Ilona wrapped her arms around her pillow and sank deep into sleep. Dreams swirled around her, building in clarity until she saw herself as a little girl in the castle garden. The swing was in front of her, and its stone arbor was covered in twirling vines with tiny pink blossoms. She climbed up onto the swing and pressed her nose into the spring flowers. She was happy.
A black-haired boy climbed up next to her. “I’m going away, Ilona.” His voice was immeasurably sad. He clenched his little jaw determinedly. “But I’ll come back. I promise.”
Ilona sat down on the swing, surveying her playmate in dismay. Going away? Why would he go away?
He sucked in a deep breath, puffing out his chest. “Ilona,” he said. “You’re my best friend. When I grow up, I’m not going marry anybody but you. I’ll take care of you forever and ever.”
“Okay,” Ilona heard herself lisp.
Ilona’s eyes flew open and she stared into the thatched roof. Where had that dream come from? She rolled over and tossed and turned, but she couldn’t get back to sleep. Finally she grabbed her robe and slipped out of the hut.
The moon was full and bright, and the air was chilly. Ilona shivered, even in her robe.
“It’s warmer by the fire,” a woman called softly. It was Verana. She sat by the fire in front of a neighboring hut.
Ilona directed her steps toward her aunt. Verana stirred tea in a black pot, nestled in a bed of coals. Ilona sat down on a log and watched as Verana dipped a cloth into the tea and then placed the cloth over her arm.
“Tea-staining,” Verana said, in answer to Ilona’s quizzical expression.
“Why?” She felt herself relaxing in the fire’s heat.
“Originally, I’m sure it had some purpose – camouflage most likely. Now…” Verana dipped another cloth in the tea and lay it over her other arm. “…it is tradition. As much a sign of beauty to us as your red lips and jewels are to you.”
“Our world must have seemed strange to my mother.”
Verana laughed. “As ours does to you.”
Ilona sighed. “I miss them. Mother and papa and D--” She caught herself and stopped. But Detlef’s name still rang between her ears, surprising her.
Very carefully, Verana applied the tea to her face and neck, but she kept one eye on Ilona. “You are thinking of a suitor, no? You have a favorite?”
“I thought I had two favorites, but…only one of them makes me feel at home, makes me feel like he’s always been there for me and always will be.” She stared into the fire. “Emil seemed almost perfect, at first, but now I don’t know. I’m sure he’ll be perfect for somebody.” She searched her mind for a way to explain how she felt. “You know, Papa had to call my name twice to remind me of my duty to crown him the winner of the fencing game. I was too distracted watching…” Her eyes dropped. “Never mind. It doesn’t matter who -- Horst is picking my husband for me.”
“It matters more than you think.” Verana wrung her cloths and dipped them in the pot again. “You must wonder why this little kingdom-within-a-kingdom cares who marries the princess of Hanadil. We pay no taxes. We are not subject to your kings, for none of your kings can find us.”
Ilona chose her words carefully. “It made sense to my mother.”
“We may seem out of your reach here, but we still feel the influence of the castle. And so do our friends among the Hanadil people. Even now, one of our own suffers at the hand of a wicked viscount. A bad ruler does terrible things to a people. It has long troubled us how the kings and queens are chosen based on power connections.” Her eyes flickered to Ilona’s face. “Your papa chose for better reasons, but we saw Amalia’s position in the castle as our inroad to make Hanadil a better place, both for this generation and the next.” She reached out and placed her hand over Ilona’s. “We want what is best for you, Ilona.”
“So does my papa.”
“Then perhaps we shall all agree on the same man.” Verana stood up. Clouds were moving across the sky, letting moonlight through sporadically, like smoke signals. “Try to get some sleep, Ilona.”