Both boys joined her at the table, which the maid was beginning to clear. It was the one who looked like Aurélius who had just spoken. He, like his appearance, seemed much bolder and more forward than the black-haired boy.
“Hello,” said Emerald, with rather more moderation, though inside her, her heart was racing at the sight of his eyes which seemed to subtly melt from dark amber to brown and back to dark amber independently of the fluctuation of the light. It was the most transfixing phenomenon she had ever witnessed. The boy winked as if he could read her mind and sense her reaction to him.
“And I am Argent Phase,” said the other boy, regarding her calmly as she tore her gaze away from Christopher with as little expression of the difficulty of such an act as was possible. His almost cobalt blue eyes were captivating in a subtly different manner to Christopher’s. They did not fluctuate and pull her helplessly into their rhythm: instead, they held her gaze steadily and she drowned in them more of her own accord.
“Emerald Piéroc,” she told them. “As you know.”
“’Emerald’ because of your eyes,” stated Argent, looking at her keenly. “Yes, that is rather an appropriate name.”
“They’re terribly nice to gaze into,” said Christopher.
Emerald looked at him with a smile, though she only looked directly into his eyes for a second.
“Thank you,” she said politely, and was pleased to know she did not sound hypnotised by his charm.
“I think we ought to arrange a plan of which of us sees you on which day of the week,” said Argent, quite suddenly. Emerald looked at him, surprised.
“Well, the two of us might be a little difficult to handle at the same time,” he said kindly. There was, Emerald thought, an edge of some darker, more intense emotion underlying his tone, and her agreement was based somewhat on a secret desire to explore this when alone with him.
“What would you suggest?” she asked.
“I think we should have an equal amount of days with you and then you may spend the remainder without us, as is only fair on you,” he replied. “I would very much like Monday, Wednesday and Saturday afternoons or evenings as I am not much of a ‘morning person’, as they say.”
“If we’re having three days apiece, I will take Thursdays, Fridays and Sundays,” said Christopher. “And I would prefer daytime.”
Emerald considered the boys’ suggestions carefully, thinking about how a Wednesday evening might affect a Thursday if it happened to end a little later than maybe was expected, and the same with a Saturday night and Sunday. Finally, she came to a decision and asked, “Argent, would Monday evenings and Wednesday and Saturday afternoons suit you?”
She looked to Christopher.
“And Thursdays, Fridays and Sundays for you?”
Christopher beamed. “Perfect.”
“And I shall spend Tuesdays without either of you, though goodness knows what I will do with myself.”
“I think my cousin Tilly is quite eager to meet you,” said Argent, smiling in amusement. “She might call you her friend before you have a chance to protest.”
Emerald grinned. “I will look for her, then. However, today, could I have a tour of the Palace, and come to know the two of you on a basic level?”
“Of course,” said Christopher cheerfully. “But I tell you, princess: I am wonderfully simple to understand.” He smiled at her, in a manner that seemed to suggest he was facilitating any desire she might have to court him. It was the slightest bit unattractive. He stood up energetically.
“He is not lying,” said Argent, as he took more time to rise, stretching at the end. Emerald marvelled at the length of his body. “You will like him, love him, stand or hate him in a week.”
Emerald stood and followed the boys across the room and out into a corridor.
“And you?” she enquired, interested to hear Argent’s own self-analysis.
Argent smiled, his eyes seeing something other than their surroundings.
“You might experience all the feelings which can be held for a person before settling on one,” he answered. The statement evoked Emerald’s intrigue.
Some of the grandest sights on the tour of the Palace included the long ballroom with gilt-framed mirrors at regular intervals along one wall, floor-to-ceiling windows across the other and five great crystal chandeliers suspended from the high ceiling, the library with its dozen towering shelves, large alcoves containing rugs and cushions, and deep armchairs in which members of Christopher’s and Argent’s families sat reading, and the beautiful gardens which stretched out behind the enormous palace, as long as it itself. It was the gardens that Emerald loved the most - in them grew flowers of every colour, dozens of types of fruit tree and plants with leaves of interesting shapes and wonderful textures. The gardens were also amazing because of the stone pieces of artwork in them. There stood six pillars topped with cherubic representations of the six children of The Four, bird baths with carved snakes and ivy curling around them, fountains carved with faces of dragons like those brass decorations on doors in the Palace, and great stone beasts which she could not name.
As Christopher recounted stories of the feats of his ancestors to which Emerald was paying little attention, Argent walked beside her with the face of a man whose mind is elsewhere.
“This is breathtaking,” she said, not truly caring if no one was listening to her, as they arrived at an area of different-coloured rose bushes. She stopped walking. Christopher continued, oblivious.
Emerald gazed in admiration at the roses of the deepest colours: the crimson ones, the dark pink ones, the cobalt and the violet ones. There were even some dark green ones which blended in perfectly with the stems and leaves of the roses. Emerald had not realised that roses could not grow in such amazing colours. There must be magic in the air, the rain or the soil...
“Or it runs deeper than all of that and thrums in the veins of the world.”
Emerald started. Argent was looking at her intensely, even though she had been looking at the roses. His eyes almost seemed to fill her vision and appeared darkened as they focused on her.
“Did... did I speak my thoughts?” she asked, embarrassed, and trying to stop her thoughts from spiralling down those dilated pupils...
“Yes, but they were worthy of being heard,” answered Argent.
Emerald swallowed to speak clearly. Her heart was running slowly, still slightly animated from being startled. But when she was ready to speak, she found she had nothing to say. What was there that could be said? She looked away, part of her amazed at her ability to do this; her eyes wandered back to searching out the contours of the green roses.
She felt Argent’s gaze move as well.
“I am sorry if I alarmed you,” he said quietly.
Emerald looked at him again.
“No, it is fine,” she told him. She hesitated and then said, “Thank you for saying my thoughts were worthy of being heard.”
Argent’s shoulders lifted by a small height: a casual reaction to her gratitude.
“It was true,” he said simply.
Then, Christopher returned to them.
“I wondered what had happened to you,” he said, looking slightly annoyed - perhaps at telling his stories to no one, Emerald’s mind suggested cheekily. She almost blushed.
“I think it is time for lunch,” he was saying now. “Solays and Phases eat separately, though women who have married into the other family may choose with whom they take a meal. Which lunch would you like to attend, Emerald?”
“I might take lunch with the Phases today,” she said thoughtfully, but then felt awkward and guilty as she struggled to come up with a justification. Christopher surely needed one, looking disappointed as he did.
“Oh, that would be appropriate,” said Argent unexpectedly. He addressed her directly. “You want to meet Tilly, do you not? Besides, I am missing the Monday we would have spent together had you arrived before this week.”
Somehow it struck Emerald that Argent was not the sort who cared overly about missing a single day of a week in which he was to have two more encounters of a princess considering him for a husband and for High King of Emriqa. In any case she realised that he was giving her the justification she had been seeking.
“That is right,” she told Christopher, trying not to look too deeply into his eyes. “Besides, I can dine with the Solays.”
“Yes, I suppose you can,” he said, though he still did not look overjoyed.
“I will see you this evening then,” she told him.
He walked away to the Solay meal.
Argent led her in another direction.
“You helped me with a reason to take lunch with you,” murmured Emerald, grateful for but perhaps a little surprised by the gesture.
Argent looked at her.
“I was disinclined to let you become embarrassed and give Christopher the wrong impression,” he told her calmly.
“What was the wrong impression?” asked Emerald, embarrassed because she was sure that she should know it herself.
Argent looked straight ahead and put his hands in the pockets of his black trousers. He was wearing all black, reminding Emerald of shadows. She noticed a new tension in his shoulders.
“That you are enamoured of me,” he replied quietly.
“How do you know I am not?” was the first, stupid response that Emerald voiced. Heat flooded her cheeks.
Argent frowned but spared her the further embarrassment of him regarding her.
“That was an intense moment in the gardens but I do not believe it was love.”
“You are right,” said Emerald, almost wishing she could die. “I am sorry.” As she said this, she wondered in the back of her mind what the real reason for her so quickly choosing the Phase meal over the Solay meal was.
Intrigue, she supposed. Intrigue because of the ‘intense moment’. But an intrigue which did not yet mean that her heart wanted to give itself to Argent...
How senseless of her to ask him how he knew that she was not enamoured of him! Of course she was not in love with him - she was not in love with either of the choices for the High King of Emriqa. To be so at this stage would be pure folly. She would have to be more thoughtful before she acted or spoke again.
Argent was shaking his head.
“Don’t be,” he told her seriously. “People do not like others to make assumptions. I am sorry.”
“Then I forgive you,” said Emerald, feeling a strange tenderness at the responsibility of ensuring he no longer blamed himself.
Argent smiled at her and she felt less ashamed of herself. They walked to the Phase meal in a silence that was not uncomfortable.