The Problematic Prince
Like a gentleman making his adieu after a sociable conversation, Bjorn silently paid polite tribute to Robin Heinz, who was struggling to make eye contact. It was hard to find any trace of the one-sided fight that had just occurred anywhere in Bjorn’s appearance as he left.
He walked slowly down the empty corridor. Bjorn couldn’t feel very sorry for what he’d had to do—though he knew he’d been pouring out the irritation he’d accumulated thanks to Gladys on Heinz. Even the knowledge of the rumors that would be spreading through the whole city before dawn couldn’t mar that satisfaction. It would be perfect if Princess Gladys’s despair increased thanks to the increased scandal around her ex-husband, already far from the crown.
Bjorn entered the lounge with the candlestick still in his hand. The guests, inadvertently turning their eyes towards him, were startled.
“Bj-Bjorn!” The Marchioness of Harbour was the first to gather her wits, and her shout rang out sharply. “After what you did to Gladys and disappeared—what’s going on?”
“Oh, this little thing?” Bjorn casually set the bloody candlestick on the table in front of his aunt. “There was a bit of a commotion.”
“Commotion? What under… oh!” The Marchioness screamed, unable to finish her sentence. Other ladies, following her eyes, screamed too. Among them was Gladys, sitting in a corner, surrounded by friends making attempts to comfort her.
Bjorn turned around, more satisfied than ever by what he saw. Robin Heinz, limping and as bloody as might be expected, stood in the entrance, drawing everyone’s attention.
One of the ladies broke the tension by trying to faint. The attempt wasn’t a total success, but it shook up the atmosphere and the party broke up into groups, clustering some around the fainting lady, some around Robin.
Now that the dramatic moment was over, Bjorn tired of the scene. Shrugging off those who would have questioned him, he moved out towards the banquet hall.
As he left he glanced backwards at the Marchioness of Harbour’s face. She was pale, her eyes snapping with the excitement of a bloody battle at her party.
“Miss! It’s real! There really is a gold trophy like that!” Lisa, excited, raised her voice as soon as she entered the bedroom.
Erna, hovering nervously over her dresser, turned around abruptly, frightened. The brush she’d been holding dropped from her hand and rolled until it touched Lisa’s toes.
“It’s a social club tradition that a gentleman who is about to marry makes a golden deer horn trophy and holds a bachelor party,” Lisa said, picking up the brush mechanically and bringing it back to Erna. Her eyes were sparkling with the relish of telling news. “The best drinker, or something, at the party wins it. There are all kinds of silly traditions, betting on drinking, betting on gold. Guys are always up to silly things.”
According to Lisa’s survey among the maids of her acquaintance, the son of Marquis Bergman had recently made the trophy and held a huge bachelor party. Bjorn had been the winner. It was well known that “Prince Poisonous Mushroom” had swept away all the awards of the bachelor party and earned a new nickname, “Hell’s Deer Hunter.” Lisa went on and on, telling all she had heard, and Erna’s despair deepened.
“But, miss, why are you curious about these antics?” Lisa asked doubtfully, suddenly breaking off her tale.
Erna clutched her skirt with a start.
“I… Oh, I heard of it at the party. It… it seemed so strange, fascinating… I was curious, a little.”
“It’s strange enough!” Lisa nodded, not questioning the explanation. “But Prince Poisonous Mushrooms is always up to something. Just lately he’s set the town talking again. It’s a wonder the place is ever quiet, with all he does to stir it up.” Lisa’s tongue had already forgotten the trophy and moved on to the next piece of news. “It’s not enough for him to drink himself drunk, he even gets into fights. What a loser that man is.”
“Oh, no, Lisa,” Erna corrected, without thinking of what she was saying. “It was—he wasn’t drunk. I… I’m sure he wasn’t.” She stopped, realizing that she couldn’t explain.
“Oh, you don’t know these drinkers, Miss.”
“But—maybe he fought someone who was doing wrong?” Erna knew she should let it go, but she couldn’t back down. No matter what sort of man the Prince was, this time it was her fault, and she couldn’t let him take blame, not if she could help it.
Lisa laughed. “No way. No matter how bad the Heinz children are, it’s not likely one of them was in the wrong in a fight with Prince Poisonous Mushroom.” She stopped laughing and her expression became serious as she shook her head. “You keep taking sides with the Prince, miss.”
“Oh… I… I’m not taking sides—only you can’t make a judgment without knowing the whole situation…”
“No!” Lisa shook her head more vigorously, frowning. “Don’t be misled by his appearance! Poisonous mushrooms are always pretty, but do you know what happens when you eat them?”
“That’s not it, Lisa.”
“You die. Remember that, young lady. You’ll die if you eat poisonous mushrooms!”
Lisa repeated herself as if she were speaking to the child on the brink of a new excursion, and she stopped only when she was called by another maid looking for her. Even as she closed the door behind her, she hissed another stern warning—“You’ll die if you eat it!”
Left alone, Erna sat helplessly in front of her desk. She had messed up all her work materials, but she couldn’t get her mind together to straighten them out.
The Prince’s face floated on a piece of cloth cut into petals. His face was on the shiny scissors, the flower vase, even on the bottle of dye. The only way to avoid seeing his face was to close her eyes.
Erna owed the Prince a lot—in more ways than one.
The undeniable fact was weighing heavily on her mind.
She made an excuse out of a walk and searched the path from the fountain to the mansion early in the morning, but not surprisingly, there was no sign of the deer horn trophy. Her last hope that the Prince might have lied was shattered. Besides, she had put the guilt on him and run away like a coward.
The more she thought about it, the more nervous and worried Erna became. She hurried to her closet and the hand that reached for her tin money jar was pale and unsteady.
“What can I do, how will I ever repay it?” Erna moaned, slumping to the floor as she groped inside the jar. Even if she sold everything she owned, she knew she wouldn’t be able to buy so much as a corner of the deer horn.
Although she knew it was pointless, Erna sat there for a long time and counted up what was in the jar over and over. The sounds of coins rolling in the tin can clattered hopelessly.
If she had known this would happen, she could have saved money…
On the day Pavel had told the department store that Erna would deliver fake flowers, she had been thrilled to buy a lot of materials. Of course, that had been a small amount of money, but just now she felt like having saved it would have made a big difference.
“Flowers…” Erna muttered unconsciously as she stared into the dark depths of the jar. But as she thought about her flowers, a weak hope dawned and her lethargic eyes began to revive.
Her grandfather had said that whatever else you lost, you could always save your pride and dignity. And Erna was her grandfather’s proud granddaughter and pupil.
“If you’re in debt, pay it back honestly as much as you can,” he had said. “Apologize sincerely and ask frankly for forgiveness if you make a mistake.”
His teachings came back to her now, and with it all that he meant by pride and dignity. Just because he was in heaven was no reason to forget what he’d said on earth.
Erna jumped from her seat, clutching a bouquet of silver flowers she had made.
Live a life of faith.
That was the legacy her grandfather had left behind.
At sunset, the Abit River turns rosy.
Bjorn drew the curtains and threw his carriage window wide open. The evening scenery—the city flowing past him with the speed of the carriage—was calming and relaxing. Bjorn leaned back deep into his seat, tired from a busy day, looking drowsily out at the rosy tinted riverside.
The evening was peaceful.
Frayr Bank was firmly established in Schubert’s financial world, and his individual investments were making satisfactory returns. In a recent grand horse race, his own racehorse had won the championship. Bjorn wasn’t interested in the races for their own sake, but the prize money brought in by his champion stallion was different.
Life was going the way he wanted, so smoothly that he couldn’t find any reason not to love this summer. All the more so since Gladys’s presence was blurred by the excitement surrounding the beautiful sale Viscount Hardy was making. Bjorn spared a thought of pity for the girl whose father was busy arranging her marriage with the highest bidder… but did it matter how? Bjorn thought he could love any woman whose name wasn’t Gladys. Besides, he had that bet on the boat rides during the festival… and he expected Erna to bring him a big profit.
A smile of satisfaction, born of many things, spread across Bjorn’s mouth as the carriage entered the bridge connecting the city and the Grand Duke’s estate.
Bjorn was willing to agree with anyone who said that this bridge was the most beautiful bridge on the Abit River. He wasn’t an art connoisseur, but even in his eyes, the bridge looked nice—not surprisingly. No expense had been spared to make it as gorgeous as possible to commemorate his family’s ancient victory.
Bjorn raised his eyes towards the entrance of the bridge, where stood a golden statue on a tall granite pillar. Phillip II, the Conquest King, Bjorn’s great-grandfather, had built the bridge and ordered this massive mounted statue of himself.
Nodding familiarly towards the statue of his ancestor, who had done so much to turn the city into the gem it was today, Bjorn smiled lightly and swept away the hair from his eyes as the wind gusted across the bridge. Though dark was beginning to fall, the bridge was brilliantly lit by gas lamps and the diligent lamplighters. These lights sparkling along the railing were the crowning glory of the bridge’s beauty.
It was when the end of the bridge was coming close that Bjorn’s eyes, distracted by the unfolding beauties of the bridge of light, suddenly narrowed. A woman stood under the granite pillar at the end of the bridge. A woman with a bundle in her arms, staring at his carriage.
Bjorn exclaimed her name with a sudden laugh. He couldn’t believe it, but it was definitely Erna. A lady dressed in countryside fashion. He felt like he’d just been handed a straight flush to win his bet.
As he came closer, the woman began to wave nervously at the carriage. It couldn’t have been an accident. Only one Grand Duke’s carriage ever crossed this bridge.
Bjorn laughed again and tapped at the carriage front. As his coachman reined in the horses, the flowing scenery also came to a stop.
Sighing softly, Bjorn opened the door of his carriage. The woman—Erna—shrank back for a moment into the now motionless evening scene.
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