The invitation arrived at noon on a Sunday by the hands of a servant dressed in crisp cream fabric, with the royal colors finely stitched into his cuffs. Ash opened the small box addressed to her that he handed to her in white-gloved hands, and was greeted by ten purple butterflies, that immediately flew out into the garden.
The Queen and King Cordially Invite you to Attend the Wedding of their son, High Prince Aidan, to Lord Gregory Kia, son of Lord and Lady Kia, read the letter, On the first day of Yule, at 4:00, at the Grand Palace.
The doorman who delivered it held another package: this a large, rectangular box. "The Queen also sent this".
At 3:00 a week later, there was a knock on Ash’s door, and when she opened it, there was as footman with a carriage behind him. “What is this?” she asked.
“The Queen sent a carriage, miss” the man said.
“That’s unnecessary, the wedding’s on the other side of the castle,”
“The Queen said that as it is winter, it’s liable to snow at any moment, and she will not risk you freezing on the way over”.
“Well, in that case, thank you. I was about to leave anyways,” Ash said, and, when they had reached the carriage, accepted his arm of help in.
When he had closed the door and was commanding the horses forward, she leaned towards the front where he could hear her. “Pick the Huntress up on the way, would you? If you don’t mind.”
“Yes, Miss,” he said. She heard the sound of the horseshoes on the ground, and tiny white flakes began to drift past her window.
After 5 minutes of crunching (perhaps it would have been uncomfortable to walk in this snow,) the carriage stopped. A minute later, two sets of footsteps, and Kaisa’s voice, approached.
Ash threw open the carriage door and beckoned for Kaisa to join her. “The Queen sent me a carriage!” she said. “You need it even less than I do, but I figured I should pick you up”.
She was met with a warm smile, and Kaisa took her outstretched hand, and pulled herself up. “How considerate of her. And of you”.
“Well, if the Queen won’t let me die of the cold, I’m not letting you.” Ash said.
“Because you can’t live without me?” Kaisa asked.
“No,” Ash said, and hoped she hadn’t visibly blushed. “Because walking to a party would be a stupid way to die.” She felt happy, once again, that she had made it from The Wood to the Royal City.
“Anyways,” said Kaisa, “You look lovely”.
Ash was relieved that Kaisa thought so. The Queen had particularly lavish tastes, and this outfit wasn't exactly what she would have chosen for herself.
Ash was wearing a periwinkle dress. The satin gown was cut low but thankfully not low enough to make her feel uncomfortable, and it had short, silk sleeves that would allow her arms to be free. The bodice was slim and led to a skirt that billowed out in the common style, but only slightly. Ash suspected the queen understood her need for practicality. The shoes that the queen had sent her were silver with more straps than she had thought that she would have been able to handle, but she had figured them out. They were silver with diamonds on the buckles, and they actually looked good with the dress. Ash had added elbow-length, white gloves. She had put on a pair of rose earrings and a necklace with a matching rose pendant on it that she had bought at the market on the city square in the summertime. She had used silver pins to hold up her dark hair in a bun on the back of her head, with wisps of hair hanging down in a style that she had seen recently in town and hoped would qualify as fashionable.
“Thank you,” Ash laughed.
“That’s the dress that the Queen sent you? You look like a tulip.” Kaisa said.
“I know! That’s what I was thinking. I hope it’s not too much,”
“No,” said Kaisa, “You pull it off.”
“Thank you. You look nice as well.”
And Kaisa did. She was dressed in the traditional uniform of The Royal Huntress, reserved for formal occasions. It was made up of greens and browns. Kaisa had been wearing it at the first ball that Ash had seen her at, and it reminded her of it.
“So who is this groom we are to see married to the prince?” Ash asked, her blush hopefully gone. “You said he was with the hunt, but I don’t think that I have ever met him.”
“Yes, Gregory,” said Kaisa. She then leaned forward conspiratorially, even though there was no one there to overhear them. “It was quite a scandal, actually. Gregory was with the hunt, last winter. So I think that you have met him.”
“Well, Prince Aidan met him at the ball that his mother threw him to find a wife.”
“Oh!” said Ash, and an exuberant young man came to mind. “I do remember him! They were all very nice to me at that ball," and, because she couldn't help her curiosity "Well, what happened?”
“Much to the Queen’s duress, Aiden did not take interest in one of the high-status young women she invited, he took a liking to a common man.”
“Really?” Ash asked. She felt her blood go to ice in her veins, and her stomach began twisting. The warm thoughts that the queen had always brought to her were suddenly swept away by this latest confidence. "Because he’s a man, the Queen did not want them to be together?" “Oh, no!” said Kaisa, looking startled. “No, no that’s not it at all. Perhaps she was surprised, but that would hardly make her keep him from his happiness. No, Gregory is a commoner.”
Ash’s stomach calmed. “Thank goodness,” she said. But then, “A commoner? That’s salacious.”
“Yes, it is” said Kaisa.
“Is that why Gregory left the hunt? So that he and the Prince would not have to be near each-other?”
“For a time, yes, but Aiden has just ridden to Gregory’s home land, to win him back” Kaisa said.
“That’s probably why you haven’t seen him recently, they returned just last week, before the marriage announcement was made.”
"I was surprised," Ash said, "at why they're getting married so quickly after the announcement of the engagement. There weren't any celebrations leading up to the wedding. Perhaps things are done differently here, but in the Wood, weddings are precluded by a week at least of events."
"That is the tradition in the city as well" Kaisa responded, "But they had little time, because Prince Aidan wanted to be married in Yule time. He's a romantic, and marrying on the Yule is a symbol of love. It brings luck upon the marriage. The Yule is important to Aidan as well because it is in the short window of time to find the Camilla flower blooming. The flower has a story associated with it that makes it an especially strong symbol. There were far fewer pre-wedding events because Aidan spent the last three days on the journey to gather the flowers."
Ash wondered if Kaisa's absence this week had been her accompanying the prince.
Further discussion of the subject was interrupted by the carriage halting. The door was opened for them and they climbed out to a palace more gloriously decorated than Ash had ever seen it.
"The Queen has elaborate tastes" she said.
"Yes, she does, but this is more than I would have expected." Kaisa said, "It must be because there are foreign representatives here, from the neighboring kingdoms. They all try to out-do each-other during their infrequent visits."
To out-do the castle in this state would be a feat. Kaisa offered Ash her arm and Ash took it with a laugh, as she supposed that this is what couples did at these events, and they walked towards the double doors of the palace.
Ash could see the trees outside of the palace hung with ribbons the color of the kingdom. The walk was lined with what looked like a hundred potted plants that Ash was almost certain had not been there before.
They were greeted by one of the women at the door dressed in regalia and handed a slip of paper with an itinerary listed on it. Ash noticed that, thankfully, the ceremony was only one hour.
The main hall lived up to the outside. Here, there was a ceiling available for decoration as well. The chandeliers were shining despite the sun's presence in the sky. The walls were lined with ribbons. Against walls were small trees of differing species. The kingdom's love for the natural world and the plants that grew in it made her very happy. Other fixtures were adorned with varying types of flowers. It made the air in the hall feel fresh and clear. Large versions of the flag of the kingdom and royal family hung from the ceiling. There were endless decorations, in colors of blues and white to honor the season.
Ash's concerns of looking out of place evaporated when she saw the dresses that some other attendees were wearing. The Queen's dress may actually have been puce.
The wedding began at the time promised, and Ash was provided the opportunity to see the royal traditions in their entirety. Ash heard the history of the family and the control of the kingdom. A band of musical instruments played traditional songs, and there were speeches by the Queen and the King, and by the woman marrying them.
It was then, when Prince Aidan said his vows that Ash learned the story of the Camilla flower.
Prince Aidan smiled at Gregory and pulled out of a vase standing behind him a small bouquet of dark pink flowers, and handed them to Gregory.
"The Yuletide Camellia," he began in a manner made Ash suspect that the story was common knowledge, but telling it was a tradition, "is a flower that is said to have been created by love itself."
Gregory accepted the flowers from him, and surprise was evident on his face.
Prince Aidan continued, "The story is told that once there was a princess who had loved a prince from a neighboring kingdom since they were children. He had fallen in love with her as well, and on the princess's 21st birthday they were to be married. But, there was a power in the west who wanted to take the thrones of both of their kingdoms to acquire the wealth of their lands. The power had enlisted the help of an elderly fairy queen, and made a deal that if the fairy used her magic to acquire the kingdom, she would receive as payment the body of a mortal royal. Three days before the princess's birthday, and their wedding, the princess and prince set off to defeat the western power. But when they reached the forest in the west, instead of encountering a mortal, they encountered the fairy queen. Her magic was too powerful for them to defeat, and she told them of her intention to assassinate the royal families and hand the lands and people over to the western power. The princess asked why it was that a fairy queen was helping a mortal. The fairy queen told her her payment would be the mind of a young woman. The princess saw that if they did not give her what she wanted, then their loved ones would be killed and people would be harmed. So, she offered up herself as sacrifice to the fairy queen if she would stop the attack. The prince protested, but the princess told him that it was the only way. The princess and the fairy queen shook on the deal, and the princess was given a last moment in the human world. She reached into her chest and pulled out her heart, and handed it to her love. Blood dripped from her heart onto the ground as she handed it to her love, and where the blood droplets landed, dark pink flowers bloomed. 'Here my love,' she said to the prince, 'We will never be together again, but I will give you my heart so you and only you can have this part of me, and so that I shall be with you always.' The princess was taken to the fairy world, but the flowers reproduced over the years, to cover the forest. These flowers are called the Camellia Sasanqua, or in common tounge, the Yule Camellia. They are called the Yule Camellia because the princess's birthday is on a day of Yule. The flower blooms once a year, at that time period, and can only be found in one forest of the land. These royal families and kingdoms are gone, but the flower lives on.
Returning to an unceremonial tone, Prince Aidan said to Gregory, "I traveled to pick these Yule Camellia for you to tell you that my heart is yours. I hope that you will accept it."
Gregory wiped what may have been a tear or may have been nothing off of his cheek and said what sounded like "Yes," and kissed the prince.
The fires roared into the night, and Ash spent the hours getting to become better acquainted with the members of The Hunt, something she enjoyed doing immensely, and saved her from feeling awkward in a party where she felt far too dressed up for her station, and at a lack of conversation topics with the regency there. Even though she had a noble lineage, that was not how she was raised.
Some of The Hunt members had come from commoner backgrounds, and those who hadn’t had spent enough time away from the cities and instead in the forest and towns that Ash felt more kin to them.
When the festivities were only part-way over, Kaisa found Ash by what Ash was fairly sure was a fountain of a sparkling, alcoholic liquid, and petting a small dog adorned with ribbons that was running around her feet.
"How is The Hunt?" Kaisa asked when she appeared at Ash's side.
Trying to conceal how startled she was, Ash said "Good." and then, "Drunk." once she had actually had time to process the question, because they were quite on their way.
"How is the Prince?" Ash asked. Kaisa had spent the last hour engaged at the royal table and end 30 minutes of that with the prince.
"A mess." she said. "He became very emotional and spent some time crying into Gregory's hair."
"Oh really?" Ash said, "I want to go over there. Do you think that I would be able to catch a covert glimpse of that?"
"Hold on." said Kaisa, catching her hand to pull her back from where she had started to move.
"Yes?" Ash asked.
"I have something to give you," Kaisa said.
"Oh really?" Ash responded. And she acted on an impulse, and leaned forward and kissed her on her cheek, because she had in fact been filling up her glass from the fountain.
She asked, "What is it?"
Kaisa reached into a pocket of her jacket and lifted out a flower. She handed it to Ash, and Ash could see that it was a Camellia Sasanqua.
"Oh," Ash said. And she kissed Kaisa on the lips this time. And, because Kaisa may have looked a little nervous, grinned, and told her "Thank you".
She took the flower from Kaisa, whose minimal amount of nervousness had disappeared now, and held it between her fingers.
It felt less delicate than she had imagined it would.