brennan could never abandon his kingdom. She could never abandon Brennan.
And if they did run away, if Norfolk wanted to find them they would.
She could literally think of nothing. Not even telling Brennan's father.
There were no options. She was sure of it. There was no ‘I'm missing something’ feeling, she knew she had no options. The decision was literally impossible.
So she spent the entire trip tearfully accepting the impossible decision she had to make. There were no good options, but only two of them didn't end in Bren dying. One of them was knocking him unconscious and running away, which she ruled out immediately because it was wrong and unrealistic in every way. The other was what Brennan’s father would do. Have him marry Lisandra.
And as much as it hurt, and as many tears as she lost, it was the only choice that left him alive. And really, the only choices were marry within a few days and savor it well they could before the army arrived and they were brutally murdered to make an example, or-
But marrying Lisandra was as unrealistic as running away, Brennan would never do it. Unless she pleaded with him to, Brennan would never do it.
So that was it, then? She would have to plead with him to marry another woman and give up everything he ever wanted when they were so close? She would have to say goodbye and never see him again? Fate was cruel.
Why not just plead with him to run away? Either way he would lose a vital piece of himself. Either way he would live.
But they couldn't run away. They would never make it. She just knew it without knowing how.
So she wrote a letter to him(yes she bought paper). The first thing she ever wrote. She knew she wouldn't be able to tell him in person. In his eyes she would give up and tell him they should run away or give up.
Either way he would die. So she wrote.
I lov yu.
Mary lisada. if yu dunt norfok wil atak and kil yu and ur fader. try to luv her. try to be hapy. if yu lov me, mary her. Be saf.
chang of plans im fre on ur weding day.
Lov yu always
The water was stained with her tears but legible. She knew it wasn't eloquent and didn't explain much, and that this would be the last thing he ever had of her and it wasn't beautiful or good. So she did all that she could and filled it with i lov yu wherever the paper was blank. Then she folded it up and put it in her mask.
She would give him the mask, to, to remember her by. And maybe she would get the note that let her learn to read and love, and she could have something of him.
She got home to the palace, but not to Brennan's arms. The king summoned her but she refused to tell him anything until Brennan heard the news. She refused the king, outright and direct, for the first time. A lot of firsts. A lot of lasts. He was stunned but allowed her to tell Brennan first.
She didn't see him until the ball. She wore all silver and white- she thought it would be her wedding dress. Her shoes were crystal and looked like glass. Some strange wonderful magic she had been thrilled for. But she didn't care.
She walked to the ball with tears in her eyes, knowing he would propose at midnight. Knowing she would say no. It was a sad, cold feeling consuming her as she walked to him.
Though she knew she should have tried to get him the note as soon as possible so he didn't have to ask and be rejected, she couldn't help but avoid him. He kept sending her ‘sorry!’ glances from across the room. She realized they had parted after a fight. Did he really think she was still mad about that?
Of course. What other explanation was there for her avoiding him? Stupid! She was so stupid! She made her way towards him despite everything in her not wanting to. Then the clock struck midnight and the crowd parted around him, knowing it was time for him to propose.
Suddenly she wasn't fighting through people and she fell towards him. He caught her, of course. She wanted to cry. He steadied her, and got on one knee, but before he could propose she ran from him. She knew how confused he must have been and she realized she never gave him the note and she felt terrible and nothing in her wanted to run, all of her wanted to jump into his arms and never let go-
But she ran. She ran until one of the strange slippers fell off and she tripped. He caught up with her when she fell and she turned to him, tears streaming down her face.
“Mairi! I'm so sorry! What's wrong? Did you change your mind, are you not ready?”
“No! No- I! I love you!”
“Oh, oh Brennan!” tears fell down her face and her breath came hard and fast. Somehow, both of them moved to kiss. She shouldn't have. She knew that. But she couldn't stop herself. His lips were warm and good and love. His lips were safe. And she was giving him up.
Yes. if she didn't everything she loved about him would be killed. If she did his soul would die. But at least he would be somewhat ok.
He gripped her, firm and tight and safe, and she never wanted to part. But somehow they did.
“Brennan! Oh Brennan! I- i am so, so sorry!” tears continued to pour down her face as she handed him the note. He gave her back the note from months ago. “I love you! It's the only way, only way or they’ll kill you. Please, please forgive me!” and then, somehow, she pulled herself from him and ran into the forest half barefoot.
She didn't stop until she reached her carriage home and they were driving away as fast as they could. The note read:
I am so very sorry my father got you in trouble.
You're an amazing woman and I hope to hear more about you.
Please forgive me for the mess I made.
The wrinkled page was all she had of him. She loved it dearly.
One month later, the Wedding Pianist played her last wedding before she left the country and never played at another wedding ever again. If she paid attention, she could have noted the slyness of the wiry bride, or the stiff sadness of the prince. Maybe she would have noticed his eyes on her, or felt how much attention he paid to every sad note she wrenched from the piano. Maybe she could have gained more insights or learned some great truth.
Throughout this final wedding she saw nothing through her tears. Her fingers traced the well worn path with terrible, terrible accuracy. Each note she played came out broken and tearful. Her face was in deep, deep turmoil.
Just before the final vows the prince and pianist shared a glance. A beautiful, broken, heartrending glance.
And then they looked away. Torn from one another forever.
After the wedding the prince went to the piano to say his last goodbye. It was as if she had never been there, save the silver mask resting on the piano.