The lover of the past and the lover of the present, together and the whispers of the onlookers were placing predictions on who they thought the Prince would offer his hand to.
Their murmuring mixed with the sound of the bubbling fountain.

   Erna didn’t not notice the buzz of activity beyond the approaching Prince.
None of the criticism reached her ears as embarrassment separated her from the world around her.
She had no idea what she could have done wrong.
Was it etiquette of these socialites not to refuse invitations in public?

   Erna was unsure, but in all her training and reading, she had never come across anything that suggested that.
She knew it was rude to falsely accept an invitation, knowing she would not be in town for the show.

   Was it her tone, or maybe even her attitude?

   Erna couldn’t tell Gladys the real reason she could not attend, so she thought it probably was.
She still couldn’t tell the Princess that she was going to be running away in a week.

   Feeling helpless, Erna opened her mouth to apologise once more, but a deep shadow fell on the pair before Erna could speak.

   Erna looked up in surprise and let out a little involuntary noise.
Prince Bjorn stood over her.
He smiled down at her and she reflexively stepped away from him, but Bjorn was a little quicker and grabbed Erna’s arm.

   “Are you done with Miss Hardy?” Bjorn asked.

   “Yes,” Gladys stammered.
Her eyes were puffy and red, but lacked tears at that moment.

   “Don’t cry Princess.”

  Bjorn looked like he did that day when he told Gladys he would be divorcing her.
Gladys choked and felt like a little girl on the verge of tears, but unlike that day, she remained strong under the scrutiny of the other party goers.

   “I will be taking Miss Hardy with me.” Bjorn said.

   Satisfied that Gladys was not going to argue back and just stand there, desperate to keep her shame minimal, Bjorn moved away.
Erna fought the Prince’s firm grip all the while, but lacked the strength to break free.

   “Lets go.” Bjorn said sternly.
Erna looked back at him with defiance all over her face.
Bjorn bowed his head and whispered in Erna’s ear.
“Please don’t be stubborn, Miss Hardy, everyone is watching.”

   “I am having a conversation with Princess Gladys.” Erna snapped like a petulant child.

   “Looks to me like the Princess is done talking to you.” Bjorn said.

   Erna looked at Gladys, she was struggling to hold back tears, her face had gone puffy and red, she was in no position to hold any conversation.

   “But…” Erna tried to argue.

   “The best thing for you to do, right now, is come with me.”

   Now realising the position she was in, after noticing the sharp daggers the other ladies were throwing at Erna with their eyes, there was nothing else she could do.
Erna was still agitated in being carted away like this, but what else could she do? Gladys just stared at the pair walking away, speechless.

   Bjorn escorted Erna through the throng of people, who tried to act like they hadn’t hung on every word and action that had just occurred under the colourful tree, by standing aside and hastily continuing stale conversations.

   In Gladys’ eyes, as she watched the pair swan off like lovers, Erna had clearly won.


Erna was still dazed when their walk led them to the end of the road, which stopped at the riverside.
An aqueduct ran from the canal to the great fountain, its arches decorated with flowers and more coloured lanterns, made the whole scene look like a dream.

   “Miss Hardy.” Bjorn said softly.

   “Did I do something wrong, to the Princess?” Erna asked immediately, before Bjorn could take the conversation over.
She looked up at him with pensive eyes.

   “Did you fight with the Princess?” Bjorn asked.
He wore such an absurd smile.

   “No, never.” Erna said hurriedly.

   “Well, I heard you declined her invitation.”

   “Yes, did I do something wrong? It was for a charity play, but I…” Erna stopped herself before she gave the plan away.

   “Nothing concrete that I’ve ever seen, but given Gladys’ high statues, its probably an unwritten rule, especially to decline to her face, in front of her peers.” Bjorn said through a sly smile.

   “Really, that is bad.” Erna said, the blue of her eyes deepened to a sadness, filled with regret.

   “Maybe.” Was all Bjorn said.

   Erna let out a desperate sigh and lowered her head.

   “I cant attend the performance, what else could I do?” Erna sounded desperate, like someone trying to prove their innocence without evidence.

   “Why?” Bjorn said.
He looked down and considered Erna’s pale face, which seemed ever more pale in the coloured light of the lanterns.

   “That’s…” Erna became lost for words.

   She avoided the Prince’s gaze, for fear that he would see into her eyes and know the truth.
He would realise she planned on running away and would probably tell her father.
She had to keep her plan a secret.
So how was she going to prove her innocence?

   There was an unpleasant moment, an awkward silence, between the two as Erna warred within herself.
He is the Prince and he had good memories of Erna, she did not want to leave him with this one bad memory of her, as an inelegant and rude woman.
There was still debts to settle between the two of them and Erna desperately wanted to talk to someone about running away.

   “I…” Erna finally broke the silence with a soft squeak of a word.
“I am leaving Schuber, in a week.” Erna confessed.
“I am returning to Buford, to be with my family.”

   Erna held her breath and Bjorn looked at her with a flt expression.
He showed no sign or reaction to what she had just told him, so she continued.

   “If I had told the Princess that I would attend, knowing that I would not be going, it would have been a lie, I didn’t want to lie to the Princess.”

   “Why didn’t you tell her?”

   “I cant do that.” Erna lowered her head and her voice to a whisper.

   People started walking down the road that led to the canal, where Erna and Bjorn were stood.
That could only mean one thing, the fireworks were going to start soon.
They were the highlight of the summer festival.

   “Its…a secret.” Erna said softly, so no one could over hear.

   “A secret?” Bjorn whispered back.

I want to leave as quietly as possible.”

   “Why? Are you planning on eloping or something?” There was jest in Bjorn’s voice.

   Erna’s eyes could not hide the nervousness she felt and she swallowed dryly.
She clearly did not share the same humour as Bjorn.

   Bjorn stared blankly at Erna for a long moment, then burst out laughing.
He realised she really planned on running away and over everything else, Bjorn realised something, Erna was a simple, naive country girl who really didn’t understand how the world worked.

   Bjorn’s laughter attracted the attention of couples and groups that had gathered near by to watch the fireworks.
The world suddenly seemed more beautiful, if only in its cruel twists of fate.
Bjorn laughed at the idea of Viscount Hardy dreaming of selling his daughter to revive his fortune and status.
He laughed at all the old men rubbing their hands at the thought of getting their twisted fingers on Erna’s delicate flesh.

   Bjorn laughed for a long time, he could feel the surprised onlookers staring at him in bewilderment.
He didn’t care about them and when his laughter subsided, he looked at Erna like she was the only person in the world.
She seemed embarrassed by his sudden mirth.

   “Why would you tell me this, of all people?” Bjorn said.

   He still had a small smile as he looked down at Erna.
At first glance, she seemed timid and shy, but deep down, she was strong and firm.
Her pale face, blended with the colours of the lanterns, was cute and underlined with pouty red lips.

   “What if I accidentally mess up your plans?”

   “I know the Prince is not like that.”

   “You know? Miss hardy, you know me?”

   Even though Bjorn’s tone seemed to be spiteful, Erna could see there was still a soft smile in the corner of his lips and on his eyes.
Erna nodded without hesitation.
Blind faith seemed to be a tradition of her families.

   “Even when I leave Schuber, I will not forget my debt to you, I will pay you back, my Prince.” Erna said.

   “Debt?” Bjorn feigned trying to recall.
“Oh, that.”

   “You don’t need to worry, I will pay back every penny.
I promise, on the honour of the Baden family.”

   That name again, the woman was acting like it was her name.
It was unfamiliar, but it least it was a name that higher prestige than Hardy.
Bjorn readily agreed.
The woman’s wild plan to sell artificial flowers to pay for the debt had been working so far, would it still if she decided to run?

   A soft breeze blew off the canal and wrapped around the pair as they stood in silence, looking at each other.
Bjorn looked out over the water, following the sound of people laughing on the boats that had just set sail.
It was time to close the bet and collect his winnings.

   “Would you like me to scrub your debt?” Bjorn looked back at Erna.
“Its difficult to run away when you still have debt anchoring you to this place.
Come to think of it, that night only happened because of my rudeness.
Its not very gentlemanly to shift the blame to an innocent lady, such as yourself.”

   “But…” Erna was shocked, this was not what she was expecting.

   “Let’s make a deal,” Bjorn said with a benevolent smile.
“Afford me the honour of enjoying your company on the Abit River, tonight, and if you do, I will wipe the debt.”

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