"So how long have you been courting?" I asked conversationally.
"Two years," George replied. "But we've only been engaged since Eden came of age."
I frowned slightly. "She has twenty one years of age?"
"No...," George answered, sounding confused. Suddenly, comprehension appeared to dawn on him. "Oh of course! I've grown so used to the Eagle way of things that I've completely forgotten the Dolphin way. Eagles - all Eagles - come of age at eighteen years."
"Oh, that's interesting," I said. I didn't really know what to say after that, so silence hung in the air.
"What happened with Prince Tiger?" George suddenly asked.
"I ... er ... made a mistake," I said, quickly regaining composure after the shock of the unexpected question. I was glad that George couldn't see my embarrassment as I answered.
To my surprise, George was sympathetic. "I'm not surprised. It must be difficult to play both the part of the friendly host and cold bitter enemy at the same time after having just been crowned."
He shook his head slightly, before dropping his voice so that I had to strain my ears to catch the words. "And personally, I don't agree with this conflict. Rex Waterfall should have been at least a little apologetic towards the Phonixes after overpowering the Phoenix's sacred volcano."
"Really?" I asked in awe.
He mistook my awe for shock. "Controversial, isn't it?"
"No, no," I said hastily. "I think I agree with you."
"Really?" George asked, bewildered.
"Well, er, I don't know really," I admitted. "I just don't think all Phoenixes are too bad."
George looked as if he suddenly understood something. He looked sympathetic to the point of apologetic as he murmured "You've fallen in love with him, haven't you?"
"Of course not." But my voice came out weak and trembly and tears prickled at the edge of my eyes.
"Oh, Your Highness...," he murmured.
"I can't have," I said despairingly. "I told him I hadn't before the Supreme Ruler in court. Besides, he's so cruel."
"But it hurts to describe him so, doesn't it?"
The unicorn landed on the lawn before the Palace. George climbed off and helped me down. He kissed the unicorn's forehead as if it was Eden and the animal flew off into the skies. George gazed down at me, waiting for the answer to his question.
"Yes," I mumbled, averting my gaze.
"Okay then. Well, there's nothing we can do tonight but tomorrow I'll come and visit you and we can discuss a course of action."
"Why? What are we going to do?"
George shrugged. "About your feelings? There is nothing we can do. But to help cover them up? Take another trip to see the Supreme Ruler."
I gulped, whispering. "I lied to him. I'll end up in prison."
George shook his head. "No one is going to allow that to happen, Your Highness - especially not an Eagle. They've been waiting for a more successful revolution in love since the crowning of your grandfather."
I looked sharply up at George. "Why? What happened on that day>"
George's brow furrowed. "I thought you'd been reading about Henry Waterfall. He was next in line to the throne. I'm sorry to tell you this but the rightful queen of Wavia is Matilda Waterfall-Flame."
My eyes widened in shock. "I shouldn't be a princess?"
George shook his head."The only way you would be is if Matilda died childless."
"Oh no," I whispered.
"I understand how ... disappointing this must be for you," George said, but without much conviction. I could tell that his tone would've been scathing if I wasn't a princess. But I wasn't.
"My grandfather, ... my father, ... my mother. They've all been denying Henry and Matlda the right to rule Wavia... How terrible."
George looked surprised. "Is that how you really feel?"
I nodded vigorously. "Of course! I'm not some spoilt brat who adores being a princess for all the wrong reasons. I care about my people and about justice. To learn I belong to a family of hypocrites is alarming and unsettling."
Suddenly, there was something I needed to know. "Does Charity know?" I could ... perhaps deal with my parents deceiving me, but not my closest friend in the world. If she knew, I would be destroyed.
George hesitated, seeing my distress. "It is getting late, Your Highness. And it is not good for you to be seen standing alone out here for a prolonged period of time."
I started walking briskly towards the palace. "Then tell me as we walk."
George hurried along to keep up with me.
"There are rumours that she will not marry out of a reluctance to rule when she shouldn't: after all, Wavia would need a king as well as a queen should she ascend to the throne; but she may have just taken a vow of celibacy."
"I am ashamed to confess that not even I know the reason for why she has never courted. There have been many interested persons."
"Don't endanger yourself trying to find out. I am sorry to say that when you know of these things, you must always fear the worst."
We were nearing the entrance now. I slowed my pace as we approached the guards to say "Thank you. I am indebted to you for the advice you have so willingly given me and the aid which you are prepared to offer despite the danger it puts you in."
George nodded. "Anything to further the cause. Especially when the potential ally could have such a great impact on it."
I wasn't quite sure what was meant by that last statement but was unable to ask as we reached the guards.
"Your Highness!" they cried in surprise as they saw who I was.
"You haven't been out for quite some time," one commented.
"I don't think it's your place to judge, sir," I said, sounding unintentionally cold in my anxiety.
The guard looked like he had been stung by an icy wind. His expression became serious and he replied "Of course, Your Highness. I apologise."
He stepped aside to allow us to enter.
I walked into my home and felt immediately oppressed by all the secrecy and lies, captured in the faces of the portraits of former kings, stern and smiling alike, and reflected in the heavy tension that hung in the atmosphere. I wondered how I had never noticed it before, until I remembered that that itself had been part of the deception.
"I feel sick," I muttered aloud.
"I don't blame you," George murmured.
Just then, my mother hurried into sight,. She stopped before me, looking bewildered.
"Good gracious, dear. We didn't expect you would stay that long at Majesteria Palace. Go to your chambers - I'll arrange for a maid to run you a hot bath."
I turned to George who gave me a slight nod. I walked off, trying to keep calm as I walked to my chamber.
I heard Mother say "Thank you for bringing my daughter home safely, sir. Can we offer you a place to stay for the night?"
"No, thank you, Your Majesty. I really must be off."
I continued on my way, lost in thought. On the first floor, I collided with someone.
I blinked and found myself face to face with Tiger Flame.
"What are you doing here?" I exclaimed in shock.
Tiger looked furious. "I'd forgotten you lived here," he spat.
I recovered my sense enough to repeat my question in a calmer voice. "Why are you here?"
"The stupid unicorn that brought me down from Majesteria brought me here and then there was a great storm which forced everyone who was present at your crowning to stay the night here."
"Must have been an awful storm," I murmured as I absorbed this.
"Yes: all the roads in Wavia were flooded. All Wavians who live in low areas were moved to that large castle where your ancestors used to live."
"That's terrible," I gasped in shock.
Tiger nodded and started walking off. He paused after a few steps and turned. "Oh, Selena?"
Surprised and a little hopeful, I replied "Yes?"
"Don't try and talk to me while I'm here. I'm fairly certain that Dolphins can be arrested for angering a Phoenix."
Saddened and overwhelmed by the deflation of my hopes, I strode off, trying desperately not to cry. Why did I have to become attracted to him?
I ran the last few metres to my chamber. Once inside, I slammed the door behind me. I flung myself onto my bed and began to sob.
A few minutes later, I had sufficiently recovered to consider taking my mind off Tiger and the ridiculous Phoenix-Dolphin conflict. I was about to pick up ‘Punishable Courting' and resume reading about my great-uncle (and hopefully become absorbed in his tale) when there was a desperate pounding on my bedroom door followed by the very dramatic entrance of my sister.
"We need to talk."