With little else to do to prepare, Prince John took a late start in the morning, in order to join Lady Aracely at the breakfast table. The pleasurable meal was unfortunately interceded, possibly by the Fates, when Gabriella ran in from outside.
“Lady Aracely! Sir Lorne has returned to the village!” she cried out in warning, before finding her. “However, he is not seeking you for this visit. He has been asking around for Prince John.”
Aracely looked over at John and frowned. “Why Prince John?” she asked, trying to draw out the inevitable.
Gabriella shook her head. “I do not know. He simply repeats to anyone that will hear his word that he comes with news from the castle. He insists that the Prince has been here, but no one recalls a royal passage coming through.”
“Excuse me,” John sighed as he got up and walked out of the front door, to meet with Lorne.
Aracely stood to follow, with a confused and worried Gabriella in tow. “Do you know of what this is?” Gabriella asked her friend.
Aracely looked back and nodded nervously. “Please, Gabriella. You know I would not keep secrets from you if I knew it were for the best, yes?”
“Yes, milady.” Gabriella nodded and then blinked as she saw Sir Lorne get off his horse to kneel in front of Johan. “What?” she looked at Aracely in a confused manner.
Nodding, the woman could not speak as she looked at the men. John appeared to be a cross between angered and concerned. She said nothing and could only watch. When Lorne raised his head, he took notice of Aracely behind Prince John and narrowed his eyes, questioningly. Was this the reason she turned down his requests?
“Sire,” he spoke softly, “I have come to bring you home to your father.”
“I figured,” John replied.
“But, first, Sir,” Lorne said with a smile on his lips. “May I say, you look rather dashing.”
“Lorne, if you come bearing news about my father, this isn’t the time for jokes.” John glared at him. “Or familiarity, despite the fact that I encourage that.”
“I do not understand, Sire. To what do you speak?”
“Thank you. Now, out with it.” John crossed his arms.
Lorne nodded, glancing quickly back at Aracely and paling when the village’s herbalist exited his shop in curiosity. “Um, the king has fallen more ill. I was sent by Sir Dex, to bring you back from your quest. Lady Teyla insisted on it, as well.”
John thought for a moment, knowing that the trek from the castle to San Franciskus was about six moons, maybe four, if they travelled throughout the night. And he had instructed Teyla to only ask for John’s homecoming if it was absolutely necessary. “Very well. I need a little time, I won’t be leaving alone.”
“Sire?” Lorne said questioningly, as he rose to his feet.
“I won’t be leaving alone, Lorne. Take your men and get something to eat and drink from the tavern, and pay them well. I will send for you when I am ready to leave,” John said before walking back to Aracely, ignoring the looks from the other villagers, whom he had gotten to know quite well during his few days there.
“I do not suppose you wish to announce your truth now?” Aracely asked, trying not to smile at the jaw-dropped Vala and equally-surprised Danyel. Having had been talking to Radell, Halling only grinned his pleasure at the sight he witnessed.
“Fine…” John muttered and turned around to face the villagers. “My name is not Johan, I am your Prince John. I am deeply sorry for fooling…” He looked at Aracely and smiled. “Trying to fool everyone. Please, do not change the way you have treated me. I consider you all my friends, and your village will be taken care of once I leave.”
The great many of those who congregated were trapped in their surprise. Not one was quite willing to approach the man, now that they knew he was amongst the highest in their land’s nobility. Title does strange things to people, but Aracely was certain that they would push forward, once they were able to grow accustomed to the knowledge of what the man had indeed done for them, and would continue to do.
He turned to Aracely and rolled his eyes. “See? Now they’re afraid of me.” He shook his head.
“Do not worry yourself,” she smiled. “It is a shock for everyone. Let us prepare, so that we may return once your business is tended to.” Aracely nodded to Gabriella, who looked at John before scurrying back to the home to begin collecting some garments for her travel. “I wonder how she will react when I tell her that she would join us.”
“I wonder if she’ll ever speak to me again.” John gently put his arm around Aracely’s shoulder as they walked back to her house. “I suppose that the leadership of your village will fall into Halling’s lap when you’re leaving?”
She nodded. “It would. He is wise and will do well by them. As far as Gabriella, she will be fine. Just give her time.”
“I still have a small amount of gold coins left. I want to leave them for Halling, so he can help the village with that, in the time that you and I can not, to get the trade open with the other villages around you.”
“Before we depart, we will be sure that we get them to him. We have a great deal to do now. I imagine that you would be more open to accepting the garments I have?”
“I still have a set of my own clothes in my satchel.” He smiled. “The ones I got in to when…-”
She raised an eyebrow. “Do they not require cleaning after that event?”
John was silent for a moment and looked like a small, mopey child for a second. “Maybe…”
“I thought so,” she grinned as she pushed the door open when they reached the house. “Gabriella! Pack your garments as well!”
“Milady?” Gabriella’s surprised voice sounded from Aracely’s room.
“I can hardly take Aracely away from you, so you’ll have to come with,” John said. “You’ll be the one in charge over the servants she’ll receive, once she becomes my bride.” He grinned as he heard Gabriella gasp.
Everything that the girl held in her arms went crashing down to the floorboards. “What? Bride?” she repeated in confusion. Poking her head out of the room, she saw the two standing at the end of the corridor. “Is this true?”
“Yes,” Aracely nodded. “If – you do not wish to come with, you do not have to. I believe Halling and his family would be more comfortable in this home, don’t you think?” she asked, looking up at John.
“I think they will,” John nodded, having seen Halling’s home from the inside. Aracely’s house was safer than Halling’s. He then looked at the girl. “I would be honored if you decide to join us, Gabriella. I can only imagine what shock it will be for Aracely, and it’ll be good to have a trusted confidant at her side.”
“You… iyou/i would be honored?” Gabriella blinked. “Your highness, forgive me for speaking so openly but you are one unusual man, and I would not leave Lady Aracely, even if you didn’t offer me to come with you.”
“Good to hear.” John nodded and looked at Aracely. “What can I d- right, you want me to change into better attire.”
She merely smiled at him innocently. “I said no such thing.”
“Okay,” John nodded. “I will change into my own then, and stink up the carriage.”
Aracely blinked as she watched him walk into the guest room. “Umm…” she started to say something but could not formulate the words. As Gabriella returned to their packing, she shook her head and stepped forward. At the doorway to his room, she stopped short, to find him having had removed his shirt in mid-dress. Swallowing hard, she turned so that her back was to him. “Please tell me that you were speaking in jest.”
John turned around, finding Aracely standing with her back towards him. “What do you mean?” He cocked his head; he had only removed his shirt, and she had seen him shirtless, before, when he worked at the holes!
“That you intend to wear your unclean clothes again?” she answered, still facing the hall. “There is no reason to continue to hide yourself while everyone knows the truth.”
He fumbled his slightly-crumpled outfit out of his bag and looked at it. “It’s not that bad, look.”
“I am sure that you believe so,” she said. “If we are to be of sharing one another, I merely offer the clothing that is not being of use.”
“Aracely, look at me,” John said. “You’ve seen me with my shirt off, before, so I don’t see why you can’t look at me now.”
She could not help but to let out a low chuckle. “That was outdoors, among others, Sire. This is a bit different. I will go find Gabriella to help her.”
John couldn’t help but sigh. He walked towards Aracely and stood behind her. “Don’t make me demand it, please. It’s just skin, it’s just my chest.”
“Oh dear Lord!” Gabriella exclaimed as she excited Aracely’s room. She turned on her heel and headed back into the room.
“Fine!” John said and put on a dirty shirt. “There.” He handed Aracely his royal garments. “They don’t look that dirty, I’ve only worn them for maybe a quarter of daylight.”
She struggled to hold the clothing to keep it from falling. The wave of air that drifted towards her as he rushed his dirty top on caused her to wrinkle her nose. “I just thought I was helping…” she said looking at him. Why do I want the shirt off again? she found herself thinking and blushed at the idea.
“I wasn’t jesting, Aracely,” he said softly. “But, if you have better attire for me, then I would gladly take them. This disagreement has taken enough time, as it has.”
She had to agree. “I’ll be right back,” she said, glancing back down at his now-covered chest with a blush and left to get some fresh items for him. Returning a few moments later, she set them down on the bed. “Is there anything we can do to help prepare? Gabriella and I have our belongings ready.”
“Did you pack personal belongings as well?” John asked, as he yet again stripped off his shirt and got into the clean pair Aracely had laid out for him. Take that, he thought mischievously.
Her eyes grew large again and looked down. “Um, yes, yes,” she nodded, unable to glance at him again. “Must you do that?”
“In order to change shirts?” John asked. “Yes, I must.” He smirked. “However, I will wait with changing the pair of trousers.”
“I thank you for that,” Aracely said quickly. “But, to change clothing with my being in your presence?”
“It’s just my…” he sighed. “Had it been the other way around, I would have definitely walked away… at least until we are wedded.”
She was not quite ready to hear that. While she was confident with herself, and regardless of the suitors she did receive, Aracely was inot/i experienced in love and romantic relationships.
John looked at Aracely, who looked at him, blankly. “Well… I suppose that’s what married people can do… look at each other’s naked bodies?” He shrugged.
“Of course,” she nodded with a shaking voice. “I – will go say my goodbyes…” She turned and made a very hasty getaway from the room, knowing that she was certainly entering unexplored territory, and it frightened her.
“Aracely,” he called from the room. “Could you invite Halling over, then?” He closed the door until it was ajar and started to change his trousers.
While Aracely did not respond, she had every intention of doing so. Waiting downstairs, Aracely watched for Halling’s arrival. As he came closer, in the bright sun, she could not help but smile with reservations.
“Lady Aracely,” he greeted after giving her a fatherly hug, “what brings you so down?”
“Just – my fear of the days to come is all,” she said. “Prince John is upstairs and wishes to speak with you before we leave. However, I wish to share something with you, first. I would truly be honored if you and your family would move into my home. I do not wish to see it go unused and you have been so kind to me all this time.”
“Milady, I couldn’t!”
Aracely smiled. “Yes, you can. If anything – think of it as you are simply boarding here, to maintain its upkeep?”
Halling smiled. “It would be an honor.” He slightly bowed for her. “I gather you have accepted his offer, then? I must say that it was quite humorous when he stopped by, last night. I doubt even he knows what he is doing.”
Sighing, she looked up at the window, where John stood, watching them. “I do know that I do not know what I am doing. Whether I am prepared or even ready to be a wife to a man, let alone the Prince of our land.”
“I am sure that the both of you will find out.” Halling smiled. “Lady Aracely, I am so proud of you,” he said. “You are going to be an excellent wife to our King-to-be, and should you become homesick, you and the Prince have always a safe haven to come to, once the season is over.”
“The season is what I fear for. What if I cannot get extra foods for everyone, in time?” she asked, feeling so small.
“One of the first words the Prince spoke to me, upon returning with the cart filled with food and medicine, was that there will always be a supply for us. He also said that, no matter if you’d return with him to become his bride, he would take care of our village and send soldiers to defend us in season.” Halling pulled Aracely in his arms. “Do not fear for us, as we will survive, as we always have.”
Nodding, she returned his affection. “You will have to come visit me if I am unable to come to you,” she said, struggling to smile and be strong. “Please, go speak with the Prince. I believe he could use some of your words, as well.”
“That boy is hopeless.” Halling rolled his eyes with a smile and headed towards the guest room, finding the door ajar. “Your Highness?”
“John!” John groaned as he opened the door. “Please, Halling, do not call me that.”
The man chuckled. “Of course, my apologies,” he said. “How are you fairing?”
“I don’t know, I suppose I am nervous.” John fiddled with his bag. “Please, come in.”
Halling entered the sitting room that the prince had been watching down over Aracely from. Taking a seat, he looked up at John. “You are aware that, while she is a strong woman, she is terrified, right now?”
“Yes! I know!” John sighed as he sat down in the chair opposite Halling. “And part of me feels bad about taking her away from everything she knows… I really…”
Halling continued to smile at him. “I do not think you truly understand what I meant. She knows what she is doing and, in that, she is perfectly fine. I know that girl better than she may believe. She has fear that she would not be a good – ahh, satisfying wife… Yes, she has had suitors, but, she turned all away. I do not recall her ever having a romance in the time she had taken over from her parents, in their passing.”
“Ah… oh… that…” John bit his lip. “Well… I do have some experience in that matter, however, taking in account romance, and… these wonderfully frustrating feelings I have for Aracely, makes me wonder if even I am good enough for her… because, frankly, I don’t know what I am doing, at all.”
“I think you will do well. Just handle her like you would one of your treasures,” he smiled. “The rest will come.”
“Maybe…” John thought for a moment and then smiled. “Thank you, Halling. I had wished to talk to you about something different. Aracely told me that, with her leaving the village, the villagers look up to you as their leader.”
He nodded. “Myself or Danyel. He has good intuition of people – that is, if he could keep his bride in order,” he sighed. “She has a big heart and a big mouth.”
“I find Vala refreshing.” John smiled. “They are both good people, but this is something I want to entrust you with… Whenever you need something, no matter how small, or big, I want you to send someone from the village to the castle and tell me. I also expect regular information about your village, to see how you’re fairing.”
Halling smiled, “I will be certain that we will send word as often as we can. If we did not, you would likely have a very unhappy bride to tend to…ahh, yes. That is something you have not had the pleasure to experience yet…”
“I am not sure if I want to.” John chuckled. “Fortunately, the castle is big enough for me to hide from her, if necessary.” He smirked. “But! We’re drifting off the subject, here.” John reached for his bag and pulled out his purse, filled with coins. “There are about thirty gold coins in here. I want you to start up trade between your village and others surrounding you; invest in materials and seeds, rebuild your homes and acquire better defenses, just in case the help arriving from me and Aracely will come late.” He handed his purse to Halling.
He hesitated before accepting the gift. “Thank you. We will certainly use these fortunes wisely.” Halling would have said more if the sound of horses crying outside had not filtered in. “It sounds as if they are growing impatient. You should leave soon to see your father, while you have the opportunity. To lose that will stay with you far longer than you would like.”
“I know, but Aracely and Gabriella had to pack up their belongings and Aracely sort of insisted that I dress more appropriately, now that the secret’s out.” He shook his head. “Also, I am not sure if Aracely has finished saying her goodbyes, yet.” He peeked out of the window to see Aracely, with her arms around a crying Vala. “On second thought, I may want to rescue her.”
“She is not a fool to the ways of the Noble. Aracely is likely looking to assure that you maintain your standing with the opinions of the other villages that you may pass through on your return home.” He stood to join John at the window and smiled. “Ah, yes. If you both are able to part from Miss Vala, you will have the Lady in your hand.”
Both he and Halling exited Aracely’s home and John made his way over to her and Vala, while the villagers still didn’t know what to do, now that he wasn’t Johan anymore. “Vala? If you don’t mind, I would really want to thank you and Danyel for…-” He couldn’t say another word, as Vala had shifted from Aracely to him, putting her arms around him in some sort of strangle hold; his nearby soldiers looking as if she was about to kill him and ready to jump in to save him.
Aracely was actually relieved and started to laugh, with Halling joining in. “Did I not say that they would come around?”
“Please, please, please take good care of our girl, here. And, if you ever hurt her in any way, including having little whores on the side, I will come and find you. She is worth so much more than you can ever imagine!” Vala mumbled in her tight hold.
“What kind of man do you take me for?” John managed to say and tried to gently push Vala off of him. “Vala, please let go of me, I need air!”
She quickly let go with a sheepish look. “My apologies,” she said, looking much like a small child.
“Now, I promise I’ll take good care of her.” He looked at her and smiled. “Should you ever receive word from Aracely that I am not taking care of her, you’re more than welcome to hit me in the head with something.”
“Sire!” His soldiers gasped in unison.
John waved them away, smiling. “I want to thank you and Danyel for your hospitality, and don’t be afraid to send people to sleep up on that hay loft of yours. It is comfortable.”
“I will tell Danyel. He is sorry that he could not come to say goodbye, as we received some patrons just a short while ago,” Vala said.
Aracely watched quietly with her friend at her side. A part of her did not want to leave, but she was also eager to go on, to see more of the life that she did not care for, before. “We will have to make sure that you come visit, soon,” she smiled, looking at John for support on her wish.
“You are always welcome,” John nodded. “And Aracely can come visit you at any time, I’ll just stay home, because I’m the bad guy who’s taking your friend away,” he smiled.
“Oh, you are not taking her from us. Why do you say that? You are giving her something that we cannot give back to her, which is iyour/i heart, Love. Why would you think of such things?” Vala questioned, suddenly confused and hurt. She quickly jumped into an onslaught of other comments to build on her clear vision of what was happening.
Aracely covered her reddened face with a hand as the Prince’s people looked over at her. “Stop her,” she begged quietly.
“Vala, that’s enough,” John said in a tone of voice normally used to command people, yet there was an undertone of being slightly amused. Had she had done this while his identity was still a secret, it would have been fine, but she was completely out of line now. “You’re embarrassing Aracely and myself, stop it.”
Simmering down, she just pouted as she went over to hug Halling, simply for the need to – hug. “Be well on your journey,” he said to them. “We will look forward to hearing the news from the castle, in time.”
John walked to Aracely and smiled. “Are you done with saying your goodbyes?” he asked softly.
She nodded and let out a breath after catching the approving look that Halling gave. “Yes,” she said with more confidence.
“And are you sure you have everything you need?”
“Yes. If we forget something, I am sure we will survive until we can send for it, or replace it,” she said. “Are you prepared for this?”
“We’ll see.” He chuckled as he directed her towards the carriage.
As John helped Aracely and Gabriella into the carriage, the women did not miss the strange and confused looks that his men exchanged. Especially Sir Lorne. Peeking out of the carraige opening, she could see the village’s herbalist watching from his window, but did not know what to do for the men who clearly had an emotional attachment to one another.
John saw Aracely looking and smiled. “I could always use a herbalist for my gardens,” he whispered in her ear.
She looked at him, confused, but smiled. “I do not understand, and I do not think you truly know your men.”
“Oh I do, which is why I found it so funny that Lorne was trying to pursue you,” John said, musing. “I might have to send Lorne back in a couple of lunar cycles, to go and fetch me your brilliant herbalist… or … hold on.” John jumped out of the carriage and, immediately, Lorne was beside him.
“Sire, what are you doing?” he asked, confused. “I thought we were leaving.”
“Oh, we are leaving all right, you’re staying here.” John said as he looked at Lorne. “I want you to help these people, however you can. There is a station with soldiers, less than a day’s trek, if you need something.”
“With all due respect, sire, you can’t do that.”
“Maybe I can’t, but I know you want to.”
“Yes sir,” Lorne smiled slightly. “Thank you.”
“Halling is the one in charge here, just keep that in mind. I will have your belongings sent here in a couple of moons.” John got back into the carriage and Lorne closed the door behind him. “Now, we can go.”
Aracely and Gabriella had watched and grinned. Reacting on pure happiness and instinct, she leaned over and kissed John on the cheek. “Thank you,” she said, before turning back to watch as Lorne went up to Halling, cautiously. Her friend could be quite intimidating when he wanted to be and, eventually, she saw him nod in acceptance. “We can go, if you wish,” she said, watching as the small group walked off, talking – and their herbalist ran out from his shop just as the carriage began to move away from view.
John had blinked when Aracely had kissed him on the cheek, but liked the sensation of it. After she told him she was ready, he gave the command to their carriage driver and felt the familiar sensation of the equipage as they started to move.