Princess Antonya lay back on her bed after returning to her room, pulling Alexandre’s coat tighter around her shoulders. It smelled so sweet. He was so sweet. How often had Velibor been this sweet to her? How often had he cared about her in these small details? He hardly noticed if she was cold, let alone acknowledge the fact that she was royalty. Yet here was royalty, someone at the same level as her, and he treated her more kindly than Velibor ever had.

Tears swelled up in her eyes, as she looked back on her life with Velibor, comparing every detail with the Tsar’s son. Velibor only talked to her when he felt like it, only courted with her when he wanted. He didn’t care if she wanted to talk to him, if she wanted something. How could he have been so cold and she so stubborn and blind not to see that? She cried harder, and went to sit on her window sill, despite the night’s chill. Staring out into the clear night, she remembered all the times her and Velibor had sit in the courtyard at home staring up at the stars.

“I promise that I love you, Antonya! I love you so much I cannot describe it with words…no act of love would be enough! Not even the stars in the sky, once counted could show by how much I love you!” His words returned so clearly to her, the last words he spoke before she left. And look what had happened. She left, news spread that he had filled in his time with various castle maids, then he was sent away to war, only to die within his first day there. Everyone had tried to console her, but who was she grieving for? Herself? Velibor? Anyone? Crying out to the stars, she realised that she had grieved for nothing other than the understanding of just how much of her life she had wasted with him. He never once showed that he truly loved her, yet how much had she done for him?

Suddenly, she awoke to herself and discovered she was cold. She moved back inside the room, and lay down on her bed. Still dressed and wearing Alexandre’s coat, she began to wonder. How sweet Alexandre was! She smiled to herself and began to think of him. Such a hard, masculine, pale face, yet brightened and softened by those hypnotising, angelic green eyes. Framed by untamed, dark brown hair falling softly against his face, supported by shoulders and such strong arms. He looked so small and slender from a distance, yet how strong those arms were. Hands that were calloused with hard work, yet that smooth skin that was characteristic of royalty. How she would love to have those arms around her again, those hands holding her face; to stare into those eyes, and know that she would be allowed to look into them for the rest of her life and know they would be looking right back at her lovingly.

At what time she fell asleep, she did not know, but she awoke early, lying on the bed still dressed and wearing her jacket. Something felt different about the room, and she couldn’t quite figure out what it was. Slowly she sat up, and then rose to the basin to wash her face. The water was so cold! She returned to her bed, and sat on the edge, staring out the window. Suddenly something moved behind her and she sensed it from the corner of her eye. She turned slowly, only to see none there. She stood, and walked to the window, feeling slightly disturbed.

“Aargh” came a cry from behind her, and before she could turn around someone came running towards her, knocking her to the floor, and holding her fast. The person was a tall man, and a moment of silence passed between them, before he burst out laughing. She could tell that laugh anywhere. “Cristian! I’m warning you get off me now! Please!”
“Alright, alright!” he said, jokingly. “What were you doing at dinner yesterday? Last time I talk to you, you said you didn’t want to see any of us again! You sleep for ages you know that? I’ve sat there in that chair, waiting for who knows how long, just to say hello to you my cousin. At least you’re not depressed now!” He was rushing to get all his words in before she spoke, overjoyed at the fact that his cousin was coming back to him.

Cristian lived at the castle with Marco, his mother having died in childbirth and his father at war while he was still young. Marco had adopted him. Ever since then, he and Antonya had become very close, he being two months older than her. “Wow Cristian. Great way to wake me up. I’m so impressed!” exaggerated Antonya.

“Ha ha ha, yeah, at least I was not the one who woke up in the Tsar’s son’s best jacket! Just wait until Father hears about this!” He shot back, jokingly. “If it’s a fight you are looking for cousin, you’re searching in the wrong fields.” She shot back blankly. He laughed and then walked out of the room.

She rose and went to her wardrobe, in an effort to find something nice to wear today. Sifting through her gowns one by one, she only got more frustrated with each gown she saw. Every dress had been something Velibor had liked, not her. He had picked them out, he had told her to wear them, he had purchased them even – but with whose money? She picked out a light blue gown in the end and fixed her hair quickly. After a long struggle finding her shoes, she put on her silver coat, picked up Alexandre’s coat and left her room.

She walked slowly through the corridors, taking in every detail, as if she had never seen them before. As she passed by the windows facing the central courtyard, she saw Marco in deep conversation with Alexandre, Cristian standing close by. Cristian noticed her in the window, and a mischievous smile brightened his otherwise solemn face. She scowled, and continued walking faster towards the kitchen.

The cooks were surprised to see her standing there, having never set eyes on her yet during her stay so far. Every other time it was hard to find Princess Antonya anywhere else. The first place most people came to look for her was the kitchens. The head cook smiled, and greeted Antonya with open arms. “My Princess! You’re alive! I was beginning to think that something severe must have happened to you! Usually when you stay here I have to call the guards to remove you from my kitchens, even when I was in Serbia! How are you my little darling?” His warm smile and the delicious smells coming from the cooking food behind him lifted her spirits immediately, and she returned his embrace. “Oh Andrei! It has been so long, and I have missed you so! The food has not been the same since you left us at the castle! I am good, but sooo hungry! I overslept this morning, and the first thing that came to my mind was your wonderful fresh bread straight from the oven, and the warm, sweet tea that you always made us in the morning…if you have time to feed me?”

“Oh Antonya, my princess, you have not changed a bit! Of course I will make it for you, and straight away too, although I’m afraid the milk won’t be as fresh as the morning is getting on…why did you sleep late today?” he inquired. How she missed the company of trustworthy Andrei. All the times she used to spend in the kitchen with him everyday, listening to his stories, telling him everything. He was like her grandfather. She told him without hesitation of all that had happened since he had left the castle. He left just after she had met Velibor. Antonya told of how she had loved Velibor, how her parents didn’t think good of it at all, Marco’s visit, how she ended up here at the castle; but she didn’t tell him of Alexandre. Something inside her told her it was a bad idea.

He placed a tray of bread and a pitcher and a glass for her tea next to it. She smiled, and he laughed. “Now, if I remember correctly, the only thing you would eat with your bread was strawberries from Lukas’ garden?” She laughed and nodded, feeling the joy that comes with being around someone that knows you well. “These aren’t as good as Lukas’, but I would say they are very good, princess. Try one!” He placed a bowl of glorious, red strawberries in front of her, and she picked out the biggest one. “I’ll hold you to word, Andrei! Let’s see…” and she placed the strawberry in her mouth.

The window of the kitchen faced the central courtyard, and Alexandre was looking through it trying to figure out what the beautiful smell was. Then he saw Antonya. She was laughing and joking with the cooks. He smiled to himself, but the moment was only brief as Cristian walked by. “Friend! What are you smiling so gaily at? I almost mistook you for one of those drooling men, the ones that drool over my cousin.” “Well, well, Cristian,” hinted Alexandre cheekily “it sounds almost as though you are making out that you know things about me that I myself don’t even know yet.” “Cristian, I know a lot of things that you don’t know, and vice-versa. Why do you mock me?”

Cristian bowled over in laughter, and gestured towards Antonya, who could be seen perfectly through the window receiving a bowl of strawberries from the cook. Alexandre froze as he watched her pick out a most perfect strawberry and place it in her mouth, biting slowly and savouring the taste. His heart skipped a beat as she raised her eyes and looked out the window, staring straight back at him. His heart raced faster as he watched her finish the strawberry, and was only released from this spell when she turned around to finish her meal.

“So, Alexandre…how is my younger cousin today?” he jeered again, only to be met by Alexandre’s distant eyes. “I don’t know what this is, Cristian. Why do I feel so different around her than I do when I was with any of the other women mother and father had set out for me? Why am I like this every time I see her; every time I hear her name?” He gazed out towards the distant hills, questions racing through his mind. Cristian laughed, and said “Well, when she returns your coat maybe you can ask her.” And he walked towards the gates to go to town.

Andrei and Antonya were in the kitchen, and she had decided that he was truly right about these strawberries. Having finished her breakfast, she stood and embraced Andrei again. “Andrei, if you don’t mind, may I have a bowl of these strawberries for my room? They are so juicy, sweet and delicious! I love them! They’re just like home! Maybe Lukas works here in secret too?” He laughed at her, and then took a silver platter from the pantry. “Try these princess, and see how they taste. If you like it then I’ll send up the tray soon, after I make your favourite sauce to go with them.” “It feels so good to be around childhood friends again Andrei – you, Cristian, Marco! Thankyou so much!”

She took a strawberry from the platter, and turned to face the window having heard Cristian’s mocking laughter from the courtyard outside. She was blinded by the light for a while, as the sun shone right through the window. She bit the strawberry just as her eyes adjusted, and saw Alexandre staring at her from the courtyard. She finished the strawberry and turned around for another. Andrei laughed again. “So you have met Alexandre? A fine young man, if I might say so. Are you not staying today princess?”

Without realising it, Antonya had begun walking towards the door. “I’m sorry Andrei. I’ve gotten into such a bad habit, though I’m sure you’d call it good, of not staying in the kitchen all day ever since you left to cook for Marco, and I met Velibor. I’d stay today but I must find some more clothes to wear. Everything I have I either not warm enough or too warm for Russia, and it is all getting a bit old.”

“Well then princess, when you return, there will be a beautiful platter of strawberries awaiting you in your room! Have a good day!” He waved her off with a smile, and she ran up the stairs and through the corridors to the banquet hall in search of Marco. He wasn’t there, but the servants there suggested the western courtyard, the one leading onto the orchards, as he often spent time there. She thanked them, and slowly made her way there.

As she strolled through the corridors, she walked past the southern courtyard, and felt a sudden desire to walk there. Deciding that she could talk to Marco during lunch, she walked through the first gardens in the courtyard. Seeing her window she smiled, and found the tree against which she had first seen Alexandre standing. She walked up to it, and sat on the chair just underneath it. She let her mind wander, enjoying the beautiful, tranquil environment of the garden. The leaves rustled behind her, but she didn’t think anything of it.

Suddenly two hands grabbed her shoulders, and held her in a tight embrace. She was taken by surprise, but felt no need for panic. “I knew you’d come sooner or later. I’ve been waiting in the courtyard for so long, but not once were you in your room. You have no idea how cold I was without my coat.” She didn’t need to turn around to see who this person was. That hypnotising, Russian accent and those mystifying green eyes were implanted in her brain. Realising she still held his coat in her arms, she held it out for him and he sat next to her on the bench.

“Sorry to keep you waiting Alexandre, you should have said something!” She was looking up at her window, and saw a servant place the platter of strawberries in her room. “Alexandre, do you like strawberries?” “Antonya, what did you say?” He replied, not having heard a single word she just said. “Do you like strawberries? I love them.” He pondered this thought for a while. “I don’t mind them…though I can’t say I’ve ever eaten them that much.” “Well then. I’m cold. Let’s go.” He stood, grabbed him by the hand, and ran with him to her room. She took a shortcut that she had discovered the last time she had stayed in the castle. Alexandre had never been this way before.

He ran a little slower, just behind her, in order not to get lost; though that was not the real reason. He could watch her all day. He felt so at peace with her, so calm. He felt he could be himself. Maybe it was just a thing about these Serbians, as he had felt mildly the same way with Cristian and Marco, but nothing as strong as what he felt with Antonya. How fit she was! He thought to himself, as they ran up a flight of stairs. She ran up the stairs with ease and still had energy to go, though Alexandre was beginning to tire. She noticed him falling behind, and stopped. “Wow, I guess Cristian was right about you!” he said, in between breaths, and she smiled. “Sadly,” she admitted openly “my annoying older cousin just happens to be right about a lot of things, as much as I like to disagree.” “I’m with you on that one” he said, and she reached out for his hand and walked with him the rest of the way to her room.