There are many reasons a king might visit a nation. Treaties may be refined, or redesigned altogether; connections may be made, enemies pacified, friendships formed. There is also the matter of simple curiosity, to see the world a woman shaped with words in the imagination of a young boy. For these reasons and many more, Anna does not flatter herself that her former pupil has come to England just to see her.
She has some trouble squashing the fluttering bursts of pride when she learns he put a visit to her before meeting the Queen, and feels unworthy because of it.
Chulalongkorn has grown into a thoughtful, wise man, who wields a smile full of gentle joy, and whose eyes are filled with kindness. In these ways, he is like his father, and Anna mourns the days and hours Mongkut did not share with his son as he learned to rule. Even so, she hears the echo of his voice when Chulalongkorn says, "Tell me of your life here, my teacher."
Anna cannot even begin to sift through the detritus of her days for the bits that may be of interest to a king. Once, she was young and arrogant enough to believe her opinions, her knowledge, were worthwhile for a king, but that king is long gone, and lives only in memory.
Dinner with a monarch requires a level of care with her appearance which she has not taken in some time. She pins a brooch to her collar, smoothes her faded blue skirts, and runs a comb through her hair.
She knows she should not, but she wears the ring Mongkut gave her from the grave, and tells herself it would be impolite to do otherwise. She tells herself many things, in old age, but the hard edge of truth she embraced so sternly when she was younger seems to have worn well away.
The ring on her finger catches the light, a thousand starbursts flashing in the fading sunbeams, dust motes fleeing in their wake.
They dine on quail and vegetables, a practical rather than a lavish meal, and Anna has not seen so many attendants and faithful servants in many years.
"You wore the ring, I see." Chulalongkorn nods toward her hand as he gestures for more wine, and she smiles.
"Yes. It is a lavish gift," she adds, unable to help herself; her life was never austere, but there was always an order to things. The heavy gold on her finger is a symbol of both her success in preserving that order, and her failure to accept it.
"A sentimental one, perhaps," Chulalongkorn says, smiling, "but then my father was rarely sentimental."
"True enough. Sentimentality serves little purpose when one has lived a long and full life."
It is another of those things she tells herself, but it is not even a half truth. Chulalongkorn can never know that the ring brings to mind the memory of his father's eyes in moonlight, and the sound of the sea behind.
"One can afford sentiment, if one has paid the price." Chulalongkorn's expression turns serious, and she looks away, because this is the man who rules his people, not the boy who once asked difficult questions. Yet still she sees the boy, and hears the questions.
Tell me of freedom, my teacher. Tell me of wisdom.
Tell me of love.
In the depths of Anna's past, someone once told her that she must not just be a teacher, a widow, a scholar. This is why she keeps her secrets in the carved wooden box hidden deep in the credenza. A gold button takes up one corner, taken from a dress she wore only once, when she danced with a king. Nestled next to the button, a dried flower which was once a white blossom, worn in the hair of a girl who mourned her love. A piece of purple cloth fills the empty spaces of the box, a parting gift from a woman who was not a queen, but only a wife. It shelters a drawing of a couple dancing, made by tiny, fragile hands.
They are but tokens of a world left behind, remnants of a moment in an unsentimental woman's life.
It is raining when the car comes to take her home. She closes her eyes and the rain becomes the sound of another language, flowing like music over the open wound of a broken heart. The scent of the rain is of green grass in spring; the lightning is the bright laughter of children.
The wind curls around her, driving the storm ahead of it, and then it is gone.