The Problematic Prince
Dense silence filled the carriage as it came to a stop by the quiet riverside. The coachman, having discreetly driven to the least frequented part of the drive, left his seat and meandered off. But inside, neither Bjorn nor Erna spoke as the sunset reached its peak. Bjorn watched Erna, and Erna watched her hands lying in her lap.
“I didn’t come here for peace and quiet.” Bjorn’s voice cut into the balmy wind carrying the fragrance of the river current.
Erna raised her head with a start. Their eyes met in the red of the sunset.
“Say what you were waiting to say,” Bjorn ordered calmly, boredom in his eyes.
Erna shrank back at the bland command. She was grateful for the darkening sky, hiding her face, probably red as the sunset by now.
She hadn’t flinched when it came to sneaking out of Hardy Street and taking a cab to the bridge. Even when she stood on the archduke’s bridge and waited for Bjorn’s carriage, she’d been brave without fear.
All she had to do was return the clothes, apologize, and promise to pay the debt.
Now face to face with Bjorn and her self-imposed task, Erna had suddenly become nervous. But as she thought one by one of what she had come to do, she found her bravery again.
“First of all,” she said, “I came to return this.” Erna pulled herself together and held out a large box. Inside was the evening coat the Prince had wrapped her in that night. Bjorn smiled when he recognized the well-trimmed edge of his clothing.
“Was there no servant in the Hardy family who could run this errand?”
“I wanted to return it myself.”
His stare burdened Erna, and she lowered her eyes and swallowed. “I wanted to say—just wanted to say thank you, thank you so much for helping me, Prince. And I’m sorry.”
“Because of me, you’ve been falsely accused. I was the one who hurt Mr.
Heinz, and now there’s this false rumor that you were fighting…”
“Oh, that!” Bjorn cut Erna off in a casual way. “It’s not a false rumor.”
“What?” Startled, Erna looked full at him for the first time. Her hat, tastefully decorated with colorful flowers, bounced with her movement.
Bjorn noticed her outfit for the first time. Dressed in light pink, white lace, and a variety of flowers and ribbons, Erna reminded him of a walking wedding cake.
He came back to the conversation abruptly. “I hit him.”
“Hit him? You, the Prince, hit him? Why?”
“Justice. He deserved it,” Bjorn said, a touch mischievous. Erna’s naïve reaction amused him. “He had ten times as many bruises after I finished with him than after you had. So it’s not really a false accusation.”
“But—you didn’t get hurt?”
Bjorn burst into laughter. That was a turn he’d not expected. Was the woman seriously worried about him? He voiced his thoughts. “How unexpected! The lady who assaulted me is worried about me.”
“Assaulted?! What do you mean? That day, when…”
“It’s all right.” Bjorn’s smile was soft. “You see, the rumors aren’t false accusations, so you have no need to apologize. The situation is taken care of. Did you have anything else to say?”
A little dazed, Erna tried again to collect her thoughts. “Yes… yes…” she fumbled in her basket. “Here, I brought—I wanted to show you…”
She pulled something from her basket. Silver bell flowers. Bjorn opened his eyes wider as he identified them.
“Are you here to sell flowers?”
“No, of course not—I mean, I am going to sell them—but not to the Prince!” Erna stammered, shaking her head. “I am going to sell flowers and reimburse you for the trophy. I promise.”
“Miss Hardy, are you going to sell flowers you’ve made yourself?”
“Yes. I’ve been making flowers for a long time; I can do it well. This is a flower I made,” she added, presenting a silver bell to him shyly. The flower, delicately made and decorated with blue ribbons, was sophisticated enough to look real at first glance. To Erna’s relief, Bjorn accepted it.
“You are pretty good at it, Miss Hardy.”
“Thank you. Mr.
Pent said the same thing,” Erna said, innocently pleased at Bjorn’s cynical remark.
He shook with suppressed laughter. “Mr.
“He owns a hat store in Soldau. He said he’d buy my artificial flowers.”
Bjorn considered, a bit of confusion in his eyes. Whether he could believe it or not, it seemed like Erna had detailed plans on how to make money and reimburse him for the trophy. “You are going to sell fake flowers to repay gold?” he asked, still faintly sarcastic, gently waving the silver bell she’d given him. “Will you finish before your coffin comes?”
“Of course, it will take a long time, but my flowers are selling at a higher price than you think,” Erna said coldly, angry at his disbelief.
Bjorn watched her closely, reevaluating his opinion of her. She’d seemed shy and timid, but after all, she could say what she had a mind to say.
“Making flowers takes skill, Prince. I don’t mean to brag about myself, but I’m good at it. I like flowers.”
“So it seems.” Bjorn’s eyes twinkled as they went from one flower to another on her dress. He burst suddenly into uncontrolled laughter. Though so different from the court dresses he was familiar with, this woman with her unsophisticated ambitions and skills was beautiful in her own way.
“Well,” he said, finishing his laugh, “you’ll do as you please.” He shrugged half-heartedly. He didn’t care about getting the trophy or its value from Erna. Bjorn had hoped to use it as leverage to win his bet—right now, that was all Erna meant to him. The potential for a great victory at high stakes… after that, he didn’t care if she disappeared forever.
“Thank you! Thank you so much for understanding!” Erna repeated her gratitude over and over, delighted. “Keep the flower, Prince,” she said, as he made a motion to hand it back. “Think of it as a token of my promise.”
She smiled brightly, facing him as she left the carriage. For a second, Bjorn idly wished he could keep the smile and return the flower. Then he put her out of his mind.
Fortunately, Erna was able to reach home before dinner, though to do so, she had to run from the cab stop to Hardy Street.
“Miss! Where have you been?” Lisa greeted her, the obvious worry on her face replaced instantly with relief.
“I’m sorry, Lisa, I just left for a moment… a walk…” Erna stumbled through a lie, sitting down on a chair by her bedroom window, breathing heavily. After having seen Prince Bjorn, she didn’t dare tell Lisa where she had really been. Fortunately, Lisa asked no more questions and focused on her job.
As she dressed and had her hair done, Erna reflected on the day with a little excitement. She’d done all she had meant to do. Hard as it was to adapt to this strange city, now with her flowers she felt that she wasn’t reduced to a helpless fool.
And the Prince had praised her bouquet.
Erna was happier than ever as she reflected on that fact. She had given him her best flower. She hoped he’d use it sometime as a boutonniere. She would be proud if the Prince found one of her flowers useful.
He was a bad man.
Despite the events of the day, Erna kept the same conclusion. On the basis of his reputation, there could be no doubt.
But he had been kind to her.
That was also a clear fact.
He was a bad person, but a kind one. Erna smiled at her silly conclusion.
“Why are you so late?”
Leonid started right off with a hard question. But then, Bjorn was a full hour late. Even in the way Leonid set down the book he’d been reading, you could see a clear sign of disapproval.
Bjorn glanced at the clock and smiled casually. He sat down at the table, opposite to Leonid.
“Something unexpected delayed me,” he said.
“Private affairs.” Bjorn’s face tightened stubbornly and he showed no signs of explaining.
Leonid sighed deeply. He knew how stubborn his twin brother was when he was in this mood. Just in time, the butler reported that dinner had been served.
The two stood up to walk to the dinner table.
“What’s that?” Leonid asked suspiciously, gesturing towards the flower Bjorn held.
“Ah,” Bjorn said, realizing that he was still holding Erna’s flower.
“Were you with Gladys?” Leonid’s expression hardened as he noticed that the flower was a silver bell, the Princess’s favorite flower.
Bjorn tossed the flower into the ashtray, where the cigarette ash quickly stained its beauty. “Dinner,” he said carelessly. “Let’s go, Your Highness.” He took the lead with a light step, as smooth and casual as ever. As if he’d already forgotten Erna and her flowers.
“I’m sorry I was late,” he said lightly. “I’ll give you a break in the game.”
Leonid snorted, recalling his promise to play billiards after dinner. “A Prince doesn’t need a break,” he said.
“That’s true. You’re a Prince of billiards.” Bjorn grinned.
Just look at him! Leonid snorted again. He had to reflect again on his mother’s request in order to keep his patience. Throughout dinner, he tried to get Bjorn to talk, listening for anything unusual or suspicious.
The table was set on the terrace, where the fresh evening breeze of the midsummer night brought the garden scents wafting over the dinner. By the time the meal was over, Leonid had concluded that his mother was just a fussy old woman. Bjorn was the same as ever.
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