No one was wholly sure how long there had been The Park. When each earlier record was discovered, the account suggested four generations before held the true answer.
Stefan of Ingefahr took one last look at the thin curtains of early morning spring mists drifting over the water. A loud, wailing “kuk-kuk-kuk-kaow-kaow,” signalled a grebe had an opinion. He wanted to remain until the mid-morning sun had burnt off the light grey veil, affording him a better view; was the span of water was a very small lake or a distinctly large pond? In a park of many pleasant views this was his favoured of early morning; sunlight on water, dappling and dancing, temporary jewels on ripples. However duty called. Oh, to be like that lad in the distance, a simple garden worker.
Stefan had accepted one day he would be prince, but not this early in his life. Still alive and generally healthy Stefan’s father Prince Heyrold had been elevated to the rank of Court Advisor to the Emperor. Even if was only to advise on porcelain art, the emperor’s latest interest, you did not refuse. You handed on your title and with your spouse set up residence in the vastness of the Imperial Estates. Leaving an young inexperienced lad as prince.
At least Stefan had his father’s Chancellor Scharfsinnig to advise and commiserate with him as he faced this crisis.
‘Well Chancellor. Do our Intelligence Services confirm, who plans advancement from this paternal elevation?’
Whereas the lands were dwarfed by the surrounding princedoms Ingefahr had by far the most astute, deft and loyal Intelligence Services.
‘Raffgierig of Drohend,’ inevitability in Scharfsinnig’s delivery. House Aufdringlich held its princely throne by dint of being a constructively obnoxious family in the unfortunate land. Drohend was a frequent cause of local ‘issues’.
‘Malignant, grasping fellow, but father ever placed faith in quiet diplomacy,’
‘Thus he was held in Fond Regard by most of our neighbours. He hosted some fine conferences to smooth out local issues and,’ there was a sad smile on the usually hard face ‘Always the visits to The Park. Everyone looked forward to those,’
‘Apart from Raffgierig who never got his way. Looking for even the score,’ Stefan scowled ‘Listig, his sly chancellor, is probably behind this. The intelligent one. Arranging the singing of my father’s praises at the imperial court. Out-manoeuvred us this time. Leaving an unmarried son thus by imperial law in need of a wife. Raffgierig at the head of the line having a daughter of correct rank,
Aloisia, I saw her at a distance once, small passive thing in the wake of her father. She seemed to appreciate The Park. Raffgierig pays a dowry, which he can afford, while accordance with imperial protocol I must impart a nuptial gift,’ Stefan tapped an ominous rhythm on the arm of his chair ‘Thus we must wait for his princely suggestion, one detrimental,’
‘Likely he will request rite of passage through Ingefahr,’
‘As son-in-law I could hardly refuse. Even if it does remove our neutral status,’ Stefan looked pleadingly to his Chancellor ‘I don’t suppose Father’s new station will give us leeway of Imperial Benevolence,’
‘There are bigger games being played at the Imperial Court than the well-being of Ingefahr. The regional stability crafted by your father and grandfather is no longer the most important coin on the table,’
‘Thought so,’ Stefan sighed ‘Not much option only to wait and see,’
Scharfsinnig was sorry for Stefan. He had a good grasp of the situation, and was handling matters calmly. Intelligent, reflective and popular with the people. And he had The Park. Where he did the best of his thinking. The princes and wives had worked diligently to nurture the blend of wild and cultivated, while adding tasteful bridges over waters, attractive empathetic walk ways and small constructs from where to rest and ponder, or chat. A cause of national pride.
In a small princedom closeness to the population verged on personal, in consequence delegating was not an option. Therefore three days passed before Stefan could take a walk through one of The Park’s winding lanes into a glade at the western edge of the wood, affording him the gilded shades of late afternoon upon leaves and bark. He sat upon a simple rustic bench and to the background of birdsong pondered upon options political and even military.
He reasoned, if you started at the worst result you should be able to trace backwards and find out where to make the right turn. In theory.
‘You got the grumps too?’
To Stefan’s surprise a new arrival was leaning, then slowly slumping down a tree opposite him, the sizeable untidy woollen headgear was familiar, the gardening lad he had seen the other day.
‘Yes,’ Stefan admitted at ease with the casual attitude, presumably he was not recognisable in the shade, opportunity for a relaxing share of woes, guardingly ‘Your accent is not local. Missing home?’
The initial response was a common vulgar sound although the particular application of tongue to lips made it somewhat musical.
‘My uncaring parent farmed me out to be an apprentice. Horrible idea. I ran away,’
‘All the way from,’ he paused placing the accent ‘Drohend?’
‘I started not far from the border,’
‘You have hiding out in a royal park. It’s not a public place,’ he tried to sound friendly and helpful; the idea of a runaway seeking sanctuary in his Park was bemusing.
‘I know that,’ they retorted ‘It’s good place to hide. This wood particularly. You looked miserable enough to be hiding yourself,’
A perceptive runaway.
‘Close,’ he drawled ‘I work in the Castle, a type of clerke. A difficult busy time now. I come here for peace,’
Not actually a lie, simply short on details.
‘Is your prince horrible too?’ they asked.
‘No,’ this time his reply was defensive, only to be interrupted by an unmistakeable gurgling sound and the interloper squirmed. ‘Hungry then?’ Stefan asked, interest piqued by this arrival.
‘My supplies finally ran out,’ they complained, adding defiantly ‘I’ve not been stealing either,’
‘I didn’t say you had. You have an air of cynosure and probity about you,’
‘Thank you. I endeavoured to keep balanced. Not to cause problems,’
‘You chose well to stay here. The gardeners leave the wood to itself in summer. I will bring you sustenance at dusk. Here’
‘Again thank you. May I ask why this generosity?’
‘I would like to learn about your land. And your name?’
‘Call me Al,’
Stefan was doubly occupied. Musing on reasons for the absence of the expected approach by Raffgierig and nurturing this cautious refuge, whose appearance suggested regular washing in a stream. Conversation was stilted, you could give away facts about yourselves when asking questions of others. Thus each evening’s delivery of food involved a conversation about The Park, a shared enthusiasm it seemed. They talked of nothing but The Park. On a particularly warm breeze softened evening Stefan concluded they were sharing evasion.
‘At the risk of sounding a snob, a runaway apprentice when being told they have an air of cynosure and probity would normally say ‘Uh?. Not thank me. Nor sound eloquent,’
Their face crumpled into acceptance.
‘It took you long enough to admit to your suspicions and ploy,’ a smile quivered ‘Prince Stefan,’
A beam of late sunlight flickering through branches caused sparkles upon alert eyes, accompanied by a slow removal of the untidy head gear.
‘And you would be Princess Aloisia,’ his response was hardly a question, although the subsequent words were ‘Are you actually a runaway?’
‘Yes,’ she was quite frank ‘This would be the last place Prince Raffgierig would look,’
‘Quite so,’ Stefan struggled slightly as he attempted to thread the logic through a needle eye of circumstance ‘My information suggests he was intending to manufacture an unavoidable alliance through our marriage. However, you arrive of your own volition,’ pause to weave irony ‘Al,’ which caused a giggle.
‘He can’t offer me, if he hasn’t got me,’ came a sing-song reply.
A cogent point. Emperors held strict laws over their princes, each prince aware fellow princes would take advantage of a transgression.
‘Al,’ the shortened name did suit this forward maid ‘Are you not afraid he will demand your return?’
‘It’s The Park, I do love it so,’ she hugged herself ‘Makes me feel safe,’
Although the reply should have been evasive, her words struck him as an affirmation of faith.
‘I saw you once in tow during a conference The Park greatly impressed you at one brief visit?’
Aloisia blushed, simpered, this time the eyelashes lowered.
‘Two brief visits,’ she said, biting her top lip.
‘You’ve sneaked in before?’ fascinating girl.
‘In a way. My mother; entrapped in a cold marriage. And Chancellor Listig lonely in his demanding work. Attraction. My mother told me of an evening such as this, The Prince was out being boring, and you know the sweet little summer house at the river bend,’ a flicker of mischief ’There were other occasions, but my mother was quite sure,’ she spread out her arms ‘Raffgierig not my father and this is my home,’
Stefan was sifting the politics and musing on what his chancellor would say, when Aloisia knelt forward batting her eyelashes brushing a kiss on his mouth, adding hopefully.
‘Will you marry me? Before Raffgierig finds me?’
With his emotional foot tripping over his political foot to regain a semblance of balance Stefan opted for the simple approach. He took her shoulders, kissed her back and said ‘Yes’. Naturally there was going to have to be some swift diplomatic dancing. Meanwhile against the background of a few nightingales, clarifications were needed.
‘You are remarkable Al,’ compliments were useful openers.
‘I have to admit my father, Chancellor Listig played a part. He sees Prince Raffgierig as an idiot who will bring down Drohend. My precipitate action will make public that trait. Listig has delicately tutored my nearer brother to replace him. My elder sibling is hopeless,’
‘This is all part of an overthrow strategy?’
She nodded cheerfully.
‘There are others facets. I only helped because there’s the benefit of nabbing,’ she emphasised the next words spicing them with allure ‘You as my husband,’ she tapped his nose and in her sing-song style added ‘And having The Park,’
Answers bringing clutches of questions.
Uppermost at present. Why had not his Intelligence Services warned him? More to the point why would Listig take this audacious, paradoxical risk? A robin chirped up, Princess Aloisia pursued her lips. Matters became clearer for Prince Stefan.
Chancellor Scharfsinnig had finally reached bed, only to be summoned to Stefan’s council chamber, Stefan seated with Princess Aloisia at his side.
‘You do not look as surprised as you ought Chancellor,’ Stefan said ‘Please be seated, and meet my bride to be, who fled her,’ he coughed ‘Father’s domain. For two weeks she has resided in The Park. Did you know?’
‘I would have told you My Prince,’
In response Stefan addressed not him but Aloisia.
‘You will notice, dearest, no expression of frantic concern over Raffgierig’s possible responses,’
‘Yes my dearest. Chancellor Listig always spoke well of Chancellor Scharfsinnig,’
Holding the other’s hand, the couple rose.
‘My Chancellor, rest, busy times are ahead. Aside from the politics of weddings and neighbouring states, I would know whether my father was truly inveigled or simply positioned himself in a long game. I will arrange Princess Aloisia’s domestic comforts,’ he kissed her hand.
Scharfsinnig left, relieved. As Listig had suggested; here was a couple with potential.
Entwined they lay in the Summer House, respite from hectic days navigating the political storms. A respite with a impish edge.
‘Imperial Law insists we must marry now,’ she said moonlight playing on her eyes.
‘Anything you wish Al,’
They had been drawn in. Willingly, of course. Coercion never worked. They had embraced the ancient tides of placid continuity. The Park was content.