It was Edmund, not Tilly, who answered the door and for a moment it seemed that Christopher had made a mistake.
But Edmund smiled and opened the door fully.
“Come in,” he said cheerfully. “This is the Phases’ Youth Room.”
How odd for there to be a room with such a name, Emerald thought to herself, walking inside. She spotted Tilly sitting on a cushion beneath the single window in the far corner of the room, drawing quietly against a thin wooden board, a box of pencils open by her feet. She also noticed a boy with a similar face to Argent Phase’s. He had strange silvery grey eyes and, the reverse of Argent’s silver-streaked black hair, silver hair with a black streak in it. This boy looked roughly a year older than Emerald’s brother Peridot and he sat at a table on which a game of chess was set out, watching Edmund - evidently the person against whom he was playing - patiently.
The boy nodded rather informally to Emerald, calling out “Afternoon.”
Edmund, who was now returning to sit opposite the boy, looked rather embarrassed.
“I apologise, Princess Emerald. Andrew was never one for manners.”
Andrew looked exasperated.
“Edmund, we are not lower than a princess merely because nobody calls us princes. Every Solay and Phase who is such by blood is descended from The Four. We are equals with this princess, and therefore may speak openly with her.”
Emerald had to confess she had always considered all Phases and Solays higher than herself, though she did this internally.
“I do not mind casual talk,” she said to both Andrew and Edmund. Andrew smiled and Edmund accepted her reaction, saying, “As long as you were not offended, Your Highness.” He sat down and the two boys resumed their game. Emerald heard Edmund quietly tell Andrew that he was lucky that this princess was kind.
Tilly looked up from her drawing and smiled at Emerald.
“Come sit with me, princess. I am almost finished.”
Emerald joined her and sat on another cushion.
“What are you drawing?”
“Luna, woman of the moon,” she answered.
“May I look?”
Tilly smiled. “When it is finished.”
She made a few adjustments then showed the drawing to Emerald. Emerald gasped in admiration.
The drawing was beautiful. Luna, woman of the Moon, stood against a backdrop of dark trees, her skin and hair glowing silver, the outline of her perfect body soft but clearly defined against the background, her eyes blue as sapphires containing the wisdom of the ages, and the light gown of pale, delicate material like thick spider webs floating away at her legs to reveal her ankles and feet, which cast small pools of light onto the soil beneath her.
“It’s amazing,” Emerald told Tilly, awestruck.
“Thank you,” said Tilly, smiling appreciatively.
Emerald smiled back. “You are welcome - though I speak the truth.”
Tilly continued to smile.
“Shall we go away from the boys? I have a small room where we may engage in fun activities.”
Emerald hesitated. “Christopher said he would collect me from this room,” she said.
Tilly laughed.“I will bring you back. I’m not kidnapping you, you know.”
“No, that would not be tactful,” called Andrew. “There would be no chance of Emerald becoming your cousin if you did that.”
Tilly laughed. “Indeed.”
Emerald was reminded of Milly Solay saying “You’ll be our cousin too, if you marry Cousin Christopher.”
“Who’s Lupus Phase?” she wondered suddenly.
Everyone looked at her in surprise. She felt herself flush lightly.
“He is my younger brother,” replied Edmund. “Where did you hear his name?”
“Oh, some Solay girls mentioned him,” said Emerald vaguely, not wanting to speak extensively about the conversation in the Parlour yesterday when it held neither much interest nor importance.
Edmund no longer looked surprised.
“Oh yes,” he said. “He plays with Tiera Solay sometimes.”
Andrew rolled his eyes.
“It’s Aunt Leticia and Uncle John again.”
“There is nothing wrong with my parents,” exclaimed Tilly, at the same time as Edmund snorted, saying “Lupus has five years, Andrew.”
Andrew looked at Tilly.
“Do you not think it is the tiniest bit weird a Solay marrying a Phase?”
“No,” said Tilly rigidly. “We all have Solay blood in us from some point in history. The Four’s children were not incestuous. Besides, Great Aunt Snow married Nathan Solay, and there is nothing wrong with her.”
Andrew shrugged. “Yet we seem to be strikingly different from Solays.”
“We are each how we are,” said Edmund peaceably, “and we define our own character. Andrew, if you want to marry a person from outside the Palace of Light, a Night Being or Tilly, no one is stopping you except perhaps Tilly. And Tilly, I will treat you no differently to how I treat you now if you marry Kyle Solay.”
Tilly blushed brightly. Andrew said nothing.
“Let us go,” murmured Tilly, pulling Emerald out of the room.
“What is a Night Being?” enquired Emerald curiously.
“A member of a magical race living in the Obscure Forest. Argent and Andrew’s mother is one.”
So Andrew was Argent’s brother. That explained the resemblance.
“I see,” said Emerald. “Do many Phases marry Night Beings?”
“There is either one or no Phase/ Night Being marriage per generation. If there is one, though, it never involves the King or Queen.”
“I see.” Not having anything else to say, Emerald fell silent.
A few minutes later, Tilly asked her, “How do you find Argent? Might you choose him to be King?”
“It is slightly too early to make that decision yet,” replied Emerald. “But he seems friendly enough. Perhaps a little mysterious, though that is an interesting rather than off-putting trait.”
“He might seem a little distant at times but when he lets you behind his ‘walls of absence’ as I call them, I think you will like him more. Patience and attempts to understand him are the key - and what indeed is love without patience and understanding?”
Emerald smiled. “I agree completely.”
“It must be strange for you - to be here knowing that people want you to fall in love.”
“Yes, it is a little,” responded Emerald, admitting it newly to herself as well as to Tilly.
“And knowing too that Argent and the High Queen’s son are considering you romantically before naturally befriending you.”
“Yes, that is strange,” agreed Emerald, remembering Christopher’s promise not to kiss her in the Throne Room. In other circumstances, such a promise would have been absurd, since they would have been becoming friends within that time frame of knowing each other.
They arrived at a door with a small painting of a moon against a deep blue sky on it.
“Here we are,” announced Tilly.
She opened the door to reveal a small room with sofa, fireplace, bookshelf/ cupboard, table and two chairs, and wooden chest.
“Argent, Andrew, Edmund and I all have a room like this beside our bedchamber where we can entertain ourselves,” explained Tilly.
Emerald smiled. “That is a good idea. And when you are feeling sociable, you can go to your ‘Youth Room’.”
Tilly beamed. “Exactly. But our personal drawing rooms are useful when we receive a visit from other princes and princesses - a Phase or Solay of the same gender will choose to be the ‘host’ before their arrival and the prince or princess will sleep in their bedchamber and spend time with the Phase in their drawing room or with the Solay in whatever room of which the Solay may dispose privately.”
“Oh, I would not have minded such an arrangement,” said Emerald, wondering why she had been treated differently.
“The Queen probably thought you would become biased and choose the son of the family who hosted you. That or she thought you old enough to deserve your own chamber.”
“That’s a shame.”
“Yes,” said Tilly, looking thoughtful. “I am the girl who is closest to you in age in the Palace. You would have been my guest.”
“Would you have tried to make me choose Argent?” asked Emerald.
Tilly laughed again.
“Most probably, yes.”
Emerald smiled. “Well, at least we will see each other every Tuesday, and - if I can find you - when I am not with Argent or Christopher.”
Tilly smiled. “That is true. Though be informed that I have lessons on Wednesdays and so will not be able to entertain you on that day.”
“Understood. So, how are you going to entertain me now?”
Tilly considered this.
“How many card games do you know?”
When the time came for Tilly to lead her back to the Youth Room, Emerald was not sure that she wanted to go. Having a new friend in Tilly felt so natural to her that it made the fact she was now to dine with a man who might end up her husband rather disconcerting.
“They will both try to charm you,” had said the High Queen, and while Argent at least had not seemed to do so, the possibility remained.
Nevertheless, it was unfair to disappoint Christopher after telling him she would dine with him. He may interpret the letdown as her not liking some aspect of his character, which was not at all the reason that she was unhappy. So, reluctant though she was, she let Tilly take her back to the Youth Room. They arrived to find Edmund reading and Andrew gone.
Emerald sat with Tilly on the cushions they had occupied previously. Tilly had brought her drawing paper and started sketching an outline of the unknowing Edmund.
A knock came at the door.
“Come in,” called Edmund, without looking up from his book. The door opened to reveal Christopher.
Emerald’s heart sank.
The High Queen’s son was wearing a pale grey suit, dark grey bow tie and silver waistcoat.
Edmund looked up and smiled at this outfit.
“Andrew would say that those are our colours,” he said mildly.
“They do feel a little Phase-like,” commented Christopher cheerfully, looking confident. His hair and eyes had something of a radiance about them, despite the shades of his clothes.
Emerald rose to her feet. Christopher smiled at her and she followed him from the room. He immediately began to lead her in the direction of the Solays’ dining room.
“I had not expected you to dress formally,” she murmured, feeling as though she were dressed completely unsuitably. Thank goodness Tilly had offered to brush out her hair after their card games so she was not utterly scruffy.
“No, I suppose I had the wrong idea in my mind.” Now that they were alone, a layer of Christopher’s confidence seemed to have fallen away. He looked a little awkward, dressed in his formal attire while Emerald had not changed clothes. It occurred to Emerald that perhaps his boldness was more of a part of him that he displayed in public, while he dared to let shyness and kindness come out in private.
She decided to say nothing in response to his statement, guessing that the ‘wrong idea’ might be related to the fact that she might become Emerald Solay in the near future. That sort of thought was the type which she wanted to avoid after having befriended Tilly Phase.
Christopher sighed, interrupting Emerald’s thoughts.
“I am over-dressed for the occasion,” he told her. “Kyle and Ray are going to laugh at me, say that I am besotted with you already.”
Emerald passed no comment on the last part of Christopher’s statement. Instead she asked, “Who are they?” She recognised one name from the conversation last night with Tamina, Milly and Tiera, and the other from what Edmund had said before Tilly had taken her to her private drawing room.
“Two of my cousins - they are brothers and when together, they encourage each other’s bad behaviour. Do you have any siblings or cousins, Emerald?”
“Only a brother,” she replied.
“Does he laugh at your mistakes often?”
“Only good-naturedly. He is quite kind.”
Christopher met her gaze, smiling wryly.
“You are lucky then.”
“I suppose I am.” Emerald smiled slightly.
“Princess, what do you think of this whole choosing the next King affair?” asked Christopher suddenly.
Carefully, Emerald said, “It is an honour to have been chosen for such a task, yet the responsibility is great.”
Christopher smiled widely.
“Be frank with me, princess.”
“It is odd,” she said truthfully. “Odd and a little alarming. I think there is a lot of pressure on me to make a choice that is suitable for the whole of Emriqa.”
Christopher nodded, his smile becoming a frown. He looked ahead of him, into a distance, his brow furrowed in thought.
“Hm, unfortunately there is equal chance that the one you love will be the better King and that he will not.”
“Unless you are both perfect,” said Emerald. She felt herself smile quite widely.
Christopher cast her a sidelong glance and chuckled.
“No, I would not say that. I have not spent much time with Argent but he strikes me as a little quiet for the role. And as for me, well, I do not feel grown into myself yet.”
“I am sure that one’s character develops as one settles into the role,” Emerald told him, sorry that he did not think he would make a good king, though also touched that he had confided in her. “And as long as you are just and uphold high moral standards, you will make a fine king.”
Christopher smiled, looking ahead again.
“You think it is that simple?”
Emerald shook her head, though she was smiling too.
“Nothing of that importance is simple. But persevere and you will perform your role well.”
Christopher regarded her, his smile soft and seeming to soften Emerald internally. His eyes seemed to melt even more beautifully as they changed hue.
“Whomever you choose, if you keep these attitudes, you will make an excellent Princess Consort.”
Emerald blushed, averting her eyes from Christopher’s gaze and looking down at the floor.
“Thank you, Christopher.”