The Problematic Prince
The sunlight pouring through the window was dazzling, and Erna squinted to see through it. Still, she sat upright, glancing out the shop window, undeterred by the glare.
Erna moistened her lips with her now lukewarm tea and gently put her teacup back on the table. Though the cup was chipped and there were old stains all over the table cloth, the tea wasn’t bad considering the price here. She was a little hungry, but couldn’t bring herself to order any scones. After having been forced to eat so many scones that they tasted like sand in her mouth last week, she was ready to go without scones for a long time to come.
Her look as she watched the world outside the window was one of anxious expectation. From here, she could see the Soldau Department Store from this particular seat in the tea shop. Every Tuesday, Erna sat here, watching just like today.
After she had counted five passing wagons and dozens of passersby, Erna saw Lisa bouncing and waving excitedly. With a smile of relief, Erna raised her hand in greeting. The flower selling delivery must have gone smoothly.
“They paid more today than last week!” Lisa came rushing into the room, holding out her purse gleefully. “You’re so good at it, miss. You have an eye for it and careful hands. Mr.
Pent said so. He said you’re the best flower producer he’s seen.”
“Thanks to your help,” Erna said, smiling shyly and handing Lisa her share of the money. Knowing that Erna wouldn’t let her refuse, Lisa accepted it gratefully.
“Thank you miss, sincerely.”
“You have my sincere thanks too, Lisa,” Erna said heartily, lifting the teapot and pouring out a cupful for Lisa.
Lisa colored with pleasure as she took the cup. She smiled as she remembered Erna’s strange request—to help her sell flowers! Lisa hadn’t been able to understand why a noble lady would want to make money with her hands. But Erna had explained that she needed money to help her grandmother in the countryside, and that was something Lisa could understand. Ever since she had started working, Lisa had sent half her salary to her family back in her hometown.
So their artificial flower business grew from there and by now was prospering. At first, Lisa had only helped buy materials and deliver flowers, but she had quickly learned to make the simpler flowers herself. Lisa felt that she still wasn’t a big help, but Erna always paid her a generous share.
After they’d finished their tea, the two went out into the busy street. They enjoyed their walk and talk, and they were back at the Hardy mansion before they knew it.
“Let’s make more than usual this week,” Lisa was saying, while Erna smiled at her ambition.
Just then a maid approached them, running with cheeks hot from her hurry.
“Miss Erna!” the maid cried. “Quickly, go on in. The master is looking for you.”
“Father is looking for me?”
“Yes! You must go to his study right away…” The little maid paused, out of breath and looking frightened, unable to finish her sentence.
Erna exchanged a puzzled glance with Lisa, but hurried on through the front door. The air of the house chilled her skin and she felt like she’d come out of the sunshine into a dark, somber atmosphere.
As the legal review of overseas borrowing came to a close, the room of lawyers and investors fell into silence. Everyone’s eyes turned towards Bjorn Dniester, sitting calmly at the head of the table.
The bank’s lawyer finally spoke. “You’ve heard our report,” he said. “Now it’s up to your Highness to decide.”
“When you say that, I feel like an all-powerful god. I enjoy the feeling.” Bjorn’s laughter, fresh as the strong wind from the open window, hung in the air.
It was hard to find traces of the debauchee in him, though he was so often criticized as such in the palace and city. No matter what may have been true of him at social clubs or parties, he always brought sharp judgment to his financial ventures.
The middle-aged lawyer looked at the young Grand Duke Prince, a little startled at his last speech.
When he was eighteen the Prince had taken his first steps into the capital market. He started investing in earnest after having learned all the could by selling the bonds handed down by his grandfather, King Phillip III. With many nobles still thinking that the capital market is far beneath them, the then Crown Prince’s decision to participate had come as a shock.
Had Bjorn inherited the crown as scheduled, he’d have enriched the country, that was for sure.
“Let’s go ahead as scheduled.” Bjorn gave his answer in a cool voice just as a knock rang out on the office door. The unexpected visitor entered abruptly, showing to the astonished room of men the hard face of the Queen.
Bjorn greeted his mother after he dismissed the lawyers, wondering what she had come for. It was rare for her to visit his Great House like this.
“I’ll order tea, Your Majesty, Queen,” he said.
Isabel Dniester ignored him, exchanging remarks—sarcastic on her side—with the leaving guests. Her face grew darker as everyone left and she was alone with her son.
“Can you explain this to me, Bjorn?” She sighed angrily and laid a newspaper she had brought on the table in front of him. The first page of today’s tabloid was decorated with stories of the Grand Duke Prince.
Bjorn took the paper quietly. The controversy around the assault case was what he had expected and half-wanted, but to his dismay he saw that the article was trying to relate the incident to Erna Hardy.
According to testimony from an informant who asked to remain anonymous and who attended the Harbor Party, Prince Bjorn met a Lady, a beautiful member of the aristocracy, in a secret place that night. Having drunk a little too much, the Prince molested the lady and a scuffle broke out until our witness, passing by in the nick of time, dissuaded him.
The tales of one-sided harassment are being contradicted by others, however. The noble Lady who was with the Prince that night may have been trying to seduce the Prince for some time. Rumors say she has liaisons with many gentlemen, and that she is the biggest obstacle to the reunion of Princess Gladys and Prince Bjorn.
Has Prince Bjorn, the royal poisonous mushroom, committed yet another misdeed? Or has he fallen into the trap of a lady with her eyes on the position of Grand Duchess?
Either way, the people’s disappointment is clear. This newspaper has found that the majority of Lechenians want Prince Bjorn to apologize to Princess Gladys and reunite with her, an example the country can be proud of.
Lechenians sincerely hope their wish will penetrate the walls of Schuber Palace.
Bjorn laughed and dropped the paper. “Who wrote this? He’s the best gossip in the kingdom.” Bjorn’s amusement subsided and he had a sudden wish to buy this newspaper out completely and crush it in the bud.
But he controlled himself to meet his mother’s glance with a casual eye and say, “I think we need to make the Palace walls a little higher.” Bjorn smiled lightly, as though the accusations were irrelevant.
“Is that all you have to say?”
“It’s a little regrettable,” Bjorn conceded, absentmindedly opening and closing the book of poems that lay on the table. “I regret hitting Heinz’s head; I should have gone for the mouth.” No trace of any serious concern over the situation appeared in his face, much less in his words.
“Bjorn! It’s not something you can dismiss lightly!”
“Mother, it’s not the first or second time something like this has happened. Gossip sells, so gossip will be sold. That’s no reason to take it seriously.”
“But this time Gladys’s name has been brought into it! And Miss Hardy’s!” Isabel DeNister’s expression was stern. “Two well-born ladies of the court are having their names dragged through the mud because of your carelessness! Even if reunion with Gladys is impossible, you owe it to her not to willfully allow public opinion to form against her.”
Bjorn shrugged. “The higher public opinion against me, the higher public opinion for her. And the worse the former Crown Prince looks, the stronger Leonid’s legitimacy. Don’t worry too much, mother.”
“I’m worried about YOU right now, Bjorn! You, not Leonid. I’m worried about my firstborn son… my most painful child…” The Queen’s eyes, usually so calm, filmed over with tears. “It’s never been our desire to solidify the succession to the throne by throwing you away! You’ve sacrificed enough… I want you to be happy, Bjorn.”
“I’m happy enough, mother. My life is going well enough for now.” Bjorn spoke seriously, sincerely, trying to reassure his mother.
Still she sighed repeatedly, not able to let go of the feeling that something was wrong. After a while she spoke again. “And Lady Hardy? Why is her name involved? Are you considering a serious relationship with her? Tell me the truth. I can discuss it with your father.”
“With her? Not at all.” Bjorn grinned and picked up his glass.
He would have done the same for any woman. It had become a bit of a headache thanks to all this scandal from people who didn’t know the circumstances at all, but at the end of the day, it was just a cheap rumor that would fizzle out over time.
“What are you going to do about the damage that Miss Hardy will suffer from this?”
“Well…” Bjorn shrugged lightly and let his eyes wander to the window. The clear sky and sunlight lit up his eyes. Her face, her bright smile, the ash-covered silver flower—these all rose briefly above the landscape and then disappeared. “It’s not my fault. It’s not my business.”
Looking out over the peaceful summer scenery, Bjorn stated his simple conclusion with a smile. Whatever he really thought, his mother understood that was the only answer he would give.
Reaching the end of the second floor hallway, Erna took a deep breath and opened the study door. Sitting side by side on the sofa were the Viscount and Viscountess Hardy—and the Viscount looked very angry.
“Father… I heard you’ve been looking for me…”
“You slut!” Viscount Hardy jumped up and cut Erna off in a voice like thunder. “You said the reason you left the Harbor Street party early was because you were sick! You dare to deceive us with your innocent face!”
“Tell me the truth, or it will be worse for you! Were you with the Grand Duke, Erna?” He yanked a newspaper off the table and waved it in her face.
The headline—The Real Truth of Prince Bjorn’s Fight—stared Erna in the face and she turned pale. The Viscount, who had been watching his daughter’s face closely, burst into a villainous laugh.
Erna opened her mouth, trying to explain. “That—that’s not… it’s…”
The Viscount’s big hand flew into Erna’s face. Stunned, Erna only processed what was happening as she heard the sound of a loud slap on her cheek.
Another slap. Staggering under the blow, Erna lost her balance and fell to the carpet. The Viscount flung the crumpled newspaper down in front of her.
Blood dripped from her cut lips onto the paper, over the Prince’s picture.
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