You know what doesn’t make sense? This story, unless you’ve read the others in the series:
Other stories referenced but not critical to your understanding:
Now, where were we? Para Sympan, Middle Ages, Northwestern Europe, another totally legit, historically accurate, not made-up, kingdom called Kaltehafen. Ah yes, here we go:
“How’s the swamp?” Eda smirked.
It was spring. The air was finally warming and the forest was ablaze with colorful wildflowers. Despite this, Alexander had locked himself in his house and plugged every opening with old rags. If Eda hadn’t materialized in the middle of the room, she would never have gotten in.
The swamp was infested with bees.
“It’s… um… very pretty,” he answered forcing a smile. He picked up a piece of bark and scraped a stinger out of his arm. “Lots of flowers and um… lots of bees.”
“Found any gold yet?” She asked, her smirk broadening.
He shook his head.
She looked at the swelling sting on his arm. “It seems to me, it found you.” She glanced around the room. “You really should get some more candles, Your Majesty. It’s dark in here.”
“I wish you wouldn’t speak in riddles,” Alexander commented.
Eda looked offended. “Why do you always assume I am speaking in riddles?”
“Can I get you something?” Alexander sighed. He didn’t know whether or not fairies needed to eat like humans, but thought it polite to offer. “I don’t have much left, um… I have some bread, it’s a bit stale though.”
Eda took a seat on an old crate. (Alexander didn’t have any chairs.) “Stale bread isn’t so bad if you put a little honey on it.”
Alexander raised an eyebrow. Why would she think he had honey? Peasants didn’t have honey. It was rare and expensive. His mouth fell open.
“Why, Alexander,” Eda said. “You look as if you’ve just solved a riddle! It’s about time, that was excruciating.”
Alexander had no idea how to extract the honey from the bee hives, but Eda promised she would send someone to help him. The next day, a band of lost friars knocked on his door. They’d come to ask for directions, but when they saw bee hives they started jumping up and down and singing Te Deums.
The friars were destined for a nearby monastery, and when they arrived there, they told their fellows about the wonderful discovery in Alexander’s swamp. All through the summer, they came and went, first showing Alexander how to extract the honey, and then showing him how to make candles and soaps out of beeswax.
Alexander would load a cart with these items periodically and take them into the city to sell. The local merchants noticed that he was fair and straightforward and the friars loved him for his diligence. He was a new and exciting face. The townsfolk spoke of him frequently, commenting on his knowledge, generosity, and manners.
As Alika promised, his reputation flourished. He became known in the city as Alexander the Greek. He tried to correct this at first, but soon realized that most of the townsfolk were uneducated. He doubted any of them could find Kalathea on a map.
When the bees returned the second year, Alexander was prepared for them. His skills improved, he sold more, he gained more confidence. When he needed help, he went to visit the friars. He made a decent living for himself and decided to use some of his earnings to take up painting again.
When he was a prince, this was his favorite pastime. He spent the winter mixing colors by candlelight. His art was mostly the faces of the saints, but now and then he diverged, immortalizing the faces of other people. He started to paint his parents, but had to imagine how his mother looked, since she died when he was a baby. When he realized she probably looked like Fausta, he left that painting unfinished.
The third year came and went and Alexander realized that he was comfortable and content. He never imagined becoming a candlemaker, but it was certainly better than being a king. Still, he had a hole in his heart. He was respected by everyone but did not have any true friends. Not a soul knew who he really was and keeping that secret made him feel isolated.
On a cold afternoon during the fourth Autumn, Alexander pushed his cart along the road to the city. It was to be his last load that year. The sky was heavy with grey clouds and he prayed it wouldn’t snow until he returned home.
He suddenly heard hooves thundering behind him.
“STOP!” A woman cried.
Alexander dropped the cart and swung around in alarm. Two riders halted before him. The first was a woman of royal blood, adorned in colorful raiment and jewelry. A crown circled her head, atop her white veil. The second was a mountain of a warrior, likely the woman’s guard.
Alexander bowed respectfully.
“Are you Alexander the Greek?” She demanded.
“I am,” he answered.
“Excellent! Egbert grab him,” she ordered.
“Sorry, what—” Before Alexander could finish speaking, the warrior rode up behind him, grabbed him by the shoulder, lifted him onto his horse, and sent the animal charging forward.
“Who are you? What is the meaning of this?” Alexander demanded.
“I am Princess Ilona!” She cried galloping after him. “Sister of King Florian of North Kaltehafen and King Flibert of the South! I require your services!”
“I am a free citizen!” Alexander protested. “And I demand you stop immediately and explain yourself!”
Ilona laughed. “Citizen? How like a Greek!”
“I am a Kalathean!” Alexander retorted indignantly.
“Same thing!” She returned.
“No! Not remotely!” Alexander snapped. “I thought a lady of your status would know that! I forget you’re still a barbarian.”
She slowed her horse a bit so she was riding parallel to Egbert and looked at Alexander with a devilish grin.
“That’s exactly what a Greek would say!”
Alexander’s mouth dropped open for a moment, then his face went scarlet. “How dare you!” He started, but she charged on ahead. “You kidnap me! You insult me! You can’t—” He continued calling after her but she ignored him.
He finally ceased calling and started brooding silently. Getting kidnapped by a princess was the pinnacle of humiliation.
At last, they came to an open plain. Alexander could see a battle encampment in the distance. He prayed that it wasn’t their destination. God heard his prayer but ignored it.
Ilona rode straight into the midst of the soldiers and dismounted. Egbert halted just behind and dropped Alexander on the ground. He leapt to his feet, hoping to retain whatever dignity he had left.
A knight with a massive blue plume in his helmet, greeted Ilona with a low bow.
“Princess,” he said. “You shouldn’t be here.”
“I need to speak with my brother, it’s urgent.”
“Of course,” the knight answered. “I will tell him you’re here.”
“Well?” Alexander demanded. His arms were crossed and he was scowling at the princess. “Are you going to explain yourself?”
“My stupid brothers are fighting again! I brought you here to so you could talk some sense into them!”
Alexander stared at her blankly.
She sighed. “Last month, Filbert came to stay at Castle Erkscrim so we could all celebrate the harvest festival together. There we were, enjoying the feast like a peaceful, respectable family, when Filbert mentions that he’s been reading the philosopher Severinus and agrees with his theory that the entire universe is made up of triangles. Then Florian said that he’d been reading the philosopher Caius and that the universe is actually made up of nautilus spirals.
Alexander rolled his eyes. “That’s a massive oversimplification. Rouvin later clarified that the movable elements are made of nautilus spirals and the immovable elements are made up of triangles.”
“THAT’S EXACTLY WHAT I TRIED TO TELL THEM!” Ilona exclaimed.
“Wait, you’ve read Rouvin?” Alexander asked, his scowl shrinking slightly.
“Of course I’ve read Rouvin!” She snapped. “I’m not completely ignorant, you know!”
“So why wouldn’t they listen to you?”
“Because women are incapable of reason,” she replied.
“So they’ve read some Rouvin too,” Alexander mumbled thoughtfully. “But why me? Couldn’t you send any other man in to talk to them?”
“I’ve heard that you are knowledgeable on such matters. The friars speak very highly of you, you know.”
“If I talk to your brothers, will you let me go home?”
“Of course I will.”
“Alright,” Alexander grumbled. “I’ll talk to them, but I can’t promise it will change anything AND I expect full payment for anything in my cart I find damaged or missing on my return.”
She laughed. “My brothers may be idiots, but they are very dear to me. If you save them, I will give you anything your heart desires.”
Having pointless philosophical arguments was how aristocrats entertained themselves in the middle ages. This was true in our own universe and in Para Sympan. And like many who entertain themselves in this way, the kings knew a little about philosophy but thought they knew a lot.
Ilona finally convinced the two of them to sit down with Alexander in Florian’s camp. Alexander had to look back and forth between them a number of times to make sure his vision was correct. They were identical twins. He was grateful Florian had a beard or he would have lost track of which was which.
He stayed with them long into the night, gently asking them questions and directing their thoughts. Each time one brother became enraged it only took a few patient words from Alexander to calm him. When the dawn came, the brothers left the tent laughing together.
“You have enlightened me, Alexander!” Florian exclaimed, giving him a slap on the back that sent him stumbling forward. “The movable elements! It makes so much sense!”
Ilona rolled her eyes and muttered several unladylike words under her breath.
“To think, we almost killed each other!” Filbert laughed.
Florian slapped his hand on Filbert’s shoulder. “I’ve been trying to kill you since before I was born!” They both dissolved into laughter.
Ilona was not amused.
“No more philosophy,” she insisted. “I don’t like what it does to you two.”
Alexander bowed deeply to the kings. “If there is nothing more I can do for Your Majesties, I really must be getting back to my cart.”
“You can’t leave now!” Florian exclaimed. “You must come back to castle Erkscrim! My brother and I are going to throw a feast to celebrate the restoration of our friendship!”
“Oh no,” Ilona breathed, she grabbed Alexander by the arm. “My brother is right! You will be our guest of honor! We will seat you right between our two kings!”
“But—” Alexander began, sending an anxious glance toward the cloudy sky.
She slipped a coin purse into Alexander’s hand and hissed: “Don’t worry about the cart. The security of the Kingdom is at stake!”
The feast triggered memories of the Kalathean palace. So many faces all talking at once, so many unwritten social rules to remember. Alexander didn’t like feasts—well, he liked the food just not the atmosphere. He was surrounded by people yet felt completely alone. The feast at Erkscrim was worse than the ones in Kalathea because he only knew the hosts, and them only a little.
He spent most of the evening listening to the conversation. Filbert and Florian loved quoting the philosophers and did so liberally. Their actual understanding of the philosophy was superficial. When they spoke, he felt embarrassed for them. Then there was Ilona. She wasn’t able to add much to their discussion because they kept talking over her and interrupting.
This irritated Alexander because he was sincerely interested in her opinion. He wasn’t sure who she had read or how much, but she seemed to have an understanding that her brothers lacked.
When the feast was drawing to a close, she stepped away. Alexander followed her, eager for an excuse to get out. He found her looking out into the bailey at the heavy snowfall. Her face was white with horror.
“Is everything alright?” Alexander asked.
“Look at that snow,” she said. “It’s been falling heavier and heavier. Do you know what that means?”
Alexander shook his head.
“It means Filbert can’t leave tomorrow! And if this winter is anything like the last, it’s only going to keep snowing, and we won’t be rid of him until spring!” She looked at Alexander with an exasperated expression. “If I have to be stuck in here with those two all winter, I am going to fling myself off the north tower!”
“It can’t be that bad,” Alexander answered, although he had enough experience with siblings to know that it could be. In fact, it could be a lot worse.
“My only consolation is that you are stuck here too! If you can’t keep those two civil, no one can!”
Alexander’s heart sank. His little house wasn’t much but it was his own private space. His paints were there too. He hoped Ilona was wrong about the snow, otherwise he’d be imprisoned with strangers for months.
He told himself that at least it wouldn’t be so damp, and the food would certainly be better, and Ilona made interesting conversation. Then something wonderful occurred to him.
“Princess,” he asked. “Do you have books here?”
Books were not something he could afford on a candlemaker’s salary. He had to go to the friary when he wanted to read.
“Of course we do,” she answered. “Follow me, I’ll show you the library.”
Alexander’s heart skipped. He could tolerate almost anything for the sake of books.
Being able to read again made Alexander so happy, he forgot that he was angry with the princess for kidnapping him. He sat beside her in the library late into the evening talking and pouring over books for hours. As the night wore on, their conversation became less and less intelligent and everything became amusing, and they found themselves laughing together at absolutely nothing.
The days came and went one after another and Alexander was the happiest he’d ever been. He wasn’t sure why, he had books back in Kalathea. What he didn’t have was a close friend. Ilona was intelligent, adventurous, and had a bold, slightly irreverent sense of humor. He spent every possible moment in her company.
She often spoke of her brothers which made Alexander aware of two things: First that she adored them and second, that she was always on the verge of strangling them. One evening, after a particularly long rant, she asked Alexander if he had any siblings.
“A brother,” Alexander answered. “But he died a few years ago.”
“I’m so sorry,” Ilona answered. “Did he die fighting?”
Alexander thought a moment. “No, I don’t think he ever saw it coming.”
“Don’t you have any family left?” She pressed.
“No,” he answered. “My father died a few years ago and my mother died before I was born.”
Ilona snorted in an attempt to conceal a laugh. It didn’t work. The laugh burst forth and she turned bright red as she tried to stop herself. “I’m so sorry, Alex!” She cried. “It’s not your parent’s deaths—”
Alexander realized what he said and smiled sheepishly. “After I was born,” he corrected.
“I know! I know! That’s what you meant!” She answered. “I shouldn’t have laughed, but you said it so seriously!”
“It’s alright,” Alexander smirked. “We both know you’re a heartless person.”
“You’re never going to let me forget this are you?”
He shook his head, his smile broadening triumphantly. This made her laugh all the more.
Once she’d recovered herself, the conversation moved to other things. Alexander felt a twinge of guilt at leaving Fausta out of his description. These days, he avoided thinking about her, as if ignoring her existence would erase her betrayal.
As time passed, Alexander started noticing other things about Ilona. He noticed the blue of her eyes. All the Kalts had blue eyes, but hers were the most blue and the most perfect and the most lovely. He guessed that she had golden hair like her brothers, but couldn’t tell because she was always wearing a wimple. He attributed this to her modesty (though the actual reason was because her ears were cold). Each feature complimented the others, never was a person so perfectly made.
She caught him gazing at her over the top of his books on more than one occasion. Each time he turned scarlet and return to his reading.
As time passed and the snow started to melt, Alexander felt a weight on his chest. The coming spring made him realize that he didn’t want to leave Ilona, and not wanting to leave Ilona made him realize that he loved her. Loving her, in turn, made him realize that he was a commoner. For the very first time, Alexander wished he was still a king.
For the last two weeks before the thaw, Alexander spent most of his time hiding in his room. Occasionally, he encountered Ilona in the halls, and then he kept their conversations brief. It tore him apart. It didn’t help that Ilona kept trying to find him. She noticed his aloofness, but no inquiry on her part could produce the reason.
One evening, as Alexander hid in his room with his nose buried in a book, he heard a familiar voice.
“You’re hurting her, My King.”
Alexander looked up to see Brother Joseph standing at the foot of his bed. He sighed. He was getting tired of the fairies appearing wherever and whenever they wanted without warning. He glared over the top of his book at the old man.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he grumbled, though he knew exactly what Joseph was talking about. “And stop calling me: ‘My King’.”
“If you feel like distancing yourself is the right course of action, then do it. But tell her why first.”
Alexander turned red and hid his face deeper in his book. “I can’t. It would humiliate her.”
“Her?” Brother Joseph asked with a hint of a smile.
“But supposing she isn’t ashamed?” Alexander let the book fall into his lap and looked at Joseph wide-eyed. “Supposing she returns my affections? That would make our parting all the more painful.” He sighed. “Either way it will be painful.”
“With all due respect, My King,” Brother Joseph replied. “If you are unwilling to feel pain, you are incapable of love.”
Brother Joseph was right of course. He was always right.
Alexander sent the princess a note asking if they could meet in the garden. Waiting for her to arrive was worse than waiting for execution. He paced back and forth wringing his hands until he saw her approaching. She greeted him with a warm smile.
Alexander bowed to her. “Princess, thank you for meeting me here. I… um…”
He’d rehearsed it countless times in his head, but it wasn’t coming out anything like he imagined.
“I feel like I… I wanted to explain why I’ve been so cold.”
He realized that his hands were shaking. He kneaded them together in an attempt to calm his nerves.
Her pleasant smile broadened slightly.
“I don’t want you to think I don’t like you. On the contrary, I think you are lovely, very lovely, the loveliest person I’ve ever met.” He was turning red and starting to shrink. “I um…I think I… I know I…” Here it came, the death blow. “I love you.”
She was grinning ear to ear but Alexander didn’t seem to notice, he quickly added: “I don’t expect you to return my affections, I know I am not worthy of a princess.”
“Oooooooohhhhh,” she replied. “That’s what you’ve been worried about.” She rolled her eyes and shook her head. “For heaven’s sake, Alexander! You’re so dramatic.” She started walking back toward the keep and gestured for him to follow. She was chuckling. “I really wish you’d told me that earlier!”
Alexander was feeling lost. He imagined several possible reactions, some involved anger, some involved tears, and most involved scoffing. He was completely unprepared for whatever it was she was doing.
She threw open the door to the great hall and stormed in. The kings were sitting around a table with their knights and nobles. Everyone looked at the princess as she entered.
“My dear brothers!” She called. “There is a matter that is weighing heavy on my heart!”
“What is it, sister?” Florian replied.
“Alexander the Greek is leaving in the morning and we haven’t properly thanked him for the service he’s rendered to our family.”
Alexander finally caught up to Ilona and bowed to the kings.
“You’re right!” Filbert said. “He saved our lives!”
“Yes,” Added Florian. “Saved us from ourselves! That was no small feat.”
“I want you to swear before Alexander, before me, before God and,” Ilona gestured broadly across the room, “before all the good men assembled here, that you will give him anything he asks for.”
“We swear it,” agreed the kings.
“Really? Even if he asks for all the gold in Kaltehafen?”
“He shall have it!” Florian exclaimed and all the room cheered in agreement.
“What if he asks for the heads of all his enemies?”
“Then we shall hunt them down!” Filbert exclaimed and all the room cheered in agreement.
She looked at Alexander with a mischievous smile and cried. “What if he asks you for the hand of the princess in marriage?”
“He shall have—” Filbert started then stopped himself. “Wait a moment, you’re our baby sister, not some prize!”
Ilona looked at her brother horrified. “You just swore before your entire court that you would give him ANYTHING!”
“Yes, but, that was hyperbole!” Filbert continued. Florian was looking back and forth between Ilona and Alexander with a knowing smile. He swatted his brother on the back of his head.
“I, at least, am a man of honor!” He declared. “And even if he asked for what is most precious to me, I would gladly give it.”
The people cheered once again.
“But!” Filbert began.
“Brother,” Ilona answered Filbert. “I am ashamed of you. What kind of king doesn’t keep his promises? But, we are getting ahead of ourselves, why not let him speak for himself?”
“Yes, Alexander,” Florian agreed. “How can we reward you for your service?”
When the attention in the room went to Alexander, Florian whispered something into Filbert’s ear. Filbert glanced back and forth between Alexander and Ilona, a glimmer of realization entering his eyes.
Alexander had his hands folded in front of his lips thoughtfully. He was concealing a smile, his face was scarlet. Then for the first time in his life, he spoke boldly before the royal court:
“For the service I have rendered your family, I will accept nothing less than the hand of the princess. I cannot think of anything you could offer me that I would treasure more than that.”
Ilona was struggling to keep a straight face, and even Alexander couldn’t hide his amusement.
“So be it!” Florian cried. He looked at Ilona. “I am so sorry, sister. It’s for the good of the kingdom, you know.”
“I know my duty, brother,” she replied. “And if marrying this handsome, cordial, Greek, is what I have to do to uphold Kaltehafen’s honor, that is a sacrifice I am willing to make!”
She ran to Alexander’s side and then turned back toward her brothers. “You promise you won’t fight at our wedding feast?”
The two kings swore that they would be on their best behavior which made the court cheer all the more. Alexander and Ilona ran from the hall, hand in hand. As soon as they passed out of the hall, they dissolved into a fit of hysterical laughter.
“I suppose this means you love me too?” Alexander asked when he’d finally caught his breath.
She threw her arms around his neck and kissed him. “What do you think?”
Alexander was in a giddy daze when he returned to his room that evening. When he closed the door behind him, he leaned back against it allowing the happiness to consume him.
“Congratulations, My King,” came Brother Joseph’s voice. “I’ve never seen you look happier! Actually, I’ve never seen you look happy at all. It suits you.”
“Thank you,” Alexander answered, too much in a daze to be annoyed with the old monk’s random appearance.
“How does it feel to be engaged to the kings?”
“What are you talking about?” Alexander asked, with an amused half smile.
“When you marry someone, you marry their family too, you know. Love them or hate them, Filbert and Florian are now part of your life.”
“They’re not so bad,” Alexander answered.
“Don’t you think Ilona should know what she’s getting?”
Alexander’s giddiness subsided. “I don’t have any family.”
“Telling yourself that over and over doesn’t make it true.”
Alexander was silent.
“And what happens when a diplomat from the Kalathean court comes to visit Kaltehafen and recognizes you? How will that impact Ilona?”
Alexander wrung his hands thoughtfully.
Brother Joseph reached around him to open the door. Then he took Alexander by the shoulders, turned him around, and pushed him out.
“Now, I don’t want to see you back in here, until you’ve told your new family the whole truth.” Brother Joseph started to close the door, that stopped when he saw the terror in Alexander’s eyes. “I wouldn’t worry too much, My King. Things seem to work out well for you, when you’re straightforward with the princess.”
Again, Alexander was frustrated with the old monk, but he knew he was right. He wondered if this would change anything, or if Ilona would believe him. He found Ilona and begrudgingly told her everything. He told her of Fausta’s betrayal, his escape, and the fairies that helped him along the way. He left nothing out.
Ilona’s expression became angrier and angrier as he continued.
“I am so sorry, Ilona,” he said as he finished. “I should have told you this before. I understand if—”
“You mean to tell me,” she interrupted. “That your fairy godmother let you endure years of abuse from your siblings before she decided to help you?”
“I am sure she had a good reason,” Alexander explained. “Apparently they exist to teach people virtue, maybe—”
“Well, I’d like to teach her a thing or two about virtue!” Ilona snapped, pounding her fist into the palm of her hand. “I suppose we should tell my brothers about this.”
“Do you think they’ll be upset?” Alexander asked.
Ilona laughed. “On the contrary, they will be delighted that I’m marrying a king!”
“Former king,” Alexander corrected.
Filbert and Florian were enraged when they heard about the injustice Alexander suffered and offered to sack Kalathea for him. Alexander thanked them but refused. They did not understand this decision, but respected it.
His secret now revealed, Alexander felt a great weight lifted off his shoulders. A little later in the spring, he married Ilona. What followed was the happiest year of his life. He made painting his primary occupation and soon every church in Kaltehafen and all the surrounding kingdoms was decorated with his artwork. In his spare time, he was with Ilona in the library. He had all the privileges of royalty without any of the responsibilities. It was paradise.
Then one evening, he had a dream.
He saw his father standing at the foot of his bed.
“There you are, Alexander! I’ve been looking everywhere for you! What are you doing in Kaltehafen?” His father noticed Ilona asleep beside Alexander. “Wait a moment, did you marry a Kaltish girl?”
Alexander threw the blanket over her head.
“No,” he answered.
“Oh, well if you had, I would have complimented you on your diplomacy.”
“Why are you here, father?” Alexander asked. “I thought you were dead.”
“And I thought you were in Kalathea,” his father replied.
“The Kalathean’s didn’t want me,” Alexander answered. “So, I made a wonderful life for myself here.”
His father grimaced. “Really? In Kaltehafen?”
“Yes, father,” Alexander scowled.
“You need to go home, Alexander. Your people are in danger. Your sister is in danger.”
“What kind of danger?”
Alexander awoke before his father could specify.
He tried to dismiss the dream, but the more he ignored it, the more he felt a tugging on his heart, a persistent feeling that Kaltehafen was not where he was meant to be.
To be continued… (We’re almost done! I promise!)