On Ella and Char's first official state visit to Ayortha after King Jerrold's death and King Char's crowning, I didn't expect to see them for more than a brief night's stopover. What would keep them in Amonta, after all, when the politics happen in the capital?
Ella had written me a kind letter informing me of their travels and expressing her hope that she'd be able to spend time with me, but given how hurriedly the short letter was obviously written I didn't really believe her. There'd be time enough for more visiting once their reign was a little longer established.
I had hardly seen Ella since her wedding, several years back. No matter how much we cared about each other, I was busy helping with the inn and she was busy doing politics. It's a long journey between our homes, one that neither of us could often afford to take time for, though we tried our best. I loved receiving her letters, but I missed her nonetheless.
So imagine my surprise when the royal carriage and associated entourage pulled up at my family's inn with an announcement that they were staying for two nights!
Ella, always irrepressible, sprang lightly from her carriage as soon as the door was opened. Char followed, in a more consciously stately manner but still with a smile on his face.
My parents and I bowed. But as soon as I had straightened, Ella swept me into a hug. I grinned and hugged her back, delighted to see her again.
"Thank you for your hospitality," Char was saying to my parents, who were blushingly disclaiming it being any bother. Ella laughed quietly in my ear.
That evening after dinner, when I went as usual to help with the washing-up, my aunt barred me from the kitchen and told me to go spend time with Ella and Char instead. "It's good to cultivate connections to royalty!" she said, in a tone that left no space for argument.
Since all I really wanted to do was spend time with them, I had no arguments to make. I left.
They were still in the dining room, Ella smilingly saying no to Char – I arrived too late to have heard what she was refuting.
They both turned when they heard me walk in. "Oh, Areida!" Char said. "You're just in time. I was suggesting to Ella that we should go on a walk to the waterfall I'm told is upriver, and she doesn't think it would be worth the time. You've been there, I'm sure. What do you think?"
It was in fact my favourite place to visit when I had the time, but reflexively I answered as I would to any guest at the inn: "The waterfall is one of many locations of natural beauty Amonta has to offer. But it's surprisingly easy to get lost along the way, since you can't just walk along the river gorge. Our inn is happy to offer a guiding service...." My last words trailed off as I remembered who I was talking to.
Ella gave me a knowing look. "You've clearly grown comfortable working here," she said. "So did it help, going to finishing school?"
"Oh, not really." I pulled out a chair and sat down to join them. "Mother used the inn as an excuse to Father and Auntie that it would be worth spending the money, but –" I flicked a glance between Ella and Char "– really they all hoped I could catch a noble husband with my new graces."
"Oh dear," Ella said.
I waved a hand. "It's not so bad. It's only that we don't get many eligible nobles coming through here. Hard to catch a noble husband when there's none around to catch, and it disappoints Mother and Father and Auntie so. It's too bad you already caught Char with your graces," I added.
Char looked highly amused at this thought. Ella laughed outright. "Did I ever tell you of the time we went sliding down stair-rails at my father's wedding?" she said.
"Finishing school graces were definitely not what attracted me to her," Char agreed.
"There we go," I said, leaning back in my chair. "Finishing school was wasted on both of us."
We didn't end up going for a walk to the waterfall that evening – we were enjoying our conversation so much that it got too late to go before we thought of it again.
But I went to bed that night happy and smiling. I'd forgotten just how much I enjoyed Ella's company, and Char was turning out to be charming too. I could see why Ella liked him.
The next morning, though, Ella came searching me out after breakfast to suggest the waterfall excursion be attempted after all.
My schedule had me cleaning newly-emptied rooms in the inn, but Mother shooed me out the door with Ella and Char, saying that of course they could manage without me for one day.
It was a beautiful day for a walk, sunny and remarkably mild. It was still early spring, so the trees were not yet in leaf, but a pale green haze covered them and spring flowers were blooming exuberantly on the forest floor. We weren't the only ones out enjoying the day, and we greeted several people I knew as we walked along.
I knew the route to the waterfall well, so I led Ella and Char with confidence through the unmarked woods. We didn't talk much at first, just enjoyed the stretch of our muscles and the loveliness of the day.
As our route took us further along, the river gorge finally came into view. It was a stunning sight, high cliffs with dashing water far below. The waterfall was audible in the distance, just around a bend in the river. Ella said, with a sly sidelong look at Char, "Areida was right about this walk being worth it."
"Ah yes, it was all Areida's idea, of course."
"I'm happy to take credit," I said. "I love it here. Isn't it the most beautiful place you've ever seen?"
Ella and Char paused in walking, looking awkwardly at each other. Oh, right. They were wealthy, and royalty, and had travelled all over. They'd probably seen all kinds of astonishing sights. Meanwhile, other than finishing school in Jenn, the only time I'd left Amonta was for a brief but exciting trip to the capital as a child. "Never mind," I said hastily.
"It truly is beautiful," said Char, and he sounded like he meant it.
I decided not to ask what places they'd seen that were even more beautiful. I would never see them, so I had to be content with my river.
"Come on," I said, "just a bit farther to see the falls."
The falls were wonderful as always, and Ella and Char made the appropriate oohs and ahhs. But somehow the moment was spoiled for me, and I could see in their faces that they could tell.
I loved Amonta, and it felt strange to be reminded of how much else there was in the world beyond it.
It started raining on our walk back to the inn, cold and penetrating and persistent. None of us had brought our cloaks, and we were thoroughly chilled by the time we walked in the front door. Father immediately descended upon us, offering hot drinks and dry clothes and a well-stoked fire to sit by.
It was just the three of us in a small sitting room when we were finally settled. My mug of cocoa felt blazing as I sipped it, leaning in close to the fire's warmth.
"I'm sorry," Ella said.
"No," I said, "It's my fault. I made things awkward."
"I keep forgetting that not everybody has the same opportunities as me," she said, staring into the fire. She put a hand on Char's knee and he folded his hand over hers. "It's wonderful for me, of course, but I never even thought to ask if you wanted anything more than what you have."
"I'm happy though," I said, a little surprised. Yes, I had some regrets, some wishes, but I did love my family and my inn and my city. Looking toward my future, what I saw was comfortable pleasure as I grew older and more settled here. Perhaps I would get married, perhaps not. Perhaps I would find a way to travel and see more of the world, perhaps not. But there was satisfying work, and people to love, and my beautiful river. "I wouldn't want your life."
That startled a laugh out of Ella. "Well, good, because you can't have it!" She paused, then turned from the fire to look right at me. "I haven't asked before because I didn't want to steal you from your life. But I would love to hire you as a lady-in-waiting, you know. It would be wonderful to have you around all the time. And you would get to see more of the world, if that's what you want."
I was shocked. Somehow I'd never imagined such an offer, though I knew Ella had power these days to arrange her life as she liked. "I really don't know," I said slowly. "I miss you when we're apart, but I'd miss my life in Amonta if I left." I looked down into my cocoa, at the wisps of steam still drifting off it.
"You don't have to decide right away, of course," Ella said. "Think about it."
I thought about it. I thought about it for the rest of the day, I thought about it when I went to bed that night, I thought about it in the morning as I said farewell to Ella and Char when they departed for their trip to the capital.
It didn't have to be a permanent decision. Ella said that I could be a lady-in-waiting for however long I wanted. I could join in her adventures for a time and then come back home to settle down, or I could stay with her the rest of our lives.
My family could manage the inn without me; I had enough cousins and siblings who could step up to a little more responsibility, though I was the oldest. Mother and Father and Auntie would certainly encourage me to go.
It was a strange thought. I had grown up knowing that my whole life would revolve around the family inn. What to do with the sudden knowledge that I had other options?
I didn't have to decide right away. I could think about it until that knowledge felt comfortable.
But somehow I thought I would be sending Ella a letter soon that would say "Yes."