Chapter Ten: The Reluctant Ruler
During the next few days, while the princess began to learn how to become the ruler her father’s kingdom needed while he was gone, I did my best to help her with her burden.
I stopped my lessons from William, even though he had not been taken with the other men, mostly so I could be closer to Chrystal in case she needed me, but partially because it made me miss my brother more when I was near William. He reminded me so much of Malcolm that it pained me to watch him being happy and carefree while my brother was in constant danger. I hated myself for it, but I felt angry with William for being chosen as one of the men to remain behind. It was not even his fault…but I blamed him for obeying the order to stay. I tried my best to avoid him as much as possible, foolishly thinking that it would help. Of course, it did not, but I made myself believe that it would all the same.
One afternoon, about three weeks after the men had left, I found the princess sitting alone out on her balcony. The wind was playing with a few strands of hair, which refused to stay in her bun. Tears had made small rivers down the side of her face, and she looked miserable.
I came up behind her, my dress swishing against the stone floors, and she turned when she heard me approaching. “What’s wrong?” I asked softly.
“Me,” she answered bitterly. “I’m wrong.”
The answer took me by surprise. “Why do you say that?”
A sob tore from the princess’s throat, and fresh tears began flowing down her cheeks. “I’m a horrible ruler!” she wept. “I simply can’t do it anymore. I need someone else to take over. I am spent. Father did not know what he was asking me to do. He should have found someone else who could shoulder the responsibility better. Someone who could always know how to deal with all the people properly…someone who is a great deal wiser than me.”
I waited until Chrystal had finished. Obviously, she needed someone to release her emotions on, and frankly, I did not mind enduring the most of it. Part of me could understand—even feel to some extent—what she was going through.
During the pause she took to take a breath I said, “I don’t see why you think you’re such a horrible ruler. You’ve been doing a fine job in my opinion.”
Chrystal searched my face. “You really think that?”
I nodded confidently. “Most definitely!”
“But this morning, when I tried my hand at settling a dispute, William Price came up to me afterward and told me that I hadn’t made the right decision! He tried to explain, but it all went over my head. Then,” the princess’s breath caught, and a few more tears made their way onto her folded hands, “he gave me such a scolding…I’m not likely to forget it in a long time.” Chrystal looked up at me with pain-filled eyes. “I felt so humiliated, Meg. As he spoke to me, I almost wished the ground would open up and swallow me.”
As I heard her story, I felt my insides boiling in anger at William’s act. How dare he be so presumptuous towards the princess? How dare he tell her what to do as though he would make a better ruler than she whom the king himself had appointed? How dare he make her feel so ashamed of herself?
When Chrystal finished her woebegone tale, I spoke. “Chrystal, I shall go talk to this William and tell him exactly what I think of his actions. Do not let them worry you again. I doubt that they will be repeated after I’m through.”
The princess gave me such a look of gratefulness; I felt repaid right there for the trouble William was sure to give me later. “I can’t thank you enough, Meg!” she said with a smile. “But please, don’t be too hard on him, he was only trying to help…I don’t think he realized that he would hurt my feelings as deeply as he did.”
I grunted doubtfully, and stood to go right then, but the princess detained me a little longer. “I wish my father had put you on the throne instead of me,” she began wistfully. “You seem so good at telling people what to do.”
There was a moment of silence. I was not sure whether the princess had meant that last remark as a compliment or as a subtle hint that I was being too rash in my decision to chastise William. I tried to come up with something vague as my answer, but nothing came.
With a startled look, Chrystal seemed to realize how that statement must have come across. “I-I’m so sorry!” she gasped. “I didn’t mean to—that came out wrong. I am so sorry. I meant that you would make a much better ruler than me. Ordering people around comes so much more naturally to you—” She covered her face with her hands. “I’m only making it worse, aren’t I?”
I chuckled. “Never mind. I know what you’re trying to say, and that’s what matters, right?”
The tension melted and I left the princess in a much better mood than when I found her. I, however, was glowering darkly by the time the door to her chambers shut behind me. William was going to get an earful…if only I knew where to find him.
* * * * *
After a great deal of wandering around the castle and the grounds, and asking people if they had seen him go by, I found William practicing his sword with someone I didn’t recognize. I waited until the other person left before approaching him.
“Megan?” he asked in puzzled concern as I came closer. “Are you all right?”
My glower deepened…if that could have even been possible. “I’m fine,” I answered. “It’s the princess I came to talk to you about.”
Worry sprang into his eyes. “Is she sick? Does she need a doctor? Should I ride to the king?”
I shook my head. “Nothing like that. I want to talk to you about your conversation with her this morning.”
Relief that nothing was wrong flooded back across William’s face, and he broke into his smile that reminded me so painfully of my brother. I was annoyed to find my anger cooling…even disappearing slowly.
Before I lost it altogether, I demanded, “Well? Have you anything to say in your defense against her accusation?”
The puzzled look came back again. “Her accusation?”
“I was told that you not only pretended to be a better ruler than her, but also humiliated her and wounded her feelings. Is that true?”
“I did give her my opinion this morning after the Devin versus Filer trial was brought before her. And I do vaguely recall giving her advice lest the same thing ever happened again,” an annoyed edge appeared in William’s voice, and his face lost its smile. “Was I wrong in that?”
I braced myself. “You were certainly wrong in humiliating her,” I replied.
“I did most certainly not humiliate her,” William answered hotly.
“Now you’re practically calling the princess a liar!” I declared triumphantly.
William, though smoldering, brought me non-to-gently away from where we were currently attracting attention. “Let me set my side of the story before you…then you might not judge my advice to the princess as lightly as you do now.”
He sat me down on a near-by bench and began: “Before King Frederick left, he asked me a favor…to give his daughter advice on how to take care of court matters whenever I could, knowing that was one thing you would be incapable of...no offense to you Meg, but that’s what he said. Since I had spent a great deal of time near Malcolm and taught swordsmanship to several of his chief advisors, he knew how well I understood the court and its systems. I began attending court a few weeks before he was to leave so I would understand it even more. Since then, I have been keeping an eye on the princess and her dealings in the court.
“This morning, a case came before her that was two men fighting over the boundary of their lands. One accused the other of purposely letting his flocks graze on his fields that his own sheep desperately needed. The other man claimed that he had fallen asleep while watching his flocks, and that they had wandered off while…pay attention to me Megan, I’m trying to explain why I was giving advice to the princess!” This exclamation jerked me away from the squirrel I had been watching run back and forth between two trees.
I looked indignantly at my teacher. “I was!”
William’s good-humor, ever near the surface, appeared, and he chuckled. “It looked like you were watching that squirrel.”
My mouth twitched, but I pressed my lips together to suppress the urge to smile and merely replied, “I can listen while watching something else, you know.”
“Very well,” William answered, his smile fading again. “Let me continue: The other man claimed that after he had fallen asleep, the sheep had wandered off into the other man’s land. After hearing each of their stories, the princess decided that the first man, Devin was his last name, was being greedy with his land, and should therefore share with the other man, whose last name was Filer.”
Here William’s voice became softer, less like stating the facts of a trial and more like he knew these men and wanted to help them. “What the princess didn’t know, and it was here where she erred, was that Devin is a poor farmer with half the amount of land and sheep that his neighbor Filer has. Filer, though also moderately poor, was considerably better off then Devin and therefore should have been the one to apologize and pay for any damage his sheep did to Devin’s fields.
“I tried to explain this to the princess, but she didn’t seem to be taking me seriously so I began telling her the seriousness of her position and how great a ruler’s responsibility is.” William sighed and ran a hand through his hair. “I wasn’t trying to humiliate her,” he finished. “Or hurt her feelings. I was only trying to help.”
My anger had long since cooled. I rose, cordially offered my hand to William and apologized like the lady I was trying so hard to become. “I understand now,” I said, “and I will tell the princess that you meant no harm.”
William smiled, I guess he was glad to see me not angry with him anymore, but shook his head. “I’ll come with you and apologize to her like a man,” he answered. “I truly didn’t mean to offend.”
“She’ll appreciate it,” I replied.
Therefore, our friendship was patched only hours after it had been torn. For the first time in three weeks, I slept all night…and my deep sleep was scattered with beautiful dreams of days before war.