A Heart's Tale

Proposal

The next morning as mother and I struggled to eat, someone knocked on the door again.

“I’ll get it,” I said and straightened my long blond hair. I opened the door, halfheartedly thinking it would be the king. It wasn’t, though. “Oh, hello Rai.”

Our neighbor and one of my closest friends, Rai, stood there with a bouquet of sunflowers in a porcelain vase. He extended them with a sympathetic smile.

“For you and your mother,” he said. “I’m very sorry for your loss.”

“Thank you,” I whispered and cleared my throat to stop myself from crying. “Would you like to come in?”

“Actually, I thought you might like to go to the lake. Like when we were kids,” he added, nudging a basket at his feet.

“Oh,” I said. “I suppose. Will you be all right, Mother?”

“Yes, of course,” she said. “Thank you for the flowers, Rai.”

“Anything to help the wife and daughter of Roland,” he said with a slight bow.

I slipped my slippers on and followed him out. Usually I wore a shawl to keep away the dust but I couldn’t care less. Neither of us spoke as he led the way. Rai had started working for my father as a young boy, before we both went through adolescence. Over the years, his parents and mine became close and we got close, as well. He was one of the few people I trusted now.

Rai hopped over the broken wooden fence and held his hand out for me. I let him help me and he kept his hand wrapped around mine. I didn’t think anything of it, my eyes landing on the castle in the far distance. He spread the blanket and we sat down. I was still glaring at the castle when he sighed.

“King Jeremiah couldn’t-.”

“What did you bring?” I asked.

He rolled his eyes but smiled. “Mother made some lemonade,” he said, taking it out. Without thinking, I clapped. There was nothing better on a hot day than Matilde’s lemonade. “And father insisted I bring some of his deer sandwiches.”

I hesitated. I wasn’t hungry but didn’t want to be rude. Rai pushed half the sandwich into my hand and gave me an encouraging smile. I returned it and took a bite. Before I knew it, the sandwich was gone and I was gulping down the lemonade.

“Ah, I guess I needed that,” I said, patting my stomach.

He laughed while I dabbed at my mouth with a napkin. I sighed heavily and stared at the water.

“Remember when I fell in?” I asked and he laughed again.

“How could I forget? Roland nearly had a heart attack.”

“He was so happy when he found out you had taught me to swim,” I said. “He tried to get me to learn how to shoot but I just couldn’t stand the thought of doing it. I think he always wanted a son.”

“He loved you,” he said.

“I loved him. A lot.”

I didn’t realize I was crying until I felt Rai’s thumb on my cheek. I turned to thank him and felt a strange tug in my stomach. He was sitting closer than I remembered and his hand cupped my chin. I blinked a few times, confused about the fluttering in my chest and stomach. I never noticed how much like honey his eyes looked.

“Ava,” he said, his voice breathless. “I- Well, I’ve always admired you. You’re always strong and spirited. You’re loyal which is a rare trait in women these days. If…. If it’s not too much to ask, perhaps you might consider….”

I could tell he was struggling and I had no idea how to help him finish his question. My heart was hammering and there was a rushing noise in my ears. I saw his lips form the words ‘Marry me’ and I finally managed to look away from his lips. I gripped my mug of lemonade tighter and took a shaky sip. I couldn’t think of anything to say.

Rai had always been a wonderful man and loyal and kind. He was the exact kind of man my father would want me to marry. But my father….

“Rai,” I said but my voice broke. I took another sip of lemonade and tried to meet his eyes. He looked about as nervous as I felt. I started again. “Rai, you are an amazing man. You always have been and always will be. I need time to think about this, though. With my father gone….”

He loosened my hold on the cup.

“Look at me,” he whispered and I did so. His smile was gentle. “Take all the time you need. I know it’s rather sudden but I want to make sure you know that I’m here for you, no matter what.”

I leaned forward and kissed his cheek. “Thank you,” I whispered and he smiled.

We spent the rest of the day reminiscing about my father. To my surprise, I found more comfort in sitting talking about all the good times than standing around with people patting me on the back. As the temperature grew cooler, Rai rolled up the blanket and I put the empty tankard and cups into the basket. We walked back in silence, this time closer to each other than before. My mind was still buzzing with the proposal as he kissed my cheek good night.

I went inside and leaned against the door.

“Ava?” my mother said, her voice full of concern. She rushed to me and took my hands. “Ava, what’s wrong?”

“I- Rai proposed to me,” I said and she gasped.

“What did you say?”

I laughed weakly. “I had no idea what to say! Father just died and it took me by surprise and-.” I stopped when my eyes landed on a long piece of parchment on the table. It had the royal crest. “What is that?”

She looked worried as she picked it up. She brought it to me and took a deep breath.

“Sometimes, we have to make choices Ava,” she whispered. “Choices that may not make sense at the time.”

“This doesn’t bode well,” I said.

She nibbled on her lower lip. “King Jeremiah came while you were gone.”

“It took him long enough,” I grumbled and she shot me a sharp glare.

“Last night, he sent us a letter telling me he was coming.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?” I asked.

“He wanted a private audience,” she said. “Anyway, he heard of your father’s passing and came to give his respects. He also came because…. Well, as you know he lost his wife and child during childbirth. Apparently, he’s being pressured about not having an heir. Not just an heir, a legitimate heir.”

“Wait,” I whispered. “Did you promise him me?”

“Oh goodness no!” she said, putting a steadying hand on my arm.

“Good,” I sighed. “But, then what-?”

“The king and I are getting married,” she said in one breath. My jaw dropped. “In one week.”

“But- What- How- How could you!?” I cried. “Father just died and you’re already going to remarry!?”

“It’s not like that,” she said. “I love your father and I always will! But he’d want us to move on.”

“A week after his death!?” I shrieked.

“Some things have to be done! Jeremiah will take good care of us and you’ll have a chance at happiness! It’s what your father would want!”

“Father would want us to be happy, yes. But that doesn’t mean marrying the first man who approaches you!”

“Do not speak to me that way, Ava Marie,” she said sternly. “This was not a decision made on a whim. I’m thinking only of your future and happiness.”

“Do you even like the king?”

“I- I’m sure I can come to care for him,” she said and I scoffed. “He needs an heir, Ava, and I’m one of the few women young enough to do so.”

“You’re selling yourself,” I mumbled and she gasped in pain.

“How could you say that?” she whispered and I immediately regretted it.

“I’m sorry, Mother. I just- This isn’t what I thought would happen after everything and….”

“It’s not going to be easy,” she said, wiping away tears. “But we have to adapt to survive.”

“What about the farm? And the house? And-And Rai?”

“King Jeremiah has already provided men to work on the farm. They’ll stay in the house. As for Rai, you can still be friends. And perhaps King Jeremiah will bless your marriage, should you choose Rai.”

“Choose?” I repeated. “You make it sound like there will be more men.”

My mother looked ready to speak but horses trotting interrupted her. I turned as someone knocked for the third time. My mother made sure our faces were dried before opening it. Standing there was King Jeremiah and an older gentleman I knew to be his right hand man, Damascus. The king bowed at the waist and we curtsied.

“May we come in?”

“Of course, your majesty,” my mother said and we stepped to the side.