To be indebted to someone puts you in a very compromising position.
Erna realised this as she lowered herself into the boat and prepared to enjoy an evening with a man she was not involved with.
She couldn’t help but think of the rumours that are going to rise from this.
She was thankful that her Grandmother wasn’t here to witness this.
She always said that a man and a woman should be careful not to share careless glances.
It was ridiculous.
To conduct herself in such a foolish act, even if he was the Prince, was like pouring fuel on a fire that was already raging.
Even she could sense that, It would have been better if she had politely refused and went about her evening.
Being the youngest lady of the Baden family, Erna should have been a quiet lady in the corner, protected her family honour and not drawn attention to herself.
She failed to even do that and now, she sullied the name of Baden, which she was more concerned about than the Hardy reputation that was already sullied.
It was an opportunity to write off the debt, a debt that she was struggling to pay back.
Even if she made flowers for the rest of her life, she would not have finished paying it off.
The Prince looked so relax when he asked Erna out onto the water, like he knew what she was going to say before she said it.
Erna had warred with herself over clearing the debt, or maintaining her families honour.
Clearing the debt inevitably won and the Prince reached out his hand to help her onto the boat.
Erna hated him for what he was putting her through and the clueless manner in which he conducted himself.
Erna sat at the prow and looked down at the hand that was still holding hers.
It felt like a dream, a distant thing happening to someone else.
The gentle lapping of the current against the boat seemed to dictate the thudding of her heart and harmonised with her breathing.
Bjorn skilfully rowed the boat out onto the water.
Erna watched him with wide eyes.
She was so close to him.
When Bjorn noticed she was watching him, the corner of his mouth twitched upward.
“You’re not scared, are you?”
“No, not at all.” Erna said, a little too firmly.
Even she was not convinced by her answer.
Bjorn laughed as he pointed the boat in the direction of the coloured lanterns.
They were of so many different shapes, some of paper and some of glass.
They were all the colours of the rainbow, which blended to form new colours not of the rainbow.
Erna watched the lights and colour spread around her in amazement.
She had never seen such a splendid sight in all her life.
Her Grandmother was right, the city really does lift your spirits.
She had not realised before, concentrating so much on what made the city a poor place to live.
The overwhelming beauty of the lights, reflected in dazzling shimmers on the water erased all thoughts.
All the whispering onlookers, the gossipers and rumour mongers seemed so very distant now.
She didn’t even care how angry her father was going to be when he heard about this.
It all felt so very distant.
Erna cast her gaze about the river, trying to take in every mote of detail, committing every part of it to memory.
When she realised she was staring directly at the Prince, and he looked right back at her, she reflexively touched the side of her face and knew it was careless.
She needed to say something, to break the awkward silence they shared, but she couldn’t think of anything.
She became very aware of the itch in her fingers, all the work made them ache and no amount of massaging made them better.
Erna hid her hands under the parasol so that Bjorn would not notice her fidgeting with them.
It would be nice if he would say something, rather than just look at her with that soft little smile of his.
He didn’t say anything and just let out a laugh.
It was a cool, soft laugh that quickly got taken away by the midsummer breeze.
“It was a face after all.” Peter declared.
He watched Bjorn’s boat drift out onto the river and saw that he was not alone.
He was with Erna.
He had sent flowers, passionate letters and made eye contact from time to time.
He had put so much work in wooing Erna and Bjorn, the man who spent his entire time on the sideline watching, was going to be the one to lift the trophy.
It was his face, it had to be, it was the only conclusion Peter could come up with.
He had not written a single letter, he had not sent a single sincere flower and yet, Bjorn Dniester was the one who was going to claim victory.
“What fool put him up in the first place.” Peter said.
“If I remember correctly, it was you.” Leonard said through laughter.
“Me? No way.”
Then Peter remembered.
Sat at the gaming table, well on his way to drunken unconsciousness, a huge pile of chips in front of Bjorn and the feeling of desperately trying to grasp a win.
“Unbelievable, I should have known, he always sweeps up the stake.” Peter said dejectedly.
Bjorn had always shown sincerity when it came to money and he was a well known flirt with flamboyant women and when he tossed in his chip out of frustration, Peter felt sure he would not put the effort into courting someone as meek as Erna Hardy.
He felt sure she would be too much work for him.
Bjorn never went after women, he always let them come to him and they always seemed like they would have hung themselves for the Prince.
Peter had watched him for decades and felt so sure of himself
“Could he be serious about Erna?” Peter muttered to himself.
“What’s that, you crazy bastard?” Leonard laughed at him.
“Yeah, as crazy as he is.” Peter said and laughed back.
“You row very well.” Erna said.
They had been sitting in a deafening silence for so long and Erna was losing her mind.
She handed over the words carefully, as if breaking the silence was a sin.
It felt right to start with praise, one of the most basic polite conversational skills.
“You should row in next year’s competition.”
Rowing on the river and rowing in a race were two completely incomparable events and Erna felt a little silly for suggesting it, but she needed to say something, it was hard to bear this suffocating silence.
Bjorn seldom seemed willing to talk, so she tried it out herself.
“Yes?” Bjorn said.
It was a lame attempt, limping out of his mouth with the minimalistic effort only a man not interested in conversation would use.
He still replied to her and Erna felt a little relieved, this was well on its way to becoming a successful conversation.
“Do you like rowing?”
The next step in polite conversation is figuring out each other’s likes and dislikes, finding common ground and building towards it.
She remembered that young men like talking about sports, she didn’t but the teachings of the speech book she read back in Buford also said that young men like to talk about themselves, a lot.
“No, not really.” Bjorn answered without much thought.
Erna had been proud of her ability to follow the step by step guide.
The teachings of the book she read were not much good in a place like Buford, but this had thrown her off.
She fidgeted with the hem of her skirt.
“Ah, why is that?” She put the words together like a child figuring out a puzzle.
“I don’t like the sweat and stink of other men so close to me.” Bjorn said.
From his tone, it was clear that he was not joking.
This whole ordeal was throwing Erna through a loop, did the Prince not learn social norms when it came to conversation?
“But you do like beasts?” Erna was proud of herself for finding something to latch onto.
“I read that you are a top equestrian and won several competitions.”
“Yes, because horses are beautiful.
Compared to sweaty, stinking, beastly men, horses are dignified.”
Bjorn had stopped rowing, letting the oars sit lazily in the water, he watched Erna with a hand sagged over the end of the oar.
She muttered to herself and nodded her head.
It must have been a curious sight for him.
“But why do you hate horse racing? I hear you own the fastest horse in Lechen, but rarely go to watch.” Erna looked at Bjorn, her eyes sparkled with the multitude of coloured lights.
“Oh, no, I’m not interested in watching other people ride horses.”
“No? Are you the type of person who prefers to participate?”
“Yes.” There was a brief pause as Bjorn squinted at Erna.
“You did a pretty diligent job investigating my background.”
Everyone knew Bjorn Dniester, it was hard not to hear about the Prince at even the most uncommon social event.
If Erna had put her mind to it, she could probably find out all there is to know about the Prince in half a day.
Erna shrunk away, feeling like she had over stepped herself, but the Prince only seemed to lean in closer to her.
He moved into her sight line as she tried to look away and their eyes locked.
Her cheeks flushed and she couldn’t help but fidget with her fingers.
She intended to enjoy this moment a little longer and was not going to let shyness get the better of her.
What’s the sin of enjoying a little gossip?
“Sorry, Prince, please forgive my presumption.” Erna said.
She regained her composure under his scrutiny, but couldn’t remove the tremble in her voice.
If he continued to tease her like this, she was going to throw herself over board.
“There’s nothing to apologise for, I don’t think you were being rude.”
“But I offended…”
“Let’s talk about you.” Bjorn cut Erna off.
“It’s not fair if we only talk about me.”
“Did you say you were from Buford? Are the festivals there like this one, too?”
There was some sincerity in his voice, as if he genuinely wanted to know about Erna.
He wanted to know about Buford, a place he didn’t know existed until Erna Hardy suddenly appeared.
Yes, but nowhere near as big and fancy as this I don’t think, I’ve never seen it.” As if sensing his intentions, Erna answered with a relaxed smile.
“You’ve never seen it, why’s that?”
“My Grandma and Grandpa didn’t like crowded places and sometimes the festivals were held in places too far away.
Instead, my family would have dinner under the Ash tree.
We would make lots of wonderful things and delicious cakes.
My Grandmother made a very special rose wine every year that she let me drink from when I was sixteen.”
Erna remembered the disappointing taste of the wine she had been looking forward to drinking from such an early age.
She loved the colour of it and its smell of summer flowers.
It always reminded her of grass insects chattering and dandelions caught in the breeze.
Erna spoke in a distant voice as she detailed the annual summer dinner party.
It felt like she was back there now, with her Grandmother and Grandfather.
The smell of rich cakes and juicy meats.
Bjorn watched her with interest as she lost herself in the memory.
He realised why Erna Hardy considered herself a Baden first, as she spoke so fondly of her Grandmother and father and her home.
She looked happy.
Bjorn had never seen her like this before and he found himself being drawn in by her smile.
“It sounds beautiful.” Bjorn said.
It was nothing more than the appropriate response in praise of the woman’s zeal, but Erna beamed at him for saying it.
They looked at each other for a long while, right up until there was a sudden and resounding bang somewhere above them.
Erna laughed her nervousness away as Bjorn turned his head up to watch the fireworks painting the night sky.
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