Princess Una of Parumvir and Prince Aethelbald of Farthestshore were married beside the sea.
Una, much to Nurse’s disgust, refused to wear the ornate, many-layered gown designed especially for her by the Parumvir fashion experts.
“Do you have any notion of what this silk cost?” Nurse demanded. “It was imported from Noorhitam!” She ran her fingers lovingly over the embroidered flowers and sparkling beadwork. “Princess?”
Una sat smiling before the window in her small room, clutching a small nosegay of white flox in her hands. “Oh, Nurse,” she said, hardly able to keep laughter from her voice, “It is such a glorious world.”
Nurse humphed. “You’re not listening to a word I say.”
Una pressed the flowers to her face. “I’ll not wear it, and you can send the tailors away.”
“Well!” Nurse said. “If you are to be so obstinate, I suppose you intend to be married in your nightdress?”
The princess laughed. “No, no.” She turned in her seat, and the morning light caught all the golden strands in her hair. “Don’t be cross with me, Nurse.”
Nurse wondered if the girl had any idea how impossible it was to be cross with her. She couldn’t help but recall another day, another morning, so much like this one. She remembered another young woman with stars in her eyes and a laugh on her lips. Nurse turned away before Una could see the tears that threatened her gruff manner. “I’ll be cross if I wish too,” she said. “It’s no less than you deserve.”
“I do not deserve anything,” Una answered cheerfully. “I haven’t a thing in the world that wasn’t given to me by love or grace.” She rose from her seat and planted a kiss on Nurse’s cheek.
“You’re determined to be sentimental, I see,” Nurse huffed, moving away. She took the shimmering gown back to the wardrobe. “Such a waste,” she murmured as she shut the oak doors.
“It isn’t!” Una said. “You may have it if you like it.”
“Like it?” Nurse scoffed. “And what would I do with such a piece of fluffery? I suppose I could wear a royal wedding gown the next time I go down to the market.” She took Una by the shoulders and marched her back to the window.
Una allowed herself to be paraded to her seat, and laughed to find it occupied. “Oh, Monster!” she said, running a hand over his head.
“Meerowl?” he replied, stretching out across the padded bench.
“Scat!” Nurse hissed, swatting at him. “I know exactly what you are, little fiend!” She chased the ruffled animal to the window, where he glared at her from the sill with sightless but menacing eyes. “It isn’t decent!” she declared, and gave him a shove. The cat leapt down to the ground outside with the air of one who had decided to leave anyway. Nurse moved to shut the window, but Una held up a hand.
“Oh, please don’t!” she said. “I love the sound of the sea!”
“You,” Nurse said, prodding her subject into position, “like the sound of a particular wood thrush.”
“He’s not coming anywhere near here,” Una retorted, blushing. “He promised. He won’t see me ‘til I’m perfectly ready.”
“Well, he’ll never see you again, at this rate,” Nurse replied. She tilted Una’s chin slightly up. “Hold still.”
“You won’t put all my hair up, will you?” Una asked.
“And what heathen ideas will you insist on now?” Nurse demanded. She threw her hands in the air. “I suppose you’ll tell me you don’t want your crown?”
Una smiled. “No, Nurse, I don’t.”
“I suppose I’m to let you wander bare-headed out to your own wedding?” Nurse said. “As if everyone watching wouldn’t blame me for your indecorous appearance!”
“Dear, dear,” Una reached up to clasp Nurse’s hand. “I didn’t say that. I thought you would perhaps…” She held up the flox. “Wouldn’t these make a fine crown?”
Nurse sighed, frustrated to find her will so malleable to the girl’s smile. “I’ll see what I can do,” she said, “but only if you will vow to quit pestering me with any more notions.”
“I won’t,” Una promised. “Truly, I won’t.” She held very still and looked into the mirror.
Nurse’s eyes met hers, and her heart thudded to a stop. “I suppose,” she admitted sharply, “that you would look very well with a few simple flowers.”
“Oh, do you think so?”
“I do.” Nurse sniffed. She began to weave Una’s hair into a suitable coronet. “It’s just the sort of thing your mother would have liked.”
Princess Una went very still. Nurse hardly ever mentioned the late Queen, and certainly would never have allowed her to share anyone’s opinions but her own. Nurse felt a sense of guilt when she saw the eagerness in the girl’s eyes.
“I haven’t told you much about her, have I?” Nurse asked gently.
Una shook her head.
“Oh, child!” Nurse lost her hold and the shining hair tumbled down. Still, she laughed while swatting Una’s shoulder. Una laughed and covered her mouth with her hands.
Nurse took a deep breath and began again. “You look so like her,” she said, gathering the soft tresses. “You’re nose and brow are too strong, too much like the King, to see it often. But oh, child, when you smile. Your smile is hers.”
“Did you ever put up her hair?” Una asked.
“I did for her just as I am for you,” Nurse answered, surprised to find that the husky tears in her voice had vanished. It gave her joy to think of the Queen now, and joy to see the Princess smile. “I was there on her wedding day. She, of course, had the good manners to wear the dress made for her.”
Una sighed. “Oh, Nurse.”
“She was the finest lady,” Nurse went on, but relented. “You are a very fine lady too.”
“I will miss you,” Una said. “I can’t really think I’ll be unhappy if I’m… with him…” Her eyes went shiny and soft. “But I will miss you.”
“Nonsense,” Nurse said shortly, pulling a few pins from her apron. “You are to do no such thing. You’ll be far too busy running about Faerie lands and all manner of things.”
“Will you miss me?”
“Not even a little?”
“Not a jot.”
“What about when you wear the dress? Will you miss me then?”
“Dear child!” Nurse cried, exasperated. “Hold still!” She pinned a lock into place. “I will certainly not miss you then, for I will certainly never wear a dress like that!”
“But you should wear it when you are married,” Una insisted.
Nurse harrumphed. “I have no intention of being married.”
Una subsided into silence until Nurse had finished securing her hair.
“And now, the flowers,” Nurse said.
Una handed them up to her. “Have you never been in love at all?”
”I certainly have.” Nurse couldn’t fathom what made her answer so frankly. “Hold still.”
“But!” Una squeaked. “You were in love? Nurse! What happened? Who was he? Why – “
“Too many questions!” Nurse interrupted. “I was in love, yes. He was a captain in the army. And I gave him up.” She patted the first flower, pleased that it was firmly in place.
“But… why?” Una asked, horrified.
“Don’t frown,” Nurse ordered. “You’ll wrinkle.”
“But WHY?” Una begged.
“Because,” Nurse answered. “I loved someone else more.”
“Oh, Nurse!” Una’s mouth dropped open. “You gave him up for someone else?”
Nurse had to answer through the four pins she held in her mouth. “I - certainly – did.”
“Who?” Una demanded. She turned her head, ignoring Nurse’s frantic hands. “Tell me what happened!”
Nurse removed the pins from her teeth and sighed. “I told you, I loved someone else more. And so I couldn’t get married and have babies and be constantly moving all around Parumvir.”
Una held up a hand. “You’ll not get another pin in my hair until you tell me who it was, Nurse.”
Nurse recognized that expression. She couldn’t help but smile at how much the girl resembled her father when she was obstinate. “Dearest child, I loved you.”
Una blinked, and her fierce gaze faltered. “Me?”
“Yes.” Nurse’s smile faded at the painful memories that rose from her admission. “I loved you, child, and you needed me. So I sent the man on his way.”
“But - !”
“Your mother was so young, Una.” Nurse cupped the creamy cheek in one hand. How old her hand was now! “I was there when you were born, and you took your first steps. I was there when the little prince was born and I was there when she died. And I couldn’t leave you.”
Una’s mouth twisted. “She made you promise to stay with me?” she asked guiltily.
“She didn’t have to.” Nurse bent and kissed Una’s forehead. “Enough of this stuff and nonsense. Turn around and let me finish or you’ll never be married.” She tried to sound brisk, but she knew it failed. Una turned back in her seat with that dangerously thoughtful expression that warned Nurse she was concocting some romantic scheme.
When Una’s hair was finished, the princess went to the wardrobe herself and moved aside the swaths of heavily laced gowns until she found what she was looking for. “Ah-hah!” She pulled it free and clutched it to her slender figure with delight. “What do you think?”
Nurse gaped. “But there’s no lace!”
“None!” Una agreed triumphantly.
“It’s white!” Nurse accused, thinking of all the glorious colors in the wardrobe.
“I like it white.”
“Why, it doesn’t even sparkle!”
“No,” Una sighed, looking into the long mirror with a face of pure delight.
Nurse harrumphed. “It’s far too plain.”
“It’s simple,” Una answered. “It’s perfect.” She put a hand up to her hair. “Every bit of it is perfect.”
Nurse couldn’t argue. While the princess appeared far too simply dressed for the discerning tastes, she had to admit that there was a certain elegance to the picture. She helped Una into the gown and brought a pair of soft slippers for her feet.
“Nurse,” Una said as she stepped into the shoes, “I’d wish you as happy as me.”
“I’m very happy,” Nurse answered truthfully. “You are well and safe and about to be married to the only man that I knew – from the beginning! – would be perfect for you.”
Una rolled her eyes. “I’m sure you are right.”
“I usually am.” Nurse stepped back. “Are you sure you wouldn’t rather a set of diamonds?”
“No, nothing like that.” Una smiled. “Is he married now?”
“That captian you loved. Is he married?”
“What in the moon’s name are you talking about?” Nurse was exasperated. “It’s time we went to meet your guests!”
“I want to know what happened to the captain!” Una insisted. ”Where is he now?”
“That was a very long time ago,” Nurse answered at last. “I haven’t the faintest idea. He’s not a captain anymore.”
“Do you still love him?”
“I’m not as changeable as you might think.”
“And he’s not married?”
“He is not.”
Una clasped Nurse’s hands in her own. “Then you must go to him!”
“Stuff and nonsense!” Nurse declared, pulling her hands away. “I’ll do no such thing.”
“But – “
“Princess,” Nurse interrupted. “I’m an old maid. I’ve been an old maid a goodly time now, and I don’t mind it as much as you might think.”
“Princess,” Nurse snapped, “I said he wasn’t married. It doesn’t mean that he isn’t planning on very soon being so!”
“But…. But…” Una stammered. “But how could he marry someone else?”
“Because there’s no good reason to wait eighteen years for a girl who broke her promise.”
“Didn’t he love you?”
“I suppose he did,” Nurse answered, “but I am glad that he has found a chance to be happy. He is a good man and deserves happiness.”
“But - I can’t bear the thought that I – “ Una’s lip quivered. “That I was the cause of your unhappiness.”
“You,” Nurse said, “were never any such thing.”
Una was silent.
“You have been my joy,” Nurse said softly, “and as dear to me as any child of my own.”
Una suddenly leaped forward and caught Nurse in a crushing embrace. “I love you too, Nurse,” she said in a hoarse voice.
Nurse patted her back. ”Yes, well, very well, there’s a dear.” She cleared her throat, stepped back, and smoothed Una’s sleeves. “That’s enough of that for one day.”
Una sniffed but nodded. “I’m ready now.”
They went out together into the tiny courtyard of the house that was temporarily King Fidel’s seat. A dozen dignitaries in bright silks and white collars of lace were already milling about. Amid the shadows of lemon trees and flowering bushes, they looked like a flock of exotic birds.
The guests hurried to make space as the Princess went to her father, and Nurse rolled her eyes as a few of the flowers crushed beneath the king’s embrace. She went back into the house to remove her apron and stopped by the hall mirror to adjust her hair.
The face that peered back at her was pale from a year of war and dragons, a year of terror for her princess. Her cheeks and chin appeared a good deal sharper than she had remembered, and soft lines had appeared around her brows and eyes. But her eyes were still clear and dark, and Nurse couldn’t help a sense of vanity. He had always loved her eyes.
“Camilla,” he had said. “I like your eyes a great deal.”
He had never been much of a poet, Nurse recalled. The day beneath the spreading oak came rushing back to her. She had been plumper then, a fine upright figure as her captain bowed over her hand. He had been so nervous that day, harrumphing and coughing until she had begun to worry that he was ill. But they had walked away from the palace, deep into the gardens. She had stopped at last and turned to face him. She had asked him what he was thinking of.
And he, in a rush of embarrassed silence, had leaned down and kissed her.
Nurse shook her head and pushed the memories away. “They’ll be processing to the shore any minute now,” she scolded herself. She felt she had to scold someone, and regretted that no one else was nearby. She checked the mirror again and adjusted her blue and grey silk gown.
“Pardon me, miss.”
Nurse turned on the small servant girl with her most authoritative look. “Yes, well, what is it?”
“If you please, miss, the prince Felix is nearly dressed. The family will be going down in another minute.”
Nurse allowed herself a half-smile at the poor prince’s demise. She was sure that, having been turned away from the princess’s chambers, the royal tailors would extract a bejeweled vengeance. “He is dawdling on his sister’s wedding day?”
“Oh, no, miss!” the servant girl giggled. “He was refusing to wear anything at all, or so I heard. He was brandishing his sword and bawling for the army!”
Nurse frowned. “He did what?”
“And in come General Argus,” the girl went on, “and a fine figure of a man he is too, miss, and he up and tells the prince to get down off the dresser and behave.” She giggled again. “I heard it from one of the tailors, and he was there you know.”
“General Argus… is here?” Nurse asked, swallowing the lump in her throat.
“Well yes, miss. He’s recovering beautifully, so I hear tell, and I suppose the Lady Venetia is glad of it.”
“I daresay she is.”
“Her being so properly put out that the Dragon,” the girl shuddered, “ruined all their plans and left her waiting all this time. She’s not a patient one, the Lady Venetia.”
“I don’t see how her virtues or vices are any business of yours!” Nurse snapped.
The servant girl bobbed a curtsy, suddenly terrified that her familiar gossip had doomed her to a long speech on decorum from Nurse.
But Nurse waved her away. She moved to the door of the courtyard and took a deep breath to steady herself. Then she straightened her head and descended the stairs into the sunlight.
He was here. He was here, in the house! She had not considered that his recovery would be so swift, or that he would risk traveling so soon after his injuries. She had heard tales of his brave defense of the king, had trembled at the news of his wounds. But he was alive, the gossips said.
“He is here,” Nurse murmured. She settled on a stone bench in the shadows, glad that she was ignored by the over-stuffed guests who chattered around the royal family. She tried desperately to steel herself to what she knew would be an unavoidable meeting.
Instead, she felt her thoughts drawn back to another day in a courtyard, when she had sat beneath a tree at Oriana. In a flash, she could feel the chill wind of that moment, the tears that she had fought down as she had said, again, that she could not marry him.
He had traveled so far to see her, unwilling to accept the refusal she had written on pale parchment. He had stumbled over his words, begging her to reconsider. He had swallowed down his pride and declared that he loved her and would wait. At the end, he had crumpled the letter slowly in his fist as she explained that he could not wait, that she could not give him any promise. She had, she had tried, to crush any hope.
“I have no regrets,” Nurse muttered to herself, smoothing her long skirt. The gathered guests were forming a line now, jostling for position as courtly etiquette dictated. She waited near the back, only just able to glimpse the gleam on King Fidel’s golden crown as the procession began. Far ahead, a set of trumpets bugled their advance.
Nurse was still fidgeting in the courtyard, waiting for the line to move, when the door on the north side opened. Her heart leapt, terrified and yet hopeful. How she wished she had the breath to scold herself for stuff and nonsense!
General Argus stepped out of the house. He was dressed in a scarlet uniform trimmed in gold, and a series of shining medals caught the sun. One arm was wrapped in a black silk sling. An aide assisted him down the stairs, but Argus pulled his arm away when he reached the bottom. And then he turned.
He saw her.
Argus looked away, back to his aide. “I’ll walk from here,” he said.
Argus crossed the courtyard to where Nurse stood and bowed stiffly. “Madame Nurse,” he said. “I trust you are in good health.”
Nurse curtsied with all the precision she had been so desperate to teach the princess for years. “General Argus,” she said, “the kingdom rejoices in your return to health.”
The courtyard was nearly empty now, and the couple ahead of Nurse had started to move.
“May I -?” General Argus interrupted his words with a cough. He cleared his throat and grumbled something to himself. “May I have the honor of escorting you to the wedding?”
“You are very kind, sir,” Nurse answered, taking his offered good arm. They formed the rearguard of the processional party, and Nurse was glad that no one walked behind them. She walked carefully, aware that the general was trying not to show the stiffness of his gait.
Nurse knew that silence was far more dangerous than words and said, “You must not walk so quickly.”
General Argus turned a stern face to hers. “I beg your pardon, madam, but I – “
“I mean,” Nurse lied beautifully, “that I cannot possibly keep up.”
“Oh.” He slowed, appearing at once to be more comfortable. He risked a glance at her and found her watching him. “I am glad to see you looking well,” he said.
“We are all of us well now,” Nurse answered. “We owe you a great deal.”
“We are all of us in the debt of the Prince,” Argus answered. “A fine man is Aethelbald of Farthestshore.”
“Indeed,” Nurse said. She couldn’t help adding, “I liked him from the very beginning.”
“You have always been an excellent judge of character,” he allowed.
It was too close to a compliment for Nurse to be at ease. She blurted the first thing that came to her head. “I hear I am to offer you congratulations,” she said too loudly.
“Oh?” His face was a perfect blank.
Nurse hated that blank expression. “On your upcoming nuptials,” she added. “Congratulations.”
“I see,” he said, “and I thank you for them. I’ll be sure to pass them along to the groom.”
Nurse stumbled on the edge of her gown, and she was astonished by the agility in which the general caught her. His strong arms steadied her until she had regained her balance, sputtering and embarrassed. She pulled her hands away from his and brushed at her skirt. “I – I – I thank you,” she stammered, blushing.
“Are you well?” he asked kindly.
“Fine, thank you!” she snapped. Nurse looked up into his round, smiling face. “I cannot understand what you mean by… my congratulations were for you. You are getting married!”
“I am?” He appeared perfectly astonished.
“To the Lady Venetia!”
“Oh, that.” He offered his arm. She had no choice but to take it. They moved on. “I’m afraid that the Lady Venetia was no longer amenable to the life of a soldier’s wife,” he said. “Not after the work of the last year. She has removed herself to the more dragon-free beaches of Beauclair and found a more excellent candidate for husband in the person of my younger brother.”
Nurse barely concealed her shock. “I am… I am…” She harrumphed. The procession was far ahead of them now, and there was no one to hear her but the sea breeze. “Well, frankly, I’m scandalized!”
General Argus laughed. It was a glorious sound, Nurse thought, with all the round and artless sound of his disposition. Only a brave man could laugh so, and use the laugh often in the face of danger. He smiled down at her, and Nurse was forced to shake off such thoughts and face the sea.
“I am sorry indeed to see you scandalized,” he said, chuckling.
“We are falling behind!” Nurse stated. “We’ll miss the wedding!”
“I doubt it,” he answered. “These things never begin in a timely manner.”
“I cannot miss the wedding of my princess,” Nurse said hotly.
“You are to be congratulated,” he said. “She is a fine young woman.” He turned his gaze on her again. “Her virtues, I am certain, are owed greatly to you.”
Nurse shook her head. “It was my honor to be her nurse.”
“What of now?” Nurse asked.
“She is to go with the Prince,” General Argus said. “Your work is done. What of you?”
“I will remain,” Nurse answered. “Parumvir is the only home for me.”
“What will you do?”
Nurse bristled. “It is hardly any business of yours,” she said. “I have skills enough!”
“There are plenty of posts for a woman of my accomplishments!”
“I’ve no doubt.”
“I’ll certainly not hang about the palace as a pathetic relic, if that’s what you mean – “
“My dear lady,” General Argus interrupted, “that was the furthest thing from my mind.”
Nurse fell silent. In the horrible, dangerous silence, she felt the pulse of his arm beneath her hand. He was so close, walking in step with her, more real than all the memories she had tried to bury for eighteen years.
“I’m sorry,” she gasped at last. “I’m sorry, Argus.”
He stopped walking when she said his name. They stood in the center of the wide, grassy plain, still a hundred yards from the throng that milled on the sandy bluff of the shore. Nurse looked at the ground, where his shining boots stopped at the tip of her blue silk skirt. She could not bring herself to face him. “I shouldn’t… have… snapped,” she said.
“Are you angry with me?” he asked gently.
She shook her head, not trusting her voice.
“I have never, never wanted to hurt you,” he said.
Nurse gasped. “But I… I tried to hurt you!”
“I know.” General Argus still held her arm, and he turned so that he could press her hand to his chest. “But you never fooled me.”
“I can’t imagine what you – “
“You wanted me to be married. You wanted me to be happy, and I know that was the only reason you cast me off.”
Nurse looked up sharply, uncaring that her face was so near to his. “Never say that! I never cast you off!” she said. “I… I returned your heart to you! I gave it back!”
He chuckled softly. “Did you think I wanted it back?”
Nurse was horrified by the tears that stung her eyes. She looked away from him, toward the sea, where the trumpeters had nearly reached the line of knights around the groom. “I told you I would marry you,” she said, “and then I told you I wouldn’t. I betrayed you.”
“I never saw it that way,” he said. “I’m sorry that you did.”
Nurse pulled her hands away from him and took a step back. She brushed at the silk over her hips and said in her coldest voice, “Then how did you see it?”
Argus considered for only a moment before he cleared his throat. “My dear lady,” he said sternly, “I have only ever had the highest regard for your sense of duty.”
“Your sense of duty,” he said. “When the good Queen died, I knew at once that you were lost to me. I never thought it possible that you would abandon the little princess, much less the baby prince. You are a woman of honor.”
Nurse was flattered, but she held her chin high. “I would be greatly insulted if you thought me so cold!” she said. “I certainly did not stay at the palace purely out of duty!”
“Of course not,” General Argus said, harrumphing under her stern gaze. “You stayed because you loved them.”
Nurse clenched her fists. Then she unclenched them. Then she put them on her hips. “I didn’t stay because I loved them more than I love you! It was never that.”
“I know, Camilla,” he answered.
She froze, unable to move either forward or back. Her pride held her in check, and her heart broke at what she saw in his face.
He saw it all, and a tentative smile played at his lips. “Dearest,” he said, and stepped toward her. He took her hand in his and kissed it firmly. “I knew that you loved me.”
Nurse hiccupped, appalled by her tears. “Stuff… and nonsense,” she said softly.
“Yes,” he agreed, pulling her closer. “It is.”
“General Argus,” she maintained a desperately civil tone, “We’ll be late.” She looked toward the shore.
“Indeed we will be,” he answered. “I’m afraid that I cannot allow you to go any further.”
Nurse snapped her attention back to him. “What can you mean?”
He gripped her hand more firmly in his. “I mean, that I will let not you go again. I love you, Camilla. I have loved you more every day of every year, I love you now, and I will love you.”
She trembled, in just the feminine manner she found appalling in other women. “Sir,” she said at last, “it is highly inappropriate for you to speak to me in such a manner unless you intend for us to be wed immediately.”
He nodded, stern and dignified. “Madam, you are, as always, right,” he said. “Therefore, I do intend that we be married immediately.”
Nurse gasped again, but she couldn’t help the ridiculous smile that broke past her defenses. “You’re quite mad to propose marriage in the middle of another wedding.”
“I suppose I am,” he answered, “but I have always cherished the thought that we would be excellently mad together. Come,” he said, offering his arm again. “We must away. There is a wedding to attend.”
“Well!” Nurse huffed, taking his arm with shaking fingers. “That’s what I’ve been saying.”
“And very well, too,” he said.
“Don’t you try to flatter me!” she warned. “I won’t speak another word of my love for you if I miss the princess’s vows!”
“Then you do love me,” he surmised.
“Perhaps,” Nurse said. “I may love you wildly. Passionately. Even metaphorically.”
“I see.” He walked faster, and his moustache twitched, betraying a smile. “I see.”
“But it would be highly inappropriate for me to declare my love to you without a proper proposal,” Nurse said, “And it certainly wouldn’t be proper here.”
“Of course not.”
“And not at the reception.”
“No.” The general’s grin was almost boyish. “But, perhaps, after the reception?”
“Perhaps,” Nurse answered.
They arrived at the edges of the crowd just as the ceremony began. Nurse very nearly collided with a enormous white lion, but she decided better of scolding the small child it attended. With all the fantastical people and creatures, one could hardly be scandalized by the appearance of a lion.
And at last, the ceremony was complete. Aethelbald and his bride stood together as voices rose from the sea, singing: “Beyond the final water falling, The Songs of Spheres recalling….”
General Argus leaned down and whispered gently into her ear, “Won’t you return to me?”
And Nurse, despite what was proper, smiled up at him and answered, “Yes.”
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