by Pen Clements
‘What about her? Would she make a good princess?’ said the King, watching his son and a young blonde girl as they ran across the palace lawns.
‘Rosa? Absolutely not. Neither wealthy nor well connected,’ said the Queen.
‘He’s always liked her,’ the King replied. ‘Since they were very small.’
‘He’s only ten now,’ the Queen said. ‘Far too young to know his own mind. We’ll find him a real noble’s daughter.’
They watched the prince grab Rosa’s hand and pull her towards him. The girl strained to get away but Prince Roderick had a strong grip.
‘I don’t think he wants anyone else, ’ the King said. It was Roderick’s seventeenth birthday and he had Rosa trapped in the birthday waltz. ‘You know how determined he is. She’s the one he wants to marry.’
‘Nonsense dear, she’s a passing fancy. He’ll grow out of it,’ said his wife.
They watched as Roderick held the young woman in his arms and twirled her round the floor.
‘She looks like she’s trying to get away,’ said one of the attendants, peering at the glittering aristocracy from behind a velvet curtain.
‘You had better hope she doesn’t,’ said the prince’s nanny. ‘He’d never get over it.’
Much later, when the revellers had hopped into their carriages and rolled home, two figures could be seen in the rose garden. They sat side by side on a carved stone bench, listening to a string quartet playing softly in the background.
‘You planted these for me?’ Rosa said, gesturing towards the shadowy garden.
‘They remind me of you. And now you’ll always be surrounded by roses.’
‘What if I don’t want to be?’ Rosa said, under her breath. Only the silver moonbeams saw the frown that crossed her face.
‘I think we should have four children,’ said Roderick, ‘Two boys and two girls would be nice, but as long as we have some of each I don’t really mind.’
Rosa paused before saying, ‘I would like to travel. Across the Seven Seas in a sailing ship.’
‘I’ve been thinking about names,’ Roderick continued, ‘but I haven’t decided on those yet.’
‘I would like to climb the Mountains of the Sun,’ said Rosa, her voice a little loud, ‘and find the dragons that live there.’
‘I’m looking forward to it,’ said Roderick.
‘So am I,’ Rosa said, tapping her foot.
They fell silent and gazed at the moonlit roses. The musicians hoisted their instruments and tiptoed away.
The prince reached his full height. His hair was a glossy black, his eyes a clear blue. His shoulders were broad and his back as straight as young larch tree. All the women in the palace loved to look at him. On the day he turned twenty-one he rose in buoyant good humour, flinging open his shutters and beaming at the clear, blue morning. He smiled as he walked the castle’s corridors, nodded to everyone he met, hummed a happy tune under his breath. The king watched him at breakfast. Now and then the prince reached his hand into his pocket and fondled something in there. Something small and round, just big enough to fit on a finger.
‘I told you he would marry her,’ said the King, when his son had left the room.
‘So stubborn,’ said the Queen, with a sigh. ‘And I did want a girl with her own title.’
‘He hasn’t asked her yet,’ mumbled the nanny, but nobody listened to her.
Roderick stood in the garden. Rosa was supposed to be there. He’d seen her last night, told her to wait by the rose beds he’d planted for her . She’d looked at him and although she hadn’t said anything, he knew she’d heard. He frowned and shaded his eyes, peering across the herbaceous borders. Her blonde head was always visible out here. It was the way the sun turned her hair to gold.
‘Rosa!’ he called, ‘Are you hiding? Are we playing a game?’ but there was no reply. Roderick walked in circles around the garden. The shadows lengthened. The ring was heavy in his pocket.
‘A noble’s daughter wouldn’t do this,’ said the Queen as she peered out of the conservatory window. ‘A noble’s daughter appreciates a good bloodline.’
‘I think you should tell him,’ said the King.
‘You’re his father,’ said the Queen.
‘And you’re his mother,’ said the King.
‘I’ll do it,’ the nanny said.
The prince took it hard. Very hard. He cried swollen tears that froze as they slid down his cheeks. They looked like icy diamonds.
‘I hope they aren’t cold,’ said the King.
‘Pity they aren’t real,’ said the Queen.
Roderick spent his days in the rose garden. A frosty rime appeared wherever he walked and his trailing fingertips left a rim of glass on the rose petals. Soon the rose garden was a silver wasteland, beautiful, but dead. The petals were sharp as thorns and no-one but the prince would go there. Roderick stopped crying but could not be parted from his frozen tears. After a time he had them fashioned into a necklace that he never removed.
The King and Queen waited for his melancholy to pass. It didn’t. Their prince moped in the rose garden and the only person he talked to was the dog.
‘We’re not getting any younger,’ said the King.
‘Speak for yourself,’ said his wife.
‘We need heirs,’ said the King,’ Grandchildren. Or one of those inbred cousins will take the throne. Roderick must marry.’
‘We could post a reward,’ the Queen said. ‘Let’s give his hand away in marriage to the first woman that can make him laugh. Or cry. Properly I mean. None of that frozen nonsense.’
‘I thought you wanted him to marry a noble? Someone with a good title, bloodlines and all that. And beautiful, of course.’
‘I don’t see what beauty has to do with anything,’ said the Queen, unconsciously stroking her large nose. ‘Besides, I don’t care what she’s like any more. I just want the rose garden back. Oh, and Roderick. ’
A flood of suitable and unsuitable women poured into the castle. Some were far too old to be marrying such a virile, handsome prince and some were far too young. Judging by the pale skin around their wedding fingers, some were married already.
The prince sat on the throne he was to inherit and listened to them all. He wore black or grey nowadays, the necklace of frozen tears shining against the dark cloth. The women sat on a red velvet cushion beside him and did their best to make him laugh or cry. They shared the tragedies, joys and triumphs of the kingdom. They told him everyday tales and histories that spanned generations, they sang, they recited poetry. Roderick gained a unique insight into the fears and dreams of his subjects but he wasn’t moved. He didn’t laugh and he didn’t cry. The most he ever did was to stroke the necklace around his neck with the tip of his little finger. Nobody existed for him but a young woman with golden hair and a laughing spirit of adventure.
The flood of women dried up. Decades went by. Now and then a stranger would appear out of curiosity, having heard rumours of the beautiful black-haired young man who seemed to have stopped time. For Roderick never aged. His faithful dog died, then the nanny, followed by some of the attendants who had been with him since childhood. Roderick didn’t gain a wrinkle.
‘Perhaps we should tell him Rosa is dead,’ said the Queen, in a quavering voice. She was very old now.
‘What’s that?’ said the King, ‘Speak up!’
‘I said, tell him she’s DEAD!’ shouted the Queen.
‘Can’t do that. He’d cry tears of blood and all we’d have is a matching set of jewellery.’
More time passed and a new visitor came to the castle. This one was far too old to be a suitor but she asked to see the prince anyway. Roderick sat on his throne, sighed and looked out of the window. The old woman began.
‘Once there was a lovely young girl and a handsome young man,’ the old woman said. ‘He wanted to marry her, have lots of children–four in fact–and live happily ever after.’
‘Heard it all before,’ said Roderick.
‘She wasn’t ready for that,’ said the old lady. ‘But he never seemed to hear her. She longed to sail the Seven Seas and climb the Mountains of the Sun. She wanted to see the dragons that live there.’
A slight frown crossed Roderick’s unlined face.
‘And did she?’ he asked.
‘Oh yes. She sailed all seven of the seas. And she climbed the Mountains of the Sun and found the golden dragons there. She even rode one of them.’
She had Roderick’s attention now.
‘And then,’ the old lady paused and reached out to Roderick, her touch as soft as a rose petal. ‘Then she found herself far from home in a foreign land. She married a handsome young man from that place and had lots of children and lived very happily with him until the day he died.’
Roderick clutched his necklace of frozen tears.
‘But she always remembered her young prince. She thought he would have forgotten her, married someone else and lived a rich and full life. She thought she’d come back and visit him, to hear his stories, to laugh over their youth and their memories, to share tales of his life after her.’
The old lady held Roderick’s hand.
‘And here you are,’ she said. ‘Frozen in time and far too young for me. You have stayed behind, too far behind for either of us to share anything again.’
Roderick sniffed. His nose was blocked and a wet stain spread across his front where the necklace hung. Only the gold chain was left now. He gulped and then he sobbed. He tried to stand and rubbed his back, puzzled. His knees creaked and his ankles were sore. He pushed his hands through his hair and realised it was no longer smooth and there wasn’t much of it. Rosa looked at her prince and smiled. Roderick looked at her, at his wrinkled hands, and cried again. Tears of sorrow for a life unlived, tears of joy for a lost love found.
‘I told you he’d marry her,’ said the ancient King.
‘He always was stubborn,’ the Queen said, putting her hand in his.
Pen Clements would like to be a botanist, a Shaolin monk or an anthropologist in a galaxy far, far away. She’d also like to have wings, breathe underwater and meet an angel. Unfortunately she hasn’t managed all of that yet, but being a writer lets her pretend.
Pen lives in tropical north Queensland with her husband, two sons and a traditional wooden sailing boat. She loves exploring the islands of the Great Barrier Reef and is inspired by the natural world. Her first novel, Oceanheart, will be released late 2012 and you can find some of her short stories on www.penclements.com.