The team led by Prince Leonid won the rowing competition again this year.
Everyone expected it, but the cheers were fervent none the less.
Flowers thrown by the spectators laced the water of the river and gathered up along the banks on both sides.
The Crown Prince, exhausted as he was, still took the time to greet the civilians that came out to see him.
The girls sat in the very front row of the VIP stand, nigh on screamed and swooned when the Prince looked in their direction, though he was waving to his brother, mother and father.
Erna did not allow herself to get swept up in the mindless display of testosterone fuelled sexual frustration.
She watched from a distance and was amused by the behaviour of the young ladies.
She had watched the race with intrigue too.
She kind of half expected the boats to be something similar to what the country boys rowed in the village pond, but they were not and the atmosphere was greater by far, with so many people adding their voices to the cheers and shouts.
Without meaning to, when Erna went to move off across the lawn, to avoid the more intimate social gatherings, she mingled with the crowd heading up to the award ceremony.
As she puts up with the ceremony, she cant help but avert her gaze when the Crown Prince and the rest of his team lift the trophy.
The outfits they wort were so form fitting that Erna could see every line of muscle and bodily curve.
It seemed quite excessive.
As she looked away, she notices Prince Bjorn standing there, before her.
Erna was startled and unconsciously stepped back.
Bjorn raised an eyebrow and laughed and his face glowed while exposed fully to the sun.
At the moment, Erna felt like she could understand the duplicity of the maids, who cut out his picture in the newspaper, while cursing the Poisonous Mushroom Prince.
“Erna? Erna,” the voice of Viscountess Hardy interrupted the impromptu meeting with Bjorn.
“Look at you, when are you going to present yourself as a proper lady?”
Although Erna felt the malice in the words, the Viscountess wore a soft smile as she spoke.
From the outside, you would have thought the two were sharing a little friendly banter and fun.
Erna really struggled with grasping the manners of the people of city society and how they spoke to one another, saying one thing but meaning something else, she thought she could handle it for a little longer, until she was done with the place and could go home.
Then she could forget all about the peoples glares and malicious meanings hidden behind polite platitudes.
Adjusting the grip of her parasol, Erna fell in step behind the rest of the Hardy family.
The sound of their diligent footsteps rang out from the sun baked stone path.
Coloured lanterns along the river bank were lit once the sun started to set.
Those of the far side lit up the commoners summer celebration.
The melodies of a small, three man orchestra could be heard from the far side of the river, overlaid with laughter and the buzz of conversation.
The gardens of the palace was where the nobility and the upper caste had their party.
They boasted a full orchestral set playing soft, ambient notes and even the buzz of conversation sounded more dignified, with lordly men guffawing into their fists and ladies tittering behind fans.
Gladys put down the glass of champagne she had not taken a sip of.
She was filled with old memories of growing up in these gardens and the palace she had spent her honeymoon in.
She wished she could turn back time, to relive her childhood and encapsulate more pleasant times.
That’s when she sees Bjorn and her eyes turn red as she sees him with his friends.
They were telling jokes amongst themselves and laughing.
Their attention seemed overly focused on the Hardy family.
Not the Hardy family, but the young Hardy girl.
She was as the rumours suggested, a beautiful woman.
Jealousy twinged at Gladys’ heart as she noticed that Bjorn was also paying particular attention to the young woman.
Her heart ached and she knew there was nothing she could do about it.
She had never been in love with the old Crown Prince.
Even when they were married, she knew their marriage was one of politics and the union between Lechen and Lars.
There had never been any love between them from the onset, but Gladys was still so proud that she was going to get to marry Prince Bjorn.
He was the most handsome and the most noblest man she had ever met and growing up surrounded by love, being in a relationship with none was strange.
Being around Bjorn made Gladys feel insignificant.
He was a man that never dropped his smile and was always of an amiable demeanour.
He never once showed passion or genuine love and after they were married, Gladys realised why.
The Crown Prince didn’t careless who the Crown Princess was.
He would have displayed the same kindness, with the same unfaltering smile, no matter what woman stood before him, declaring to be his wife.
It was unbearable and even though Gladys was the most envied young woman in the country, she felt insignificant.
Bjorn resembled the sun, a brilliant midsummer sun that blocks out all other light, including Gladys, who became lost in Bjorn’s radiance.
Gladys watched Erna as she managed to peel away from Count Lehman and catch her breath under a brightly lit tree.
Coloured lanterns hung from the branches and bathed the young girl in a myriad of colours.
Does that poor girl know what she’s getting herself involved in? A smile appeared on Erna’s lips and she seemed more docile and younger, if that was possible.
“Gladys.” Louise’s voice crept into Gladys’ consciousness.
Gladys shook her head and looked about the table.
The eyes of the noble ladies she shared a table with were considering her, when a moment ago they were busy chatting amongst themselves, barely giving Gladys a second glance.
She felt her cheeks flush and she looked at the compassionate eyes.
“Don’t pay any attention to that woman.
She has no shame, even after all the scandal she has caused.” Louise said.
Louise noticed where Gladys was looking and tried to lift her spirits.
Erna was looking around like an excited child, her innocent face was a stark contrast to Gladys’ pensive look.
“Its fine, Louise, I’m just going to go say say.” Gladys stood and Louise’s eyes went wide in surprise.
“None sense, you cant speak to that woman.” Louise said.
“Its fine, its what’s expected.
We cant just ignore the young Miss Hardy.” Gladys said.
Louise made to grab at Gladys’ hands but Gladys shook it off.
She approached the curious young lady and with the other young noble women not knowing what to do, follow after the princess.
Erna did not notice the Princess and her entourage approach and was busy looking about the party and taking in all the sights.
Gladys stopped in front of Erna, who finally looked around and saw the Princess.
Their eyes met under the colourful tree.
“Good evening Miss Hardy, its a pleasure to finally meet you.” Gladys said, braking the silence.
Erna was frozen to the spot when she noticed the actual Princess was talking to her of all people.
It was because of the Prince, Erna realised that the moment she saw the Princess before her.
The Princess, who was once married to the Prince must be well aware of the scandal involving the pair.
“Miss Hardy?” Gladys said when Erna didn’t reply.
Erna came to her senses and hurriedly stands to offer the Princess a polite curtsey and stumbles over any number of polite greetings.
Erna was breathless a the idea of how far and fast rumour was going to spread.
She wanted to pass the time as fast as possible and get out of this spiders web.
Just like her time with the Queen, Erna found herself being led through a polite conversation as if two very best friends were idly chatting in a tea room.
“I hear you don’t have anyone to keep company with.
It must be very lonely for you Miss Hardy.” Gladys said.
She gave side glances to Bjorn as she spoke words laced with false sincerity to the ostracised country girl.
He did not seem to be paying them any attention what so ever, being more concerned with what ever spectacle Leonard was getting involved in.
Her brief conversation with Erna led Gladys to believe there was no merit to the rumours and with that revelation, she suddenly felt genuine sympathy for the young girl.
She was also filled with guilt at the thought that Bjorn had used the girl to get at her.
“Do you like theatre, Miss Hardy?”
“A play?” Erna asked in surprise.
“Yes,” Gladys smiled as if considering a playful puppy.
“In ten days there is a charity show, to raise money for the orphanage.
I think it would be nice if you were to attend.”
It was cruel to add any edge to her offer and besides, it wasn’t the girls fault that Bjorn could be such a monster.
She wasted to at least attempt to befriend the country girl and provide her with salvation in their friendship.
Of course, Louise and the others would not understand.
“I…ahem…that is…” Erna stumbled over her words, looking for the right way to deny the Princess.
“I’m sorry, Princess.”
In contrast to her hesitant words, Erna’s voice is calm and clear.
Gladys’ eyes burned at the unexpected refusal.
It was the first time she had lost her composure since the start of the conversation.
“I am really grateful for the invitation, but I don’t think I will be able to attend the play.
I’m very sorry Princess.” Erna finally found the words.
Holding her hands in her lap, Erna gave a polite bow.
When she came back up she pursed her lips as if she had more to say, but never let the words pass.
There was silence enough that they could all hear the onlookers whispering amongst themselves.
The daughter of the Hardy family just insulted the Princess.
The rumour spread so fast and Gladys was surprised to see that Bjorn was amongst them.
Gladys looked at Bjorn desperately trying not to shake in anger.
Peter leaned in and whispered something in Bjorn’s ear and Bjorn looked directly at Gladys with a cocked eyebrow.
He started to chuckle, she couldn’t believe it but he was laughing.
What did that mean?
Even in the face of disgrace, Gladys did her best to keep back the tears, clinging on to dignity like it was the only thing left to her.
Bjorn approached the two women and the spectators looked on expectantly at the old couple.
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