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Ray of Sunshine

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Ray came to the palace in Princess Gemma’s eighteenth year, when the snow was high and the frost danced in delicate designs over the windows. Ray had been hired to set up greenhouses, and when Christmas came, Gemma was amazed to find new secret gardens on the palace grounds, enclosed in glass boxes, with cold winter on the outside and irrepressible summer within.

Ray was scarcely older than Gemma, with bright blue eyes (the color of delphinium, Gemma eventually discovered), and a lovely smile. Even their name was fitting: what else were they but a badly needed ray of sunshine on the cold palace grounds?

When it was spring, Ray moved their attentions outside and soon the whole grounds burst forth with blooms. It was also that spring that Gemma began to receive flowers in the morning. It wasn’t every morning at first, but sometimes when she rose, a few blossoms would be lying on a table in the hall outside her bedroom.

The first time it happened, Gemma gathered the beautiful purple blooms close and ran down to the gardens. She’d not noticed these flowers in the palace gardens yet and wanted to find them. Ray had begun to teach Gemma things about the gardens, to explain the mysteries that coaxed tiny seeds to cover the dark earth with vibrant color. The palace staff were not happy about Princess Gemma spending her time here, but Gemma paid them no mind.

That morning, Ray gave her an answer and the beginning of a mystery. “Orchids,” they said. “Miltonia. Resemble a pansy in some ways.”

“They smell of citrus,” Gemma said happily. “Oh, you must show me where you’ve grown them.”

But Ray just shook their head. “Orchids don’t belong here.”

Gemma was much more disappointed than she had expected. “Not even in the greenhouse?”

“It would take a special place indeed to grow those,” was all Ray would say about it.

Over the next two years, Ray continued teaching Gemma about the world of growing things. They always brought a cloth to spread over the ground so that Gemma could keep her skirts clean, and gloves to protect her hands. 

Gemma longed for many things, and one of them was to trade her gown for a pair of pants such as Ray wore and to feel the dark earth against her fingers. It might also be nice, she thought, to be able to feel the touch of Ray’s fingers.

In the evenings, Gemma and Ray sat in the greenhouse or lay on the grass outside, looking at the stars. In the winter, Gemma spun stories in the dark, old fairy tales she’d read or new ones she’d composed, full of adventure and fright and magic. Ray listened quietly, or laughed, or argued, until the clock would strike and Gemma would be ushered home, into a room where she was the only living thing.

But that would soon be different: on Gemma’s twenty-first birthday, she would need to choose a suitor, and be wed. It seemed a cold fate to Gemma, to wed a stranger. It would be much better, she realized on one sleepless night, to have a ray of sunshine in her life.

By now, there were orchids outside her room every morning. They grew nowhere on the grounds that Gemma could discover, appearing each night like magic. It even seemed that their colors spoke to her— if she had been telling a tale of pirates the night before, the flowers were the yellow-gold of treasure. A sad tale would make them a deep purple, the happy ending of a story would be celebrated in blossoms bright as fireworks.

These were stories Gemma told only to Ray, of course. She knew by now that the flowers were from them after all. No one else would show such kindness to Gemma, pay her such attention. “The princess” was a role in the family more than she a was a person, except with Ray.

One morning, a few weeks before her birthday, Gemma suggested to her mother a competition for her hand, like in the fairy tales. Gemma had expected to be dismissed immediately, but her mother was perhaps so grateful to have Gemma accepting the idea of marriage, that she agreed. Gemma waited another week to present the idea of a contest of flowers, open to all, no matter their rank or station.

Other people, of course, knew of the flowers given to Gemma every morning. They paid them little mind, probably believing that Gemma had asked Ray to bring them. But when Gemma mentioned flowers as wooing currency, her mother caught on to her thinking. 

It would not be right for Gemma to wed a palace gardener. 

And yet, Gemma’s mother once again agreed. Gemma was wary of this, but on the day before her birthday, as suitors trailed into the palace, she was able to relax. None of them had brought orchids. They couldn’t grow here, Gemma knew, unless by Ray’s magic, and so that night, her last night unbetrothed, she dashed once more down the path to the gardens.

In Gemma’s mind that night there was a story more beautiful than any she’d told before, and she knew that in the morning, the orchids would be lovelier than ever, and thus the contest would be won.

But Ray was not there. In their place, Gemma met a palace guard, and her mother. The floor beneath their feet was strewn with dried orchid petals, stolen from the collection Gemma had kept in her room. They hadn’t found Ray’s secret garden, her mother said, but it mattered little, as they had, of course, found Ray. The gardener had been locked into a room overnight in the palace. In the morning, their hands would be empty, and Gemma would have to wed another.

It was the longest night of Gemma’s life. She did not sleep. A guard was posted so that she could not search the castle for Ray. All she could do was to whisper her beautiful story into the darkness and pray that somehow her ray of sunshine could hear her.

In the morning, as Gemma made her way downstairs, she saw that the dining room table was covered with flowers from her suitors, but all Gemma cared about was that the little table outside her room had been bare for the first time in years.

Gemma could not chose a suitor. She could not even think. She sent a guard to fetch her ray of sunshine from their overnight cell. She could not do this without a chance to say goodbye.

Gemma turned when she heard a step on the floor that she would know anywhere. Ray met her eyes with a sadder look than she’d ever seen from them. But Gemma could not fathom why, because Ray’s arms were full of orchids. Gemma had never seen so many, and in such brilliant colors.

“There never was a garden,” Gemma breathed.

“There is,” Ray said. “They grow within myself. They’re a poor offering, I know, compared to the rest here. But they grow for you. They make something beautiful out of my sadness, and so I could never do anything but pass them on.”

Gemma stared at them. “A poor— my dear, your orchids are the very reason for the contest!” Ray looked startled. “Did you not know?” Gemma asked. “Did you think me so cruel to ask for flowers and not mean to choose you? Oh— forgive me, please. I meant to hide my love from my mother, but never from you.”

Ray made a sound that was half laugh and half cough. A wavering smile crossed their face. “Your highness— Gemma. If you choose these orchids, I am afraid there will never be any more, for they come from the space in my heart which you would fill.”

“What else do I need but my ray of sunshine?” Gemma asked, and the orchids were clutched between them as she kissed her newly betrothed.