The Story So Far: Polly, a princess, an Enchanter, and his apprentice discover they are all are being threatened by a malevolent magical being known as a jadess. Can Polly get along with the arrogant enchanter long enough to figure out how to survive with a jadess after them? Can she avoid embarrassment at court long enough to prevent the jadess from seducing the Rajah? And … what does the jadess want with Polly? Chapter 1 is here.
Chapter 18 C: Better to be Blonde?
Maria and I walked back outside together. Many members of the court came up to me and congratulated me, the ladies and the earls alike, and I blushed a little as they all told me how well I’d fought. Then I felt eyes on my back and turned. It was the Rajah, watching me appreciatively. He seemed as pleased as the others that I had beaten his cousin.
“Want to see the Rajah’s summerhouse?” Maria asked, extracting me from the crowd. I nodded and followed her.
To me, the Rajah was still ‘The Rajah’, though sometimes to his face I called him Rinaldo. He had understood my hesitancy, though, thankfully, had himself started calling me Lady Polly instead. Even a few members of the court had taken it up, if they didn’t call me ‘Tigress’.
The Rajah’s summerhouse was small and modest, but beautiful in a comfortable sort of way. It was higher up, behind Benishada’s manor, on its own little plateau. Its lawn was grassier and less smooth, and here and there in it grew flowers so huge I thought I could sit in them if their stems would hold me up.
When we turned back I saw to my surprise a figure coming towards us. It was Ben-al-Tur.
He bowed deeply. After a moment, I attempted a curtsey, though I was still mad at him.
“I am here to acknowledge your ability in duelling,” he said. “Though I am not sure that skill was entirely your own.”
I was gaping like a fish. People never ceased to amaze me.
“Not my own?”
“Your rapier appeared to be guided by a power other than your own hand,” he said. “Nonetheless…”
I shrugged. Well, if that made him feel better…
I nodded at him. There was a wind in my face up here and it blew back my hair. “Thank you for your, er, admission. Such as it is.”
“But of course,” he said.
He stood staring for several long minutes.
“Lady Maria,” he said finally. “Would you mind? I wish to have a word with Lady Penelope alone.”
Maria nodded and continued on down to the main part of Benishada. What on earth could Ben-al-Tur have to talk about with me alone? I looked questioningly at him.
“In Chaldea, nobles of a certain age are supposed to marry,” he said to me. “I am now of age. My parents suggested I choose a wife from the court when they next visited.”
“Oh,” I said. “Do you want me to introduce you to someone?” Dear me, how much fun it would be to find out he was shy about something. He stood there with such a superior air.
“No,” he said. “Penelope, I want to marry you.”
“What?” I stared.
“I asked you to be my wife,” he said.
“What?” I repeated.
There was no way. We stood about two feet apart, just staring at each other, and I had no idea how to ask him to repeat himself again. Because I couldn’t have heard him right, I couldn’t.
Obviously repeating himself was beneath him. He said nothing either.
Marry him. Marry him.
I looked away over Benishada below, and to the floor of the valley even lower, my mind racing. I had long ago given up all hope of being married, and yet here in front of me was someone offering it to me. But I was in Chaldea, and my first proposal was far, far different than I had imagined.
I could put up with him, and live beyond the wildest dreams of that flower-girl I’d been back in Angaria. Have the whole of Benishada to run around in. Be truly respected as part of the court, and not as an outsider.
“No,” I said finally. “I cannot.” And now to think of an excuse that would not wound his arrogance beyond what he could bear… “I am not from Chaldea, and I do not belong here. But I am honoured by your asking.”
He nodded, though his jaw-line hardened. “You wish to marry my cousin, do you not?”
I could not deny it, since that was what my whole pretence hung on. “Who doesn’t?” I asked gaily. But I felt a bit sick as I ran from him floatingly down the hill.
I did not wish to marry the Rajah either. I did not – I would not say I did not wish to marry anyone, because perhaps I did if the right sort of man asked me. But I had given up on thinking about what the right sort of man would be, since I had given up on being proposed to so long ago. I could not wrap my mind around the fact it had happened now.
“Why are you smiling?” Earl Seanit asked when I reached the bottom. I could not help but laugh.
“I’ve had my first proposal,” I told him. “Gretchen will be happy.”
“Really?” Earl Seanit replied. “I am not surprised.”
“I did not accept, of course,” I said. “But I am surprised. And – happy, I guess, to find out anyone would. Who would propose to me?”
“You undermine yourself,” he said. “It is well-known you are fair-haired, fierce and light-footed in rapiers.”
“Long-nosed,” I added, laughing. “That’s me, Polly Summer, long-nosed and light-footed.”
He did not seem to understand, but he did not ask. Instead he looked at me.
“Why, I would ask you to marry me myself, if I had the nerve to,” he said.
I stared. “Is that a proposal?”
“If you say ‘yes’ it is,” he replied. I was stunned.
“I’m sorry, but it’s ‘no’,” I told him. “I could not live in Chaldea forever.” And then I ran farther down the lawn.
They had both caught me completely off-guard. I was slightly hysterical. Maria caught me and calmed me down; she seemed to somehow have an idea of what happened. Then she got me ready for riding again, for the court was starting off back to Araba.
As I was leaving I saw Ben-al-Tur again, standing with Lady Yasmine, who seemed to be his second choice. She must have said ‘yes’, and they were both blushing and promising to visit soon. I shook my head in wonderment.
Then I mounted up Shenaira (much more easily this time) and we rode down the narrow road from Benishada. I turned to watch it fade into the distance.
An amazing place, but to stay there for long would unnerve me.
Maria rode up front again, and I rode back with Janeira. I liked to look at the backs of the two of them, Maria and the Rajah, Maria in her fantastic hat and beautiful, rippling hair, and the Rajah sitting erect and kingly, his hair dark and glossy in contrast to Maria’s. They laughed together as they rode, and Maria would tease him.
Janeira looked at me. “So, have you enjoyed the ride?”
“Yes,” I replied. Carefully I shifted, so as not to slide right off my horse. “And I liked Benishada. But – well, I feel a little mean today.”
“Why?” she asked.
“I turned down two proposals,” I said. “Don’t you think that’s a little crazy of me? I mean, I was never proposed to in my life before this, and I was – rude enough to refuse them.”
Janeira laughed. “What are you worrying about? You’ll be proposed to again. You’re a novelty: the only blonde at court.”
Oh goodness, maybe that was the explanation. Blondes were a dime a dozen in Angaria.
“You are fortunate, you know,” Janiera added. “You may dangle as many as you like, and choose at your leisure.”
“But isn’t that cruel?” I cried.
She shrugged. “What does it matter about them? You wouldn’t want to be saddled with them for the rest of your life because you felt sorry for them. Pick the one that can give you what you want.”
I squirmed. She had such a blunt way of putting things.
“I can see why you’re shooting for the Rajah, if that’s your philosophy,” I told her. She smiled.
“Yes,” she said. “He has power. He has exactly what a woman wants.”
“Cold-hearted,” I laughed. She arched an eyebrow.
“Cold-hearted, or clever?”
Perhaps it was pragmatic, but I was not sure the Rajah would be happy with her.
But we laughed together, urged our horses forwards, and went racing under the trees back to Araba.