The Problematic Prince
Erna was silent for a long moment.
“Do you know Pavel Lore, your Highness?” She asked in disbelief.
“No, I believe you told me about him at some point.” Bjorn lied skilfully.
Erna couldn’t believe it as she tried to recall when she might have mentioned Pavel’s name.
She never took her gaze from the prince as she became lost to her own memory.
She became unreserved.
“So no one knows except the Prince.” Erna said.
She gripped the end of her shawl tightly as she asked in a low tone, casting her eyes as she did.
It seemed like she understood the situation now.
“Maybe,” was all the Prince said, in his usual flat tone.
“What a relief, I was so worried if word had spread.” She smiled nervously.
The smile distorted the bruising on her face from her fathers beatings.
No doubt she had some on her body as well, but Erna smiled as she talked about Pavel.
Could it be that they are in fact lovers? As bewildered as Bjorn is, Erna’s smile grew brighter.
“Please keep it secret, your Highness, please, if rumors were to spread, Pavel would be in a lot of trouble.” Erna bowed as she asked.
“Why? There are most likely already rumours spreading of your attempt to run away with a lover.
Maybe you should prepare for that.” Bjorn said.
“What? Me and Pavel…lovers? It’s not like that at all.” Erna said, eyes wide.
“Oh, well I had assumed, the rest of the city will too.” Bjorn said.
“Pavel is a friend, he is practically family, we would never…” Erna cut herself, thinking.
“He was just going to lend me money and help me get back to Buford.
He was heading back anyway, so offered to take me with him.”
“For money?” Bjorn said.
Erna shrunk away as she realised she had let out more than she intended, how did she keep getting caught out by this man? She felt like she wanted to disappear somewhere and forget about pride.
“Why do you borrow money from Pavel Lore?” Bjorn asked.
His eyes deepened as he looked at her.
She had thought his eyes were so beautiful when she looked into them at the festival.
That made her even more miserable.
It would have been nice if that moment had never happened.
Embarrassed by the fleeting memory, Erna bowed her head and caught sight of her lace gowns laid out on the table.
With them came the memory of her soaking wet, in the rain and seeing Bjorn’s carriage trundling out of the dark.
The water that dripped from her dirtied the prince’s pristine carriage.
“Miss Hardy,” Bjorn’s voice urged.
With her eyes closed, Erna lifted her head in resignation.
She would liked to have been brave and bold, but this was all she could muster for now.
“Tell me, Miss Hardy.” Bjorn’s grey eyes pierced into her soul, but they were still as beautiful as that night on the river.
Pavel was about to leave when someone knocked on his door, it was Baroness Baden with Mrs Greve, her tear streaked face peered up at him from around the door.
“Baroness Baden.” Pavel said.
“Pavel, oh my, Pavel, my dear.
Our Erna is missing.” The Baroness said.
When their eyes met, the old woman started to sob once again, no doubt spurred on by the memories of watching Pavel and Erna play together.
Mrs Greve did her best to comfort Baroness Baden.
It was a completely discomforting situation, but Pavel let the ladies in and escorted them to the sitting room.
Along the way they explained the situation as best they could, including coming to Lechen to rescue Erna from the cruel society of the city, and ending with finding out that Erna had run away.
All the while, fighting a losing battle with the tears and sorrow.
“It’s been over a day since we reported it, but no one has seen a single strand of hair.” The Baroness said.
She wiped the tears away with the corner of a kerchief.
“I told them about you, being the only other person Erna knew in the city, I hope that didn’t get you into any trouble.”
“No, No of course not Baroness.” Pavel said quietly.
He felt like he was being strangled.
He recalled the night as clear as if it just happened.
The rockfall showed no signs of being cleared up in good time, so Pavel headed out to look for a stagecoach, or anything that could be heading to Schuber.
All the stagecoach depots were closed for the night and the only thing Pavel could find was a post station.
The officers profiteering saw Pavel pay four times as much to borrow a horse, but he was desperate and paid what the man asked.
He was terrified of letting Erna down and wanted to be on the road as quick as possible.
Pavel felt shameful that he didn’t make it in time and now he was racked with guilt.
It kept him up at night as he worried about what might have happened to Erna because he didn’t make it in time.
She had not been at the station, or under the clock tower.
He shouted himself hoarse, as he rode all over town, calling her name and catching a cold at the same time.
He worried that she got caught sneaking out of the house.
Or maybe she got cold feet and decided not to go, or maybe she decided to head to Buford on her own.
It had been dawn by the time Pavel had given up searching the streets and went round to the Hardy Mansion.
The maid was the one who answered the door, who told Pavel that Miss Hardy was sick in bed and could not come to the door.
The maid had shot him a wary look and told him not to come back, as Miss Hardy would be laid up for quite some time.
The maid turned back into the house and left Pavel standing on the porch.
He breathed a little easier, knowing that Erna had made it safely back home, but there was something in the way the maid looked at him.
Pavel sent a letter, but there was no reply, maybe all he had to do was wait for Erna to get better, then when she was ready, she would contact him again.
He hoped that would be the case.
It had been days since the intended run away and there hadn’t been a single whisper of Erna.
Pavel was starting to get worried all over again.
Something must be wrong.
Pavel came to this conclusion when the errand boy came back for a third time empty handed.
The atmosphere around the Mansion was still calm, but it was clear that there was something amiss.
He then bumped into Baroness Baden as he was about to set off and conduct his own investigation.
“Pavel, my dear boy, are you okay?” The Baroness asked.
She examined him and could see concern on his face.
The face any boy made when they were about to do something foolish.
Pavel looked at the Baroness with a flushed face.
He had to tell the Baroness, but he had no idea how.
She needed to know what was really going on between Erna and the Viscount, but what’s the point now that Erna is missing? There was no point in piling on yet more sadness on this old woman.
But what if Erna was not really missing?
“Yes, Baroness, I’m fine.” Pavel said.
His palms felt clammy.
The Baroness reassured him.
Even during the moment of cowardly evasiveness, Pavel would have to face the truth and at the very least, tell the police officer.
“I’ll give you the money.”
Bjorn finally broke the silence that had stood between them for a long moment.
Even though Erna understood the words and their meaning, she stared at him blankly, not entirely sure she did know what the words meant.
“The money you were going to borrow from Pavel Lore, I will give it to you instead.” Bjorn said, hoping the clear explanation would help.
Viscount Hardy was a despicable man for using his daughter to clear his debts and decent into poverty.
To make a deal with a young girl, promising to let them keep Baden Mansion in Buford, all so that he could get her to Lechen and sell her off in marriage.
Erna had suffered nothing but hardship since coming to the city
It was not enough for him to get involved in the affairs of a disgraceful man and his young daughter, but part of Erna’s hardship was his fault.
If he had not crossed paths with the young girl, then none of the rumours would exist.
It was no revelation that it had all been because of money.
The one thing that he could give her, to help even if just a little.
It felt a little underhanded, but he hoped that if he gave her the money he got from winning the bet over her, maybe that would cancel the dirty feeling.
“Don’t worry, Miss Hardy, this is not another debt to fall into.” Bjorn said.
He wanted to reassure her that this was not like the time with the Deer Antler Trophy.
“Your Highness, you would just give me money?” Erna said.
She looked at Bjorn warily and blushed.
As expected, Erna was a little cautious about excepting money from him, without any thought of returning the favour.
Bjorn sighed and looked out the window to order his muddled thoughts.
He didn’t want to owe her anything and he didn’t want her to owe him, especially not emotionally.
Emotional debt was especially abhorrent to him.
Erna would be stubborn about taking the money, and with good reason.
A knock came at the door just as Bjorn turned back to Erna and was about to speak
“Your highness, its Mrs Fitz.”
“Come in,” Bjorn sighed.
Mrs Fitz pushed open the door and came only a little way into the room.
She seemed bewildered and maybe a little flustered, it must be something important.
“An order from his Majesty, the King, you are to attend him at the palace at once, your highness.”
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