Erna ran from the banquet hall.

She passed the lounge, where resting guests were enjoying refreshments, and walked on and on, diligently, along the interminable hallway.  She sighed in relief as she reached the east side drawing room and found it empty.

Sitting cautiously on the end of the sofa, Erna’s exhausted eyes fell on the clock.  It was almost midnight, but the party had showed no signs of ending.

Erna sighed again, this time without relief.  Out of the blue, she was accused of being a thief and owing huge debts; she had danced with the prince and suffered from bitter eyes surrounding her.  The day had been tiring; besides all her labors, the son of the Heinz family’s persistence in asking her for a dance had worn her out.

Robin Heinz—that was what he called himself when he made his introduction—appeared to be everywhere, no matter how hard she tried to escape.  His first few requests had been polite, but every time she rejected him, he became more and more overbearing.

Erna had managed to silently leave the banquet hall, and now she planned to hide here until the party was over.  But just when she had reached that relieving conclusion a shadow fell across the entryway.

“I was wondering where you were going in such a hurry!  I’ve found you, Miss Snob Hardy!” Robin Heinz approached the sofa where Erna was sitting with malicious sarcasm.

Startled, Erna readjusted her shoes and jumped to her feet, a momentary feeling of fear darting through her.  The man smelled heavily of liquor.

“Do you have an appointment here with the Grand Duke, maybe?” Heinz sneered.

“Let me be, Mr.

“I don’t think so.”  Robin Heinz’s hand flashed out and he snatched Erna’s wrist, too quickly for her to avoid the move.  “Are men clowns to you, hey?” he asked.

“Let go of my hand!  Are you mad?!”

“You stupid woman.  It’s useless for you to chase the prince.  You’d be better off showing me a little sweetness.  The prince can’t do anything, but you don’t know, I might be able to buy you instead of the old man.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.  Let go of my hand!”

“You don’t know?”  For a second Robin dropped his sarcastic tone.  “Your father is just the man to sell his daughter to anyone who brings a bundle of money.  If I offer a penny more than the old man, you’ll be mine, Miss Hardy.  You still think you can reject me?”

“What?  Why… don’t…”

Robin Heinz yanked Erna closer to him, muttering inarticulately now.  As her body touched his chest, Erna began to scream and struggle.  Surprised by a stronger resistance than he’d expected, Robin’s grip loosened.  

“Ha!  Really, you’re a woman…” Heinz began, seeing Erna run to the other end of the room.

Erna looked at the window with frightened eyes.  The man was between her and the exit, and she knew she couldn’t beat him in a physical fight.  The window was her only hope.  She laid both hands on the sill, but looking down terrified her.  In tears of fear, she tried to summon her resolution, but it was too late.  Heinz already grabbed her from behind.

A sharp scream filled the room and reverberated through the empty hallway.

It was a woman’s desperate scream that stopped Bjorn’s steps.  The sound clearly came from the end of the corridor leading to the east side of the mansion.  It wasn’t a place where the party guests would be gathered.

Thinking that he’d heard wrong, Bjorn was about to continue on his way, but another scream, even sharper than the last, stopped him in his tracks.  There’d been too much real fear in that scream for him to dismiss it as his imagination, or the wind.

“What dog couldn’t handle the drinks and is off messing with the maid?” he thought dryly.

With a slight sigh, Bjorn turned towards the east corridor.  His plans of snatching a bit of sleep without anyone around seemed to have gone wrong.

The summer night had been an annoying one in more ways than one, but that was nothing new to him.

His twisted life since he’d divorced Gladys was now as familiar to him as his arm or his leg.  In fact, not much had changed.  Even before his divorce, he’d never been a model child, and his way of life had never been much different from what it was now.

All things considered, Bjorn liked the freedom he’d gotten in exchange for the anticipation of the crown.

He enjoyed his freedom all the more when parties like this came.  It was a pleasure not to have to endure fools treating the crown prince with absurd dignity.  Even being able to escape like this, to run down the hall in pursuit of a woman’s scream, was a bit of freedom the crown prince didn’t enjoy.  So Bjorn decided he was willing to enjoy his freedom today.  Until he met an unexpected face.

“Miss Hardy?!”

Bjorn stopped at the entrance of the drawing room, stuttering over the name, unable to believe what his eyes were telling him.  Erna, shivering and crying, lifted her agonized face and saw him.  It took a minute for her vacant eyes to focus.

“What is all this…” Bjorn stopped a few steps away from Erna, gaping as he tried to understand the mess in front of him.

A woman crying, a torn dress, a bloody candlestick.  And a fallen man.  Bjorn’s eyes gradually narrowed.  Some of it he had expected, though finding Erna instead of a maid was a surprise.  And the fact that it was the man lying bloody on the floor was a surprise too.

“Prince, I… I think I killed a man.”  Erna gasped and tried to rally herself, struggling to speak.  “I didn’t mean to!  I was so scared, I had to… he fell, I hit his head… there’s blood…”

Erna’s tears became uncontrollable as full realization sank in.  Blood dripped from the candlestick she clutched in her hand, punctuating the carpet with dark stains.

The sounds of thin cloth tearing, of the candlestick giving a dull blow, of Heinz’s gasping cry as he fell, echoed through Erna’s mind at the same time.  She’d just reached mindlessly out, grabbed the first thing that came to hand, and struck him with all her might as his hand touched her.  Still in shock, she stood with the bloodstained candlestick over the fallen man, barely able to see the results through her tears, but still too vividly aware of what had happened.

“Don’t worry, Miss Hardy.”  Bjorn had knelt to examine the man, and now he rose to his feet with a slight sigh.  “He’s just fainted—he’ll wake up soon enough.  His kind doesn’t die so easily.”

“…really?” Erna breathed, through her exhausted tears.  The front of her torn dress was soaked, but she was past noticing it.

“Really,” Bjorn nodded emphatically, slipping his evening coat off his own shoulders and on to Erna’s.  “Can you walk?” he asked.

Erna nodded, taking a few trembling steps.

“Then go.”  Short and firm, Bjorn motioned her out of the room, taking the candlestick from her grasp at the same time.  The blood on it soaked into his gloves.  “Get out of here, take the stairs at the end of the left hall.  You’ll come out at the garden behind the mansion, and if you take the straight road, you’ll reach the carriages.  Go home in the Hardy family carriage; I’ll take care of the others.”


“Remember, the stairs at the end of the left hall.  Stairs, gardens, straight ahead,” Bjorn repeated calmly, impressing the instructions on Erna, who was still reeling slightly from all she’d undergone.

“I can’t do that.  You… the man…”

“I’m a little to blame for this, aren’t I?  I’m just doing my part.”

“But Prince…”

“Don’t worry,” Bjorn grinned.  “I always get my debts repaid.”  Bjorn finished tying the sleeves of his coat around Erna’s neck.  Wrapped in his clothes, she looked ridiculously small.  “By the way, do you like boating?”  Bjorn’s tone was relaxed, casual, asking questions that didn’t fit the situation at all.

“What?”  Erna blinked, doubting her ears.  But Bjorn still smiled at her with his inconsequent grin.

“You’ll have to like it.”

“What do you mean?”

“That’s enough, you’d better go now,” Bjorn announced, glancing back into the drawing room at Robin Heinz, who had stirred a little.

“Go,” he repeated, cold and unsmiling now.

Erna nodded her head through tears.

The drawing room fell silent again once Erna’s echoing footsteps left the hall.  Bjorn looked scornfully down at the fallen man.  He’d expected a jerk, of course, but he hadn’t expected this idiot.  How could anyone treat the daughter of a well-known noble family like this?

He picked up the vase on the console.  His steps approached the fallen man calmly and unhurriedly, without any hint of the dramatic situation he was in.

Bjorn stopped as he reached the pool of red on the carpet—red from the blood that had dripped from Robin Heinz’s face.  Despite the blood, though, the man wasn’t seriously injured.  The bleeding had come from a few scratches on the side of the head and mostly from his nose, where the candlestick had struck him hard.

For a moment Bjorn felt sorry for Robin, and he accelerated the waking process by pouring some of the vase’s water onto his face.  In a minute Robin had regained consciousness, struggling to sit up and looking dazed like a drowning man.

“Hi, Heinz,” Bjorn said calmly, laying the vase back in its place.

Robin Heinz looked at him in confusion, trying to make sense of Bjorn’s smiling face and the red candlestick in his hand.

Heinz rose to his feet in amazement, gradually coming to his senses.  The roses that had been in the vase rolled on the ruined carpet.

“I’m sorry if I went too far,” Bjorn said.


“But you didn’t die, so it’s alright.  Don’t you think so?” Bjorn laughed, tapping Robin on the head with the bloody candlestick.

Robin’s eyes widened as he began to understand what Bjorn was saying.  “You crazy punk!” he shouted, spitting blood.  Even so, Bjorn’s smile deepened as he saw the rage in Robin’s eyes.

Robin Heinz, Bjorn was sure, would never make a fuss about being knocked out by a slender woman.  So even if he didn’t like it, he’d have no choice but to take Bjorn’s way out.  It would be much better to have a big fight with the infamous prince to save face.

Still smiling, but sighing too, Bjorn swung the candlestick.  Robin Heinz, hit on his already battered head, screamed and collapsed on the floor again.  The roses he fell on filled the room with their strong scent.

“You know how much we’ve fought?” Bjorn giggled dryly, kicking Heinz in the stomach.  “You know how keen-eyed the folks here are.”

Bjorn was enjoying the excuse to beat Robin harder and sell the fight.

Another kick, this time to the face, and Robin’s nose was bleeding again.

“You understand how it is, Heinz.”

Even as he spoke, Bjorn didn’t stop kicking.  Robin struggled to save himself, but he was helplessly unable to stand.  When he started screaming and crying, Bjorn took a step back.

“I guess that’s enough.”

Bjorn knelt down to examine his work.  A smile came to his face.

He patted Robin’s head as if he were praising a loyal dog, then threw off his bloody gloves and stood up.  His name, embroidered with gold on the wrist of a once white glove, shone clearly in the dim light.

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