The stars bathed the flagstone paths in cold light as the walkways meandered through the verdant enclosure. A soft breeze caressed the orange blooms overhead and gently carried the sweet perfume through the garden even as the sound of ringing metal wafted in the wind. Flowers of every color and kind grew in beds throughout; roses, moonflowers, marigolds and more were fitted into a pattern that lovingly cosseted the senses.
Long, thin fingers skillfully arranged flowers and plants on the carved stone beach near the plot of morning glories. An empty container stood next to a small pot of water. A pale right hand picked up a heavy lead plate with erected brass needles and placed it at the upper right of the container. The left hand tucked a lock of cerulean hair behind an ear as the sound of breathing became controlled serenity.
Who was she? It was a question that she considered every day, sometimes every hour, but it came to her most often when she worked these familiar yet "unknown" arrangements. Her hand strayed to the locket around her neck. A ruined miniature painting within was a smear of colors, most strikingly a sharp blue that matched the color of her hair. It was thought that it had been a portrait at one point, but no one was sure. Engraved within were the words "To my dearest daughter, Maia."
No one knew who she was, and since she didn't even remember her own name, it made sense that they would suppose that the name in the locket was hers. So she was Maia, a blank slate without memories, either good or bad. She had only skills no one had seen before and whatever her basic personality seemed to be.
Maia picked up the longest stem, a yellow tulip, and gently fastened it to the spikes she instinctively knew would angle it a bit and hold it slightly to the left. There had been attempts to find out who she was. The lack of calluses on her hands strongly hinted she was of noble blood, but her cerulean hair and refined features did not match any of Landen's or Satera's noble families. Everyone from highest to lowest spoke of the beautiful woman who had washed ashore after a storm and been rescued by Landen's crown prince, but no one knew where she was from. It was like she had been plucked from another world and left in this one.
Another breeze stirred the garden and her hair as she toyed with a bushy pink dahlia. The first thing she remembered upon waking up was the face of Prince Rhys Sa Riik of Landen over hers, his concern visible in his pained expression, his relief at her awakening palpable. He had personally cared for her ever since her awakening. He had brought her meals, fed her, cheered her up whenever she sorrowed at her lack of memories, and taken the lead in searching for her past. In the time since, she had learned how unusual it was for a nobleman to concern himself so and not take certain...liberties. Even without knowing this, her appreciation for him grew daily.
Maia carefully cut the stem of the dahlia so the flower was a quarter shorter than the yellow tulip. She fastened the dahlia in front of the tulip at a sharper angle. Prince Rhys had arranged to have her introduced at court. That had been an unpleasant and terrifying ordeal; she, alone, forced to present herself before the King and Queen of Landen under the hostile, scheming eyes of the entire court, following a ritual she did not understand in a borrowed dress cut in a style she detested. The King had said little, but the Queen had been kind enough to speak with her a little. Maia discovered afterward that they had conversed twelve sentences, which the nobles took as extravagant welcome. She did not know why, but she found the resulting dislike for courtiers very familiar.
Just as important as the introduction to court, Prince Rhys was her protector. At the gala to celebrate her welcome, a particularly haughty lord had publicly snubbed her with the words, "It's a fine dress for a fisherman's daughter." The insult had hurt on multiple levels, something the courtier would have known when he uttered it. The openness of the snub before so many gathered nobles indicated her powerlessness in relation to them, her lack of memories and past, her poverty in her borrowed dress, and even went so far as to imply she lacked the intelligence to recognize a subtler jab. Even as the stab of humiliation pierced her, the man had been roughly thrown what seemed halfway across the throne room.
There had been Prince Rhys, garbed in the royal black and gold, his temper about him, his hand on the hilt of his sword, ready to draw. Menace had poured off him as he challenged the lesser noble to a duel. The lordling had declined and had abjectly apologized for an "unfortunate slip of the tongue." The prince had hotly responded that he was not owed amends. The very next morning, Maia had received a flowery letter of redress and a pair of earrings set with impressive black sapphires.
Maia cradled a pink carnation as she once more listened to that sound of ringing metal. The lordling's apology and gift was the first of many such letters and gifts, each one from nobles seeking her favor, and by extension, Prince Rhys' favor. The esteem of the heir of Landen's throne was a valuable asset, and it seemed that after his highly public protection of her honor, the nobles thought to gain that esteem through her. Finding the whole thing sordid, Maia would write notes in her own hand and thank the nobles for their gifts, then promptly and publicly donate the valuable trinkets to the Crown.
The only gifts she accepted were from Prince Rhys, and even then not many. He had provided her with an allowance and had arranged for her to have a suite of rooms in the castle. He sent her jewels and other gifts of great beauty. She had donated most of them back to the Crown but had kept a very few of them, chiefly the silver coronet with its red rubies and the silver choker set with an even larger ruby, designed to carry the diaphanous drape that looped over her arms like a shawl and dangled from her back like a short cape.
One thing she had refused to follow was the courtly fashion sense. Orakian noblewomen favored dresses of gold and hues so dark they approached black, while noblemen wore ebony as a matter of course. She thoroughly disliked the colors and wore dresses to complement her coloring, particularly dresses of pale blue that darted perilously close to the funeral color of white.
Nor did she like the designs of the dresses. The dresses were certainly pretty, made of gorgeous fabrics and elegantly embellished and embroidered in painstaking detail, but the tight bodice that emphasized the breasts, the puffy skirts and their heavy supporting panniers irked her, as they were difficult to walk around in. With the help of Landen's best dressmaker, she had designed a simpler style that was loose, flowing, and more modest than the exposed chest of the prevailing style. Only her shoulders were exposed, her small bosom was suitably flattered, and on the whole, it was far more comfortable.
Unfortunately, her style had quickly been stolen by what seemed like the entirety of the female nobility of Landen. She would have been flattered if she thought for a moment they copied her out of admiration for her fashion sense and not as a way to flatter the Prince's mistress. It made her want to scream, especially when the more scandalous noblewomen would have ovals cut above –and sometimes right above—their cleavage.
The Prince's mistress. The scrape of steel against steel was an appropriate accompaniment to her raging fury at the thought. She might not know who she was, but she was not some hussy to be prettied up and have her legs spread for anyone, no matter how exalted their ancestors were or how powerful they were. He might be the heir to the god Orakio's kingdom and bloodline, but not even Prince Rhys would make her abandon virtue.
That was not to say that he had tried, or that she disliked his company. The Prince always had a female witness of high repute chaperone them when he spent time with her, even going so far as to bring his mother to supervise. He was brash and hot-headed, but he was also sweet, considerate, and kind. Being with Prince Rhys made Maia feel warm and content, and she wanted him to feel warm and content as well.
She sighed as she cut the carnation's stem to half the length of the dahlia. One of her companions at court had asked if she was in love with the prince. She had not answered, since she had nothing to compare her feelings for the prince with, but after some thought, she realized she might be. When she was in his presence, her lost memories did not seem to matter as much as they usually did. It was why she both hoped and despaired at the prince's childhood engagement to Princess Lena of Satera. She had met the young scion of the world's other kingdom, and thought her wonderful, a pretty, lively little thing with an engaging personality. Princess Lena's confidence, her established nobility, her easy knowledge of who she was made Maia jealous, a feeling she tried to dismiss.
The pink carnation was set at the sharpest angle of the three at the front of the arrangement. Maia began to fill out the rest of the stems and flowers that would complement the three principal flowers. No one had taught her how to position the flowers so, and the lead plates had had to be forged specifically for her, as no one in the world had seen the like before. It was yet another mystery of her past that gnawed at her. She had made many such arrangements at court, and while once again the courtiers attempted to curry her favor by stealing her ideas, Maia felt great satisfaction that none of their attempts were as elegant and balanced as her own. Her arrangements also thrived where theirs withered quickly; she thought that the reason for that was that she cared for her flowers herself, while the nobles simply discarded theirs. It often seemed the flowers perked at her touch.
The ring of blades finally ceased. Maia looked to where the sounds had come from and waited. Prince Rhys had asked her to come out at night and wait here for him alone, so she had. If, as her ladies-in-waiting kept implying, he meant to ask her to become his mistress, she would refuse. Her fingers knew enough about needlework that she could apprentice herself to the master dressmaker if her refusal enraged him and he drove her out, but she liked Princess Lena far too much to inflict such a wound to the brown-haired girl's pride. Even if she loved him, she would not abandon virtue.
The sound of boots on pavement drew her mind away from her thoughts. A smile crossed her lips as she looked at the heir to the throne of Landen. Prince Rhys was tall and handsome, with hair the color of dark sapphires and eyes to match. She hoped that Princess Lena would cajole the prince into other colors and styles beyond the simple pale blue tunic and pants that seemed to be his daily uniform. His unique sword with its trigger-style cross-guard was sheathed at his hip, and Maia frowned when she noticed he seemed the worse for wear and sweating.
The prince's face broke out into a happy grin when he saw her and moved to stand before her, sweeping her a bow deep enough for a blood royal. "Hi," he said, his smirk full of the joy of living and mischief, skipping past titles and getting to the point.
Maia had never thought it proper to do the same, however much the prince asked her. "My lord prince," she said smoothly, rising to her feet before she dipped into a curtsy as deep as his bow.
"What in the world will it take to make you stop being so formal?" Prince Rhys asked, highly amused. "We've known each other long enough by now to call each other by name in private at least, haven't we?"
"It's not proper," Maia responded calmly, aware that the prince enjoyed trying to needle her. "What happened to you, my lord prince?"
"Oh, nothing too bad," Prince Rhys replied with a shrug. His face became serious. "I have something important to ask you."
Maia folded her arms, mortally afraid that the moment had come. Hoping to preserve both his pride and dignity, she thought it best to get to the point. "I won't become your mistress, even if you did save my life."
The prince stared at her in incomprehension before that familiar smirk appeared on his face and a guffaw escaped his lips. He fell into full-throated laughter not even a moment afterwards. She stared as Prince Rhys pressed a hand against his stomach to stop his amusement. "Was it something I said?" she finally asked, thoroughly confused.
"Oh, nothing you said," he replied lightly before he knelt before her. "Maia, would you marry me?"
She understood the individual words but their order made no sense. She stared at the prince. "What?"
"It's a pretty straightforward question," he replied breezily. "Would you marry me?"
"Is this a joke?" Maia asked, convinced her ears deceived her. It was bad enough that her memories were virtually non-existent, but if her hearing went as well...
"Not a joke," Prince Rhys replied, his face completely serious. "I want you to be my wife and for me to become your husband. I love you."
She felt herself fall onto the bench and noted in a corner of her mind that she had barely missed her finished arrangement. "But...Princess Lena—!" Maia protested, still incredulous.
"I have earned the right to decide my own bride," Prince Rhys replied, not a trace of his usual levity or mischief on his face. "I want that bride to be you. I'll understand if you refuse."
He was serious. He was genuinely serious about her becoming his wife. She, a penniless woman who did not remember her past, who did not bring any great political alliances or dowries, who only had what was between her ears to offer him. She told him as much and was flabbergasted when he shrugged it off with the words, "That's not important. I love you. Will you marry me?"
Maia looked down at her hands, aware that silent contemplation would unnerve anyone in such a situation, but she needed to think. The prince deserved an honest answer that came from both heart and mind. He was taking a great risk in both pride and status to do this for her, and that honest answer was the most she could offer him.
Prince Rhys loved her. He would defy the entire world, from his royal father on to the rulers of the neighboring kingdom of Satera, to marry her. It would be the scandal of the century at the very least, and it could prompt a war. Yet he did it.
Did she love him? She felt warm and content with him. Her missing memories did not matter as much when she was with him. She wanted to care for him, to make him feel warm and content with the world. She wanted him to be happy. But what did she want?
Do I want him to go to someone else?
The thought brought her jealousy of Princess Lena's engagement to the fore, but she did not let that darker part of her answer. She took those feelings and brought them out to the light of self-examination. What made her jealous of that childhood arranged marriage? The fact that Princess Lena gets to care for him and I don't.
That was her answer.
Rhys had kept his peace, waiting for her answer. His eyes became more alert as she came out of her thoughts. She smiled at him and saw him return it. "It will take some time for me to become accustomed to calling you by name, my lord... fiancé."