At first, Erna was scared of the sudden menacing sound, but quickly fell in love with the explosion of colours.
A streak of bright light rose up from behind the palace and bloomed a vibrant red in the sky. The feast of colours was such a splendid display of beauty beyond comparison to anything Erna had seen before.
“Wow.” She said breathlessly.
She innocently admired every streak of light, anticipating the explosion of colour that would follow. It left after images in her mind as she watched with wide eyes. Each flash of light brought new details to the landscape.
“Is this your first time?” Bjorn asked.
A shower of golden sparks rained down to the ground and wipe out the after image of dandelion seeds. It was only then she remembered the Prince was also in the boat.
“Yes.” She smiled. “This is my first time.”
She smiled brighter than the lights in the sky and she felt the weight of the debt lift from her conscience and allow her to fully enjoy the moment.
Bjorn watched Erna completely forget he was there. Gone was the demure she so carelessly wore like an old, but familiar, shawl. She was an excited child and Bjorn laughed a little despondently.
Erna was younger than Louise, but in the city, she was still of an age to be married. Come to think of it, Gladys was about her age when he married her. That was four years ago, they had been out on the boat, just like this, the only difference being that Bjorn felt like he had to do it as a social display to the people of the happy newly-weds. Now, he wanted to be here, with Erna, for no other reason than to share her company.
There were other differences, Gladys was less than enthusiastic about the boat race and when he took her out onto the water, her complexion went worryingly pale and she looked very out of place on the rocking boat.
Gladys kept her composure till the end and reciprocated the love the people poured onto her as the Crown Princess. Bjorn recognised why she would make such a great fit as a future Queen, but he could not picture her as a wife. He accepted the marriage to her because it was what was expected.
It wasn’t until a week later he found out why Gladys had been so sickly that day. He was going to be a father.
“Congratulations, your highness, you will soon be a father.” The doctor had said.
The doctor was more thrilled about the pregnancy than Bjorn was. It had been a very hot and strange afternoon, he felt like a frog in a pan that was slowly heating up. He knew the child wasn’t his.
Bjorn looked at Erna, erasing the thoughts of Gladys and the tumultuous summer. She had a smile that made him feel like a flower blooming for her. The colours splashed on her face and caught as twinkles in her wide eyes.
Would she really run away from her father?
It didn’t feel like she was making it up, being melodramatic to curry sympathy, but at the same time, she seemed too timid to do something so dramatic. His heart twists at the thought of her being an Autumn Bride, sold off by her father for profit.
Bjorn was becoming tired of the falsities of society, the lies and rumours that spread from mouth to ear. There was rarely a shred of truth to the gossip. So where was the truth? At one time or another, he had desperately tried to cling to the truth, but it became like clutching a slimy Eel among the rapids. In the end, he just let go, let the current take him away, let all the dishonesty wash over him and away.
A part of him still clung to those sentimental days, when things were easier and it was straight line from where he was to what he wanted. Now, he had to jump through hoops, do a little dance and exert more effort than what it was worth.
Here, in the boat with him, was the most beautiful woman. They were enjoying a wonderful night together and although he found the fireworks boring, he had something else, someone else, to keep him entertained. Even if she was just being herself.
He had won.
It was a satisfying conclusion, he thought, the value of this woman’s company far outweighed the lost trophy. Sure, in a few years Erna might become a nostalgic thought like Gladys, or simpler days, but for now he had a lot of fun with the pretty faced girl and her erratic behaviour.
As the fireworks approached the end, they became ever more spectacular until the final climax saw an incredible display of light and sound.
Erna had not realised her hat slipped from her head and dangled precariously close to the edge of the boat. She turned as Bjorn made a sudden move toward and , scared he was forcing himself on her, she fell back toward the prow, only to see her hand dive into the water, missing the hat.
Embarrassed, Erna leaned out over the side and stretched for the hat. The boat leaned dangerously close to the water.
“Hold still.” Bjorn said.
He grabbed her shoulder right as she felt herself about to pitch over into the colourful water. His movement was enough to send them the rest of the way and they splashed under the surface.
“Oh my, look over.” People shouted from the river bank.
“There’s been an accident.” Other shouted.
Right as the climax of the fireworks display let the sky into a false daylight. Showing drifting clouds of smoke and the heads of Bjorn and Erna bobbing in the river.
Erna panicked as her world became drowned in darkness and muffled noise. She desperately heald her breath and thrashed about looking for the boat. She wanted to call out for help, but water rushed in and silenced her.
“Its okay. I’ve got you.”
The voice was urgent, but soothing. She felt strong arms take her round the waist and shoulders and lift her up out of the water. Nearly out of the water, she could feel it lapping at her waist and thighs and she was cradled. Her arms instinctively came up and around Bjorn’s neck and she held him tightly.
Even though the panic and fear was still there, she understood that she was alright, she was no longer in harms way. Bjorn stood and the water came up a little past her waist.
His voice came in clear amongst the buzz that filled her ears. She felt cold hard wood underneath as he laid her down on the jetty.
“Are you awake, Miss Hardy?”
Each time he called her name, the world came more into focus. The sky was dark now, no more blooms of colours, no more sounds bangs, pops and fizzes. Only the buzz.
Her eyes fluttered open and she looked up into the eyes of a handsome young Prince. He smiled when she looked at him and her heart fluttered. She answered with a difficult nod and the buzz around her grew. She realised that a crowd had gathered around her.
“It’s okay, Miss Hardy.” Bjorn said.
Erna felt like she was going to throw up and she coughed, which burned her lungs. She felt like they were on fire and as the coughing fit continued, she vomited up river water. Her shame was complete and she blushed in embarrassment.
“Everything is okay now.” Bjorn soothed and rubbed her back.
He let out a long sigh of relief. The water from their two wet bodies soaked the decking of the jetty and continued to pool out to the feet of the crowd around them.
It was an absurd accident, but she was lucky. Bjorn sat down beside Erna and brushed his wet hair out of his face. The other hand was still around Erna’s shoulders, holding her close. She leaned into him.
Erna laughed. The more she thought about it, the funnier it got. It was the first accident at the festival in quite some time, not since a drunk couple stumbled into the river and turned the whole festival on its head. All for just a simple little hat.
If she had just stayed calm when Bjorn tried to help, the boat wouldn’t have capsized. He let out a sigh and joined in the laughter.
Bjorn couldn’t tell if this was typical country girl mischief, or she really was as naive as she showed, either way she was a troublesome woman. Its a good thing now that everything is over.
Bjorn finally let Erna go and she pulled away as he stood up. Those who had been watching them, seeing that they were okay, rushed in and started to make a fuss. Bjorn simply removed his wet coat.
“Its okay, no need to worry, we’re fine.” Bjorn said, stopping the eager attendants.
That wasn’t the end of it. He saw a boat moving close to the dock, packed with onlookers muttering to each other. The group included Viscount Hardy and Princess Gladys and his parents.
Bjorn looked over at Erna who was heading away, she had given him a strong beginning and a great end. She really was a lady of unconventional social disturbances. Turning up, causing a scene and then flitting off back to where ever. It was just a shame she was so embroiled in affairs and scandals.
Erna turned and saw Bjorn. He tilted his head toward her and she gave a slight curtsey. He wished she didn’t have to leave and hoped that she would lose the courage to run away. Settle down in the city so he could explore her friendship more. Either way, they had been here together and it was a good relationship.
Bjorn strode down to the now anchored boat. All through his reminiscence of the evening, he did not look back once.
“Is everything okay? What of Miss Hardy?” Peter blurted.
He and Leonard had heard the commotion. They ran for Bjorn’s carriage and caught him just in time. They had been drinking heavily and stank of alcohol.
“Bring my money.” Bjorn said to Leonard.
Peter and Leonard stared at each other blankly as Bjorn pulled himself up into the carriage. They almost simultaneously clucked their tongues and shook their heads.
Drenched as she was, Bjorn sat down and closed his eyes. The evening had been quite eventful and he was thankful it was over. It was time to put everything back into place.