“Literature is a luxury; fiction is a necessity.” – Gilbert K. Chesterton
“Signs of life”
When she’d said her name, Yolanda saw the king’s face brighten.
“Yolanda,” he repeated, trying it on, twisting it over on his tongue. “It suits you.”
Her cheeks burned red at that last. Opening her mouth to say something, Yolanda’s attempt failed and her lips formed a wide, girlish grin. She averted her eyes when she realized what she was doing. How was one to react to such attention from the king?
Next thing she knew, a hand touched her chin and gently brought her face to face with the king again. “Why do you always look away?” he asked, his green eyes taking her in. “You deprive me of your beauty.”
That really set Yolanda’s cheeks ablaze. “You’re kind, your majesty,” she managed to say through her growing embarrassment. Again, her incessant uncertainty and embarrassment forced her to avert her eyes.
“I speak only the truth,” he said. “Seeing you is like awaking from a long, laborious slumber.”
A funny thing to say, Yolanda thought. Pushing through her embarrassment, her eyes flicked back to gaze at him. He was truly handsome, and not simply because he was the king. She thought she saw what he meant by his comment. He had a pronounced, chiseled face – any woman with eyes to see would agree the king was bloody handsome – but his face was sad and tired. His dark green eyes possessed an intensity that likely worked in bending people to the king’s will. However, as Yolanda looked at the man, that intensity seemed also tired, almost dormant.
His other strong feature was his confident chin. At least, it had the potential to be. At that moment it looked as though it had not employed its confidence in a long while. Based on its smoothness – along with that of the adjacent cheeks – his majesty the king had recently shaven.
The longer her gaze lingered on the man, the more comfortable Yolanda grew, or at least less embarrassed. While stories of kings always portrayed them as some kind of other, larger-than-life monarchs who ruled their realms from on high, one step below the Maker and the under-gods, Yolanda saw in this king who stood before her something the stories and legends never emphasized or mentioned: He may be king, but he was just a man.
Suddenly, a clearing throat cut through the air like a knife through bread. In unison, both Yolanda and the king’s faces turned to see the monarch’s companion, the pointy-nosed man called Dygon, with an intense and – to Yolanda, it seemed – perturbed expression on his face.
“Your majesty, they will not wait much longer,” he said. Raising a hand, Dygon extended his index finger to point toward the looming entry doors of the Maker’s Temple. “As Xanis said, the Speakers have prepared the chapel. It has…” Dygon trailed off as his eyes flicked between Yolanda and the king. He did not finish.
“Yes, yes, Dygon,” the king said, brushing aside the man’s obvious impatience with the wave of a hand. “It has been a long year.”
Saying those words altered something in the king, Yolanda saw. During their flirtatious exchanges, the man’s eyes twinkled, and his dormant confidence looked ready to roar to life like a man stretching after a long sleep. But the bubble of life in him deflated, forcing that energy to retreat.
The heavy, haunting gong of the temple’s bells shattered Yolanda’s thoughts.
“They will begin to gather for the midday service soon,” Dygon said. “Please, Paeter, let us go inside.”
The king released a heavy sigh, but nodded his agreement. He glanced one final time at Yolanda. “I thank you, Yolanda Thatcher,” he said. “You have been a ray of sun to my most cloudy of souls. Our chance encounter today has lessened the weight on my all-too-heavy heart. May the Maker’s blessing be upon you.” He reached for her hand and pulled it to his lips. “And may we meet again.” He laid a soft kiss upon her hand. Fresh crimson appeared on Yolanda’s cheeks and it took all her wherewithal not to swoon.
With a nod of farewell, the king walked past Yolanda toward the temple doors. Dygon watched the king thoughtfully before turning a curious expression on Yolanda. Unlike the king’s gaze, this man’s made Yolanda feel exposed, as though he were examining her, sizing her up and down, inside and outside. He considered her a brief moment longer before speaking.
“Who are you?” His voice was not accusatory; rather simply curious.
Unsure what he meant by such a question, Yolanda fidgeted, avoiding eye contact. She turned to watch the king walk the rest of the way to the temple door, looking away only after the man vanished inside. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I don’t…I’m just a village girl a long way from home. Please.”
She chanced a glance at Dygon, arching an uncertain eyebrow. The man cocked his head. “A village girl,” he repeated. “Which village?”
“Dresden,” she said, feeling her stomach slowly begin to tie itself in knots.
The man’s eyebrows shot upward. “You are a long way from home,” he said.
“I am,” Yolanda said, nodding. She took a deep breath, anticipating the next question. She knew it had to come. But how could she explain?
“Do you know what today is?” Dygon said.
Yolanda blinked. The question caught her off guard. The ever-tightening knot in her stomach loosened, more out of confusion than relief. “I…”
The man waved away her non-answer. “I mean for the king,” he said. “What today is for the king.”
Yolanda bit her lip and narrowed her eyes. Clearly, she had run into the king on his way to the temple for…something. But she knew not what. After a few moments thought, she could not hazard a guess.
“He has been dreading this day for many weeks,” Dygon said. “And as he steps out of the carriage, he sees you, standing up here, wide-eyed and awestruck. He smiles and laughs for the first time in a year.” He paused. “A year. A year mired in melancholy, and a girl from a backwater of the realm draws up signs of life from within him, at least for a few moments.” Dygon shook his head.
Yolanda eyed the pointy-nosed man. She did not understand. True, the king had obviously been melancholy – she had seen it clearly in his eyes, face; it clung to him like a darkness, a sickness – but a year without smiling or laughing? Such a notion sounded so foolish, so ridiculous! Yet, she had seen the man.
“Will you?” Dygon said.
Lost in her own thoughts, it took Yolanda a moment to understand the man had asked a question that she had missed. “I’m sorry?” she said.
Arching a curious eyebrow, Dygon considered Yolanda briefly before repeating his question. Clearing his throat, he asked, “I’ve no doubt the king will wish to see you again. Will you come dine with us at the palace?”