The summer sun had melted the snow from the peaks of the Gebruder mountains for the first time in a century. The valleys below had flooded, and where farm and field had once stood, shimmering lakes now glistened beneath the brother mountains.
"That one is Jacob, and that one is...Wilhelm."
Philipe rolled to his side in the grass, taller and greener than he ever remembered it being this far north. It made a cushioned bed beneath him and the girl at his side, more woman now than the summer before. He leaned up on his elbows and studied her, her black hair glinting threads of blue and silver in the sun, her pale skin flushed with summer's kiss, and the kisses he'd given her.
"Jacob? Wilhelm? Really, Johanna, you wouldn't name them something more...regal?"
"After my brothers," she said tossing a dandelion head at him. "They're very regal."
"Not as regal as I am." He took the dandelion and plucked a few more from the grass. "I'm a prince."
"So are my brothers," she protested, pointing to a cloud so thick and heavy it could have been clotted cream hanging in the sky. "Oh look, a sailing ship!"
He deftly wove one dandelion stem with another. "Your brothers are only Northern princes. I am the crown prince of the entire kingdom."
"If we stay a part of your father's kingdom," she chided softly. It was something they could joke about, as children of powerful men. If peasant had said the same, they would have been hanged, had been in the tumultuous months since the first talk of a Northern rebellion.
That was what had brought Philipe to the north, with his father, King Albart. Together with Johanna's father, Lord Koneig, they would stop the rebellion, and the kingdom would return to peace once more.
Then, there would be time for their fathers to talk of other things. Philipe had decided two summers before, when he'd come to spend happier times with the Koneig brood, that Johanna would soon be his bride. He'd been too young then, at fifteen, to formally propose, but he was seventeen now, almost a man grown. He hoped to have Johanna at his side when he celebrated his eighteenth birthday in the fall, to announce a marriage that would unite the north to the south forever. The people in the north loved Johanna, the people in the south loved Philipe. It would be the perfect union.
Johanna sat up, brushing grass from her waist-length hair. "We should go back. Father worries now, if any of us are gone too long. He says it's not as safe here anymore."
"I would take you back to the palace, with me," he said, reckless, impulsive. "To keep you safe in case there is a rebellion, after all."
She smiled fondly and turned her face toward the sun "I doubt any rebellion would touch us. We'd be safe behind the walls of Hazelhurn."
Across the valley, the pointed blue spires and gleaming white stone of the castle stood like a proud, watchful sentry. It was a true fortress, where the palace might as well have been a house with no doors, for all the people who roamed about freely inside. Even as he was convinced that taking her with them would protect her, he was also convinced that Hazelhurn was impregnable.
He set aside his dark thoughts of protection and rebellion and lifted the dandelion crown he'd fashioned for her. She giggled with delight when he set it upon her head, but her eyes became a violet storm of seriousness when he took her hands in his and kissed them.
"I would give a crown, in earnest," he told her, his hands trembling as they held hers. "I would make you my queen."
"Don't say that, if it's only play," she warned him. Her eyes shone with hopeful tears. "You mustn't treat my heart lightly."
"Never," he promised. "I mean it, Johanna. I want you for my wife. As soon as this rebellion nonsense is finished, and the kingdom is put to rights again, I will marry you."
She threw her arms about his neck and hugged him, sobbing with happiness, then fell into the grass together, her long skirts tangling about their legs.
She leaned above him, her raven hair a shimmering curtain all around them. "I love you, Philipe."
"And I you," he promised. "Forever."