Prince Arrik peered out of the Palace tower window, his breath misting on the thin diamonds of window glass. As far as the eye could see, and he could see a long way over the flat terrain from this high up, the ground lay white in a thick layer of freshly-fallen snow. More thick soft white flakes gently floated down from a still leaden sky. His mother had forecast the snowstorm yesterday, so he shouldn’t have been surprised. The Queen was so wise and he had yet to learn such wisdom.
Every morning lately when he arose, though, he was sad. Something was missing from his life. He knew what it was, of course, but was powerless to do anything about it. It all stemmed from that cursed Chocolate Rose. He first heard about it two months ago and was naturally curious about rumours of its existence. He followed it up and within the space of a single day his life had been completely turned upside down.
Before the chocolate rose episode, Arrik’s life was simple, ordered and safe. He could have been killed a number of times during the adventure and now he was virtually imprisoned, although not physically, his heart felt constricted as if it was bound in heavy chains.
“In three months’ time I will be crowned King Arrik, the most powerful man in my kingdom,” he said to himself. “But I am alone and friendless, without the princess of my choosing to share my crown, powerless to change the state of my unhappiness.”
He spoke to himself, alone in his isolated chamber at the very top of the palace tower. He had been doing a lot of that lately, as well as sleeping alone. He felt the absence of his once-dear cousin Thad more than he thought possible.
Every morning recently he had to fire himself up to face the day and endure the day’s proceedings. He had so much to learn, and so many people, a whole nation, who depended on his being able to hold court, and make fair and far reaching decisions that affected the wellbeing and happiness of all the people he ruled in the Kingdom. It was a big responsibility and it was important to continually project confidence and a positive attitude in public. Despite his misery, any cutting himself off from his family, advisers, subjects and appellants was simply not possible.
The only relief to his constant misery came unexpectedly last night when his only new other cousin, Princess Loquaria, to whom he had been betrothed for over three years, threw herself into his arms, overcome with happiness and joy at his decision on her future, declaring Prince Arrik had made her the happiest girl in the land. Her actions surprised him, but they had the welcome effect of lifting his sprits.
Today there were no lessons, no hours of court sitting, no queues of advisers clamouring to press upon him their points of view. The day was his to do with what he wanted. His mother the Queen was his teacher in matters of state now and, immediately after forecasting the first lowland snow of the winter last night, she had given him the day off.
“Right, Connie,” he said out aloud and decisively as he dressed himself once more, preparing to leave his modest lofty chamber, “you better have the bacon cooking on the griddle!”
He laughed now, determined to pretend to the world that he was merry and cheerful, as he gathered his skis, delivered from his old home only a week earlier. He remembered the last time that it snowed as thickly as this, his last time on the slopes. In the mountains it was, at the hunting lodge that had been his refuge and home since he was five years old. He had left his mountain home just two months ago where the winter season comes early. How much had changed in a matter of weeks.
Two months ago.
It was cold and the young Prince Arrik had his face pressed so close to the tiny thick glass window that his breath instantly froze on the surface and he had to use the sleeve of his night shirt to see out through the slightly greenish, imperfectly bubbly, glass.
“It’s the first snow of the winter!” he declared, more to himself than anyone else.
A groan from the second single bed in the chamber meant that someone else was disturbed by his excitement. Prince Arrik had shared a room with his cousin Thad for most of the last fifteen years, excepting two years away, with Thad learning to be a knight. Now, he was returned as the captain of Arrik’s guard, so the two fast friends naturally fell into sharing their old room once again. Tough knight of the realm, Sir Thad may be, but Arrik remembered those nights as boys when Thad helped him with his nightmares about losing his father, King Bygord, when he was only five, while Arrik comforted his older cousin over the loss of his mother, the King’s sister just weeks before the King died in a chariot accident.
The Queen was forbidden to see her son as it was deemed unsafe by the Regent, Arrik’s uncle, for both to be in the same place at the same time. Arrik had immediately been taken to the isolated hunting lodge, high in the mountains and difficult to get to. All the horses and carriages used by the ever changing guard were kept stabled far below in the nearest village.
“What are you up so early for Rik?” the second voice, deep and gruff with sleep, said, “it’s barely light and there’s no school for you today. Your lucky tutor has gone to warmer climes for the winter.”
“That makes it even better, Thad!” the prince cried as he jumped onto his friend’s bed, “come on lazy bones, get up, wash, shave and dress, it’s been snowing all night!”
“Let me sleep, you monster, I hate the snow, I hate the cold, I hate it here in the mountains most of all!”
“Ha! Look, there are fresh footprints in the snow up the track from the village, I bet the butcher’s here and Connie’s cooking our breakfast, because I can smell bacon!”
“You can always smell bacon. I don’t know where you put it all. You eat like a king but you are as thin as a beggar! It’s not fair. I only need to smell bacon and I start bloating up like a pig.”
“Fiddlesticks! You are as fit as any knight of the realm that I know.”
“And just how many knights do you know, O mighty Prince Arrik, to be crowned king of this fair land in the spring, upon his 21st birthday, whilst still so wet behind his ears?” his friend mocked.
“Only you, cousin,” Arrik admitted, running a hand through his long thick tousled blond hair, “but you are bigger than all the guards and half a hand taller than me.”
“Well, I’m five years older. You’re still growing, and you’ll fill out more too, if any of that bacon ever sticks to your ribs. Damn it, Rik, now I can smell bacon, too!”
“Well, first one in the kitchen gets the leaner, crisper rashers!”
Prince Arrik first heard about the chocolate rose from Connie the cook, when he sat down in the kitchen at the mountain chalet. This wooden building was no palace but an extended if still relatively cramped royal hunting lodge, which had been his only home since shortly after his father the King died fifteen years earlier, when Arrik was a mere boy only five summers old.
He had begun to gulp down his breakfast, of fresh-baked bread, crispy bacon and soft-boiled eggs, as quickly as he could, keen to get out and enjoy the fresh fall of thick white snow. The snows had come early this year. Even in the mountains it was considered much sooner and rather heavier than usual for a first fall. Perhaps it foretold the coming of a harsh winter. While the kingdom’s subjects feared a long hard hungry winter, the young prince had other thoughts on his mind.
Arrik was eager to don his skis and set out into the thin but fresh air and onto the slopes while the virgin snow was still crisp and fresh. The cold never worried Arrik, he was used to it. He loved the clean rarified air, while his cousin, having spent recent years in much warmer climes, had barely readjusted to the conditions.
Connie the cook was in conversation with the butcher, who was warming himself in the kitchen after delivering fresh bacon for breakfast and a joint of meat for the evening meal. He’d had to carry it up from the nearby village, as it was far too steep a climb for horses. The butcher brought fresh news and Connie was all ears. The latest subject of all conversation in the village, in fact throughout the entire kingdom, was of nothing else but the miraculous chocolate rose.
In this isolated mountain hunting lodge, Arrik was kept here “for his safety”. Even his mother the Queen was forbidden to visit him. Count Condran, Prince Arrik’s uncle and Thad’s father, had ruled the kingdom as Regent for fifteen years. Condran’s youngest child, Princess Loquaria, Thad’s sister, was now nearly 16 but had been promised to the Prince as his bride-to-be and future queen since she was twelve and would become his bride upon her 16th birthday, just weeks prior to his scheduled enthronement, once he reached the full age of one and twenty. The Princess had lived at the Palace on the Lake with the Queen ever since since her mother died. The marriage was not an event that the Prince looked forward to with any relish. He had only met his betrothed cousin once, brought to him at the time of the summer betrothal three-and-a-half years earlier. Arrik kept his low opinion of the shy, nervous maiden to himself.
His ears pricked up, though, at the conversation he heard between Connie and the butcher. The conversation mentioned the word chocolate.
Even crown princes rarely had the treat of chocolate in those difficult times, with the Crown waiting on the prince’s maturity. The Count continually warned that the borders were under threat from the other four kingdoms, hence the difficulty of importing goods, particularly luxuries like chocolate.
“What is this talk of a chocolate rose, Connie?” the Prince asked of the cook.
“It is so curious, Your Highness,” Connie the cook replied, always conscious to address the prince correctly while in mixed company. The butcher would not be allowed to witness how free and easy this demi-Royal household addressed its cherished members. “It’s been the only subject of gossip down in the village for nigh on two weeks now, he tells me. A chocolate rose flowered down in Newmarket town and it is said to be not just petals flavoured like chocolate, but really rich dark crunchy, melt-in-the-mouth chocolate.”
“No!” Arrik laughed, “that’s impossible Connie, even at the Castle on the Lake, which is the warmest spot in the kingdom, all the roses have withered and died but two months ago. I remember Mother wrote at the time about how sorry her garden looked bereft of the scent and colour of her roses. And besides, chocolate doesn’t grown on rose bushes, you know!”
“Well, everyone believes in this ‘ere choc’late rose, Sire,” piped up the butcher, bowing slightly, as he prepared to take his leave, always nervous in the presence of the future king. “I mus’ be off, it looks like more snow’ll fall afore long, I’ll be bound.”
“I suppose everyone wants to believe in some magical rose, especially one made of chocolate.” Arrik said quietly, as if only to himself. “I wonder what truths herein lies behind this strange tale?”
“What are you thinking, Rik?” whispered Thad, who overheard his friend’s whispered words.
Arrik replied quietly to his cousin. “I’d like to find out more about this phenomenon, Thad. How could anyone confuse a real flower with some fakery fashioned from chocolate?”
“It must be some kind of hoax, I grant you Rik. I will ask father if you can be permitted to investigate. I believe it is about time you stretched your royal wings and saw something of your kingdom other than this chilly corner.” He grinned, “And I for one would gladly follow you to warmer climes!”
“That would be great if you could persuade my uncle, Thad, but first things first, we must get our skis, we can’t let all this wonderful snow go to waste!”
The cousins were relaxed in each other’s company, as they were with all the hunting lodge domestic staff, after all they had known them, and loved them, since they were both small and frightened boys. Thad knew how curious Arrik was about everything. Thad couldn’t read well, as befits a knight and minor prince, but Arrik had learned early from the tutors provided for eight months of the year and he read everything that the lodge’s tiny library had, plus any books that Thad was able to smuggle in from the dusty Palace library near Newmarket town or the Castle in the Lake when he visited his sister and aunt, the Queen.
The Count’s express orders regarding Arrik’s education were that he was not to be taught to ride, how to wear armour, or to handle a sword. He was never allowed to put himself in harm’s way, like his late father had. He was to spend his school time in book learning, the arts and sciences, gentle pursuits in readiness for the throne. And Thad knew how good Arrik was at book learning. Arrik was strong, too, being his father’s son.
Although he had not been taught how to ride, wield a sword or draw a bow, Arrik could ski better than anyone in the area, climb mountains as well as any goat and was a deadly game hunter, extremely accurate with a slingshot. Thad laughed at the thought. His father, the Count, had said nothing about the Prince using such toys, even if it was only to discourage birds from raiding the kitchen garden, or regularly supplementing Connie’s flavoursome stockpot.
“Where do you two think you are going then, masters Thad and Rik?” Connie called out sharply, tapping her foot on the stone flags, as Thad and Arrik headed for the kitchen door and the tempting ski slopes, “when there are goblets and bacon and egg pans to clean and put away where they belong?”
Connie had always made sure that the Prince learned that his extra treats and the privilege of being allowed to eat in the warm kitchen, rather than the draughty dining hall, was a benefit he had to pay for, by doing a few simple chores. She smiled, as Arrik readily responded with his handsome if sheepish grin before walking swiftly to the sink to wash up. Connie loved him even more for being the wonderful young man and worthy king that he was growing into becoming. In the absence of both the boys’ parents she had mothered the pair of them all these years as if they were her own dear brood.
“I must see to the setting of the guard,” Thad said hastily, by way of excuse, hovering by the door, and ran out of the kitchen, slamming the door behind him, before Connie could react.
‘Mmm,’ Connie thought to herself, ‘I’ll let it ride this once, but Thad won’t get away with that little trick again.’
She turned to see Arrik juggling the huge heavy cast iron pan and a copper pot in the air under the vaulted kitchen ceiling, as if they were feathers, shaking water drips everywhere on the kitchen flagstones.
“Dent any of those pots, Master Prince, an’ I’ll tan your young hide, so I will!” Connie threatened, waggling a finger and trying hard to suppress a smile.
“Don’t worry, Connie, this is the best and most fun way of drying pots that I know!”
Connie shook her head and chased the prince out of the door with her broom. Once the door shut out the winter cold once more, Connie warmed herself by the fire, thinking about vegetables to peel and chop for dinner. She couldn’t help that her thoughts wrapped themselves around the butcher’s tall tale of the chocolate rose.
‘Oh my,’ she thought as her blood quickened, ‘the cakes and desserts I could make if only we still had ... Chocolate.’
Arrik skied alone on the slopes, as Thad had to trudge down to the village to send off a message to his father. Arrik had grinned, his friend had developed a taste for the warmer South and had not yet acquired the acclimatisation to the thinner air in their lofty mountain home. Thad wasn’t sleeping well since he had returned during the late summer and was breathless half the time.
Arrik had time to think as he climbed to the top of his favourite slope, which was well above the tree line, even as it turned out, above the thick grey cloud into brilliant sunshine. An hour climb for ten minutes’ ski, but it was worth it, he thought, he climbed four times before setting back to the lodge before twilight. That was at least four hours of thinking time. His thoughts should have been on running through the various routes down the slope as there were a number of lines of various challenges he could take.
But his head was full of this Chocolate Rose. Someone must have had made it, although there would hardly be anyone in the beleaguered realm with those skills any more. It must have been smuggled across the border. How much would such a thing cost? Not that Arrik had any experience using silver or gold, but he knew the value of such things.
He valued too, the importance of the role he would soon have to perform for the rest of his life, and relished the opportunity to make his first start. He would be a strong king, secure the borders, protect his people, develop trade that encouraged exchanges of raw materials for local craftsmen to make better livings for themselves. He would have to settle for Princess Loquaria as his bride, raise a family, as securing the succession was a priority. Thad’s messenger would no doubt return with one of her polite, stilted letters, to which he would reply in kind, in duty.
More importantly would be the four or five lively, loving letters from his mother to look forward to. He laughed as he reached the top of the slope, for one long lingering look around in the brilliant sunshine above the cloud, as he tried to guess what her opinion of the Chocolate Rose was likely to be.
The whole country was talking about the Chocolate Rose, grown in a garden in Newmarket Town, not two hours’ ride from the Regent’s Castle. By the time the talk reached the Count, nobody could talk about anything else. The Count controlled everything, he closed the borders to trade as well as invasion, his soldiers patrolled the roads, garrisoned every town, the Town Criers restricted their news to official Regency bulletins. There was never any word spoken against the Count’s, never, since he got rid of all the witches. But talk of this Rose, made of Chocolate, a commodity he had effectively banned by closing the borders fifteen years earlier? It was insufferable and had to stop.
The gardener, who was rumoured to have grown the Chocolate Rose, had been arrested, a week before Arrik heard the rumour, and thrown into a cold dark dungeon, deep below the Palace. He had been locked in chains, denied food and drink and beaten by the guard, to soften him up for interrogation.
He was questioned by Count Condran himself, who stood, dressed in his finery, lording it over this sorry looking wretch.
“Did you grow this reported Chocolate Rose?” he snarled.
“How can such a rose exist?” the gardener replied calmly and evenly, though strapped and unable to move on the infernal rack.
The gardener looked the Count defiantly in the eye, almost as if he wanted to be locked in this dungeon. Suddenly, it was the Count who looked less in control of his emotions.
“The kingdom is awash with this ridiculous tale of you growing a flowering rose in mid-winter, and it not only tasted of ... chocolate, but had the exact feel and texture of chocolate. Why is everyone obsessed with thinking and talking about this Chocolate Rose?”
“How do I know why they are talking about it? How is it possible for anyone to know how the people think?”
“But everyone is wondering, when there’s not enough chocolate to be found in the Kingdom to make a petal, how did you fashion or grow such a Rose?”
“But isn’t it impossible to have any kind of rose flowering at this time of year, chocolate or otherwise, when it is fast approaching mid-winter?”
“Of course it is!”
“And surely only a very rich man could afford to pay a chocolatier to import and fashion a rose from chocolate, an expenditure surely beyond any humble gardener?”
“Ah hah! So, you admit you were in collusion with a former chocolatier, huh? Which one?”
“Why would a skilled chocolatier make a chocolate rose for a simple gardener as some kind of joke, and not use such an exquisite object to advertise his skill in order to import and sell more chocolate?”
“I don’t know why. If you did not make it, then tell me where this rose came from!” The Count demanded.
“The chocolate rose that is said to have been grown in your garden!”
The Count was starting to lose his temper, and he was never on the longest of fuses at the best of times.
“Who told you that I grew a chocolate rose?”
“Everyone, for the past week and in every corner of the kingdom, is talking about this confounded chocolate rose.”
“Including the Prince?”
“What do you know of the Prince!?” Count Condran snapped.
Thad had managed to pick up the basics of reading and writing, at least enough to cope with the official to and from messages with his father, without the need of putting up a scribe at the lodge. Of course Arrik was an accomplished reader and writer, the tutors had all agreed on that point, but Thad knew without asking, that and of the Prince’s requests contained in the regular reports on Arrik’s progress would be looked upon unfavourably by the Count.
This morning’s messenger was immediately despatched through the snow to the royal palace, informing his father that the Prince was curious about this chocolate rose that everyone was talking about and had expressed a keen interest in investigating the incident personally. Would the Count permit Arrik to travel to Newmarket town and question the gardener and any other witnesses to the appearance of this chocolate rose? He added that he was prepared to escort him incognito, with the bare minimum guard, so as not to risk attracting any undue attention to the Prince.
Thad had long been of the opinion that the Prince had never personably been under threat, either from his people or from without, and should have been allowed to live in the Palace with the Queen, as they always had done under the old king.
Thad remembered his aunt, the Queen, as a confident, vivacious and loving woman, not the timid fearful recluse that his father always made her out to be. He had only occasionally seen her in the last few years, visiting his sister and a lady in waiting that he was particularly attracted to, and the Queen appeared to him to be unchanged, as loving an aunt as she ever was.
Upon receipt of Thad’s letter, the Count considered Thad’s request regarding Arrik’s interest. The chocolate rose was complete nonsense of course, he thought, a stupid hoax. He had personally supervised the questioning of the simpleton gardener. He simply couldn’t understand the high levels of public interest in what was fast becoming a rumour of legendary proportions. Even the Grand Council, full of the oldest, most soft-minded barons he could possibly appoint to its ineffectual cadre, were full of idle questions about the subject.
Why not permit Arrik to waste his time and energies on this tomfoolery? What harm could it do? It also, the Count thought, it presented an opportunity that he had long been waiting for.
“Very well,” he dictated to his clerk in writing to his son Thad, “let the boy loose on the subject if you must. The idiot gardener is still unwilling to answer any questions on the subject, however, so it is pointless that he be seen by Arrik as we have retained him in the Palace dungeons until he relents. The fool’s daughter is still at large as we have no proof she knows anything, so she is of little consequence. Allow him to examine the garden where the Rose was supposed to have sprung forth from and speak to the fool’s daughter. Arrik must be accompanied by you at all times and, as you suggest, he must travel completely incognito. It is imperative for the safety of the kingdom that while he is abroad no one discovers his identity.”
He dismissed the fool clerk to write out the missive in his best handwriting. Then he turned to the Captain of the Palace Guard.
“Dargo, I have a discrete little job for you. Gather three of your best men, ones who know how to keep their mouths shut. Once you have left the castle, change into clothing of the sort that desperate hooded highway robbers might wear. Oh, and make sure one of your men is the best archer we have.”
So, it came to pass that the two friends set out early morning on the full day ride from the mountains down to Newmarket town, which itself was less than a two-hour ride from the Count’s abode at the Royal Palace. The Prince and Thad travelled by a four-horse-drawn coach, as Arrik was never allowed to ride on horseback, accompanied by two simply liveried coachmen. They stayed in a Newmarket town inn overnight and called on the gardener’s daughter early the next morning.
The rose garden had already been dug up and everything bagged and sent by carts to the Palace for expert examination. So Arrik was unable to gather any information, despite checking over the barren ground for any clues. No chocolate-smelling roots were apparent from his search.
When Arrik was introduced to the daughter of the gardener by Thad, he was described as an eminent foreign scientist, interested in investigating the phenomenon of the mysterious chocolate rose. Arrik was instantly struck by her stunning looks.
The maiden, about his own age, was tall, only an inch or two shorter than he, and slender, with long braided black hair and the darkest brown eyes he had ever seen. Like liquid pools of chocolate, he mused. She was quite the most beautiful creature he had ever had the pleasure to meet, not that he had ever had much opportunity to meet young maids.
At home in the thinly populated mountains, the daughters of the village tradesmen often persuaded their fathers to take them up to where the handsome young prince lived. While some were pretty, admittedly, none of them affected him half as strongly as this fair maiden did.
“I am Doctor ... er Rik” he stumbled, trying to remember that he was supposed to hide his true identity from all, including this beautiful young woman, “And you are Maid... ?
“Err-r-rick?” she asked in imitation of his clumsy introduction, clearly with a disarmingly amused smile playing on her face.
“No, just Rik,” (‘oh dear’, he thought, ‘this isn’t going well’), “and you are?”
“I am El, Doctor Rik,” she answered, “just El.”
“A very short name, Maid El, for one so tall,” he smiled at the raven-haired creature, mesmerised by her eyes, which sparkled with lively intelligence, comfortably maintaining eye contact with him. She was erect, proud, confident and smart, unlike the shy unsophisticated village maids he was more used to addressing, “may I be permitted to know your full name, Maid El?”
“Maid Elvira-Coral Shacklefurthbury. I know, it is an awful mouthful of a name, which is why all my friends call me El.”
“Then you are just the person I need to speak to, about the chocolate rose—”
“Oh, no,” she cut him off, “I am saying no more about the chocolate rose, I’ve been questioned up hill and down dale on that particular subject. I am heartily sick of it and I am adamant that I have nothing more to add. Please ask my father, who is being asked questions on that subject even now, by the Count’s authority.”
“I can’t,” Arrik admitted, “He is still in the Count’s dungeon.”
“And you clearly have no access to him, Professor, even though you are here supposedly officially as a foreign expert in such matters?”
“I am here in ... an unofficial capacity,” Prince Arrik admitted.
“Are you here merely to satisfy your own curiosity ... Doctor?”
“Something like that,” he admitted.
“Yes, I thought there was something rather strange about you. For a foreign professor, you speak my language extraordinarily well, a little too well, even I think, sort of ... upper class plummy, if you ask me.”
“Well, my mother was originally from around these parts, or perhaps a little more to the south, and you should realise that foreigners practising an acquired tongue always try to speak it rather more precisely than a native.”
“So, as a native of your own distant land, how would you say, ‘Good morning, El’, in your native tongue?”
“Er, ‘croresny patchek, El, payn’.”
“Mmm, why the ‘payn’ at the end?”
The Prince-cum-Doctor smiled and cheerfully lied for his amusement, “It is a mark of respect, specifically reserved for maidens of school age or similarly immature.”
“Really? Well, not only have I left school, I am a teacher at the local elementary school, so I am not sure that ‘payn’ is still an appropriate term to use.”
“Then, El, if I may be allowed to call you as your friends do, I will refrain from the offending epithet.” Arrik added, “Is it usual for the daughter of a gardener to be a school teacher?”
“My father is not just a gardener,” El replied testily, “but the Mayor of Newmarket town, I suppose the Count found it much easier to throw a gardener into his dungeon than the mayor of the most important town in the kingdom!”
“I wasn’t aware of that,” admitted a thoughtful prince.
Arrik turned to Thad, “We must speak to this gardener, or rather the Mayor, Thad.”
“But, my fa—”
“Your ... the Count ... gave permission for me to investigate the existence or otherwise of this supposed chocolate flower. He forbad us to speak to a common gardener, you may recall. However, he said nothing about paying my formal respects as a visitor to the Mayor of this fine town. If we need to question him then I insist-”
“All right, all right!” grinned Thad, holding his hands up in mock surrender, “I give up, to the Palace dungeons we go, directly.”
“I would also like to come with you to see my father,” Elvira said quietly, adding more forcibly, “he has been gone for over a week now without any word as to his current wellbeing. May I be permitted to accompany you, Doctor Rik?”
“Of course,” Arrik readily agreed.
The thought of sharing a coach with this beautiful young maid for a couple of hours was an agreeable notion, except that Thad was also with them. Arrik was well aware that his older cousin had casually flirted with or courted a succession of village maids, while he was shy with those that had tried to become familiar with him.
Maid Elvira, to his regret, only seemed to find Arrik amusing rather than attractive. She started on him in the coach before they had even left Newmarket town and climbed the long steep hill out of the valley.
“Your coachmen appear to be armed with the very same manufactured swords, even down to the scabbards in which they are housed, as those issued to the palace guard, Doctor, as does your man here, who carries himself more like a knight than any ordinary servant of a learned investigator. I noticed the weapons and the same two types of military men, when my father was arrested last week.”
“I dare say such weapons are of a common issue, available to all who wish to purchase arms of the common sort.”
“Possibly, but the crests you have painted on the coach doors have been covered over by sheets of parchment decorated in a plain and rather crudely painted coat of arms that I’ve not seen before. Did you, by any chance, paint them yourself, Doctor?”
She had an amused smile on her beautiful face.
“No,” Arrik lied, but unavoidably turned red under her gaze as he did so, “now why would you think that the royal coat of arms are painted on the doors of this carriage?”
“Because in the sunlight the parchment becomes transparent and the Royal Coat of Arms underneath is unmistakeable in its clarity.”
Arrik thought about his embarrassed entrapment for only a second, before holding out his hand as if greeting the young woman for the first time.
“Maid Elvira-Coral Shacklefurthbury, it is my pleasure to properly make your acquaintance. I am Prince Arrik and my companion, who you so easily recognised as a knight, is both my cousin and best friend, Sir Thad, the Captain of my personal guard, two of whom are presently pretending to be my coachmen.”
Elvira smiled and shook the hand of each man, prince and knight in turn.
They all proceeded onto the dungeon in much more relaxed attitudes. Elvira spoke of the children in her charge, while Arrik described the mountains that Elvira had never seen. Thad smiled and relaxed, allowing his cousin centre stage, and barely said a word or two except answering direct questions, throughout the journey.
The dungeon, where the gardener could be found chained to the wall, was a depressing place for his visitors to be. Although not seriously injured or tortured, Elvira’s father was dirty and bruised where he had been soundly beaten, in the attempts to get him to answer the Count’s questions. Elvira was clearly upset by his appearance but she tried hard to control herself. The dungeon keeper was ordered by Thad to unchain his prisoner immediately and to fetch hot water and warm towels, plus torches for more light. Elvira had brought a change of clothing for her father.
“Mayor Shacklefurthbury, it is a pleasure to meet you,” The Prince introduced himself after Elvira had embraced her father, “I am Prince Arrik, my companion here is my cousin, Sir Thad. I would speak to you once you are comfortable, sir, we will wait without.”
The newcomers left Elvira to help her father wash and change before Elvira called Arrik back inside the dungeon cell.
As Arrick spoke with the Mayor, he was impressed by his dignity, even though the man still did not admit to the existence of the chocolate rose bush, answering all questions with another question. His daughter had nothing to say on the subject either but was quietly tearful at the treatment of her father and his continuing discomfort.
Thad was quiet, but from the appearance of his face, he was clearly unhappy with the manner with which the mayor of the most important town in the kingdom has been beaten and imprisoned without trial and in the absence of any just cause. This did not fit in with the theories he had been taught regarding the advantages of a strong and benign monarchy. Imprisoned and beaten over a chocolate rose? It didn’t make any sense. He was reluctant to approach his father regarding his disquiet, until he was sure Arrik and his two new acquaintances were free of this cell. He persuaded the dungeon guard that his father had finished with questioning the gardener and they would take him home and send for his doctor to treat his injuries, to make him warm and comfortable for his recovery. He departed the cell for a few minutes in company with the dungeon keeper to fill out the necessary paperwork for the release.
The gardener admitted to Arrik, when they were alone, “Sire, there has been no preparation for the coronation of you, as King, ordinarily due in less than six months.”
“Nothing? But my birthday is only months away.”
“Nothing at all, Sire. And all the mayors throughout the kingdom have received official but secret notification from the Count that the Regency would continue to rule for the foreseeable future. The Count added that he should be addressed as His Majesty in future, not the accepted title of His Excellency.”
“That sounds like ... treason.”
“There has been no mention of you or the coronation in any correspondence at all. It is as if, like the chocolate rose, you as Prince and future King only exists on the lips of the people.”
Arrik pursed his lips. He had started out investigating the chocolate rose, a mystery that had seemed of little consequence to his future just the day before. His investigation was just a bit of fun, a diversion from his normal restricted existence. The fate of the crown, though, was another matter, a development that hitherto he had no reason to imagine would not occur in time.
The Mayor continued, “You should be aware, Your Highness, that neither the Queen nor you the Prince has been mentioned by name in any communique from the Palace since the first one announcing the Regency, shortly after your father the old King died. Many people have begun to believe that our Queen and Prince also died at the same time.”
Thad returned during the last conversation and, as soon as the Mayor stopped speaking, declared that he was not aware of this apparent policy by his father. He sat quietly in thought before speaking further.
“Rik, I know nothing whatsoever of this plot, and plot it appears to be. If there was any threat to you, I have always been on and by your side, my cousin and my friend, you are like a brother to me. I swore an oath as Knight that I will always will stand by you as my Prince and my King, to the death if necessary. My father seems intent on continuing his Regency indefinitely or until he can perhaps declare himself King.”
“For the Count to become king,” the Mayor said, “he would have to rewrite the law, as no baron can be king, only a prince, like you Sir Thad and Prince Arrik.”
“I am a soldier, not a king, Master Mayor. I serve only the king as my master. Rik is an excellent scholar, bright and keen to learn. Rik has been kept away from court and his mother, and has had little training in how to rule. But I am sure he will catch up. He was born to be a king. However, in his isolation, he has also had no opportunity to gather allies to his cause. His training has also meant that he is ill-equipped to take the throne back by military means.”
Thad looked upset by the delivery of his own words and thoughts. The treachery of his father, the Prince’s uncle, was a reflection on him, on his sister, betrothed to Arrik, on his whole family.
“The Prince does have the will of the common people,” Elvira said firmly.
Her father nodded in agreement. “And the people are ready to rise in your support, Sire.”
Through the dungeon keeper, soon after the Prince left, the information that the Prince had been in the Palace, and was acting in defiance of the Count, whipped though the castle. As quickly as the rumours of the chocolate rose had before, the word spread like wildfire further out into the countryside in all directions.