Chapter 15

Cassandra walked the Gherion palace gardens alone, stray birdsong twittling from the manicured treetops. There was something lacking in these gardens, colorful flowering sparse. It was as if the styling was very stark, stiff and, perhaps even masculine in appearance; large green bushes, tall stone walls, formed into sharp, perfect shapes, unforgiving to their formal facades.

She had walked the empty paths for a quite a while now, pausing as she came upon a circled patio centered around a gray, gurgling fountain. Sighing, she made herself a seat at the fountain's edge. She had to admit that this garden in particular had a clean, elegant beauty. A few crimson rose bushes colored the area with a solemn, yet romantic, regality.

Her mother had likely walked these paths years ago, looked into her reflection in this very same fountain. Cassandra watched her own wavering expression dance around in the silvery water, hinted with the sparkle of sunshine. What was the true story behind her mother? The Aedryn Queen had always been very vague with her daughter, never touching upon those tender topics of what seemed to be a hazy past.

Cassandra could easily imagine her pale, grave mother strolling silently through these gardens, putting a nose to the soft, sweet petal of a beautiful rose. She was suddenly stricken with a bout of homesickness; although it had not been all that long since her departure, since her separation from her mother, Cassandra knew it would be quite a while before she could come home. If she ever made the journey back to the Aedryn palace, she would return a much different woman - a wife and Navarn's Queen.

"Your Highness?"

The Princess spun around, surprised, nearly falling from her precarious perch at the fountain's edge into the water. There was a supporting hand at her arm, holding her away from the shallow, wet depths.

"Princess, I am sorry for frightening you so - I had no intentions to scare you in such a way."  Cassandra looked up to the alert blue eyes of her grandfather's closest advisor, expression wrinkled with concern. "I fear the hem of your gown has been dampened."

Slightly shaken, she allowed Lord Nather to help her stand. Why did everyone seem so quiet around here, so intent on frightening her? They all were like people of the shadow, hiding in the darkness, ever-silent.  

"It is fine, my Lord. It will dry out in only a moment, though I admit you did give me quite a scare!" Cassandra nervously laughed. "But it is just fine, Lord Nather."

"It seems I have been only rude to you since your arrival! You are kind to deal with all my misgivings so good-naturedly."  said the advisor with a slight shake of the head. "Would you care to walk and talk with me, if you would not mind dealing with my abrasive behavior for another moment?"

"Of course! I don't know this 'abrasive behavior' of which you speak. You have treated me with nothing but courtesy," Cassandra said as she took the offered arm. Lord Nather chuckled softly before she continued, "What is the subject you would like to talk about?"

Lord Nather looked down into the face of the young Princess; soft with an understated beauty, gentle with friendly, open eyes, yet all the while mantaining a royal air of majestic elegance.  What sort of part was this seemingly innocent girl going to play in the future of Gherion, and of the continent? Why was she so valuable to King Alezander's plan, whatver the great scheme of it all was?

"Have you ever met King Alezander before?"

Cassandra blinked a few times, taken aback by his blunt, unexpected question. "No ... but I am to meet him soon enough. It won't be too long before I arrive in El'burin, where he, most probably, waits."

"Of course," he nodded slowly. "When is the exact date of your wedding to the Prince?"

"I am unaware if there has been any exact date set, my Lord. I am sure it will be promptly enough after my arrival," Cassandra explained, curious still to the nature of Nather's questioning.

"And you have met your groom-to-be previously, correct?"

"Yes, I have."

Lord Nather paused, glancing down toward the Princess once more. He smiled, a tight curve of the lip, "I'm afraid I have to apologize again, Your Highness. All these questions seem very out-of-the-blue."  

Cassandra smiled back; relaxed, easy and confident, "Well, perhaps I can ask you some questions in turn?" 

"Oh, goodness," laughed Nather, shaking his head. "What in the world have I started? You may ask away, Princess, but don't be sure you'll find anything interesting."

She laughed lightly, pausing only a breath before she began with the first of her questions. "Have you ever met my mother?"

"Oh goodness," he said once again, sighing as he turned his face in thoughtful reverie to the sky. "Though it was really not all that long ago, it certainly does seem like it."  With another pause, he gathered his words and began, "We were quite similar in age, I suppose - I myself just a year or so her elder. I was working as an secretary to the man acting as King Lander's head councilmen, or chief advisor - the job I sit in currently - so I saw her quite often, even if she didn't take much notice of me."  He stopped, his footsteps bringing them both to halt a moment. "Well, not in a particularly rude way, you know. She paid me my dues as was necessary. I was really no one that important at the time. Just a son of another Lord, a shadow to this Lord Jasting - the head councilmen."

With that corrected, he went on walking again, having the Princess' ear on his every word.  "Anyways," Nather continued. "There was no helping in admiring the Princess. As the only - surviving - daughter to the King, and quite a beautiful one at that, many men did. But it seemed that she had her eye already set to one man in particular - at least before her father sent her off to marry another.

"From what I recall, she was obviously very similar to you. There was a quiet elegance to the way she walked, she spoke - even the styling of her hair and the very structure of her face. Her smile was gentle and sweet, a tender expression that could easily catch any man's eye, and, if he was fortunate enough to have that very look cast upon him, by either chance or purpose, soften his heart," said Lord Nather. "Very similar to youself. It is amazing how much of her I can see in your own smile."

Cassandra warmed ever so slightly, turning her face away to hide a rising blush. In a way, it was an odd sort of under-the-table compliment that made her feel a little awkward. She turned back, her composure retained, "Who was this man - the one you say she had her eye set on?"

Nather frowned, a chill sharpening his brilliant blue eyes. "I can't remember his name," he said simply, tone hinted with an unmistakable cool edge. "He was a rebel - a man that, I presume, doesn't have very many friends now-a-days."

"But...," Cassandra began, only to be interrupted by the arrival of a hustling young man, certainly in some great rush.

"Excuse me, my Lord," he gave a quick, nervous bow. Lord Nather retracted from Cassandra's arm, alarmed by the man's anxious hurry.   "Lord Thalin has returned, and he awaits your audience, Sire."

"Arrived - already?" the advisor deflated, relieved that it was not a more urgent message. He turned toward the Princess, who was watching inquisitively. "Pardon me, Your Highness, I am afraid I have some business to tend to." Lord Nather gave a full, flourishing bow. "It has been an honor. Until next time."

She curstied in return, allowing the advisor to depart with his skittering assistant. Nather had never gotten around to asking all the questions he would like of the Princess - how easily, gracefully, she had changed the focus - but it would not be long before they would meet again. Any further questioning could wait until the next time.

Perhaps, by then, he will have already put together some more pieces of King Alezander's suspicious puzzle.

The End

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