Chapter Four: Jasmine

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We arrived back at the palace in good time and were greeted enthusiastically by the servant at the door.

"Your Highness! So nice to have you back on Arcan soil. I trust you had a safe journey back?"

"Very good thank you-"

"Brae! Oh, you're home!" Brae's mother seemed to fly down the stairs to meet her son and Brae temporarily vanished under her embrace.

He let her hold onto him for a few seconds before wriggling free. "Hey, Mum, good to see you too!" He grinned and ran his fingers through his hair, trying to straighten it out.

"Oh, it's changed so much since you left!" Grace said, acknowledging the new strands of silver, which seemed to have doubled while he had been away. "Have you been practising?"

"Every day, mum, just like you said to." His mother's own hair glimmered like liquid silver.

She smiled at me as she ruffled his hair. "Isn't he just perfect?" she joked.

"Completely. I'm in awe," I replied, laughing.

She began to lead us both towards the stairs. "Everyone's upstairs in the drawing room. We were expecting you ages ago; but you had to be difficult and walk home didn't you."

"Sorry, mum, you know what it's like though - you just can't beat that Arcan breeze."

"Hmm, and that was the only reason you wanted to take your time was it?" she asked pointedly.

"Of course! I have no idea what you are trying to imply!"

"Oh really? Any clearer to you, Jasmine?"

"Sorry, Grace, but you've completely lost me," I said innocently. I knew exactly what she was trying to imply of course, Brae's mum held onto the romantic notion that Brae and I would get together eventually. But it would never come to anything. Brae was my best friend and, although I often wondered what it would be like if he was something more, I knew it wasn't what he wanted.

When we entered the drawing room, Brae's father, King Zephyrus, was there waiting for us. I also noticed Caleb sitting a little to his left. Playing cards were laid out on the table in front of them.

"Son! It's good to have you back." The frail King began to lift himself out of his seat to greet his son, but Brae was by his side before he could move more than an inch.

"Don't get up, Dad," he said, hugging him where he was sitting, before placing himself in the chair to his right. I went to sit next to Caleb, while Grace took the seat on Brae's other side.

"How was your trip? Did the Brizans treat you well?" King Zephyrus asked his son.

"Extremely well, Dad, they went above and beyond to make a good impression, it was astonishing."

"Did you see the Queen?"

"She invited me to dine with her every evening. She was very hospitable."

"That's interesting; I'd heard she'd become a bit of a recluse since the Occupation." Zephyrus had been speaking to Caleb, but it was Brae who responded.

"Not at all. That's just an Arcan myth. She was constantly in and out of the palace. She always looked sad though, and weary."

"Poor thing, I always told you it was a pity she never married. It must be horrible to carry such responsibility all alone." Grace was sympathetic towards everyone, but especially anyone who was alone. I asked her about it once and she told me it was because she couldn't imagine life without her family, so struggled to see how anyone else could live without being surrounded by the people they loved.

"I bet she's still as beautiful as ever though, is she not? I heard that when she was a young girl they used to worship her like she was a goddess on earth. It wasn't natural, or human, to be that beautiful, they said." It was Caleb who spoke this time, in his low, melodic voice.

"She was very pretty, yes... more so than any of the other Brizans, anyhow," Brae said, his cheeks colouring slightly.

Caleb and the King laughed, causing Grace to give them a stern look.

"So, how did the negotiations go, son?" Zephyrus asked, trying to change to a subject that wouldn't offend his wife.

"Quite well, they've agreed to lower their prices by 2.6 percent, I know it wasn't the 3 percent we were looking for, but it was as near as we were going to get."

"No, that's very good. Better than I was expecting actually, I didn't think they'd go higher than 2.2 to be honest. You must have done very well, son, I'm impressed."

The main purpose of Brae's visit to the Brizan Realm had been to introduce himself to them, as the heir to the Arcan throne, now that he had passed his seventeenth birthday. But he also saw to a few political issues, as he was taking on more of the responsibility for running the Realm now that his father was too ill to do so himself.

I wasn't particularly interested in the political details of his trip - I was far too eager to hear about the Realm itself: its culture, the people, the climate. But I had been friends with Brae long enough to know that the politics had to come first. That didn't mean that I had to like it though.

Grace seemed to feel the same way I did, as she stood up to "go and check the arrangements for dinner."

"I think we'd better be going as well; lots to do," Caleb said, getting up.

"I'll come with you," Brae offered, but I shook my head quickly.

"Don't be silly, stay here with your dad. I'll try and drop by later so we can catch up some more." If Brae walked back with us, he'd end up going right through the city centre, which would ruin his surprise party. Besides, lying to him was proving far more difficult than I expected and I could do with a break.

He looked disappointed; it was clear that he wanted to talk more. I hugged him again and started towards the door, walking slowly so that Caleb could keep up. As we left, I could hear Zephyrus trying to distract Brae with more questions about his trip.

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