“I think my father wants to marry me off.” Erna said.
She was walking along the river bank with Pavel, who looked at her sidelong as she spoke.
“He thinks its what parents should do, though, I have no intention of doing that.”
Pavel stopped on the track and let out a soft sigh.
Erna turned to face him with a look of innocence.
Pavel half thought Erna put on the look on purpose, to guilt people into being on her side.
Her eyes sparkled like a pool reflecting the afternoon sun.
It was clear to Pavel that Viscount Hardy wanted to marry his daughter he had only got as a bargain for buying the Baden family house.
If you looked only a little closely at the behaviour of this man, it was pretty clear.
“Then why don’t you move back to Baden Street?” Pavel said.
Pavel wanted to tell Erna that Viscount Hardy had no interest in being her father and was looking for a way to get rid of her.
He wanted to give her a warning, but didn’t know how to say it without hurting her feelings.
“I want to, but I promised I’d stay in Schuber for another year.
Once that is done, of course I will move back to Baden Street.” Erna said.
“I’m sure your father has a different plan.” Pavel said.
“Even so, I may have gotten help from my father, but my only true family is my grandmother.” Erna said.
Contrary to the soft smile Erna showed on the outside, on the inside she was steadfast and stubborn.
She may look infinitely fragile, but that only hid the deep strength of her will.
What am I going to do with this kid? Pavel thought.
No matter how much he dwelled on this girl, he could never find a solution.
Even if Erna returned to Buford, Viscount Hardy was not going to let her go.
He may not want her as a daughter, but that did not mean he was going to let her run off to the other side of the country, if it meant he could fetch a high price for selling her to what ever person offered the highest price for her hand.
There was nothing he could do right now and it left him feeling utterly powerless.
“You want to go back to Buford, again?” Erna asked.
Pavel had not been back to Buford in quite some time.
He used to go back at least once a month, to help his father at the lumber mill.
“You’re constantly going in and out of Baden House.” Pavel’s father had said.
“You need to stop, neither you nor that Erna girl are children any more and if you want to take you’re career as a painter seriously, you need to strike out into the world and stop wasting time in this village.”
Pavel couldn’t believe his father would say something so absurd, but there was concern in his eyes, as he smoked his pipe and considered the clouds drifting by.
After that rough advice, Pavel did indeed strike out into the world and had not returned to Buford or Baden House since.
He was not upset by the advice his father gave, even if it was given in bad taste.
Pavel pretty much shared the same thoughts
He was young, but he was not stupid.
Erna was like a sister to him, but he knew that outsiders would look upon their friendship with suspicion, a lumberjacks son and the daughter of a failed aristocrat.
Rumours spread like wild fire and so, Pavel decided it was time to put some distance between him and her.
To keep that promise to himself, and by extension his father, Pavel had not returned to Buford in over a year.
Even the letters between him and Erna had dwindled down to nothing.
He thought there friendship had reached its natural end.
He never dreamed that he would face Erna again, like this.
“Erna, if you ever need help, just let me know.” Pavel said, avoiding Erna’s question.
“Yes, thank you Pavel.” Erna said.
Erna smiled brightly up at Pavel and turned to continue the walk along the bank.
The wind buffeted the tassels of her parasol as she went.
The flowers and ribbons of her wide brimmed hat bobbed as she walked.
The lace of her loose dress swayed in such a manner that Pavel thought she was a giant flower herself.
His pulse skipped a beat without warning and he gasped.
He bit down the feeling and buried it deep within himself, he could not allow himself to fall for the girl he considered a sister, if not a close friend.
That would be a breach of her trust, of their confidence.
Erna turned on him and looked into his eyes with a playful grin.
Pavel could feel sweat beginning to form under his arms and his mind swam as he looked deep into those pools of reflected light.
“Do you think there is a way that I could sell corsages of artificial flowers?” Erna said.
Pavel was so taken aback by the seemingly random question, he summered and grasped at ideas in his mind, that melted away like smoke.
“Corsages?” Was all he managed.
No matter how far the Hardy family had fallen on the social ladder, there is no way anyone introduced to the higher tiers would be able to get away with something as simple as selling corsages.
There wouldn’t be nearly enough profit in it to make any notable difference.
Erna simply looked at him, with that warming smile, waiting for his response.
Pavel suddenly felt like a new born buck trying to stand for the first time.
“I, er, I can find out.” Pavel nodded his head coolly.
It was not difficult to understand what situation the Hardy family would have found themselves in, if not for the small amount of money Erna made selling artificial flowers, so he could understand her desire to branch out and do something more.
“I once sold paintings to the owner of Soldau Department Store.
I can ask there.
It would be a start.” Pavel said, when it was clear that Erna was waiting for a more concrete answer.
“Department store?” Erna moved the words around her mouth, trying them on for size.
“Thanks, thank you so much, Pavel.” Erna said.
Her smile quickly became a laughed.
Pavel watched Erna bounce along the path as they continued their walk.
Erna was still Erna, even after all this time.
The feeling brought a mix of joy and sorrow.
Joy at seeing his closest friend happy and sorrow that he had set out to cut ties from the one person he felt happy around.
It was Erna.
Bjorn had been casually looking out the window of his carriage when he happened to catch sight of the woman.
He wasn’t very close, but there was no doubt about it.
The woman walking over the bridge was undoubtedly Erna Hardy, the sassy little thief who had stolen his trophy.
She was with a young man, who Bjorn was sure he also knew.
The name of him was on the tip of his tongue, but might as well be a complete stranger for all his efforts to try and recall it.
It wasn’t until the distance between them had closed that the name suddenly sprang to his mind.
The moment he remembered the name, the carriage passed them by.
Bjorn ducked his head away from the window and back into the gloom of the carriage.
The image of the woman remained in his mind and her smile, like the river Arbit with the sun beating down upon it and casting scales of light across its surface.
She was a naughty little minx that liked to entice lords to her with the promise of betrothal, all the while dating that lowly art academy student.
She was indeed worthy to be called the successor of Gladys Hartford.
They were definitely dating.
Bjorn came to this conclusion by the time the carriage entered into the down town area.
It was a feeling that came with the mourning of all the hapless young nobles that fell for her succubus smile and innocent face.
She had certainly made the summer more eventful when she suddenly appeared on the scene.
He watched the fuss and enjoyed the young lads getting their hearts broken.
It was more enjoyable than any of the other people games he liked to play.
The carriage finally came to a stop and Bjorn put his gloves back on before stepping out.
He put aside meaningless memories and strode toward Freyr Central Bank.
The building was a grand presentation of pseudo-Roman columns holding up a slanted roof adorned with beautiful flowing reliefs.
They depicted Freyr, the god of war and wisdom in the founding mythology of Lechen.
It was also the name of the ship commanded by Philip the Second.
Bjorn strides through the grand halls occupied by the masses wanting to administrate their accounts.
Most of them probably didn’t know who he was, but they moved out of his way, pushed aside by his gravitas like a ship cutting the sea.
He entered into a grand golden hall.
The air was crisp and fresh and the ancestors of the royal family bowed.
Erna and Pavel broke from a friendly embrace and made an appointment to meet up again next week at the latest.
Same time, same place.
Pavel stood on the bridge and watched Erna slow drift out of view.
Once she was gone, he found himself reminiscing of when they first met.
It had been a late spring afternoon, full of April showers which had turned the paths into a quagmire of puddles.
He was running errands for his father and was riding a mule drawn wagon.
He spotted a young girl trudging through the mud and looking water logged.
“Would you like a lift?” Pavel had asked.
It wasn’t until the girl had turned around to look at him, did he realise she was the daughter of Baron Baden, but it was too late.
The girl looked like she had fallen into several puddles.
“I’ll drive you through this bit, if you want.” He hoped she would refuse.
He was expecting her to say no, as she just stood there, contemplating the question.
Maybe she didn’t speak his language, or maybe she was a mute, or maybe she was considering ways to punish a low born for speaking to a high born.
She finally pulled herself up onto the cart and Pavel gave a swish of the whip to get the mule moving.
Erna did not say a word for the entire journey and Pavel was too scared to strike up a conversation.
All he did was stare down at her mud caked shoes.
He felt regret now, that he had not had the courage to say anything.
“This…” Erna had spoken the first words, but not until the cart had already stopped at the end of the muddy track.
At first he thought she was a typical, ungrateful aristocratic girl, running off without saying thank you, but as she jumped down, she turned around to him and offered something.
Without thinking, Pavel took it.
It was a strand of licorice.
Even as Pavel considered eating it, the girl fished into a pocket and brought out a neatly wrapped bundle, which she opened and revealed a cookie.
She offered it to him too.
“Thanks, I’ll eat well on the way home.” Pavel smiled.
Before Pavel took everything, the girl introduced herself properly with a broad smile and he understood why she had seemed quiet.
She had a gap in her front teeth, no doubt where the second tooth had pushed out the baby tooth.
“I’m Erna, Erna Baden.” Erna said.
She quickly closed her mouth and pursed her lips as she realised Pavel was looking at her missing tooth.
“Pavel.” Pavel said, but Erna was already running toward her families mansion.
She turned at the gate and waved.
“Thank you.” She shouted back.
Unexpectedly, there grew a friendship from that simple, chance encounter.
“You want to go back up there again?” Pavel could hear his father saying in the echo’s of the memory.
It was painful to hear it now, but he understood his fathers concern.
A high born girl hanging round a millers son.
She was like a little sister to him and there was nothing that was going to happen between them, but it seemed like no one else understood that.
Pavel waved to Erna as she slowly moved away.
She was still the awkward little girl, waving like she did on their first meeting and he still felt like that little boy, waving back.
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