Soft butter with salt and flour for the crisp, fluffy crust—this is the accompanist for the truly unique and flavorful, yet simple melody of fresh tart raspberries. But the tartness of my berries was always softened by the honeyed taste of magic. Only a few pinches of sugar were needed for the filling, that dark, rich and wonderfully soft mixture of cherries and raspberries. I had picked them myself that very afternoon, ripening them with the flow of my energy and gently plucking each one so as to avoid bruising.
Padme was not happy with the work, as the pastry was not meant for either of us. But she could hardly complain, this being her idea. The creature was not even willing to accompany me, but was due for some play and napping with her new friends from the wood. Without Padme, the guilt may very well have slipped away on its own; after all, I hardly knew Prince Merridale and had no reason to believe he was in any desperate need of company. A man so kind, so polite, so genial, so handsome surely had no deficit of friends and their concerns for him.
But I was going nonetheless. It was not an entirely terrible notion, though I blushed even at the thought of seeing those eyes again and wondering what sensible greeting I could offer. But that warm aura, those eager eyes, those caressing and almost poetic words from his lips… who could meet the good prince and forget the comfort of his presence? He had seemed so fond of the forest and its creatures, and even the food. And the things he said of even me… how could I forget that battalion of compliments?
I could not help but wonder what he would think of me if we did meet again. The Dome had been kinder to me that morning, providing a simple white dress. The sleeves were short and gathered, the skirt neatly pleated and tapered to the knees. Only a plain leather corset ribbed about the chest and abdomen—no more ribbons! My only complaint again was the shoes, delicate and silken little slippers that would not last a day on a good hike.
My hair was curled up in a bun as usual, though I picked some delicate white lilies to tie into it. It was an overall simple appearance, but clean and crisp. But… would Prince Merridale think the same? I remembered clearly that he appreciated the blue… why did I even think on it! We were merely acquaintances, having seen one another only twice before. Why would it matter which color he preferred?
“Padme, I do not think this is one of our best ideas. Would you not like to have the pie for ourselves? Perhaps we could visit Mr. Merridale at some later time; why, he will not even be expecting me! It would be terribly rude to interrupt his business. He is a prince, after all.”
The rabbit-like creature merely shook her head, though she did give the pie in the basket a long look. “Leonna promise! Good Haschen always keep word.”
“It is not as though I promised I would today. And he invited both of us.”
“Padme be busy! Leonna no do nothing. Leonna make Prince happy with visit, tell good story and eat pie. No HUMAN be too busy for pie, hoi!”
I sighed, looking down at the basket in my hand. It was the very one Prince Merridale had given me, and it seemed at least the beginning of an excuse to visit him. Even if he was too busy, I could leave the gift and consider my duty done. If, by some miracle, he did indeed have time, I already decided on pretending to look for a book regarding his country. It did seem legitimate enough, and as I was already very curious about his world, there would be no need for pretend. Either way, it would be a quick and pleasant trip, and there I would have no more guilt in avoiding him for the sake of my own dignity.
And so it was that I left my room the Dome had provided and wandered out into one of its many halls with the basket resting on one arm. I peered curiously at the doors and subtly at the people, wondering how I would even begin finding the prince. He had mentioned asking a Domerii, but I did not have a clue as to what one such thing was. So I was content in searching the doors, very occasionally asking someone in the halls if they knew of a Mr. Hunter Merridale.
Louis Fritz smelled of a farm, and he liked it that way.
He had just come back from visiting his cousin Harold at his country home, well outside Brantmill proper. It was still too hard for him to visit the village, but visiting the farm itself was a delight. Harold had taken over the old family property from his father and then his uncle, and kept it just the way it had always been. His wife Matilda and their children, Joshua, Nathaniel, and Amelia, all lived and worked on the farm with him, tending to the cattle, training the dogs, the prized horses, looking after the wheat and corn and barely fields. They ran a system of fallow and growing fields, with beans and other legumes to replenish the soil. Harold was a fine farmer. It was in the family.
But at the end of every pleasant, restful visit, breathing the fresh air and feeling the satisfaction of a day outdoors, doing good, hardy work, being in the fields and with the animals, playing his fiddle on the porch, while they all sipped cider after a big meal, there came the inevitable invitation. 'Come back home, Louis,' Harold would say, 'we could use you here.' Always, that meaningful pause between the words, the look in his cousin's gray eyes. The children's pleading expressions behind him. 'Leave the hurt from Julianne and the memories in the past... come back to your family.'
"I'm sorry, Harry, I have Kate and friends now to look after, and I can't leave them. Some of those people would fall apart without me there. Believe me, I'd love to return to the simple life. But it isn't only losin' Melinda and Caroline that has changed me... there is more for this minstrel to do out there before he hangs up his hat."
So he'd wiped the cowpats from his boots and the horse hair from his jacket, and grabbed his violin case and single bag, on the move again, back on his way home, a sprig of hay between his teeth. It was still sweet and dry from the sun, just the way he liked it.
The minstrel was whistling on his way down the hall, on his way to one last errand before he took the quick jaunt home to see his daughter Kate. It was going to require a stop at the Dome libraries first, then maybe just a little nosh in the cafeteria, then a stop at a friend's dorm to deliver the info...
He hadn't planned on bumping into a delicate blond woman as he made the last turn around the corner to his friend's. But then again, he never very much liked having everything so planned. Life was too short to go about following strict schedules. Better to stop and enjoy the breeze, taking note of the little and unexpected things you came across.
She collided into him at chest height, and both fumbled to catch the basket she was holding--which smelt deliciously of pie--and had been knocked off her arm. It was about to tumble to the ground, pastry and all, when the minstrel stuck out of one his long arms, holding the violin case he'd been carrying, and the basket handle got hooked right on its end, sliding down with gravity towards the wider end where it was too large to slide off.
"Well thank our lucky stars for that one," the minstrel chuckled, a friendly sound with a bit of a country twang. His breath rasped slightly because of his smoker's lungs. He smelled of fields, animals, and grass. "Would've been a shame for such a fine pie to go to waste, wouldn't you say, lass?"
Here Louis took a step back, his hand holding the violin case still keeping the basket hanging aloft, and regarded the young woman he'd bumped into. A smile made small wrinkles appear at the corners of his earthy brown eyes and old habits prompted him to tip his hat to the lady with his free hand.
"Sorry about that, Miss, I should've looked where I was goin'. I do hope you're all right?"
He stood before her, tall and spare, but hardy and tanned with work, in his simple brown slacks, a cotton work-shirt that had started off white but faded with age, and a reddish-brown jacket of an outdated style, a sprig of hay in his mouth, and a tall, floppy brown hat on his head. His face was frank, wise, angular, and quite fatherly, open and honest, his hair the color of wheat, but peppered with gray at the temples, and in his short goatee. He had the look of a traveller, the sort a lost soul would be lucky to run into--he looked kind, laid-back, and knowledgeable. But most of all, he had the eyes of a man you could trust.
The only thing that had changed more recently about this steady, tall tree of a man, weathering the passing of the years, was a few more wrinkles and laugh lines in his face, a bit more wisdom in his eyes, a bit more gray in his hair, and the evening out of a long-had tanline where his old wedding band had been. Julianne seemed so far away now. But when things were taken away, he often said, other things were given in their place. Now he had a cell phone in his pocket to call his adopted daughter, and photos of a happy child he loved and cared for in his leather wallet. And so, his heart was full, and his manner happy. This man, above all, looked like a proud father, and one who would help all he met.
It would be wonderfully convenient if one could always choose each minute detail at a time to react to. But when I bumped into the man entirely unaware, the last thing I did notice (and certainly too late), was my gift caught precariously by the stranger. What sensation came first was a small rush of warmth, followed by the scent of grass and earth. A surprised squeak came out on its own, followed by the rushing of blood to my cheeks. I blinked, feeling my feet as I stumbled backwards, and then my eyes caught sight of a shirt, finally reaching the sturdy face of its owner.
“O-O-Oh! I am so terribly sorry! I-I was… I… oh dear… I am quite alright, yes… thank you.” I made a quick curtsey and gently took the pie, taking a deep breath as I recollected myself. My next thoughts were to move away from the awkward experience as soon as possible, but I had to admit that my plight was becoming increasingly worse. I had not caught wind of any Domerii, and the halls would likely go on for an eternity before I found so much as an ‘H.’
“M… might I ask you…? I was searching for a particular man, a Hunter Merridale? Have you perhaps, met a man by that name? O-or where I might find him?”
The scruffy minstrel couldn't help himself, even though the girl looked so meek and shy--he laughed aloud, a laugh that shook his belly with mirth and brought another smile to his face. Doubtless, the girl must have thought him funny in the head, but what was a man, without a little touch of something funny? He calmed himself and took the basket he'd caught in hand, holding it out to the young blond as he spoke.
"Funny how life has its little ways, isn't it? The sun shines all around the earth, but always comes back to set in the west and rise in the east again--all things connected, little events everywhere. Hunter Merridale, you say--the prince of Choras? Well I reckon you couldn't have bumped into a better person, little lass, for I'll tell ya--hardly a soul here knows him better. Indeed, I'm his own countryman. The prince is a friend of mine, and I certainly know where he lives these days," Louis paused a moment here, and despite his last sentence having sounded complete grammatically, his inflection hinted that somehow he had drifted off onto another track of thought.
"...Hold the cattle cart! You're... yes, you must be! You're the girl they visited the other day! The one with eyes like a spring stream... yes, I see it now... you're Miss Leonna, aren't you?" he peered at her closer for a moment, before straightening back up with another chuckle, "Oh, Hunter should be very pleased you're visitin'! They worried you might never take them up on the offer, Miss! Please, I'd be delighted to help. Name's Louis Fritz. I think I spotted you at Cadenza's wedding--I was the fellow playin' the piano. Kate's papa," he bowed his head a little, with another tip of his hat. "A pleasure, lass."
Eyes like... a spring stream? They had talked about me? Thought I would not come?
I felt my cheeks redden more as I the basket was safely in my hands once more. "It is a p-pleasure to meet you, Mr. Fritz." I curtsied again, bowing my head lower. "D-D-did you say you are Mr. M-Merridale's friend? Could you perhaps... show me where I m-might find him?"
"Only if you promise to take a breath, Miss Leonna! You're stammering a mile a minute! Please, do calm down..." Louis softened his voice for her, turning to look down the hall. "Yes, I've been his friend for some time now. I, too, come from Choras. They were afraid you might be too shy to visit... they spoke highly of you and your friend, Padme, and the food you offered them. It's good they found such a kind new friend, young lass. Let us see now... Hunter's home..."
His back still partially turned, the former farmer focused his mind as he had done many times before, thinking of his friend the prince, and the man's small but comfortable townhouse in Blancwood, the capital of Rubato. It was the only piece of good land the country still had, and most of the economy depended upon the thriving royal city. He thought first of the beautiful white birch trees that circled around the sub-tropical town, then the metropolis of buildings, gardens, schools, and so much more. The palace. Hunter's place, a few blocks away, in a row of nice townhouses, painted white with a green door. He pictured Mannie grazing in the small, fenced backyard, and Chris' bicycle in the driveway, with no car for company. He pictured the white petunias and the well-trimmed bushes that lined the walk to the door, and the mailbox reading "Hunter Merridale", with the address. The house Cadenza had helped him purchase. Pure gold from their medieval home world went far in modern lands like hers.
"Yes... I believe this should be the door to it now. Here ya are," as he said the words, a wooden door slid along the wall, coming close to them. He extended his hand to gesture towards it. "Hunter's home should be just beyond this door--this should leave you on the stoop, I reckon. After you, Miss. And merry visiting!"
I took a deep breath, resting my free hand on my chest as I looked down to the floor. Was I truly stuttering so much? I hardly noticed... but the warmth in my cheeks was difficult to ignore.
"O-Oh! Thank so very much, Mr. Fritz! I doubt I might have f-found it on my own." I curtsied, nearly dropping the basket once again. It seemed all of Cadenza's aquaintences were wonderfully kind and genial. It was perfect luck that I had found this Fritz, though he did have an appearance all his own. There was something in his tone that was more casual and perhaps even more open. One had the feeling he had seen many things in his life, but had decided the majority of it was good.
I hesitated as I turned back to the door, already feeling my knees weaken. Now that I was finally there... could I truly do it? What manner of place laid behind the seemingly common wood? What might the prince be doing behind it? Was he busy? What would he think of my sudden appearance? Had he truly thought I would never come to see him despite all of his kindness?
My hand trembled as I reached for the doorhandle, and my breathing quickened. What was even worse than the possibility of him being busy was the possibility of him desiring for me to stay. Those eyes... so warm and tender... could I look into them without melting into a silly puddle of a hermit? I was armed only with the pie, and I knew he had enjoyed the raspberries...
For Heaven's sake! I ought to have never listened to Padme. All I wanted to do in that moment was flee, to perhaps leave the pie with Mr. Fritz and thank him for his help. But... he was still there... and looking... and the prince would surely hear about this if I fled now. Was it worse if he knew I was a coward, or if he saw more of my awkwardness?
My hand was growing clammy on the door. But I finally bit my lip and nudged the thing open, peering cautiously into the new opening. I was met immediately by light and a soft warm breeze... and... another door? Merely standing at the portal, I could feel the thrumming energy of a foreign world, full of odd scents I had never known.
Well, there was no going back now. There was the slight danger of perhaps being trapped in another world as I had been at Cadenza's wedding, but I trusted both Mr. Fritz and Mr. Merridale. They would neither leave nor ignore a lost and wayward friend... not even a stranger, I was sure! So I took that step into the new world and winced as I felt the portal close behind me.
Almost immediately, I felt skittering tingle on my back as warm sunlight poured over me. Gone was the gentle shade of my immense trees, the cool juniper breeze, the tiny scratching of paws against stone and bark--I stood instead in a bright and vibrating world with odd wooden houses, sun-laden air, and the crunching of my slippers on a warm stone path.
Another shiver ran down my spine as I walked towards the green door before me, just beginning to feel the warmth of the stone tingle through my thin slippers. The sensation made the small hairs at the nape of my neck stand up, and I was momentarily tempted to remove them to feel the raw, rough rock with my bare feet. That notion was quickly dismissed as I imagined Hunter's puzzled stare if he were to see such a thing.
"Leonna... he is just a man... a friend... nothing more!" I whined quietly and continued to chew at my lip, not quite able to form a fist to knock on the door with. All I had to do was leave the pie, and then perhaps the door would appear again for me to leave. It would be a simple, short visit... and then I could deem myself my own hero for having survived.
Yet my first rap on the door was barely audible to even me. I took another deep breath and tried to knock again, but it ended only with my palm pressed softly to the door. My hand clasped tighter on the handle of my basket as I made a final attempt, lightly rapping on the door with half a hope that no one within would hear it.
Christopher had rushed out the door that morning without much more than a grumble around a mouthful of a croissant roll filled with ham and cheese. He had his backpack on, but his skateboard was sticking out from it, and Hunter wasn't sure if it looked like much else was in there but his lunch and the board. But before he could say much, the bus was honking outside, and the boy was gone. Hopefully, to school.
It was now twelve noon and the principal had not called yet, so he felt it was safe to assume that Chris had really gone that day. Perhaps he was just in such a rush because he wanted to get the bus and avoid being taken on Mannie--he had finally confided in Hunter that riding on the horse made him sore. It was starting to look like, heavens forbid, the prince was going to have to learn to drive a car sooner or later. I hope... I hope the gift I've gotten for him will help improve his mood... it should be a nice surprise after he gets home...
The gift was all set up in the boy's room, waiting to be unveiled when Chris got home later at 3:30.
But first, there was the mess in the living room to tackle. Christopher was a good boy... really, he was, Hunter always reminded himself. But he had a knack for leaving behind things when he got interested or excited in some other activity. The living room was like a study of his hobbies--a forgotten "Gameboy" device buried in the couch cushions, which the prince had deduced to be an entertainment device, much like the "televsion" box, that children could play some manner of games on. It ran on these tubular chemical things called "batteries" and made funny sounds and pictures. Then there were his dirty clothes from skateboarding and practicing his "parkour" in the yard, his rollerblades, his baseball, some CDs, a pair of pajamas, a half-eaten apple, a Pepsi bottle, and assorted other toys and discarded personal items. It was amazing how much clutter a single seven-year old boy could accumulate in a day or so. Hunter tried and tried to keep up with the cleaning, inbetween all the cooking and washing and other household tasks, but the boy simply seemed to make mess faster than he could clean it up. He was beside himself sometimes.
But going into the task with a bad mood was a sure guarantee to make the work miserable and drag on longer, Hunter always felt. So he kept himself busy and upbeat humming a small tune an old tutor used to sing, and bustled about the living room, organizing and throwing away and cleaning up. He was so into his work that he hardly heard the soft knock at the door, or the tentative voice that followed it.
"H... Hello? Mr. Merridale?"
He froze to listen, and instantly he felt he recognized the gentle tones, his heart giving a slight flutter. Could it be...? Certainly there was no other voice like her own. He was treated to memories of her vivid eyes, eyes which he had rambled on to Louis about, before remembering himself and cutting his reverie short. He found his cheeks slightly warmed at the memory of his words to his friend. Leonna had left such an impression on him that first day... the thought that she had actually taken him up on his invitation--oh no, what should he do about the state of the living room!?
There simply was no quick fix for it, he realized, sighing to himself. I cannot ignore her at the door and take the time needed to straighten all this out... to do so would be even more rude and unseemly than allowing her to lay eyes on this disheveled room. I would rather be shamed in my abilities as a housekeeper than in my kindness as a friend.
Smoothing out his chocolate brown tunic and black trousers, the prince hurried over to the door, hoping he did not look as much of a mess as his living room did. He'd showered and brushed his hair only a few hours ago--he still felt fresh from the morning, full of his usual energy early in the day. He never seemed to grow much stubble, or need to shave; he was as babyfaced as ever. Confident that at least he was presentable, he steadied himself, and opened the front door.
And there she was. He was as stricken by her beauty as he had been on that first day; those eyes, like dazzling gems, gazing out from her delicate, kind face, almost angelic in its loveliness; her soft wheat-colored hair, tied up with lilies as pure white as her dress, a virginal blossom for such a tender flower of a lady. She had brought with her the basket, the one he had delivered his gift to her in, and from it came the most scrumptious, mouth-watering odor of fresh pastry and berries. It was like he had wandered out of his little domestic dilemma and into a wonderful dream. Words failed him for a moment.
"I... Miss... Miss Leona, ah... I..." he exhaled softly, still a little stunned, remembering his conversation with Cadenza after they had parted ways with Leonna and Padme before. His heart raced a little, but he managed a small bow. "...h... hullo! It's such a delightful surprise to see you--my, you look every bit as radiant as I remember!" the prince managed to recover, the back of his neck feeling warm. "I'm... I'm so glad you chose to visit..." he told her, more softly, sincerity ringing in the words. His day had just gotten infinitely brighter.
"O-oh... Mr. Merridale! I sincerely hope I have not come at a bad time. I could not be happier to see you are well." I offered a polite curtsey, bowing my head quickly to avoid those eyes. His gentle, yet always elegant voice was already working on my knees, but I was determined to remain calm. It was at least a relief that I had come to the right place.
"Ah... I regret that Padme could not come with me but she... er... had some important business to attend to." How silly! A rabbit creature with important business? What was I thinking! Oh dear, what would the Prince think? He did seem to respect the Hashcen, at least.
I forced another deep breath and dared to look up, just to his chin. "But... I did... wish to return this for you. Padme helped bake the pie... and... as you seemed to... enjoy the scones, I thought you might like the pie. It is the least I can do to return the pleasantries of your visit."
Then came the difficult part. Slowly, I peeled my arm from my side, placing great focus in my arm to keep it from trembling as it came closer to the prince. It was then that I looked up and nearly dropped the thing yet again. Those warm, earthy eyes were touched with an almost heavenly brightness, and I had to catch my breath as my cheeks warmed. "I-It is made with raspberries and cherries... t-tart and soft make for a wonderful pastry."
"You made this for me...?" Hunter felt his smile grow, as carefully he took some of the heft of the basket from her, his hand brushing over her milky soft skin as it sought the woven handle. The momentary warmth from it and the aroma wafting up from the pie provided a nice memory of sensation he was sure would help carry him through the rest of the day. "Truly, you have a natural gift with baking... my gift of fruit before falls flat before such homemade delicacies. A man could eat your scones and pies for days, I'm certain, and never be quite full enough of their sweetness!"
There was a boyishness and a lightness in his smile as he accepted the basket, and before she withdrew her hand, he bent to take it and very lightly kiss her knuckles, straightening to tell her, "Thank you... a thousand thank yous for the gift of your company and generosity, my fair friend. Please... m...my home is not at its best, but please, welcome and enter. I shall fix us some tea." He stepped aside then and swept the door open further for her, holding it ajar. The smells of breakfast and wood floors greeted her at the doorway, as the slight breeze drew them out and ruffled the prince's light chestnut hair.
He… oh dear. It was not the sun that warmed my cheeks, nor the breeze that raised goose bumps on my skin. I had made the dreadful mistake of looking into those tender eyes splashed with the color of earth and sky. The way his enthusiasm gave light to that honeyed gaze was eternally endearing, yet there was… something to the elegant curl of his lips, the practiced grace of his bow, the gentleness of his hand that made him every inch a noble man and prince.
And then that voice, so fine and smooth as sweet cider poured praise upon the odd little hermit who had nearly run at the thought of him seeing her. My hand trembled first, that familiar buzz thrumming up my arm and straight to my heart. I felt my knees weaken and my lips part in a wordless reply, still trapped by those ever gentle eyes.
It was too late before I realized how much more careful I ought to have been. But once the sensation started, I was too weak to stop it. All the tingling, the warmth, the fluttered beating of my heart—it was unavoidable. Slowly, panic began to surface as the door was opened to me, and I took two unsteady steps inside before sinking to my knees, not daring to look up.
Perhaps it was for the best. How long could I have hoped to drag the pretenses on? But I had at least hoped for some manner of introduction, explanation, rather than crumpling to the floor like a stuffed doll as shame and sensation overtook me. I could feel the familiar limbs stretching out from my back, though their form was still foreign to me. The multitude of feathers reached out until they brushed the floor, tingling, always tingling at every small touch. Without looking at Hunter, I could feel him stronger than before. That scent of warm earth touched by a kiss of dew, an airy undertone of morning’s freshest greens… I could not help but think of the field, boundless and full of morning’s promise.
I pressed one hand over my face and the other against the floor as I struggled to breathe, not wishing to see the prince’s reaction. It was sudden and I was still trembling, feeling the sensation run all the way down to the tip of my wings.
"L-Leonna!" Hunter flung himself into motion when the blond woman dropped to her knees, but it was all happening too quickly.
He had thought she was an angel. Perhaps that really wasn't so far off. His breath escaped him as his eyes came level with her wings.
They were a stunning blue, more alive than any color his eyes had ever beheld in either sky or sea, as if earthly colors could never hope to match such pure vibrancy and energy; they were covered in feathers, but they made any image of white, downy angel feathers he'd pictured feel stunted and only half-real in comparison to the very presence of these, their brilliant shine and sparkle, as radiant as droplets of water in the sun, but at the same time, their delicate texture, translucent as beautiful veils; they spread out until they swept the floor, and Hunter felt a pain in his heart that such wings should even have to touch the ground. They seemed like they should be aloft, forever above the trees, soaring in the sunshine, a miracle and a marvel to all that beheld them on earth.
This, truly, was a one-of-a-kind being, a divine beauty come to pay a visit to his humble, human home. He felt utterly small and plain next to her, and yet amazed, unable to catch his breath as he gazed upon her. But even as he was transfixed by her unearthly wonder, like touching a star in a dream, he became acutely aware that she was trembling, and laboring to breathe. Had she not meant to draw out her wings? Of course she hadn't... she had fallen, stumbled forth onto her knees in surprise... he was not certain what had caused it, but it was clear that the act had put some great stress on her.
This, the prince told himself, was one of the greatest wonders of the worlds he had ever seen in all his life. It touched the heart of a boy who had gazed out from behind castle walls towards the mountains and sky, and had dreamed of what it would be like to have adventures under the sun. To learn of things beyond royal life. What an amazing life Leonna must have had, to fly free and see things no human could ever imagine...
Hunter, with quivering lips, knelt down by the woman to speak, struggling to put his feelings into words, trying to offer her a hand for support up, "M-Miss... o-oh dear friend, sweet angel, p-please arise... by the Lord's grace, I've never seen a being s-so beautiful in all my life... like the poems of mother earth herself have taken form and... and f-fallen here in my home... like the spirit of a flower has walked with humanlike legs into this little humble h-house... and blessed this man with but the barest glimpse of her loveliness... dear Leonna... please, is there anything I can do to help you breathe easier...?"
“Oh… Hunter… please, I…” My emotions were already thrumming, and his words, sweeter than the nectar of a honeysuckle, only quickened the tears I did not wish to shed. I could have no fear in the warmth of his aura, no shame in his sincere reassurances, not even the awkwardness of a stranger in his home, yet I found myself overcome. Something of my worries had wilted and melted away, all pretense gone. Looking upon my tainted form… was it truly an angel he saw?
“I am only Leonna, just Leonna. I… am not so different from you, though not nearly so good and noble as you are.” I reached for the prince’s hand with both of mine, feeling something like an ache. We were merely acquaintances with hardly a reason for understanding, but… I had wanted this. Could it still be possible? I could not have the love and acceptance of all mortals, but I wanted to believe so very much that there might be… just one! One whose fancies were not given to the wind, a friend whose love endured to the very end, a good and honorable person that might still find something human in me.
Yet… that question still remained. Stripped of society, of all other pretenses, what was I? Was I the tainted demon of my body, or the human of my soul? Surely both could not exist in the same form. But I had seen both the angels and demons in men… could I be so different? It seemed almost prideful, even despite being what I was.
Hunter’s warmth gave me some of that faith which had been so sorrowfully sleeping. Who could hear such words and remain in a stupor of self-pity? Slowly, I lifted my head to see his eyes. My wings curled up behind me, finally at peace.
Her eyes were only more enchanting when they shone with tears, but the sight made him ache, made him wish he could wipe them all away. As beautiful as they were, such eyes should never know a tear, he felt, or lips feel a frown; such a tender heart should never know such trouble. When he felt the gentle warmth of her hands, those slender hands wrapped around his, he felt encouraged, assured that in some small way he could offer her some support and comfort, as a boy might help nurse a bird with a broken wing. She was a majestic and breathtaking creature, but she wasn't so far away as to be untouchable...
The prince could not take his eyes off the fae woman as he spoke, and gently squeezed her hand, "Find stability in me, dear Leonna--speak not ill of yourself... please, allow me to offer you some measure of strength, of comfort..." Carefully, very carefully he tried helping her to her feet, holding her and guiding her to rest against his chest if she so needed it to stand, taking it all very slowly so she would not get lightheaded, "Allow me to be your rock, your ballast until you can find your feet again... come in from the wind, gentlest of blossoms...
"I can still hardly believe what my eyes have seen..." he told her, voice becoming softer, full of concern for her, yet captivated by her gaze, his tone earnest and full of wonder, "such things, they were once only fantasy to me, the things of marvelous tales... but to witness such grace, such beauty in life... I am blessed to have lived to know it, to have befriended one so kind and yet so extraordinary as you..."
My heart swelled—something was so perfectly good here. I felt my breath slow, but my knees still felt weak. Every word from the prince’s lips was so elegant, but… purely kind. His hands were so strong and gentle at the same time, so… he was… a prince directly from the pages of a storybook.
Everything about him brought them to mind! That humble smile for the family he loved, the sweet generosity for the poor in heart, the elegance of a glittering ballroom, and all the confidence to fight dragons. His figure fit those comely men painted on those faded pages, eyes bright with intelligence, feet and form always solid and sure, and a chin and lips curved perfectly with an almost cherubic complexion. Did he not know what a rarity he was?
“Hunter…” I could do little more than breathe the name, quite overcome by all such a man seemed to think of me. Though… he did not know how deep the taint went… no one apart from… Khaz. I wilted merely at the thought, nearly falling again.
“Oh dear, but you do not understand! I can only wish I was deserving of your strength. But… the sorrows I carry are no more than I deserve. I…” I leaned forward quickly, concealing my face from the prince by slipping my head beneath his chin and against his shoulder. There was an instant thrum of warmth, soon followed by a heavy sickness in my stomach. “I… hardly dare to tell you for what you will think of me!”
The pink flush that rose in the prince's cheeks was only subdued by the concern and sadness the fae's words made swell in his chest. What could have her so distraught? So upset, so down on herself, saying such things? He found that his hands wished to caress her back, to comfort her, to hold her close against him in a hug of solace. Lightly, he let his chin rest in her soft hair, felt her trembles, his own arms steady and strong around her, riding out the storm of her distress.
"Fair friend, be troubled not... for there is nothing that could make me think poorly of you... you have done nothing but be kind and good to me, to show me welcome and warmth... how could I judge you, when all are guilty of mistakes in this life...? Such a burden should not keep a being of the sky, of such heavenly wonder grounded in such despair... please, share its weight with me... so that I may begin to dispel worry from your gentle heart... I cannot bear to feel you so shaken, milady..." his fingers traced her delicate curve of back, cautious not to disturb her wings, his hands warm, soothing, hoping to bring her back down to earth, to find haven in his presence, in his gentle embrace, in his calming tone of voice. "You may confide in me... I will never cast you away... the Lord, he has mercy for us all... he teaches us to forgive..."
The gentle touch caused me to shiver. There was an odd tension before I felt it leave every part of my shoulders, and my silly knees buckled. I closed my eyes and allowed myself to trust more of my weight to Hunter’s strength. He spoke so… was there no virtue beyond him? I felt filthy merely touching him… no… he could not be nonchalant when he heard of my crimes.
Ah, but how the pain struggled against his wonderful touch. Even as the old fears and stings awakened, I felt them smoothed over by his gentle hand. His warm aura and the scent of a fresh field touched by the morning sun… there was peace here I had not known since I had visited Keithon. It had been so long since I had felt… safe.
Slowly, I opened my eyes and touched my hand to his chest, near the collar of his tunic. And his heart… I could hear it. Would so noble and good a soul truly feel no revulsion for a woman of lost virtue? A woman who was the murderer of her own people and a demon among men? But I felt he must know… he deserved to know. I could not stand that he be so kind and good to me when such things remained within the shadow of my own knowledge.
“You offer kindness in everything, Hunter… I regret to speak such things… but I would not have you believe me to be so much when I am but a shadow of what you speak. I…” My hand gently curled around that soft fabric as it began to tremble again, but I knew it had to come out.
“Oh, Hunter! It was scarcely weeks ago… just before I came to this Dome. I feel wretched, as I know I ought to. Someone whom I thought I loved… whom I thought loved me… it was so short a time! We had once journeyed together through a very difficult time with two other companions. It was a very chance encounter seeing him again… I was so happy to see him well.
“We were in a town of my own country, Andrea. And he was kind… always so gentle. He spoke of me almost as kindly as you do, and he knew of my inhuman nature. But… one night… I allowed myself to… I… heaven forgive me, I gave him everything! The very blossoms I wear are soiled—white is tainted with unbridled passion. I thought I knew him… I thought he… loved me… but… after I saw him… k-kill a man… he disappeared…
“B… but… even after all of that… after days… I… I still wonder if it meant anything. I gave everything and am left with nothing but my own shame… it is fitting.” The tears began as I choked the tale out from the darkness inside, each breath stinging and twisting as it came out. “But… I, too… am guilty of… murder. It was a good deal of time before… Khaz… in my village. We are constantly hunted by horrid carnivores… one day the creatures went mad and… the villagers fled. I had… flame then and I… when I tried to fight them I… there were screams and I realized… I had not slain only some of the beasts… that is why I left…”
It was vague and yet profound, each detail further ironing out the pain. Finished, I resorted to quietly weeping on the prince’s shoulder, still relying on the strength I knew I was not worthy of.
They were surprise blows, ones he had tried to prepare himself for, but the weight of them, the reality of them struck him still unawares and made something inside him shake. It wasn't his literal center of gravity, but a moral center, one that guided him in the choices he made and the way he treated others. Leonna was confessing to many things.
At first, he only listened and thought, but he did not cast her away, nor break the supportive embrace. To do so would be to condemn her, far worse than any words could do. To do so was to betray her trust in telling him these things; to judge her too quick when she had come to him with regrets and a wounded heart. She had loved the man. Or she had at least believed it so. She had not entered into it lightly, but had given in in a moment of weakness and emotion... and before, with her power she had made a grave mistake...
But had he not spoken of mercy? Of forgiveness? Now that he knew the shape of her sins, could his words be so hollow? Could he deny her the mercy that was the path back to the good? The forgiving hand that brings one out of the darkness, and back into the Lord's grace? She wept with a heavy heart, one that no doubt wished the wrong had never happened, that wished to atone. She recognized and confessed her sins. He was only a man, not a priest, but how could he turn her away? He had once told his friend Cadenza, whom was full of troubles, that no matter how black she felt, there would be mercy and a place for her. She had always just smiled and called him naive, or hadn't spoken a word at all, lost in a kind of reflection he could not guess at. He knew of only some of the things she had done, but still had faith for her. He felt, deep in his heart, that Leonna... Leonna needed that same faith. That same forgiveness, if ever she was to recover, and be helped back to the good path.
He kept his right arm around her, and took his left hand to lay it over hers that was over his chest. He held it there, gently for a few beats, before he allowed his fingers to touch her delicate chin, and tilt it upwards, to meet his eyes, his thumb just softly stroking the edge of her face. He felt her tears, dripping on his skin, felt every one, her eyes full of deep sadness and regret. No doubt she feared what he might say. She was a poor, fallen angel...
"Let the tears flow out, and with them, your sadness and fears, dear Leonna... if you seek forgiveness, you have mine... if you seek mercy, you shall have His... for He hears your weeping, and knows the pain in your heart... He knows there is goodness there, like I have seen... He means not to condemn you, but perhaps this path you walk had to be more difficult, to try such a divine and brilliant creature... to see that the radiance of her form was matched by the strength and purity of her heart... you have confessed... let it not darken you any further... take now of His mercy, and suffer no longer in His love..."
He leaned closer to her, until he could smell the floral aroma about her, the caresses of his thumb slower, his words quieter, "I do not think worse of you, gentle angel... to err is human... this only... only makes you seem... closer to us plain ones in some way... None are infallible but He..."
I had never thought of it that way. The realization was nearly as strong as his touch, those eyes overflowing with the sweetest, purest goodness I had ever seen. I did not know the deity he spoke of, but his resolution was perfect, his every word promising healing. In all my days as a hermit, I had never seen such calm conviction, as if Hunter himself could offer divine redemption. A man and a prince he was, but in that moment, as I felt his warmth and each comforting stroke, I could think of him as nothing less than an angel.
Deep within, I knew I held only the appearance of one. There were so many regrets, lost lives and scarred hearts that should have wounded me past feeling. But it was this very same light in the prince's heavenly gaze that had continued to soften my heart, always desiring better of myself. If I could not be a mortal, if I could not belong to the earth, could I still remain human? I had felt such impossible after the corruption of my own virtue--that led only to sorrow and further sorrow. Not only had I lost Khaz, but I had not seen him truly, and when the time came when I should have helped, I wilted and was mistrusted.
But Hunter, pure, dear Hunter was... everything I had aspired to. His elegance, his warmth, his venerable faith... it gave him a strength I so desired. And such a man as this forgave me... could hope then still remain? I wanted to believe in it, even after so short a time of his aquaintence, knowing only a few of his stories and this perfect kindness. He shared his strength... and I wanted to accept it.
"Who is 'he,' Hunter?" I barely breathed the words, hardly able to speak as the tears continued. The thrum of pain was still ever strong, but the deep cut was slowly drowning in all the hope I saw.
"He is the Lord, our shepherd," he told her, "He is the one who guides us when we are lost, like sheep, in the world... He is the one who promises us everlasting love and mercy... He is the Father, dear friend... we are His children, who learn to love and know Him..."
As the prince spoke, he brushed away her tears, felt them tingle on his skin, as if kissed with a sweetness. The hurt and misery in her eyes was devastating, but he felt he saw, in those vivid depths, those aquamarines and crystal blues, a glimmer of dawning understanding, and perhaps hope. If he could instill even the merest gleam of such hope, he felt his heart might glow in warmth at the discovery, at the faith restored to Miss Leonna.