“Your dress is as pink as the roses.” Emil fingered a thorny stem. “And your cheeks are just as bright.”
Ilona blushed. “My papa sometimes calls me his little briar-rose.”
“The perfect beauty surrounded by an army of prickles.” He grasped a red rose, breaking the stem, and presented it to Ilona with a flourish. “My gift to you, my queen!”
Ilona took the offered blossom and buried her nose in its rich scent.
“And now I have a favor to ask of you.” His hand found hers, and he clasped her fingers in his own.
Ilona waved the red rose. “Was this a gift or a bargaining piece?”
He ignored her question. “Let me dance two dances with you tonight!”
Ilona hid her face in the rose. “I take it, then, that you are fond of dancing.”
“And never have I had a more beautiful and graceful partner than I did last night with you.”
Ilona found herself blushing again. “Very well. Two dances.”
“Then I can hardly wait for the hours to pass so that I may once again waltz with the most beautiful princess on earth.”
The hours did pass, and as evening fell, Ilona once again found herself carried away with the music. The council had interviewed the suitors that day, and, to Ilona’s relief, the ballroom was not as crowded tonight. While there were still a host of eager partners, she found that she had time to dance twice with Emil…and twice with Detlef. And so the evening swirled away in a pleasant fashion.
The next morning, after her routine with Cordula, she went to find her papa. She found him in his library.
He glanced up from his book. “I’m starting additional festivities this afternoon. We men grow bored with all this dancing. I’ll host some tournaments during the day – archery, fencing, horseback riding, and maybe a falcon hunt – and then we shall have dancing at night for you ladies.”
“Where is mother?” She found a seat on a couch and curled up, tucking her feet under her gown.
“She is resting in her room. Something...” His brow puckered thoughtfully. “...something is troubling her.” He shook his head as he noticed Ilona’s concerned face. “Not to worry, my dear. She is only uneasy over the purpose of the ball, as I presume all mothers would be.”
Ilona nodded, letting go of that worry and turning her mind to others.
“How are you? You seem troubled yourself, little briar-rose.” Her papa shifted in his seat and lowered his book.
“I don’t know how I will ever decide who to marry.” Ilona bit her lip. “Too many people are all too willing to profess their love for me, and their flattery is very pleasant.” She cocked her head at her papa. “How did you meet Mother?”
“In hunting a deer, I found a dear.” He chuckled over his own pun. “At least, that is what I tell her.”
“You were on a hunting trip?”
“Aye, arrayed in my hunter greens, with my bow over my shoulder, I ventured into the forest in search of venison. After some hours, I rode into a gorge…and there she was.” His eyes softened as if seeing his queen for the first time. “I think I frightened her with my boisterous splendor, but she was the most beautiful maiden I had ever seen. I quickly saw she was injured. She had fallen down the embankment, nearly an hour earlier, and could not walk. I couldn’t leave her there, and she wouldn’t tell me who her family was.” He clapped his hand over his heart. “I brought her back to my castle and, by the time her leg mended, we were very much in love.”
“You never told me all this before.” Ilona reached for her necklace, rubbing the smooth amber pendant in her fingers. “Who were mother’s people? Was she the daughter of one of your lords?”
“Ah!” Her papa shook his head, his eyes alight with remembered amazement. “Your mother is one for riddles. She says she was not one of my subjects but the princess of a kingdom within a kingdom. More she will not reveal.” He winked at Ilona. “Not yet.”
Ilona straightened up in surprise. “You still don’t know where she came from? After all these years?”
He got up from his table and joined her on the couch, wrapping his arms around her and resting his chin on her head. “And neither do you, for all your sixteen years. You see, it doesn’t matter, lass, when we love her so dearly. The people accepted her as my bride without complaint. And she’s made the loveliest queen and mother on God’s green earth.” He squeezed Ilona’s shoulders and kissed her on the top of her head. “She’ll tell us when she’s ready.”
(by Esther Brooksmith)