A/N: Very very late update! A thousand apologies but a thousand hugs and kisses to those of you who have story alerted this baby and have returned! MWAH!
Disclaimer: The Ayorthaian song here is taken from Gail Carson Levine's Ella Enchanted, page 28.
I flipped through my fairy book, my eyes hurriedly scanning every page for any news of Char planning to come to Ayortha. I knew that Antonia was right – if Char really was searching far and wide for me, he would surely come to Ayortha – but I was desperate for some proof. A page in his diary, a look at his map, a note to his knights, a letter to his parents or Cecilia – anything.
Once I had gone through the entire book without any luck on finding even one mention of Char, I leaned back against the bed frame, sighing, and drew my knees up to my chest. I could feel my eyes hotly blur at the situation that loomed over me like an ominous dark cloud. If Char was coming here, that meant I had to leave Areida and her family. I would go back to being a nomad, drifting from place to place, sleeping on beds of leaves in forests, easily vulnerable to ogre attacks and bandits of an even lesser-scrupulous nature. I silently agonized over losing the comfort I had settled into, especially the comfort of pleasant company.
What would I tell Areida? It would mean lying to her again. It meant lying, always, to anyone I cared about.
The door creaked open. I quickly wiped my eyes with the back of my hand.
"Ella? Are you all right?"
"I'm fine," I said, plastering on a smile.
She didn't look entirely convinced, but nodded anyway. "My family and I are going to an Enoye. It's a special custom for Ayorthaians. Would you like to come?"
"Of course." I stood up, sliding my fairy book back under my pillow, and followed Areida outside of the inn. We trailed behind her family, who had gone ahead.
As we made our way to the river, I asked Areida what it was, since I had never heard of an Enoye before. She smiled and told me that it would be better for me to see for myself. "It's quite beautiful. Describing it in words alone would do it no justice."
Eventually the cobblestones of the main path leveled out into flat dirt, and I could see the rest of the townspeople gathered up on the bank of the river. It was dark, with only the distant stars and the light of the waning moon to guide us, but as we came closer I could make out little white lights drifting along the water, bobbing up and down in the gentle current. Soon there were many of them, some in clusters and some alone, illuminating the length of river. I gasped, sweeping aside some hanging leaves of a tree.
Beside me, Areida smiled at my awe. "It's extraordinary, is it not? Even now, it takes my breath away."
"What is it?" I asked, watching a few of the townspeople setting the lights down at the mouth of the river, setting them free.
"It's an ancient Ayorthaian tradition. Once a year when the air is warm and the North wind passes through, some of the townspeople write letters on waxed parchment paper. They address them to those who are no longer with them – dead loved ones or even those who are still living, but by some hand dealt by fate, cannot be with them." At this, Areida's gaze flickered somberly towards me, and I blushed as I moved my eyes back to the floating lights. "Then they fold the letters up into little paper boats and put a candle inside to guide the way. Some people believe that on this single day of the year, the river becomes a portal for destiny and takes your letter to them."
I watched with a sad pang in my heart as an old woman in front of us crouched and set her own letter-boat on the river.
"What sort of letters?" I asked softly.
"Some write to say goodbye. Some write to keep the memory of them alive. Some write to tell unsaid truths."
"Have you ever written one?"
"Once," she replied, and I caught her eyes as they quickly glanced at Elior, the fisherman's son. I hid my smile behind my hand just as a woman came to us with a basket of parchment and quills, asking us if we wanted to write a letter.
I hesitated, not quite sure, when Areida said she would and the woman handed her a parchment and something to write with, tied together with a piece of string, before quickly moving onto the people next to us.
"Here." Areida pressed the bundle into my hands. "Write."
"But Areida—" I began to protest, even though the spell was already making my hands fidget.
"But nothing," she said firmly. "Ella of Frell, I know there are details of your life you keep from me. I'm not a fool – and I don't resent you for it. But I can tell something is weighing heavily on your heart, and I think this can do some good for you. So will you do it – for me?"
The way Areida was looking at me, so pleadingly, made me nod and tell her that I would. She let go of my hands.
"You can sit over there by the tree while you write," she told me. "I'll be close by. I'll come find you after." And with a reassuring smile, Areida was gone, lost in the crowd of people oohing and ahhing over the multiplying lights in the river. I sighed silently to myself, clutching the bundle of parchment and ink to my chest, as I turned and settled myself against the firm trunk of the tree. I untied the string and dipped the quill into ink, thinking.
I thought of writing to Mandy to let her know I was all right, and to tell her about the bandits and Areida's family. But the image of Char at the manor, questioning all of the servants about me, hovered in my heart. It would have been amazing, I thought to myself, to see him in all his royalty, tall and dignified and kind, against the bleak backdrop of the manor walls I had spent years cleaning. I wonder if, by the simple act of walking into the manor, he had made it beautiful again. I allowed myself the pleasure of imagining how the servants whispered and wondered about why the Prince of Kyrria would be asking about me, Ella of Frell, who had practically been more a servant than she was a Lady. And the look on Hattie's, Olive's, and Mum Olga's face. . . I shook it away, pulling myself back from the wiles of my imagination.
Finally, I pressed the quill onto the parchment and watched the ink bleed a little before writing.
Char, I love you. A thousand times and more. Please don't come and find me.
I wiped off the quill on the edge of my skirt and began folding the parchment into the boats I had seen on the river. The same woman who had been handing out the bundles handed me a small candle as I stood on the river mouth, mesmerized by the lights. Then, finally, with trembling hands, I bent down on my knees and, setting it on the river, let it go.
I watched as it quickly joined dozens of others, becoming lost. I didn't know whether I believed in Areida's story or not – whether these letter boats ever reached the people they were meant for. Perhaps it wasn't about whether they were ever received. Perhaps it was just the comfort of sending them – of writing them down, and sending them away. Giving them up to destiny.
As I stepped back, I felt Areida appear by my side. I'd had a feeling she had been watching me from afar and had been waiting for me, but I didn't say a word. Instead, Areida comfortingly squeezed my hand and we began to head back to the inn.
Over the next few nights, I waited for news of Char from my book and kept my ears attuned to any talk that surrounded him. Since the Prince had never before showed any particular interest in any woman, rumors swirled spectacularly about his recent mission and this lady he sought. They conjured up fantastic scenarios in which the Prince might have met this maiden – was she a princess, or a commoner? Some said she was half-fairy and beguiled him with magic. Some said she didn't even exist at all, and that this was just a royal cover for another conquest.
Finally, one night, I came across a diary entry from Cecilia.
It seems the rumors have finally reached my parents. I overheard Mother and Char talking today while I was supposed to be off studying my languages. My windows were open and Char and Mother were taking stroll in the gardens to bask in the warm weather.
She told him that she wasn't one to invest in rumors and gossip, since that was unbecoming for anyone in the royal family, but admitted it had her curiosity piqued. Was there any truth? she asked. Are you in love with a maiden, my noble son?
My brother took a moment to answer. I wish I could have seen his face, but I think it was one of somber thought and contemplation. He would never lie to Mother. Char is too good that way.
He confessed to her that he was, and that he had been, for a length of time. Even before he had gone to court in Ayortha, and even before he had gone with his knights on the peace negotiations mission. I wondered if this shocked Mother, but her reaction was not one of ignorance, as if he was simply confirming her quiet suspicions.
"I seek your counsel, Mother, for you are far wiser in the ways of love than I could ever be," he said, and his voice was soft, although inlaid with frustration. "Perhaps it was unwise of me for have waited for so long, but for a time I thought it was hopeless. Now recent events have shown me that there are things that don't match up, and I find myself wanting to find a real answer. I struggle with the thought of never completely knowing and I torture myself with questions and possibilities."
I could not disagree there. Though my brother has tried his best to be polite and engaging since his homecoming ball, Char is not gifted with the ability to hide his true feelings well. He has been spending a lot of time by himself in the garden and at the menagerie, standing by the birds and the centaurs.
I wondered who this maiden was – and was quite sure it was the same maiden he had mentioned to me before. She who was so adept at languages, the one whom he had caught the centaur for. How could she not love him? Why would she avoid his affections? So many maidens all over Kyrria have sent him their handkerchiefs spritzed with their perfume that one of servants, Helena, had made her wedding gown out of it.
Mother was reassuring. "Char, you have devoted so much of your time and energy to being Kyrria's prince. It has made me an unfathomably proud Mother and Queen, but I must confess it has lent to some worrying. I've wondered sometimes if you've spent too much of your time committing to your Princely duties than pursuing your own happiness. I believe the time has come for you to do otherwise."
I didn't hear my brother say anything in return.
"You are a good man, my son. You deserve your answers. You deserve your happiness," Mother said.
I don't know if they said anything more, because then one of the servants came in to tell me it was time for my visit with one of my ladies from the court. When I saw Char and Mother later at supper, they didn't say a word about it, but there did seem to be a different air to my brother. One of finality and decision.
Though I was grateful for her entry and found myself reading it numerous times with the knot in my chest pulling even tighter, I paid more heed to the note written by one of Char's knights to his sister. He wrote that they would be leaving in a fortnight. He didn't say where, but if I had to guess, their first stop would be Ayortha.
I let out a sigh. As long as I was gone by then, Char would be safe from me.
When I flipped the page, I found myself smiling at a portrait of James and his bandits, sleeping at what looked to be the back of somebody's barn. They were spread out, lying on bales of hay, with Sam's mouth open as he snored. I was glad they were safe. I gave one last glimpse of James sleeping with his knife peeking out from his boot before I closed the fairy book and blew out the candle.
After a full day of chores and laughter with Areida's family, I found myself restless as I lay in bed, watching the moon from the window. I was mentally counting down the days until I would have to leave Ayortha and continue my journey, and though I savored each moment I spent with them, I did so with quiet despair. I even considered coming back when Char had moved on, but it was too suspicious, and I knew that Char would stop by and ask Areida's family about me. My cover would be blown and I shuddered to think of what they would think of me, knowing I'd kept such a large secret from them.
No, if I left – I could never come back. At least, not so soon. Not as soon as I would like.
Realizing I wouldn't be dozing off to sleep anytime soon, I got out of bed and snuck out of the inn. The streets were silent and empty and I made my way to the river Areida had taken me for the Enoye, grateful for the fresh albeit warm air. I stood at the riverbank, listening to the soft orchestra of the leaves swaying and the sound of the water. After looking around, I took off my cloak and I began to untie my threadbare nightgown. The fabric dropped to the ground with only a whisper, and I waded into the river, closing my eyes at the feel of the cool water against my skin.
I swam in the river, feeling a temporary sense of freedom I scarcely ever felt before. Though I kept an ear out for any trouble, I let myself forget for a few minutes, floating in the river, watching my skin glow under the light of the giant, luminous moon.
"I used to think it was so sad, because you were alone," I whispered up to her. "But then I realized that you weren't. You've got the stars all around you, every night. What I'd give, to feel, sometimes, that I wasn't so alone."
I started to sing a song from my memory. It was an Ayorthaian song, and I closed my eyes and remembered the first time I had heard it. Char had sung part of it in my ear while we danced when I had pretended to be Lela. I remembered it with both fondness and heartbreak.
lilies by the road,
I remember you.
I remember you."
I could not go on to the rest of the song. Tears had silently started running down my cheeks and I dove back into the water, washing them away.
After I had composed myself, I began swimming back towards the bank. That was when I heard rustling and my eyes swiveled at the thick brush and forestry that surrounded the bank. At first I thought it was just an animal, but I heard even more movement, and then faint whispering.
I froze, searching the darkness, my heart seizing up in my chest. I looked at the pile of my clothes on the dirt, calculating how fast I could swim to get to it.
"Who's there?" I called out.
Silence. Then, after a minute, there was more rustling. The bushes moved. My eyes focused in on one particular spot. Then, finally, a figure emerged, walking forward, sweeping the hanging tree leaves from obscuring his face. A silvery glint flashed from the top of his boot, catching the light of the moon.
He bowed, smirking. " 'Tis a pleasure we meet again, Ella of Frell."