Outside, there were tapestries and bouquets hung on lamp posts, fences, and walls. The decorations matched those hung inside of the castle, making use of the same colors and flowers, but they were clearly put up by the people rather than the castle servants. The girls wore flower garlands atop their heads and the men wore flowers pinned to their shirts and jackets. None of the flowers looked to be carefully selected and maintained. They were the same carefree flowers growing out in the fields they passed on their way in, coloring the green expanses and peeking up between the trees of the forests. They were woven together to create bands and chains of no particular order or assortment. Even the tapestries and drapes did not seem to be carefully placed. They were hung in odd places, sometimes just thrown over a low fence, draped over a wall and secured in place with a few rocks to keep them from sliding off. This showed none of the careful, meticulous planning of any Gavelon event the castle had hosted. The festival had the same impression of something one of Gavelon’s smaller villages would throw for themselves. Certainly not something the royal family would arrange.
They walked the dusty roads, smiling faces greeting them as they passed. Lilita took them to the town square, an open space, though not particularly large, bordered by buildings and a number of roads that all seemed to intersect in this one spot.
The square was busy, the people brimming with excitement and engaged in last minute preparations. Some people were hurrying around with decorations and baskets of sweets while others were crowded together in groups, talking and laughing. No matter what they were doing, everyone looked to be enjoying themselves rather than working and going about their normal routines. Shops were closed, or their doors were open with no one doing any actual work. It appeared as if most shopkeepers and craftsmen had small tables or blankets laid out around the square that were acting in place of the shops.
“The festival will not begin for another hour, if you would like to look around,” Lilita said, holding none of the excitement of the people surrounding her. Either she was not thrilled about the festival, or she was simply not thrilled with the way she would be spending it this year, entertaining and escorting her foreign guests.
“I did see a merchant set up whose wares I would like to take a closer look at,” Frieda said, awaiting any opposition.
“Let us have a look then,” Penrod said. He followed Frieda across the square to whatever table she had an eye on.
“Is there anything you would like to see?” Lilita asked Wilhelm and Ehren.
“Are any of your blacksmiths even open during this festival?” Ehren asked, the question drenched in disdain and disapproval.
“The court blacksmith is given time off to enjoy the festival, so long as his duties are completed, but there are three other blacksmiths that operate during the events,” Lilita answered. Her voice gave nothing away. She did not sound defensive nor insulted, no disapproval was returned to Ehren in her response.
“And where might I find these blacksmiths?”
“There is one in the square, there,” Lilita pointed to a shop that erupted with laughter from inside at the same moment. “The other two are down this path,” she pointed in the opposite direction. “They are easy to spot, I am sure you will have no trouble locating them.”
Ehren, not wanting to give his thanks or offer his approval for the information, curled his lip and set off down the path in search of the blacksmiths. Maybe it was the desire to get away from Lilita and the square, or perhaps the laughter from within the first smithy turned him off of going there first.
“Is there anywhere you would like to visit?” Lilita asked Wilhelm. They were left standing alone together in the busy square.
Wilhelm was caught a bit off guard. Nothing had caught his attention in particular. He had already seen the work of the blacksmith employed in the castle. Surely that was the best the country had to offer. He tried to think what else he could possibly be interested in viewing.
“What would you recommend?” he asked.
Lilita paused. She did not expect this response. “It may not be to your liking,” she began, “but there is a confectioner here that makes the finest chocolates in all of Preyos.”
Wilhelm raised his brows at the statement. “That is a bold claim to make.” Surely there were better confectioners elsewhere in the continent, many of which he imagined she had not even heard of.
“Perhaps I am muddled with bias, but I have sampled sweets imported from all across Preyos and never have I tasted anything so nice as these.”
“I should like to try them, then.” Wilhelm may have had little interest in sweets, but he was trying to find some common ground, some interest of hers to at least entertain to get to know her better.
Lilita looked him over, searching his face for a sign of mockery. When she found none, she turned and walked toward the confectioner’s shop. Wilhelm followed close behind, not wishing to be lost in the sea of people that were flooding into the square. As everyone was finishing their preparations, they were beginning to gather in the square, making navigating the space more difficult with every passing minute.
Lilita brought him to a small shack at the end of a narrow, uneven path. The building’s roof was sagging and the walls were painted a bright shade of pink that did nothing to disguise all the cracks, the shutters a similar tone of green. Smoke billowed out of the narrow chimney protruding from the roof. Inside, the shop was crowded with counters covered with sweets.
The moment the shopkeeper noticed Lilita, she froze and her face lit up.
“Princess Lilita,” the older woman exclaimed. “I am so pleased to see you again.”
The woman grasped Lilita’s shoulders before pinching her chin affectionately between her thumb and forefinger. Her eye caught on Wilhelm standing beside them. “And you have brought a friend.”
“This is Wilhelm von Lederstein, prince of the Gavelon Empire,” Lilita said.
The woman drew in a breath before remembering herself and dropping her hands from Lilita. “Welcome to my shop, Prince Wilhelm.”
“He would like to sample your chocolates,” Lilita said, not giving Wilhelm the chance to return the greeting.
“Of course,” the woman said. “I’ll gather some of my finest.” Her eyes were wide with wonder. Wilhelm did not think she looked pleased about his visit, but she was being inviting enough that he did not dwell on the thought for long.
The woman hurried into the back of the shop, out of sight. Wilhelm looked to Lilita who did not appear at all bothered by the curious behavior. Wilhelm decided he was just not used to the way people in Lelonia behaved around one another, so casually, and let the matter go. This was an odd place, he decided. Not unpleasant. Just odd.
“Here we are,” the woman said, returning from the back with quick steps and a small box in her hand. She presented the box to Wilhelm.
“Thank you,” he said, trying to read the woman who was now smiling brightly at him, observing him just as closely. “How much?” he asked.
“Oh I put about half a dozen assorted chocolates in. Was not too sure which flavors you’d prefer, so I got together a bit of a variety.”
Wilhelm looked at her with wonder, shot a quick glance over to Lilita, then back to the woman.
Her expression wavered as she realized her mistake. “Oh, so sorry. You meant the price. No charge for those.”
“Ma’am, I insist. This is your livelihood. I would like to pay you for them.”
“No sir, not during the festival, and certainly not for such an esteemed guest of our princess.” The woman was clearly not going to take any protest into consideration. Wilhelm was getting the chocolates for free. Surely he could not complain at such a gift, but even in Gavelon he was expected to pay some price for the things he purchased, even if they were at a lower cost than the shopkeepers would have charged another person for them.
“Thank you, ma’am. I am sure they will be as fine as Princess Lilita has claimed they are.”
“Oh, such a sweet girl, talking up my sweets to a prince.”
“Thank you, again, for the kindness.”
“No trouble at all. Enjoy the festival you two.” The woman waved them off as they returned toward the busy streets.
“The people here are generous,” Wilhelm said, trying to break the tension between them.
“They are, indeed. Or perhaps they have heard stories about you and fear your wrath.”
Wilhelm stopped. He looked at her, his face questioning.
“I only joke,” Lilita said, turning back to him when she noticed he was no longer following.
“I wish to be respected for more than my title,” he said.
“And one day you may be. But for now, you are only a title to these people. They do not know you. And they know better than to invoke the wrath of someone they do not understand.”
“Whom do you speak of?”
“What?” Lilita did not understand what he was asking about.
“Whom have these people angered due to misunderstanding?”
Lilita realized what she had said. “No one,” she said dismissively. “They are a kind people. Never wishing to upset anyone, especially on first impression. That is all.”
Wilhelm followed Lilita through the village roads. They took a different, more leisurely route back the to square, avoiding some of the crowds. There was something comforting about walking around outside in the village where the pathways made sense. They were not entirely straight, but they were not twisted and confusing as the castle passages had been.
As they walked, Wilhelm opened the box he was carrying. He was not sure what each chocolate was, but he was certain the woman was not lying in telling him she put together a variety.Each one was clearly different. Different shapes, different colors. “Which do you recommend,” Wilhelm said.
Lilita glanced into the box and pointed to a dark, round one. “This. It is my favorite.”
Wilhelm took the chocolate she recommended and tried it. The center was soft and sweet, lightly flavored with berry, a perfect match to the bold flavor of the hard, thin chocolate shell surrounding it. “That is quite good,” he admitted, surprised at the flavor such a small treat held.
Lilita said nothing, but her eyes gave away her pleasure in seeing him enjoy the chocolate. “Would you like one?” Wilhelm asked, tilting the box toward her.
She hesitated before refusing. “Keep them. I have tried each of those flavors. Enjoy them for yourself.”
Wilhelm closed up the box, saving the remaining chocolates for later.
“The opening ceremony should be starting at any moment,” Lilita said as they arrived at the square, now packed with villagers.
Everyone in the village had gathered together for the beginning of the festival. Wilhelm wondered if every event would be this congested. He searched the crowd for familiar faces, but came up with none. After the generosity he had experienced, he had little concern for the safety of his family.
A pleasant horn sounded from somewhere within the mass of people as they found a place in the crowd. The king emerged just above the heads of everyone else. Nikolai stood tall and proud as the center of attention.
“Thank you all for your labors this harvest season. It was a good year for our crops and a fine year for our people. We have some special guests with us this year. I trust you will be accommodating in showing them how we in Lelonia like to celebrate. Now, I will not keep you. There are many events in store and much to feast upon. Good people of Lelonia, enjoy the celebration.”
The crowd erupted into applause and cheers as the king stepped down from whatever platform he was stood upon. Such a short speech for such a large gathering. Wilhelm had expected something else to happen, but the crowd began to clear out as soon as the cheering died down. Wilhelm tried once more to spot his family, but there were still far too many people to locate anyone in such a crowd.
“Shall we head to the feast?” Lilita asked.
“I should find my parents,” Wilhelm replied.
“We’ll never find them here. Everyone is headed to the same place now. They will find their way.”
Wilhelm hesitated, looking around once more, knowing it was useless. He ultimately could not deny his parents’ competence, nor that of his uncle, and knew they would follow the crowd to the feast should anyone not find them first and tell them the way. Either way, they would make it there without him.
Wilhelm followed closely behind Lilita, trying not to get swept away in the crowd. He was thankful that she had migrated to the edge of the road and they were able to emerge from the river of people travelling closely together down it. They walked on the grass between the buildings and the dirt path, Lilita only looking behind to see that Wilhelm made it out with her.
“Where are we going?” Wilhelm asked, still not sure what was going to happen during the festival.
“There is a field between the village and the forest. It has been laid out with tables and food. We gather there for the feast. Then the fun begins.”
It was the first time he had seen her truly smile. Though for a moment, she seemed happy, Wilhelm could not shake the feeling that there was something mysterious about her, some secret she keeping. He could not figure her out.
At the side of the road, everyone veered off to pass between two buildings. At the end of the narrow alleyway, the green expanse had been filled with long wooden tables flanked by matching benches. All of the tables were covered with platters of food and pitchers of drink.
They had stopped for a moment while Wilhelm looked over the field. Lilita was less impressed with the sight. She had seen this field decorated in a similar fashion every year for her entire life. When they began walking again, Wilhelm noticed Lilita turning around suddenly. Someone had grabbed her shoulder. A woman.
Wilhelm started forward, assuming her to be a potential threat, but as Lilita turned around to face the woman who had grabbed her, she smiled.
“Zofia,” Lilita said, a warmth lighting up her face.
“Apologies if I startled you, princess,” the woman said.
“No need. I think you startled him more,” Lilita tilted her head toward Wilhelm, a surprised expression still on his face.
“I thought she was…” Wilhelm began, but he was not entirely sure what he thought. He just knew that something was happening to Lilita and he reacted instinctively.
“An attacker?” the woman finished for him, teasing in her voice. She smiled, placing a gentle hand on Lilita’s shoulder and said, “I could never intentionally harm this girl.”
They shared a look, soft and friendly. They had either known each other for a long time, or knew each other well enough that it may as well have been a long time.
“I did not-” Wilhelm started, but he did.
“Zofia, this is Wilhelm von Lederstein,” Lilita said.
Zofia’s brows raised as her mouth drew down. She had heard of him, and did not look disappointed at the sight of him so much as she looked surprised to find him alone with Lilita.
“A pleasure to meet you, sire,” Zofia said, bowing her head politely.
“Wilhelm, this is my friend, Zofia.”
“Pleased to meet you,” Wilhelm gave an equally polite, yet smaller, nod to Zofia.
“You are heading to the feast together?” Zofia asked. “I will not keep you. Sorry to have startled you.”
“You did not startle me,” Wilhelm insisted, though neither Zofia nor Lilita believed that.
“I only wanted to say hello to you princess. I hope to see you later when you have a moment to spare?” Zofia’s amusement waned as she awaited the princess’s answer.
Lilita froze before she returned to her cordial self and responded, “of course. I will stop by after the feast.”
Zofia squeezed Lilita’s shoulder once more, then glanced at Wilhelm before disappearing into the crowd, still flowing onto the field.
Lilita continued walking to the feast, not explaining Zofia any further. She did not explain the woman’s words or the tension that held between them either.
Wilhelm tried to ignore the interaction. He told himself it was none of his business. He had only just met Lilita, he had no place passing judgement on her acquaintances. No reason to discourage her from seeing Zofia later, even though the exchange gave him an uneasy feeling. Then that feeling sank into his stomach and twisted itself around until he could no longer ignore it. Before they reached the tables, Wilhelm had to ask. “That woman is a friend of yours?”
Lilita looked at Wilhelm, trying to understand his question. She had already forgotten the curiosity of the conversation, or at least tried to.
“Zofia? Yes. I have known her for some time now.”
“And you will see her later?”
“Yes, she asked me to.”
“Do you want to see her?”
Lilita looked puzzled. “Do you not approve of where I place my friendships?”
“I only meant that, you did not seem pleased about agreeing to see her.”
“And how would you know how I seem? You have hardly been here for two days’ time.”
“I’m sorry. You are right. I did not meant to insult you. I was only concerned.”
“Well you’ve no reason to be. Now, let us enjoy the feast.”
The food was plentiful and even more delicious than the feast Wilhelm was greeted with the evening of his arrival in Lelonia. Most of the food was easy enough to identify. Freshly harvested fruits and vegetables filled wooden bowls and adorned the platters of meats. No one was shy about grabbing more food to add to their already overflowing plates. Many people spoke and laughed with one another across the tables, everyone appearing to be old friends. Wilhelm was not sure if any of these people were actually friends or if that was merely the nature of the celebration, coming together to enjoy the result of all their hard work before preparing for the colder seasons.
After everyone was filled with food and continued filling the rest of the space in their bellies with wine, the food on the table looked as if it had hardly been touched. Barely a dent was made in the food, but the talking and laughter had not stopped with the feasting.
“Your parents seem to be enjoying themselves,” Lilita said.
They had been sitting together in awkward silence, neither knowing what topics to bring up, which questions to ask or stories to tell. Even though he had been looking around, observing the many people surrounding them, Wilhelm had not located his parents. He followed Lilita’s gaze to them. They were laughing alongside one another. Even Ehren appeared to be enjoying himself, or at least he was scowling less. Across from them, Lilita’s parents were laughing as usual, King Nikolai telling a story to those seated around him.
“Perhaps we should go over,” Wilhelm suggested, wishing to join a group that would encourage conversation, if not supplement it entirely.
“You should. I have someone else to speak with first.”
Wilhelm knew instantly where she was planning to go.
“I will go with you,” Wilhelm suggested.
“That is not necessary.”
“This visit is for us to get to know one another,” Wilhelm said, harnessing his mother’s convincing manners as best he could. “I think it would benefit us to become acquainted with each other’s friends.”
Lilita stared at him, about to say something else to protest, then deciding better of it. “Fine. You may accompany me.”
Wilhelm felt pleased at his victory, as small as it was. He was uneasy about Zofia. She did not seem the type of person the princess should be associating with, although he was not entirely sure what type of person she was. He simply did not like the feeling she gave him and if she were a danger to Lilita, he thought at least he could keep them from being alone together.