Loading...
Menu
Ebooks   ➡  Fiction  ➡  Romance  ➡  New adult

The Inherited

Chapter One

I glared at the clock with a scowl, trying to make the hands turn at my will. It felt as if time had come to a stand still, refusing to move. Beads of sweat sat at the nape of my neck. It was the last class on a hot Friday afternoon and I only wanted out. Tearing my eyes from the clock I tuned back into the drone of the presenter’s voice.

“Solis, or the Solisian Islands, is a small country off of the west coast of France. It is made up of a cluster of three major islands. The largest is DuMont, which is named for the Royal Family and is where the capital, Dumasville, is located. The second is Mortimer and the third is Carmencie. Currently, the head of government is his Royal Highness King Bellamy IIV. Ranking second to the king is the Prime Minister, Guillaume LeBlanc. Over the course of its history the Royal Family has only lost their rule for a brief time in 1704 to France but latter gained back their independence in 1752.”

I tuned Ben out again. We had each been assigned a country for our final project in World History and because of this, had been listening to presentations for the last three classes so that our teacher could have them marked for the final grades in two weeks. Mine had been on Canada because I figured it would be easy. I had never really liked history; I found all of the dates, facts, names of dead people, and past events boring and tedious to remember.

“The Solisian flag,” continued Ben, “is made up of three horizontal stripes that are supposed to represent the view of the islands on the horizon. The blue is the sky, the white is the famous marble cliffs and the grey is the water.”

I turned to look at my teacher, Mr. Maxwell, who was nodding his head in agreement as he scribbled furiously on the paper in front of him. He was a nice man, if not a bit eccentric, and very enthusiastic about the subject he taught. I glanced at the clock again; five minutes were left.

“Because the islands are so isolated there are a few delicacies that are unique to the country. These include the traditional Solisian red wine and chocolate pastry, as well as the Solisian Horses which are native only to the island. Solis is also the world’s largest exporter of snowshoes.”

Ben paused dramatically before taking one last breath and rushing out the last sentence.

“In conclusion I think that Solis is a very interesting country and would like to visit it someday.”

The class broke out into a boisterous applause, happy to finally be free of the presentations. Mr. Maxwell walked up to the front of the class commanding our attention.

“Thank you so much for your presentation, Ben. For homework please complete the questions Ben made up for his presentation and for a little bonus, I will add an extra percent to anyone who can give me one of the princes’ full names before the exam. Be wary though, this is not something that can be found easily on one of your ‘Wiki’ or ‘Google’ searches. You are dismissed.” With that the bell rang, sending everyone running for the door.

I pushed my way though the crowed halls to my locker, finding Tess and Alexander already there. I tuned into their conversation as I spun my combination lock.

“I don’t understand why Mr. Maxwell is making us do so much research on the princes of some random French country.” complained Alexander.

“Dunno,” replied Tess with a shrug. “I don’t mind though; they’re hot. Did you see the photos in the presentation?”

Alec scrunched his nose in disgust. “Eww, but the one guy’s eyes are so weird. He must have a contact or something.”

“Why would someone only wear one contact?” Tess demanded, “I think I heard it is some genetic family trait or something.”

I reached into the depths of my locker, stuffing any papers and books I could find into my knapsack. Exams were next week and I hadn’t even started studying yet.

“Whatever it is, it’s creepy,” Alec declared.

I slammed my locker shut with my hip, seeing as my hands were occupied. Not all of the text books fit in my bag, so some were now stacked precariously in my arms as we made our way to Alec’s car. Tess and Alec continued to bicker the entire time, not letting me get a word in edge wise. The car pulled to a stop out front of my house, finally silencing them.

“Who’s that?” queried Tess indicating the black car in my driveway. It reminded me of a hearse.

“I’m not sure,” I replied with a frown. The car was completely black, onyx like an airport limo. The windows were tinted dark like pitch and edged in shiny silver. There wasn’t a speck of dirt on the thing. Alongside John and Renee’s beat up Jeep, it made quite a scene.

“I hope everything’s alright,” worried Alec.

“Me too,” I said hopping out of his car. “Have a good weekend studying, guys. I’ll call later tonight.”

“Yup, see you Fred.”

I somehow manage to work my way into the house and placed my books on the bench in the hall. “Mom, John?” I called. They weren’t usually home this early, but their cars were in the driveway.

“We are in the living room, Honey,” my father answered.

I walked into the living room to find my parents on the couch. John had his arms around my mother who was sobbing softly.

“Oh hey, what’s wrong Mom? And what’s with the car-” I started but my mother burst into tears and leaned farther into John who was doing his best to console her.

I stopped unsure of how to proceed. I couldn’t figure out what was wrong. Both my Mom and John were still in their uniforms; they had clearly left work in a hurry.

Suddenly I heard a slight shuffle behind me and someone cleared their throat. I whipped around to be met with two huge men in dark suits, hats and sunglasses. They stood facing me and bowed their heads slightly. They reminded me of the guys in the Men in Black movies. I half expected them to whip out those memory eraser sticks.

“Hi.” I said confused, “Who are you?” The Men in Black made no move to answer.

“These are Mr. Lefevre and Mr. Arsnault. They are representatives of the DuMont family.” said John in a thick voice.

“Alright,” I said tightly. This wasn’t really clearing things up. “What do they want?”

One of the Men in Black answered this time. His voice was thick with a French sounding accent, “You.”

Renee burst into a new round of tears.

“Look, Fred, maybe you should sit down,” John suggested lightly.

I was getting frustrated now. The Men in Black had just stated that they were here to kidnap me. I didn’t understand. Had I done something wrong? What did they want with me? Something was clearly going on and no one was filling me in on the situation.

“No, I want to know what’s going on!” I shouted.

John sighed shakily.

“Perhaps it would be best if we explain,” said one of the suits. Renee nodded in consent.

“As your parents have already explained, Winifred, M. Arsnault and I work for the Royal Guard of the Royal Family DuMont of Solis. We have come here to see you.”

“Okay, but why?” I interrupted. The French man raised a hand to silence me.

“It is a story of great length. Long ago our country of Solis was allies with the country of Acadis. The two royal families were very close so they made a promise to one another that there would always remain a bond between them. The Kings signed a declaration that stated that if the heirs to the throne of either kingdom were not married by their eighteenth year they would marry an heir or heiress of the partner country. This way, the bond would remain and the values of each country would be intact. It also assured that the kings were married by eighteen and their assent to the throne could proceed as is law. As it turned out, this law never had to be utilized and it was not long before Acadis was taken under French control and their Royal Family went into hiding. This has caused an uncomfortable predicament for the family DuMont, because the treaty has been recently been called upon by their Royal Majesties.”

“I still don’t understand why you need me.”

“Does the last name Sinclair mean anything to you, Winifred?”

I shook my head no.

“In the last few months M. Arsnault and I have been working hard to track down the bloodline of the Royals of Acadis, the family Sinclair. We discovered that they migrated to the Americas to make a new life in the area that was named for their lost country, Acadia. As time moved on Acadia was divided and renamed into what is now the region of Halifax in Canada. The Sinclair’s changed their name and blended further with America. The current head of the family is living in Forks, Washington under the name Morgan. As fate would have it, his sole heir is his daughter Winifred. This makes you, Winifred Marie Morgan, the youngest and only heir of the Sinclair bloodline and the betrothed to His Royal Highness le Prince de Solis.”

“Pardon?” was the only thing I could muster up. This had to be a joke. “That’s a good one John, you almost had me for a minute.” I started to laugh, but no one joined. The men in black didn’t even crack a smile. I began to realize that they might actually be serious and collapsed into one of the chairs.

“They are telling the truth, Fred,” my mother sniffled speaking up for the first time. “They have the DNA test to prove it.” She indicated some papers on the coffee table. I picked them up and began to flip through the sheets as if they held secrets. It was useless; I couldn’t make out any of the text.

“You can’t be serious, I’m no princess.”

“It would appear that you are Mademoiselle,” said one of the men, Arsnault I think. “And because of this, it has been requested that you return with us to Solis.”

“For what, princess training?” I guffawed.

“As a matter of fact, yes. Also you are bound by treaty to marry the Prince.”

“You can’t make her go, I’ll call my lawyer,” cried John defensively. I appreciated the effort.

“No, we cannot force her to leave as per the direction of the King and Queen but your lawyer will do no good. We have already spoken to the United States Government and they have given us permission to remove Mlle. Morgan if it became necessary. They have voided Winifred’s American citizenship so she is no longer under the protection of your laws. Your daughter is now only a citizen and princess of Acadis, a country which no longer exists. You may also want to take this fact into consideration; if Winifred does not marry the Prince, the Royal family will be stripped of their titles and power and the throne will be passed to a family that will create much trouble for many people.”

I couldn’t speak, I only gaped at the men who were essentially blackmailing me into marrying a stranger. The sad thing was I was falling for it.

“I-if you-you’ll just give us a moment…” I stuttered as I coaxed Renee and John into out kitchen.

The Men in Black bowed again and I began to wish that they actually had the memory erasers. I think that would have been a preferable situation.

My parents bombarded me the second we were out of earshot.

“You know you don’t have to go. There is always another option,” insisted John.

“They can’t take you from us!” cried Renee.

I raised my finger to silence them. “I think I should go.” I admitted quietly, “I can’t let other people get hurt because I won’t try. I have to give it a chance and if it doesn’t work out I can always come home like you said. We can have a trial period, just for the summer. I have to at least give it a chance.” I paused and then amended, “I want to go.”

“My parents watched me in surprise for a moment, then my mother spoke up. “You have always known what is best for you Fred and there is nothing we can do to make you stay. I want you to know though, that we will stand by you and love you no matter what you choose, just please give it a day or two to percolate first.”

I nodded and hugged them both, “Seems fair.” We returned to the living room. The Men in Black hadn’t moved.

“I have decided that I will come with you to Solis,” I announced.

“Excellent, everyone will be very excited to hear this!” said almost smiling. “We will be leaving on Monday. A car will arrive at seven in the morning.” We shook the men’s hands and they drove off in their hearse leaving us behind to catch up.

Renee, John and I spent along time talking after the men left. John called his lawyer and found out that everything Mr. Lefevre and Mr. Arsnault had said was true. There were many more tears and final arrangements made. I was going to be missing exams and needed to have most of my stuff shipped to Solis.

We googled Solis and the DuMont’ but found that what Mr. Maxwell had said to be true, there wasn’t much out there. The only thing we managed to dig up was a small blurb on a blog that stated that King Bellamy had visited Quebec last year. There wasn’t much on Acadis either.

I even called up Louis to see if he knew anything, but he said that he hadn’t even been notified, not having custody of me. That brought on an entirely new round of questions, yelling and tears.

It was late when I finally made it to my room and dialed the familiar number. “Hey, Alec, you’re never going to believe what I’m about to tell you.”

Chapter Two

“Can’t we at least look around a little?” I asked irritably. “I mean I didn’t get to see any part of Spain or even Paris except for the airport.”

“Sorry Mademoiselle,” said M. Arsnault, “but we have to make our seaplane connection.”

“Seaplane?” I demanded, stopping dead in the middle of the train station we were currently in.

“Mademoiselle, I know you are tired but our voyage is almost complete. I realize that we are in Acadis and you are curious but we have no time. All that is left is an automobile ride to the airport and a short plane ride, then we will land in the river in the square.”

“Airport? I thought we might be going on a boat or a nice snowshoe. Ben said that there would be snowshoes.”

“We are living in the age of technology, Mademoiselle, and will be taking a seaplane. What is wrong with that? You were on a much longer plane ride just this morning.”

“Yes, but that was a normal plane, not a seaplane. I’ve seen seaplanes and they land in water. I don’t deal well with lots of water. Why do you think I moved from Forks and live in a desert?”

“I assure you that the seaplane is completely safe.”

M. Arsnault sounded a little frustrated. I had to admit, I did sound slightly hysterical but I had barely slept last night; I was too busy saying my final goodbyes to Arizona.

On Saturday I had gone out with Tess and Alec. We decided to hit it old school and went to the library to see if we could dig up any more information about Solis, Acadis, the DuMont or Sinclairs. Eventually we came across a National Geographic with some info and a few old magazines.

“Looks like there are five of them,” said Alec as he flipped through one of the magazines. “Here’s some family pictures.”

“Oh let me see,” cried Tess, ripping it out of his hands, “I want to see if Fred’s prince charming is hot.”

Alec rolled his eyes as we all crowded around the glossy pages. “That must be the king,” she deducted. He was an attractive, tall man with a full head of blond hair that was just beginning to grey. To his right was a petite woman, very kind looking with soft features and caramel waves. I presumed this was the Queen, Beatrice. Next to her was a small girl with pixie like slightness and spiky black hair, Princess Phillipa, according to the caption.

“Oh, he’s hot alright,” affirmed Tess pointing to the giant man on the king’s right side. He was well over six feet and built like an Olympic weightlifter. His dark curls were cropped short, his brown eyes warm and dimples pressed into his cheeks.

“Henri, the Crown Prince of DuMont.” she read off, “He’s the oldest, heir to the throne, and I guess your betrothed.”

“Better than that guy,” said Alec pointing to the boy next to Hector, “something about him puts me off and I can’t get past the eyes. He just seems unnatural or something.”

Tess nodded as if she agreed, “True, and according to the magazine I was reading, he’s quite the bad ass. Apparently he’s always disappearing and out with girls at bars or motorcycle racing, and gets into a lot of trouble with the press and stuff. He’s even at military school.” She looked at the picture, “Kind of sexy though.”

They were talking about Prince Leopold. He was the only one in the picture that wasn’t smiling. He looked almost out of place in the family with his shock of copper hair and the strange eyes. Alec was right, they were unnerving. The iris on the right was amber like a golden flame and the left was bright green like young grass. He was not as tall or solidly built like the other two men, but rather finer and leaner, more delicate somehow.

We didn’t find much else and nothing more recent than a year ago. There were some pictures of scenery on Google that we skimmed through. The national geographic turned out to be about the fishing industry of Solis so it wasn’t much help unless for some reason being a princess involved needing knowledge of aquatic life or boat riggings. It also stated that the national language was French, but we had already assumed that.

“So strange,” Alec had said, “it’s like everything just stopped. There can’t be no new information on an entire country. Something has to have happened in a year!”

“Look,” I told M. Arsnault, “I decided that I can’t be your missing princess anymore. Nobody notified me that there would be large amounts of water in Solis.”

“Mademoiselle, it is a country made up of islands.” He sounded exasperated.

I crossed my arms over my chest and glared at him, doing my best to appear defiant. M. Arsnault glanced at M. Lefevre. They had a rapid conversation in French and then M. Lefevre hurried off.

“We have decided on a plan B,” M. Arsnault announced, “M. Lefevre has gone to make arrangements. Would you like something to eat while we wait for his return?”

“Yes, thank you,” I decided, pleased with myself.

I followed M. Arsnault to a small café where he ordered coffee and some sort of tiny pastry. We went over to one of the tables and I kicked my knapsack under my chair. I contemplated the pastry for a moment and then stuffed the entire thing in my mouth.

“This is delicious!” I exclaimed around bites. I had been too nervous to eat this morning so my last meal had been at dinner last night.

I took hold of my tiny cup of coffee. I wasn’t one to drink it normally, but I was tired and cold and if the pastry had been any indication, it would be delicious. I tentatively took a sip of the dark liquid.

“Blech!” I exclaimed pushing the cup away.

“Yes, the espresso is very strong. Perhaps you would like some Solisian wine to sweeten it?” suggested M. Arsnault pulling a silver flask out of his breast pocket.

“Are you kidding me? That’s illegal. Actually, I’m pretty sure this entire escapade has been illegal. Just, never mind, I’ll survive.”

This was true. I wasn’t entirely sure how we had gotten this far without being caught or stopped. I was beginning to seriously doubt the government and security services. For one, I was being blackmailed into coming and was essentially being kicked out of the country I was born in. I was currently in the process of being kidnapped and not one of the security guards or border control people had questioned the teenage girl walking around with two strange men in dark suits. For another thing, my passports and ID was all useless and had been voided, yet we were still getting waved through all of the check points. M. Arsnault and M. Lefevre just kept flashing some sort of ID badge or a shiny gold card and we were waved through like magic. The card seemed to instill awe and fear in people.

We sat in silence, my eyes nodding closed as M. Lefevre came running up again. There was another exchange between my two guards. “Finish up,” Arsnault told me, “our limo is here. A ferry has been arranged to meet us.”

I dumped about ten sugar packets in my expresso and downed the rest of the cup, even the dregs at the bottom.

M. Arsnault came around and took my arm, helping me up. I was grateful for this because suddenly I was feeling a little woozy.

“My knapsack,” I murmured, “don’t forget my knapsack.” M. Lefevre retrieved it from under the chair and shouldered it. We made our way to a black car that looked suspiciously like the one that had been in my driveway two days ago. We took off down the French countryside and I was slowly lulled to sleep.

“Mademoiselle, we have arrived,” M. Arsnault said far too soon.

I stretched and began feeling around for my bag, “Mmm kay, I’m ready for this ferry. How long will the ride be?”

“Ah, Mademoiselle, there is something I must admit to you,” M. Arsnault wouldn’t look me in the eye. “I have not been truthful.”

“Excuse me?” I asked fully awake now.

“I told a fib. There is no boat, we are at the seaplane.”

“What?” I shrieked, “But you said that there was a boat. You promised a boat!”

“I know, and I am very sorry Mademoiselle, but I swear on the crown of His Majesty King Bellamy IV that you will be safe.”

This made me pause. I figured it had to be a pretty big deal if he was swearing on the King. He was the big man after all. So I took a deep breath and nodded, letting them lead me to the plane.

M. Lefevre threw my bag up front and the proceeded to climb in next to the pilot’s seat. I stood on the dock beside M. Arsnault looking up at the plane. To get in I would have to step up onto the pontoon then climb up a small ladder and crawl through the door.

I glanced skeptically at M. Arsnault, “I hope you have a better way for me to get down, because if this is the only option, you are going to end up with a much bruised missing princess.”

“There will be steps,” he assured me before helping me up and locking the door behind us. I noted, with concern, that the cabin’s windows were open.

The pilot climbed in, pointed at me, mumbled something in French, and then laughed. I closed my eyes tightly and pulled into crash position, preparing for the worst.

The engine kicked up and I could feel the plane turn in a circle and then we were weightless.

“When we land I’m going to get my future husband to have you beheaded!” I cursed, “Maybe we can make a new record like King Henry VIII, but instead of wives we will kill bodyguards.”

“There is no death penalty in Solis, Mademoiselle,” sighed M. Arsnault. “I really wish you would look out the window. You are missing some good sights as we make our approach.”

“Approach? I thought you said it would be a short ride. Besides, I’ve seen it already on Google.”

“We are coming up to Dumasville now. I really urge you to open your eyes, this is the first look you will get of your new home.”

“Fine,” I snapped and slowly unwound from my ball, opening one eye cautiously.

We were flying between two sparkling, white marble walls topped with green grass. There were a few stupid horses on top that didn’t seem to see why they should run from the plane. There was aqua water below us, glistening in the sun.

“Wow,” I said as the cliffs opened up to reveal a mass of land in front of us. We were coming up to a small city with a strange layout. The top part was made up of a bunch of white buildings surrounded by a small wall. The further west you went, the higher and darker the buildings got until they slowly petered off into countryside. There was a river winding through the city, dividing it. I didn’t have much time to contemplate this though, because we were suddenly descending towards it.

“Eek!” I cried curling into a ball again. “At least close the windows!” I cried in desperation but my pleas were ignored.

“Ahh!” I screamed as we landed in the river and water burst up, surrounding the plane. Then all was quiet. The pilot mumbled in French, laughing again. I was seriously beginning to question his sanity.

“Mademoiselle, it is safe to open your eyes, we have landed.”

“Really, that’s it?” I asked, looking around. It was true, the plane was now at a dock at the far end of a market square. It was filled with people cheering and hollering. There was a great white castle across from us with a long red carpet leading up to it. A crew was tethering the plane to the dock and rolling a set of steps up to the plane’s door.

“Do you know how to curtsy, Mademoiselle?” asked M. Arsnault.

“Nope, but I can fake it.” I was practically bouncing out of my seat now.

“Very well, I will be getting out first, you will follow. Wave and pause for photos on the first step and then follow the carpet to the castle. Climb the steps and then curtsy to the Royal Family.”

“Did all of these people come to see me?” I asked distracted.

“Yes,” he replied, “you are their saviour.”

Before I had time to ask what he meant, the door of the plane was pushed open and I stepped out into Solis.

The crowd went wild. “Vive la Princess, vive Winifred!” they chanted, pushing on the barriers. I waved in what I hoped to be a graceful manner and started my way down the steps. Flash bulbs popped, blinding me as I made my way towards the five dark figures at the other end. It felt like I was walking up to the steps of the Parthenon to stand before the Greek gods. The royal family DuMont were lined up beside each other on the glistening steps of the palace, each as beautiful as the next.

Something wasn’t right though. They looked different from the pictures in the magazines. They were standing as a united front, but something about them seemed broken. There smiles were forced, formal, not reaching their eyes. King Bellamy stood at the center, Beatrice on his left and Phillipa next to her. The thing that was different was that Leopold was directly on Bellamy’s right side with Hector on the end next to him. Hector looked nervous but I suppose I would be too if I was meeting my kidnapped, mail order bride for the first time. Maybe they had just gotten bored and decided to switch it up. Maybe Leopold had complained that his massive brother was always casting a shadow on him, resulting in bad lighting for the beauty shots he used to attract potential party girls. I reached the top of the steps and bowed low to my supposed in-laws.

I was taken to a conference room. Most of the chairs were already filled with old men who stood when we came in; I presumed they were counselors. Everyone was seated and Bellamy began to speak in accented English, presumably for my benefit. “Welcome Winifred Sinclair, we are very appreciative of your cooperation. We understand that this is an uncomfortable situation and wish to be upfront with you.” The king looked at the faces of his family. I wondered vaguely if he was speaking for them or if he was using the royal we. “There have been some current events in our family that have caused great trouble within itself as well as for our country. My eldest son, le Prince Henri, has renounced his claim on the throne.”

I frowned. Did this mean that they didn’t need me anymore? Had I been kidnapped for nothing? I mean the reason they needed me here was so that I could marry the Prince so that he could be king. If he had thrown in the towel why was I still here? This was going to be a cinch. Either I could go home or have a nice vacation in a castle for two months.

“Luckily,” Bellamy continued, “I have two sons and Leopold will now be taking up the role.”

Uh-oh.

“We asked you here, Winifred, because our hand was forced. The people of Solis were angry that their great Prince resigned and bribing them with you was the only way to placate them. You see, unlike his brother, Leopold does not have the best reputation with the public and has not had the proper training. They doubt his worth and in all honesty they have no reason to. They began to rebel. That is why we tracked you down and why we waved you at them. The Solisians were so enrapt with you, the missing Acadian Princess, that they forgot about their…mislead Prince.”

“So you lied to me,” I stated. I wasn’t here to marry a prince just to clean up a sticky situation and distract the commoners.

“No, everything we said about the decree made by our ancestors is true and we would like it if all of its terms were fulfilled as intended. We merely had to withhold information in order to get you here, Winifred, and I apologize for this. If you wish to leave, we will understand, but please sleep on it tonight. You can give us your decision in the morning.”

M. Arsnault suddenly appeared at my shoulder, drawing upright. The councelors stood with me.

I was lead through a labyrinth of halls and corridors decorated in a variety of different colors, wallpapers and art. Finally we came to a door, that looked the same as all the others and M. Arsnault waved me through.

I wondered how I was ever going to find my way back out. Maybe this was their plan; simply get me so lost in the castle that I will never find my way out so that I am forced to stay. I felt like the Minotaur of Crete minus the eating of sacrifices. It could be a possibility though, if I could never find the kitchen.

The room was enormous, probably the size of the entire main floor of my house back in Arizona. There was a wall of floor to towering ceiling windows across from me with a grand desk in front of them. On the left wall there was a giant canopy bed, dripping with luxurious fabrics and heaping with pillows and blankets. On the right was a huge fireplace with a couch in front of it. There was a door on either side of it, which upon further examination, one led to a walk-in closet, which already held my clothes, and the other to a bathroom.

M. Arsnault cleared his throat after a minute, putting an end to my exploration. I turned around to find him standing beside a very tall, dark haired girl in a maid’s outfit. “Mademoiselle, this is Angela. I must leave you now but she will help you with anything you need.” He left me with Angela.

We stood in awkward silence for a moment. I wasn’t up to date with my maid protocol and wasn’t sure what to do with her. Perhaps I should make conversation.

“Hi, Angela, I’m Fred. It’s nice to meet you.” I stuck out my hand. Angela looked at it shyly but made no move to take it.

“How long have you worked her?” I tried again and again I was met with silence. Perhaps this was a rude question.

“Have you seen that new Brad Pitt movie? I mean wow!” Angela smiled weakly and something suddenly occurred to me. “You don’t speak English, do you,” I asked. She glanced at me confused, like she was trying to piece my words together. I wracked my brain, trying to remember any of the French I had learned in school. “Ahh, parlez-vous anglaise?”

“Non, désoler,” she replied meekly.

This must be part of the plan as well. There was no way I could get anymore withheld information from her if I couldn’t even ask for pretzels.

“Well that’s okay,” I assured earning a confused stare, “we will manage just fine. We can practice with each other. Me, my French and you, English.”

And manage we did. Angela helped me have a nice bath in the claw foot tub. When I came out she had dinner laid out on my desk which I promptly devoured. I felt really bad taking advantage of her like this but it was comforting to have someone else around when you were potentially imprisoned in a castle labyrinth. She was just helping me fight my way into the gargantuan marshmallow bed when someone knocked on my door.

“Come in,” I called, “umm, I mean, entrez.”

To my utter shock, Princess Phillipa walked in. I scrambled out of bed, trying to stand to I could curtsy but she waved me off and came over to sit on the edge of my bed. I stood at its side not sure what to do. Phillipa spoke quickly to Angela and the young maid excused herself. “Don’t worry, Winifred. Please sit down; I only want to talk with you.” I did as she said. The petite girl watched me with her pretty green eyes, examining me. “I wanted to come and talk to you, explain a few things and answer any questions I can. I think that you deserve that much.” Her voice was lithe, the accent adding somehow to her strange delicateness. “I am not sure how much you know, but as Felip told you earlier we have been going though hard times lately.”

“Who is Felip?” I interrupted.”

“My father, the King.”

“I thought he was Bellamy?”

“That is his title. All kings and crown princes take on a different name then the one they are given at birth. Felip is Bellamy just like Hector was supposed to be Henri. Anyway, I know that you thought that you were coming here to marry Hector and were surprised when they gave you Leopold instead. Please don’t be hard on him. Leopold has a bad reputation and does some bad things, but he has a good heart. He is my twin brother and I know him better then anyone else. He is really quite kind and gentle once you get to know him. Most people are just scared of his cold exterior. You have to understand that Leopold has had a hard time.” I had to hold back a laugh at that. What about being a prince could be difficult? “Being the second son of a king can be challenging. Hector was trained from birth to be a king. He has always been praised and fawned over. The people love him and he is amazing at what he does. Being the second boy is like being a spare tire. He is there if something goes wrong with the first but will never be capable of everything the original tire was. He was not constructed to be as strong or have as much integrity. For this reason Leopold has somewhat sabotaged himself. He has rebelled against laws and pushed boundaries trying to see how much it takes for people to take notice, knowing he won’t actually be punished because of his status. He cannot be normal because even though he was not born to be king he is still a royal and must live a royal life. Now put yourself in his place, feeling bored and useless and then all of a sudden the tire pops and you have to take its place and carry the weight of the car. Suddenly Leopold was thrust into Hector’s position, a position that he was never made for, and the people reject him. Imagine how that feels.”

“So what am I in this analogy?”

Phillipa smiled, “I’m not sure. I didn’t really get that far. Just understand that you are here to distract the people while Leopold tries to catch up to Hector’s level of excellence or at least until they accept him for whom he is. So please, don’t leave, give my brother a chance. You don’t have to marry him or even see him for that matter, our house is huge after all. Just stay so that Leopold has a chance to get comfortable in his new role and so that my family can heal from all of the damage that has been done.”

“Don’t worry,” I told her, “I was going to stay. I came all this way to help out and even if it is Leopold instead of Hector, I intend to do what I came here for.”

Phillipa suddenly pitched forward and wrapped her thin arms around me. “I’m so glad you are finally here. Thank you so much. We are going to be great friends, I know it.”

Chapter Three

I couldn’t fall asleep that night, even after Phillipa had left. Jetlag seemed to be holding me in its grasp. Plus the fact that I was supposed to have called my parents when I landed was clawing at me.

With a sigh, I pushed back my marshmallow like blankets and decided to go in search of a phone. I stuffed my feet into my slippers and padded over to the door. I froze with my fingers on the handle as I heard noises coming from the hall.

I smiled, thinking that I was in luck and that Angela was outside my door and could direct me to a phone, despite the fact that it was three in the morning. Unfortunately, when I threw open the door; it was not my petite French maid, but a very tall man with a shock of copper hair staggering down the hall. He was well over six feet, dressed in a pair of giant boots, ripped jeans and a military jacket. There where a pair of aviators shoved up his nose, pieces of the strange copper hair falling between his face and the lenses and silver glinted at the man’s throat. Fumes of alcohol and smoke rolled off of him. We stood there, starring at each other for a moment, me in complete shock and fear, him swaying unevenly on his feet.

Something seemed to click in his drink-stooped mind because he grimaced at me and then continued on his way, disappearing behind the door at the end of the hall.

I slammed my door shut and ran for the bed, hiding under the covers. My parents would have to wait. There was no way I was going back out there while that man was wandering about. Where was my knight in shining armor when I needed him or, at the very least, M. Arsnault? Someone would be hearing about this.

“So do you speak any French?” asked Phillipa around a piece of bacon the next morning. Angela had appeared in my room early and had stuffed me into a skirt and blouse. I had followed her, semiconscious, down the hall only to arrive at a dinning room. The entire royal family was there already, minus one.

I swallowed my bite of muffin, “Un petit peu. Only what I learned in school. I understand a lot more as long as you don’t speak too fast.”

“M. Arsnault will have to make arrangements,” noted Beatrice cryptically.

“Please tell us about you, Fred,” said Felip warmly, glancing at me over his reading glasses.

“There isn’t much to tell. I’m originally from Forks, Washington but moved when I was young to live in Arizona with my mother. My favorite subjects are Biology and English. I have a pet fish,” I offered unsure of what they wanted to hear. Felip chuckled lightly.

“Do you play any sports?” wondered Hector throwing in his two cents.

“Not really. I used to dance when I was really young and I do a bit of track.”

“Do you play any instruments?” asked Beatrice.

I shook my head, “Sorry, but I’ve heard I can sing okay.”

“How about cars, any interest?” demanded Hector.

“My friend back home is really into auto stuff and I actually go riding with him sometimes.”

Phillipa choked on her orange juice. “You can ride motorbikes?” she glanced at Hector, grinning broadly. “Excellent!”

It was like I was being interviewed or playing on a game show. I was a little stressed though because I didn’t know what answers they were looking for. I half expected a knight to come crashing in and pull me to the dungeon if I answered incorrectly.

The dinning room door flew open suddenly and the man from the hall last night stumbled in. I repressed a yelp. He was wearing pajama pants and a t-shirt that showed off his lean, yet impressive muscle. His face was scrunched, squinting against the light. Everyone but Felip rose to their feet when he entered. The man ignored them, collapsing in the empty chair on Felip’s right, beside Hector, and seized the cup off coffee that was placed before him by a nervous maid.

“Bon matin, Leopold,” Felip said making me freeze. A flash of terror suddenly ripped through me. The drunken man from the hallway last night was the prince, Leopold, my betrothed? I swallowed thickly, not so hungry anymore. What had I gotten myself into?

“Are you excited?” asked Phillipa beside me.

“Pardon?”

“We have a lot to do today. I have to help you prepare for the TV appearance tomorrow, and we have to see Mme. DuBeche about your clothes, and…”

“I think that it would be appropriate for Leopold to become acquainted with Winifred,” interrupted Felip.

Beatrice nodded enthusiastically beside her husband, “There will be plenty of time for your lessons later Phillipa. Rose has not even arrived yet.”

“But – “ Phillipa protested. Felip shot her a glance silencing her, “Leopold?”

Leopold stared into his mug, his voice thick when he answered, “D’accord. Meet me at your chambre dans dix minutes.” He downed the rest of his coffee and slumped out of the room, the others standing in his wake.

I was left very confused and frightened. I think that I had just been signed up to spend the morning with a hung over prince. Before I could protest, Angela appeared at my elbow and led me back to my room. She left me standing in the middle of the Persian carpet, disappearing into my closet. The maid emerged from its depths a few moments later handing me a pair of white, skinny pants, tall boots, and a blue, long sleeve shirt. I put them on unquestioningly. Angela had probably been informed about what was going on, unlike me. The Prince could be kidnapping me for all I know and I was pretty sure that no one could stop him even if he did. Was it even legal to arrest royalty?

There was a knock on my door. Angela answered it, curtsied and exchanged a few words rapidly in French with the person on the other side. Then, to me, “Mademoiselle, le Prince Leopold est ici pour vous.”

The nervousness grew inside me as I approached the door. I curtsied briefly, awkwardly. Leopold was wearing clothes very similar to mine but completely black. He had his sunglasses on again. Leopold pursed his lips and then turned on his heel down the hall, leaving me to catch up.

I followed him wordlessly, fidgeting nervously with the sleeves of my sweater. We passed though endless hallways, staircases and doors. Every time we passed someone in the hall they would scurry out of the way, bowing or curtsying and avoiding eye contact. It was strange and almost eerie. Finally, we broke through a door and we were outside. There was a man in front of us holding onto the reigns of two giant beasts.

My eyes flew open and I stopped mid-stride. Things began to click into place, the clothes and the giant beast horses in front of me, Prince Leopold wanted me to go riding; he was trying to kill me. I started to back up, looking around nervously. I wondered if I could back out now and go back to hide in my marshmallow bed. The guards at the door shot me dubious glances along with the horse guy. How could he be standing so close to those monsters? I had seen the shows on the Discovery Channel. The one’s with all of the crazy, wild horses that bit and kicked and attacked people.

I guess Leopold realized that I had stopped following him because he stopped too and turned to face me. “Est-ce qu’il y a un problème?” he asked sharply.

I was too afraid to respond. I guess he thought it was a language barrier thing because he tried again in heavily accented, broken English, “Is a problem?”

“Yes, is a big problème,” I said finding my voice, “There is no way I am going to get on one of those – those vicious beasts.”

Leopold tilted his head in confusion, “Les cheveaux?”

I nodded.

“I promise, they will not hurt you,” he assured.

I shook my head and took another step back, “No way José.”

Leopold sighed, pinching his lips together, rubbing the back of his neck in frustration, “Alors rest ici, it causes me no pain.” He turned on his heel, seized the reigns from the crazy horse guy and mounted the black beast fluidly.

Fury grew inside me. How could he be so mean and arrogant? Clearly, Phillipa had a warped perception of her brother. I huffed and marched forwards towards the giant brown horse. The one left unoccupied. I would show him.

I put my foot into the stirrup and pulled myself up into the saddle. The horse man handed me the reigns and I thanked him, smiling brightly on top of my horse. This wasn’t so bad.

Leopold sighed and nudged his horse with his heels. It started walking towards the woods on the far side of the expansive garden. I copied his actions, nudging my own horse that began trudging after Leopold’s. I smiled, “Good monster, nice monster.” This wasn’t so bad; the swaying motion was nice even.

Leopold looked over his shoulder at me and I grinned smugly. I could do this. I nudged my horse again, urging him faster. What I wasn’t expecting was my horse to take off like a speeding bullet. I screamed, the reigns slipping from my hands.

“Ahhh, isn’t there a middle speed?” I yelled, clinging to the beast’s neck. We shot past Leopold who did a double take, his mouth opening slightly. He was the one frozen in shock now.

My horse came to the tree line but didn’t stop. He darted between the giant trunks, the world blurring past. “Ahhhh, stop, stop. Arrête!” I ordered. I don’t think the bloody horse new French or English though because he just kept going.

We broke though the trees again and I found myself in an expansive field, full of long grass and bright flowers. “Somebody help me!” I yelled.

Something rushed past my right shoulder suddenly, a giant black blur. I turned my head and found Leopold on his own monster riding at break neck speed beside me. Was he crazy? We were going to be killed. Then Solis would be down one prince, a stolen ex-princess and two crazy horses.

Leopold stuck his hand out, grapping hold of the reigns I had dropped and pulled hard. My horse began to slow down. When we finally stopped, I jumped out of the saddle and onto the ground. I stood there shaking, my heart beating franticly. Leopold jumped down to, running over to me.

“Are you hurt?” he demanded taking hold of my shoulders. I shook, and then surprising us both, wrapped my arms around his neck, “Thank you so much!” Leopold cleared his throat, and I backed up awkwardly. “Ahh, sorry,” I mumbled looking at my shoes.

“It’s fine. Are you positive you are not harmed?” he asked sounding worried.

“Yes, I’m fine, just a little rattled. Where did you learn to ride like that?”

Leopold shrugged looking away, “We are far from the chateau. If I am to have you back to Phillipa, we must leave immediately. Do you trust me?”

For some reason I found myself nodding.

“I think, perhaps, that it would be bad to put you on your horse again. Will you ride with me?”

“Alright, I guess,” I said cautiously joining him beside his black horse.

“Her name is Jacqueline,” he told me, “She is very soft.”

I think he meant gentle.

Leopold took my hand in his, stroking Jacqueline’s neck. “There, see, she is nice.”

Leopold left me there, beside his horse and went over to my crazy brown one. It was munching on some grass innocently. Leopold took the reigns again, fastening them to the saddle and then hit the horse across the ass. The beast took off like a bat out of hell.

“He knows how to get home,” he offered as explanation. I could have cared less if it never found its way back.

Leopold jumped up into the saddle and then, offering me his hand, pulled me up behind him. “You should hold on, yes,” he said. I wrapped my arms around his center then we began to move. I cringed, waiting for the rush of wind again, but it never came. I sighed happily, resting my head on Leopold’s shoulder. He froze for a moment but then relaxed back into the saddle. I guess my knight in shinning armor had finally revealed himself, just in a very different form than I had expected.

I was sitting in some sort of living room, waiting for Phillipa. Angela had whisked me away the moment I returned, forced me into new clothes that didn’t smell of horse and then brought me here. Apparently it was time for my education to begin.

The door suddenly opened. I rose to my feet automatically. A beautiful blond woman walked in, making my self-esteem drop about ten notches. She was absolutely stunning, with her golden waves, pale skin, bright blue eyes, and perfect body. She frowned when she saw me.

“Bonjour.”

“Umm, hi,” I replied utterly confused.

Her face softened, a smile tugging at her full, red lips. “You must be Winifred. I am Rose.” She held out her hand, which I shook.

“It’s nice to meet you. Are you here for princess lessons too?” I asked confused. Maybe she was the spare, someone to fill in if I failed.

“Yes. I was told that I had tome come and learn how to behave properly when I am out with Hector’s family. I have to learn how to behave like a prince’s fiancée.”

I balked, dropping her hand. Fiancée? I thought that I had been asked here because there was a lack of fiancées. Why would Hector have renounced the throne with her on his arm? Rose would have made a great queen. She definitely looked the part.

We sat on the plush couches across from one another. “Where did you learn to speak English so well,” I asked curiously, noting the clear and crisp English.

Rose blushed, looking down. “My parents own the bakery in the old town. I am used to having to speak with the tourists.”

I nodded, “That’s cool. My dad’s a police chief and my mom’s a kindergarten teacher.”

“Have you met Leopold yet?” she asked, voice darkening.

“Yes, I went riding with him this morning.”

“Please be careful around him. I haven’t known Leopold for long, but he is a dark boy. I urge you to be cautious.”

The door burst open and Phillipa rushed in, hands full of papers. Rose and I started to stand but she waved us off. Phillipa dropped her papers on the coffee table and then stood back, clapping her hands together. “Alright ladies I would like to welcome you to what, for lack of better term, we are calling Princess Lessons. I am going to be your main teacher but other members of the family and staff will join us when necessary. Unfortunately, Rose, our schedule will be focusing around what Winifred is required to know.”

I raised my hand. “Yes Winifred,” Phillipa said.

“I actually prefer to be called Fred. I didn’t want to say anything before.”

“No, you don’t. You will be addressed by your full name. That will be our first rule. Only those close to you may call you ‘Fred’.” I shrunk back into my seat.

“Now there is a lot of information I must give you in a short time. I do not expect perfection because of this but please do your best. Today we are stating with the basics because you are appearing on the TV for an interview.”

I raised my hand again, “Will I have to speak French?”

“There will be a translator and the majority of the questions will be directed at Leopold,” she assured. “Now let’s start with introductions. As I said before, you will be introduced with your full title. People are named in the order of their importance, highest ranking being first. This is also the order you will enter a room in. You may never touch a member of the royal family unless they offer their hand first. Then you are free to shake. Never speak unless spoken to. You must address a person of higher ranking with their title first and thereafter my call them Sir or Ma’am. If you were introduced to King Bellamy for example, he may say ‘hello’ and extend his hand you are then free to shake and respond, ‘Hello, Your Majesty’ or ‘Your Royal Highness’. If you are being introduced to a man, he should kiss your knuckles. Clear?”

Rose and I starred back at her, a little stunned. I felt like I should be taking notes or something.

“Unfortunately, we do not have enough time today to talk about protocol around the Castle, or interaction with the Royal family because I must get Winifred to her appointment with Mme. DeBeche but I will tell you basic rules about being in public with your partner.

“In the eyes of the law the two of you are beneath my brothers and because you have no official union there are specific rules to abide by. Winifred, you are actually a little different because your betrothal through the ancients but we will not get that deep today. The important things to remember in public are that: you must always walk two paces behind the Princes, you may never touch unless they initiate it, you must not be the first to speak but can say whatever you want once introduced and that if you are meeting your partner, you must curtsy or bow your head.

“Both of you are currently protected from mass media exposure through a newly instated privacy act but if there are ever any security issues or problematic paparazzi, please follow the directions of your security team or Leopold or Hector.”

“These are the basics and things will get more hands on and technical as we continue,” Phillipa finished. I was frozen on my seat agape. Phillipa stepped forward and scooped up the papers again, “Rose, I think Hector is meeting you in the Salon Vert. Winifred please follow me.” The small princess danced out of the room leaving me running to catch up.

By the end of the day I was exhausted. Mme. DeBeche, as it turns out, was in charge of clothing me. She and Phillipa had spent three hours measuring, taking-in, letting out and designing the wardrobe that I was going to need. Between my lack of sleep the night before, my near death, Princess Lessons, and Barbie Fred time, I was pooped and fell asleep the second my head hit the pillow.

The black car was back and I, along with M. Arsnault, was in it. I was beginning to see a pattern here. This morning was my television debut. I had been woken up early by Angela (another pattern that was emerging) and taken to eat breakfast, alone this time. Then I was put into a beautiful light blue silk dress, had my makeup done and my hair curled to perfection. M. Arsnault appeared at my door and led me through the labyrinth to the car.

“Where is M. Lefevre?” I asked breaking the silence. It was not helping my nerves.

“He will be arriving with his charge le Prince,” said M. Arsnault from the driver’s seat, as he checked his watch. “They will arrive soon. The Royal Family is always last to arrive and first to leave.”

Sure enough, the pair appeared a few minutes later. M. Lefevre held the door open for Leopold, who slid in beside me, and then walked around front to the passenger’s seat. I went to stand and then realized I was seat belted to a moving vehicle. Phillipa hadn’t given me direction for this situation. Leopold didn’t talk so I didn’t either. The entire car ride was spent in silence. I watched the scenery as it whooshed past my window.

We arrived at the soundstage and followed M. Lefevre through the halls. We made somewhat of a sandwich with him walking beside Leopold at the front, me counting my paces, always two steps behind, and M. Arsnault in the back. I watched Leopold in front of me. He was in a dark suit, sunglasses still on and the silver chain still around his neck. He walked stiffly, head held high as the people jumped out of our way.

“Bonjour, bonjour!” cried a man running towards us. He was middle aged, stout and balding. A tall brunette in a pencil skirt followed at his heels. “What and honor it is to have you here, Your Highnesses! I am the director of “Good Morning Dumasville” and this,” he said, indicating the woman, “is the host, Claudette.” He smiled eagerly up at Leopold who did not look impressed before turning to me. “You must be Winifred,” he said and taking my hand, he placed a wet kiss across my knuckles. I resisted the urge to wipe it on my dress because I figured that would be rude. Phillipa would not be happy with this man. I smiled at him.

“The show ill start soon, we will call for you when it is time. There is a room for you to wait in,” he told us.

Our person sandwich progressed through more hallways until we arrived at a door. Leopold and I were sent inside while M. Arsnault and M. Lefevre stayed outside the door. The room was standard and industrial. There was a grey couch against one wall and a table of food had been left for us against another. I plopped myself down on the ugly couch, in attempt to gain relief from my heels. Leopold stayed standing in an angry silence.

I shifted uncomfortably in my tight dress. I was not accustomed to dressing like this, why couldn’t I wear a nice loose suit like Leopold?

There was a knock at the door and a man with a headset popped his head in and said something in French. Presuming it was time to leave, I began to rise to my feet. There was a loud rip behind me as I wobbled on my heels. I froze, horrified that my dress was suddenly a lot roomier than before.

“Leopold,” I hissed. He turned to face me, not amused, “Please shut the door.” Leopold frowned but obliged, “Quoi?”

I felt my cheeks heating up, “I think I just ripped my dress. Please just tell me how bad it is.”

Slowly, I turned until my back was to him. I heard Leopold trying to stifle his laughter behind me, “It is not good.”

Cringing, I looked over my shoulder. The dress, which ended at my knees, had split up the seam at the back of my dress all the way to the top of my thighs. Defiantly not good.

“Perhaps we could see if you could borrow something from Claudette,” Leopold offered.

“She is about a foot taller than me,” I said starring at him. Then an idea came to me. “Give me your jacket,” I said. Edwards brow furrowed.

“Pardon?”

“Your jacket please.”

Leopold shrugged out of his jacket and handed it to me. I quickly pulled it on. The hem came down to my mid thigh, the sleeves eating my hands. I rolled them quickly to my elbows.

“How do I look,” I asked Leopold spinning.

“Even better than before,” he told me, indicating the door.

The stage assistant along with the rest of our crew led us to the stage. Just before we were called out, Leopold swiftly slipped his glasses into the pocket of the jacket I was wearing. Then we were called out.

The entire audience rose to their feet, screaming and cheering. I could feel my cheeks heating up as I carefully stumbled along behind Leopold. All of this attention was foreign to me; this entire situation was for that matter.

Claudette came forward with a smile and curtsied. Leopold offered his hand, which she shook happily. The same was repeated with me. We were directed towards a couch that was beside a chair. Leopold sat, and then I followed, awkwardly tucking my dress underneath me and pulling the jacket close so I didn’t flash the country. The audience followed our lead and took their seats, then the interview began.

I couldn’t understand much of what was going. Claudette and Leopold where taking way too fast. I sat on the couch beside him, smiling and waving occasionally hoping that I would look semi-decent. The bigger problem was that I didn’t know how to act around Leopold. Weren’t we supposed to be engaged or something? Shouldn’t we be at least pretending to be close? I mean, we didn’t even know each other, and he clearly had some issues or something, but shouldn’t we at least fake it? I wasn’t necessarily complaining that Leopold wasn’t trying to put the moves on me; that would be awkward for one and secondly, I would never really expect him to go after someone like me. He was a prince after all, despite how crotchety and arrogant he may be, and I was nothing, probably just a temporary distraction for the public like Felip had said.

I looked away from Claudette, out to the audience and was confused. No one was looking at Leopold, or Claudette, all eyes were on me. I swallowed thickly. This was creepy. I edged closer to Leopold, feeling uncomfortable. He had rescued me from the horse, surely he could protect me from angry villagers. To my complete and utter surprise, Leopold reached out and grabbed my hand that was resting on the sofa. I froze, not sure how to respond. Maybe it had been an accident. Then his grip tightened in a reassuring squeeze. I glanced at him and my breath caught.

His eyes were amazing; I could do nothing but stare. They were so strange. I realized that I had never really seen them before. He always hid behind the sunglasses. Leopold looked down to his lap, his face falling, our connection ending. He pulled his hand from mine.

Chapter Four

I was up on a pedestal covered in gossamer. The stupid fabric scratched at my legs and made it very awkward to move. Mme. LeBeche was making me some sort of big ball gown, as far as I could gather, but I wasn’t quite sure what for. “Am I going to have to do this every time I need a dress?” I sighed, turning to M. Arsnault. The needles in the fabric pricked at my skin.

“No, Mademoiselle. Mme. DeBeche is just unfamiliar with your measurements so she is using this as a reference point. Now may I continue?” said my guard. He was in charge of my lessons today. I was learning history because some important governor from France was coming for dinner to meet me soon. The problem was that by now most of the facts were going in one ear and out the other. There were too many names and dates. Besides, how can I be expected to learn when I was being tortured by little pin pricks of pain every time I moved?

“I guess so,” I told him.

“La Grande Rébellion occurred from 1523 jusqu’a 1545 when Leopold I was in power. The French had already captured most of Arcadis at this time and where planning on over taking Solis next. The Solisians fought hard to help and protect their neighboring country but Arcadis was, in the end, lost and the Royal Family fled. The first battle that took place on the Islands was in 1540 when the French, led by…”

The door suddenly flew open, cutting off M. Arsnault. Mme. DeBeche jabbed my in the ribs with a pin, apologizing profusely. Leopold walked in, and began talking to M. Arsnault.

“Mademoiselle, the Prince requests your presence; we will resume our lessons later,” M. Arsnault told me. I frowned, not completely sure how I should feel about this. I could either stay and be assaulted by pins and bored to death by lessons or go to an unknown location with my not entirely mentally stable prince. Then again, I wasn’t sure if I could refuse. At least it got me out of this room.

Mme. DeBeche freed me from the gossamer and I skipped out of the room on Leopold’s heels. He took me to my room, stopping in front of the door.

“I presume you are tired of all of these lessons, correct?” asked Leopold.

I nodded.

“Can you get to the foyer without anyone noticing?”

I frowned but nodded again, unsure of where he was taking this.

“Meet me there in ten minutes. Change into some ratty clothing and try to appear normal.” With that he turned leaving me standing in my doorway.

With the briefest moment of contemplation and confusion I decided to trust Leopold and changed into an old pair of torn jeans and a t-shirt, wrapping a scarf around my neck.

As quietly as possible, I made my way through the corridors and slipped into the tourist filled halls. It was a long weekend for the locals and the main floor of the castle had been opened to the public for viewing. I pulled my scarf up to cover part of my face and allowed my dark hair to curtain my face, trying to blend in with the crowd.

I searched through the rooms for my prince. Looking for his curls, his tall lean form, and his perfect posture worried when I didn’t find him. I would have expected something to announce his arrival. A scream, a bow? Nothing.

I felt a warm hand wrap around my wrist and whipped around swallowing a gasp. A tall boy stood in front me. He looked like an average teenager with poor posture. He wore baggy jeans that hung low off his hips and a black band t-shirt covered by a hunter green military styled jacked. A black toque covered his hair, his eyes hidden behind huge aviator sunglasses and a scruffy pair off boots on his feet. He was handsome but not who I was looking for. “Can I help you?” I asked when he didn’t release my arm. I was hoping for dear God that he hadn’t recognized me and that I wasn’t going to have to scream bloody murder, alerting the guards to my presence and foiling whatever Leopold had been planning.

The boy reached up with chipped fingernails, the leather bracelets on his wrist sliding into the depths of his sleeve, and pulled the glasses down his nose revealing one green eye and one gold. “No worries, it’s just me.”

I sighed in relief. “Here,” Leopold said handing me a bundle of clothes, “put these on.”

Without hesitation I jabbed my arms through the arms of the leather aviator jacket and put the glasses on.

Then Leopold took my hand and led me through the crowd that was gathered around various pieces of art and furniture. “Where are we going?” I asked but Leopold didn’t answer, just pulled me towards the front door. We made it outside, past the guards at the door and the guides and the parking attendants. We went down the giant white steps and across the cobblestone over to a motorcycle.

I felt a smile stretching across my lips. “No way, a motorcycle?” I asked as he passed me a helmet.

“Please just get on, and do not refuse. I will explain soon,” he ordered. I did as he said and jumped onto the bike behind him. There was no way I was going to say no to motorcycles or finally getting out of the castle for a while. I had been trapped in there for days now. Ever since the interview I had been held up in various lessons.

Leopold put the bike in gear and took off. I grabbed hold of his belt, feeling the usual rush of adrenalin that I associated with being on a motorcycle. We drove through the square and across the bridge, whipping though the twisting streets of what I presumed to be the Old Town.

I reveled in the feel of the sun against my skin and the wind whipping through my hair. This was the most fun I’d had in days. After a few minutes, we slowed down and Leopold parked the bike. We seemed to be in some sort of market. It was a big, open square surrounded by shops. There was a church at one end, an elaborate fountain in the middle and there were a whole bunch of stands and venders dispersed across the space.

“It isn’t much,” said Leopold, “But I though you might like to walk around for a bit. I remember how boring lessons used to be. Just don’t mention it to anybody, they won’t be happy I took you away from Mme. DuBeche and history with M. Arsnault.”

“You kidnapped me?” I asked surprised.

Leopold smiled, “I just have to get you back before dinner or they will begin to get suspicious.”

This was strange but at least I was out of the castle. We began to weave through the stands, looking at the different scarves, jewelry and flowers that were on display.

“You must go in here,” said Leopold directing me to a store whose windows were filled with chocolate. The inside was even better. There were millions of pastries, candies and chocolates covering every inch of the store. There was chocolate in every form conceivable: bars, truffles, cupcakes, drinks, ice cream, the list went on. We went up to the counter and Leopold ordered.

“Have you tried the famous Solisian chocolate pastry yet?” he asked handing me a gooey square. I shook my head and took a bite.

“This is fantastic!” I told him. The outside was honey coated and flaky, kind of like a croissant. There was sugary powder on the top and chocolate drizzle. The inside was warm, milk chocolate that melted across my tongue.

We continued walking as I ate, looking into the different shops. “So,” I said after I had managed to work up the courage, “What made you want to break me out?”

Leopold chuckled slightly, kicking a stone across the sidewalk. “My way of apologizing, I suppose. I have not been very welcoming to you, Winifred, and I realized that that was not right. You are here to try and help me and it is not fair to treat you so badly. I wanted to start again, from another foot this time. Would that be alright?”

I smiled and stuck out my hand, “I would love that. Hello my name is Winifred, but I prefer Fred.”

Leopold smiled, contemplating my hand for a moment. I realized, in horror, that I had broken one of Phillipa’s rules and may have just ruined the new friendship Leopold had just offered. But then Leopold pulled his hand out of his pocket and took mine, shaking gently.

“It is lovely to meet you Fred, my name is Leopold.”

I liked the progress we were making here and decided to see if I could keep him talking. “So Leopold, what’s your favorite color?”

“I am increasingly finding myself attracted to the color brown,” he told me. “How about you, Fred?”

“It changes daily, but right now, I think it’s green.”

Leopold nodded, thinking this over, “And how are you liking it in Solis so far?”

“I haven’t seen very much of it, but it seems very beautiful.”

“I suppose you didn’t get to see to much when you were screaming bloody murder on the cheval,” he smiled cheekily.

I blushed. “Thanks for that. Where did you learn to ride so well?”

Leopold shrugged, “I’ve always enjoyed it. Comes naturally, I suppose. I play Canette as well.”

I frowned, “What’s that?”

“Canette? It is a sport. A little like, what you would call, football and polo together. You may see me play sometime; there is a game bientôt.”

Thunder rumbled through the sky suddenly. Leopold looked up, scrunching his nose. “We should leave.”

We started weaving our way through stands again, heading towards the motorcycle. “Eww, I hate rain,” I muttered at the first few drops began to fall.

“You will adjust. There is much in Solis,” said Leopold. The rain was falling heavily now and I was very glad for the leather jacket I was wearing.

We made it back to the bike and took off towards the castle. I pulled myself close to Leopold, trying to hide behind his body so that I didn’t get hit as hard by the offensive wet and cold.

Leopold parked and I quickly dismounted. We ran back up the steps hand in hand as he pulled me through the crowd that was leaving. Like fish swimming up stream we broke through into the foyer sprinting past the statues and paintings and up flights of stairs. We didn’t stop until we made it to our hall. I was surprised when Leopold pulled me into his bedroom.

I looked around as I leaned on my knees trying to catch my breath. It was very similar to my room, with all of the ornate furniture, it was slightly bigger though, and on the far wall had a door that led to a large balcony that overlooked the gardens. It smelled spicy but vaguely of smoke.

Leopold was running around the room mumbling in French. “Here,” he said pushing clothed into my wet arms, “Go shower. Leave your clothes on the floor I will deal with them.”

“I could just use my room,” I offered as I tried not to drip on his carpet.

Leopold shook his head, “Angela will be there and see you like this. We can not have anyone finding out about our excursion.”

I decided to do as he said and went to his bathroom. Peeling the wet clothes of my body, I stepped into the shower letting the hot water sooth my muscles. I washed my hair with his spicy shampoo getting out all of the rainwater. Finally I stepped out of the shower and toweled off, pulling on the dark pants and cream sweater he had given me.

I was beginning to realize that it was just better not to question Leopold’s direction.

Leopold was waiting for me when I came out, already showered and changed into a pair of chinos and a button down. The soaked clothes had disappeared. “Fini?” he asked.

I nodded.

“Excellent, car we must be…” Leopold was interrupted by a knock on his door. “Oui, entrez,” he called.

The door was pushed open to reveal a concerned looking M. Arsnault and M. Lefevre. “Monsieur, nous cherchons Winifred,” M. Arsnault began as he and his partner bowed. They glanced up, relief and confusion filling their eyes. “There you are, Mademoiselle. We were wondering where you had wondered off to.”

“She was with me, as I told you earlier,” Leopold told them.

“Of course, Monsieur, I apologize. La Princess is waiting for you in the dinning room. She wishes to practice banquet behavior during dinner tonight as the King and Queen are occupied.”

“D’accord, nous partons maintenant,” Leopold assured them.

“There you are,” cried Phillipa when we entered the dinning room. I balked at the table. It was covered in countless kinds of plates, glasses and cutlery. Phillipa was sitting at the seat on the left of where Felip usually sat. There was a blond man in the seat next to her. Both stood when we entered.

“Fred and I were occupied and just got news of your dinner now,” Leopold explained.

Phillipa pursed her lips, eyeing our wet hair.

“Fred, this is Sir Hugo Hale,” Leopold said, indicating the blond man, “Phillipa’s boyfriend. Hugo, this is Winifred.”

“It is a pleasure to meet you,” said Hugo, kissing my knuckles.

“Please sit down, everyone is almost here,” Phillipa told us.

Leopold walked to the far side of the room and pulled out the chair across from Phillipa’s, indicating for me to sit. I thanked him and took my seat. Leopold took the head of the table.

“Why did we all change chairs?” I asked him, confused.

“I think that Phillipa will tell you in a moment, but I believe she is trying to create a real life situation. In a formal setting the most powerful person,” he said indicating himself, “sits at the head of the table and the procession decreases from there. The second most important sits opposite him followed by lesser positions. The people with the least power situated in the center. Regularly this leaves Felip and the rest of us at one end and the Prime Minister and the rest of the governors at the other.”

“Sorry, we’re late,” called Hector as he burst into the room followed my Rose. We all stood, except Leopold who glared at the latecomers. I thought that was hardly fair since we too had been late because we had been involved in unsanctioned activities. Hector nodded at Leopold and Rose curtsied. They took their seats; Hector across from Leopold and Rose beside me.

“Alright,” said Phillipa standing, “instead of me talking all the way through dinner I think that this will work better if we just have at it and one of us four will yell at you if you do something wrong.” She sat back down and a bunch of cooks, in white, came through the door. They placed plates of leafy salad in front of us.

I looked down at the insane amount of forks and spoons in front of me, utterly perplexed. I glanced up at Leopold, hoping for help. He held up one of the forks, “Start outside and work in.”

“Thanks,” I muttered, blushing, and seized the correct utensil.

“So where were you two all day,” asked Phillipa curiously, “M. Arsnault told me that you stole Winifred from her History class and dress sizing today and then disappeared. You really shouldn’t keep her from the Lessons Leopold. And what was with the wet hair?”

I became absorbed in my salad, deciding to let Leopold deal with this one.

“Can I not spend time with my betrothed, alone?” asked Leopold. I blushed furiously at the implications. Maybe I should have spoken up.

“I didn’t say that, I’m glad you are showing interest in a decent girl for once, just try not to corrupt her.”

“You were with him, alone, all day?” said Rose beside me, holding her fork in a death grip.

“Rose,” Hector warned.

“Yes, why?” I asked confused. Wasn’t I supposed to be bonding with him?

“Yes Rose,” Leopold sneered, “do tell me what you are confused about.”

“You had to do it, didn’t you,” Rose asked Leopold, “you had to pull her into this?”

“Don’t do this, Rose,” pleaded Hector.

“No, it’s about time someone confronted Leopold about this. Just because everyone else is scared of him and has to walk on egg shells because you might upset him or God forbid anger him. I won’t take it any longer; he has gone to far this time.”

“How dare you speak to me like that!” roared Leopold, “You insolent girl, how dare you question me? You don’t even know me or why I act the way I do.”

“I don’t have too, I know all about men like you.”

“Men like me? Tell me what I am Rose, and if it is anything but good, it is out of your actions that I am that way. You are the reason that I am in this position, that Fred is even here, so don’t you dare go throwing accusations at me and blaming me for bringing someone innocent into this. If there is anyone to blame, it is you.”

Leopold rose to his feet, the rest of us with him. He threw the glass that he had been holding and it smashed to pieces against the wall. Phillipa flinched, hiding in Hugo’s side.

They were being absurd and Leopold far too volatile. He had been so kind this afternoon, what had changed?

Leopold was standing at his spot, cheeks flushed and chest heaving. I approached him carefully placing my hand on his chest as if I could hold him back. “Hey,” I told him, “you need to calm down.”

Leopold paused for a moment, glancing down at my hand, and then stormed out of the dinning room.

I turned to face the rest of the room, only to find them staring at me, wide eyed, in shock. “May I be excused for a moment?” I murmured. Phillipa nodded slowly, so I bowed briefly and ducked out of the room.

Leopold was in the hall outside, pacing furiously, the bridge of his nose pinched between his thumb and finger.

“What was that all about?” I asked softly.

“Leopold sighed, running a hand through his hair, “Rose and I don’t exactly see eye to eye.”

“Well I could tell that much.”

“Has anyone told you why I am in line to be king and not Hector?” asked Leopold, looking me in the eyes.

“Not really,” I admitted.

Leopold slid down the wall until he was sitting on the ground. I followed his lead and sat next to him.

“Hector was always meant to be king, has all of the training and tittles. I was always second, the spare. I could do whatever I wanted and no one cared because I was just an extra. One night, in the fall last year, Hector came home with Rose on his arm declaring that he had fallen in love with her and was renouncing his title so that they could get married. This threw everything into a downwards spiral. You see, Rose has no royal blood and therefore they cannot be wed if Hector wanted to be king. He said he didn’t care; he was enraptured with Rose, in love, and would rather have that then rule. My parents decided to let him do it because they are bloody romantics, imprisoning me with the new honor. But the plan wasn’t flawless, I have no training to rule, I was raised as a traditional second son is, I am to be the commander of the army. It also came apparent that I had tainted my reputation with all of my reckless behavior and that the people didn’t want me to be King. That’s why they called you in, as a distraction, to improve my appeal.”

“So you blame Rose for putting you in this position because she tempted Hector?” I verified.

“Yes,” Leopold admitted.

“Why is she so angry at you though?” I asked. I mean she can’t just be mad at him because of some stupid things he did. If she didn’t want him to be King that bad she could just not marry Hector.

“That’s the thing, you see, Hector and Rose had a convincingly heartbreaking story on their side. Hector and Rose met when he saved her from her abusive fiancée.”

“Pardon?” I balked, shocked at his words.

“Exactement. Rose was engaged to a horrible man who got drunk one night and raped her with a bunch of his friends in an alley. Hector found them in the act, and scared them off. He helped her through healing and getting them arrested, all without our family noticing. They fell in love during the process. How can you argue with that, right? I mean how can I not give them that after what Rose has been through? Anyway, Rose attributes many of my behaviours with those of her ex-fiancée’s, despises me for how much I remind her of him. She doesn’t trust me and thinks that I am going to harm you. Yet her appearance is the reason for your being here.”

I sighed, trying to decide how to respond. “I understand where you are coming from Leopold, and I realize that you are frustrated but I don’t think that it is really fair that you blame Rose for what happened.” Leopold opened his mouth to protest but I held up my hand stopping him. “That being said, I don’t think that she is treating you fairly either. I get that you won’t be able to meet on common ground for a while, if ever, but do you think you could at least try to be civil with each other? It would mean a lot to me if you would come back inside and finish the meal. I have had a good time with you today and would hate to have it end on such a bad note.”

Leopold pursed his lips, “For you, I will.” Leopold stood and then offered me his hand and pulled me to my feet.

Without releasing my hand, we walked back into the dinning room. The others were still sitting in front of their now limp salad but rose when we entered. The confusion on their faces was evident. Leopold and I took our places and the chefs returned, replacing the salad with soup. The glass had been cleaned up. Leopold indicated the spoon I should use.

I looked across the table to find Phillipa staring at me. She raised one of her thin eyebrows in question. I simply shrugged and smiled.

Leopold walked me back to my room after dinner. The rest of the meal had passed without incident. We stopped at my door and I leaned against the carved wood, looking up at the Prince. “Thanks so much for kidnapping me today, I had a blast.”

“I am glad, I had fun too,” smiled Leopold and then raised my hand to his lips, placing the lightest of kisses across my knuckles. A blush spread across my cheekbones. For some reason the gesture seemed much more intimate and important when he did it.

Leopold pulled back, turning, and disappeared through his door.

“No way, there is no way Phillipa!” I said crossing my arms over my chest in what I hoped to be a defiant action.

“Oh come on, Winifred, everything will be fine.”

“No, it won’t. Didn’t you hear about what happened last time?”

Phillipa cringed, “Yeah, I might have heard something. But its tradition and Hugo and Hector are going to be there to help. It will be perfectly safe.”

“Phillipa there is no way you could get me back on a horse. I don’t care if I am supposed to be in the parade. I will walk or better yet, back out. I can watch from the safety of the castle where there are none of those monsters.”

“You’re being ridiculous,” she insisted crossing her arms to imitate my position. We stood there, at a standstill, until something flashed behind Phillipa’s eyes and she smiled wickedly. “Would you do it if Leopold was there?”|

I contemplated this for a moment. Leopold seemed to have this way with horses, and he had rescued me the first time. I was sure he would protect me again if it became necessary. I nodded, “Yes, I think I would.”

“Excellent! He is in a meeting right now, with the Governors, but I will go spring him.”

Phillipa danced out of my room before I could protest. I didn’t want to have Leopold pulled from some important meeting because I was scared to go near a horse.

Angela appeared from inside of my closet carrying a cream colored knit sweater and a floor length, brown skirt. I eyed the clothes skeptically. How was I supposed to ride a horse in a skirt?

“This is what I was instructed to give you,” Angela told me.

I got dressed quickly, deciding it was best not to question Phillipa. I was just tying my boot’s laces when there was a knock on the door. “Entrez,” I called.

Leopold popped his head in, smiling, “I believe my presence was requested?”

I blushed, standing, “Sorry, I tried to stop Phillipa from interrupting you but she was too quick.”

“Never apologize for asking for help. Besides, those meeting are terrible. I would rather watch you try to ride a horse again,” Leopold replied cockily leaning against my door frame. I looked him over. He was in black dress pants, a white button up, grey tie and shinny black leather shoes.

“Pret?” he asked. I nodded. “Phillipa sent me to bring you to the stables.”

We trekked across the property until we reached the monster’s den. I was wringing my hands together nervously, as we approached. Leopold took hold of my hands, gently stopping their movement. “I won’t let the horses hurt you, Fred,” he promised.

The others were already there when we arrived. Everyone was in riding gear and Phillipa and Rose both had long skirts on that were similar to mine. We all gathered around Phillipa, waiting for instruction.

“Okay everyone, as most of us know, it is traditional for the entire Royal family to participate in the Royal Guard Parade. Felip and Beatrice will be riding in a carriage and we will be following on horseback. Unfortunately, Rose, you are not permitted to ride with us, but you may as well learn now so that you are prepared. Now, you may have been wondering about the skirts? For the girls, the ride must be done side saddle.”

I gasped openly at the small princess, “Side saddle? I can barely ride a horse front saddle!”

Leopold snickered beside me.

Phillipa rolled her eyes, “Oh hush, Winifred, it will be fine. Hugo, can you get my horse please?”

Hugo ducked into one of the stalls and lead out a white beast. I took a step closer to Leopold. Phillipa mounted the horse and arranged herself so that both of her legs and skirt were draped elegantly over the left side of her horse. Then they began to walk, making a small circle. “See ladies, easy as pie. Rose you can borrow my horse. Leopold, will you get Winifred’s? I’ve had him prepared.”

Edwards disappeared inside on of the stalls. My horse, she couldn’t possible mean the crazy brown one? Sure enough that’s exactly who Leopold lead around the corner. “Oh no, there is no way I will get back on that one,” I told him.

Leopold just kept coming towards me though. “Don’t worry Fred, you just had a rocky start to your relationship, Olivier, is a very good horse.”

Leopold stopped the horse in front of me, releasing the reins. He undid his tie, throwing it off to the side somewhere, loosened his collar and rolled his sleeves to his elbows.

“Okay, girls, let’s start with just sitting in the saddle to get you comfortable,” directed

Phillipa. Rose was up in the saddle in a flash, Hector clapping encouragingly from the

ground beside her.

“Common,” said Leopold, pulling me closer to Olivier. I felt a rush of determination fill

me. If Rose and Phillipa could do it, than I would too.

I went over to Leopold who wrapped his hands around my waist, lifting me into the

saddle. He smelled of cigars and the same spicy sent that was in his room. To my relief,

Olivier didn’t move, just gnawed on his bit. Maybe Leopold was right. Maybe the last

time had just been miscommunication. “Good, horse,” I purred happily.

“Great,” said Phillipa, “Now it is easier if you shift your weight and wrap your knee around

the top of the saddle. This should give you the proper position, posture and balance.”

Cautiously, I moved as she told be and wrapped my led around the saddle.

“Now your outside foot should rest in the stirrup,” Phillipa said.

I smiled contently when I realised that I had already put my foot in the stirrup.

“Awesome, now take hold of the reigns and advance when you are ready.”

I looked over at Rose, who took off immediately, looking like royalty seated on Phillipa’s white horse.

I glanced down at Leopold sceptically, “How do I control this thing?”

“To move forward, nudge Olivier on the ribs with your heel. To go left, pull on the left side of the reigns, to go right on the right side and most importantly to stop, pull back hard on the reigns,” said Leopold. I nodded and reached for the reigns but pitched sideways, loosing my balance. Leopold caught my waist, correcting my position again.

“Maybe we should start slower, yes?” he said and placed my hands on his broad shoulders. I could feel his muscle through the thin fabric of the shirt.

Leopold began walking sideways, and Olivier went with him, slowly. I managed to stay on, keeping balance with my hands on his shoulders.

“There you go,” he said smiling up at me, “ready to try it on your own?”

“Okay,” I agreed. This wasn’t so bad after all.

Leopold handed me Olivier’s reigns and, reluctantly, I released his shoulders. There was a

brief flash of panic as I realised that I was on my own but then excitement took over

when I didn’t fall off immediately. I was ridding a horse freakin’ sideways!

I made a circle, just as Phillipa had done, and then made my way back to Phillipa, Hugo and

Leopold. I turned a freakin’ horse, now I just had to remember how to stop. I pulled back

on the reigns, hard, just like Leopold had said. I must have gone a little overboard though,

or Olivier’s crazy instincts’ were returning because instead of just stopping, my damn

horse sopped and did a little hop, lifting his front feet of the ground and sending me out

of the saddle.

I braced myself, expecting the hard impact of the ground, confused when I was met with

something softer.

“Fred, Fred, are you alright?” came the heavily accented voice and concerned voice of

Leopold. I opened my eyes to meet Edwards; one green and one gold. I realised, to my

embarrassment that I was laying in his lap on the ground. He must have caught me.

“Yes, I’m fine. Thanks for catching me.”

Leopold smiled, relieved, and helped me to my feet.

“No worries, Winifred, just brush it off and try again,” encouraged Phillipa. I looked at her

disbelievingly.

“No, I think Fred is done for today,” said Leopold firmly.

Phillipa’s face fell into a pout, “Fine, but if she isn’t ready tomorrow, you cant blame me.”

Leopold and I left then, leaving the others behind and stupid Olivier munching on some hay.

“Thanks again.” I told Leopold.

He glanced down at me concerned, “You sure you are not injured?”

“Only my pride,” I assured him.

We came to a halt when we reached the castle doors. “Will you be alright from here?” asked Leopold. “I really should get back to the meeting if possible.”

“I’ll be fine. Have fun.”

“Oh yeah, it’s like a party up there,” said Leopold rolling his eyes. Then he kissed my knuckles and left.

The Castle DuMont was in a flurry of action the next morning. Angela who me up, force

fed me some breakfast and the got me ready for the parade. I was dressed in almost

Victorian styled clothes, with a long royal blue skirt, lace shirt with a high necked collar

and a royal blue blazer. Angela pinned back my hair and managed to balance a very

ornate and flowery blue hat on my head. She helped me into my ridding boots and

handed me a pair of white lace gloves. The over all affect was quite lovely.

“You are assembling together in the foyer,” Angela told me as we headed through the

halls.

I was the first to arrive. There were a few other maids and security guards, standing near

the walls. Angela straightened my hat and then went to join them. Phillipa and Hugo came

down the stairs a few minutes later. Phillipa was dressed similar to me, but completely in

white. Hugo was in his usual chinos, dress shirt and jacket. He kissed his girlfriend on

the cheek and then took a step off to the side. Phillipa came jumping over to me.

“You look great, Winifred! Aren’t you excited?” she chirped excitedly.

I was more nervous and or horrified than excited but agreed with her anyway, “Can’t wait.”

“Great, the other are just going to arrive and then we will get ourselves all lined up and

head off,” She pursed her lips at my hat, reaching up to adjust it. Apparently my hat was

having self esteem issues and was refusing to stay in place.

Hector and Rose came next and I had to hold back a bit off laughter. Hector was

wearing white pants with a dark blue stripe up the sides. His jacket was dark blue as well

and had a bunch of complicated white detailing, silver buttons and shoulder pads with

white fringe. There were a series of colourful medals gleaming on his chest. He had white

gloves and shoes on and something tucked beneath his arm. Rose joined Hugo and

Hector made his way over to Phillipa and I.

“Don’t you two look all fancy,” he said smiling.

“Not too bad yourself Hector,” I told him.

‘You haven’t even seen the best part yet,” he said as he pulled out the thing from under his arm. It turned out to be a very big, blur had with an extravagant white plume hanging down the front, into his eyes.

I couldn’t help the giggle that escaped my lips as he shook his head, “Very dashing.”

Leopold joined us a few moment later in the same clothes as Hector except the sword that was belted to his waist. What did he need that for, crowd control? I though M. Arsnault said there wasn’t a death penalty.

Leopold caught me staring and offered up an explanation, “Part of the costume.”

“Is it real?” I wondered.

“Very,” he said pulling it out of the sheath slightly so that I could se the blade.

“Do you know how to use it?”

“I was trained how to fight with over twenty different kinds of blades.”

I whistled, “Wouldn’t want to get in your way in a kitchen.”

He laughed but then his face turned serious, “You look very nice, Fred. Blue looks lovely with your complexion.”

I blushed, looking down at his pearly shoes, “Thanks.”

Everyone suddenly snapped to attention as the King and Queen appeared at the top of the stairs. Felip was dressed similar to his sons, but completely in blue, more medals and no funny hat. Beatrice was in a beautiful, creamy pantsuit. We all bowed accordingly.

Finally all here, we exited the castle. Leopold offered me his arm as we made our way down the white steps. The beasts were at the bottom, being held in place by various guards and stable hands. A group of the Royal Guard was standing beside their own horses waiting to mount and guide us through the streets.

Felip and Beatrice took their seats in a beautiful horse drawn carriage towards the rear. Leopold directed me to where our horses waited, side by side, in front of the carriage. Leopold, lifted me into my saddle and then mounted his own black steed, Jacqueline.

Phillipa and Hector saddled up in front of us, then there was the piping of a horn, the click of heels and the guards where up and we where off.

I cringed, waiting for something to happen or something terrible to go wrong, but it never did. It turns out that Oliver likes to show off and look all pretty so was on his best behavior. I think it helped that he had to follow the horses in front of us so I didn’t even need to give him direction.

I could hear cheering as we approached the castle gates. There were people lining the streets, waving flags, screaming and holding up signs. Some of them were crying or belting out what I presumed to be the Solisian National Anthem. This was ridiculous, it was like we were famous or something. Not knowing what else to do, I plastered a smile across my face and waved trying to keep my butt firmly in place on Olivier.

We rode around through the Old Town until about noon. At some point, people had started throwing flowers at our procession and Leopold had caught one, handing it to me. I smiled in thanks and fastened it to my lapel.

We made it back to the castle and, without hesitation; I jumped out of the saddle and threw my arms around Leopold neck, “I did it!”

Leopold was stiff for a moment, but the wrapped his arms around me. “Je suis très fière de toi,” he murmured.

Someone cleared their throat and I was brought back to reality. I blushed furiously, stepping away from Leopold. I had just made a very bad faux pas. Most of the guard and the Royal Family were staring at us, luckily, they didn’t seem angry. Minus Hector, who was confused, and Rose, who was plain pissed off; the rest of them looked like they had swallowed a canary.

Chapter Five

I soon learned that traveling anywhere with the DuMont family was an event that required a lot of preparation. Everything was planned down to the last detail. Today, for example, just as Leopold had promised, we were going to a Canette Game. The five Royals, plus me, made our way down the front steps towards three black hearse cars. Felip and Beatrice went in the first, Hector and Phillipa in the second and Leopold and I in the third. It was a little excessive if you ask me.

When I finally managed to maneuver my fedora through the car door, M. Lefevre gave the okay and M. Arsnault took off.

“Couldn’t we just get a big van or a limo or something?” I asked Leopold. “I mean, this is a little flashy.”

Leopold smiled crookedly, “Everything in our life is flashy on the outside. This is for our protection though. It would be bad if all of us traveled in the same car. What happens if there was an accident? The entire family would be gone in an instant.”

He had a point, I guess. I settled into my seat, straightening out the wrinkles in my white sundress. Why anyone had decided to put me in white was beyond me. There was no way the poor dress was going to make it through the day unscathed.

I looked over at Leopold jealously. He was in chinos and a black polo shirt, sunglasses in place. At least he got flat shoes and pants. I had a severe lack of pants since I arrived here and was beginning to miss them.

“Nervous?” I asked, noticing his bouncing leg.

Leopold shook his head, “Plus exciter. I have lots of energie before games.”

“How do you play anyway? You said it was like football and polo?”

Leopold nodded, “Kind of. Each team has five players: one goalie, two defense, and two front men to score goals. We ride horses and throw a ball, much like a football, to score in the other teams net.”

“Wouldn’t that be kind of easy? I mean can’t someone just hand you the ball and make a mad dash down the field to score?”

“There are regulations that make it difficult. You will see.”

That was about it for conversation for the duration of our car ride. Luckily, it wasn’t too long before we were pulling up a cherry tree lined driveway. A stone clubhouse appeared at the end of the lane. I could just see the edge of what I hoped was the Canette field poking out the left side of the building.

M. Arsnault pulled the car to a stop. Leopold helped me out and we went to join the others who had gathered in the entrance of the clubhouse.

“Bonne chance,” Phillipa told Leopold briskly. Leopold nodded at his family, adjusting the strap of the duffle bag on his shoulder. It was strange that they all behaved so formally out in public.

Leopold headed down a flight of stairs, presumably to a change room. I followed the rest of the family outside to the field.

The stands where already filled with people, all dressed to the nines like us. They stood when we entered and I was suddenly grateful for the extensive brim of the fedora that hid my face. Apparently knowing where they were going, the DuMont came to a stop at a reserved box at the dead center of the field, front row. We all filed in and sat down, followed by the rest of the spectators in the bleachers around us. I ended up beside Phillipa, thankfully.

“It should be an exciting game today,” she stated excitedly. “Antoine DuBlais is on the other team.”

“Antoine DuBlais?” I asked not recognizing the name.

“Yes. He is the son of one of the Governors of parliament. He and Leopold have been at each other’s throats for years. He is a lying, cheating, dick but it definitely spices up the game a little. I will point him out when I see him.”

The players began entering the field then, running their horses to warm them up. To my complete and utter shock though, none of the horses had saddles or reins, all of the players were mounted bareback.

“They play without saddles?” I demanded Phillipa.

She nodded. “How do you expect them to catch the ball if they are trying to direct their horse with reins?”

“I don’t see why they can’t at least have a saddle. How do the riders even stay on?”

“That’s part of what makes it so hard to play. The horses have all been trained to respond to certain changes in the rider’s position. If they squeeze with their feet, for example, the horse will go, with their knees it will stop. Other than that, it’s all in the leaning or verbal messages.”

“Wow,” was the only semi-intelligent thing I could think of in response. These guys didn’t only go halfway did they?

“There,” Phillipa said pointing to one of the riders, “That’s Antoine.” I followed her finger across the field to a man in a green shirt, with broad shoulders and dark hair. I couldn’t see much of him from here, but he held himself very tall.

I was distracted, suddenly, when I realized that Leopold what riding towards our box. He had changed from the clothes he had been wearing earlier into the same tight pants, boots, and grey polo shirt as the rest of his team. He came to a stop in front of us, jumping off his very big, grey horse. At least they where coordinated.

The crowd seemed to have all eyes directed on us as Leopold came towards me. I rose to my feet to greet him, dipping slightly. Leopold reached into the collar of his shirt and pulled out the necklace with the shiny bits of metal that he always wore, bringing it over his head. He placed the chain in my palm, closing my fingers around it.

“Will you hold on to this for me? I can’t wear it while I play,” he told me, holding my gaze. I merely nodded, hypnotized by his eyes. Leopold placed a chaste kiss across my knuckles, making a murmur rustle through our audience. Then he jumped back onto the grey horse, heading for centerfield where the other riders were waiting.

“Good luck!” I called after him, finding my voice. He threw a crooked smile over his shoulder at me.

I sat down again as they did whatever it was they were doing at centerfield. Carefully I opened my fingers, curious about what he had given me. It was a simple metal ball chain with two flat rectangular pieces of silver and one disk that was gold on one side and green on the other. The two rectangles had the same information scrawled across them:

L. Dauphin

069237201

O NEG

The disk was blank.

“Those are his dog tags,” explained Phillipa, “for the army.”

“But they are missing a bunch of info, aren’t they? And what does the disk mean? And who is Dauphin?”

“Because of his position it was decided that we should put as little information on the tag as possible. That way, if anything were to happen, it would put everyone at less risk. Dauphin is the last name that Leopold uses when he has to go somewhere or do something undetected. It’s easiest if you think of it like this: DuMont is the title of the Royal House, like the Royal House of Windsor for the English, our true last name is DuMont, Leopold’s cover name is Dauphin. Just like how you are from the House of Sinclair but your last name is Morgan. The disk is a quick way to identify him as the prince to anyone in his regiment. It symbolizes his eyes. He must trust you; he never takes those things off. Look they are starting.”

I fastened the tags around my neck hastily, hoping that I wouldn’t misplace them. That would be my luck. Then I looked out to the field. Leopold and Antoine were in the middle, on their horses, facing each other. There was a referee standing between the two of them holding what looked very much like a football. He blew a whistle and threw the ball into the air.

Leopold managed to catch the ball and threw it to one of his teammates who was waiting near by. The blond boy caught it and began charging toward the other end, ready to throw the ball into his opponents net. Suddenly though, one of the guys in the green shirts (Lancet, according to the back) went running full speed toward him, ramming their horses together. Blondie, lost his balance, fumbling the ball. The green team’s goalie ran out into the field and tossed the ball to one of his teammates.

They were bloody bonkers! The players just kept lobbing the ball down the field to each other and running their horses toward the opposing team. Every once in a while, if it wasn’t blocked by a goalie, someone would get a ball in the net.

Players would be thrown off the horses occasionally but they would just get up and jump back on. I kept waiting for someone to get trampled or something.

“Amazing, isn’t it?” asked Phillipa beside me.

“Oh, it’s something alright,” I replied, as my nails dug into my palms. Why would they be concerned about Leopold getting blown up when he could much easier break his neck playing a recreational sport?

After the initial shock had worn off, I actually found myself getting into the game. It was really quite interesting the way that the players communicated with their horses and Leopold was really quite good. He had scored five of the seven goals for his team. Unfortunately, the two teams seemed evenly matched and by the last quarter, they were tied.

Lancet had the ball and managed to score another point. There where only two minutes left on the clock and Leopold had the ball. He was racing towards the other end when Antoine came up beside him. I cringed, waiting for their horses to clash, but it never came. Leopold pulled back his arm, ready to release the ball but somehow Antoine managed to pull his feet up onto his horse and throw himself at Leopold. The two of them collided and in a tangle of arms and legs and crashed to the ground. The buzzer sounded, ending the game. The ball bounced across the field rolling to a stop.

Nobody was paying attention to the ball, though, because Antoine DuBlais and the oh so infamous Prince Leopold were rolling in the middle of the field, wrestling.

The players circled around the two of them, cheering on their teammate. Everyone in the stands rose to their feet, cranking their necks to get a better look at their idiotic Prince in all his he-man glory. The referees seemed to hang back, not sure whether they could intervene and separate Leopold and Antoine. I rolled my eyes. Apparently Felip had seen enough because he signaled to M. Arsnault and M. Lefevre and they hopped into the field, jogging toward the scuffle. The pair of bodyguards quickly pulled Leopold away, blocking him from getting at Antoine.

“Told you it was going to be interesting,” sighed Phillipa.

The players all went to line up and shake hands but Leopold walked right past, stomping toward the stables with the guards at his heels. Just when I though he was getting better, the arrogant jerk had returned.

“Come on,” said Phillipa pulling me to my feet, “we have to leave before the reporters get news of this.” I scrambled to my feet and followed the family back into the clubhouse.

Leopold was pacing furiously in the entrance, the guards on either side of him. M. Lefevre had his duffel bag in hand. Leopold hadn’t changed, he was still in his now dirt covered and grass stained uniform. His hand was at his nose which was oozing blood.

Felip walked right past his son without giving him any recognition. Leopold fell into step beside me, his jaw tense, lips pursed and anger flowing off him in almost palpable waves. He was mumbling furiously under his breath.

“What are you so angry about?” I demanded as we waited for our cars to pull up. I mean, he was acting ridiculous.

Leopold froze, looking at me as if I had grown a second head. The rest of his family turned to look at me, surprised, I guess, that I was confronting him.

“Didn’t you see what happened, Fred? We lost,” he growled, eyes flashing.

I shrugged, “So? You didn’t have to go and pummel the poor guy. That’s just bad sportsmanship.”

“We lost because he cheated!” Leopold roared. “If Antoine hadn’t jumped off of his horse we could have won.”

“That may be true, but you are being a sore loser. You are setting a terrible example by fighting with him and it was rude just to stomp off the field like some five year old having a tantrum instead of shaking hands. Your freaking bodyguards had to intervene! That’s a little ridiculous if you ask me, not to mention embarrassing.” I crossed my arms over my chest. I could be just as stubborn as he was. Leopold just gaped at me.

The cars pulled up then and I went to stand in front of Phillipa and Hector’s.

“What are you doing?” demanded Leopold grabbing hold of my wrist.

“Going with them,” I said freeing myself from his grasp. “I won’t talk to you until you have calmed down.” I ducked into the car. Leopold stood outside for a moment and then stomped off towards his own.

I sighed shakily when our car advanced, happy to be away from his toxic behavior.

“That was amazing!” cried Phillipa, bouncing in her seat beside me.

“Yeah, Winifred, I think you’re my new hero,” agreed Hector. “It’s nice to see Leopold having a taste of his own medicine for once. I can’t believe he didn’t take your head off.”

I smiled weakly, “Me too. It was close there for a moment.”

“Nah,” said waving her hand, “Leopold won’t dismember you, Winifred.”

Well I’m glad someone had confidence in that fact. Then again, maybe she was his accomplice. Phillipa and Hector discussed my heroics the rest of the trip. I leaned my head against the cool glass of the window hoping that the storm will have blown over before we got home.

It wasn’t long before we were in front of the white steps again. I jumped out of the car quickly and took my place behind Beatrice. We made it into the foyer before Leopold caught up.

“So you are angry with me because I got into a fight with Antoine?” he cried.

I froze in the middle of the marble entrance. He wasn’t really getting this was he? “No, I am angry with you because you responded to his threats and let your temper make a fool of you. You have so much potential and should be an example of good behavior but you keep letting your anger get the better of you and just lash out at everything. You have to man up and clean up, otherwise you are exactly the man that the public thinks you are. Even your family is scared of you and doubts your potential and to be honest, you aren’t doing much to help change that. Prove everyone that they are wrong and be the better man. I know you are capable of doing it, I’ve seen it, let everyone else see it too.”

I bowed slightly and ran off up the stairs, leaving a very surprised Royal family and a royally peeved Leopold behind. Angela, who had been in the hall to greet me, followed quickly at my heel, eyes wide.

I made it to my room and began undressing. Some of Leopold’s damn blood had gotten on the front of my dress. I sighed apologizing to Angela.

“Do not worry,” she assured, “The cleaners can get it out.”

I was just pulling a cardigan on when I heard Leopold stomping down our hall. He banged on my door.

“Fred, open this door. I’m not done talking to you yet,” he demanded.

Angela ran into my closet, taking cover. Deserter.

“No, Leopold. I told you, I’m not going to talk to you until you have calmed down,” I told him softly but firmly.

“Fred!” Leopold shouted furiously. Then something shattered. I cringed, thinking about the pretty vase on the table outside my door.

It was quiet for a moment, something shifting in the air. Then Leopold spoke again, much quieter this time. “Please Fred, je vous en prie. I am sorry, please come out.” He sounded defeated almost.

I shook my head, “Sorry Leopold, not yet. Please leave. Go cool down.”

I heard him sigh and then take off down the hall, muttering a string of curse words. His bedroom door slammed shut.

Angela reappeared from the closet, offering me a belt, as if in forgiveness for ditching me. I threaded it hastily. “Its okay, I don’t blame you. I probably would have done the same thing. He is just a big bully really.”

She nodded, as if she understood.

There was a soft knock at my door. I sighed, “Go away Leopold.”

“It’s Beatrice,” replied a soft voice on the other side of the door. I cringed, mentally kicking myself for my mistake. Angela threw open the door instantly, and I bowed low hoping to make up for my mistake.

“I was hoping you would come for a walk with me,” the Queen smiled.

“Of course, I am so sorry for shouting at you.”

She waved me off and we began making our way though the halls.

She was silent and I slowly began to panic. Maybe I had gone overboard and Beatrice was mad at me for yelling at Leopold and she was now taking me to be locked up in the dungeon. My eyes darted across the corridor, looking for possible escape routes should the necessity arise.

“Fred, may I call you Fred?” Beatrice began.

I nodded, pleasantly surprised. This was off to a good start. “Please do.”

She smiled, “I wanted to thank you for being such a good influence on Leopold.”

“Pardon?” I asked confused.

“I know you can not see it, how could you? You never new him before you arrived. Since you have come, Fred, my son has changed so much for the better. He has always been very alone and angry. I used to worry about him a lot, you know. Leopold’s behaviors are so self-destructive and I did not know how to deal with it. I suppose it is Felip’s and my faults, truly. We were always so preoccupied with Hector and Phillipa that Leopold sort of slipped though our fingers. It’s hard though, because Hector and Phillipa always showed some sort of need or attachment to us, Leopold just pushed us away. He was always so independent, never showed the slightest interest in anyone other than himself. And his anger, always so volatile,” she shook her head.

“I don’t see what this has to do with me,” I told her honestly.

“It has everything to do with you. From the day you arrived, Leopold has bee infatuated with you.”

I scoffed at her comment, “I would hardly say that.”

“You may not see it. Like I said earlier, you didn’t know him before. For the first time in his life, Leopold is showing interest in someone else and actually cares how his actions are affecting them. His eyes are always on you, he is always asking where you are, and jumping up at the chance to be near you or help you. This is the first time since he was little that I have seen Leopold volunteer to touch someone so delicately and warm. Felip thought that it was just Leopold finally growing up, but I think it is so much more than that. Please be patient with him, Fred. He has a funny way of showing his affections sometimes but really takes things to heart. Be careful with him.”

I found it unlikely that Leopold would ever need to be treated carefully but agreed, “I will do my best.”

“That’s all I ask. Keep doing whatever your doing. I am a little jealous to say that you are the only one who has ever managed to have him fall in line. This is why Felip and I are granting you are permission to do whatever it takes to get to him.”

“Why? I mean, I have made a complete fool of your family and am doing a terrible job with all of the etiquette.”

“That hardly matters. You will get the hang of it eventually and it is all really bothersome to tell you the truth. Right now it is more important to concentrate on being yourself. Will you do that for me?”

“Absolutely, and Beatrice, I wanted to thank you for having me. It has been a real honor spending time with your family.”

“The honor is all mine. Enjoy the rest of your evening.”

Beatrice disappeared down a fight of stairs, leaving me in front of the giant doors of the grand ballroom.

Well that’s just great! Now I had an angry Prince to deal with and his parents who were expecting me to whip their son into shape though some kind of miracle. At least I had avoided the dungeon for now.

I stumbled back to my wing of the castle, tired and just wanting this day to be over.

I was broken out of my daze as the soft sound of music filled my ears. I recognized the melody: Claire de Lune. Curious, I followed the sound to the door across the hall from my room. It was a living room or library of sorts with big windows, leather sofas and shelves filled with books. It was where I had found out, the telephone was located.

I turned into the room to find Leopold bent over the piano in the far corner of the room. His long fingers where stroking the keys delicately. It was strange to see such carefulness and gentleness after such his physical display earlier. The song ended, the final notes hanging in the air between us.

“That was beautiful,” I whispered.

Leopold jumped, but otherwise didn’t change his position, “Thank you.”

I walked over to the piano until I was standing beside him. “May I?” I asked indicating the bench. Leopold slid down, making room for me. I sat down beside him. Our legs were pressed together in the limited space. I placed my left hand on keys and tried to imitate the beautiful music Leopold had just being playing.

“My mother put me in piano when I was little. I learned all of the notes and fingering but the second I was placed in front of a piano it was like I froze up. The music just wouldn’t come out right.” I frowned when I hit a foul note.

Leopold’s brow knit together and his lips parted slightly as if he was searching for words. “Fred, I want to apologize for my behavior this morning. I was completely out of line speaking to you like that.”

“It wasn’t really my place to butt in,” I admitted.

“But you were right, I was being terrible. I’m not very good with using my words; it is in my nature to us my fists to get ahead. That really isn’t an excuse though. I’m trying, I really am. I just slip sometimes.”

“I shouldn’t have thrown so many accusations at you. I barley know you, it wasn’t really fair.”

“But it was accurate. I am everything you said. Will you accept my apology? It would mean a lot to me.”

“Of course, I will.”

Leopold smiled broadly, “You know, I have never had someone speak to me with the audacity that you do. It is extremely infuriating.”

“I do my best,” I said hitting another foul note.

Leopold scrunched his nose, placing his hand over the top of mine. “Here, it is like this,” he said guiding my fingers to the correct notes. Pure music filled the room again and everything felt light.

I finally took a chance to look him over. Leopold had changed into a pair of dark pants and a light blue button down. The front of the shirt was un-tucked and wrinkled, his sleeves pushed recklessly to his elbows. His hair was disheveled and there were crescent moons of dirt under his nails. He stunk of smoke. When I looked at his face, I winced. Leopold’s nose had stopped bleeding but was now slightly puffy and deep purple bruises were forming under his eyes. Antoine had gotten him good.

Despite myself, I found my hand reaching up, brushing my fingers across the bruises.

Edwards stopped playing, his eyes fluttering shut. “It looks a lot worse than it feels,” he stated.

“Will you do something with me tomorrow?” he asked suddenly.

“Sure, what did you have in mind?” I said.

A smile pulled at the corners of Leopold’s lips, “A surprise. Meet me in the garden at ten.” Then Leopold reached up, wrapping his hand around my own which still lingered on his skin. He slid our hands down his cheek and placed a lingering kiss across my knuckles. “Good night, Fred.”

Then he rose to his feet and exited the room leaving me on the bench trying to catch up with reality.

I was outside in the garden at ten o’clock sharp the next morning. It was the same place that Leopold had taken me that first morning with the horses. It was beautiful really; the gardens were extravagant, overflowing with different kinds of blooms, trees and dripping foliage. They were extensive but I hadn’t really had a chance to explore them yet.

Angela had dressed me in a simple pair of running shoes, jeans and a t-shirt this morning so I presume that whatever Leopold had planned wasn’t something over the top.

A couple minutes later, Leopold appeared through the doors. He was dressed similar to me but had a knapsack over his shoulder and the usual aviators in place. I was beginning to hate those things. “Bon matin, sorry I’m late,” he smiled.

“I’ll forgive you if you tell me where you are taking me,” I said falling into step beside him. Leopold had to shorten his stride, however, so that I could keep up.

“We are going on a picnic,” he said. “Is that okay?”

Well that explained the mysterious bag. “Sounds perfect.”

We began making our way across the grass in thoughtful silence.

“I had a question for you,” I said cutting the silence. “You said you were in the army but shouldn’t you be at a base or something then?”

Leopold adjusted his shoulder strap, “I was given a leave to deal with all of this. I have to go back periodically starting in August. That reminds me; do you have my tags?”

“Oh, sorry, I completely forgot,” I said pulling the necklace over my head.

“No problem. I knew they where safe with you,” he said putting them on.

“So what do you do there?”

“I’m in the air force. I drive helicopters and jets.”

“Really?”

He nodded, “It’s fantastic. How about you? Do you have any hobbies?”

“Not really. I enjoy reading and writing mostly but I can cook too.”

Leopold nodded again and we returned to the silence. Apparently I was going to have to do all the work because he appeared to be suffering from a sudden bout of shyness.

“So tell me about Phillipa and Hugo,” I offered.

“Hugo is the son of the Duke of Lamric on Carmencie and his mother is of British descent. He and ma soeur met at one of the state dinners and have been inseparable ever since. He is very good for my sister, calms some of her more erratic tendencies.”

“That’s so cute.”

“They are very good together.”

“I don’t mean to sound rude, but I have been wondering why you speak less English than the others.”

“No such thing as a bad question. You can ask me anything. I think I have had less exposure. Hector had to learn it much more in his studies to prepare for speeches and so forth and Phillipa from spending time with Hugo who was mostly raised by his mother.”

“Do you speak other languages?”

“Quite a few.”

This game was beginning to reflect badly on me. I mean how can reading and writing compete with a multilingual horse whispering, blade wielding, sword fighting, motorcycle riding, jet flying badass? I at least needed to take up crocheting or something.

“Voila,” said Leopold stopping suddenly. I looked around for the first time in a while, taking in my surroundings. We seemed to be in an orchard of some kind. There were endless rows of trees going off in every direction. They were in bloom, tiny white flowers scattered across the branches. I could smell salt in the air and hear the sound of surf crashing against stone.

Leopold put his bag on the ground and pulled a large, striped blanket from its depths, spreading it across the grass. I went and sat down the middle watching as he rooted further into his bag. After a moment Leopold pulled out two slightly squished squares and looked up at me, a slight blush spreading across his cheeks.

“Sandwiches are the only thing I can make,” he told me. “Would you like ham or turkey?”

I smiled, wondering why he would have gone through the effort of making food himself when he had a chef, especially if it made him so embarrassed.

“Turkey please.”

He passed me one of the parcels. I could feel Leopold watching me as I peeled off the cellophane wrap quickly and took a bit of my sandwich. The bread was a little damp but otherwise okay.

“Very good,” I assured him. He smiled and unwrapped his own.

I finished my meal quickly, wiped my fingers on my jeans and then lay back on the blanket. The sky was clear and a brilliant blue, the sun bright and hot against my skin.

I turned and looked at Leopold. He was cutting a green apple with a short knife, the juice running down his fingers. When Leopold finished he wiped his hands and the blade across the grass and lay down beside me.

“Are we close to the ocean?” I asked after a moment.

“The cliffs are just a little further up. There is a beach down the property too. I will take you there sometime if you wish.”

“That would be so awesome.” I turned onto my side to face him and frowned when I was met with his glasses hiding his face. They made it very difficult to read his expressions.

“May I?” I asked taking hold of the frames.

“Si tu veux,” he responded.

I pulled his aviators off and folded them onto the collar of his shirt, giving him the option to put them back on if he wanted. “I like to see your eyes,” I told him.

Leopold laughed slightly darkly, “Well I’m glad someone does. They creep most people out.”

“But they are so unique.”

“Exactement. It a genetic trait, passed down from Leopold the first. That is how I got my name. They got me into so much trouble; there is no mistaken identity with them.”

“I don’t think it’s the eyes that get you in trouble. I think you manage to do that on your own.”

“I used to long for them to be ordinary and brown like Hector’s. I can’t blend in.”

“Why would you ever try when you were clearly meant to stand out?” I realized then how close Leopold and I had become. His face was mere inches from mine, his sweet breath fanning across my face.

I was surprised at the brief excitement that fluttered in my stomach. Leopold was going to kiss me. I didn’t really know if I wanted this or not, hadn’t ever really though about, but I was starting to find myself very attracted to the idea. My eyes fluttered shut on their own accord and I leaned closer.

“Fred,” Leopold murmured. “You are leaning on my tags.”

I frowned. That was something really strange to say before a kiss. Maybe it was a French thing.

“Pardon?”

“My dog tags, you are leaning on them,” he repeated.

His words hit me and I opened my eyes to find that I was, indeed, leaning on his necklace causing Leopold to come forward so that I didn’t choke him.

I shot up into a sitting position, blushing furiously. He hadn’t wanted to kiss me; he was preventing himself from choking. I had been ridiculous thinking that he wanted to.

Leopold cleared his throat and rose to his feet, offering me his hand. The glasses were in place again.

“We should leave,” he said briskly and began stuffing things into his bag again. His motions were quick and choppy, angry almost. Then, as if he decided something suddenly, Leopold threw the knapsack to the ground and stepped towards me purposefully. He took my face in his hands almost roughly and pressed his lips to mine in the most careful of kisses.

Our lips barely brushed at first, as if he was testing the waters. I unfroze from the shock, and returned the pressure eagerly. Leopold deepened the kiss, tilting my head back. My hands came up on their own accord and wound though the tangled locks of his hair.

Leopold pulled away after a moment, breathing heavily. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have done that.”

“Don’t be sorry,” I breathed, “You did fine.”

He let out a strangled laugh, pulling away. I was confused. Did I do something wrong? Leopold picked up his discarded bag and began walking back towards the castle.

“I shouldn’t have done that to you.”

“Why not? And I don’t think you should get all the credit. I helped after all.” I said tripping after him so that I could keep up.

Leopold muttered something in French, “Listen, Fred. I like you, a lot, more than I probably should.”

Well clearly, subtlety and clarity where not his strong suits.

“I like you too,” I said.

Leopold growled. “That’s the problem. I should be trying to stay away from you but I can’t. I’ve tried, but I just can’t do it. C’est impossible!”

“What are you trying to say?” I asked. He wasn’t making any sense.

“We shouldn’t be together. I come with a lot of baggage. You shouldn’t have to give up your life for that.”

“Don’t you think that’s for me to decide? Besides, you are the ones who asked me here.”

“That’s why I am giving you the choice. I am ready to try being with you, if that is what you want. I will not stay away from you unless you ask me”

I thought about this for a second. I was here to help Leopold, and I really couldn’t deny the fact that I was feeling a pull to be with him. There was a spark between us. I wasn’t sure what it was but I definitely wanted to find out. “I’m in,” I told him wholeheartedly.

Leopold grabbed hold of my hand, pulling me to a stop. “Are you positive?” He demanded, searching my eyes.

“Undoubtedly.”

He must have found whatever he was looking for because he nodded and wrapped my in a tight embrace.

“So what does this mean?” I asked when we began walking again. Leopold had my hand held firmly in his own. My own small fit like a puzzle piece in his larger.

“Whatever you want, but we will have to notify my parents so that arrangements are made.”

That sounded awkward. Our relationship was going to be broadcasted across the world. I swallowed hard and made a mental note to call my parents and let them know before they heard it on the six o’clock news or something.

Chapter Six

Angela woke me up early the next morning and stuffed me into a blouse and skirt.

“Where’s the fire?” I asked still a little dazed from sleep. She didn’t seem to understand and frowned at me, re-tucking my shirt into my waistline because I had apparently done it wrong. “What’s happening?” I tried again.

“Very busy today,” she told me, “much to do!”

“Can’t there be much to do at a more reasonable hour?” I asked hopefully but Angela didn’t respond, just thrust a pair if shoes in my direction. I took the black flats and hastily pulled them on.

“Tu vais manger le petit dejeuner avec la Princess,” she told me, shooing me in the direction of the door. Well at least there was food involved and Phillipa wasn’t so bad herself either. I just hoped she didn’t have some sort of crazy lesson like How-to-Carve-Leopold-out-of-Solisian-Chocolate-for-a-Tradition-which-also-Involves-Dangerous-Animals planned.

Angela led me to a library, similar to the one in Leopold’s wing of the castle with the piano and phone in it. There were two place settings at one of the desks, set with steaming plates of food that were taunting me. I didn’t have much time to consider the food, however, before the doors of the library were suddenly thrown open and Phillipa ran in.

“I can’t believe you broke Leopold!” she cried as she wrapped her tiny arms around me.

“Excuse me?” I asked confused.

The tiny princess pulled away, straightened her clothes and took a seat. “I have never seen him like this before. He just seems so happy.”

“Umm thanks,” I said with a frown but for some reason I was happy that I could cause such a change in him. “So what are we learning today, and where is Rose?” I said trying to divert the topic. I really didn’t think it would be fun to talk to Phillipa about dating her brother.

“There isn’t really a class for today I just wanted to give you a few rules for dating my brother. Rose isn’t here because she kind of already passed that class,” Phillipa explained bouncing in her seat. Great, so clearly there was no avoiding this.

“So,” she said clapping her hands together, “Now that you have agreed to proceed with a relationship with Leopold there are many decisions that need to be made. Essentially, you and Leopold should discuss these as they become of concern but many of them should be addressed in the meeting tonight.”

“There’s a meeting about Leopold and I?” I balked, blushing at the thought. Phillipa continued, ignoring my question.

“You have to realize that this is the turning point, Winifred. We are going to do whatever we can to make your transition into your new position with my brother as easy as possible, just as we have been doing until now, but it’s not going to be easy. Certain things will be expected from you and there will be many people trying to hurt you. I can assure you that we will do everything we can to keep you safe, especially Leopold. Which brings me to my first point: other than being a figurehead and representative of the Royal Family, your main role is to be support for Leopold as he ascends into his full role and duties. You have already been doing a pretty good job of this. Next, and probably the most imminent threat is the press. Now that you and Leopold have decided to officially date, it will eventually have to be announced to the public. This has to be done in a very strategic way so that you and he are photographed in the best possible light. We want to avoid as many drunken stupors and crotch shots on film as possible. I realize that Leopold does not exactly have the best track record for this but hopefully you can help clean that up.”

I raised my hand a little nervous, “I thought there where rules about me being photographed.”

“There are, but not for long, and you have to be ready to deal with it. You will get all the specifics later tonight”

“Okay, so the rules are different now? I mean, how do I have to act around Leopold?”

“I’m not really sure,” she admitted frowning. “Well, nothing changes really, all the rules still apply in terms of walking and talking and touching it’s just, I don’t know what Leopold will do.”

“I don’t understand.”

“If you were with Hector I could tell you that he is very physical and likes to joke around. He is a little impulsive but laid back. Hector may try to talk a lot with you in public or make jokes and that’s okay, you can go along with whatever you are comfortable with. With Leopold though, I have no idea, he’s never had a girlfriend before.”

“He’s never had a girlfriend?” I repeated surprised. “What about all those girls I hear about?”

“He fools around a little but nothing serious. Sometimes Leopold will kiss a girl when he gets drunk at a bar or goes on one of his rampages, but that’s about it. He is kind of a prude at times to tell you the truth. Just go with the flow.”

“Gee thanks,” I muttered not really feeling any better about this.

“Just remember that all of your decisions will have consequences now. And Winifred, just so you know, no one will think less of you if it becomes too much. If you decide that this is not what you want, we will try to erase your time with us as painlessly as possible, try to keep the world from prying.”

A clock chimed somewhere in the room, making Phillipa stand. “I have to go and get ready for Governor Laurent’s arrival. I will see you in a little while. Please say bonjour to Mme. DuBeche from me.” With that she skipped from the room leaving me welded to my chair.

Suddenly my untouched plate wasn’t so appetizing. I felt frozen by my nerves. I hadn’t really thought about what dating Leopold would mean. Could I really pass up being normal to be with him? And how could the media be that bad. Surely they would go easy on me. Why should they care? It’s not like I’m anyone important.

Fifteen minutes later I was standing in front of a mirror, wearing a white lace sundress and fascinator, with Mme. DuBeche sticking pins into my side. M. Arsnault had come to get me and was now standing in the corner, quizzing me in French grammar, as the seamstress used me as a pincushion.

“What is this outfit for?” I asked, interrupting his passé compose speech.

“We have to go to the Royal Water Regatta today, Mademoiselle. It is being held to honor the arrival of Governor Richard,” he said.

“Who is Governor Richard?” I asked, following Mme. DuBeche direction and slowly spinning in circles. Phillipa had mentioned the name too.

“Governor Jean Richard is the Governor of the province of Arcadis in France. He has a good history with the DuMont Family and is loyal to the old accords and traditions. He is visiting to meet you and there will be a series of events to honor this. May I continue with the verbs now, Mademoiselle?”

“He wants to meet me?” I asked. Mme. DuBeche indicated for me to stop and began attacking part of the dress’s hem.

“Yes, many people wish to meet you, but he has a specific interest. Governor Richard is a very patriotic man, loyal to his country. He is a distant relative of the Family Sinclair,” said Mr. Arsnault. For some reason I didn’t think the country he was talking about was France. “It will be good for you, Mademoiselle. You will be able to see and learn some of the histories and customs of your country. Also, as he is the head of the Arcadian Government, he is to act on you behalf during the meeting that will take place regarding the recent advancements with you and le Prince.”

“I see,” I said not too pleased that another man was being invited in to debate my dating life.

Mme. DuBeche took a step back from me, examining her work carefully. She quickly exchanged a few words with Mr. Arsnault and then nodded.

“Mme. DuBeche has completed her work,” he told me. “If you will follow me, I will take you down to the limo that will be taking you and le Prince to le rivière.”

“Hold on, no one said anything about a river.”

I found myself standing, cross-armed, and staring down at Leopold who was in a small dingy boat below me.

“There is no way I’m getting into that boat,” I told him defiantly.

Leopold looked at me a little surprised. Either he had not been informed about my resistance towards water or he was surprised I was saying no to him. “Fred, it is the only way to get to the dock.”

I looked out across the wide river; there was an enormous dock in the center. It was where the water regatta was being held and apparently the only way to get out there was by rowboat. This was worse then the damn seaplane.

Leopold exchanged a few words with the rower and then turned back to me. “Je te promis, it is completely safe.”

“Sure, until it tips over. I grew up in a desert, Leopold, so I never really needed to learn to swim very well. Sure I can float and doggy paddle for a bit, but in this dress I’d just be dragged straight to the bottom.” I indicated the white lace sundress. Sure it was pretty but when in water I was sure it would be deadly.

“If the boat tips, I give you my word that I will save you myself.”

I looked towards the King and Queen’s and Hector and Phillipa’s boats, already half way out. “Fine”, I said and took Edwards out stretched hand, letting him help me into the dingy. He nodded at the rower and, slowly, we began to move away from dry land.

“See,” he said after a moment, “it’s not so bad.”

And to tell you the truth, it wasn’t. I was still a little on edge, holding Leopold’s hand in a death grip, but the swaying motion was almost soothing.

We arrived at the island of docks faster than I had expected and a flare of trumpets announced the arrival of the Royal family. We fell into formation and weaved through the crowds to a large table in the very center of the dock. Everyone sat with the exception of Leopold, who remained standing behind my chair, fidgeting with his cufflinks. I think he was nervous about something.

“Why don’t you show Winifred around, Leopold,” suggested Beatrice, taking in her son’s discomfort. “Don’t you think that is a good idea, Felip?”

“As long as they are back for the arrival of Governor Richard,” Felip said.

“Winifred?” Leopold said, offering me his arm. I smiled and stood, wrapping my arm through his.

He led me through the decorated tables and impeccably dressed people. The men where all wearing morning suits, the women in sundresses and extravagant hats. They watched us as we walked by, zeroing in on our linked arms, nodding their heads in recognition.

We stopped at the edge of the dock directly in front of a pole which had a ribbon tied to it, running all the way to the tree line on the other side of the river.

“This is the finish line,” said Leopold. “The racers left from here this morning and are traveling all the way around the island before returning. They should arrive shortly,” he said, pointing towards the horizon. Sure enough, I could just make out a few brightly colored smudges that were the rowboats.

“And then what?” I asked.

“Felip and I will present the awards and I will make a speech welcoming Richard.”

“Sounds like a blast.”

“I am nerveuse about my speech.”

“I know you will do amazing, just say it right to me,” I said.

A man in a dark suit came up to us then, mumbling something to Leopold, who sighed.

“I have to go see to some documentation. Stay if you like, I can find you when I’m finished.”

“Sure.” He disappeared along with the man in the suit.

I wasn’t alone a minute before I felt another presence beside me. I turned to come face to face with a boy, about my age, with features almost too severely sharp and dark, slick hair. He was handsome but almost in a trying too hard way. There was something too perfect and pristine about him, something cold and untouchable.

“Bonjour,” he purred kissing my hand sloppily. I had to resist the urge to whip it off on my dress. Phillipa would not be pleased with him. “I do not believe we have had the pleasure of meeting yet. I am Antoine DuBlaise and you are Winifred Sinclair.”

Ahh, well that cleared things up. My disdain for him grew even greater when I realized that the creepy man was Antoine. I hadn’t recognized him so close up. “Pleasure to meet you,” I lied.

“You are far more beautiful than your reputation, Winifred. Leopold is a lucky man. You must be weary of him though, he is known to keep the company of many women,” said Antoine, taking another step closer to me. His sickeningly sweet scent surrounded me and I had to hold my breath.

“I appreciate the warning,” I said and tried to take a step back, but my foot was stuck on something. “I think I will be fine.”

Antoine took another step towards me. “Either way, I think it would be beneficial for the two of us to spend some time together, Winifred. I would love to get to know you better. You see, I think that we could do great things together.”

“Is that so?” I said pulling harder in an attempt to free myself. I glanced down. One of my heels had gotten wedged between two planks of the damn dock. I cranked my neck to search the crowd. Where the hell was Leopold? “I’m sure that would be interesting but I’m afraid that I am terribly busy right now. Maybe another time?”

Antoine stepped closer, tracing his fingers across my arm. “You know, there is something about me that women just find irresistible. I can tell you are feeling it right now, my very presence is drawing you in.”

I jerked my arm way, and gave a final pull at my shoe. Apparently it was too much though because my foot flew out of the shoe and I lost my balance, falling back and straight into the river.

The dark water surrounded me instantly, reaching up to swallow me before I even had the chance to scream. I spun in the water, scrambling to right myself but only sank deeper, the fabric of my dress pulling me down. My lungs burned for air, but just as I thought they might burst, there was another splash beside me and a pair of strong arms wrapped tightly around my waist, dragging me upwards. I coughed and sputtered when my head finally broke the surface, gasping for air.

The arms pulled me up onto the dock and, still coughing, I opened my eyes to find a very wet, and very angry looking Leopold above me.

People in black suites, like the man who had retrieved Leopold earlier, rushed forward. They formed a circle around us, holding back the crowds, but no one dared come closer because of the look on Leopold’s face.

“Are you hurt?” Leopold asked, looking me up and down nervously. His voice was concerned and heavily accented due to stress. Rivulets of water were running from his hair which was plastered to his damp skin. The thin material of his shirt was sticking to his torso and arms, beige pants now brown from the water.

I nodded stiffly, head brushing the wooden planks. “I’m fine, fine. Just a little water logged. I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to, it was just Antoine, and then my shoe, and then the stupid dress-”

Mr. Arsnault arrived suddenly, ducking down to our level. “Sir, a boat has arrived,” he said.

Leopold stood and M. Arsnault handed him back his discarded jacket. Leopold must have pulled it off before he jumped in after me. Now he wrapped it around my shoulders before standing and lifting me into his arms again. “It’s okay Leopold, I can walk,” I assured him squirming, blushing furiously at the audience.

Leopold’s grip tightened. “I won’t let you,” he growled.

I sighed but stopped my escape attempts. There was no point in fighting him and I was tired from my near death experience. “Thank you,” I whispered.

We crossed the tent, weaving between the tables until we were back at the boat ramp. M. Lefevre was behind the wheel of a massive black speed boat. At least we had a motor this time. The downside was that there was another boat behind ours topped with sirens. We had a police escort; ain’t that just peachy.

Leopold put me down in one of the cold leather seats, wrapping a think wool blanket around me while speaking with our guards. I was shivering now, teeth chattering so I didn’t really concentrate on their words until the word hopital, caught my attention.

I squirmed uselessly, trying to escape from my mummy wrappings. “No, no hospital,” I stated firmly. “Really, it’s just a little water, I will be perfectly fine.”

They conversed conspiratorially again for a moment before Leopold dropped into the seat behind me and the boat roared to life. We took off across the water, darting between rocks and islands, the wind whipping at my hair. The police boat was on our tail.

The trees and shrubbery turned into buildings and soon we were in the river that cut through the middle of the square in front of the palace. Leopold picked me up and carried me across the square to the foyer of the castle.

There was a group of people there to meet us. I was passed off to a worried Angela, as Leopold was swallowed by a mass of handmaids and butlers, all trying to hand him towels or chasing him with blow dryers. They rushed him upstairs and Angela and I followed slowly.

Once in my room, Angela helped me peel off my soaked clothes and climb into a hot bath. The whole thing was a little excessive, if you ask me, but over all I felt much better once I was warm and dry.

“I think I may have screwed up royally, this time, Angela,” I said to my maid from where I was lying on my bed a while later. She didn’t answer, probably didn’t understand. “Leopold seemed really mad. I guess I did kind of screw things up. The party was for this guy I am supposed to meet, and Leopold didn’t get to say his speech. I think it’s hardly fair for him to be so upset though, I mean, it was an accident, and Antoine should get part of the blame, he was being creepy.” I sighed and pushed myself up from the bed. “I suppose I should go and apologize. It’s probably a better thing if we are on good terms tonight for the meeting considering all these old guys are coming just to talk about Leopold and I. Plus, I feel kind of bad for making him so upset.”

Everyone was still at the regatta though, and I wasn’t really sure how to find Leopold. I was allowed, right? I mean we were dating, plus I wanted to apologize. It just felt so strange to go seeking him out. Usually he just appeared. Where does one go looking for a prince, anyway? There were far too many rooms, so I figured I should just start with the most obvious.

I left the safety of my bed and ventured down the hall to the big, carved, black door at the very end. Hesitantly, I knocked. Rapid French responded. The good news was, it was Leopold, the bad news was that I had no idea what he said. “Ahh, it’s Fred,” I tried.

There was a pause. “Come in.”

I pushed through the door and into his bedroom. The doors were wide open, leading to a balcony over the gardens. Warm air fluttered into the room. My eyes landed on Leopold who was sitting on the balcony’s railing. He had a cigarette in the fingers of his left hand. Smiling, he took a long drag.

I crossed the room between us, indicating the cigarette pointedly, “That’s bad for you, you know?”

Leopold pursed his lips and then flicked what was left of the cigarette into the bushes below. Well, at least that explained the smell of smoke that seemed to always cling to him.

I stopped in front of him and Leopold lifted his hands, gently cradling my jaw. He placed the softest of kisses on my forehead. “Je te demande pardon,” he murmured.

I frowned slightly, “Why? I’m the one who fell in the river.”

“I shouldn’t have left you alone; I should have come over when Antoine approached you. I did not see, I am sorry.”

“Yeah, he was kind of…rude,” I decided choosing my words carefully.

Leopold’s hands slid from my face, tightening into fists, “What did he say to you?”

“Nothing important,” I assured him, not wanting to encourage Leopold’s anger. “I promise, I’m perfectly fine.”

“If you are certain,” Leopold said, holding my eyes, “you just scared me, Fred, which is a feeling I do not experience very often. Please don’t do it again.”

“I’ll do my best,” I told him.

My breath caught in my throat as he leaned forward, pressing his lips gently to mine. It surprised me for a moment but my hands found their way to his neck and he deepened the kiss.

There was a knock on the door, interrupting us. Leopold growled, resting our foreheads together, not moving away. “Qui est la?” he demanded running his lips across my jaw. I shivered.

“It is Michael, mon Seigneur, it is time for the meeting,” said the voice from the other side, Michael, apparently.

“J’arrive,” replied Leopold. “Merde,” he swore under his breath. “I’m sorry, but we have to go and speak with the Governors. I told my parent’s about our decision and there are certain steps that must be followed and concerns that must be addressed.”

“I think I can manage,” I told him, standing on my toes to kiss him once more. Leopold smiled, sliding off the railing, and leading me by the hand out of his room and through the halls.

We stopped somewhere in the center of the castle, in front of two giant wooden doors. Leopold put his hand on my cheek, gently lifting my chin so that our eyes met. His strange gaze was heavy as he examined my own. “I promise everything will be fine. I will be with you the entire time; they just need to make sure you understand a few things. I think it will be good, I was kind of wondering about a few things myself.”

“Couldn’t they just give me a brochure or text book or something?” I grumbled.

Leopold laughed and kissed the top of my head. “Come on.”

It was the conference room I had been taken to when I had first arrived in Solis. Once again, the long table was surrounded by old men who stood when Leopold and I entered. Felip was sitting at the head, glasses on as he read over some paperwork, but he smiled at us when he heard the commotion. “Leopold, Winifred, I am glad to see that you are safe and dry.”

Leopold lead me to a seat second to Felip’s right and held out my chair for me before sitting down between his father and I. Cups of coffee were placed in front of us by kitchen staff. I had no intention of drinking the coffee but poured some cream in it just to do something and not have to see all of the Governor’s curious faces.

“I have some news, gentlemen,” continued Felip, addressing the room now. “My son has notified me that he and Winifred Sinclair have decided to have a relationship with one another.” To my utter horror the entire room broke out into a round of applause. Felip raised his hand to quiet them.

“Yes, it is splendid news, but there are some matters that must be discussed surrounding this. Governor Jean Richard is joining us to assure that Winifred is treated fairly.” He pointed to a small, balding man in a green suit that was sitting next to him. The King shuffled through the pile in front of him, pulling out a file. They had a freaking file about this? “We need to make sure that we have all of our bases covered, that everyone understands the circumstances, and that we have a plan should the worst happen. Would anyone like to start?”

I balked. My relationship was being put into the hands of old men to debate over. If I ever got to be queen, this government was definitely going to have a defiant make over. I mean, could they really have nothing better to do then this? I felt like world hunger or the fact that their prince partakes in questionably legal activities may be of greater concern then Leopold’s and my relationship which, really, hasn’t happened yet. I don’t think the Governors shared my ideas though, because one of them stood and started to speak.

“First,” he said, making his handlebar moustache quiver, “I would like to congratulate the couple as well the Family DuMont. It is a great thing to see the DuMont and Sinclair families united once again after so long.”

Felip and Leopold nodded their thanks and the man continued. “What I am concerned about is the media and the press. We will have to lift the media ban and once the news gets out it will attract much attention, not only in our country by also globally. Are we ready to deal with this? Once the news is out that they are dating, all of the other information will be soon to follow. How much are we willing to tell?”

The man sat down and Felip quickly scrawled down a few notes in the file before the next Governor stood.

“We have not had to deal with a Royal Relationship like this before. These are modern times and since this is not a traditional arrangement or betrothal we will not have the same control over the matter. The couple will be free to split, if they so desire, but this will affect our outstanding laws on marriage and virtue.” My face turned scarlet on that last one.

“And what if they are to break up, or Winifred decides to return home,” said another man, throwing in his two cents. “Will this be permitted and will we have to provide measures to keep her safe afterward? Or perhaps she will need to be paid off for silence or be added to the DuMont payroll or would like to assume possession of the items her ancestors left for us.”

“Et il y a le problème avec son titre,” said a man in the corner. I had no idea what he said but it seemed ominous as everyone in the room fell silent.

I looked to Leopold for some indication of what was going on but he, like Felip, was busy taking notes. It was strange to see him taking this so seriously, good I suppose, just different from the Leopold I was used to.

“Alright,” said Felip, “thank you for your contributions. I have some suggestions that I would like to make to resolve these issues. Regarding the media, I agree that the ban will have to be lifted eventually and that security measures will have to be taken because of this. Leopold’s guard will remain with he and Winifred but arrangements for bigger events will be made.”

“I think, if we could postpone the ban for a while it would be best,” said Leopold, speaking for the first time.

Felip frowned, “what do you mean?”

“Well I am concerned that if we lift it suddenly that it will be too much to handle all at once, especially for Winifred who has never had to deal with the press before. I think it would be better if we released the limitations and information slowly so that there is time to adjust for everyone. Maybe we could just lift it for Solis first and then hold a press conference later for the rest of the world.” Leopold looked awkward as his words hung in the air, the Governors contemplating them.

“I think that that is a good idea. We could also control the information that way rather than having people wrongly informed or twisting the story.” He smiled at Leopold, “Would you like to continue?”

“In terms of the laws surrounding marriage and virtue, I believe that they are outdated and should be changed to suit the world today. This being said, I realize that it is impossible to do this overnight and will respect the old ways as much as possible and will come to you should any conflicts arise. I can personally say that I am well within the regulations set but, as Winifred was asked here and unaware of the entire situation, it would not be fair to expect the same or to put her through old traditions. As I have said though, I will keep you informed.” Leopold looked around the room seeming confident and calm but I saw though the faint blush to his cheeks and the way he was bouncing his leg. He was nervous. I figured I could at least help him out. I think I understood enough to get what they were hinting at.

Cautiously, I raised my hand, not really sure how to go about saying something.

“Yes, Winifred?” said Felip making all the attention fall onto me. I felt my cheeks heat up. Leopold looked at me slightly surprised and frowned in concern.

“I just wanted to say, if it helps, that I have never been in a relationship before,” I said.

The Governor’s began to murmur between themselves in French until Felip raised his hand, silencing them again. “Thank you, Winifred, that does help but,” he said, redirecting his attention to Leopold, “This means that we should continue to follow the traditions and laws, when appropriate, so that we do not have any problems that could have been avoidable.”

Leopold nodded.

“As for the other matters,” said Felip, “Leopold and Winifred have only just begun and I think we should not think about a break up. We can have papers drawn up, should it happen, that both parties agree to. As we invited her here, I think we do owe Winifred some sort of compensation should the worst happen but nothing outrageous.”

Richard spoke then for the first time. “I would love to help you with those papers, Felip, as I am working with France right now to do much the same. As for her title, I am attempting to pull a few strings to avoid complications with the old arrangement and will notify you of any progress.”

“Much appreciated, Richard,” said Felip making a note. “Any other questions?”

“Is le Prince not returning to the army base soon?” said the man with the handlebar moustache.

“Oui,” confirmed Leopold, “a la fin de la semaine.”

I knocked over the bowl of sugar cubes in surprise and a maid rushed over to clean them up. I apologized profusely to the young girl. The date had just shocked me. I hadn’t realized that Leopold was going away so soon. What would I do without him? How could we be dating if he wasn’t even here?

“Will this not complicate things?” said moustache man.

“He will be returning as much as possible,” replied Felip with a tone of finality, shutting the file in front of him. “Do we all agree on the conclusions we have come to?”

The Governors all agreed.

Chapter Seven

I was dismissed after that. The room stood with me and then Leopold walked me to the door, standing half in and half out of the conference room.

“I must stay for the rest of the meeting but Angela has instructions. I will see you afterward, d’accord?”

I nodded, crossing my arms over my chest. “Sure thing. Have fun.”

Leopold pursed his lips, frowning slightly, and placed his hand on my cheek. For a moment he looked as though he was going to say something, but then his hand dropped and he slid back between the doors.

I exhaled shakily and began my walk back to my room. It wasn’t fair. First Leopold gets angry with me, then he kisses me and now he’s leaving me here all alone in a giant castle with his crazy family. I wasn’t sure if I was angry or sad or both, and to be honest, I was still a little confused about some of the things that were going on.

Angela was waiting for me with dinner when I returned, a steaming plate of lavishly creamy potatoes, roast beef and carrots. I could barely taste it as I swallowed; it was like a gluey lump stuck in the back of my throat. I pushed the plate away from me. Angela looked at me nervously, and murmured something in French, delicately patting my back. She sighed after a moment, realizing that I didn’t understand and removed the plate.

I heard her shuffling around in the closet after that and when she returned she smiled, holding out a very tiny bundle of clothing in my direction. My heart stopped for a second, mind reeling back to all the talk of virtue that had been going on in the meeting. Was this what Leopold meant when he said he would see me later? I thought the whole point was to keep it, not lose it. Suspiciously, I took the bundle from her, holding it out at arms length.

“You’re kidding,” I stated, looking directly at Angela.

She shrugged.

“Leopold wants to take me swimming after what happened today? And what is this? I mean, it will barely cover anything.”

My maid just stood there, smiling sweetly at me.

“Fine,” I huffed, “at least he is prepared to save me.”

I changed quickly into the very tiny black bikini, happy that the ban hadn’t been lifted yet. I don’t think I would like a picture of naked me on the news, and I am pretty sure that would fall under the same category as the drunken stupor and crotch shots Phillipa had mentioned earlier.

My confusion grew even greater when Angela handed me a pair of skinny jeans and a sweater, which I pulled on over the top.

“La jardin,” she said, shooing me out the door.

“Towel? Shoes?” I asked, pointing towards my bare feet.

She shook her head, “la jardin.

“Okay, okay, la jardin,” I conceded and turned for the door. I really needed to learn French just so that I didn’t have to be confused all the time. Although, I was pretty sure that I wouldn’t be informed even if I could speak it.

I followed my instructions, and went out the back doors that led to the gardens, only to find a horse. It was Leopold’s horse, Jacqueline, to be more specific, and she was standing there alone, in her saddle and reins, not tied up or anything. The things that caught my attention, though, where the saddle bags that were slung across her. I figured they would probably lend a clue to where I was going. Now I just had to get to them.

“Good horse,” I purred, taking a step towards the monster experimentally. “It’s okay, I’m not going to hurt you. I know Leopold, you like Leopold, right? And I don’t think he would be very happy if you hurt me either.”

I took another step, extending my arm. “That’s a good girl, just be still.”

My hand was on the bag now, I just had to figure out the mechanics. There were a lot of zippers and straps.

“Qu’est-ce que tu fais?” said a voice from beside me as I reached for one of the straps.

I spun quickly to find Leopold smiling down at me. “Pret?”

“Yup,” I blushed and then squeaked in surprise as he lifted me by the waist into the saddle. He jumped up flawlessly, settling himself in front of me.

“Where are we going?” I asked, as I wrapped my arms around his waist.

“To the ocean,” Leopold said, and then we were off. We rode across the gardens at break neck speed, straight through the orchards where we had our picnic, until the trees opened up to a cliff. Light from the setting sun bounced off of the sparkling white rock, throwing rainbows as we followed the edge. I looked down and swallowed, holding tighter to Leopold as I took in the drop to the ocean below. There was probably close to a hundred feet between us and the crashing grey water.

“We jump off these,” Leopold shouted against the wind.

“Pardon,” I spat, shaking my head against his back. “There is no way.”

“Non, Hector, Phillipa et moi. We used to jump off of them for fun and swim over to the plage. That is where we are going.” He pointed across to the middle of the small bay I hadn’t realized the cliffs were edging. Sure enough, there was a small crescent of white beach.

We followed the cliffs as they sloped down to meet the water, stopping only once we hit the sand. Ungracefully, I slid off the back of the horse and then stood in awe, staring out at the water which was reflecting the pink and orange sky.

Leopold strode past me, discarding clothing as he made his way down the beach, and dove into the waves. I watched nervously until his head popped up a few moments later.

“Show off,” I muttered as he walked back in until the waves crashed around his shins.

“Come on, Fred,” he smiled, waving me closer.

I pursed my lips, there was really no getting out of this, and then stripped off my clothes. I padded my way down the beach to the edge of the water. Leopold was watching, I could feel his gaze burning into my skin as I came closer. Self consciously I crossed my arms over my stomach, trying to hide some of the bare flesh.

He shook his head after a moment and took hold of my hand.

“Is this really necessary? We already know I can’t swim,” I said as I let him lead me deeper in.

“I just want to get you comfortable in the water,” he said. “Peut etre plus une autre jour.”

The water was up to my waist now, waves hitting my belly button.

“Do you trust me?” Leopold asked.

“Yes.”

He linked my arms around his neck and then picked me up in a sort of frontwards piggyback. The differences in our height put me above the water line again, as Leopold’s hips still were not submerged. I clung tighter as we waded deeper, burrowing my face into Leopold’s neck. Slowly, I became weightless as the water rose up to my chest.

“Relax, Fred. It is alright,” Leopold whispered. So, carefully, I did. I loosened my legs and the chokehold I had around his neck, putting some distance between us without letting go. I wasn’t that brave yet.

“Voila,” his hands slid off of me.

I sat for a minute, staring out into the sea and then back to the beach and how far we had come. “Thank you,” I told Leopold and then, as I stared into his funny eyes, I suddenly became aware of how close we were. Now that I wasn’t scared, I was acutely aware of the feeling of Leopold’s warm flesh and hard muscle brushing against my own skin. That, compiled with everything else that had happened today, and all my fear and anxieties, made me press my lips to his in a lingering kiss.

Leopold responded softly, gently, as though I were fragile. I was surprised, almost, with how much caution he seemed to be taking.

“We should go in,” he said pulling away after a moment. “The sun has gone down and you are starting to shiver.”

“Not yet,” I told him, pulling myself closer to him and redirected his mouth to mine. Leopold was hesitant at first but then surprised me when his hands grabbed hold of my thighs, lifting me. I wound my fingers through his damp hair, deepening the kiss. Then suddenly my back was pressed against dry, warm sand with Leopold holding himself above me, dripping, only in a much different way than earlier today. I ran my tongue across his bottom lip. Leopold pulled away.

“Winifred,” his voice was thick, “please, do not do that again. Put some clothes on.” He pushed away from me and walked down the beach, picking up his own clothing. I lay there frowning, trying to catch my breath. Was he angry, had I gone too far?

I stood after a moment, brushing the sand from my body, and wobbled over towards my own pile. Mechanically, I went through the motions of putting my clothes back on.

“Je veut te parler, is that okay?” said Leopold once he returned. He reached into the saddlebags and pulled out a big blanket.

“Sure,” I said and followed him to where he had spread the blanket out in the sand. He sat down resting his head on his knees. I followed suit, watching as he ran his fingers through his hair.

“Are you okay?” he asked after a moment. “With everything that is going on, that is. I just don’t want you to do anything you are uncomfortable with.”

“Everything is fine, or at least I thought it was. You and everyone else say that they are doing everything possible and I trust that,” I said honestly. “It’s my decision to stay here.”

“That’s what scares me.”

“I don’t understand,” I told him.

“You will soon. Just please, Fred, let’s take things slowly. I have screwed up enough things in my life and I won’t let this be another one. Just don’t stay in this for anyone but yourself. If things don’t work out, I am sure they will figure out a way for me to keep the throne.”

“I’m not going anywhere yet,” I assured him. “Things will be more difficult when you leave though.”

Leopold looked at me sadly, “I will be around a lot, for meetings and other events. Je te promis.” He lay back against the ground, “How could I leave you alone after what happened earlier today and especially after tonight.”

“What do you mean?” I asked lying down on my side next to him.

He turned, eyes flickering open. “You have no idea the affect you have on people, do you? How beautiful you are?”

I laughed dismissively.

“Je suis serieux,” Leopold said. “The people are enamored with you and Antoine clearly has affections.”

“What about you?” I whispered.

“I am conflicted,” he stated, making me frown.

“And why is that?”

“Because you make me want to do everything that I can not. Tu me rend fou.”

“I won’t stop you,” I smiled.

“That’s exactly why I must stop myself.”

I rolled my eyes. Of course this was when he decided to follow the law.

Chapter Eight

“Fred!” Tess screamed, “It’s about time! You leave, just vanish without a trace, with these two huge dudes, claiming to be the princess of some strange ass, lost, ancient civilization, and that you are going to marry some hunky prince and then I don’t hear from you for weeks. I thought you were dead!”

“I know, I’m sorry,” I winced holding the phone away from my ear. “I meant to call but things have just been really busy. I don’t even have that long now. If it makes you feel better, I haven’t spoken to Alec either.”

“Then I am honored to be first,” my friend said, placated for now. “You know, I even tried to Google you and nothing! I thought the media would be all over this, American princess and all.”

“Illegal,” I sighed, pulling my legs up onto the couch in the living room. I needed to be comfy for this; it was going to take a while to reiterate everything that had happened. That’s part of what forced my hand to call, other than the guilt of being a bad friend, I needed to say it all out loud to process and wanted a second opinion from someone who wasn’t tangled up in this whole thing.

“What do you mean? Everyone can be Googled,” Tess stated all matter of fact.

“Nope, the Governors made it illegal to publish almost all information and press on the Royal Family when Hector started dating Rose.”

“What?”

“Hector, aka Prince Henri, decided he wanted to renounce his claim on the throne so he could date a commoner, Rose. I am dating Leopold; he is the next heir and the one they need me to fulfill the accord with. So now I am in princess lessons, and dating a prince, and am going to be interviewed and photographed by the press for the first time today, and everyone is concerned about my virtue, and Leopold is leaving me!” I cried, everything coming out in a big rush. “And he smokes, and uses swords, and flies planes, and…”

“Is he hot?” interrupted Tess.

“You are missing the point,” I huffed, curling the phone line around my fingers.

“Answer the question, Fred,” Tess pressed, voice serious now.

“Well he is a prince, in the military and rides horses, so I think you can imagine.”

“So that’s a yes,” she said firmly. “And do you like him, has he done anything cruel or terrible?”

“No,” I frowned, “of course no, none of them have, they are perfect.”

“And….,” Tess urged.

“I like Leopold, I really do.”

“So then there is no problem. Take a deep breath, Fred. If you are happy you just need to sit back and let thing fall where they may. They are royalty for God sakes, do whatever they are telling you, I am sure they have it all figured out.”

“Thanks, Tess.”

“Anytime, babe. Now do you really have to go? I want an in depth description of everything you just said, and everything you missed, with breaths between sentences this time,” Tess said just as Leopold knocked and stuck his head through the door.

“Ya, sorry. I wasn’t supposed to call, I kind of snuck away from my maid and am now sitting here in a silk dress and pumps talking to you. Leopold actually just came to get me,” I explained, holding up my finger to Leopold.

“Hi Leopold!” Called Tess making me pull the phone from my ear again. Leopold looked at the phone, taken aback and slightly worried. I laughed.

“Okay, Fred, but call sooner next time or I will have to come over there and hunt you down. Just because you are queen now doesn’t mean you can forget the little people you came from.”

“Sure thing,” I rolled my eyes. “I will do my best. Bye.”

“See you,” Tess sang and then hung up.

I hung up too and stood, walking towards Leopold. He held the door open, then took my hand as we made our way though the halls.

“Sorry,” I told him. “that was one of my best friends, Tess.”

“She seems very enthusiastic,” Leopold replied, choosing his words carefully. His hand slid from mine as we came to the giant front doors.

“That she is,” I said as I followed him down the steps and, with a smile to M. Arsnault, into the back seat of the hearse and smoothed out the creases in the skirt of my pearly dress, “Where are we going exactly?”

“To the studio where we did our first interview et puis il y aura des photos.” (And then there will be photos.)

“With the press, right?” I checked.

“Oui, plus ou moins.” (Yes, more or less.)

“What do you mean ‘plus ou moins’? I don’t have to sign autographs or anything do I? I’ve never had to do that before, I don’t think I even have a signature.”

Leopold laughed, “Non, ma belle, just smile, say bonjour, shake hands if you like.” (Term of endearment=beautiful…hello.)

We pulled up to the back door of the studio and I felt my jaw drop open. There was a crowd of people, screaming and yelling and shaking signs at the hearse. A group of security guards filed out of the studio doors and began herding the people to either side, creating an aisle.

“Oh my god,” I managed, staring.

“Mmmhmm,” hummed Leopold, clucking his tongue disdainfully. “News travels fast. Rest proche a moi.” (Stay close to me.)

M. Arsnault opened the door and the shouts became deafening. Leopold played with his cufflinks and then pulled his glasses out of his breast pocket, putting them in place.

“Smile and wave, we need to get inside. The rest will come after.” With that he stepped out of the car. I slid down the seat and with a final shaky breath, took Leopold’s offered hand and followed. The camera flashes were blinding as we began to make our way forward. Leopold’s hand slid from mine, making me feel even smaller, as he took the lead. I followed, always a step behind, with the Royal guards flanking us. I tried to plaster what I hoped was a smile on my face, waving hesitantly at the group.

It was a relief when we made it into the studio and the doors shut the world out. My heart was still racing and I let out a breath I hadn’t realized I had been holding. The peace didn’t last long though because suddenly the director was there.

“Bonjour, bonjour!” he cried kissing my knuckles. “It is such an honor to have you back on the show, Princess. And of course you as well, your Highness,” he added as a second thought looking hesitantly up at Leopold.

“Bonjour,” I said, trying to suppress a giggle as I repossessed my hand.

“I have heard that you will be making an announcement. Such an honor, such an honor! You will wait in the same room as your last visit. We will start very shortly,” the director announced as he marched off.

Leopold clucked his tongue again, making me slap his arm. “Oh be nice, he is just excited.”

“Il est impoli,” Leopold said. (He is rude.)

“You are just jealous because he likes me better,” I joked pushing through the door to our waiting room.

“Everyone likes you better,” stated Leopold with a smile, “and I don’t blame them. I like you better too.”

I rolled my eyes, “Well, I am pretty great.”

We were standing face to face, smiling at each other. I looked over his shoulder, making sure we were alone in the room, before reaching up and pulling off Leopold’s aviators.

“Ca va?” he murmured holding my eyes. (Are you okay?)

“Everything is fine,” I assured him, “just different.”

“They are going to ask lots of questions. They do not have all the information correct, and do not need to know everything. They know that we brought you here because of your ancestry and they know of the old accord but that is all. I just need you to prepare for after this. Assumptions will be made, and things may get out of hand.”

There was a knock on the door, interrupting him.

“Understood?” Leopold pressed, ignoring it.

“Yes.”

He barked something out in French in the direction of the door and then, “Alright, let’s go.” He took the aviators and shoved them in his breast pocket.

Leopold swung the door open to find a very nervous looking stage manager on the other side. The stage manager’s eyes got big as he took us in and then quickly bowed low before scurrying away.

Leopold raised an eyebrow and looked to M. Arsnault who said, “You are supposed to follow. He is the five minute warning.”

We could hear the audience as we stood just off stage, still yelling as loud as they had been outside. I could feel my hands shaking as we waited in silence for our cue. Leopold must have sensed my nerves because I suddenly felt the back of his hand brush against mine. I looked up at him and he smiled crookedly, a mischievous sparkle in his eye, and then shrugged out of his jacket.

“You looked cold,” he said, handing it to me.

I giggled and took the jacket, pulling it on. Leopold quickly rolled the sleeves.

We were pushed out onto the stage after that, waving and smiling and the crowd rose to their feet. We made our way over to the couch that had been set out for us beside the host’s chair. We shook hands with Claudette and then sat.

“It is wonderful to have you back on the show Your Highness and Mademoiselle Winifred,” she smiled sweetly. “Have you adjusted to the Country, Mademoiselle?”

“Yes, I have seen a bit more since I was last here. It is very beautiful,” I told her.

Claudette smiled, “Your French has improved.”

“Yes, they have been teaching me many things,” I replied.

“What is you favorite thing so far?” she asked carefully, trying not to speak too quickly for me.

“I really like the Canette games. I have gone to watch Leopold play, and found it very interesting,” I responded, because it was interesting and because I was trying to divert the attention to him.

“Yes, congratulations, Sir,” Claudette acknowledged. “I hear your team has made it into the championship.”

“Thank you very much,” Leopold said briskly. Well so much for that plan.

Luckily Claudette was not deterred by his gruffness and kept going. “Rumors have been flying around like mad about the two of you, and then we received a special report this morning regarding the media ban and that you have a special announcement. Would you like to elaborate?”

“Yes, like you said, the decision was made to lift the media ban within Solis,” Leopold said. “I can not say much further about it now, for specific reasons, but there will be a press conference early next month to discuss things further.”

“But we are allowed to take pictures now, right? And will see you in the newspaper again?” Claudette asked before taking a sip of water from a bottle she had beside her.

“Yes.”

The crowed cheered.

“And, now what about this announcement? Are some of the rumors true?” the host continued.

“That would depend on what they are,” Leopold said coyly. “Winifred and I have decided to make our way into fulfilling the accord, following the footsteps of our ancestors.”

The crowd let out a collective gasp and then began to cheer. Claudette allowed it for a few minutes and then stuck her hand up to quiet them.

“That is quite the announcement. So you are going to get married?”

“No, not yet. We are not even engaged,” Leopold said.

“Dating then?”

“Yes, I suppose you could call it that.”

“Well congratulations. We wish you all the best and a happier ending than your predecessors.”

After the interview, I returned his jacket before we were taken to a room filled with photographers. We were ushered over to stand in front of a large white canvas tarp hung in the middle of the room. Leopold and I stood awkwardly in front of it, smiling as they clicked away. I was seeing stars by the end of the five minutes and was very glad I just had to stand still. If there had been poses thrown into the mix, it may have been disastrous.

After that, security snuck us out the back through another human tunnel, and we returned to the safety of the fortified castle.

I didn’t see Leopold very much for the few days afterward. He was holed up in meetings with the governors that had been urgently rushed because of the media thing and because he was leaving. I stayed in my room, mostly, studying the verb packages with Mr. Arsnault. Sometimes Angela would bring me a newspaper or put me in front of a TV and make me read or watch myself in French for practice.

I was getting worried the night before he left that I wasn’t going to see him again before his departure. As I was getting ready for bed though, there was a light knock on the door. I told the person to enter, thinking it was going to be Angela having discovered some internet blog with me on it, but was pleasantly surprised when Leopold slipped into my room.

He looked around my bedroom for a moment, holding his finger to his lips. I shook my head, signalling that I was alone. Edwards body relaxed instantly and he crossed the room, collapsing onto the bed beside me. I looked him over, slightly concerned, as he lay there perfectly still, eyes closed.

Leopold was in his usual white shirt, sleeves pushed up to his elbows, and dark pants. His auburn hair was messier that usual and there were dark bruises under his eyes. I began to run my hand through the tangled locks, trying to make some sense of it.

“Don’t tell anyone I have been here,” Leopold said after a moment. “I am hiding.”

I repressed a laugh. “Are the meetings that bad?”

“I am excited to be going back to the base, just for a break.”

I did laugh that time.

“That feel so nice,” he hummed sleepily and then his lips fell in to a pout as my hands slid from his hair and down to his throat. I unbuttoned the colour of his shirt and undid his tie, dropping it off the side of the bed, then scooted down to the foot and pulled off his shoes. I crawled back up to the top, sitting against the head board and Leopold rearranged himself so that his head was in my lad.

“I miss wearing normal clothes. They are so much more comfortable,” he said.

“I agree with you there. Are you all packed?” I asked as my fingers subconsciously returned to his hair.

“Yes. I do not have to take much but it is all in my rucksack.”

“What time are you leaving?”

“Six in the morning,” he said grimacing.

“I will get up to see you off,” I told him.

“No, sleep. You do not have to do that,” Edwards eyes flicked open, almost glowing in the dark room. He took hold of the hand that was in his hair and kissed my wrist.

“I want to, really,” I insisted.

“Then, by all means, I will not stop you,” Leopold smiled as he propped himself up on his arm. He put his hand on on jaw, thumb caressing my cheek. He was very close now, his spicy smell making me dizzy.

“I am glad that you aren’t going to stop me, because I don’t how you really can, and, I mean, I really want to say goodbye because I will not see you for-“

“Fred,” Leopold said and then he kissed me.

He pulled away after a moment and stood, collecting his things from around the room. “I will see you at six,” he said and then left, leaving me sitting on the bed, breathless.

As it turns out, I was the only one that was there to see Leopold off in the morning. Whether the rest of his family was used to it, whether they were busy or just wanted to sleep in, I wasn’t sure. What I did know was, that if someone I was related to was going off to war camp, I would be saying goodbye.

So Leopold stood there, all geared up, as I clung to him in my polka doted pyjamas. M. Lefever, who was taking him to the base, had gone to get the car, leaving us alone in the foyer.

“Everything will be fine. I will be back in a few days, I promise,” Leopold assured, as he soothed my hair.

“I know,” I said pulling away.

Leopold kissed my forehead and then looked me up and down. “You may not want to come outside though. There are photographers at the gate.”

“Really? Wow, they are determined. Have fun, be safe,” I told him.

Leopold smiled and put his aviators on and then left, just gone. I stood there a moment longer, watching the door.

“Worried?” said a voice suddenly, making me jump. I turned quickly and found Governor Richard standing at the top of the stairs.

“Sorry,” I said, hand over my racing heart. “I didn’t realise you were there.”

The old man shrugged, “Quite the man, your prince. He will be fine you know, he practically grew up at the base.”

“It’s just this feeling I have, I dunno. I’m sure it will be okay.”

“I was actually hoping to talk to you, if that is okay, Princess,” Richard indicated over his shoulder, down the hall.

“Absolutely,” I said and climbed the stairs to meet him.

“You know, Princess, that I have been in communications for years with France?” Richard said, looping my arm through his.

“Oh, really?” I replied, trying to sound interested.

He nodded. “I wish to make Arcadis free again, independent from France, just as Solis has done. You see, we are related. A long, long time ago, my family was a part of your families court. Distant relatives, but my family has always remembered and dreamt of the old days. Now that you are here, I think this will be much easier. The Arcadians will remember their old kings and queens and soon long for the same things I do. You will add that extra push that we need.”

“Glad I can help,” I replied still unsure about where this was headed.

“The matter of your title will help as well. See, the accord states that the heirs of both countries should wed, but you do not have a title or a crown or a country. These are necessary to fulfill the conditions on the document. I am in discussion with France so that they will allow these things. It is in their best interest, after all, if they with to keep their allegiances with Solis. The thing is, Princess, that if my plan works, you will become the leader of the parliament of Arcadis.”

I stopped dead in my tracks. “You’re kidding.”

Richard laughed and shook his head, “No, it is true.”

“I can’t rule a country!” I practically yelled.

“Oh but you can. You will have my help as well as the help of the entire DuMont family. You would have been doing this with Leopold in the first place, should the two of you get married. You will be more of a figure head, really.”

“But I have had no training!” I stuttered.

Richard patted my hand and then began to lead me forward again. “Do not worry, Princess. These are all merely possibilities. My plan may not work at all. Then we would be, as the Americans put it, ‘screwed’.”

Richard took me through a pair of ornately carved wooden doors and into a room covered in paintings. There was a row of lavish benches running down the center.

“This is part of the castle open to the public. It is a gallery of the portraits of all of the Kings and Queens of Solis and those they were able to rescue from Arcadis. I wanted to show you one in particular.”

We stopped in the middle of the hall in font of a painting that was probably about six feet tall and framed in gold. There was a man in a blue and white military uniform, sword at his waist. He was handsome with square feature and dark hair. At first I thought that something was wrong with his eyes, until I realized that they were just they were painted different colors, the same colors as Leopold’s. He was standing beside a beautiful woman, in an emerald gown, with a giant sapphire pendant at her neck and one on her ring finger. Her skin was pale, eyes were dark and she had beautiful black waves. Like him, she had a sword at her waist.

“Who are they?” I asked, amazed.

These are King Leopold of Solis and Princess Winifred of Arcadis,” Richard replied.

“You’re kidding,” I balked.

“No,” Richard assured shaking his head. “This is why everyone is so amazed. You and Leopold are very similar to The Great King and Princess Winifred. You see, just like your Leopold, the King was a very dark and angry man. His country was in trouble, as France was planning to invade Arcadis, and he knew that Solis would be next. He was head of the army and was sent over to Arcadis by his brother, King Bellamy V, to make plans with King Charles. While Leopold was there, he and King Charles’s sister, Princess Winifred, fell in love. Winifred was a charming and beautiful young girl with lots of spirit. She was trained in the army along with her brother so she was there to assist with the plans. The problem was that King Charles had planned to marry Winifred to the King of France to prevent the invasion.

“To escape this fate, Winifred ran away with Leopold back to Solis. They were married in secret, the necklace a wedding gift from Leopold. When the King of France discovered this, he attacked Arcadis and vowed only to stop if Leopold and Winifred surrendered themselves. Leopold would not let Winifred go but she could not let her country be destroyed, so she snuck away. The King of France killed her at his feet and then continued on to Solis to hunt down Leopold. The invasion was halted though; Solis won the battle. Leopold mourned Winifred the rest of his life.”

“That is so sad,” I said, staring up at the painting.

“Sad but great. This is why Leopold is Leopold, it is the eyes. He will be King Leopold II if my plans are successful, and you Queen Winifred III. You already have him, Princess, just do not do anything to lose him.” Richard pulled a black velvet bag from his pocket and pressed it into my hand. “Keep his heart safe, Princess,” Richard said as left me standing alone in the room.

I fell back onto one of the benches and pulled my polka dotted knees up to my chest, my mind running over everything he had said. Carefully, I undid the tassel of the bag and shook the contents into my hand. A giant, tear shaped sapphire fell into my palm, a silver chain running after it.

Chapter Nine

“Je veux manger la pomme,” said Mr. Arsnault as he paced back and forth in front of me. “Est-ce que tu veux une pomme?” (I want to eat the apple…Do you want an apple?)

“Non, je n’ai pas faim,” I replied almost automatically. (No, I am not hungry)

“C’est quoi la nom du cheval d’Leopold?” (What is the name of Leopold’s?)

“Jacqueline,” I said flatly.

M. Arsnault sighed. “Mademoiselle, I am supposed to be teaching you how to converse en francais. This is not possible if you only give one word answers. Qu’est que c’est la problem?” (in French…What is the matter?)

“Rien, rien,” I said trying to perk up. I sat up straight in my chair and looked down at the book of French verbs in front of me on the desk, “Je n’aime pas les chevaux.” (Nothing, Nothing…I don’t like horses)

M. Arsnault ignored me, “He will be back soon, Mademoiselle. There is a meeting at the end of the week he must return for, then you will have a break. This is important though.”

“I know. I just didn’t realize how much there actually was going to be to learn, nor how much I was going to miss Leopold. Sorry, I’m just tired,” I said trying to shake myself out of the strange state I was in.

“It is okay. We will finish for today. It is time for you to go and see Mme. DuBeche,” my guard reminded me.

I stood and slowly began to make my way to the yellow room that had essentially been turned into a giant personal store and closet for me since Leopold had left. Mme. DuBeche, the tailor, seamstress, and dressmaker extraordinaire had been commissioned to make all of the clothes I would be needing if I ascended into the future role of Princess and Queen. The entire room was filled with me sized mannequins wearing clothing for every occasion possible. Even remnants of hundred year old clothes, accessories, and jewelry my ancestors had worn had been located and brought to the yellow room for Mme. DuBeche to draw inspiration from. As a result of this, I spent an hour every morning with Mme. DuBeche and Phillipa, right after my daily French lesson, trying on the various styles and going over Etiquette.

“Ummm, Phillipa?” I asked after ten minutes of being wrestled into a very complicated device. “What is this exactly and when on earth am I ever going to need it?”

“Well it is not finished yet, but you will be wearing it to the Governor’s Ball next week. It is an annual event at which all of the members of Parliament will be present. Traditional dress is required, thus the hoop skirt and corset.”

I looked down at the tiny girl from on top of the pedestal I was standing on. “So you are telling me that I have to where this,” I said indicating the layers of boning and gossamer I was wrapped in, “for the whole night?”

Phillipa nodded. These traditions were really starting to get old.

“Am I going to have to dance? Because I can barely walk so I’m pretty sure the best you could get out of me would be a rhythmic head bob.”

“Your head bobbing will not be required for this event. This will just be cocktails, dinner, and the Prince’s speech. It is merely a dinner for the Governors and their families and a reflection of the first half of the year.”

“Well I’m not sure how much eating will get done seeing as I can’t sit at a table, let alone breath in this dress, but at least I won’t have to dance.”

I was glad that Mme. DuBeche did not speak English right now. I didn’t think she would have like the fact that I was insulting her creation. Really, it was pretty, I’d give her that. There were off the shoulder sleeves that gathered at my elbows where they ended in fine dripping lace. The bodice did quite impressive things to my chest and the embroidered flowers and beads continued onto the gigantic skirt which trained behind me and down the pedestal. The entire thing was made of fine white lace. From the outside, it was stunning, but the inside was another matter. I was layered in petticoats under the hard piping that made up the skirt and the sharp boning of the corset dug into my hips and made my ribs ache. I could already tell that it was going to be a death trap in disguise and it wasn’t even finished yet. Mme. DuBeche needed to add more fabric apparently because, despite the fact that the dress should have it’s own zip code, the skirt wasn’t of satisfactory size yet.

“Which is actually the perfect introduction to today’s etiquette lesson,” Phillipa clapped excitedly from the chair. Rose, who was seated next to Phillipa, rolled her eyes, probably upset she didn’t get a death dress too.

“Today you will be learning about the behind the scenes happenings that take place during a special event. This means: timing, quick changes, moving from place to place, and security.”

“As you have probably noticed, even with small events and outings, it is very important to stick to the strict schedule made for the event. All arrival times are set very specifically and the entire night’s proceedings can be delayed if one of us is late.”

I nodded, only half paying attention. I had already figured this out, plus I was more concerned about Mme. DuBeche who was currently using a blade to trim fabric a little to close to my skin for comfort.

“For larger events there will also be costume changes and transportation times to work around as well. In the occurrence of a costume change, that would take place at events such as weddings, and Coronations, there will be a team and a room assigned to you who will be on standby to make the change as quickly and flawlessly as possible. If you need to be transported to a different location, there will also be a team put in place to make the transition possible.”

“So we just have to know where to be and when to go at all times?” asked Rose sounding a little skeptical.

I was glad she asked. It was starting to sound a little complicated, especially since many of the events probably took place in old buildings or places I had never been before. I could definitely see myself getting lost and completely screwing the entire sacred schedule system up. I winced as I was stabbed by a pin. Mme. DuBeche apologized profusely.

Phillipa smiled knowingly. “This is what brings me to the most important part: your security team. You have already had some dealings with them but probably don’t realize how much goes on behind the scenes, even for something as small as going out for coffee. Someone, in your case Fred, M. Arsnault, knows you entire schedule and your whereabouts at all times everyday. They are in charge of not only your safety but also transitioning you through every step of an event. They are connected to the event planner, the head of security, and the rest of the Guard at all times. Every member of the Royal family has code names that are used over the communication system to make the others discreetly aware of your whereabouts. Leopold for example, is referred to as The Lion, Felip is The Eagle, Hector is The Bear and so on and so forth. For your information, Winifred, your codename is The Lamb, and Rose you are The Dove. Any questions?”

I looked over to where M. Arsnault stood quietly in the corner, evaluating him. He was much more James Bond like then I had given him credit for. I winked at him quickly before turning back to Phillipa.

“No? Alright, we are done for now then. Fred get changed.”

In the last two weeks that Leopold had been gone, my life had entered some form of stasis. I was in lessons, all day, everyday, and saw only the same few people again and again, with no change or alteration. Everything was stagnant with no hint of excitement. I hadn’t been off the property or done anything but practice endless verbs and titles and names. I could recite both the Solisian and Arcadis national anthems, name all the Kings and Queens in my ancestry and how they died, and tell you on which occasions it was appropriate for one to wear a crown versus a tiara, but didn’t have the faintest idea what was going on in the outside world. It was endless, mind numbing, and draining. What worried me more than the frustration and cabin fever though, was how much I was beginning to ache from being separated from Leopold for so long. I was sure that couldn’t be healthy.

“Wait, wait, wait, that guy did what?” I asked in disbelief as I stared up at a photo of an obese man in a pair of tight, white pantaloons.

“He is your great, great, great, great cousin, twice removed, Thomas Archambeaux the Earl of Gratin and he ate an entire flock of sheep,” replied Governor Richard with slight humor in his voice.

“Why?” I asked disgusted. Then I added, “Wait, a whole flock, all at once?”

“I presume he would have saved many of them or had a banquet but that was the law. Anyone who stole had their property taken away from them. This man just happened to only own a flock of sheep that were kept as livestock.”

We moved on to the next painting. This was how history lessons went. I would get a tour of some part of the castle or be shown maps or painting or photos and told about the people and things in them. Today was Arcadian history taught by Governor Richard.

“How about this one?” the old man asked me.

“Sylvain Turcotte, Duke of Jatel. He lost his right eye in the Battle of the Plains of Harmondel,” I recited dutifully.

“Correct,” said the governor ginning, “but can you tell me where he is standing?”

I stared at the painting trying to evaluate another one of the rooms that another one of my war obsessed, long haired, relatives was standing in. It didn’t look like any part of the DuMont Castle I had seen. A nervous feeling grew in the pit of my stomach as a thought, which I hadn’t thought about until now, occurred to me. “Do I have a castle?”

“As a matter of fact, the SinClaire family does have a castle,” confirmed Richard. “That painting shows the Duke in the Hall which was named after him.”

“It’s still there?” I demanded still more focused on the fact that I apparently owned an entire palace I wasn’t aware of. “I thought it would have gotten destroyed or ransacked or something between all the wars and stuff.”

“There were some damages over the years, yes, but the foundations are centuries old, nearly unchangeable. Many of the furnishings and artifacts were placed into protection before the war so they were well preserved. That is how we have all of your dresses. The castle was used as a house for the French Royal Family who maintained and restored the castle. Marie Antoinette, and Napoleon Bonaparte were both big fans of the estate and made the castle their own with grand additions and gardens. As you can imagine, it is truly stunning. Today, it is primarily used as a museum, but also a meeting place for politicians from around the globe. As soon as you ascend to the throne however, it will be known as your permanent residence.”

I stared him, not comprehending the fact that I owned a medieval castle that I was supposed to take weekend trips to when I got bored of this castle.

“Many of the other historical estates on your property have been modernized as well and are fully prepared for you whenever necessary,” he spoke quickly, as if I had been more concerned about the not so limited living arrangements that could soon be mine.

“If you look over here, Princesse,” Governor Richard said directing me to a glass case which had blue prints on display, “these are maps of the SinClaire castle and grounds.”

I looked down at all the interconnecting boxes, all representing different rooms, galleries, and courtyards. There were photos of grand ballrooms encased in gold, hallways lined with marble statues, Persian carpets, silk curtains, and acres of lush gardens. To say the least, the whole idea seemed absolutely ridiculous and overwhelming.

“I would like to take you to see your castle someday, Princesse, so you can see your country and your people,” the Governor continued and then frowned, looking at me. “Are you alright, Princesse? You look very pale.”

I nodded absently.

“Well, we will continue tomorrow, enjoy your next lesson. I believe it is dance, yes?” Richard looked worriedly to M. Arsnault when I didn’t answer. My guard came over to my side and paced his hand on my back, gently leading me out of the gallery.

My hands shook as my bodyguard led me towards the ballroom. I felt sick to my stomach. I had never considered that I may actually own copious amounts of land and buildings and things because of all of this process. The very thought was unsettling.

I felt like the walls of the castle were closing in on me. I was going to die here, squished between a gold statue and a diamond chandelier. I needed a change of pace, some sense of normalcy or escape. I could understand why Leopold tried to escape from this world whenever he could, why he was constantly on edge; the never ending formalities were stifling.

There was a tug deep inside me as I thought of Leopold. For some reason this whole process was much more difficult without him. I hadn’t realized how much he had been there to protect and help me.

“Fred,” Phillipa’s voice rang, “you are late.”

I opened my eyes, and found her on the other side of the room, across the expanse of the marble floor, frescoed ceiling covered in cherubs, and guilded gold fixtures. It was more grand then the Nicolas Hall of the Winter Castle.

“Sorry,” I murmured as I made my way to Rose. I joined her on the floor in the center of the room and pulled on the pair of high heels that were waiting there for me. My dancing partner, M. Arsnault, pulled me to my feet.

“You ladies have done very well learning the Waltz so today we move on to the Foxtrot. This dance is preformed in long and flowing movements across the floor, very similar to the waltz but done in a 4/4 time rather than 3/4. We will begin in the basic ballroom position.”

She took a hold of Rose. To be honest it always looked slightly comical because Phillipa was supposed to be the man and yet she was about a foot shorter then Rose. Somehow though, they managed to still look more graceful than me every time.

M. Arsnault placed his right hand on my shoulder blade. My right arm sat on top of this, my hand resting on his shoulder. We clasped our other hands together at the level of my eye. The muscles in my arms ached in protest from being forced into this position for an hour and a half everyday for the past two weeks.

“The basic steps for women consist of two steps back, one to the side, two forward and then one to the side. Very Simple,” she said leading Rose flawlessly around the room. “Slow. Slow. Quick, Quick. Slow. Slow. Quick, Quick. Excellent.”

I nodded at M. Arsnault, signaling him to start. I took a breath and then stepped forward with my right foot, my knee crashing into M. Arsnault’s calf. He winced.

“Sorry,” I said, stepping back into the starting position. “Back first…”

We started again, better this time, and he managed to awkwardly spin me around the floor a few times. It was nowhere near the gracefulness that Rose and Phillipa had perfected however.

“Fred, your posture is horrible. Straighten up,” called Phillipa her eyes evaluating me.

I tried to roll back my shoulders but it just threw off my count, making me step on M. Arsnault’s foot.

Phillipa clicked her tongue, and crossed the marble tiles over to us. M. Arsnault stepped back, moving aside so she could take his place. Her tiny, delicate hands took hold of mine, touch as light as a feather. She held me in a way that forced me into the proper position. To be honest, it was slightly painful. “Like this,” she said, arching a perfectly plucked brow.

I nodded. Despite my supposed genetics, I had to say, most of these so called Royal Practices did not come very naturally to me. I was horrible at both riding and dancing. I could only hope some kind of ancient built in muscle memory was going to kick in at some point, otherwise I could foresee a very embarrassing future.

I tripped and stumbled for another hour before I was released from my cell and made my way towards another. At least this next cell was large and happy, I tried to reason. After all, it was held in the courtroom and taught by Hector. I hadn’t really understood why I was being taught by Hector about Politics and how to run a country until I remembered that he was the one who had been trained how. Leopold was in lessons just like me.

“Bonjour, ma belle rebel,” Emmet smiled from where he was seated in one of the three thrones at the front of the courthouse. His face fell though as he took me in. “Are you feeling alright, Winifred? You do not look well.”

“I will be okay, just tired,” I told him softly.

He patted the throne beside him. I climbed up the few steps and sat down in one of the remaining gilded gold chairs, the one Beatrice usually sat in. He was looking straight out at the courtroom past all the empty seats where the other lords and duke’s sat.

“Scary isn’t it?” he said after a moment. “Lonely. Exhausting. Being trained like this I mean. Do not get me wrong, it is amazing all of the knowledge and specialty we gain from it, but it can be so stiff, and formal, and isolating. You learn tricks though to get release.” He turned and looked at me, expression bright as ever, “Just get through today alright. You have been doing amazing cooped up in here with the lot of us. I will pull some strings and get you fixed up soon. We can not have you looking like death in front of all the ‘family friends’. Now pay attention, I will try to keep this short today so you can get some rest, but today we have to tackle taxes, and if either of us screws this up, we could end up like good old Uncle Louis and Aunt Marie-Ann.”

Chapter Ten

“Honestly, Winifred, it is the Foxtrot. It is so similar to the Waltz. I do not understand how you can do one and not the other,” said Phillipa the next day.

“I have never been very coordinated,” I replied softly as I frowned, focusing on my feet. “Maybe I should just not dance,” I tried hopefully.

Phillipa shook her head. “These are necessary skills. You will be expected to dance especially at events such as the ones that we are all hoping will take place in the next few months. If this all works out with you and Leopold, you will be dancing at your wedding and coronations.”

My eyes grew wide and I tripped over my own feet. Phillipa pinched her nose.

“Fred, just needs the right partner,” came a smooth voice from the far end of the ballroom. I froze, my stomach knotting. Slowly I turned around and my heart stopped dead. It was Leopold. Standing before me in dress pants and a button down, glowing gold under the light of the crystal chandeliers. I curtsied, my eyes never leaving him.

Leopold stopped a few feet in front of me and held out his hand. “Will you dance with me, Winifred?”

I nodded and placed my hand in his. He pulled me close, my skin tingling wherever it brushed up against his. Then we began to spin, twirling effortlessly across the floor.

“How do you feel about spending the day with me, Mademoiselle SinClaire?” Leopold asked gently, as he dipped me low.

“I would love too,” I smiled slightly breathlessly and then yelled in surprise as he righted me quickly, and spun me outwards until we were side by side, holding hands.

“I think she dances wonderfully,” he said to Phillipa who was standing near the balcony, open mouthed. “Now, I hope you do not mind but I am going to steal my betrothed for the rest of the day. The rest of her lessons are cancelled.”

He turned sharply for the doors of the ballroom, pulling me behind him.

“You can’t do that, Leopold,” Phillipa called. “She is going to have to dance with people other than you!”

He ignored her calls as he pulled me up the stairs and out into the hallway, shutting the heavy carved doors of the ballroom behind us. The second they closed, Leopold pinned me against the wall with his body and kissed me roughly. I responded eagerly, tracing my tongue across his bottom lip, winding my fingers through his hair. I could hear my heart beat pounding in my ears. It was overwhelming, dizzying having him so close.

He pulled back after a moment, resting his forehead against mine. “J’ai te manque tellement,” he murmured softly.

I smiled and ran my fingertips across his jaw, “I missed you too.”

“Come,” he said, releasing everything but my hand. We began walking back to our wing of the castle, his arm around my waist, fingers fiddling with the hem of my blouse.

“What are you doing back so soon,” I asked Leopold as I reached around behind him and hung my finger through the belt loop right above his ass.

“I was called in,” he said cryptically, “We have some appearances to make this weekend. Et come j’ai dit, j’ai te manque.”

He released me as soon as we were in my room and made his way for my bed, stretching across it languidly. I went to my closet and pulled off the retched heels that I had been wearing for dancing, placing them on a shelf amongst its numerous and equally tormenting companions.

“How is the base?” I asked as I returned. Leopold watched me as I made my way to the bed, his eyes dark.

“Good,” he replied as I laid down beside him, curling on my side to face him, “it was very nice to be back and to see everyone again. I hear you are doing well with your lessons.”

Leopold ran his fingers down my arm, wrapping his hand around mine. I shivered.

I shrugged, “I have been learning a lot.”

“I hope you do not mind that I have stolen you away for the weekend then,” he murmured and brought my hand to his lips, kissing each of my finger tips.

“Not at all.”

He looked down at me, his long golden lashes casting shadows against his sharp cheekbones. “Will you go out with me tonight, Winifred?”

I nodded, speechless. I had forgotten how breathtakingly beautiful he was and how much affect he had on my body and mind.

He leaned forward and pressed his lips gently to mine before rolling off the bed. “We leave in an hour.”

The door clicked shut behind him and I flipped onto my back enjoying the blood rush that was coursing though my veins. I felt alive again for the first time in weeks.

Fifty minutes later I was starring at myself in the mirror slightly concerned. When Leopold had asked me out I had been expecting just the two of us, going off on his motorcycle, to have dinner at a small cafe or something. Now I was leaning towards going to one of the special appearances he had mentioned.

I was dressed in a strapless, floor length, blood red, silk gown with white silk gloves pulled up to my elbows. My dark hair had been braided at the sides and then pulled into a beautiful chignon. Angela had done my make up in shimmering golds and natural hues. I had a shimmering diamond cuff on my wrist, red pumps and a white silk clutch that had absolutely nothing in it. The effect was quite stunning but made my stomach knot in anticipation. I took a deep breath hoping i remembered all the training I had had while I was out tonight. I had a feeling it would come in handy.

There was a knock on my bedroom door that Angela hastily answered. Leopold was on the other side in a tuxedo. My mouth went dry as I took him in. His eyes ran down my body before he smiled crookedly and offered me his arm.

“Tu est magnifique,” he whispered, breath hot on my ear.

We made our way down to the limo in silence. M. Arnault helped me tuck all of my dress into the car and then we were off, pulling out of the gates and onto the cobble stone streets. My heart skipped a beat. I was finally free from the grounds for the first time in weeks.

“Where are we going?” I asked Leopold excitedly.

He wrapped his hand around mine, rubbing his thumb in soothing circles. It felt strange though our gloves, their fabric sliding over each other like water. “It is a surprise. Be patient, ma belle.”

“Tell me more about what you do at the base,” I said, trying to quell my anticipation.

“Originally I was trained with the army, just as all my ancestors. It is mandatory, especially as the second son who, by ancient law is in charge of all the country’s defense forces. Like many things today, that has become more of a title than a true position for someone of Royal Blood to hold. I was to be deployed with my squadron to do a term in Iraq as a Forward Air Controller just before Hector made his announcement. As soon as that happened, I was considered too much of a high value target and was not allowed to leave. As part of my terms for taking the title of crowned prince, I told them I wished to continue my service. They accepted so long as I were placed with in a search and rescue unit of the Royal Air Force,” he explained. I could tell he was both disappointed and proud of this. “It is not what I had originally planned on doing, but I save peoples lives, which I enjoy immensely.”

“Sounds amazing,” I told him honestly. “I would love to see the base sometime if that is possible.”

Leopold nodded, his eyes bright, “Of course.”

The car slowed to a stop outside of a fancy, white stoned building, with large windows, and a gold awning. It was a restaurant. I could see men in suites and ladies in stunning cocktail dresses eating on the other side of the windows. I took one last deep breath and followed Leopold out of the car.

A bubbly blond hostess in a black dress approached us as we entered.

“Do you have reservations?” she asked, smiling brightly up at Leopold.

“DuMont,” he replied smoothly.

“Of course,” she replied, blush spreading across her cheeks as she bowed slightly. “Right this was, your Highnesses.”

Leopold pursed his lips but he followed her through the restaurant to a pair of cozy tables near the back. I couldn’t help but giggle as M. Arnault and M. Lafevre sat down across from each other, sitting between our table and the door. Leopold pulled out my chair for me and then sat, eyeing the blond hostess who was still at our side.

“Can I offer you anything to drink?” she asked, staring at him.

“Fred?” he offered.

“Coke, please.”

“Make that two,” said Leopold shortly.

The blond nodded and then swiftly made her way over to our security guards.

“Tell me what you have been learning,” Leopold said as he hooked his ankle around mine under the table. He winked at me as I jumped.

“Lots of history and etiquette mostly,” I told him and smiled up at the waitress who delivered our drinks before continuing. “Lots about my ancestry and how to behave at different events.”

“Your French has improved tremendously,” Leopold complimented.

I blushed, “Phillipa won’t let anyone talk to me in English unless it’s to explain something I don’t understand.”

“It is working.”

“Are you ready to order?” said the perky blond, reappearing at our side suddenly.

“Umm,” I said looking down at the menu which I hadn’t yet glanced at.

“Would you like help?” Leopold asked softly in English, making the hostess frown.

“Yes, please.”

“She will have the Lemon Halibut en Papillotes with Leek Rice Pilaf and I will take the Timbales of Sole and Scallop Mousseline with Chive Beurre Blanc,” Leopold told her before snapping his menu shut and handing it to her.

She curtsied and then disappeared again.

“I found out I have a castle,” I continued.

Leopold nodded, “La Palais de Glace. It is beautiful. Governer Richard and I are planning a trip to take you there. We have to speak to the French officials soon, so we thought that may be an appropriate time.”

“I’d like that,” I smiled.

“So will you tell me anything about what we are doing this weekend?” I smiled hopefully at him, tracing the toe of my shoe further up his leg in what I hoped was a convincing manner.

Leopold raised an eyebrow. “One of the official events we are going to is the opening of a hospital in the New Town, another is the next portion of tonight.”

“And unofficially?” I tempted him hopefully.

Leopold exhaled, his sweet breath fanning across my face and shook his head defiantly.

Our food arrived then, steaming and beautiful. I looked at my plate and my stomach growled in anticipation. I hadn’t realized how hungry I was. Eager, I took a bite.

“Mmm,” I moaned as the flavors rippled across my tongue.

“Good?” Leopold asked, watching me.

I nodded.

“Solis is famous for its fish dishes,” he explained, taking a bite of his own.

That made sense considering Solis was an island.

Leopold grew tense suddenly, a muscle jumping in his jaw. I frowned, wondering what had caused the sudden shift in behavior. I looked around to see if our enthusiastic blond friend was getting close again up was startled when I looked up. Most of the other people in the restaurant had their eyes on us and were whispering to each other. We had been spotted.

“Are you alright?” Leopold asked me tentatively as he patted his breast pocket. I mused briefly, wondering if he was contemplating putting his aviators on, despite the fact that we were in a building and it was almost dark outside.

“I am fine,” I assured him. Although, if I was being honest, I was a little shaky.

To my surprise he placed his hand over top of mine where it was resting on the table and laced his gloved fingers through my own.

I noticed a woman pointing at us though the corner of my eye.

M. Arsnault came over to our table as soon as our plates had been cleared. “We must leave now in order to make it to the next location on time,” he said. “M. Lafevre has gone to pull the car around. It seems there are some photographers out front of the restaurant.”

“You will stay by, Fred,” said Leopold, rising from the table. I followed him to the door, M. Arsnault close behind me. The photographers, there were three of them, starting calling to us as soon as we stepped out into the crisp night air. The flashes were startling, blinding. They parted as we made our way towards the car.

I was thankful when we made it to the safety of the familiar leather interior.

“There will be more at our next stop,” warned Leopold.

“May as well get used to it. It just means Angela will be handing me an article about myself tomorrow morning to practice my reading.” I was trying to remain calm and realistic. I knew if I revealed how nervous the photographers actually made me, Leopold would get upset.

We drove in silence until a large domed building came into view. It was lit up magnificently, white floodlights reflecting off the glistening white marble and blue and green glass that the building was made up of. There were marble statues surrounding and carved into the sides of the building. I recognized them as muses from one of the old articles I had read in a history lesson. There were people dressed like Leopold and I getting out of cars and making their way down the red carpet which led to the main doors of the building. They were laughing and conversing with each other, some posing for photos or speaking with interviewers.

“Where are we?” I asked, staring amazed out the window of the limo.

“At the Opera of the Sirens, the old opera house and concert hall. We are here for the opening of their new production. As patrons of the arts, members of my family are expected to show up, but I thought you may enjoy it.”

“It’s amazing,” I assured him

We joined the others on the red carpet, having out photos taken, waving, shaking hands. People were pointing again, smiling brightly at us.

“They do stare at you an awful lot,” I whispered to Leopold. He laughed deeply, making a round of camera flashes go off. I blushed.

His mismatched eyes bore into mine affectionately. “Fred,” he said, “they are staring at you.”

He placed his hand on my lower back and led me up the steps and into the opera house. An usher greeted us at the top. “M. DuMont, Mlle. Sinclaire, welcome. If you follow me, I will take you to your seats.”

He took us up an ornately carved staircase which curved up towards the scene of the heavens which had been painted on the ceiling. We walked across Persian rugs, passing more statues that were carved into the walls forever immortalized, acting out scenes of death, and heroics, love, and quests. We arrived at the door of a private balcony that overlooked the right side of the stage.

“Let me know if you need anything else,” said the user smoothly before leaving us alone. Mr. Arsnault stayed in the booth with us, near the wall on the left of the door. M. Lafevre followed the usher out.

“What will we be seeing?” I asked Leopold once we were seated in the black velvet armchairs.

“Gluck’s Orphee et Eurydice,” replied Leopold then leaned closer then, his hand resting on my leg. “Have I told you how absolutely exquisite you look tonight?”

“N-no,” I stuttered, a blush creeping across my cheeks. “Thank you.”

I was saved luckily, by a loud crescendo of music. The lights suddenly dimmed and the curtains rose revealing a man, standing in golden armor in front of a beautiful wooded landscape. The music quieted, and he started to sing.

“He is mourning the death of his wife,” Leopold whispered, his thumb massaging soothing circles on my knee. “That is cupid,” he continued to explain as a winged figure floated down onto the stage. “He is telling Orphee that he can go to Hades and get his wife on the condition that he does not look at her until they are back on earth.”

I watched the figures dance around the stage, completely entranced. The only thing that was keeping me in the balcony was Leopold’s hand on my knee, otherwise I felt as though I could have floated down onto the stage and joined them.

I rose to my feet clapping wildly when the curtains finally closed at the end of the show. I had never seen anything so beautiful. I had even cried, much to Leopold’s amusement, when Eurydice had been sent back to Hades after getting so close to the surface.

With my arm linked through his, Leopold led me back to the car, and with my head on his shoulder, we drove through the night back to our castle.

I slept deeply that night, perfectly calm and content for the first time in weeks. It was heavenly lying buried in my downy blankets and mounds of pillows. The smell of Leopold swirled around me, lingering on the sheet from when had laid on my bed. I slipped in and out of dreams, peacefully drifting.

I frowned as cool air hit me briefly and then hummed as a soft pressure pressed me into the mattress, and the warmth enveloped me once again.

“Winifred,” said a voice in my ear, “my Princess.”

I smiled. Finger tips danced up my ribs.

“Ma belle,” it murmured, calling me. I opened my eyes to find two different eyes staring back at me, one gold and one green.

“Good morning,” Leopold said, his lips tracing up my jaw. He placed a kiss on my neck.

“Good morning,” I replied, my voice thick with sleep.

“I have a proposition for you,” he said continuing to trail his lips across my throat.

“Mmhmm?” I managed, quite distracted. He could ask me anything right now and I would probably say yes.

Leopold’s hand ran down my side and curled around my calf. He pulled it up, hitching my leg on his hip, wrapping around him until my foot rested on the inside of his thigh. Slowly, he pressed his lips to mine, gently sucking on my bottom lip. My hands slid up his back, knotting in his copper hair. It was strange how forwardly affectionate he was being lately, so unlike him. I couldn’t say I was about to complain though.

He flipped us suddenly so that I was sitting above him straddling his hips. His hands rested on my thighs as he stared up at me through dark eyes.

“Come to the Canette field with me?” he said, voice thick, as he wrapped a strand of my hair around his fingers.

I nodded from where I was perched on top of him, my hands resting on his chest.

Leopold pushed himself upright, leaning back on one hand, his other cupping my neck, and kissed me again, harder this time, full of want.

“Get dressed then, I will wait for you in the hall,” he said pulling away too soon. He flicked on my lights on the way out the door.

I fell back onto my mattress my heart was racing in my chest. Good way to wake up I thought. After a minute, I pushed my way out of my fortress of textiles and threw back the heavy drapery. Faint white light streamed into the room. The sun wasn’t even up yet. I smiled and went to my closet quickly pulling on the first things I could grab.

I examined myself in the mirror on my way out of the room. I didn’t look half bad in the cream sweater, dark jeans, and black ankle boots I had pulled on.

I hit the lights and followed Leopold into the hall. It was pitch black. Apparently the castle wasn’t awake yet, too early for even the maids and butlers to be working. I could barely see to the other side of the hall where Leopold was leaning against the wall.

“Pret?” he asked reaching for my hand.

I wound my fingers through his. “Lets go.”

Leopold led me through the dark halls and staircases by memory until we arrived outside. The moon was still out, high in the sky, stars sparkling brightly in the clear night.

Leopold’s motorcycle was parked at the end of the staircase. I paused on the last step. “We are going alone?”

“Yes, the field is one of the only places in can go without guards. Is that okay?” he said looking up at me a little guiltily.

“Are you kidding me?” I said throwing my arms around his neck. “That’s fantastic!”

He passed me one of his leather jackets, a pair of aviators, and a helmet before we climbed onto the waiting bike. I pulled myself close to him, hands holding onto his belt buckle, thighs on either side of his hips, and then, with a rev of the engine, we were off, kicking up the gravel from the path. I closed my eyes and leaned into Leopold’s back, just enjoying the feeling of having him close. We darted along the empty roads, wind zipping by as we passed shops and houses and flew along the edge of cliffs until the Canette Clubhouse came into view.

Leopold parked right beside the door and quickly pulled me inside and down the spiral staircase towards the change rooms. The entire place was empty, not a person in sight.

“Follow the hall through to the other side,” he told me indicating the door with the woman on it. “I just have to get changed and I will meet you there.”

I did as he said and found myself in a hall epic enough to rival some of the hallways in the castle. The walls were lined on both sides from floor to ceiling with photographs, trophies, awards and plaques. It was a timeline, the first part of the hall with pieces and artifacts that were dated hundreds of years old. They were fascinating. There were pictures of women playing Canette in long dresses and corsets all the way to modern players in uniforms very similar to the one I had seen Leopold in.

A knock at the door broke me out of my day dreaming. I quickly made my way down the rest of the hall, peeking around corners into the empty dressing rooms, bathrooms and showers and then pushed through the door.

“Everything all right?” asked Leopold. He was dressed in white chaps and polo shirt now.

“Sorry, I got distracted by the photos on the wall. I didn’t realize the history behind the sport,” I said blushing.

“Its alright. Common, we have to go to the stables next.”

The stables were essentially a barn. There was about a million aisles sectioned off into rows of cubicles, each holding a horse.

“They keep the Canette horses here as well as boarded horses and horses used for trail riding, racing and jumping,” explained Leopold when he saw my incredulous expression. I stepped closer to him, hoping that he would be able to keep me safe. I wasn’t completely sure that one of the horses wouldn’t just climb out of it’s cubical and start chasing me. We came to a stop in front of a huge black horse with a white patch on his forehead.

“This is Dave,” Leopold told me as he entered the stall. “He is my Canette horse. I trained him.”

“You named this giant horse Dave?” I asked. I mean honestly, who names a monster Dave?

“Yes. It’s alright, Fred, he won’t hurt you.” Leopold reached into his pocket and pulled out a handful if white cubes. He put one in his hand and offered it to Dave. The horse lipped and licked at his hand eating the cube and leaving a trail of goober on Leopold’s fingers.

“They are sugar cubes,” he told me and placed a few in my hand. “Try it. Dave loves them. Just hold your hand out flat.”

I shook my head, “I’m good.”

“He won’t bite. Here,” Leopold took my hand in his and held out the sugar for Dave. I squeaked as the horse came over but started to laugh as soon as Dave’s soft lips lapped at my palm. It kind of tickled.

Leopold walked around to Dave’s side and used his arms to pull himself up onto the horses back.

“Coming?” he asked holding his hand out to me. I took it and he pulled me up behind him. There was no way I was staying here in the stables alone.

We began riding Dave out to the field but a problem soon arose. Riding a horse bareback was much harder then riding one with a saddle. My legs weren’t strong enough to hold me in place, so I kept sliding off.

“I didn’t think of this,” said Leopold with a sigh. “Wrap you legs around my waist.”

“Why?” I asked curiously, but did as directed.

A scream caught in my throat as Leopold let go of Dave’s mane and used his arms to swing me around his body until we were face to face, my legs over the top of his. I buried my face in Leopold’s chest, my legs and arm’s wrapped around him, clinging for dear life.

He laughed, running his hand soothingly down my back, “It’s okay, Fred. I’ve got you.”

I relaxed slightly, looking around. I was sitting on the horse backwards, facing Leopold who had one hand on my back, and the other wrapped in Dave’s mane. I had to admit, this was easier, as strange as I imagined it must look. We were walking across the field. It was different seeing things from down here, you felt so much smaller in the middle of the huge lawn, surrounded by hundreds of seats.

Eventually we made it to the stands and Leopold gracefully jumped off of Dave and helped pull me to the ground. “You can watch from here if you like, or walk around the field. I won’t be too long, I promise,” he said and then placed a chaste kiss on my forehead and mounted Dave once more. I smiled, as the pair rushed off towards the far end of he field. I pulled myself over the barrier and sat in one of the chairs, watching them in fascination.

I felt whole again, nothing like the ghost I had been for the last few days before Leopold’s return. Everything was right when he was around. I had no second guesses about why I was here or what I was doing because it felt so natural. I was dreading his departure on Monday. Luckily, I knew he would be back again soon; the hoop skirt dinner was next weekend.

The sun slowly rose above us, casting the field in gold light. The dew glistened, slowly evaporating under the heat. Suddenly, I heard a soft click coming form somewhere behind me. I frowned, confused by the strange sound, then I heard it again a second later. I looked over my shoulder and my blood ran cold. There were at least five photographers crouched down in the stands above me.

I vaulted the barrier and started sprinting across the field. “Leopold!” I called, rushing towards him. He turned and looked at me, his head cocked to the side, and then an expression of pure fury crossed his features as he saw the men behind me.

He and Dave charged towards me instantly. Leopold held out his hand and pulled me up in front of him as before, in one swift motion, without stopping. We traveled at top speed across the length of the field to the stables. I looked again to the stands where the photographers were, their flashes going off faster then strobe lights as they took frame after frame of us.

I glanced over my shoulder quickly, to see where we were heading, and my eyes grew wide in fear as I took in the eight foot tall fence we where heading straight for. Suddenly, we were on the other side of it, racing along the cliffs, towards the edge of the forest. Dave, the monster horse, had jumped the fence.

We made it to the woods, Leopold and Dave weaving expertly between the trunks of the trees. Dappled light from the sun trickled down through the canopy, lighting our way. When we broke through to the other side, Castle DuMont came into view.

Dave skidded to a stop on the gravel at the back door of the castle as two stunned butlers came rushing forward to help us. Leopold dismounted, his boots crunching on the stone, then helped me down before roughly taking me by the hand into the castle.

I pulled my hand from his, stopping in the center of the foyer. Leopold turned and looked at me, nostrils flared, anger rippling through his frame.

“What was that?” I demanded.

“The photographers,” he spat as explanation.

“Yes?” I urged.

“I don’t know how they got in, they shouldn’t have been there.” He swore under his breath, pacing back and forth across the floor.

“But why did you charge out of there on Dave the Warhorse?”

“Because there were photographers there, trying to get pictures of us, Fred,” he ran his hand through his hair agitatedly.

“Just as there were at the Opera last night. You didn’t run then.”

“I could have,” he mumbled darkly. “I was trying to protect you. You ran towards me!”

“Because I was frightened to be with them by myself. I didn’t mean for you to react like that. They just wanted photos! You can’t kidnap me every time someone wants to take a picture of me. I am not saying I like it, but thats my life now, Leopold. Our life. I’ve accepted that.”

Leopold stopped pacing, and stood, chest heaving, staring at me. Slowly I made my way over to him and placed my hand on his cheek. He sighed heavily and leaned into my palm, eyes fluttering shut.

“I am sorry for scaring you,” I said gently.

“I am sorry for over reacting. You are right, of course. I need to go and speak with Felip.” Leopold kissed my forehead, “I will come and get you shortly.

Chapter Eleven

I went up to my room, my heart still racing from our getaway. I didn’t know whether I should be happy that Leopold was so protective of me or angry that he had overreacted, again. Everything had been going so well up until now. Last night had been magical, and I thought that Leopold had actually been making some progress adjusting to me, us, his new role, our life, until earlier this morning. I took a deep breath. It was still progress. I couldn’t really blame him anyway, I was just as skittish as he was about everything.

“Come, Mademoiselle,” Angela encouraged as I stepped into my bedroom. “You have to get ready for the opening.”

I plopped down in my desk chair and yawned as my maid tried to make some sense of my windblown and tangled hair. I was tired; the clock only read eight in the morning, but I had already been awake for three hours. Maybe I’d have to take a nap later.

My mind drifted to my wake up call this morning, and I smiled. I definitely hoped more of that would happen. Angela finished pinning my hair back and then pointed over to my bed where she had laid out the outfit I was supposed to wear.

“Please hurry and put that on Mademoiselle, then you must meet Prince Leopold at the front entrance,” she curtsied and then slipped out of my room.

I frowned as I slipped on the pale grey sundress that had been laid out for me. I found it strange that Leopold wasn’t going to get me from my room as usual, but I tried to shrug it off; maybe he had gotten held up with Felip. That thought wasn’t too encouraging; maybe this morning’s events had been more detrimental then I had thought. I bit my lip, frowning as I stepped into the strappy gunmetal heels at the foot of my bed, deciding that I would have to wait and see.

I slid into the back seat of the hearse a few minutes later. Leopold was already there, dressed in a suit, aviators on, fully closed off from the world. He seemed distracted. I reached out and put my hand on the back of his neck, playing with the stands of copper hair. “You alright?”

Leopold exhaled deeply, relaxing slightly, and nodded.

“How was Felip?” I asked, prodding for some information, or at the very least a verbal response.

“Fine,” replied Leopold, and took hold of my hand, taking it off of him then lacing his fingers through mine, resting them on the seat between us. He quirked one side of his mouth up apologetically.

“What do we have to do at the opening?” I queried.

“We will shake a lot of hands, cut the official ribbon, and then be given a brief tour. Hopefully it won’t take too long, we have to be somewhere else by two.”

“Okay, sounds doable,” I said with a smirk. “But Leopold?”

“Yeah?”

“We are going to be inside. I don’t think you will need these,” I told him, reaching up and pulling off his glasses. I folded their arms and tucked them into his breast pocket.

He sighed and ran his free hand through his hair, his mismatched eyes, staring into mine, “Do you plan on taking away all of my defenses?” The question was serious but his tone light.

“You weren’t meant to hide,” I replied as I raised my free hand, resting it on his cheek.

As our car rolled to a stop, I was vaguely aware of shouting outside. Leopold continued to look at me a moment longer, his eyes sad, then pulled back. He played with his cufflinks briefly and then the door opened and we stepped into the crowd.

I followed Leopold up through the tunnel of Solisians, photographers, and news crews, up to a podium set up in front of the main entrance of the hospital. There was a man and a woman behind the podium, both in suits. They smiled brightly at Leopold, as he shook hands with them. Camera flashes popped.

Then, to my surprise, Leopold turned and held his hand in my direction. “Fred, these are M. Turcotte, the Solisian Minister of Health, and Dr. Fleurion, the Chief of Surgery. Monsieur, Doctor, this is my Winifred.”

I shook their hands dutifully.

“It is a pleasure to meet you, Mlle. Sinclaire,” smiled Dr. Fleurion warmly. The photographers went wild. “Would you like a tour?”

The four of us, as well as a group of what appeared to be a few selected photographers, made our way into the foyer of the hospital. I had to stop myself from laughing at the life size statue of Felip that was at the center of the atrium.

“Welcome to the King Bellamy South Hospital!” said M. Turcotte enthusiastically. “I would like to show you around our state of the art operating rooms, the rehabilitation center, the pediatrics wing, as well as the oncology research facilities. I will however, try to keep this brief, as I know our time with you is limited. Also, I would like to inform you that the hospital already has some long term patients residing here, in case we bump into them or any of our staff during our tour. “

I tuned M. Turcotte out, looking at the features of the room around me as I followed the little group towards an elevator. We went down a floor and came out into a bleak hallway.

“This floor is the home of our operating suite. There are thirty operating rooms, ten of which have galleries that will be used by our medical students to observe the surgeries. The entire floor is climate controlled and air filtered, and each individual room has its own generator in case of a blackout. There are also washrooms, change rooms, rest rooms, and prep rooms for all of our personnel, as well as offices, recovery rooms, storage, cleaning and processing facilities.”

We ducked into one of the sterile operating rooms, noting all sorts of equipment lining the walls and an operating table in the center. My stomach flipped as I took in the room; I had never been very comfortable in hospitals. My hand itched desperately to reach out for Leopold to steady myself, but I refrained. We were in public, so etiquette was crucial.

I relaxed slightly once we were back in the elevator, hopefully moving on to something slightly less ominous. I was pleased when we stepped out onto a level with brightly colored walls and floors. I could hear laughter somewhere.

“This is our Pediatrics wing,” explained Dr. Fleurion, “It is the biggest children’s medical center in Solis. The wing is currently at a quarter capacity, having accepted some children with chronic conditions into our long term care program last month. We are happy…”

Her voice cut off as the group disappeared around a corner while I paused, waiting. The laughter came again. Curious, I followed the noise down the hall, in the opposite direction that my group had gone. I came to a room that was completely made of windows. As bright sunlight flooded the room from outside, I stood in the hallway and observed what was unfolding inside. There was a group of children, six or seven of them in total, all between five and ten years of age. Some were playing with toys, others sitting in front of a TV, but all of them were in hospital gowns.

A small girl with golden curls, who was hooked up to an IV, turned and looked at me suddenly and smiled. As I smiled back, she waved for me to come inside. I looked back down the hallway in the direction my tour had gone, figuring I probably wasn’t supposed to be here, then slipped inside the room anyway.

“Hi!” said the little girl brightly, “I’m Ella.” She thrust her hand out towards me.

I bent down until I was at her level, taking her hand in mine, “Pleasure to meet you Ella, my name is Fred.”

Her eyes grew wide, mouth falling into a little ‘o’. “I know who you are! My momma showed me pictures of you, you’re the princess!”

That seemed to catch the attention of some of the other children in the room and they started to move closer, making a circle around me.

“Yes, I am,” I told her softly.

“What are you doing here?” asked a little boy with a curly mop of black hair.

“The Prince and I came to see all of you and the new hospital,” I told them.

The little boy wrinkled his nose, “I don’t like him very much.”

Ella nodded her head in agreement. “He is scary,” she said solemnly.

That broke my heart a little.

“He’s not scary, I promise. He’s just scared. He has a very important job to do and isn’t sure if he can do it,” I tried to explain.

Ella frowned. “Like when you are trying to draw a picture but you can’t get it to turn out right?”

“Something like that,” I smiled.

“Is he going to come and see us too?” said the boy. “I hope he has his sword with him.”

I frowned and looked down the hall again. Chances were he would show up, at least I hoped so, because I had no idea where my tour had gone

or how to get back out of the hospital. “I think so,” I told my little group, “How about I tell you a story while we wait for him?”

They all nodded and sat themselves down on the carpet in a circle. There was no way I could sit on the floor gracefully in this outfit, so I walked over to what appeared to be an arts and crafts table, grabbed one of the miniature chairs, and joined the circle of children.

“Once upon a time there was a great lion sleeping in the middle of the forest,” I began, “when suddenly a tiny mouse showed up and climbed up his mane and started jumping on his head. Furious, the lion woke up and caught the mouse between his paws.

‘How dare you wake me up from my sleep!’ roared the lion. ‘I am king of the beasts! Anyone who angers me deserves to die! I will eat you right up!’

‘Please no!’ cried the mouse. ‘I did not mean to upset you, your highness. I was only playing. Please let me go and I will promise to be your friend. Who knows, maybe someday I will save your life.’

The lion laughed, ‘What an absurd idea! But you have entertained me and put me in a good mood so I will let you go.’

He released the mouse from his claws.

‘Oh thank you, your highness,” said the mouse, and quickly scurried away.”

Suddenly I became aware of some flashes of light out of the corner of my eye. I looked over to see that my group had found me again. The photographers were avidly taking pictures of me and my little friends. M. Turcotte and Chief Fleurion were smiling brightly. My eyes finally landed on Leopold and my heart sank slightly; he looked angry. I was in trouble.

The kids hadn’t noticed their arrival so I cleared my throat and continued my story.

“A few days later, the lion got caught in a hunter’s net and, try as he might, he could not escape. He roared out in anger, shaking the whole forest.

‘Oh no,’ said the mouse, ‘that’s my friend the lion. He must be in trouble. I have to go and help him.’ The little mouse ran as fast as he could in the direction of the lion’s roar until he found his friend caught up in the hunter’s net.

‘Don’t worry, your highness. I will have you out of there in a jiffy.’”

I suddenly became aware of a hand on my back, resting softly between my shoulder blades. I looked up to see Leopold beside me, his expression softer now. I looked back at the children who were all looking up at him nervously.

“Everyone, I would like you to meet Prince Charming,” I told them brightly. Leopold cocked his eyebrow up at that but didn’t say anything. “Would it be alright if he finished telling you the story?”

They nodded somewhat hesitantly. I looked up at Leopold who pursed his lips but dutifully squatted down beside my chair in the circle, his hand moving to rest on my knee.

“The mouse quickly chewed through the rope of the net, freeing the lion.

‘I didn’t not think you could be of any use to me, little mouse,’ said the lion, ‘but today you proved me wrong and saved my life. I thank you for that.’

‘It was my turn to help you, your highness,’ said the mouse, ‘even the smallest creatures can be important.’” Leopold finished and glanced at me. I smiled in approval.

“I think the Prince and I have to go now,” I told the circle as I stood up from my miniature chair.

“Back to your castle?” asked Ella.

“Back to the castle,” I nodded.

She pouted and then ran towards Leopold, wrapping her arms around his legs in a hug. Leopold looked at me, wide eyed with panic. I had to hold in my laughter. He relaxed slightly after a moment, and gently patted Ella’s hair.

She looked up at him, “You and Princess Fred need to come and visit again, promise?”

Leopold smiled warmly down at her. “Okay, I promise.”

We waved goodbye to them and then made our way back through the maze of hospital corridors and back outside to our hearse.

“Sorry, I worried you,” I told Leopold as we pulled away. “They were just so sweet, I got distracted.”

“Adorable,” he agreed and kissed my hand, his eyes burning into mine. At least he didn’t seem angry anymore.

“So do I get a hint about where we are off to now?” I asked.

“No,” Leopold said. “But you will need to put these on,” he said as he handed me a pair of aviators.

I watched as he pulled off his suit jacket, folding it on the seat between us, then rolled the sleeves of his shirt up to his elbows.

“Everything is going according to schedule, Sir,” said M. Lefevre from the front seat. “The package has arrived and the second vehicle is waiting at location C for your direction.”

“Very good, Demetrius,” replied Leopold. I frowned, both because I was trying to decipher their conversation, and because I hadn’t realized M. Lefevre had a first name. It made me wonder what M. Arsnault’s first name is.

My anticipation grew as we turned onto an off-ramp. I looked out the window and saw a sign with an airplane on it.

“We are going to the airport?” I turned to Leopold. He was slightly pale, his lips tight, leg bouncing up and down.

He nodded once, “We are picking someone up.”

My mind reeled, flipping though all the governors and royalty we could be meeting in a few minutes. My stomach turned into a knot. It must be really important or bad if Leopold is nervous. Maybe this wasn’t a good surprise.

We pulled up in front of the arrivals section, stopping beside another hearse which looked identical to ours. A team of airport security and men in black suits were surrounding the car. M. Arsnault rolled down his window and held out the gold card he used to get me through the airport. The barricade of security guards made room for our car to pass through them and we quickly pulled up in front of the other hearse before they encircled both of the cars.

M. Lefevre snapped a command into his intercom device and then he and M. Arsnault got out of our car and joined the fleet of security. If they were going for discreet, this was not the way to do it.

“Stay close to me,” Leopold told me, then put his aviators on and stepped out of the car. I followed dutifully, squirming uncomfortably under the many curious eyes of the people around us who were watching our little shindig.

M. Lefevre and M. Arsnault, along with two other guards, traveled with us through the airport to the baggage claim, where we all came to a stop. I searched the crowed around us, looking for a group of security guards or a face I might recognize from one of my lessons with Phillipa. My heart came to a stop as my eyes traveled across a group of four people. Two of them were middle aged, the other two teenagers. The woman was tall and slim with short dark hair and a big smile. The man was bald, and in good shape for his age. The younger woman had long curly sand colored hair and big blue eyes, her male counterpart well over six feet tall with long, dark hair pulled back into a pony tail. It was my mom, John, Tess, and Alec.

“Fred!” my mom cried when she caught sight of me. My guards tensed slightly as she and Tess came sprinting towards me, leaving the boys behind to find the luggage. I was instantly wrapped into a bone-crushing hug.

“Oh it’s so good to see you, honey,” crooned my mother, kissing my cheek.

“God, Fred, you look fantastic,” said Tess, evaluating me once she had detached herself from me.

I blushed, “Ah, thanks.”

“Hi, Bells,” chirped Alexander, smiling goofily as he and John joined us. I hugged them both briefly.

“I can’t believe it! What are all of you doing here?” I asked as I my eyes watered up. It was just so nice to see them. I hadn’t realized how much I had truly missed everyone.

“Leopold, here, called us up a few days ago,” explained John, “and asked if we could come down for a bit.”

“Oh that reminds me,” I said, my newly acquired manners kicking in, “everyone, this is Leopold. Leopold, these are Grace, John, Tess, and Alec.”

“It is very nice to meet you,” he said as he shook their hands.

My mother leaned in close to me suddenly, “Honey, maybe we should go to the car. We seem to be attracting a crowd.”

I looked around the atrium of the airport, and sure enough, groups of travellers had formed around us, watching to see what was going on, some taking pictures.

“I think you are right,” I smiled, then nodded at Leopold.

The security team instantly enveloped the additions to our group and we made our way back to the cars. My mom, John, and Alec climbed into one of the hearses, and Tess, Leopold and I took the other. The guards dispersed and our fleet took off back towards the castle.

Tess talked animatedly with me the entire ride back as Leopold looked on quietly, a faint smile playing on his lips. He kept his sunglasses on but I didn’t press the subject. I figured he was probably a little skittish with so many new people around.

I couldn’t believe that he had planned all this, let alone that my family was here. It was surreal, so much better then the African prince or Spanish diplomat I had been expecting. I was somewhat tentative at the same time. I wasn’t sure how my family was going to do in my new life style. It was so different then what they were used too. I shrugged it off quickly though. They were here, I should just enjoy it.

“Oh my God,” said Tess suddenly, “Holy crow!”

I looked out the window to see that we were pulling through the front gates of the castle, heading towards the white marble steps of the front entrance of DuMont Castle.

“Beautiful isn’t it?” I asked her softly.

“No kidding. You have been holding out on me,” she cried excitedly. She jumped out of the car as soon as it stopped and stood, staring up at the

palace. I giggled.

“I have a meeting I need to go to. Will you be okay?” asked Leopold softly.

I nodded.

“I will come and find you later,” he said, then walked up the front steps and disappeared into the castle, M. Lefevre at his heels.

I looked over to find that Alec and my mom had joined Tess, in her observance of my new home. John was a few meters away, examining one of the horse statues which stood on either side of the entrance.

“You parents will be staying in the Aphrodite Suite, M. Black in the Hermes Suite, and Mlle. Stanley in the Athena Suite. Would you like me to escort them there?” asked M. Arsnault from beside me.

“I’ll do it, I don’t mind. It would be great if you could look after the luggage though,” I told him.

My guard bowed dutifully. “Of course, Mlle. And I am to inform you that you will be having supper with your family in the casual dinning hall tonight. Their Majesties apologies for not being able to join you, but they have been detained.”

“Mmkay, thank you so much,” I told him.

“Alright guys,” I called trying to get their attention. “Let’s go inside. I am going to show you to your rooms.” They all clustered around me and followed me up into the foyer of the castle.

My mother spun around in the center of the mosaic floor, gawking up at the ceiling, “Look at that fresco, it’s stunning!”

“You should see the busts,” countered Alec as he examined one of Leopold’s great, great, great uncle.

John had been distracted by the massive crystal chandelier.

“What does this represent?” asked Tess, pointing at a tapestry of the DuMont Family Crest.

I rolled my eyes. This was going to be like herding sheep.

“Common, guys, I need to show you where your rooms are before dinner. I promise I will give you a tour later,” I told them.

I lead them up the giant curving staircase.

“That way,” I said pointing to the right, “Is where the Royal living quarters are located, in the North Wing of the castle. That’s were my room is and where we will be having dinner tonight. Your rooms are in the south wing, in the guest suites.”

I lead them left, down a corridor lined with an elaborate Persian runner, and paintings. They ‘ohhhed’ and ‘ahhhed’ over every one.

“Here we are,” I said as I pushed through the carved wood doors and into their group of suites. It consisted of a combined living room and dinning room, with a master suite off one side, and two other bedrooms on the other. “These used to be the rooms of Prince Christian, Duke of L’ Ambrie sometime in the sixteenth century but they are now used for guests. The rooms are all named after Mythological characters, as he was fascinated with them. They also look onto the orchard and each room has its own bathroom, as he had gastrointestinal problems.”

Alec winced at that comment, “Eww.”

Later that night Tess and I were sitting on my bed, decked out in sweats with pints of ice cream in hand. My parents and Alec had already gone to bed, and I hadn’t seen Leopold, or anyone from the Royal Family or their help since this afternoon. I think they were trying to give us space. Dinner and tour had gone well, everyone chatting wondrously about Solis, and the castle, and asking me about everything that had been going on.

“I can’t believe you’re living it up in a palace, while I’m flipping burgers back in Canada,” exclaimed Tess falling back into my mound of pillows.

I shrugged, “It gets old kind of fast. You are always busy with conferences, being followed by photographers and almost never have any privacy because of all the people surrounding you. I have it relatively easy because I’m not important; you should see some of the attention the rest of the family gets.” I frowned, “It’s getting worse now with the end of the media ban here though.”

“So give me all the dirty deets,” gushed Tess, rolling onto her side to face me and licking some Rocky Road off her spoon. “I want to know what’s going on between you and prince charming.”

I rolled my eyes.

“Come on, you gotta give me something good, I’ve got nothing but grease burns and Josh to keep me company,” my friend urged.

“There really isn’t much to tell. We are dating. I mean, its a little strange sometimes because he is off at boot camp a lot, or surrounded by people and politicians constantly, or locked up in meetings, and both of us have lessons, but…”

Tess frowned. “Is everything okay though, I mean, he seemed a little frigid earlier.”

I had to laugh. Tess had very good perception, but could rarely figure out the meanings behind what she saw. “Its just formalities. He has to act like that when he is in public. He was actually much looser earlier than he normally is.”

“Ya, I was looking you up online and noticed that you were behind all of them when you were out in public. Even if it was just Charming and you, you were about a pace behind him and never any physical contact. I don’t know how you can stand it. If he were my boyfriend, I wouldn’t be able to keep my hands off of him. Although I would probably make him wear those sunglasses all the time, those eyes still freak me out.”

"Like I said before, I have little importance and in the eyes of the government, he is my senior so I have walk behind him and go unnoticed unless addressed. It does give a good view of his *** constantly though. And I like his eyes. Leopold is actually quite affectionate, we just don't have a very public relationship; politics comes first. We haven't gotten a lot of time together lately except at night."

“I should go then,” Tess said as she rose from the bed, “I wouldn’t want to keep you from your romantic interludes.” She wiggled her eyebrows at me, making her way to the door.

“Aw Tess, don’t go yet,” I pouted, “Leopold can wait.”

“Don’t worry babe, we have plenty of time in the next few days. I expect a full report on everything that has gone down. Besides, this jet leg has got me down, and I kind of want to try out my giant bed.” She yawned to prove her point.

“Do you want me to walk you back?” I asked.

Tess shook her head, “Getting lost is all part of the fun. Plus, then maybe I can run into some hot French guy who will have to give me directions. Sweet dreams,” she said suggestively and slipped through the large wooden door.

I shook my head at my friend’s crazy antics. I had missed her. I put the remnants from our ice cream party on my desk and then slipped out into the hallway. It was time to find Leopold.

I opened the door to his room and soundlessly stepped inside. The room was dark except for the faint light of the moon coming in through the open balcony doors. I could see Leopold’s form silhouetted where he was lying stretched out across his bed.

I waited in silence, debating whether he was actually asleep or not, and if so whether I should disturb him. I wasn’t sure if I had ever seen Leopold sleep before. He seemed to constantly be awake, or at least awake whenever I was.

As if that thought had cued him, one of Leopold’s hands stretched out and threw back his blankets, inviting me over towards him. I padded across the hardwood floor and crawled under the blankets. Leopold tangled one of his legs through mine, as I curled into his side and placed a kiss under his jaw.

“Your meeting went well?” I whispered.

He nodded, eyes not opening.

“Thank you, so much. It means a lot to me to have them here,” I told him.

He turned, eyes fluttering open, “My pleasure, always.”

“You leave again tomorrow?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said and then wound his arms around my waist, pulling me on top of him. I was surprised to find he was shirtless. “Not until the evening though. I have to attend parliament.”

I hummed and ran my hand down his chest. His abdomen contracted under my touch. “When will you leave?”

“Late, after dinner. I will be back next weekend though, for the Governor’s Ball,” Leopold said and then wound his fingers through the back of my hair and pulled me down to him, kissing me softly.

I responded eagerly, pressing myself closer to him, deepening the kiss.

Leopold’s hand moved down my back as he took hold of my hips, his thumbs digging into the hollows just inside my hipbones. He growled as I bit his lip, and flipped us so that he hovered above me.

I ran my nails down his back, making him shiver, then ran them back up his ribs, across his shoulders and neck, until my fingers twisted into his hair.

“Ohh, you make me crazy,” he breathed between kisses.

I gasped, as his hands were suddenly in my shirt, on the bare skin of my back, his touch burning my skin as he first gently brushed his fingers down my spine until eventually his fingers dug into my skin, palm pressed to my lower back as he held me up against him. I wrapped my legs around his hips, trying to pull myself closer to him.

Leopold was overwhelming in the best possible way; I couldn’t get enough of him. I was surprised though that he was letting me get so close, he was usually so composed and resistant towards my touch. I wasn’t going to complain at this sudden change of heart however.

Our kissing slowed eventually until we were lying side by side with my head on Leopold’s chest, as I slowly traced patterns on his bicep. Leopold lay still beneath me, his eyes closed, breathing even, hand fisted in the back of my t-shirt.

“I should go,” I murmured, placing a kiss on his chest. I figured the maids wouldn’t be too happy finding me here in the morning. I was pretty sure it was probably against etiquette for me to be in bed with Leopold.

Leopold frowned, his lips falling into a pout, and pulled me closer to him so that my back was pressed to his chest, his arms locked around me.

“Stay, Fred,” he whispered. “Please. I don’t want to let go of you yet.”

I smiled, and relaxed, letting myself drift to sleep with Leopold’s scent and body wrapped around me. Screw the rules, how could I say no to that?

Chapter Twelve

I woke up with a start. I groaned and tried to pull away from the bright light only to find I couldn’t move, and was covered in a film of sweat. Someone cleared their throat so, tentatively, I opened one of my eyes and peered towards the end of the bed. My stomach dropped as I took in the scene. This was worse then I had anticipated.

Angela, Mike, who was Leopold’s Angela, M. Arsnault, and M. Lefevre were lined up at the foot of the bed, staring at Leopold and me with blank faces. Angela had probably alerted the guards when she had found my own bed empty. Leopold, who had not been disturbed by their arrival apparently, was sound asleep spread-eagle on his stomach, half on top of me, and half naked. Yes, this looked less than innocent.

“Ahh, good morning…” I tried. None of them so much as blinked.

“I’m sorry. We were talking last night and I must have fallen asleep here. I didn’t mean…” I rushed, feeling my face heat up.

“The Prince’s presence is required at Council,” M. Lefevre said.

“Uh, how about I wake him up. Can you give us five minutes, I will have him there on time, I promise,” I told them.

“Yes, Mademoiselle,” nodded M. Arsenault and ushered the others out of the room. Mike looked like he wanted to object, but seemed to think better of it and followed the others out.

“Leopold,” I called gently as I brushed a few wayward locks of hair off of his forehead.

He scrunched his nose and nuzzled himself closer to me.

“Leopold, you need do get up,” I tried again.

“What if I don’t want to?” he murmured, voice thick, lips brushing against my neck.

“You need to go to your meeting,” I said, trying to be convincing.

“Hmmm, but the sooner I get out of bed, the sooner I have to leave. I don’t know about you,” he moved suddenly, holding himself over me, “but I am very comfortable.”

“I thought you liked going to the base,” I said pushing against his chest. He reacted as I knew he would by rolling off of me, onto his back. Free, I climbed out of the bed.

“I did,” he said, but then corrected himself, “I do. It’s just…”

I picked up a knit sweater out of one of the piles of clothes on the floor and pulled it on, then stood beside the bed, raising my eyebrow at him, urging him to continue.

Leopold groaned and rolled out of the bed. He walked over to his dresser and grabbed a box of cigarettes and his lighter. He walked over to the balcony, leaning against the fame of the French doors as he cupped his hands in front of his face and took a long drag.

“I didn’t realize it was possible to miss someone so much. That’s so new to me and I…” he cut off, running a hand through his hair in frustration.

I padded over to him, and standing on my tiptoes, wrapped my arms around his neck and placed a chaste kiss on his lips. “I missed you too.”

His hands moved to my hips, sliding inside the hem of the sweater as he deepened the kiss. I smiled and pulled away.

“No more of that for now, you are already late,” I said, walking backwards towards the door. Leopold’s lips fell into a delicious pout almost making me give in and jump back into his arms.

I nodded my head in the direction of his closet pointedly. Leopold took another drag of the cigarette before flicking it out onto the balcony and disappeared into his walk-in. He emerged a minute later in a crisp navy suit and dress shirt, looking far too ridiculously perfect for the small amount of time that it had taken.

I watched in amusement as he made his way over to me and pushed me up against the door of his room. “Fine,” he purred, “Ill play nice. Do you know what your plans are for the day?”

I shook my head, “I don’t know what is scheduled for today.”

“Why don’t you come with me then? I think you may want to hear some of the other things we are supposed to be discussing anyway.”

“Sounds good,” I told him and pecked him on the lips before ducking under his arm and heading out of the room. “Just give me a second to get changed.”

“Leopold, Winifred,” Felip acknowledged as we entered the council room. The Governors all butted out their cigars once they caught sight of me, and then quickly rose to their feet in recognition of their Prince. Leopold took his seat at the head of the table opposite his father. A butler quickly found a chair for me and seated me beside Leopold. The room sat down again.

“To what do we owe the pleasure of you joining us today, Winifred?” asked Felip, regarding me over the top of his half moon glasses.

“I asked her here,” said Leopold, saving me from responding. “I thought it may be prudent to involve her in our conversations today and she has a few questions she would like to have cleared up.”

“Very well. Shall be begin then? Arthur?” said the King, directing his gaze on a thin man with a mass of dark grey curls, Arthur, presumably.

“Well the first topic on the schedule for the day is the article in this morning’s newspaper.” He quickly unfolded a copy of the paper and pulled out a section holding it up so that everyone in the room could see. I blushed deeply, sinking down slightly in my seat. It was a spread of pictures of Leopold and me at the various events we had been to over the last couple of days. There was one of him and me at the restaurant; one of us on the red carpet at the Opera; one of him pulling me up onto Dave at the Cannette field; one of us on Dave in midair over the fence during our escape; shaking hands in front of the hospital; Leopold’s hand on my back in the circle of the children; Ella hugging him…They were endless.

“Yes, I spoke with Leopold on this matter earlier this week. The photographers are pushing boundaries again now that they are allowed too. So far, I say we should continue to let them,” said Felip.

Arthur nodded, “They are saying that the Lost Princess has turned the Dark Prince into Prince Charming. Claiming it is a fairytale, true love. I think this is a good thing.”

“This is good news considering the global media ban is to be lifted this week. I think we should run with this story and these pictures; put a positive spin on all of this. We will have to have our editors put our own spin on the details which lead to all of this of course,” said a ruddy-faced man.

My eyes grew wide. The global media ban was going to be lifted? That couldn’t be good. That meant that there would surely be even more photographers around soon. I was already overwhelmed with the few we had now.

I started as something suddenly hit my foot under the table. Leopold stifled a laugh and looked at me pointedly, smiling reassuringly. He rested his foot over top of mine, the skin of our ankles touching. He was trying to comfort me. I smiled and crossed my legs, placing my other foot over top of his so that our legs were tangled together.

“This, of course, brings up the topic of their marriage,” said another one of the counselors. “The Prince turns eighteen in ten months. We are running out of time. Perhaps the proposal should be soon so that there is time to plan the wedding, as well as his birthday and coronation, not to mention Winifred’s.”

“Let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves,” said Felip. “There is no point in committing Winifred unnecessarily. Let us wait until she has been cleared by France to be the ruler of Arcadis. The marriage will be moot unless she has an official title and position. Richard?”

“I leave for France this afternoon. I will have their verdict in the next two weeks,” announced the governor.

“What are the plans until then?” asked Arthur.

“Winifred’s family is here for the week,” said Leopold looking at me softly. “This is what she wanted to discuss. Fred?”

“I-I, uh,” I stuttered. My head was spinning from all of this sudden information and from the way they talked about my life so matter-of-factly. It was like everything was completely laid out for me for the rest of my life, which I suppose, if I stayed with Leopold, it would be. We would get married, rule two countries, and produce children, heirs, who would be raised to rule the two countries after us. No college, no hunting for a first home, no privacy. Was I ready to give all of that up just to be with Leopold?

“I was wondering what my schedule was for the week, what limitations or expectations there are for my family, and so forth,” I managed after a minute, my voice much more determined than I had expected.

“There are a few events that you and your family will be expected to attend. I’ll have a schedule written up and given to you as well as M. Arsnault. Phillipa is in Carmencie for the week visiting Lord Whitlock’s family, so your lessons are cancelled. You are free to do whatever you please between the scheduled events as long as you take Mr. Arsnault with you as well as M. Lefevre. He will not be with Leopold this week as Leopold will be away on a training mission,” replied Felip. “Oh, and I believe Beatrice told me that we are all having dinner together tonight.”

“Thank you very much,” I told him.

Felip smiled. “Is there anything further to discuss? We all agree?” They all did. “Then let’s end it here for today. I have to be in Lavert in half an hour.”

The Governors all rose to their feet as Felip exited the room through a side door. He paused for a moment, frowning and turned to look at Leopold and me. “Are you two still well within the regulations set by the contract?”

I blushed, looking down into my lap, suddenly very interested in the pattern of my skirt.

“Yes, sir,” said Leopold not sounding in the least bit embarrassed.

Felip raised an eyebrow in question but then smiled and quickly left the room.

As soon as he was out of sight, Leopold grabbed my hand and pulled me out through the heavy wood doors we had entered through.

Once we were out in the hall he pulled our linked hands to his lips and kissed my knuckles. “Are you okay?” he said softly, holding my gaze.

“Perfect,” I told him.

“Breakfast?”

“Sounds great. I should probably make sure my family is awake first,” I told him as we made our way back to the center of the castle.

“So what are you planning on doing now?” Leopold asked.

“I think I will take them into the old town to look around,” I decided. I figured it was a good place to start. We stopped where the hall divided, one end heading south to my parents, the other north to the dinning hall.

Leopold nodded. “I have paper work to do, otherwise I would come along. Can I see you later tonight though, before I go?”

“Hmm,” I said, tapping the index finger of my free hand against my lips, “I’m sure I can fit you in somewhere.”

Leopold stopped dead in his tracks, pulling me to a halt in the center of the hall. His eyes darkened, a devilish smile spreading across his lips, “I do not get penciled in, Winifred.”

I opened my mouth to defend myself, to tell him I was only joking, but I didn’t get the chance. My words turned into a squeal as Leopold lifted me and threw me over his shoulder then began walking down the hall in the opposite direction I had to go.

“What are you doing?” I laughed lightly, breathlessly.

“If you have no time for me, you will just have to come everywhere with me, and I am hungry,” he stated.

“Put me down!” I cried swatting his butt.

“No, I’m pulling rank,” he said as his frame shook with laughter beneath me. “I want-” he cut off abruptly as we entered the dinning room, his body tensing. He slid me off his shoulder, righted me on the hardwood floor, and took a step forward, hiding me slightly behind his body.

“Sorry, Fred, I shouldn’t have done that, it was out of line,” he said tightly.

“What do you mean?” I frowned, and peered around him. My parents, Alec and Tess were sitting around the table in their pj’s staring wide eyed at us. Leopold was standing defensively in front of me still. I grazed the back of my hand against his.

“It’s okay,” I told him. “It’s different with them. The etiquette doesn’t matter.”

“Good morning to you too,” said Tess to us. “Now as lovely as your newly developed French linguistic skills are, could you please speak in English and let us humble commoners in the loop?”

She had never been a morning person.

“Sorry,” I blushed and took my seat beside Leopold. “Good morning. I didn’t think you guys would be awake.”

“Did you sleep well?” asked Leopold, playing the perfect host.

“Wonderfully,” drawled my mother. Her eyes danced between Leopold and I in amusement. She smiled into her orange juice. “We are ready for whatever you can throw at us.”

I put my hand on Leopold’s back, gently pushing him forward. He took the hint and went to his seat at the head of the table. I sat beside him and our usual breakfasts were delivered to us.

“We were just in a council meeting with Felip and the Governors and they said I just have to clear whatever we want to do with my bodyguard and make sure we are back in time for the planned events. I thought we could go explore old Dumasville today,” I said around a spoonful of yogurt.

“Sounds good. Will you be joining us, Leopold?” asked John.

Leopold put down his mug of coffee. “Unfortunately, I have a lot of paperwork I have to get through today, but my family and I will be eating dinner with all of you tonight.”

“My god, it’s gorgeous!” cried my mother an hour later as we emerged from one of the small cobblestone streets and into the square at the heart of Old Dumasville. “It looks like a fairytale village.”

“It’s pretty cool isn’t it,” I agreed. “Wait until you see the shops and cafes, many of them specialize in creating historically accurate products. There is a Solisian chocolate and pastry shop, a blacksmith’s where they still make weapons and armor, antique shops…”

“I so call going to the weapon shop first,” said Alexander squinting at the different shop fronts to see if he could find it.

“Fine,” said Tess, “but only if chocolate can be next. I read that it’s world famous.”

“So you had a meeting with the King this morning? That sounds pretty wicked,” said Alec. “I still can’t wrap my head around this whole princess thing.”

“I still have trouble sometimes too. The meetings aren’t so exciting, basically I just get a bunch of info dumped on me like wedding dates, virginity clauses, and paparazzi updates.”

“You’re getting married!” cried Tess excitedly.

“Virginity clauses?” questioned my mother in disgust.

My eyes grew big as I realized my mistake. These were just normal topics of conversation for me now and I knew that just because they were being discussed didn’t mean they were put into action. My parents and friends however, were not accustomed to the in’s and out’s of my new lifestyle.

“No, no, it’s nothing like what you are thinking. Those are old rules. They were figuring out how to change them for me,” I rushed, hoping that would be a good enough explanation.

“You better hope so, or I will be talking to Leopold and his parents, and then binging you home before the summer’s over,” said Grace.

“I promise, they have been nothing but good to me. It was a hyperbole,” I defended.

“Alright then,” she said, placated, “now where are these swords.”

I was going to have to be more careful. While my two worlds were currently meeting, it was now clear that they would not see eye to eye.

“This chocolate is absolutely delicious,” my mother cried.

“To die for,” Tess agreed.

My dad watched the two as he ate his own bar, clearly not sharing the same thoughts as the girls.

“I preferred the wine,” said Alec.

Tess and my mom shot them death glares.

We had spent most of the day exploring the various shops, cafes, and markets that made up Old Town. I felt very official as I listed off facts about architecture and history as me made our way through the various buildings and gardens. They had been completely enchanted by the charm of the old village and the Solisian delicacies and sights.

“I am bringing an entire crate off this stuff back home with me,” announced Tess loudly, as she licked her lips.

I hushed her, looking around nervously to see if someone had noticed us. So far, people did not seem to be recognizing me out in street clothes as I window shopped with my family. I guess without the fancy clothes or Leopold at my side, I blended in enough to be overlooked as a tourist. I glanced vaguely to my guard who stood at attention by the doorway to the pastry shop, calming when he didn’t seem to be concerned about us being attacked for the moment.

“Where to next, Fred?” My mom asked.

“Ummm, jewelry or stained glass,” I told her.

“Jewelry,” she and Tess said simultaneously and made a beeline for the door.

The boys groaned beside me.

“Not that the old town isn’t great, Fred, but how much longer do we have to shop?” asked Alec as he rearranged some of the shopping bags he had in his hands. “I mean, the blacksmith shop was great, and lunch, but I don’t know about jewelry.”

I looked at my watch, noting that it was just past four.

“This will be the last one,” I promised him. “We have to head back for dinner soon.”

He smiled, relieved, and followed the girls out of the shop.

To be honest, I was glad it was almost over too. I was exhausted from touring around all day, and constantly being on alert, although it had been nice spending time with them. So far everything had been light and fun, but I knew they were going to start digging for information soon and I was afraid I wasn’t going to have all the answers.

“How is tonight going to work?” Tess asked as she peered down into case of artisan crafted rings. “I mean, are there rules and stuff we have to follow? What do I have to wear?”

“It’ll just be casual,” I assured her. “Felip and Beatrice are very warm and welcoming, they won’t make this uncomfortable. That being said, I will be in a skirt.”

“I can do that,” she said as she fastened a pearl necklace around her neck.

“You should probably let someone lead you to your seat though, there are rules about that,” I added as I ran my fingers over a Sapphire pendant that looked very similar to the one Richard had given me.

“I can’t choose my own seat?” Alec questioned.

I shook my head no. “There are some things you just don’t mess with.”

“How about tomorrow? Do you think Leopold would take us to see that game you were telling us about?” asked John excitedly.

“Leopold is leaving after dinner tonight; he has to go back to the air force base. We are supposed to go to see him play in the Solisian Canette Tournament Finale on Wednesday though,” I told him.

“That’s too bad, I would have liked to spend more time with Leopold,” said my mother.

“He is really busy,” I defended mildly.

“Well I would hope so if he is running a country,” said Tess. “Plus, whenever he gets a free minute he seems to just want to be around you.”

“It is strange the way they interact together isn’t it?” my mom said to Tess, completely ignoring me now.

“I know, I was just telling Fred that last night,” Tess rolled her eyes.

“He tries to act all reserved but then he is so in tune to her. They are like magnets, any slight movement in one causes a reaction in the other,” observed Grace.

I pursed my lips and suddenly busied myself with examining a display of rings. It was a good thing they didn’t know about my little sleepover last night. It was bad enough that Felip had somehow found out.

“I don’t know, I still don’t trust Prince Charming,” added Alec, “I mean, he needs Fred, right, this could all be an act to get her.”

I opened my mouth to comment but M. Arsnault caught my eyes and tapped his wrist pointedly. I huffed. It was probably a good thing we had to leave though, it isn’t a good idea to talk about this in such a public area.

“Thank you so much for having us,” said John an hour and a half later.

“It is our pleasure and honestly, it’s the least we could do in return for you allowing Winifred to come and stay with us,” replied Beatrice, smiling warmly.

All of us, Felip, Beatrice, Hector, Rose, Phillipa, Hugo, John, Grace, Tess, Alec, Leopold, and I, were all seated around the dining room table. So far, it had been introductions and small talk, but it was only the first course so there was still plenty of time for things to go wrong.

“I can’t believe all the stuff you have convinced her to do!” added my mother. “Every time we speak she tells me about horseback riding, swimming, TV interviews, dancing. It all sounds so incredible. I would never have imagined my Fred doing half this stuff.”

“Well, I wouldn’t say she exactly ‘does’ some of it, but she definitely tries her best,” said Hector. Rose elbowed him in the ribs.

“That sounds more accurate,” chimed in Tess.

I blushed furiously and suddenly became very interested in the plate of salad in front of me.

“I can’t believe you got her near a horse,” said Alec. “She has been absolutely terrified of them ever since she was bitten by one on our fifth grade field trip to a ranch. It barely nipped her but she ran right back to the school bus and wouldn’t get off the bus for the rest of the day.”

I glared at Leopold who was beside me as he tried to stifle a laugh.

“Everyone is scared of something,” said Felip gently. “For example, I have never liked dogs. I had a pet bird when I was young whom I was very fond of. My father never liked the thing and told me I needed a real pet, so he gave me a hunting dog and dragged me out to the forest to see what he could do. I watched in disgust as the dog brought back birds and rabbits to my father. One day, when I returned from school, the dog walked up to me and dropped something at my feet, my pet bird. He had caught it, killed it and brought it to me. I have not been comfortable around dogs since.”

“So Leopold, what do you do at the base?” asked my mother around a forkful of lettuce.

“Search and Rescue mainly. We are actually going out on a practice mission next week to try out a new fleet of jets,” Leopold explained.

“How long how you been involved with the army?” asked John.

“As long as I can remember,” replied Leopold before taking a sip of wine. I could tell he was uncomfortable with all of the attention on him.

“He was so cute,” gushed Beatrice. “When he was really little he would get all dressed up in his uniform and run around the gardens with his arms spread wide, pretending to be a plane.”

Beatrice laughed, her eyes twinkling. “His nanny always used to bribe him with chocolates so that he wouldn’t wear his uniform to bed.”

I pictured a little Leopold asleep in the middle of his giant four poster bed decked out in his full militia regalia and smiled. It was hard to imagine he had ever been so young and carefree. Sounded like his stubbornness had been there from day one though.

The rest of the dinner passed without much incident, other than a few minor embarrassments on the parts of Leopold and I. It seemed that our families were bent on sharing the worst parts of our childhoods.

“Shall we run through the schedule for tomorrow, Mademoiselle?” M. Arsnault asked me. It was nine at night. Dinner had just finished so, in staying true to my word, I had said goodnight to my family and returned to my wing of the castle to wait for Leopold so that we could say goodbye.

“Sure, may as well,” I conceded as I emerged from my closet now wearing pajamas.

“Most of your day tomorrow is fully booked. You and your family are to meet with Mme. DuBech in the morning. Then you will be going to Le Mechant Steak for dinner and out to the Ampitheater to see the Solis Symphony Orchestra Play.”

“How much free time does that leave us with in the afternoon?” I asked my guard turned secretary.

“Five hours, Mademoiselle,” he replied.

“I’d like to take them on a ride around the grounds. Do you think we could have a lunch made up so that we could have a picnic in the meadow by the cliffs?” I smiled at the thought of subjecting my family to the evil horses. They would see that it wasn’t as easy to ride one as it seemed.

“Yes, Mademoiselle,” said M. Arnault making note of my request in a time book he produced from his breast pocket. “Anything else?”

“Can I ride Jacqueline or Dave if possible?” I asked hopefully. There was no way I was going to get back on my horse. Leopold’s two seemed much more reliable.

“Very well, Mademoiselle,” he said and bowed slightly.

There was a knock on my bedroom door and Leopold entered, coming directly over to stand behind me. He was dressed in his uniform, rucksack over his shoulder. He dropped his bag to the ground and pressed himself close to me, his hands on my sides, fingers strumming against my hipbones. M. Arsnault quietly excused himself from the room, the ghost of a smile playing on his lips.

“Come with me,” Leopold said, wrapping his arms around my waist.

I laughed lightly, “I don’t think that would go down well.”

He shrugged and half whispered, half growled against my neck, “Too bad.”

“It’s just one week,” I said swallowing hard. I wasn’t sure if I was trying to reassure him, or myself.

Leopold spun me around suddenly so that I was facing him and kissed me passionately. His mouth was full of unsaid need and desire. I threw my arms around his neck trying desperately to hold on to him. He pulled back after a minute, resting his forehead against mine and licked his full lips.

“I will be back soon, promise.” He unlocked my arms from around him and picked up his bag off the floor

“Be safe,” I whispered. Then he was gone. Again.

“So, ahh, why exactly are we playing, royal Barbie?” asked Alec the next morning. He was standing up on the pedestal in the yellow room, Mme. DuBech plucking irritatedly at the seams of the suit she had forced him into.

“Il est si grand!” she murmured angrily under her breath.

“Huh?” asked Alec frowning.

I giggled but waved a hand at him dismissively, “It’s nothing important. And we are doing this because you guys need to be dressed properly for the concert tonight. It’s strictly black tie.”

“I call this one!” exclaimed Tess excitedly, pointing at a manikin who was wearing a glittering, strapless, navy, floor length gown. She and my mother got to choose between the array of dresses which had already been made for me. I wasn’t too sure where the suits for John and Alec had come from.

“I would have preferred it in pink but it seems you only wear blue, white, grey and green, so this will have to do,” she continued.

“That’s fine, Tess, I am fairly attached to this one,” said my mother as she emerged from behind the dressing screen in a jade halter-neck dress with a ruffled fishtail. John’s eyes grew large.

They were lucky they got to choose. As usual, my clothes had been selected for me. I wasn’t even completely sure why I had to put the dress on, seeing as it had been tailored to me and Angela probably already knew how to make five different outfits with it. They didn’t seem to care though, so I sat in an arm chair in my aqua gown, with its lace cap sleeves and back which was barely held together by a line of delicate pearl buttons, as Mme. DuBech decked out the rest of my family. It was probably a good thing I was here though. Not only did I get to spend more time with everyone, but it quickly became evident that a translator was needed.

“Est-ce que tu as des soulier que tu peux porter avec ca?” Mme. DuBech asked my mother.

“Did you bring shoes that would go with that, Mom?” I paraphrased.

“I brought a pair of black wedges?” Grace offered.

I relayed the information to Mme. DuBech who nodded her consent.

“So we are going out to eat and then to a concert?” asked Alec, then blushed as Mme. DuBech began to work on his inseam.

“Yes. There will be a security and etiquette briefing for all of you a half hour before we leave. You guys will have to be careful tonight if the paparazzi show up, and listen to M. Arsnault’s directions,” I warned. It was strange how I had gone from the student to the teacher. It was just a few days ago that Leopold and Phillipa had been teaching me the same thing.

“Is it going to be strange not having people to do all this stuff for you when you get back, Bells?” asked Tess. “Maybe you could convince Felip to lend some of them to you.”

“What do you mean?” I asked her frowning.

“Well, school starts in three weeks. You know, our fourth year of high school? You are coming back, right?” she asked.

It felt like someone had punched me in the stomach. Was that really all that was left of the summer?

“You said this was only a trial, Fred,” reminded my mother. “That was the deal, you would come to the castle for the summer. In three weeks you are going to have to come back and return to normal life.”

“What if I decide to stay?” I asked quietly. “They need me.”

“You can’t be serious,” spat Alec. “You can’t honestly be thinking of saying yes and marrying this guy. You’ve only know Leopold for a few months.”

“You would be committing to the entire lifestyle, Fred,” worried John.

I didn’t reply to them, just slouched down into my armchair, my head spinning. It was too soon to be making this kind of decision. I needed to stay here, to stay with Leopold, wanted to, but the reminder of school and home suddenly brought back a rush of memories. They were the thoughts and plans the old Fred had made, thoughts about going to university, becoming a publicist or a writer, or something else completely different. Thoughts about my American dream style husband and two point five children, dog, picket fence. Suddenly I felt like I was in the wrong place. Like my dress was choking me.

Instincts kicked in and I was suddenly out of the room, running down the hall. I burst through the door of Leopold’s bedroom and buried myself under the heavy blankets, cocooning myself away from all of the indecision, opinions, and paths. I inhaled deeply, the smell of smoke, spice, and apple calming me and realized that this was exactly the same as when Leopold had left last time. The second he was gone I was filled with doubt and worry, but all of that vanished when we were together again.

Alec’s comment from yesterday floated to the top of my mind. Leopold couldn’t really be faking all of this just to get me to stay could he? No, I decided resolutely. That couldn’t be possible. They hadn’t seen the change I had caused in him. They didn’t know anything about my life here at the castle with Prince Charming. They did know the old Fred though, and that’s what had me worried, because I didn’t know which Fred I was, or which I wanted to be.

There was a gentle knock on the door and Angela quietly stepped in. “Are you alright, Mademoiselle?” she asked, frowning in concern.

I sighed deeply as pushed myself upright. “Time for riding?” I checked, avoiding her question.

As according to schedule, the five of us had been stripped out of our gown and suits in exchange for jeans and riding boots. There were three stable hands waiting at the back entrance with the monsters.

“They are beautiful!” exclaimed Tess excitedly. She had gone to a summer horse riding camp when she was little and was clearly very comfortable around the beasts. “Oh, that’s not the only beautiful thing,” she whispered under her breath and then quickly made her way over to a white horse who was being held by tall, black haired, and muscled stable boy. Alexander, I think.

John was also very comfortable around the horses. He was from Montana, and had grown up on a farm. He immediately approached the beasts, examining each one, petting their necks, and making clicking sounds at them.

Alec and Grace were smart and stayed a little further back with me. They had never ridden before.

I smiled and then bravely approached Jacqueline, who they had brought out for me. I quickly pulled myself up into the saddle, impressed when I did it on my first attempt.

“Wow Fred, that’s so brave! How did you do that?” asked Tess, slightly too loudly.

“Would you like some help, Mademoiselle?” asked Alexander.

“Oh, thank you so much! I’ve never been on a horse before,” said Tess.

I rolled my eyes and watched as she let him lift her into the saddle. The faker.

I looked to my right to see that Alec had, with some help from one of the other stable hands, also managed to mount one of the horses and was now sitting in what appeared to be a very uncomfortable manor in his saddle. Grace, with some help from John, was also set to go.

Alexander expertly pulled himself up onto his horse, complete with saddlebags, and marched it around to face us. “Everyone good?” he asked, in his heavily accented voice.

We nodded.

“Alright, for those who have never done this before, to get your horse to move, or go faster, simply hit them in the ribs with your heels. To turn, pull on the side of the reins which are on the side you wish to turn. To stop pull back,” he explained.

Tess put up her hand, “Will you help me? I’m a little nervous.”

“You can ride with me at the front,” he assured her. “Let’s start slowly.”

Slowly, very slowly, we made our way across the grounds. After some initial issues getting her horse to move, my mother was now doing well and was chatting with John as they rode side by side. Alec was having difficulty in the steering department. His horse was stubborn and kept wandering off away from the group. Every once in a while I would hear a string of curse words, only to look over my shoulder and see Alec trying to convince his horse to cooperate with him as they headed off in some strange direction. Tess stayed at point, continuing her charade so that she could flirt with Alexander.

We came to the meadow and all dismounted our beastly steeds, Tess sliding down Alexander’s chest when he came to help her. He blushed then cleared his throat and busied himself with the saddlebags.

“I have been instructed to leave these with you,” he said handing me a large blanket and a wrapped parcel. “I will come back for you in three hours.” He bowed, then mounted his horse and took off at top speed into the trees.

“Oh my,” said Tess as she fanned herself with her hand.

“Oh, please,” sneered Alec as he snatched the blanket out of my hands and rolled his eyes.

We left our horses tied to a pair of trees, happily munching on some grass, and went to join Alec on the blanket he had spread out on the grass. I sat in the center and began unwrapping the package. I pulled out a series of drinks, salads, and sandwiches before frowning, my hand closing around something strange.

I pulled out a thermos with a frown, Alec’s name was written in swirly letters across the lid.

“What’s this?” I asked, as I threw the thermos at him.

He caught it nimbly and examined it briefly. “Oh no,” he groaned.

“What’s that?” Tess asked curiously, looking over Alec’s shoulder.

“Kraft Dinner, probably,” he muttered.

“The castle has Kraft Dinner which they made especially for you?” said John confused as he bit into a club sandwich.

“No. I got hungry last night, so decided to go to the dinning room to see if I could get a snack. No one was around so I poked my head through the door that the servers go in and out of. Turned out to be a kitchen, and there was one girl there. I asked her if I could have something to eat. She asked what I wanted. I said Kraft Dinner. She laughed at me and made me Fettucini Alfredo. And no…” he cut off, waving his hand towards the thermos in front of him on the blanket.

“Sounds like somebody’s got a crush on you,” teased Grace.

“At least she is more subtle then Tess,” I joked.

“Hey,” cried Tess, around a bite of butter tart. “I only have a couple days left, I have to take advantage of what I can, when I can. Not everyone gets a boyfriend, fiancée, and husband just thrown at them all in one.”

“I know,” I murmured and put down my sandwich, my appetite now gone.

The limo rolled to a stop outside the amphitheater later that night, the photographers swarming closer to try and see who was inside. Subconsciously, I reached down beside me, but the hand I grabbed onto was far too petite and delicate to be the one I had been hoping for. Tess took my hand anyway, squeezing gently and smiling brightly at me.

“This is so exciting!” she said. “It’s like we are at the Oscars or something, red carpet and all!”

Dinner had gone well. It was fun, like when we would all go out together back home in Phoenix, just a little more elaborate. We were on to the second half of the night, the tricky part. Hopefully they would remember their impromptu training from earlier tonight.

I took a deep breath to calm myself, not sure if I was ready to do this alone, without Leopold here to lean on. I didn’t have time to hesitate though, because suddenly M. Arsnault had opened the limo’s door, and was helping everyone out and onto the red carpet.

They had been instructed to travel in pairs to make the transition from the car to the entrance easier. Tess and Alec were first. They were enjoying themselves maybe a little too much, waving and posing as they made their way down the red strip. John and Grace acted more subtle and reserved, awkward even. I was last, solo except for M. Lefevre who was shadowing me silently.

As I was the Royal Representative tonight, the lights dimmed as soon as I had sat down, and the musicians filed out onto the stage. The conductor came out, bowed in my direction, and the music started.

“It’s like being with a God!” Alec joked under his breath, nudging me in the ribs with an elbow. “You should make Principal Goldbloom bow down to you when we get back to school.”

“This is just out of respect. You should see what happens when an actual member of the Royal Family goes somewhere,” I told him.

“You’ll just have to invite us back when you are Queen then,” said Tess with a wink.

We got back late. Exhausted, I dragged myself back up to Leopold’s and my tower, leaving a trail of my shoes, handbag, and fascinator along the way. I slid the dress off my body as soon as I was in the bedroom, leaving it in a pool on the floor, and then crawled into Leopold’s giant bed, and drifted off into a deep and dreamless sleep.

When Angela woke me, the sun was already high in the sky, its light flooding into the room from the balcony. I yawned, not feeling at all rested.

“Mademoiselle Tess is looking for you, miss. She is waiting in your bedroom. I told her I would get you,” said my maid quietly.

I guess my secret was out now then. Tess would have no problem putting the pieces together and figuring out where I had been. I pulled on one of Leopold’s t-shirts, covering up the underwear I had slept in, and let Angela lead me back to my room.

Tess was perched on my bed, dressed in full riding gear. Her eyes ran over me when I came in, taking in my haggard appearance. I crossed my arms over my chest.

“You going riding again?” I asked, my voice coming out thick.

“Just got back actually, went out with Alexander. He is amazing, Fred, like no one I’ve ever met before,” she gushed and then sobered.

“You miss him don’t you?” she asked, looking me straight in the eye.

“So much it scares me,” I replied.

Tess held out her arms, waving me closer. I immediately went to her, allowing her to hug me, to pull me down onto my bed beside her. “I just don’t know what to do. I feel so lost when he’s not around, but I don’t know if I can do what I would need to, if I stay,” I mumbled.

“Shh,” Tess soothed, stroking my hair. “You need to relax, Bells. Enjoy all of this while you can. You will make the right decisions when you have to.”

“I’m sorry,” I sniffed, as I pushed myself upwards so that I was sitting, “you came here to tell me something.”

“Don’t worry about it, my story is the whole summer fling slash star struck lover’s thing. It can’t work out with Alexander and me. It’s just fun while I’m here,” explained Tess.

There was a knock on the door and Alec suddenly poked his head in, “Hey guys, can I come in for a sec?”

“Oh course, Alec, what’s up?” I asked.

He looked back over his shoulder, down the hall, and then shut the door and crossed the room, joining Tess and I on the bed.

“Nessa won’t leave me alone. She keeps popping up and trying to force feed me,” he said exasperatedly, flopping down onto the pillows.

“You should have seen the stack of pancakes she gave him at breakfast, Fred. It probably could have fed the entire royal family for a week,” Tess laughed.

“It’s not funny,” defended Alec. “I don’t know what to do!”

“Why don’t you just give in, live a little, have some fun. Fred did and look how that turned out,” Tess said, waving her hand around, indicating my luxurious bedroom.

A clock chimed inside the library making me sigh and rise from the bed. “Time to get ready guys, Leopold’s game starts in an hour.”

“So how does this work exactly?” John asked from beside me. We were at the field now, Felip, Beatrice, Hector, me, Alec, Tess, John and Grace, and were waiting for the game to start.

“They score by getting the ball into the other team’s net. You pass it from player to player down the field. If the ball is dropped, the play is over, and it is given to the other team,” Beatrice told him gently.

John frowned but nodded.

“It makes more sense once you see it,” I reassured him.

The audience burst into applause as the players rode onto the field. My heart skipped a beat as my eyes found Leopold’s familiar form, then stopped completely when I realized he was riding straight towards us. He slowed and dismounted Dave.

“Hello,” he said smiling brightly. His eyes twinkled with excitement. He bowed slightly to his father. “They want Winifred to throw the first ball,” he said, eyes boring into mine.

“What?” I blanched.

“Don’t worry, you will be safe,” Leopold reassured me and then waved me over to him. He grabbed hold of my waist, lifting me over the barrier and onto the turf beside him. He released all of me but my hand, leading me towards the center of the field, applause and camera flashes erupting around us.

“What do I have to do?” I asked him, trying walk as gracefully as possible while my heels sunk into the ground with every step.

“You will go on one of the referees’ horses, and throw the ball into the air to start the game. Then, the ref will take you back to your seat. Alright?”

I nodded.

“You have no idea how much I wish I could kiss you right now,” he said suddenly under his breath.

I blushed. “I’ve missed you so much.”

“Two more days,” he said and brought my hand to his lips, kissing our linked fingers. I was surprised he did in such a public location. “Oh, and Fred, here.” He handed me his dog tags which I quickly fastened around my neck.

We arrived at center field. All of the players were dismounted, standing beside their horses. Leopold left me beside the ref and went to his allotted spot. He whistled loudly and Dave, who was still where he had left him, by my parents, dutifully bounded over to stand beside his rider. The national anthem played, then the players mounted their horses.

The ref lifted me onto his horse, handed me the cannette ball, then climbed up behind me.

“Shake hands,” he said to Antoine and Leopold who were facing each other at center field. “Whenever you are ready, Mademoiselle.”

I took a deep breath, and threw the ball up as hard as I could, then closed my eyes as all hell broke loose around me. I could feel the horse moving beneath me, feel the refs arm around me, keeping me in place on the bare back of his horse, but I kept my eyes closed until I was sure we had stopped.

“That was great, Winifred!” boomed Hector. He was right in front of me, hands extended in my direction. “Do you mind?”

I shook my head and let him lift me off the horse and back into the bleachers.

The game was intense, violent. Both teams were trying their best to win the title. Alec and John were absolutely entranced; Tess and my mother, both squeamish, were hiding their eyes. Both teams were neck and neck until the last minute, when Leopold scored the last goal. I could see the smile on his face from the opposite side of the field. He had gotten revenge for the last game I had seen.

We left quickly, before the crowd had dispersed, led to the limos by our security guards.

“Absolutely amazing!” announced John.

“More like barbaric,” said my mother.

Felip laughed, “Yes, it is very violent, but you must admit, fun to watch.”

“And Leopold plays really well,” complimented Alec.

“I thought Antoine had him few times,” admitted Hector, “but then Leopold got out of it. All that practicing he did with you last week must have helped,” he winked at me.

I blushed and opened my mouth to retort but was cut off.

“Winifred,” called a silken voice. Our security team stopped around us, clearly recognizing the voice as well. “Fred, wait,” it called again.

I turned to see Leopold running down the front steps of the clubhouse, trying to catch us before we made it to the limos. He was panting by the time he made it over to us.

“Good job, son,” said Felip, shaking Leopold’s hand.

“No kidding,” agreed Hector, and slapped his brother on the back.

“Thanks,” Leopold smiled, then he turned to me. “Fred, I need my tags back.”

“Oh,” I said, hand flying to the chain around my neck. “I am so sorry, I forgot.”

“It’s fine, I thought we could switch,” said Leopold. He took his dog tags from around my neck, and replaced it with his gold medal. His fingers lingered on its blue ribbon, where it sat against my collarbone.

“Do you have any time?” I asked him hopefully.

Leopold shook his head then leaned in, placing a delicate kiss on my cheek. “Keep it safe.”

“Always,” I vowed, then I was pulled into the limo.

Chapter Thirteen

It was raining the next morning. The entire sky was covered in swirling grey clouds, which were illuminated every few seconds by lightning bolts as they split the sky, forking their way toward the ground. I sat at Leopold’s desk, wrapped in his duvet, a cup of tea in hand, watching the raindrops shatter as they hit the balcony. There was a knock at the door and Angela slid into the room.

“Your family is awake now if you would like to go and see them, Mademoiselle,” she reported. “I can go and run a bath for you if you wish, and lay some clothes out.”

A rush of cold, damp wind blew through the open French doors making me shiver. I pulled the blanket tighter around my shoulders. “No, it’s fine. I don’t think we will be going anywhere today. I will be alright like this,” I told her. I reveled in the thought of having a day off from lessons, and from going to events.

“Very well, Mademoiselle,” Angela bowed, then left me alone in the room again.

I sighed, placing my mug on the corner of the desk, and then stood, letting the blanket fall off my shoulders to the ground. It was time to go and see my family, see what the plans were for today. They were leaving in the morning, so this was their last day in Solis. It was unfortunate that it was raining, as the weather didn’t give them the opportunity to go out with a bang, unless you counted the thunder.

I quickly pulled on a pair of Leopold’s sweatpants, something that Mme. DuBeche had failed to include in my own wardrobe, grabbed my teacup, and set off through the corridors.

“Mornin’ Bells,” said John, around a mouthful of croissant when I entered their living room. He was seated on one of the plush couches, wrapped in a bathrobe. My mother smiled at me from beside the food trolley that had been brought to them, as she loaded her plate up with scrambled eggs. I went over to her and poured some fresh hot water into my cup.

“So what do you guys want to do today?” I asked as I dunked my teabag up and down. “I was going to take you to the beach, but I don’t think that would be much fun in this storm.”

“I was kind of hoping to explore the castle a bit more. I want to take some pictures of the architecture and stuff,” my mom said, taking a seat next to John on the couch.

I sat down across from them, next to Alec, and placed my tea on the coffee table, hugging one of the decorative pillows. “You should check out the throne room, the chapel, the concert room, or…”

“You should come and show me your favorites,” my mother said, “I’d love to get you in a few of the shots. It’s not everyday you get photos of your royal daughter in a castle.”

I smiled sadly. “I can’t, at least not ‘til later tonight. The castle is open to the public on Thursdays. We are not allowed out of the private apartments and living quarters to prevent a guest or tourist from seeing or photographing us unaware. You’re free to wander though, but you would enjoy taking a tour. The guides will explain the history of the galleries, staterooms, and the ballroom. I can hook you up with the guide who knows the most about the architecture. Later, I can show you around the private rooms.”

My mother looked at John who rolled his eyes and then stood. “I’ll go get changed,” he sighed. Renee clapped excitedly and followed him into their bedroom.

“You gonna go?” I asked Alec.

He shook his head. “Nah, I’ll stay and keep you company. I don’t need to see the ballroom after I’ve lived in this place for a week. The bathrooms alone were enough. I mean, who needs gold faucets?” He winked at me and smiled.

The doors to the suite suddenly flew open and a very wet Tess walked into the room, leaving a water stain trailing behind her on the Persian carpet.

“Date get rained out?” smirked Alec.

“Date?” I asked frowning.

“Yup, Tess goes out riding with that stable boy every morning,” he told me. “Didn’t you know?”

I shook my head, “I had no idea.”

“It’s no big deal,” shrugged Tess. “I didn’t want to make it out to be something it wasn’t. l’m only here for a week after all.”

Alec rolled his eyes, “Right.”

“So you like him?” I pressed, twirling one of the tassels on the pillow around my fingers.

Tess blushed and began walking toward her room, “I gotta get changed.”

“She must have it bad to be this quiet,” I smiled at Alec. “I think this is the first time she’s been short on words for over a year.”

“He gave her his email so they could stay in touch when she’s back home,” he whispered to me conspiratorially.

“I heard that,” grumbled Tess, her wet clothing smacking against the hardwood as she discarded articles to the floor.

“That’s so cute! We could be like a big family if you guys just stay here. I’ll have Leopold, Tess will have Alexander, and Alec will have his Sous Chef, Nessa,” I gushed teasingly.

Alec began to laugh and then thought better of it, “Hey!”

I shrugged, “It’ll never happen. We will all go back home and go back to school.”

“Please,” said Tess as she reentered the main room, running a comb through her damp curls. “You’re gonna stay here. Even of you do come back to Arizona, you’ll end up back here with Charming eventually.”

Alec nodded, siding with her, “You’d be stupid not to. There is no way you could give up on an opportunity like this. Especially since you and Leopold are head over heels for each other.”

“I know, I know, but I just…” I cut off, and buried my face in the pillow.

“So are there any other takers?” asked my mom when she emerged from her bedroom, trying to put in her earrings.

Tess and Alec shook their heads.

“Good choice,” muttered John, beside her.

“It really is interesting, you guys should go,” I told my friends.

“I think we will wait for the after hours Fred version,” said Tess. “We had the general tour so we didn’t get lost, which was fairly in depth. Besides, I gotta have stuff to explore on my next visit.”

“And I need to start packing,” added Alec.

“Suit yourselves,” my mother replied disapprovingly.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

“Is that everything, Mademoiselle?” M. Arsnault asked the next morning.

“You didn’t forget anything, right guys?” I called into the back seat of the limo.

They shook their heads.

“I think we are good to go,” I relayed to my guard.

He shut the trunk and walked around to our side of the car and opened the door for me. He was just about to shut all of us in the vehicle when I head a shout.

“Attendez, attendez!” it called. Frowning, I glanced out my window toward the front doors of the castle. Alexander and Nessa were running down the marble steps. They sped across the pebble drive, skidding to a stop right in front of the car.

“Uh, guys?” I said, nudging Tess in the arm. She and Alec were frozen to their seat, wide-eyed with surprise, and blushing scarlet. “Well go on then,” I urged, “but make it quick or we will be late.”

That was all Tess needed, she sprung up from her seat and out of the limo, throwing herself into Alexander’s arms and pressing her lips to his. Alec followed slowly, hesitantly, awkwardly running a hand through his hair. He smiled at Nessa when he finally made it over to her, and accepted the basket she handed to him. Then, Alec bent down and placed a kiss on her cheek.

Alec and Tess joined us in the limo after a few minutes, and the car took off out of the castle gates, headed towards the airport.

“What was that?” asked John.

Tess shrugged, busying herself with her iPod. Alec smiled and pulled a muffin out of the basket that Nessa had given him, “Travel snacks.”

The castle was quiet with everyone gone. It was strange how it was both peaceful and unnerving when it was this empty. My family was gone, I had no Phillipa or lessons to busy myself with, no Leopold to escape with, it was just me. Angela and M. Arsenault helped me fill the time. We went over the plans for the Governors’ Ball the next day, I beat them both in a game of Go Fish, and ate dinner. I was relieved when it was finally late enough to make going to bed seem reasonable. I changed into a pair of PJ’s and crawled into the center of Leopold’s bed, stomach turning in anticipation for the next day.

“Fred!” Phillipa cried as I walked into the Yellow Room the next afternoon. She skipped over to me, throwing her tiny arms around me in a delicate hug.

“It’s good to see you too, Phillipa. How was your trip?” I asked, once I was released from her hold. It was nice to see her again. I had grown accustomed to seeing her everyday for the lessons, so our week apart, while relaxing, had been strange.

“Amazing!” she said, smiling brightly. Abruptly, her face becoming serious, she continued, “We can talk later though, I need to make sure you know the schedule and details for today, then I have to go and get ready myself.”

“M. Arsnault went over everything with me last night,” I told her as I headed over towards the changing screen. I stripped out of the bathrobe I was wearing and pulled on the thin cotton nightgown-like dress I had to wear under the corset and hoop frame.

“Tell me,” she said, “I just want to make sure.”

“I enter with Leopold, at three, exactly. We are to walk around and talk to the governors. He will introduce me to people. I am not allowed to drink anything but water while socializing. He will give his speech at four. Lunch will be served by four thirty. I am to sit directly across from Leopold at the Prince of Mortimer’s table. I will not finish everything on my plate. Our exit is at six,” I recited obediently, then emerged from behind the screen.

Phillipa nodded her approval, “Good.”

I frowned suddenly, “Phillipa, is Leopold back yet?” I would have expected to see him the second he had arrived but it was now two hours until our entrance and he was no where to be seen.

Phillipa shook her head. “He was held up at the base, but should be here shortly. At least, he better be. Anyway, I better go. I will see you later,” she said and kissed me on the cheek before she whisked out of the room, leaving me with Angela and Mme. DuBeche.

I walked over to the vanity that was set up on the far wall of the room, and sat down in the plush armchair. Angela came over immediately and started drying my damp hair into soft curls. I chatted idly with her as she worked, trying to help the long process of my preparation pass more quickly. Once she was happy, she set to work braiding my long hair and pinning it up in some sort of complicated yet stunning looking creation on top of my head. Guests were beginning to arrive; I could see through the Yellow Room’s windows as they walked about the gardens.

Half an hour later, my hair and makeup had been deemed complete. Mme. DuBeche readily stole me from Angela and placed me up on the pedestal. She wrapped the corset around my waist and began lacing up the back, squeezing the breath from my lungs, as Angela stood before me and let me grip her shoulders for support.

A knock on the door interrupted their work.

“What?” Mme. DuBeche snapped, clearly upset her limited time was being wasted.

The door opened and Leopold walked in. Mme. DuBeche quickly realized her mistake and dropped into a low curtsy. Angela bowed as well, and then quickly led the seamstress out of the room, giving Leopold and I privacy. The second they were gone, I ran to him, bare feet slapping against the hardwood as I crossed the room, and threw my arms around his neck. “You’re back,” I cried, burying my face in his chest.

Leopold wrapped his right arm around my waist, pulling me to him. A brief flash of guilt shot through me at the thought of ruining Angela’s hard work, but it was instantly forgotten as he pressed his lips to mine in an urgent kiss. I replied greedily, my hands sliding down his chest, across his ribs, to his back, nails digging into his shoulder blades, as I closed the distance between us.

“Ah, attention,” Leopold grunted, as he winced. I let go immediately, and tried to jump back from him, worried and confused as to what had happened. Leopold did not loosen his hold on me though. I could feel his rough fingers tightening on my skin through the thin fabric of the dress, as he rested his forehead against mine, trying to catch his breath.

“What’s wrong,” I asked, my voice laced with concern.

“A small accident,” Leopold replied, straightening. “Hurt my shoulder slightly; it’s nothing to be concerned about.”

“Are you sure?” I asked him.

Leopold nodded. “I will be alright, but Fred, do not tell anyone. I will explain it all later, alright?”

I frowned. This wasn’t sounding good. “I’ll stay quiet,” I told him, “for now at least.”

Leopold laughed slightly, “I would expect nothing less. I am so happy to see you, ma belle.”

He kissed me again, lightly. I kept my hands at my sides, worried I would hurt him again. A clock chimed somewhere within the castle. Leopold pulled away, swearing under his breath.

“I should go,” he murmured, but made no move to leave.

“Are you ready?” I asked him, as I carefully placed my hands in his hair, plying with the curls at the nape of his neck. That had seemed a safe place last time.

“I think so. You?”

“Never,” I replied honestly.

Leopold smiled and leaned in to kiss me one more time before detaching himself from me, “I will see you soon, ma belle.”

Angela and Mme. DuBeche ran back into the room as soon as Leopold left, and began wrapping my in the layers of boning, lace, and petticoats at top speed until I was dressed, floppy hat and white gloves included.

“These,” said Angela, producing a large velvet box, “Are from the collection of the Arcadian Royal Jewels. Governor Richard and the Queen have asked that you wear them today.”

She opened the box. Inside were a necklace, bracelet, and earrings, all made of oblong shaped emeralds surrounded by diamonds. Once my body was adorned with the jewels, they stood back to admire their work.

“You are perfect, Mademoiselle,” smiled Angela. Mme. DuBeche nodded in agreement, clearly satisfied with the final result.

Angela checked her watch, eyes growing slightly large. “It is time for you to go now, Mademoiselle,” she told me.

Angela helped me maneuver through the halls in my big dress until we came to the formal entrance to the garden. Other members of the DuMont Family were arriving as well. Beatrice and Phillipa wore dresses similar to mine, but in dusted rose, and gold colors. The men were all in morning suits, complete with coat tailed jackets, waistcoats, ascots, gloves, and top hats, all in varying shades of the grey scale.

We quickly took our formation. Phillipa and Hector first, followed by Leopold and me, then Felip and Beatrice. The flourish sounded, the national anthem started playing, and Phillipa and Hector disappeared down the steps. I took a deep breath and grabbed hold of one of the hoops, lifting my skirt slightly as I had been trained. Leopold offered me his arm, and together we descended the stairs into the garden with the governors and their families.

We had to circulate through all of the guests, making sure that they saw each member of the royal family, and that we spoke to all of the necessary people. After that we moved on to the food tent for Leopold’s speech and lunch. I let Leopold guide me forward, stopping every few steps to talk to someone and to make introductions. My face started hurting from smiling so much, and I was surprised my glove hadn’t been worn through with all the lips that had kissed it.

I watched him carefully, still concerned about his injury. I couldn’t tell what was wrong exactly, but he was favoring his right side, which couldn’t be good as he was normally left-handed. I tried to hide my distraction from the guests, which wasn’t too hard since most of them seemed very eager to talk to me.

Trumpets flourished somewhere amongst the flowers, and the guest began making their way towards the giant white tent. It had been set up between the rose garden and the orchard and housed six round tables, the podium, and cascades of gossamer and white flowers. It was humid in the tent, making it even more difficult to breath in my corset. I winced, and pressed my hands into my ribs, as Leopold lead us through the arch into the makeshift building.

“I must go and take my spot,” Leopold told me when we arrived at our table.

“You’ll be great,” I assured him, squeezing his hand. He smiled and then disappeared into the crowd of governors and their family’s, careful to avoid the large girth of the ladies’ skirts.

“You look absolutely stunning in that dress, Princess. Like the exact replica of your grandmother Queen Winifred.” I froze, the little breath I had catching in my throat. I recognized the voice, it belonged to Antoine. I should have realized he would be here.

“Hello, Antoine, nice to see you again,” I said, voice tight, as my manners kicked in. This could go wrong in so many ways. I searched the crowd for Leopold, not sure if it was better if he saw me with Antoine and came to my rescue, or if he didn’t and things would clear up by themselves, in what I hoped would be a less messy manner. I finally caught sight of Leopold speaking to an old, tall man near the podium, distracted. I resolved to handle this myself, and turned to face Antoine. “Are you enjoying yourself?” I asked in smooth French.

Antoine cocked an eyebrow, “You have learned some new tricks, Princess, they are grooming you well,” he said, ignoring my question. Then he leaned down, close to me, his breath hot on my ear, “Have you thought about my offer since last time we met? It is not too late, we would still have time.”

I pursed my lips, “Sorry, the answer is still no.”

Antoine straightened, reaching a hand out to tuck a stray piece of hair behind my ear. I shivered as his fingertips brushed my neck, “Hmmm, I guess I will have to be more persuasive then.”

I was saved, or so I thought, when the horns flourished again. It was time for the speech to start.

I made a moved toward my chair, causing my unwanted hero to jump into action.

“Here, allow me to assist you,” purred Antoine, pulling out the chair for me.

My eyes grew in alarm. Sitting down in a hoop skirt was an event that required planning, and his assistance did not mesh with the schedule. “No, please it’s fine. It’s really much easier if-” I started, but it was too late. Antoine pushed my chair in before I had time to lift one of the hoops, and he hit the wooden ring dead on, sending my entire skirt flying forward and into the table. There was a loud crash as the silverware and glasses were disrupted, and were sent flying to the ground. Guests who were already seated at the table jumped up, trying to get away from the chaos. I was pinned between the chair and the table, watching as red wine slowly sped into the tablecloth, and ran right into the white lace of my skirt. I winced as the boning was disrupted, causing it to pull and dig into my already tender skin.

I looked around quickly to see that nearly all the eyes in the tent were on us. It was as if the world had frozen, waiting for direction from one of the hierarchical superiors on how to act. Instinctively, my eyes found Leopold. He was speaking in a rushed manner to M. LaFevre, not looking pleased at all.

“Mademoiselle, if you would please come with me,” said M. Arsnault, breaking the still scene, as he appeared beside me. He grabbed hold of the chair, freeing me, and stayed close on my heels as we fled back to the castle.

“Thank you,” I told him, as he helped me back up the steps to safety.

“Just following orders, Mademoiselle,” he replied, taping the intercom device in his ear. “You are to go see Mme. DuBeche in the Yellow Room.”

“Oh, no, no, no!” gasped Mme. DuBeche as she leapt to her feet when she saw my dress. “What happened?”

“Someone knocked over a glass of wine,” I told her as she pulled the dress over my head. The wine had seeped down through the layers of petticoats.

“Idiots,” she mumbled angrily under her breath. “No matter, we will just have to modernize you a little bit. I am thinking, Edwardian period.”

I simply nodded, not entirely sure what she was talking about, hoping that meant it I could loose at least half this dress.

She worked quickly, removing all of the layers of hoops and fabric, freeing me of the hoop that got me into this mess in the first place. Unfortunately, the corset stayed. The dress was pretty and lighter. Sheer lace covered the shoulders and the high collar. The rest was a light sea foam colored silk that flowed down from the bodice to the floor, interrupted only by a blue sash at my waist and embroidered beads at the hem and train. I kept the gloves and jewelry, but my shoes and hat were changed to something that matched the color of the dress.

“Alright, go. Do not let anyone ruin this one,” Mme. DuBeche chided, shooing me out of the room.

M. Arsnault was waiting for me just outside the door. He led me back to the garden, to my seat at the table. Leopold had finished his speech, and the guests were now working away at their first course. The men at the table stood as I approached. Leopold caught my eye. He was still angry and tense; I could see it in the line of his jaw.

I took my seat between Antoine and an older woman. She was the Countess of Merabelle from what I could remember from my lessons. If so, she and her husband owned the largest cross-country skiing facility in Solis.

“I am so sorry, Princess,” said Antoine beside me. “It was not my intention to ruin your lovely dress. If it is any consolation, this one is even more beautiful than the last.”

“It was an accident, it’s fine,” I said, probably a little too tersely and coolly.

I turned away from him, toward the Countess. “So Countess, how much snow do you think we should expect this winter?”

By the time the national anthem started playing again, I was relieved to go. I jumped up from my seat, grabbed onto Leopold’s arm, and bee-lined it up the stairs after Felip and Beatrice. Every one separated quickly, eager to get out of their costumes.

I went straight to my bedroom and flopped down onto my bed, tired and sore. Leopold followed me, slamming the door shut behind him.

“What happened?” he said, voice like death.

“He was being nice…creepy but nice, and it backfired. It was more of an inconvenience then anything. Just ruined the dress,” I murmured into the sheets.

He stopped pacing and took a deep breath. “As long as you are okay. I hated that I had to leave you again.” The bed shifted on either side of me, and Leopold placed a delicate kiss on the back of my neck. With a moan, I rolled over to find him hovering over me, his strange eyes boring into mine.

“Sorry I missed your speech,” I wheezed as he continued to kiss up the column of my throat.

“It was not very exciting,” he dismissed, then captured my lips. He had more of his weight on me than usual, probably due to his injury. My ribs ached in response and I squirmed underneath him.

“Leopold,” I squeaked, “can’t breath.” My voice must have come out strangled and strained because he quickly rolled off of me.

“What’s wrong?” he demanded searching me over with a concerned glance.

“Corset,” I managed to choke out.

“That I can help with,” he smiled. I gasped as he slowly helped me into a sitting position and then moved behind me, “Phillipa always hated these things.”

His hands pulled skillfully at the cords that laced up my back and I gulped greedily at the air as it flooded my lungs once the corset loosened. “Thank you! How did you know to do that?”

“Phillipa was always asking me to help her loosen her corset after her assistant had done it up, ever since she passed out the first time she wore one.”

“Genius,” I stated, slightly upset she hadn’t given me the heads up to do the same to mine.

“The corset my be uncomfortable but the dress, both of them, look absolutely stunning on you,” Leopold said while ghosting his hands up and down my relieved ribs, his breath hot on my neck.

I leaned back into his chest, “I’m starving.”

“We just ate.”

“I couldn’t breath, do you think I was able to eat?”

He laughed lightly at me, “Very well, let’s get changed and see what we can find in the kitchen.”

Leopold left my room and I quickly called Angela in. I was out of the wretched dress quickly with her help and pulled on some sweat pants and a t-shirt. Hopefully most of the guests had left and wouldn’t see me walking around. The maid left and a moment later there was a light rap on the door. I quickly answered it and Leopold took my hand and began leading me through the halls. He had changed out of his morning suit and was now in pajama pants and a t-shirt that fit tightly over his muscles. We walked through the dining room and pushed open the door to the dark empty kitchen.

I frowned, “It’s a lot smaller than I thought it would be. Where is everyone?” It was true, it looked more like an average kitchen than it did the kitchen of a five star restaurant.

“This is just the breakfast kitchen. We use this one on a daily basis and the main kitchen for important events or for big crowds. All of the staff is in the main kitchen right now, cleaning up.” He let go of my hand and walked toward the stainless steel fridge. He reached into the freezer and pulled out a container of chocolate ice cream. He raised the tub at me in question and, when I nodded my head, he grabbed two spoons and leaned on the island. I pulled myself up on to the counter beside him and took the spoon he offered.

“So spill,” I said, popping a spoonful of ice cream into my mouth.

He shifted nervously, frowning into the tub, “You know the storm Thursday? There was a fishing boat that had gotten too close to the cliffs and capsized. We were sent in to rescue the crew members. They sent me down with a line to bring the fishermen up. A big gust of wind hit and made the helicopter dip, throwing me into the side of the cliff. My left side hit the rock pretty hard. Luckily, I was on the way down and did not have someone attached to me. Anyway…” he trailed off. He handed me the tub, and pulled off his shirt. My eyes grew, and I choked on my ice cream as I saw it.

Leopold’s entire left shoulder blade was bruised black, the inky color changing into terrible shades of blue and purple as the mark bled across his upper back, ribs, shoulder, and biceps. Before I could help myself, my hand reached out and ghosted over the area. Leopold tensed.

“Did you have it looked at?” I asked.

Leopold nodded, and pulled his shirt back on. “The doctor on the base looked at it. No permanent damage, just really bad bruising to the muscle and one or two of the bones.”

“Are you taking anything for it?”

“Painkillers. Nothing else can really be done about it,” he shrugged and took another spoonful of ice cream.

“You can’t be going back to the base like that. You have to let Felip know or…” I tried but Leopold cut me off.

“No. I promise I will be all right. I have been put on desk duty next week. I will not be doing anything strenuous. I have to stay,” he said determined.

“You need to get better,” I insisted.

Leopold sighed and turned to face me, “Please do not say anything. At the end of the summer I am going to be graduating from the Defense Flying School at the base, and will be allowed to pilot the planes. As soon as I graduate, I am dropping out of the military so that I can ascend to my full royal duties. The Air Force is important to me, I hate that I have to give it up, so please stay quiet so that I can just finish this term. I promise I will be careful.”

His tone had started off defensive, but by the end he was nearly pleading with me. I was surprised. I hadn’t seen Leopold seem so worried about something before. His arms were braced on either side of me on the counter as he looked down at me, waiting for an answer. I wrapped my legs around his waist, and rested my hand on his jaw.

“All right,” I agreed hesitantly, “I’ll stay quiet.”

“Thank you,” he smiled and kissed me chastely on the lips, “Now what do you say to some TV?” he asked.

“Sounds great,” I said, “but I think Phillipa said she wanted to talk with me tonight. I should probably find her.”

“I do not think that will do,” Leopold said, eyes burning.

“Oh no?” I asked, as I hopped off the counter.

He shook his head, one side of his full lips pulling upward, “No. For one, it’s getting late. For another, I want to keep you to myself, I shared all day.”

I stood on my tiptoes and brushed my lips to his. “Fine, but you have to tell her,” I whispered. I was a little keyed up from the ice cream.

“Hmm,” said Leopold pulling back. “Maybe you are right, you probably should go see…” began Leopold but I stopped him with my lips. I walked him backwards until his back was gently pressed to the counter beside the fridge. One of my hands slid down his chest and into the hem of his t-shirt. His stomach muscles contracted and a trail of gooses bumps rose at my touch. I smiled against his lips, “I think she will survive until tomorrow.”

Leopold’s large hand was suddenly on the small of my back pulling me closer to him, his mouth back on mine. My hands trailed down to his hips and I hooked my thumbs into the waistband of his pants. He growled deep in his throat as he took control and spun us so that I was now against the stainless steel door of the fridge. He was kissing me hard, our chests pressed together, my hips digging into his thighs, my hands in his hair.

“Fred,” he said, his voice thick and heavily accented, “Fred, nous devons nous arrêter.” I understood his words, knew they made sense. It would not be good if someone walked in and found us like this. He kissed me again though, clearly not interested in following his own advice.

He caught hold of my wrists, and pinned them above my head, against the cold metal of the fridge. His kisses slowed after a minute and he pulled back, his forehead resting against mine, “We have to stop.”

I stared into his strange eyes; one the color of grass and the other a glowing ember. “Maybe I should go see Phillipa.”

Leopold licked his lips, “Probably not a bad idea. I need to see Hector anyway.”

He released my hands but didn’t move back. “Your eyes are so pretty,” I told him.

The edge of his lip twitched. “Go, Fred. I will find you later.”

Chapter Fourteen

I wasn’t with Phillipa for long. This was her last evening with Hugo before a couple weeks of separation. To say the least, I could relate, and was more then happy to keep our meeting short.

“So how was your week with your family and friends? “ Phillipa asked excitedly, as she jumped onto one of the couches in her bedroom. She pulled me down beside her, waiting eagerly for my response. I caught Hugo’s eye from across the room where he was reading at her desk. He smiled and tipped his head at me before returning to his book.

“Fun,” I said, “It was really nice to see all of them.”

“I hear a but in there,” said Phillipa, her green eyes examining me.

“Don’t get me wrong, it was absolutely amazing to see them, but it also made things sort of difficult. Just seeing the two different lives juxtaposed like that…” I cut off, not completely sure what I was even trying to say.

Phillipa nodded though, “Completely understandable.”

“Did you have a good week?” I asked, genuinely curious. I knew very little about Phillipa’s life outside lessons and princess stuff.

“Wonderful,” she said, smiling brightly. “Absolutely, fantastic! My life with Hugo is so much more relaxed and free then my life as Princess. I suppose it’s sort of like the opposite of how it works with you. Both you and Leopold have you have gone from more relaxed lives, you especially, to high profile, public, strict ones.”

“Sounds like a nice change of pace for you,” I smiled, truly happy that she got a break.

“What on earth happened with Antoine today?” Phillipa asked suddenly growing upset. “Leopold was livid.”

I rolled my eyes. “Oh, I know he was. It was a bit of an over reaction. Antoine was being a bit too friendly and decided to help me sit down. I tried to stop him but he wouldn’t listen. Anyway, my skirt flew into the table and got covered in wine.”

“The poor dress,” Phillipa sighed. “It was so pretty. That was less dramatic then I was expecting, which is good. At least you didn’t fall in the ocean this time.”

“It was more of an inconvenience than anything. Antoine honestly didn’t do it on purpose,” I said, surprised to find that I was defending him.

Phillipa glanced at the clock on the wall. “So are you ready for lessons again this week? I want to get through as much as possible. We are running out of time, after all.”

“Sounds good, I’m ready,” I told her, hoping I sounded confident.

“Perfect. I will give you tomorrow off so that I am not interrupted by Leopold stealing you away, then we will start regular time Monday morning.” She wrapped her tiny arms around me in a hug.

“I’ll see you then, Phillipa,” I promised. I stood, and after saying goodbye to Hugo too, I slipped out of her room and down the hall.

Leopold was still with Hector, or at least that what I presumed when I didn’t find him in any of the rooms in our wing. I decided it was late enough to go to bed, so I crawled back to my room, and into my own bed for the first time in over a week. I figured it would be even more inappropriate to sleep in Leopold’s bed now that he was back.

Slowly, I drifted to sleep while waiting for him to come back to me.

I was woken up gently by someone calling my to me. I opened my eyes to find that it was pitch black in my room and that I was still lying alone in my bed.

“What time is it?” I asked groggily.

“Four in the morning, Mademoiselle,” said Angela softly. She made her way through the dark room to my closet, and emerged with a robe. “I need you to come with me, Mademoiselle.”

“Is everything alright?” I asked, my concern growing. Leopold wouldn’t have done something stupid would he? I knew he used to disappear all the time, but I thought at the very least he would have told me he was going. Maybe he was hurt, or his shoulder was worse. I jumped out of the bed, and let Angela help me put on the robe.

“There is someone here to see you, Mademoiselle,” she told me. “They are waiting for you in the Council Room.”

I pulled the thin robe tighter to me as I followed my maid through the hallways. My mind continued to reel with all the possibilities of what could be going on. What was so important that I was woken up at four in the morning? The second I walked into the Council Room, I knew that my instincts were right; something was very, very wrong.

Felip was at the head of the table, dressed in a robe very similar to mine, his golden hair disheveled and glasses perched on the end of his nose. He looked tired. Although his face seemed as impassive and calm as ever, I could tell he was upset. There was anger in the quirk of his lips, the same expression I had seen on Leopold before. Hector was on Felip’s left. He too was just in pajamas, yet politely stood as I entered the room. Offering me a small yet reassuring smile, his sad eyes followed me as I slowly made my way to the table.

Leopold was standing behind his father with his arms crossed over his chest, fists clenched at his sides. He looked pale and drawn. I could see his anger in his shoulders that seemed to radiate around him, through him, like an electric current. Unlike the others, he did not look at me when I entered, but stayed focused on the floor, as unmoving as stone.

The last person in the room was Governor Richard. He was in a formal suit and sat with documents splayed across the table in front of him. He seemed pleased with himself, very happy, in fact, considering the otherwise dark atmosphere of the room.

“Winifred!” Richard cried, smiling broadly at me. He jumped to his feet, bowing low, “It is so nice to see you again.”

He made a move in my direction, but shrunk backwards as Leopold shot him a deathly glare.

“Please take a seat, Winifred,” said Felip, his voice even. “We have something we must discuss with you.”

The tension in the room was almost palpable as I folded myself into the chair closest to me. This was not helping my nerves. I swallowed hard, “What’s up?”

“As I am sure you have deduced, Governor Richard has returned from his preliminaries with the French,” began Felip.

My stomach knotted as things suddenly began to fall into place. Richard had gone to visit the French Government regarding me becoming Queen of Arcadis so that I could marry Leopold. Based on the moods of the DuMont men, it seemed that Richard had been told no. If that was the case, I couldn’t be married to Leopold, he would lose the throne, and I was probably about to get banished, making this entire endeavor moot. Even though I hadn’t made the decision to stay or go yet, I felt a sudden pang of sadness at the thought that I may have to leave, or at least that I may not have the option to stay as part of the royal family anymore.

“However,” the King continued, an edge creeping into his voice. “It seems as though Richard has accomplished more then we had anticipated and desired.”

“What do you mean?” I asked confused. That didn’t exactly sound like I was getting banished anytime soon.

Felip regarded me carefully before continuing. “The French Government has signed a declaration which frees Arcadis from French control, therefore making it an Independent State. Over the months to come, Arcadis will become its own country as a parliamentary democracy with a constitutional Monarch as Head of State.”

My blood ran cold as I anticipated his next words, desperately hoping that he was not inferring what I thought he was. If he was, banishment may have been the better option.

“The consequence, Winifred, is that you are now the Queen of Arcadis.”

I didn’t know what to say. I was stuck in my chair, unable to move or speak. My mouth opened and closed in shock, as I floundered for my words.

“What? How?” I managed after a minute. “I thought you said it wasn’t possible.” My eyes automatically went to Leopold, searching for an answer. His facade remained as stony as ever, his lips pursed into a hard line, nostrils flared.

“An act of kindness,” replied Richard, slightly too upbeat. He rose from his chair, making his way around the table towards me. “Arcadis has been petitioning France for freedom for centuries. We wanted freedom from our colonizers, just as many others have received. We are fortunate for them to have finally agreed when a member of our country’s royal lineage has returned home to state their claim.” He knelt down before me and kissed the back of my hand, “Long live the Queen.”

“She was to be a figurehead,” Leopold growled suddenly, speaking for the first time, as he burst forward toward Richard. His tone was cold, deadly.

“Leopold,” Hector said, his voice laced with warning.

Leopold paused for a moment at his brother’s words, running a hand through his copper hair, he then began to pace back and forth agitatedly at the top of the room.

Felip sighed. “Leopold, why don’t you take Winifred back her room. There is a lot to think about, we can discuss this more at the Council meeting tomorrow afternoon. That is enough for tonight.”

Leopold nodded sharply and bee-lined it straight towards Richard and I. Governor Richard hurried to his feet and took a few steps back, quickly getting out of Leopold’s way. Leopold, however, didn’t even spare him a glance as he strode to the door and pulled it open.

Numbly, I rose from my chair and went to join him. I stopped just before the entryway, waiting for him to take the lead. Instead, Leopold waved, indicating me forward. I frowned for a second, confused at his breech of protocol, before I realized that it wasn’t. As the only Monarch of Arcadis, I was his equal, if not superior at the moment.

Feeling uneasy, I brushed past him and headed down the hall, back to our wing of the castle. I moved on autopilot, my body mechanically going through the motions, as my brain was trying to sort through what had just occurred. I instinctively went to Leopold’s room, him following close at my heels.

It all seemed surreal. During our walk, everything began to make sense and it was absolutely terrifying me. I could feel the blood rushing in my veins, while my head felt light and floaty, as I started panicking. I stood in the middle of the room, coming up blank as to what to do.

Leopold brushed past me towards the balcony, thrusting his hands in his pockets. He pulled out his lighter and cigarettes, placing one between his lips, cupping his hands around the end. He couldn’t get the spark to catch; the wind was causing the flame to flicker uselessly. He swore angrily and tossed both onto his desk.

Finally, Leopold looked up, his eyes finding mine for the first time, “Are you alright?” His voice was measured, I could hear the anger he was trying to repress in his tone.

“I don’t know,” I replied honestly.

He crossed the room and wrapped his strong arms around me. “I am so sorry, Fred. I never intended for this to happen.”

“What do you mean?” I asked. “Didn’t you want me to be Queen?”

“Not like this,” he said, “Never like this. You were never supposed to rule a country by yourself. You were merely going to be given a title, should you have decided to accept our proposition. Now you are stuck.” His voice was a sneer by the end, his hands turning into fists on my back. He pulled away, back to one of the windows. I watched his knuckles go white as he griped the windowsill; he was furious.

My mouth went dry, “You said I could always get out.”

“Not in the same way, not anymore. You are no longer normal. Richard took that option from you. You are now tied to an entire country and have been named its sole leader. You will be followed, hunted, and watched for the rest of your life, regardless of whether you accept or decline officially at your coronation. It is too dangerous for you to go back home. You have been tainted, forevermore, written into history.”

I went to him. Some internal instinct was telling me to calm him. Carefully, I placed my hand on his back. His shoulders relaxed slightly.

“I knew it was a bad decision to have Richard so heavily involved,” he spat.

“I don’t understand,” I said softly.

Leopold sighed and turned to face me, leaning back against the window. He looked exhausted. There were dark purple smudges under his eyes. My guess was he hadn’t slept at all yet tonight.

“Richard only wants what is best for Arcadis. He has been championing its independence from France for years. We should have realized that he would have wanted to push things to that extreme rather then just having a monarchy reinstated as the leader of a province, essentially taking his position.” He paused then, his tone growing softer. “It was not fair of him to put this kind of pressure on you. Your decisions will now completely dictate the future of two countries. If you decline you title as Queen, you and I cannot be married. The Accord will be moot. Not only will my family be stripped of the throne, but – ”

“Someone else will be named as the new leader of Arcadis,” I added, seeing where this train of though was going. I swallowed hard. Suddenly the though of me having to rule a country seemed much less significant then who would if Leopold and I did not. At least the DuMont’ had a pretty good track record thus far, and I would have them to back me up.

Leopold nodded carefully. He was watching me now, trying to gauge my reaction.

“I am so sorry, Winifred. Had we expected Richard to go ahead and make you the Queen of Arcadis without being granted your permission, we would never have allowed him to work so independently with France. He went completely out of bounds. He has pulled you much too deeply into this than was our original intent.”

He reached out and hesitantly placed a hand on my cheek. I frowned for a second at his sudden restraint until I realized why he was holding back. He was seeking my forgiveness.

I turned my head towards his hand, placing a kiss on the palm. “It’s okay, Leopold. It’s not your fault.”

He smiled softly, tucking my hair behind my ear. “There’s more. I want to make sure you know that you can still leave, just as you have always been able to, but I hope to God that you choose to stay. This is not just for the cause of our countries. I can protect you, give you anything you want, I will look after you the rest of your life. If it is getting married to me that is the problem, arrangements can be made. We would not be the first to do it. You could live in Arcadis and me here. We would only see each other for public appearances. It would not be the best scenario, but I love you and I am willing to do whatever it takes to make you happy.”

“What?” I said, shaking my head. I was pretty sure I had just misheard something.

“I will do what ever it takes to make this work,” Leopold repeated vehemently.

I shook my head. “Before that.”

“I love you.” He paused for a moment as if to taste the words as they left his lips. “I love you. Even if you were not a queen and I was not a prince, if we lived different lives, I cannot imagine any possible scenario where I could be happy without you by my side. I know that things are not perfect, and I am not trying to sway your decision by saying this, but I love you and I want you in my life, in anyway you will let me.”

I was pretty sure that this kind of decision required some time to think things over. Unfortunately, my mind, which had just received far more information then could be healthy, did not instantly jump to weighing the pros and cons of life as a commoner over life as a Queen. Instead, I blurted out the first thing my instincts threw at me.

“Okay,” I told him.

Leopold’s mouth fell open slightly. “Are you serious? Do you want to take a day to think about it?”

“I’ll stay.”

“Allow me to do one more thing then,” he said, as he walked over to his desk. He kept his back to me as he riffled through one of the drawers. After a minute he seemed to find what he was looking for.

“Please bear with me for a moment. I want to do everything properly,” he said and then knelt on one knee before me. I gasped as I realized what was coming.

“Winifred Marie Morgan Sinclair, you have made my summer, my life, even my self so much better then I could have imagined. I promise to love you until the last moment of forever, to stand by your side for the rest of our lives. Will you do me the honor of being my friend, my Queen, and my wife?”

“Yes,” I said, barely believing my own words, “Yes.”

He slid a ring onto my finger, then stood and pressed his lips to mine.

“I am sorry things are such a mess,” he told me sincerely, resting his forehead against mine.

“It is not your fault. What are we going to do about Richard though?” I asked. I didn’t think it was fair for him to be in as much trouble as Leopold made it seem. It may not have been his fault after all. It may have just been meant as ‘an act of kindness’ as Richard had said.

“Well there is no actual proof that he and his family are committing treason. It is just a suspicion that I have. We will have to wait and see. Getting married should solve everything. No matter what, I promise, I will protect you,” Leopold vowed, placing a kiss on my forehead. “I do not know about you, but I am exhausted. Will you come to bed with me?”

I nodded as I realized how tired I was too and went over to his bed, sitting crossed legged in the center. I watched Leopold as he moved around the room, in and out of soft beams of light which filtered in from the balcony. His skin was illuminated by the morning sun, almost glowing in its golden light. He went to the windows and pulled the heavy curtains in front of them, surrounding us in darkness, then padded towards the bed, stopping just in front of me. He was staring at my jeweled hand were it rested on my knee, his eyes bright. I cocked my head and furrowed my brow.

“You like that don’t you?” I questioned, fluttering my fingers.

He shrugged, feigning indifference. “It looks nice on you.”

“You know I think you have ulterior motives for getting this thing on me,” I said, lips quirking into a smile.

He came towards me pushing me back until I was lying on the bed with him hovering over me. “You have no idea how much I like it, you silly girl,” he growled. “It marks you as mine.”

“I was already yours.”

He kissed me full on the mouth. It was soft and gentle, loving.

“It means so much to me that you accepted it,” he murmured against my lips, then pulled the blankets up around us. I lay beside him, my head on his shoulder, left hand on his chest.

I examined the ring. The band was three pieces of simple white gold twisted together. There was a large blue diamond in the center surrounded by more diamonds that faded to grey and finally clear and lessened in size. A web of white gold weaves between the jagged, rough-cut stones. It was stunning but had an old almost rugged look.

“It was Queen Winifred’s,” he said, “I felt that was appropriate.”

“It’s perfect, beautiful,” I told him. “Je t’aime.”

I fell asleep quickly, the gold band cold against my skin.

I was awoken by a sudden searing light that turned the inside of my eyelids red and warmed my skin. I groaned, blinking rapidly as my eyes adjusted.

“Sorry, Mademoiselle,” said a deep voice which I immediately recognized as Mike. “I knocked, but no one answered.”

“What’s happening?” I said, slightly disorientated.

“It is twelve thirty, Mademoiselle. The council meeting begins in an hour,” he announced, sounding pleased with himself. “I was sent to get you and le Prince. Angela is waiting for you in your room.”

“Oh, right, thanks,” I said and pushed myself upwards so I was sitting. I ran a hand through my hair.

"My pleasure, Mada -" Mike began before cutting off. I glanced in his direction, confused as to why he had stopped only to find him staring, mouth gaping open, at the hand in my hair.

“Mon Dieu,” he breathed.

I blushed furiously, quickly hiding the hand from his sight. “I’ll be right there.”

He gave a jerky bow and then scurried into the bathroom, the door slamming shut behind him. I fell back into the pillows and covered my eyes with the palms of my hands, groaning.

Apparently Leopold didn’t like that, because his arm, which was draped across my hips, tightened around me. I turned to look at him, examining the angle of his cheekbones, the line of his jaw. My eyes fell to his biceps, where inky smudges peeked out from the sleeve of his t-shirt. I reached out, delicately tracing my fingers over the bruised flesh.

Leopold hummed, his eyes fluttering open. “Your hand is cold,” he said softly.

“Sorry,” I said, retracting my hand quickly.

“It felt nice,” he said, lips falling into a pout. Then his tone changed. “How are you doing this morning?”

“Sublime,” I told him, smiling. And it was true, I was perfectly happy with my decision, just nervous about how everyone would respond. Mike hadn’t seemed too pleased.

“I’m glad,” Leopold said, and turned so that he was over top of me. His hips pressed into my thighs, mouth hovering over mine. My thoughts swirled, breath catching in my throat as I anticipated the kiss. Then, as if on cue, a loud crash came from the bathroom.

Leopold swore under his breath, his lips brushing mine.

“Sorry, Sorry,” called Mike.

My hand cupped the back of Leopold’s neck as I tried to keep him close to me. My efforts were ineffective. Leopold pushed himself up so that he was kneeling over me, straddling my waist.

“I think I freaked him out a bit. He saw the ring when he woke me up,” I explained.

I felt my cheeks warm as I saw that Leopold was staring down at me, admiring me. He sighed, and ran his hands down my ribs to my hips. “Good.”

“Your bath is ready, Monsieur,” called Mike.

Leopold rolled his eyes then climbed out of bed. He stripped off his shirt as he crossed the room, discarding it on the floor. “See you soon,” he said with a smile, before disappearing into the bathroom.

I lay there a moment longer, catching my breath, collecting my thoughts, then headed down to my own room.

"Mademoiselle, I have your clothes set out please sit down at -" Angela said, emerging from my closet. She stopped dead in her tracks when she saw my hand, and dropped the pair of heels she was holding. I froze in place, bracing myself for whatever was about to happen.

To my complete surprise my maid ran straight to me and wrapped her arms around me in a hug.

“Oh, ca c’est fantastique, Mademoiselle!” she gushed. She grabbed hold of my hand and examined the ring. She continued to ramble on in rapid French for a moment until she seemed to catch herself.

“Deepest apologies,” she told me, bowing low. “I was overcome with excitement at the news of your Queenship, and now there will be a wedding as well!”

“No worries,” I said, pulling her up. “It was kind of nice to see the real Angela.”

She smiled brightly at me, then cleared her throat and became all business again. “Please sit, Mademoiselle.”

I patiently did as I was requested, allowing Angela to style my hair into loose waves and apply my makeup. When she was done, she helped me into an emerald green, long sleeved, pencil dress with nude heels.

“Green?” I said, cocking an eyebrow.

“Today, you are only Arcadian,” she told me nodding.

I looked at myself in the mirror, examining the reflection. I was so accustomed to wearing blue, to being Fred, that being green, and standing on my own as queen, seemed frightening. This was it.

I heard the door open, light footsteps made their way across the room until Leopold’s reflection appeared next to mine. He was dressed in a black suit, and crisp white shirt. His copper hair was still slightly damp from his bath, the smell of his body wash strong. He stood behind me hands on my hips.

“Nervous?” he asked softy.

“Terrified,” I told him honestly.

Leopold came around to face me, interposing himself between me and my reflection. “You will be great.”

I looked at his chest, not sure how to respond, until I noticed something. “Your tie has green strips,” I said amused.

He frowned slightly and looked down, “Sorry it was the best I could do on short notice. I will have to get Mike to get more.”

“More?” I repeated.

“Well, it is only fair that I wear your colors too, Love,” he smiled, taking hold of my left hand. “Let us go.”

We walked like that, hand in hand, to the council room. It was clearly very official business in there today as there were two royal guards standing outside the doors. They bowed to us upon our arrival, and opened both doors widely.

The table was full today, unlike last night. All of the governors were present. They stood when Leopold and I entered, all bowing their heads in unison. I saw confusion on some of their faces when they saw me. Clearly they had no idea about what had happened.

Leopold led me to the seat directly to his right, and helped me sit before going to his spot at the end of the table. He kept hold of my hand, all the while, hiding it from sight.

“Good morning, Gentlemen,” said Felip as he swept into the room. “Please take your seats so that we can get started. We have a lot to cover today.” He opened the folder that had been waiting for him at the table, quickly skimming the contents.

“As you can see, we have Winifred and Governor Richard joining us today. Governor Richard returned last night. It seems his meetings with France were much more…proactive then we had anticipated. Arcadis has been given its independence and Winifred has been declared Queen.”

The room was dead silent for a moment until one by one, all of the governors stood and turned to face me, bowing their heads. I blushed, and tried to resist the urge to sink into my chair.

“Leopold and Winifred have been discussing how they feel about the matter. Once we hear their decisions, we must discuss an plan of action regarding how to proceed. Leopold, Winifred?” The King looked down the table towards us and gave a small smile.

I turned to Leopold, looking for an indication of what to do. He squeezed my hand encouragingly. I gave a nod, understanding what he was asking. I could do this. Taking a deep breath, I turned to face the room of men.

“I have decided to accept my position as Queen,” I announced, hoping I sounded at least somewhat regal.

"Mademoiselle!" cried Governor Richard excitedly. "This is -"

“There is more,” Leopold said, glaring at the governor. “Last night, Winifred consented to marry me.” He looked exceedingly pleased as the governors jumped to their feet and began to clap and cheer. I smiled, as Leopold lifted our linked hands above the table, showing them the ring on my hand.

Suddenly, they all began talking at once.

“Fabulous!” exclaimed the Governor of Pont Xavier. “A Royal Engagement, and a Royal Wedding, not to mention the Coronations. We are going to have to plan a public announcement.”

“The Global Media Ban will have to be released,” noted the Prime Minister. “We will want the news coverage. This is going to cause a great interest from the Americans.”

“We will have to call up the magazines and decide who gets first choice at publishing the photos,” said another.

“They will have to pose for their stamp.”

“The wedding planner will be alerted. She is going to have to arrange the guest list, cake, dress, flowers, rings…”

“Princess Phillipa and Mme. DuBech are going to have to help prepare her…”

“We need to set the date for the Wedding and Coronations. The churches must be notified…”

“They need to make a trip to Arcadis before all of this….”

This was sounding very complicated. They continued to discuss the details of what was obviously going to be a very large wedding. It seemed normal enough, all the usual necessities were being discussed, just on a much, much larger scale.

I tuned them out after a minute, focusing my attention on Governor Richard. I thought he would have been excited, or would have spoken on my behalf. This was what he wanted after all. He simply sat there though, looking pale and tense.

“Alright,” Felip said, “I think that is enough for today. The necessary phone calls and appointments will be made and penciled into Leopold and Winifred’s schedules. My family will discuss living situations and future plans with Winifred. Winifred, you will also now be attending all Council meetings and all of Leopold’s lessons, as well as your own.”

The King stood, the rest of the room with him. He disappeared through his private door. Leopold helped me up from my chair, and we were quickly surrounded by the members of the Council. They pushed forward, shaking our hands and congratulating us.

“What exciting news,” Governor Richard told me, stepping forward to take his turn. Delicately, he kissed my hand.

He turned to Leopold, reaching out to squeeze his left shoulder. I felt Leopold tense beside me, his lips drawing into a fine line, as he tried not to show the pain it caused him. “How fortunate you two are.”

Chapter Fifteen

“Monseigneur!” Mike called. I looked over my shoulder to find him chasing after us. Leopold and I had just managed to escape the Governors and were headed back to our wing of the castle.

“Yes?” Leopold consented, sounding a bit bored. I slowed down so that we could wait for Mike to catch up, but Leopold put his hand on my lower back, urging me forward, his thumb beating an impatient rhythm on my spine.

“I have a message from your father,” Mike panted when he finally caught up with us. He walked a few paces behind us, hopping back and forth somewhat agitatedly. “He wishes for you and Mademoiselle Winifred to have dinner with him and your family tonight in order to celebrate your engagement.”

“Sounds great!” Leopold said, his tone becoming very enthusiastic. “But tell everyone we are going to make it an official Skip Night.”

I frowned, confused. This wasn’t a term I was familiar with. I tried to think back through my lessons but kept coming up blank. Mike, however, seemed to understand.

“Who would you like me to have called?” he asked.

“No need,” Leopold told him. “Fred and I are going to go pick it up. Tell everyone to be ready in an hour or so. We will meet in the solarium.”

“Very well, Monsieur. I will have M. Lefevre and M. Arsnault bring the car around,” Mike said and bowed.

“Sure, sure,” Leopold replied dismissively, but his face still held excitement. His eyes were bright, and a faint mischievous smile played at the corners of his lips. “Tell Hector that he is in charge of beverages,” he called to Mike before ducking into my bedroom.

“What’s going on?” I asked, hoping to get a hint as to what was happening. I should have known better by now though, Leopold never gave anything away; he loved to keep me in suspense.

“You will see soon,” he said flashing a bright smile. He pulled me close to him, wrapping his arms around my waist. One hand slid up to caress my shoulder blade, the other ran up my spine to the nape of my neck. In one swift movement, he undid the clasp at the collar of my dress and unzipped the back, his hand coming to rest on my hip. His other hand delved inside the green silk, fingertips brushing the length of my exposed back. I shivered.

He kissed me chastely on the lips and then his hands were gone. “Change into normal clothes, quickly. I will be back in one minute.”

I stared at the empty doorway for a minute after he left. My mind cloudy and lagging as it tried to catch up with what was going on. All I knew was that we were going out, which meant I got to leave the castle. For a bonus, it didn’t sound like we were going to be on any official business.

Excitement blossomed in my stomach as I ran for the closet, kicking off my heels along the way. I slithered out of the suit dress, leaving it in a heap on the Persian rug. I pulled on a pair of skinny jeans, a tank top, and a pair of topsiders.

Leopold was leaning on my doorframe when I emerged. He was dressed completely in black. Black jeans, black t-shirt, black boots. He held his hand out to me.

We went to the far end of the castle and exited through a side door in the service hallways behind the kitchen. There was a low building in front of us, nestled in apple trees, which marked the start of the orchard. It was made out of heavy stone with three sets of heavy wooden doors along the front and no windows.

“The armory?” I asked Leopold. I recognized the building from old blueprints I had been shown. The building used to hold weapons and armor for all of the knights and soldiers in the royal guard. There had even been a blacksmith’s forge inside to do repairs. The big doors allowed for the large flow of men that went in and out to suit up in a hurry, and were tall enough for their warhorses to be brought in to be suited in their own form of ancient kevlar. Once modern warfare came about, the building had lost its purpose. As far as I knew, it had been empty for decades.

Leopold punched a code into the keypad on the brick wall, and the doors, all of them, slowly opened. It was pitch black inside. Leopold winked at me, then he disappeared into the inky gloom, his black clothes only adding to the effect. I followed hesitantly, slightly worried I might trip or walk into something. I didn’t particularly feel like accidentally impaling myself on a sword.

Light suddenly began to flicker as rows of fluorescents fizzled to life and the armory was bathed in light. As my eyes slowly adjusted, my mouth fell open.

Leopold smiled at my reaction from where stood next to the light switch. “We renovated,” he stated simply.

“Apparently,” I murmured, staring down at the line of vehicles before me. It was clear that the armory had been turned into a garage, and a very fancy one at that. I didn’t have a vast knowledge of cars, but even I could tell that these were luxury vehicles.

Leopold selected a key ring out of the many that were hanging on hooks on the wall and strode over to a sleek silver car.

He stroked across its shiny hood. “This is my baby. It’s a Lexus LFA.”

“Ohhh,” I cooed sarcastically.

“Hey, be nice,” Leopold chided jokingly. “You do not have to come.”

“You mean you’re actually going to drive a car?” I asked.

“ I have to let M. Lefevre drive me, I do not get an option, but just because I get chauffeured almost everywhere does not mean I am not able to drive. I am qualified to drive lots of things; motorcycles, cars, helicopters, jets, tanks… “ he defended, opening a passenger side door.

I got in obediently. Leopold walked around to enter on the driver’s side and slid the key into the ignition. The car purred to life beneath us.

“Do we have to wait for the guards?” I asked. I was pretty sure that Leopold and I were not allowed off of the property without them since the incident at the Canette Field. “Do they sit in the back?” I added, somewhat amused.

“They will find us. There is a tracking device in my car and cell phone. It is nearly impossible for me to get completely lost for any extended period of time. You will be safe,” He assured me, as he tapped the clutch into gear. We cruised out of the castle gates, a few photographers snapping pictures as they tried to see who was inside, then we took off down the cobblestone streets.

Leopold was quiet as he watched the road ahead. It was nice, normal almost, just a girl and a boy driving in a car. In moments like this, when we are alone and away from all the pageantry that is his life and soon to be mine, things became a lot more clear. I could easily say that I was in this for me and for Leopold, while everything else, all the fear and worry, faded away. Suddenly, where he was taking me didn’t seem to matter.

I watched him as we drove. His long legs sprawled out before him as one hand lightly gripped the steering wheel, sliding along the smooth leather, while the other sat on the clutch, expertly kicking it into command. I traced his profile with my eyes, from the tangled mess of copper, bronze, caramel hair, down the straight slope of his nose, and across his cheekbones and jaw. I was on his right, his green side. He looked calm, completely at ease for once. It was strange to see him so relaxed after being so accustomed to his usual nearly unpredictable and restless state.

Leopold pulled up next to the curb and cut the ignition. I looked out the window to find a tiny, rundown looking restaurant.

“Do you like Chinese food?” Leopold asked me as he opened my door and offered me his hand.

“Love it,” I told him, my stomach growling as if to prove my point. “Does this have something to do with Skip Night?” I wondered.

“Caught that did you?” he asked as we stepped into the warm building. My response was cut off as a small Asian man came running out from behind the counter towards us.

“Hello, Leopold!” he cried happily, bowing multiple times in a row.

Leopold smiled and, to my surprise, embraced the old man warmly, “Chef Lui, how are you doing?”

“Good, good,” Chef Lui nodded animatedly. When he caught sight of me, his grin widened. “Is this your princess I have been hearing so much about?” he asked Leopold in a mock whisper.

“She is,” Leopold told him, wrapping his arm around my waist. “And it will be official soon.”

Chef Lui’s eye grew wide as Leopold lifted my left hand for the man’s inspection. “Oh Leopold, she is beautiful. I am so happy for you both,” he said with a thick voice. He cleared his throat after a moment, becoming chipper again.

“Excellent, excellent!” he cried as he scuttled behind his cash counter. “So what can Chef Lui do for you? I am sure you did not just come to give me this excellent news.”

“My family is celebrating our engagement tonight…” Leopold began.

“Ahh,” Chef Lui cut in, nodding vigorously. “So you are having a Skip Night. The usual then?”

“Better double the Moo Shu and General Tso,” Leopold told him.

“Sure thing,” Chef Lui said as he scribbled everything down on an ordering pad. “Please, take a seat. It won’t take long. I will bring you tea and almond cookies, on the house,” he added with a wink.

Leopold and I ducked into one of the booths, sitting across from each other. He folded his legs through mine and leaned back, resting his arm along the top of the bench.

“You seem to know Chef Lui quite well,” I noted.

“He was a chef in the castle kitchen when I was young. He left a few years back after his father became ill so that he could take over the family business,” Leopold explained.

“That’s right,” Chef Lui said, reappearing. He placed a jade colored teapot, mugs, and a large take-out box full of cookies on the table before us. “I used to have to make so many ham sandwiches. It was one of the only things Leopold would eat when he was little.”

“Eventually Chef Lui got tired of it and taught me how to make my own,” Leopold laughed. The old man shook his head as he wandered back to the kitchen again. I smiled at the image. It explained the sandwiches on our picnic together at the beginning of the summer.

Leopold poured the tea. I held the cup between my hands, the steam floating upwards, warming my face. “So what is Skip Night?” I finally asked, hoping that I had waited long enough to get an answer.

Leopold’s never idle hands reached for the bowl full of creamers in the center of the table. He turned it over, sending the tiny containers spinning across the table top.

“It’s a family tradition,” he began as he grabbed a few with his long finger and began lining them up side by side.

“We used to do it about once every other week. Everyone would take a night off from school and work. We would shut ourselves in a room, order take out food, and would just spend time all together, talking, playing games, watching movies.” Leopold frowned as a few of his stacked creamers toppled over.

“It was a way for us to get together and do normal family things. As we got older though, they have become more sporadic, more like private celebrations with the family, which is why I declared it Skip Night tonight.”

“Sounds perfect,” I told him, and took a sip of my tea. “So you won’t be leaving ‘til later tonight then?”

He nodded, pursing his lips as he evaluated the pyramid he had constructed. There was a single creamer left that he spun between his fingers. “Shortly after dinner most likely. I am in no rush though. I am not expected to report for duty until early tomorrow morning.”

“Voila!” cried Chef Lui, placing two large bags down on the table. Leopold masterpiece crumbled, the little creamers flying everywhere. M. Arsnault appeared suddenly, catching one of them before it rolled of the table. M. Lefevre was beside him, appearing as stony as ever, apparently unamused.

“Perfect timing,” Leopold said, giving the pair a cocky grin. He tapped the bill that had been stapled to one of the paper bags.

“Leopold,” Chef Lui chided.

Leopold smiled cheekily and stood, wrapping his arms around Chef Lui again.

“Thank you,” he said pulling away, then dug into one of his pockets and handed a handful of crumpled bills over to Chef Lui. “Will you keep my little secret safe for now?”

“Of course,” Chef Lui said sounding insulted. “I could never spoil all of this for you and your beautiful Winifred.” Then he peeked around Leopold, looking me straight in the eye. “You take care of him okay? Don’t fall for his tricks.”

“I’ll keep him in line,” I promised.

“Good,” M. Lui nodded, appeased. “Now go, before anymore cameras come around, and one of them can see your secret for themselves.”

I looked over my shoulder and sure enough, I could see camera flashes going off on the other side of the restaurant window. Leopold came around to my bench and automatically wrapped his finger around my left hand, hiding the ring from sight. After sliding the box of cookies in the largest bag, we both grabbed one of the bags in our free hands, before being led out of the restaurant by our guards.

“Oh my god!” screamed Phillipa, running straight for us as soon as we entered the solarium. She threw her arms around Leopold’s neck before scrambling over to me and placing a kiss on my cheek. “Congratulations! This is so exciting,” she gushed.

“Phillipa,” Felip said in an effort to calm her down. He smiled brightly at us, striding over and taking the paper bags. “I am very happy for you both. Welcome to the family, Fred.”

“Let’s see the ring!” Rose said. I held up my hand for her and Beatrice to inspect.

Beatrice’s eyes filled with tears as she embraced me softly. “You will be great, my dear,” she told me. She hugged Leopold next, smiling up at him with pride. “You have made a wonderful decision.”

“It’s beautiful,” Rose breathlessly, still examining my hand. “You are going to be a beautiful bride,” she said, then looked to Leopold. “Thank you,” she told him sincerely.

Hector appeared beside her, wrapping his arm around her shoulders. “Both of you,” he amended. “We wish you much happiness. Now come and celebrate, I am starving.”

Everyone took their seats on the plush couches as the boxes of food were passed around and Hector handed out beers. I smiled and sunk into Leopold’s side. It was cute seeing them all so relaxed, with all their walls down. Leopold was right, tonight they just seemed like a normal family; all of the pretenses, etiquette, and rules were gone. If this was any clue as to how my life with Leopold would be, I would take it.

My mind wandered as I picked at a box of chicken fried rice. I pictured a young girl with red hair tapping away on the piano in the corner of room. A small boy with chubby pink cheeks and golden curls was seated on Rose’s lap, his tiny hand fisted around her pendant necklace. My eyes fell on Beatrice, a tiny baby bundled in her arms, its eyes flashing brightly; one moss green, the other deep brown.

“Fred,” Leopold said, bringing me back to the present. His hand was on my knee, nails tracing outwards from a point until his whole hand rested on my leg. I choked slightly on my rice and took a swig of beer to wash it down.

“Yes,” I managed after a moment. Hector chuckled.

“I am going to go and get ready to leave,” Leopold said, standing. He placed his empty on the coffee table in front of us and ran his hand down his front, ironing out the wrinkles in his t-shirt. “Would you like to come with me?”

I nodded and placed my rice on the table, before standing and following Leopold out of the Solarium.

“So what happens after we get married?” I asked Leopold. I was sitting on the balcony railing, watching him appear and disappear in the doorway as he ran around inside his room.

“What do you mean?” he said, digging a stray boot out from under his bed.

“Do the coronations happen right away?” I wondered.

“No, we will have some time, but not much. The wedding will be in the spring most likely, and you will have to be sworn in before September next year.”

“Where are we going to live?”

Leopold stopped in the doorway, looking at me with a raised eyebrow.

“Well, when I signed up for this, you never told me we would be living with your parents,” I said, my face deadpan.

“You think you are funny, huh?” he said ginning at me.

I shrugged. “Will you be back next weekend?”

“Thursday night,” he replied from somewhere inside. “I was notified that the official engagement announcement will be on Friday.”

“So soon?”

Leopold reappeared in the doorway again, his eyes watching me carefully. He had changed into his uniform pants, but was shirtless. His bare feet padded silently across the stone as he walked toward me. He stood between my legs, bracing himself on the banister with his hands on either side of my hips.

“You have been here for over two months now. Next week is the last week of August. Everyone will be expecting the announcement about whether you are staying or leaving. It just makes sense,” he explained softly.

My eyes grew wide. “My parents,” I rasped, suddenly terrified.

Leopold smirked. “Yes, you should probably call them. I do not think it will be as bad as you think. I found Louis to be very supportive.”

“Pardon?” I blanched. My grip tightened on the railing, nails scratching against the stone.

“I asked for your father’s consent to marry you, Fred. I wanted to make sure that I did everything properly. It is the least I owe you and your family after this less then usual… courting,” Leopold reasoned.

“Did he have a heart attack?” I asked, half serious.

“He seems to be quite the reasonable man. He said that as long as it was what you wanted, he would be happy for us,” Leopold assured me. He kissed my forehead, “It will be fine.”

I decided to stay quiet about it for now. I would call my parents, Tess, and Alec later tonight, once Leopold was gone.

“So are you all set?” I asked him. I presumed it was going to be go time once he located a shirt…and his other boot.

“Nearly,” he said, his hands moving to my waist. “There is one more thing I need to do before I leave.”

I suddenly became aware of our close proximity. The small amount of space between us began to charge with electricity. My eyes fell from Leopold’s face to the smooth, hard, bands of muscle that rippled across his shoulders, chest and stomach. Glorious in spite of being adorned with swirling bruised flesh.

I swallowed hard, forcing my gaze back to his face. It was no help though. My stomach only tightened further as I took in his mismatched eyes that were both becoming black.

“What’s that?” I breathed. He smelled of smoke, apples, and mint.

Leopold’s hand twisted through my hair, his teeth scraping my earlobe. “Embrasser ma fiancée.

His breath fanned out across my face as he lowered his mouth to mine, licking my lower lip. My breath caught in my throat, my legs winding around his hips as he slanted his lips over mine and kissed me fully, properly. Expertly, he nipped at my lower lip, sucking it between his own while simultaneously tugging at my hair. He was teasing me, driving me to distraction. I gave a breathless moan and tried to pull him closer to me. This seemed to spark some sort of reaction in Leopold as he lifted me with his good arm and began walking.

We fell backwards onto the bed, Leopold hovering over me. His lips moved to my throat, leaving a scorching trail across the hypersensitive skin. I took the opportunity to run my hands down the perfect planes of his chest. I could feel the muscles in his abdomen tighten as my fingers trailed downwards, exploring the dips and mounds of muscle. My fingers skirted up his sides and I dug my nails into the muscles of his back, trying to pull him down to me. “Attention,” he growled and gently bit the bare skin of my shoulder, hands fisting the comforter on either side of my head.

My hands instantly slid to his lower back. I hooked my thumbs into his waistband in an attempt to keep them still. I went to apologize, but before I could, his mouth was back on mine. He groaned into my slightly parted lips, lowering himself on to me so that I could feel his weight pressing me into the mattress. His tongue licked along my bottom lip, begging for entrance, which I granted eagerly. He took hold of my hands, pinning then above my head. I sensed what he was about to do and my body arched into him on its own accord, trying to resist the inevitable.

“Stay,” I found myself breathing, voice thick.

Leopold groaned, panting against my neck. “You have no idea how tempting that is.” His hand grabbed my thigh, squeezing almost painfully. He seemed to be fighting with himself.

I wriggled beneath him and Leopold released me. He rolled onto his back, eyes closed as he took deep breaths.

“I am going to miss you,” I whispered as I watched him curiously.

Leopold turned to face me, his eyes half open under heavy lids. “You and Phillipa will have so much fun with the wedding stuff, I will be back before you know it.”

“Things are going to change again now, aren’t they?” I asked quietly.

Leopold leaned forward and placed a kiss on my forehead. “I promise to keep you safe.”

“Good morning ladies,” Phillipa smiled as she pranced into the Green Room the next morning. She had a huge, bulging binder in her arms that she placed down on the coffee table with a deep thud. “Ready to get started?”

“What’s that?” asked Rose, leaning forward in her chair so that she could flip the binder open. It opened to a page full of sketches of flowers and bouquets.

“That is the Royal Wedding Binder. It contains the detailed plans of almost all of the Royal Weddings in Solis History. Literally everything: bouquets, jewelry worn, dress patterns and detailing for the Brides, bridesmaids and royal family, locations for the engagement balls, wedding ceremonies, receptions, speeches, guest lists, napkin makers, shoe designers, decorations, gift lists. Basically everything that we could possibly need to source out and also everything we need to know to insure each wedding is unique,” explained Phillipa. “Do you remember the painting of Duchess Annette in her Wedding dress?”

I nodded as the memory of white tulle sleeves that were four feet in circumference came to mind.

“No one wants a repeat of that,” agreed Rose.

“Why do we get wedding gifts?” I asked. “I mean, what could we possibly need? I know for a fact that we do not have to add to the copious amounts of silverware or crystal salad bowls in the castle.”

“Gifts are usually tokens which represent the country who is giving the gift. For example, Mom and Dad got a diamond music box from Russia. There is a ballerina in a sapphire skirt inside that dances when the music is played. Canada often gives us a canoe.”

“Seems like a bit of a waste,” I said as I tried to figure out where all of those canoes must be stored and what you could do with so many of them. “Can’t we just say no gifts?”

“You would probably insult some people,” Phillipa said. “It does not really matter right now. The first thing we have to do is figure out a date. I got a copy of yours and Leopold’s schedules for the next year to plan around.” She pulled out a folder and placed it on the open binder.

I looked at the long list of dates before me, my mouth falling open. Things were not even official yet, and it looked like I was booked in everywhere.

“We need about six months to plan the wedding. That would give us time for the galas, balls, garden parties, lessons, and a bunch of other necessary events, but it must take place before July twenty sixth, because that is Leopold’s eighteenth birthday and his coronation date,” she took a deep breath and pursed her lips. “The earliest I see this working is February and that will be tight.”

“Could we do it in March then? If our wedding takes place over March Break, my Mom and friends won’t have to take type off from school,” I explained.

“Of course. March might still be a little cold,” Phillipa said, “but Kate Middleton made long sleeves popular, so there would be no problem dress-wise. You would be very fashionable and comfortable in long sleeves. There may be snow; the weather then is very unpredictable. Special arrangements will have to be made for all types of weather.” Phillipa rambled as she began to tick off a list in her head. After a moment though, her words stopped dead, her eyes growing wide. “Do you know the dates of the holiday?” she asked.

Rose, who had been frowning beside me, made a little gasp, her full lips falling into a perfect ‘o’ as something clicked in her mind.

“Usually the third week of March,” I told them. “I’m not sure the exact dates though.”

“The eighteenth?” asked Phillipa, eyes glowing with excitement.

“It’s very possible. Why?” I wondered.

“What is the coronation date of Leopold I?” Rose asked me, somewhat impatiently. Apparently I was missing something.

“The eighteenth of March?” I guessed.

“Exactly!” Phillipa said beaming, she had a dreamy look in her eyes. “It would be so romantic, aligning yourselves with your star-crossed relatives like that.”

“Maybe I could wear the necklace,” I said. I wasn’t sure if there was any other occasion it would seem even half acceptable to wear a jewel that large.

“Necklace?” Rose asked.

“The giant blue thing,” I told her. “The one from the painting in the gallery.”

“You don’t mean Queen Winifred’s?” said Phillipa. “That would be impossible. You must be mistaken.”

I shook my head. “That’s exactly what I mean. Governor Richard gave it to me a while ago.”

“That necklace has been lost for centuries. It was taken off of Winifred when her tomb was raided during the French reign of Solis,” said Rose.

“Well it is in the top drawer of my desk down the hall,” I shrugged.

“If that is true, Fred, you need to have M. Arsnault bring it to Felip later tonight. The necklace is a priceless heirloom; I have no idea how Governor Richard would have gotten it, nor why he would have kept it a secret.” Phillipa looked troubled now. Her face had darkened, her eyes focusing on something out the window.

“Phillipa,” Rose said after a moment, giving her a pointed look.

Phillipa shook her head, her usual smile returning. “Right, sorry. The eighteenth sounds perfect. I will have the proper people informed after it is cleared by the council. You should double check with your parents too, Fred.”

“I called them last night,” I said, grimacing slightly at the memory. Louis had taken it well, just as Leopold had said. He had told me that as long as I was sure, and that I was doing this out of love, not duty, then he would stand behind me.

Renée had been another matter. She cried. A lot. First over the fact that she had lost me as a daughter, then because my life was over, that I would not be coming back home to go back to High school or University. Then, about halfway through the call, she shed happy tears as she came to the realization that I was happy and loved Leopold. Her happiness morphed into disbelief as she processed that I was going to be the Queen of two countries. I listened patiently through it all, consoling and reassuring her, until she finally let me go.

I had avoided Tess and Alec so far. My parents were one thing; I knew they could always visit or even live here, and that they would be happy for me no matter what, but I wasn’t sure how to tell my friends that I may never see them again. Between them going to university next year and starting their own lives, and me immersed in royal duties, I didn’t see how much time together would be possible.

“That reminds me,” Phillipa said, and reached down beside her. She pulled two sleek boxes off the ground and passed them to me. “Your cell phone and laptop,” she explained. “Now that you are officially staying, they will help you stay in contact with everyone, and help you keep track of your schedule, not to mention the wedding details. I have taken the liberty to have all of the necessary programs and dates scheduled in already. It will update itself regularly through the castle’s network.”

“The best thing about them,” Rose said smiling, “is that the built-in tracking device makes it impossible to lose them.”

Chapter Sixteen

I stood at the top of the gallery peering down the length of the long hall before me. One wall was made up of windows and doors, all trimmed in gold, that lead out to the inner courtyard. The other wall was interspersed with doors and artwork.

I had never been in this part of the castle before. Although all of my tours and lessons had gone around this suite of rooms, I knew they were there. I had seen enough maps, wandered enough halls, and heard enough stories to be able to piece together both what the rooms held and how to avoid them.

It wasn’t so much that I had been told that the rooms were restricted, more of some unwritten code I was to understand by never having been taught about them or taken there. I didn’t resent it, in fact, it helped to remind me that even though I had been asked to live here, I was still like the tourists, still only a visitor, a guest of the Royal Family, still on the outside.

It probably should have excited me that I was finally about to see inside the only rooms in the palace that had unofficially been deemed off bounds to me. It should have made me happy that I was finally accepted as part of the family and therefore granted access. Instead though, all I felt was a faint tug of unease, making me hesitate in the doorway which lead to the private wing of the King and Queen of Solis.

While it was amazing to be so trusted by the family to be invited to this wing, it also worried me. Aside from Felip and Beatrice, I had only ever seen Leopold and a handful of the same castle staff coming or going from the suites. Access was restricted to only the most elite for one very important reason.

Here in the heart of the castle, the throne room, the private office and library of the king, and the surrounding rooms were where the royal family and its closest companions discussed the top-secret information of the country. This wing is where all of the life altering decisions of all the kings of Solis had been made. There were numerous libraries with endless texts, and countless council rooms where a myriad of meetings had been held, decisions made and secrets told, but the ones down this hall were the ones that really mattered.

With a sense of impending doom, I took a deep breath and stepped over the threshold of the gallery.

Felip’s calm and familiar voice gave me entrance to the third door of the hallway and into his private office. He was seated behind a large, dark, wooden desk, surrounded by walls of charts, maps, and books. He suited the room perfectly between the heavy nature of the furniture, the luxurious fabrics, and the sense of timeless wealth and power that clung to the foundations of the palace and its residents. I curtsied low.

“Welcome, Winifred. Please sit,” he said, indicating the blue velvet chair in front of his elegant desk.

I did as I was told and gently folded myself into the plush armchair.

Felip watched me quietly for a moment. His eyes boring into mine beseechingly. He was looking for something, asking me something. I watched him too, looking for a clue as to what this was about, and was surprised at what I found, at how familiar the king seemed. I had never spent more then a few moments alone with him, nor had I been around him in such a private context before. With the sense of pretenses slipping, suddenly, I found I knew him very well.

The king’s shirtsleeves where rolled up, his gold curls disheveled as if he had run his hand through his hair one too many times. His face was open and calm, but I could see his tension in the muscle of his jaw and the line of his shoulders. His eyes were the exact same shade green as his son’s right. Leopold had always seemed to favor Beatrice’s coloring and features, but Leopold’s resemblance to his father was indisputable.

After a moment, Felip opened one of his drawers and pulled a velvet bag out from inside, placing it on the desktop between us. “I have had the necklace examined,” he began while undoing the bag’s ties. He shook the bag and the heavy sapphire slid out into his waiting palm.

I had given the necklace to M. Arsnault a couple of days ago, as I had been directed by Phillipa. I hadn’t heard anything about it until M. Arsnault had interrupted my lessons with a message from the king, asking me to see him after dinner.

Felip ran his thumb across the face of the sapphire, frowning down at it. “I have been guaranteed that it is authentic; it is the actual pendant which belonged to Queen Winifred.”

I stayed quiet, waiting for Felip to continue. My hands closed into fists, nails digging into my palms. I had a suspicion of what was coming and I was afraid of what it meant.

“I presume you learned about Queen Winifred in you lessons?” he asked, and then switched to lightly accented English. “Learned about her and Leopold, about the necklace?”

“Yes,” I replied in French, “Phillipa told me that it was Winifred’s and that it went missing after her tomb was raided.”

Felip smiled softly, nodding once, and replied in French again. I seemed to have passed some sort of test. “Exactly. It had been missing for centuries, presumed lost. I thought it was merely a good replica when Arsnault brought it to me the other day. Then to learn that it was authentic and that it was Governor Richard who gave it to you…”

Felip paused, seeming to contemplate his words. “I am sure you are aware that Leopold believes that Richard is plotting some sort of treasonous sabotage against our two houses?”

“Yes, Leopold told me his theories,” I verified.

“I cannot say that I believe the same things as my son, but I do agree that Governor Richard’s behavior of late has become quite…strange. I have spoken with him directly regarding the recent developments with France as well as having questioned him about the necklace. He claims to have had nothing to do with France’s decision regarding Arcadis and he denies any connection with the necklace,” explained Felip. He placed the necklace back into its velvet bag, and slid it across the desk towards me.

“I do not know what this means. I do know that he is lying about the necklace at the very least. For these reasons, I would like you to start to take some precautions. I do not think that you or Leopold is in any direct danger from Governor Richard, but I would like to keep him in the castle should his behavior become any more unpredictable. I would like you simply to be wary of this, Winifred and, if possible, for you to do so without alarming Leopold too much. As I am sure you are aware, my son has a tendency to be overtly passionate in some, if not most, matters.

He nodded towards the velvet pouch. “That is yours. Please keep it safe. I know you will honor it just as your ancestor did.”

“Thank you,” I told him, unsure of what else to do, and slightly shocked that it was being given back to me.

Felip’s face softened then, some of the tension falling off of him. “You remind me of them,” he said, as his kingly demeanor slipped, “of the stories of King Leopold and Queen Winifred.”

“How do you mean?” I asked, frowning. I had heard the same thing before, but never really understood.

Felip smiled crookedly. “King Leopold was a very restless soul, a very headstrong and passionate man. He never really settled into himself until he found his Winifred. She was just as strong as he was, able to keep up with him, to balance his fire. He fell to pieces when she left.”

“I haven’t done anything,” I told him, blushing slightly.

“But you have, you have done everything. My son used to cause us all so much pain and worry. He would go running off and get into fights or take part in reckless pastimes. We could distract him for short periods of time, give him a horse to train, a car to drive, a job to do, but like his ancestor, he excelled easily then he would grow bored and reckless once again. His shell is hard and his spirit moody, but I know my son is good and that he is capable. I just had to convince him along with everyone else. You, Winifred, did what no one else could, just as the Queen you are named for. You have made my son the best possible version of himself, and I thank you greatly for that. I know what you are sacrificing to stay, and I will never be able to repay you enough for what you have done.”

Felip stopped, running a hand through his hair. “I will let you go now Winifred. I know you are busy with lessons and wedding planning. Things are going to get even busier after this weekend I am afraid.”

“So I have been told,” I replied as I stood to curtsy before him. “Thank you very much for seeing me.”

“You will be great,” Felip told me, his voice unwavering. “You are a part of this family now, and we will do everything in our power to make that as easy as possible for you.”

“You have been more then welcoming already,” I assured him, reaching for the door. I flashed him a smile, then slipped out into the hall.

Felip’s last words were so faint I wasn’t sure I had even heard them or not. “Take care of him.”

“Is there anything else for today?” I asked Angela when I returned to my room. I fell back onto my bed, not waiting for the answer. I toed my heels off and tucked my legs up to my chest, curling into a ball with the velvet bag still clutched in my hand.

Angela appeared at the bottom of the bed, and picked my shoes up off the floor. “No, Mademoiselle, you are finished for today.”

“Great,” I answered automatically. I chewed my cheek, trying to decide what to do with the rest of the night. After a moment I became distinctly aware of my new phone, pressing into my leg. I sighed, and pulled it out of my pocket.

I still hadn’t called Tess or Alec about my engagement. I was putting it off as long as possible. It wasn’t that I didn’t want them to know, but rather that I didn’t want to see their disappointment. They had been so sure that I was going to come home, that it would be a mistake for me to stay here with Leopold, and now I had to tell them I was staying. I had to tell them goodbye.

I clicked the screen to life and checked the time. It would be nearly four there. Tess would be home from school, so I had no excuses left not to call. I typed in my password and brought up the video messaging application. Tess was never signed out of anything; you could reach her at any time of the day or night somehow.

I frowned and rolled off the bed. I wedged the necklace between my matresses, and joined Angela in the closet. I changed out of the blouse and pants I had been wearing, and into a pair of pajamas, before I returned to my bed. I sat cross-legged in the center, balancing the phone on my knee, and pressed call.

“Fred!” Tess exclaimed in surprise.

“Hey,” I smiled.

There was a muffled bang, and a string of curse words. Tess rolled her eye, and looked at something of screen. “Alec, leave that for now. Look, Fred has called!”

“Serious?” called Alec. There were heavy footsteps and then Alec’s head appeared next to Tess. “Hey, Bells! Since when is this an option?”

“It was a gift,” I told them evasively. “They gave me a phone and a laptop. What are you doing at Tess’s?”

“Her car broke down. She asked me to take a look,” he exclaimed, and help up his grease covered hands as proof.

“Well, I am glad I caught both of you,” I told them. I grabbed one of the decorative pillows on the bed and began playing with its fringe.

“Oh?” Tess said. “What’s up? How are things at the castle?”

“Good,” I said slightly too quickly. Tess raised and eyebrow, giving Alec a look. “How is everything back home?”

“The usual,” Alec replied. “Tess dragged me out to go back to school shopping yesterday.”

I smiled at his pout. Alec hated shopping.

“Oh, Alec! I have something to show you the next time you visit,” I blurted suddenly. Alec fixing Tess’s car triggered something in my mind.

“Next time I visit?” Alec frowned.

I hummed, ignoring the question. “They have a garage here, a big one. I’d never seen it before until last week. Leopold took me to get take-out in some special Lexus LF4 or something.”

Alec’s eyes bulged, “A Lexus LFA?!”

“Yeah, that’s it,” I nodded.

“You’re kidding. There are only five hundred of those on the planet,” there was awe in his voice.

“Leopold’s is silver. There are a bunch of other ones too, and a few motorcycles. At least two are Harley’s,” I spun, lying on the floor on my stomach. I traced the carpet pattern with my finger.

“And why didn’t I see this when I was there?” demanded Alec.

“I didn’t know it existed,” I defended myself.

“I’m crushed,” Alec said, and feigning pain, he pressed his hand to his chest.

“I’m more curious about the take-out then the car to be honest,” said Tess. “Why would the castle eat take-out food?” Tess was slowly piecing things together. Trying to figure out what I wasn’t saying.

“To celebrate,” I stated, and swallowed thickly.

“Celebrate what?” Tess asked, eyes narrowing.

I sighed and held my left hand up in front of the camera.

“Oh my God!” Tess screamed, her hand flying to her mouth. Alec frowned for a minute, not understanding until Tess continued, “You’re getting married!”

Alec swore shortly.

“Leopold and I are getting married,” I confirmed.

“This is so exciting!” Tess cried. “You’ve got to tell us everything!”

“You’re not upset?” I asked.

“Upset? Our best friend is marrying a Prince,” scoffed Alec.

“And a great one at that,” added Tess. “I told you it was meant to be, I could just feel it. The way you and Leopold act around each other…” She trailed off, her excitement making her short for words.

“I thought you guys wanted me back at school?” I said, still slightly on edge. Excitement was beginning to bloom in my stomach though, now that the worry was beginning to fade.

“We want you to be happy. And if this makes you happy, you need to do it. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity, Bells,” Alec said, sounding very serious all of a sudden.

“When’s the wedding,” Tess pressed. “Do we get to come, or it a royals only kind of thing?”

“Of course you are coming! I’m trying to make it over your March Break. Tentatively it is set for March 18th, but I will let you know when the date is confirmed,” I explained

“Oh this is perfect! I am going to have to find a dress!” Tess gushed, then stopped suddenly, her face falling. “What’s the catch?”

“What do you mean?” Alec asked, glaring at her.

“Well, why now? Why did Prince Charming propose now?” she asked.

“Well, you see, they are running out of summer, and the deal was-” Alec started, but Tess cut him off.

“That’s not it, he said Bells could come and go as she pleases, married or not,” Tess said.

“What happened to the love, fate, and cupid theory of yours?” Alec teased, pinching her ribs.

Tess waved him off, directing her attention back to me. “So what’s the catch?”

“Governor Richard may have somehow screwed up and made me the Queen of Arcadis,” I told them quietly.

“I thought you already were,” said Alec.

“No, I was going to be the figurehead of a Province of France. Now, I am going to be the Queen of the entire nation of Arcadis,” I explained.

Tess’ mouth fell open, “No, shit?”

“None,” I said.

“Jesus,” Alec breathed.

There was a silence as we all swallowed the truth of it. This was the first time I had truly had a moment to contemplate what this detail would mean. What it meant to me to rule a country.

“You’re sure about all of this, Bells?” Alec asked, his voice sober.

I nodded, “About Leopold yes, about the rest not so much.”

“What do you mean?” Tess said, frowning.

“Leopold has some conspiracy theory involving Governor Richard. He thinks that he is planning to commit treason against us or something,” I explained.

“Well, it does sort of sound like it,” agreed Tess. “How does someone ‘screw up’ and convince a country to just give up one of their provinces?”

“I agree,” Alec said, “I feel that a country is something you at least have to ask for, no one hands them out willy-nilly anymore.”

Tess punched his arm.

“There’s more too,” I said. “Near the beginning of the summer, Governor Richard gave me a necklace that belonged to my great, great, great, great grandmother or something. I learned this week that the necklace has been missing for over two centuries.”

“So where did he get it?” Alec asked.

I shrugged. “Felip said that Governor Richard denied ever having seen it before when he was questioned.”

“Why would he do that?” Tess huffed frustratedly.

“So what are you going to do?” wondered Alec.

“Nothing for now. We wait it out. It could be nothing, but to me, it’s starting to seem more and more like Leopold may be right.”

It was raining the next afternoon, something that was getting more and more common. Apparently, it was normal. M. Arsnault told me it rained a lot in the fall, rained until it became cold enough to snow.

Phillipa and I met in the blue room today. She and Rose were already there when I arrived. They both stood when I entered, bowing slightly.

“No, please,” I said waving them off, a blush warming my cheeks.

“Wrong answer,” Phillipa said. She ignored my complaint, completing her curtsy. “It may not be official yet, but you will be the head of a country Winifred. You must expect the respect you deserve from everyone. It’s a rule that has always been very important in my family, I’m sure you have noticed.”

“You do it all the time, though,” I said with a frown and sat down next to Rose.

Phillipa smiled crookedly. “To you, only to you and only because I knew that this would happen. You have always technically been on an equal level if not a higher one than I. Our institution is built on traditions. All of our respect and power comes from these traditions. If you dismiss them, you dismiss your status and everything it stands for.”

I nodded, sinking into the seat. I hated when that happened; when it seemed like I was doing something right, only to get told off for somehow doing it wrong. Phillipa had been calling me out on things all week. Apparently princess training had been one thing, but everything I had learned was somehow altered now that I was going to be a Queen. I had to stand on my own rather than behind Leopold.

“Alright,” Phillipa said, clapping her hands together, “today we need to discuss two events that are coming up in the next couple of weeks. First is the engagement announcement that will take place this weekend. Second is Leopold’s graduation ceremony. I am just going to run through the general process for both events, feel free to ask questions.

Rose and I nodded, both accustomed to these lectures.

“Your announcement will be officially made on Monday next week,” Phillipa began. “The media ban will be released the same day, so the announcement will be global. To say the least, the reaction to the announcement should be extraordinary.”

“The first step of the announcement is a statement which will be released by the castle on Monday, which simply states that Winifred is going to marry Leopold. However, there needs to be photos and video clips for the media to display the announcement. These are prepared from an interview and photo shoot with a selected news crew at the castle. The raw footage is edited and approved by the castle before being sent out to news stations across the globe. Selected photos are released to magazines and newspapers.”

“So it’s like the show I’ve been on with Leopold?” I asked.

“Yes, just a bit more professional and formal,” Phillipa said, and gave us both a sheet of paper. “The news crews have been given these same papers. It is a list of questions that they are allowed to ask you. I have taken the liberty of filling in a few appropriate examples of answers for each of you.”

I examined the sheet quickly, my eyes growing large. “I have to know all of this?”

“They are more of a guideline. Just read through them, you have done fine in all of the other interviews. Besides, I am sure you could say just about anything and they would still love you.”

“So, we show up, have the interview, and then pose for a while?” Rose asked, one of her perfectly sculpted eyebrows rising.

“Exactly,” affirmed Phillipa with a sharp nod.

It seemed easy enough; I had done both interviews and a photo shoot before. I was more concerned about the global releases and the ‘extraordinary’ reaction Phillipa had promised. Surely it couldn’t be that bad. Solis was a small country, and Leopold and I were just two people. I wasn’t even royalty yet, really.

I shifted in my seat, uneasy, and suddenly became aware of a faint beeping. I frowned, shifting again and felt something hard press into the back of my thigh. My eyes grew wide as realization hit me and I hastily reached into my pocket and pushed the ‘end’ button on my phone.

“Sorry,” I murmured apologetically, placing my phone on the coffee table. “I’m still not used to having it, and I forgot to lock it.” Luckily, I hadn’t managed to call someone, just the dial tone had sounded. I would have to remember to put a password on it or something to stop it from doing that.

Phillipa shrugged and continued, undisturbed. “So the second event is Leopold’s graduation. Rose, this one does not directly affect you but it is highly likely you will have to attend something similar in the future, especially if Hector takes on a military career as he has been planning since his abdication.

“Leopold will be awarded his silver wings, making him able to pilot a crew on a rescue mission. This is a significant award and will also mark his departure from his military service and ascent to his position as king. As such, it is important that you be there, Winifred, for the ceremony. This will be excellent publicity to follow the engagement announcement.”

“When is it? Do I have to do anything?” I asked. This was the first time I had heard of the ceremony. I knew he was graduating, but hadn’t been aware it was such an affair.

“His test will be next Wednesday, and the ceremony will follow on that Friday. The entire family will be in attendance. You will simply have to stand with us, and then make an appearance on the grounds with Leopold briefly afterwards.”

The rest of the lessons continued on as normal. I went to see Mme. DuBeche about the dress I would be wearing for the interview and photo shoot. Hector and I covered section D paragraph thirteen of the Solis Charter of Rights. M. Arsnault continued to try to get me to write in French now that I had a good portion of the speaking down. I was relieved, as usual, when I finally turned down my hallway and into my room at the end of the day.

I went directly to my desk where Angela had dinner waiting for me. I picked up the plate and silverware and walked over to the library across the hall. I flopped down onto the couch, grabbed the remote, and began flipping through the channels.

“Isn’t the shrimp delicious?” said a deep voice from the doorway. I jumped, and began choking on my food.

“Sorry,” said Governor Richard as he stepped into the room. “I didn’t mean to startle you.”

I reached for my glass of water and swallowed thickly.

“N-no, it’s okay,” I managed to stutter, suddenly becoming uneasy. I sat up straight amongst the cushions and put my plate down.

“I’ve been looking for you,” Richard said, stepping closer. He reached into his pocket.

“Really?” I asked, carefully watching his hand. My mouth went dry.

“I think I have something that belongs to you,” he said as explanation, then pulled my cell phone out of my pocket.

I let out a breath I hadn’t realized I had been holding and accepted the phone. This was ridiculous, Leopold and Felip’s theories were getting to me. Governor Richard was just trying to be nice.

“Thank you,” I told him. “I must have left it in the blue room during lessons today.”

“It was no problem,” Richard assures me, “I may even call it fortunate. I have been hoping to speak to you for a while, Princess. May I?” he asked and indicated the chair diagonal to the couch.

I shrugged. Richard sat.

“I wanted to discuss with you the recent events, Winifred,” he began. I squirmed, becoming slightly uncomfortable again.

“As your representative, the representative of Arcadis, and the French liaison, I consider it my duty to assure your well-being, along with the well-being of Arcadis, two things which are closely linked.” He gestured a lot when he spoke, drawing attention to his words. It was the opposite of Felip and Leopold whose calm facades made their words stand alone, impenetrable.

“Alright,” I told him. I didn’t know if Leopold was right or not, but I knew that the only way to find out would be to let Richard speak, hoping he would let something slip. I may not get an opportunity like this again.

“I want you to know that there are options other than the one you have decided to pursue,” he began. He held his hand out to me, beseechingly, trying to get me to understand.

“You will be the Queen of a country very soon, Princess, and all of your actions will directly affect that country and its people.”

I was quite aware of that whole situation, extremely aware. It didn’t make sense that Governor Richard felt he needed to tell me that. Wasn’t the whole thing about me coming here about learning how to help rule a country? Isn’t that what Governor Richard wanted me to do? Maybe his motives were not as black and white as Leopold thought.

Then again, maybe they were.

“Marriage,” he continued, “is one of the options.”

My stomach twisted. “What are you saying?”

“Nothing, Princess, I just do not want you to feel pressured into marrying Leopold. Whether it is wealth you are concerned about, protection, or the treaty, I would like to assure you that Leopold does not have to be the answer. There are other ways, Princess, other men.”

My teeth clenched together as I tried to hold my tongue from lashing out at him the way I wanted to. I pursed my lips, choosing my words carefully. “I will be sure to take this into consideration. I had no idea there were other alternatives.”

“I may recommend someone who shares my blood,” he said with a smile, “our blood. My nephew for example. He is the heir of a very elite and well off family. A future with him would be very advantageous indeed. It would truly be the beginning of a new era for both countries.”

He thought I was in this for materialistic purposes, thought I would sell myself to the highest bidder. He was hoping for it, as long as they were Arcadian. My mouth suddenly tasted of bile.

I raised an eyebrow, “I must say, you have me intrigued.”

Richard shrugged. “The decision is yours to make, Princess. You can make it hard or easy on yourself. Just know that your time is running out.”

“I won’t make the wrong decision,” I assured him.

Richard stood, turning to leave, but stopped at the door. “And Winifred, next time I give you a gift I would suggest you keep it quiet. Not everyone here wants the same things we do.”

Chapter Seventeen

We were waiting in the antechamber to the Gold Room. Two royal guards stood at attention before us and MM. Arsnault and Lefevre stood at our backs silently, as always. We were waiting for our cue to enter the Gold Room where the news crew had set up for our interview. I ran a hand down my dress anxiously.

Long fingers laced through mine suddenly, making me look up. Leopold was beside me, stunning in his navy suit and charcoal tie. He had arrived late last night, stumbling into his room and collapsing onto the bed beside me well after midnight. He must be exhausted. Mike and Angela had woken us up at six and pulled us apart to prep us for the day.

I smiled gently as he stifled a yawn and raised our linked hands to his lips, placing a single kiss on the back of my hand. My skin warmed at his touch. I couldn’t help my desire for this to be over; I wanted to have him all to myself again.

A clock chimed eight somewhere in the castle and the royal guards pulled the doors to the Gold Room open. I took a deep breath, before walking hand in hand with Leopold into the room.

I plastered a smile on my face as the news crew bowed. My cheeks warmed and I tried not to stumble as we made our way toward the fireplace and chairs at the center of the room.

“Hello,” Leopold said as he stepped forward to shake the hand of a small man with broad shoulders and salt and pepper hair. “It is a pleasure to meet you M. LaFlamme.”

“The honor is ours, your Highness. Thank you very much for having us here today,” said LaFlamme.

I recognized the name. He was the one who would be interviewing us. I offered him my hand next, smiling softly. “Thank you for coming M. LaFlamme.”

He smiled broadly at me. “It is my pleasure, Mademoiselle. I could not believe my ears when I heard that I had the magnificent honor of conducting the first interview announcing your engagement.”

“How about we get started,” Leopold said, and guided me over to the chairs. I was surprised at how cordial he was being. He seemed much more content and comfortable here then he had at any of our other appearances.

The three of us took our positions in front of the cameras. A little light on top of the largest camera was flashing red, but after a crew member with a headset counted down, the light turned green.

“First,” began LaFlamme, “I would like to congratulate you on your engagement.”

“Yes, we are both very excited,” replied Leopold.

“If it’s alright with you, I think I would just like to start at the beginning. I know that this will be the first time that many people will have heard about your unique situation. Maybe you could clarify things for them,” said LaFlamme. Speaking directly to me, he continued, “You are from the United States?”

“Yes,” I said, “From Scottsdale, Arizona.

“That’s a long way away,” LaFlamme smiled. “How did you end up here?”

“It’s kind of funny, actually” I told him. I looked over to Leopold who gave me a short nod. “Two big body guards showed up at my house and told me I was the last heir of the lost Arcadian Royals and that they were there to take me to Solis to fulfill the terms of the Accord our families had made.”

“And what is this Accord?” he said, his brows knit together feigning that he did not know.

I stayed quiet, figuring it was better to let Leopold field this one.

Leopold ran a hand through his hair, shifting in his seat. “Solis and Arcadis have been allied for centuries. The Sinclaires and DuMont were always very close, so our ancient relatives signed a contract to assure their continued relationship. It declared that if the heirs of either kingdom were not married by the time they had to ascend the throne at the age of eighteen, that they would marry each other. And six hundred years later, here we are.”

“And now you’re going to be married,” smiled LaFlamme. “Just like in a fairytale.”

“That’s right,” conceded Leopold.

“So is it love,” asked LaFlamme, “or are you just fulfilling the terms of the contract?”

“For me,” Leopold started, “it is love, without any question.”

“And you, Mademoiselle?”

“Love,” I told him without hesitation. “It has always been my choice whether or not to stay. The contract had nothing to do with my decision, but it was the reason we were introduced.”

“And how did he propose?” LaFlamme asked me.

This was where things were going to get more difficult. We had to bend the truth a little so that certain details remained private, at least for a little longer. I was glad I had read over Phillipa’s cheat sheet.

“It was here in the castle. I am sure you have heard about the meetings between France and Arcadis regarding Arcadis’ independence and everything else. Well, Leopold was home from the base for the weekend when the liaison between France and Arcadis arrived. He was pulled into some secretive meeting at an incredibly late time of the night. I was awakened a couple hours later and pulled into the meeting as well. The liaison told us that France had agreed to give me a title,” I explained. This was the truth so far. It was easy enough to leave out the bits about sleeping in Leopold’s bed and the situation against the fridge before he had been pulled into his meeting.

“And this is something you had been waiting for?” LaFlamme clarified.

Leopold nodded. “Winifred needed to be given the title in order to marry me.”

“So what happened next?” the reporter pressed.

I smiled. “Well, Leopold was being very gentlemanly and was walking me back to my room after the meeting. Both of us were in pajamas because we had been woken up and been pulled straight to the meeting. We made it halfway back, when all of a sudden, he pulled me to a stop and dropped to his knee.”

“So clearly you didn’t have it planned out?” LaFlamme said to Leopold, laughing gently.

“I had actually!” laughed Leopold as he tried to defend himself. “We did not know for sure if France was going to come through or not, so it was not a sure thing that I would be able to marry Fred. I was really hoping though, so I had been carrying the ring around with me for weeks, trying to plan everything out, figure out the best spot and time and so forth, but as soon as I heard the announcement, I could not wait any longer. My plans just went straight to the bin.”

It seemed Leopold had been instructed to embellish his end of the story a bit too. The fundamentals were there though. I had needed the title so that he could propose to me, we just hadn’t been expecting I would gain an entire country along with it. Leopold had had the ring for quite a while and was waiting for the opportunity to use it whenever the time was right, he just hadn’t expected it to be in the middle of a fight. The timing of our engagement was forced out of necessity, not our eagerness.

“So where you expecting it?” LaFlamme asked.

I shook my head. “Not right then. I figured it would happen within the next few months, but not in the first ten minutes after we had been given the okay.”

The rest of the interview passed without much incident. It was all basic questions regarding ourselves, the engagement, and the wedding. It was much like the previous interviews we had done, only more formal.

We moved into the White Room next, where the photographer was already waiting for us. We shook hands briefly, then followed his directions and stood in front of the fireplace. Leopold stood behind me, his arms wrapped around me, my hands on his, as the photographer snapped away around us.

“What do you think about running away with me after this?” Leopold whispered, his lips at my ear. Click.

“Absolutely. Where are we going?” I asked as I smiled. Click.

“I am not sure yet, maybe you should help me decide. Choose a mode of transportation,” he said. I could hear the contained excitement in his voice and could picture the mischievous glint in his eye.

I looked toward the doors to the White Room, where MM. Arsnault and Lefevre stood. “Are they coming?”

“No,” Leopold scoffed, as if it had ridiculous for me to ask.

The photographer instructed us to turn so that we were facing each other. Leopold’s arms stayed wrapped around me, mine folded against his chest. Click.

“Motorcycle,” I said automatically.

“Good choice. Clothes?” was his next question.

“Shorts,” I tried, hoping to get away with it. I hadn’t had enough shorts this summer, far too many skirts and dresses.

Leopold clucked his tongue disapprovingly. “I wish, but not on the bike. Car or pants?”

“Pants,” I decided. “Can I drive?”

Leopold laughed. Click. “No.”

“I do it all the time back home,” I said, trying to convince him.

“Do you know where you are going?” he raised his eyebrow at me.

“No,” I said with a pout, “but neither do you.”

“True, but still no.”

The photographer sat me down in a chair and made Leopold stand behind me, continuing to click away.

We were released when the photographer was content that he had taken enough shots and were quickly ushered back up to our rooms by our guards. Angela zipped me out of the light grey dress I had been wearing and I stepped out of my heels, simultaneously pulling the pins from my hair. I pulled on a pair of dark jeans and a white t-shirt, stuffed my feet into a pair of flats, and hurried down the hall.

I pushed into Leopold’s room just as he was picking up a shirt off of his floor and pulled it over his head, shamelessly watching the muscles in his arms and stomach. He disappeared into his closet briefly, returning with two of his leather bombers. We both pulled one on.

“Ready?” I asked.

“Nearly,” Leopold said, flashing me a roguish smile. He stalked towards me, pressing me up against the wall. His hand wound through the hair at the nape of my neck, lips teasing against mine. I smiled, wrapping my arms around his neck, and leaned into the kiss.

All too soon he pulled away, releasing all of me but my hand. “There, now we can go.”

He led me through the back halls of the castle, through the servants’ corridors and staff staircases, until we broke outside and crossed the driveway to the armory. Leopold quickly selected a set of keys from the rack and mounted a sleek red vintage Harley. I threw my leg over the bike and hugged myself to Leopold’s back. The engine revved to life and in a sudden burst of speed, we were off, kicking up the gravel of the drive.

With the sun high in the sky and warm on my back, I couldn’t help but smile as we turned out of the gates and into the old city. We cut through the winding cobblestone streets, through the old shops and houses, and into the market. Vendors yelled as we cut too closely to their stalls, and startled the customers. We traveled out onto the street that edged the boardwalk, roaring up the beach. Leopold slowed down as we neared the marina and pulled up next to the railing that separated us from the boats that bobbed up and down in the ocean.

Using his shoulders to steady myself, I dismounted the bike. I quickly pulled my helmet off and shook out my hair. “So what’s the plan?”

Leopold pointed out at the ocean, towards the long pier on the other side of the marina. It was lined with little shops and restaurants, and busy with people. He pulled his helmet off, nose scrunching as he squinted against the bright light, “I thought we could go have a look around. Maybe have some lunch.”

He pulled out two pairs of aviators and a baseball cap. “We should be okay with these, but please stay close by in case.”

I accepted the sunglasses, and smiled as he put his on, along with the cap, hiding his telltale hair and eyes. It was times like this when I was grateful for my nondescript coloring.

“So what did you do to convince Phillipa to give me the day off?” I asked as we started towards the pier. I knew for a fact that we would not have made it out of the castle so neatly if Phillipa had been expecting me. She seemed to constantly be one step ahead of everyone no matter what.

“Nothing,” Leopold said. “In fact, she may have hinted that I should take you out of the castle.”

“Seriously?” I said with a frown. I couldn’t imagine Phillipa giving up lesson time that easily.

Leopold nodded. “She knows it may be the last time we can for a while. After Monday, we will not be allowed out without escort.”

“We aren’t now,” I pointed out.

“True, but I will be adhering to those guidelines much more strictly, especially when it involves you.” He smiled crookedly as I huffed indignantly, and pulled me up the ramp of the pier.

“So how was the base?” I inquired and wrapped my arm behind his hips.

Leopold’s face tensed, but he threw his arm over my shoulders and shortened his stride to match mine. “Challenging,” he decided after a moment.

“You didn’t push your shoulder did you?” I wondered, suddenly filled with worry. My hand started to slide upward from his hip towards where the bruised skin lay hidden beneath the layers of clothing.

Leopold looked over his shoulder to the people behind us and chewed the inside of his cheek. When he spoke next he switched into heavily accented English. “No, no. The doctor said that it is healing well,” he flexed his arm as if to prove his point. “I have my final exams this week, a written one and a flight test. Antoine is in charge of my class, so he has been busting my ass.”

He frowned at the end and turned to me with a raised eyebrow, “That is the expression, right?”

I laughed and then nodded. Just as my French had, his English had improved greatly, but sometimes the meaning of popular expressions was lost in the translation.

“I didn’t realize he was at the base too. How come he is in a different group, err unit, than you?”

“Antoine is older then me,” he explained as he examined the different flavors, “so he joined the Air Force sooner.”

“Oh,” I said stupidly, “I thought he was our age.”

We entered the first shop. It was a candy store with bags full of cotton candy hanging from the rafters. Ducking to avoid the bags, Leopold walked up to the ice cream counter.

“What would you like?” he asked, in French now, indicating the ice cream.

“Vanilla,” I replied distractedly. I was trying to remember the family trees I had studied with M. Arsnault

After Leopold paid for our ice cream, we licked at the cones quietly for a moment as we wandered back onto the pier. We were about halfway down now, over the water instead of the sand. “M. Arsnault told me something about the DuBlaise family, I just can’t remember what…” I trailed off.

“You are probably thinking of Odette,” Leopold said switching to English again. There was something strange in the way he said the word.

“Odette?” I tried the word out, seeing if it triggered anything within the index of names and titles I now had in my head.

“Antoine’s half-sister,” Leopold supplied.

“He has a sister?” I nearly tripped over one of the boards that wasn’t quite lined up with the others properly.

Leopold ran a hand through his hair. He seemed agitated, tense.

“You don’t have to tell me,” I offered, and licked a drop of ice cream that had melted onto the back of my hand.

“No, I want to. I am not trying to hide it or anything, we just do not really talk about it,” he paused for a moment and sighed before finally continuing. “Have you ever wondered who Hector was supposed to marry?”

I frowned. It had never occurred to me that there was anyone else besides Rose. “What do you mean?”

“Well, as you know, the prince must be married by the time they are eighteen in order to be king. And they must be married to someone of a royal bloodline. Antoine’s mother Elize was said to be childhood sweethearts with Etienne Lallemand. Her family had descended from the Duke of Alterre in Arcadis and Etienne was of the bloodline of the Duke of L’Orvieux. With the lack of monarchy in Arcadis and with Nicolas DuBlaise being third in line for the Solisian throne at the time, her family needed her to marry Nicolas in order to gain back any chance at the power they used to have. Antoine is the son of Nicolas DuBlaise. Nicolas and Antoine’s mother Elize divorced shortly after he was born because she was found to be having an affair with Odette’s father Etienne Lallemand. Some say Nicolas had been willing to forgive Elize, but she hated Nicolas and left him for Etienne. It was quite the scandal.”

“So how does Hector come in?” I wondered. We were at the end of the pier now. Leopold sat on one of the benches that faced the open ocean, pulling me down beside him.

“Elize and Etienne’s daughter, Odette, is the only female heir of her mother’s family. Being as power hungry as they are, they only wanted the best for Odette and were quick to align her with her Solisian brother in order to use whatever connections they could. She was always at every event, right at her brother’s side. It was only natural, of course, that we would know her, and that she was one of the eligible contenders to be Hector’s future bride.

“The two of them got along well. She was the most obvious choice for him to marry, so no one was surprised when he proposed. I do not think he was ever overly pleased with the situation, nor did he ever love her, he was simply doing his duty for his country. None of that mattered though, as soon as he fell in love with Rose, causing scandal number two.”

“So Hector left Odette for Rose, and you took his place as heir to the throne,” I confirmed.

“With no training, a horrible rapport with the public, and a deep refusal to do as Henry VIII did and marry my brother’s leftovers,” added Leopold smiling. “Which is when you arrived, and thank God for that.”

I nodded, letting the story swirl around in my head as I tried to match bits and pieces of the story together with things I already knew. For one thing, it definitely cleared up Antoine’s hatred toward Leopold. Not only was he blocking Antoine from getting the throne, but Hector had basically left his sister standing at the alter.

It also cleared up why I had never heard of Hector’s engagement to Odette, or Odette herself for that matter. I had not been taught the royal families of Arcadis in my lessons, as they technically no longer existed. I had never even heard of any other Arcadian Royals besides Governor Richard and the rich and powerful nephew he wanted me to marry.

My blood suddenly ran cold as the pieces began to fall into place. Antoine’s constant passes at me, Governor Richard trying to keep me away from Leopold, the two of them wanting me to marry someone closer to them, of our blood. I had presumed that he had meant someone from Arcadis, not someone of the Sinclaire bloodline.

“Leopold?” I asked slowly, hoping that I wasn’t right, that it was just a series of coincidences that seemed to fit together. “What is Antoine and Odette’s mother’s maiden name?”

Leopold looked at me sadly, almost guiltily. “Richard. Governor Richard is Elize’s uncle, and Antoine and Odette’s great uncle.”

I thought back to my conversation with Governor Richard. He had not seemed thrilled about the idea of me marrying Leopold, and had not been pleased that I had told everyone about the lost necklace he just happened to have. Along with what Leopold had just told me about him and his power hungry family, it was beginning to seem more and more likely that he had also manipulated his position as liaison with France to make me Queen of Arcadis. That’s why he hoped I would leave Leopold for Antoine. With Leopold out of the picture as the last heir of the DuMont family, Antoine would become King of Solis, and through me, King of Arcadis as well. Now that Odette had been unable to get him what he wanted, he had been planning on using Antoine and I. Unluckily for him, I had said no.

I smiled despite myself.

“What?” Leopold asked, probably confused that I had found his story entertaining.

I shrugged, trying to figure out how to phrase my words as to not alarm him. “I just realized you were right. Governor Richard came to speak with me this week to try to convince me not to marry you. He was planning on me marrying Antoine and taking over.”

“He what?” Leopold demanded, fury evident in his voice, so much for not upsetting him. I grabbed hold of one of his hands, which had turned to fists at his sides, carefully unfurling the fingers.

“Relax,” I told him. “It’s not like Richard can do anything now. We are officially engaged as of Monday.”

Leopold stood suddenly, dragging me to my feet. “We need to go back. Felip needs to hear about this. I do not want Richard anywhere near you or any court or council meetings ever again.”

I planted my feet, refusing to move. Leopold turned back to me and despite the fact that I couldn’t see his eyes, I new exactly what he was thinking. I could see his question in the shape of his mouth, his anger in the set of his jaw, and his worry in the line of his shoulders.

I tugged on his hand, pulling him back to me. He allowed it, as I knew he would, and let me wrap my arm around his neck and run my hands through the back of his hair.

“There is nothing Richard can do,” I said, my voice calm and even. “I said yes to you, I love you. It is over.”

Leopold let his head fall onto my shoulder, his hands resting on my hips. “I just do not want you to get hurt,” he murmured.

I smiled, and let my hand slide down to his shoulder, over the bruised skin. “That’s all I want for you too. Now come on, I’ll do damage control with Angela, Mike, Arsnault, and Lefevre, while you talk to Felip.”

Leopold pulled back, placing a kiss on my forehead. “I love you.”

I smiled up at him, releasing him from my hold, “I know, I love you too.”

“What’s that thing do?” I asked Leopold and pointed to one of the diagrams in the manual in front of him.

“It is an altitude indicator,” he explained without looking up. “It is for orientation.”

He was seated at his desk, looking over various papers and books about airplanes and helicopters. He had come here after his meeting with Felip, and hadn’t moved since. I had gone to dinner, showered, and called my parents, only to return again and find his in the exact same position, frowning and bent over his tactical texts.

I bit my lip and moved to stand behind him, pressing my chest into his back. My hair fanned out over his shoulder as I leaned forward and pointed to another symbol.

“And that one?”

“Vertical speed indicator,” he replied shortly.

I sighed and wrapped my arms around his neck, playing with the chain of his dog tags. “And the one on the other side?”

He froze momentarily, taking a beat longer to answer this time. “Directional gyro,” he replied, then much to my disappointment he started to read again.

“Looks like the studying is going well,” I noted.

Leopold hummed in agreement. “Your parents are well?”

“Fine,” I replied softly and reached down to undo the first button of his shirt. “They say hello.”

I slip my hand into his collar and down his chest. He continued reading. I bit my cheek. He needed a break, he had been at this for hours and it was late. Edwards didn’t seem to be catching on though. Deciding he needed a better hint, I began kissing down his neck.

Leopold let out an uneven breath. “You are driving me to distraction. I have read the same line ten times.”

So it was working, he was just fighting against it. “You should come to bed,” I murmured.

Leopold hummed, not looking up from his book.

Frustrated, I decided to be immature and moved to stand beside him again, swinging my leg over both of his own so that I was straddling his lap, separating him from his books. I placed kisses across his throat and jaw.

“Fred,” he moaned, and cupped my chin in one of his hands. He pulled me back so that I could see his eyes. “I have to study for my exam and you are making it increasingly hard to do so.”

“You can study more tomorrow,” I told him. “I’ll quiz you. You already know that stuff by heart anyway.” I knew that for a fact. I had heard Mike testing him earlier, and knew that he had been reviewing all week at the base. He needed to relax and rest, not spend his time worrying about this and the five million other things I knew were bugging him, Richard and Antoine to name a couple.

I pushed my lips to his and linked my arms around his neck, pulling gently on the curls at the base of his neck. Leopold groaned in what I hoped was defeat, but then he stirred and started to stand. I held on tighter, thinking he was going to put me on my feet, but was pleasantly surprised as he put his right arm around my waist and lifted me onto the desk instead, on top of the textbooks, tax forms, and other documents.

He stood between my legs, hands gripping the table on either side of my hips, and rested his forehead against me. His breath was hot and spicy as it fanned across my face, “Why is it that when I have finally convinced myself to do something right for once, you go and convince me to do otherwise?”

“Where is the fun in always doing what’s right?” I said, skimming my lips across his.

Leopold barked out a laughed and then pressed his lips to mine forcefully. His strong arms snaked around my waist, lifting me. He kicked back his chair and carried me across his room. I fell backwards onto the bed with Leopold hovering over the top of me. I took the opportunity to work my way down the front of his dress shirt, revealing the perfect skin of his chest.

Leopold’s lips moved to my neck, giving me a chance to breath. My fingers skirted up his side and I dug my nails into the muscle of his back, trying to pull him down to me.

“Careful,” he growled, but then his lips were on mine again, tongue begging for entrance. I arched into him, closing the distance between us, as Leopold moaned into my mouth. My hands traveled down on their own accord, playing along the waist of Leopold’s pants, thumbs digging into the dips inside his hips.

“I can’t do this, Fred,” Leopold breathed in warning, but didn’t move to stop.

“That’s not what it looks like,” I smiled.

Leopold groaned and corrected himself, “We should stop.”

Lying between my legs, he lowered his weight onto me and placed one final kiss on my lips before resting his head on my shoulder. My hands ghosted up and down his back as we caught our breath, fingertips dancing along the lines of muscle and bone beneath the thin material of his shirt.

After a moment Leopold pushed himself up and rolled off of the bed. He let his shirt fall off of his shoulders, into a heap on the floor.

“No fair,” I told him, watching as he moved to his desk. He selected one of the loose cigarettes that lay among the papers, holding it between his lips as he searched for his lighter.

“Tell me about it,” he mumbled with a wave in my direction, and clicked the flame to life.

I watched, amused, as he crossed the room and pulled a pair of sweatpants off the back of his couch. He undid his belt and unceremoniously shed his suit pants in exchange for the ones in his hand. My eyes found the bruise on his back, which had shrunken somewhat, now a wash of greens and browns rather then blues and purples.

Chapter Eighteen

“So there is nothing you can do?” Leopold asked.

We were all seated around the dinning room table, eating breakfast. When we had gotten back from the pier yesterday, Leopold had filled Felip in about our theory that Richard and Antoine wanted to take over Solis and Arcadis. Felip had told Leopold that he needed the night to review some legal papers on the matter, but that it was unlikely we could do anything about it. This morning he had confirmed his original statement.

Felip buttered his toast methodically, taking time before he answered. “We can not prove that Richard has done anything wrong. As Winifred’s advisor, it is only logical that he would suggest other possible paths for her to take.”

“I think he has done a little more than that,” bit out Leopold.

“It is not like he is committing treason, Leopold. No one is going to die,” Hector said through a yawn. He reached for a teacup full of coffee. “It is not the French Revolution. No one will be guillotined or burned at the stake.”

I think he was trying to lighten the situation to comfort us.

“He is close enough. I want him out of the castle,” Leopold pushed adamantly. Unlike the others, he hadn’t touched his food.

“If anything, I thing we should be working even closer with him now. If you are worried, this will allow us to keep an eye on Richard. If we banish him from the castle, we will not have any idea about what he may be planning.”

“Besides,” Phillipa added, “It will not matter after Monday. You two will officially be a done deal to the entire world.”

“That is not good enough, something else needs to be done. I will not have him around Fred permanently,” Leopold was nearly growling now. I reached out under the table, and rested my hand on his knee.

Leopold froze, his lips drawing into a tight line.

“They are right,” I told him. “It’ll be fine. Richard won’t be able to do anything soon. We just have to get through the next few months.”

Leopold took a deep breath. He didn’t seem at all reassured.

“I am going to go study,” he said dismissively, and pushed himself away from the table.

I took a bite out of my bacon as the dinning room door shut behind him. Everyone was quiet for a moment, contemplatively picking at their food.

“If you are free today, Phillipa, I though we might be able to make up for the lesson I missed yesterday,” I suggested. I mean, why not. Leopold was going to be studying for most of the day. I figured I might as well keep myself occupied until he was done.

“Really?” she asked, brightening.

I nodded, “It sounds like Leopold is going to be busy for a while.”

Phillipa clapped her hands together excitedly, “We can start reviewing the wedding!”

“I would love to sit in, if it would be alright,” Beatrice cut in. It surprised me because Beatrice had never been to one of my lessons befpre. She would probably have a lot of good input regarding the wedding though, since she was the only one out of the three of us that had actually gotten married.

“Perfect,” Phillipa decided. “I will grab everything and meet you two in the solarium.”

She downed the rest of her orange juice and skipped out of the room.

I grabbed Leopold’s untouched cup of coffee and a plate of toast before following her out of the door.

I wound through the halls to my wing of the castle, not stopping until I reached Leopold’s room. He was out on the balcony, drawing life out of another cigarette. His eyes were fixed on me as I made my way to where he was leaning against the railing. I raised my eyebrow a fraction and placed the coffee and toast down on the banister, challenging him to say something, but he stayed quiet. Taking a step towards him, I wound my fingers around his belt, burying my fingertips between the fabric of his shirt and the waist of his pants.

“I will be with Beatrice and Phillipa, looking over wedding details,” I told him softly.

Leopold turned his head, a mouthful of smoke hissing from his teeth before he spoke. “Do not let them talk you into anything you do not want. Your options are limited enough as it is.”

I frowned slightly for a moment, not fully understanding what he was saying. It seemed a little strange that my options would be limited. The way Phillipa had been going on about it, it sounded like we would be planning a huge party, not a small ceremony seeped in tradition. I decided not to question him about it though; he already wasn’t happy with the way today was going, so it would be better not to push him.

“Is there anything you want included?” I asked.

“Choose whatever you like, Fred, I am sure it will be perfect. I promise that I will look over what you decide, but as long as you are my wife at the end of the ceremony, I will be happy.” He offered a small smile, his free hand resting on my waist.

Richard and Antoine had been dropped for now.

He placed a kiss on my forehead, “I will come find you when I am free.”

Soft morning light filtered through the solarium’s windows, making dust moats dance around the inside of the glass roof. Beatrice and Phillipa were seated side by side on one of the plush velvet couches, pouring over a series of binders. A tea service had been set up on the table before them, and lines of steam twirled out of their floral and gold painted teacups.

Phillipa jumped to her feet as I slid into the room. Beatrice, slowly rising after her.

“Here, Winifred,” she smiled, patting the free cushion on her other side. “Come over here so you can see what we are looking at.”

Tucking my skirt underneath me, I sunk into the velvet and glanced at the glossy pages of the binder. There were two diagrams on it, one that appeared to be for a church, the other for a dinning room. There were titles scrawled across them in an elegant script.

“These are the seating plans for the Saint Francis Basilica and the formal dinning room downstairs. The guests’ titles are written across their seats,” explained Phillipa.

“Oh, you have already picked somewhere?” I asked both slightly confused and relieved.

Phillipa shook her head, “Not exactly.”

Beatrice smiled knowingly at me. “Nearly every wedding of Solisian Royals has taken place at this church. Royal weddings are not the same as normal weddings. They have to adhere to a strong set of rules and traditions, almost everything is already decided for you.”

“Oh,” I said again slightly deflated this time. “What’s the plan then?”

That started Phillipa off.

“The invitations are at the calligrapher as we speak,” she began, passing me a mock up invitation to examine. It was on thick cream paper, black ink swirling in loops across the page. “The ceremony and reception details and venues have already been set, as has the rehearsal dinner. Transportation has been decided upon, colors, the men’s uniforms, bridesmaids, groomsmen…”

“Wow,” I breathed.

Beatrice patted my knee reassuringly.

“So what’s left?” I asked Phillipa. It seemed as though everything was done, no planning required.

“The most fun bits,” Beatrice said. “The ones that everyone will remember.”

“What are those?” I prompted, knowing how the game worked by now.

“The flowers, the food, the cake, the dresses, and your maid of honor,” Phillipa listed. “We are going to have the royal florist who is also a botanist and an expert in floriography later in the week to help with the flowers. Before that, I will start teaching you floriography and I take you to a shop to see some examples. We will spend an afternoon in the kitchen soon, trying dishes for the dinner. A cake specialist will be arriving next month. As for the dress, you will be meeting with Veritee Leroy shortly as well.”

My mouth fell open. I didn’t know much about fashion, but I definitely new of Veritee Leroy. She was one of the top designers in the world. Her work was on the same level as Chanel, Armani, and Valentino.

“We will be with you too, dear,” Beatrice added, trying to reassure me. “We will offer our opinions, if you would like.”

“Thanks,” I managed after a moment. “So what are we doing today?”

“I need a guest list from you,” Phillipa said, grabbing a pen and flipping to a blank page, “and I want to run through the steps of the wedding process with you, to make sure I do not miss anything you can not live without.”

I shrugged, “Louis, Renée, John, Tess, and Alec.”

“That is all? You can get back to me in a few days,” said Phillipa as she jotted down the names.

“No, that’s it.”

Renée and Louis were both only children, I had never known any of my grandparents, and I wasn’t one for keeping many friends. They were all I needed.

The shadows in the solarium had grown long when Leopold finally came for me, the warm afternoon light casting him in gold. My mind was so full of thoughts of poached chicken breast, calla lilies, wedding vows, and gold versus platinum rings, that I was relieved when his familiar form sauntered into the room.

“What are your thoughts on crab?” Phillipa asked me, not noticing her brother’s entrance.

“They are inconvenient and uncomfortable,” Leopold replied, lips twitching.

Beatrice and Phillipa stood, Phillipa rolling her eyes at her brother’s dry remark.

“Come to steal Winifred again?” she asked knowingly, ignoring his jab.

“Well, I hate to interrupt this thrilling conversation on the pros and cons of seafood, but Fred and I need to leave soon.” He had stopped at the piano, half way into the room, his fingers ghosted across the keys impatiently as he spoke.

“I wondered when you were going to show up,” said Phillipa, glancing at the grandfather clock.

Beatrice crossed the room towards him and straightened the collar of his sweater which had turned in on itself. “Where are you two off to?”

“Drag racing and drug deals,” he told her, a roguish smile curling at the edges of his lips.

“Keep her safe,” she told him, not missing a beat.

Leopold leaned down so that she could place a kiss on his cheek, “Always.”

He turned to me then, raising one brow a fraction, “Fred?”

I didn’t need another invitation. I quickly thanked Beatrice and Phillipa for their help before scuttling out of the solarium after Leopold. I glanced down, surprised when I realized he was in jeans and a pair of beat up sneakers. We obviously weren’t going on any official royal business, it would just be Leopold and I.

He led me through the halls toward the back door of the castle that opened to the gardens. I stopped dead in my tracks at the top of the steps, pulling Leopold back with me as soon as I spotted what was in the backyard.

A shot of fear fizzed through my veins as I took in the helicopter that sat in the middle of the grass. Its blades were rotating, kicking up whirlwinds, tugging at everything within its reach as if caught in a severe storm.

I took a long, deep breath, calming my nerves. I was more startled than anything; I wasn’t afraid of flying after all. This was no plane though, and while I was happy it wasn’t the seaplane I had been forced onto for my arrival, somehow the helicopter didn’t seem as trust worthy as the huge commercial jets I was accustomed too. It didn’t even have wings!

“What is that?” I asked Leopold, shouting to be heard over the wind and beating blades.

Leopold pressed close to me, bending his head, his mouth at my ear. “We are going flying,” he said. “I thought I would show you Solis from a different perspective.”

I groaned low in my throat, but it was stolen instantly by the noise of the blades. I was fighting against the pull between what the old Fred would have done, and what the new one would do. I didn’t like water or horses when I arrived and so far Leopold had managed to convince me into both swimming and ridding. Besides, how many times does one get asked to go for a helicopter ride?

Bracing myself on his shoulder, I pulled off the heels I was wearing, dropping them to the stone steps. They would be hazardous to wear while attempting to cross the field, no less climbing into the helicopter. With a nod in Leopold’s direction, I let him pull me into the storm.

It was a good thing Angela hadn’t done anything spectacular with my hair today, because any effort would have been destroyed as the wind threw tresses in every direction. My skirt and blouse were both form-fitting enough to mostly stay in place, luckily. Trying not to flash the palace was one less thing to worry about.

As soon as we were close enough to the helicopter, Leopold released me from his protective hold to pull open the door. It wasn’t the back door though, where I had been expecting to go, but the passenger door.

Leopold helped me up into my seat, a guiding hand on my waist. When I was safely seated, he grabbed onto some invisible framework and pulled himself up with a practiced ease to stand on the lip of the door. He took hold of the complicated looking seatbelt, nimble fingers expertly tugging and snapping at the straps and buckles. Once satisfied, he gave me a thumbs-up, before falling back out onto the field and closing the door, shutting me inside.

A twist of panic surged to the surface again before I could stop it. I was strapped in the passenger side and I was going to be sitting next to some pilot who I hadn’t even seen yet, for the entirety of this sightseeing tour. Leopold was probably in the back seat already, happily sprawled across a bench reading his textbooks or taking a nap. I bit the inside of my cheek to stop from screaming.

A moment later the pilot’s door flew open, and my stomach flipped. I had been wrong, it wasn’t some unknown pilot I was going to be sitting next to, it was Leopold.

I watched, both terrified and fascinated as he pulled on a headset and aviators and started flipping switches. He was speaking, though I had no idea what he was saying, and after a moment he nodded before turning to me.

I stared back at him with wide eyes. Did Leopold even know how to fly? I mean, wasn’t that what his test was for on Wednesday, so he could be a pilot?

I went to voice my question but Leopold shook his head. He tapped his headset and then pointed across to my side of the cabin. Sure enough, there was another headset that I hastily tugged on.

“You alright, Fred?” Leopold’s voice crackled in my ears.

“What are you doing?” I asked.

“Flying,” he stated simply, and passed me another pair of sunglasses.

“How? Isn’t that what all the studying is for?” There was a slightly hysterical edge to my voice now.

“Do you trust me, Fred?” he asked, ignoring my question.

I nodded slowly, “Yes.”

Leopold smiled, and began flipping more switches, checking dials. “Let me take off and then we can talk.”

Holding tightly to my harness, I pursed my lips, but didn’t argue. If we had any hope of getting in the air safely, it was probably a good idea to let him focus. I had missed my opportunity to escape anyway, there was no way I would be able to untangle myself from my seatbelt let alone get the door open.

Leopold’s disembodied voice crackled in my ears again, “Romeo Foxtrot Sierra seven six tree holding at palace. Prepared for takeoff.”

Another voice responded in similar gibberish, “Romeo Foxtrot Sierra seven six tree, DuMont Tower, palace cleared for immediate takeoff. Will standby.”

“Roger,” Leopold replied, before the ground fell out from beneath us.

I held my breath as we became weightless, my ears popping as we steadily rose higher and higher. Soon we were above the roofs of the castle and I could see the orchard, the forest, even the fields slowly being thrown out before us.

“DuMont Tower,” said Leopold as we leveled out. “Romeo Foxtrot Sierra seven six tree, now at one two thousand.”

“DuMont Tower confirmed. On standby for landing, over,” replied the voice.

“Wilco, over and out,” Leopold said.

There was a faint click, presumably our connection with the air traffic controller cutting out.

My fingers slowly settled out of their vise grip. We were fine, we were up in the air and nothing bad had happened. It was kind of nice actually.

“I’m impressed,” I told Leopold.

He smiled brightly back at me. “Great, is it not?”

“I thought you weren’t allowed to pilot yet though,” I said, finally.

“I have been able to fly for quite some time. I have my license. It is a different level of flying I will be graduating into. Search and rescue missions require a different skill set than your average flight,” he said as explanation.

I suddenly felt a lot safer. If he was going to be certified to fly in hurricanes, and do aerial acrobatics in all sorts of situations, this must be a piece of cake for him. It was perfect out today, not even a single cloud around us in the sky.

“Did you borrow the helicopter from the base?” I asked. Was that even allowed? I felt like people weren’t supposed to use military vehicles for recreational purposes. I wouldn’t put it past Leopold to have sneaked it out somehow though, or to have been given special permission.

“It’s mine,” he said, making my eyes grow large, then he corrected himself, “the family’s, one of three. We have a plane as well.”

I should have guessed. Why wouldn’t they have helicopters and airplanes? How else would they travel? I couldn’t picture Felip on a commercial airplane munching on a bag of peanuts.

I went with the most obvious question next, “Where are we going?”

“Around,” was Leopold’s reply. He grinned crookedly, “Thought we might go and check on my island and maybe fly over the Sinclair castle if you are interested?”

“Absolutely,” I said all too eagerly. My experience of Solis and Arcadis were very limited to nonexistent outside of Dumasville. I knew a lot about the other places, but had never been to or seen them. Part of Leopold’s title declared him the Duke of Mortimer, the smallest of the three main Solisian Islands. He had an estate there, with his own residence. As far as I knew, no one visited it very often.

Leopold pointed things out to me as we flew, showed me fields where battles had happened, mineral filled caves, historic ruins, and glassy mountain top pools. By the time we made it to Mortimer, the sun was beginning to set.

“There,” Leopold said, pointing off into the distance. I followed the line of his arm out towards the sea. We were passing over a small town now, but after that there was nothing, just fields on rolling hills, striped through by a road. I followed its path, my eyes finally catching on a dark outline on the horizon where the path ended. “That is Mortimer Cottage.”

Cottage was the wrong word. It wasn’t even close to properly describing the estate. Granted, it was smaller than the DuMont Palace by about half, but still nowhere near small enough to be considered a house, let alone a cottage.

It was made out of the same white stone as all the other buildings, surrounded by overflowing lush gardens, all bundled together and precariously balanced on the side of a cliff.

“Beautiful,” I said, as we circled around the property.

“It has always been my favorite,” Leopold said. “Much more isolated then the palace in Dumasville. It is always quiet and bright, more free.” He sighed and pulled out of the loop, changing our heading. “Just wait until you see your house.”

“Oh no, it’s ridiculous, isn’t it?” I groaned. What had Richard said? Designed by Marie Antoinette and Napoleon Bonaparte?

“A little,” Leopold admitted, “quite amazing though.”

The world turned red as we swung out over the sea. The sun had been swallowed by the waves and was staining sky and water alike in a bloody crimson.

“Where will we live?” I asked Leopold suddenly. His Mortimer Estate had looked appealing with the whole seclusion factor, but I didn’t think we would be allowed to permanently hold up fort there. It would be too far away from the capital. I wasn’t sure if Beatrice and Felip would stick around the Dumasville Palace once Leopold was crowned. Would we kick them out of their house? I knew there were other estates, maybe we would get one of those.

“We will be spending a lot of time in the Sincalir palace after we are married. You will be needed there a lot as they reform the government. Once I am King, Hector will be given Mortimer, and the DuMont Palace will be ours. We will move into my parents’ suites. Felip and Beatrice will stay in the castle for a while to assist us, but eventually they will move out into another of our residences. Phillipa will marry and live between her estate in Carmencie and her husband’s lands.”

So we would be living in two castles. Leopold and I, living in two castles alone; it seemed like a lot of wasted space. I couldn’t imagine the castle being that empty. It was bad enough now with the ten or so of us coming and going, we would need to have a constant flow of guest to make it feel even remotely home like.

Static sparked in my ears again as Leopold flipped a switch. “ADS, this is Romeo Foxtrot Sierra seven six tree at one two hundred. Please confirm.”

Another voice replied, different from the one before. His French accent was much harsher sounding then the Solisian one I had grown accustomed to. “ADS, Romeo Foxtrot Sierra seven six tree, roger.”

“Will confirm departure,” Leopold said.

“Roger,” the voice repeated. “Will standby.”

Leopold flicked the switch again, cutting us off. We were still above water, but I guess the helicopter had entered France’s air space.

“That is the beginning of your land,” Leopold told me a moment later, confirming my suspicions. I perked up, pressing closer to the glass.

There was no beach, just vast fields with crops sprouting up, run through with dirt trails. “The castle is on a farm?” I asked suspiciously.

“A vineyard,” Leopold corrected. “Your ancestors made fantastic wine. The trails between them are great for riding. It is quite beautiful.”

It seemed nice, I mean, I can’t complain about a vineyard. The crops came to an end though, giving away to the gardens. I was used to the DuMont’ very natural gardens. There was the orchard, the fields of grass, thick gardens filled with native plants. The most groomed part of the grounds was the rose garden which was carefully pruned, and circled by stone paths and dotted with fountains.

The grounds of Sinclair Castle were very groomed in comparison. The garden beds were carefully laid out into square formations. There were huge strips of stone tiled pools with fountains and jets streaming aqua water into them. I could spot a maze made of hedges off towards the far corner. It was stunning, unbelievably gorgeous there was no doubt, but almost too perfect somehow, too beautiful.

The palace came into view. Leopold was right, I could tell even from this high up that my castle was opulent in the most obscene way. The DuMont castle was more formal, strong. It reminded me of the Prince’s Palace in Monaco. My mom and John had honeymooned in Monaco and showed me pictures. The Sinclair castle was more akin to the Winter Palace in Russia.

It was huge, spanning north and south in a long strip. If I had to guess, it was well over a million square feet. At least one or two more wings than the DuMont castle. The outside was white and green, with gold trimming and statues. It was lined with pillars and had large balconies jutting out at even intervals.

“Jesus,” I breathed. I had been overwhelmed by the size of the DuMont Castle, and this was on another level completely. A map was definitely going to be needed, and maybe a guide, or some sort of GPS device.

“Your family had a flare for creating beauty. It is no wonder the French wanted it. They could not have anyone competing against them,” his tone was joking, but his smile was sad. “It is a miracle that your county will be its own again.”

The sun slipped below the horizon, making the castle, the gardens, and the vineyard all disappear.

I fell asleep on the way back. I’ll never know how Leopold managed not to hit anything flying blind in the night, but somehow he managed. I was awoken by a gentle rocking that seemed both calming and familiar. I was pressed against something warm but felt like I was still flying as my feet swung in the air. Slowly, as my eyes fluttered open, a blush spread across my cheeks as I realized what was happening.

I was in Leopold’s arms, the helicopter winding down behind us as he carried me across the field.

“Oh,” I said, trying to squirm free. We were home.

Leopold’s arms tightened around me, “I have you.”

“But your shoulder,” I protested, still trying to push free.

“You barely weigh a thing,” Leopold said. “It is no trouble at all.”

I settled back into his arms, resting my head on his chest as he carried me up the steps. My shoes, I noted, had been picked up from where I had dropped them earlier.

The guards at the back entrance stood at attention as we approached, automatically saluting Leopold before opening the doors.

“Thank you,” I told Leopold softly as he maneuvered deftly through the halls. “It was beautiful.”

“It was my pleasure,” Leopold assured me. “Hopefully I will soon be able to take you to visit those place for real.” He frowned, seeming to contemplate something. “Maybe this winter. There is a good ski resort on Mortimer.”

“I’ve never been skiing before,” I told him.

“We will have to cross that off the list as well then. You will love it.”

I smiled, I hadn’t seen snow in years, let alone played in it. I already knew I was going to have to snowshoe, Ben had preemptively warned me about that, but learning to ski as well and maybe even ice skate, definitely sounded appealing.

Leopold finally set me down once we were safely inside his room. He didn’t let go of me though. His arm stayed firmly wound around my waist, holding me in place against him. He stared down at me, his strange mismatched eyes searching my own.

“Oh, Monseigneur!” cried Mike from the direction of the bathroom. “I have been looking for you.”

Leopold’s fingers dug into my hip, but his gaze didn’t shift from mine. “Not now, Mike,” he said, his tone laced with warning.

“But Monseigneur,” Mike insisted. “It is time to-”

Leopold cut him off. “It will wait. You are dismissed.”

Mike hesitated, debating, I suppose, whether or not to listen to Leopold. “Very well, Monsieur,” he decided after a moment and made his exit.

Leopold’s free hand came up, cupping my jaw. His thumb ran across my cheekbone and traced the outline of my lips. They parted under his touch, the edges quirking upwards. My muscles tensed in anticipation, eager for his kiss.

When it came, it was gentle, careful, his mouth just brushing across mine. I could feel his restraint. I made an impatient noise, pulling his full bottom lip between my teeth. Leopold let out a small gasp and lifted me off the ground again. I wrapped my legs around him, locking my ankles behind his back.

My hands threaded though his hair as he began walking. He was breathing quickly, heavily, his heart beating frantically through the fabric of his sweater. My skirt bunched up around my thighs, his fingers pushing into the bare skin of my legs.

We fell onto his bed, Leopold pressing down into me, his muscled body hard against mine. I tugged at the collar of his sweater, and he helped me pull it off, revealing the tanned skin of his chest and back. My hands gently scratched down his ribs, traced the planes and valleys of muscle, pressed my thumbs into the hollows at the inside of his hips.

Impatiently, Leopold jerked the hem of my blouse from the waistband of my skirt. He pulled it up to my ribs, fingers running along the bare skin of my back.

“You’re beautiful,” he said, skin pressed against skin, his lips bruising against my collarbone, neck, jaw, and mouth.

I slid my hands down, across his abdomen, the V of his hips. His muscles contracted under my touch, goosebumps speckling across his skin. I smiled, happy I could invoke such a reaction, and undid the buttons of his jeans.

“Hmm?” I hummed surprised when he didn’t stop me, and smiled against his lips.

Leopold growled in response, “Do you want me to stop?”

“No,” I said, digging my nails into his forearms. “Just surprised you haven’t already.”

“I am a teenage boy,” he stated as explanation, “And currently hormones are beating propriety.”

He recaptured my lips, the want fueling every kiss. I had never seen him like this before; usually he was so much more careful and contained. I was going to have to stop him soon while I still had clarity of mind or we would be past the point of no return.

Lightly pushing on Leopold’s chest caused him to roll on his back, as I knew he would. I threw my leg over the top of him, straddling his waist with the buttons of his jeans biting into my skin. I kissed him once, twice, three times, then pulled back, still keeping him pinned beneath me.

Leopold looked up at me, frowning; his cheeks were flushed, hair sticking out wildly around his head. His hands stayed on my legs, lacing patterns on the bare skin. “You know,” he said accent thick, “I had never been told no so much before you arrived. Suddenly it seems I can’t have anything I want.”

I grinned down at him, “It’s for your own good. There should be at least one rule you don’t break.”

“It’s too late for that, I’ve read all the rules and broken every one of them, some more then once, just for good measure.” He turned serious then. “You know I wouldn’t have. I wasn’t going to.”

It was my turn to frown. “What do you mean? I thought you just said…”

“You’re not a rule to break, Fred. You are a promise. I don’t break promises,” he said, then shrugged and sighed heavily, dramatically, “I guess you’ll just have to wait a little longer to see my tattoo.”

“What?” I asked, confused. Did he say tattoo?

Leopold’s lips twisted into a devious smile as he slid me off of his lap, shrugging again and said, “I’m going to take a shower.”

Leopold was up before me the next morning. He was sitting in bed beside me, sipping coffee, his textbook in his lap. His chest was still bare and the sheets were bunched around his hips.

“Morning,” I mumbled, voice thick with sleep.

“Bon matin, ma belle,” Leopold said, smiling down at me.

I stretched, feeling the bones in my spine pop into alignment, then curled up into Leopold’s side. “What time is it?” I inquired.

“Around ten,” Leopold replied.

“Wow! No one woke me?” I asked, sitting up now. I ran a hand through my tangled hair. Surely there must be somewhere I was supposed to be.

Leopold glanced at the page number in his text, before shutting it and running his hand along the spine, “I told them not to; I figured you could use the sleep. Besides, it is a tour day, so we can not go too far.” He grabbed a notebook beside him and the pen balancing on his ear, and scribbled down a few things. “Phillipa wants you at twelve though, in the garden. Apparently, it is of critical importance.”

Well, that didn’t sound good. “Is everything alright?”

Leopold rolled his eyes. “Fine. Floriography,” he said as if it explained everything.

“Floriography?” I asked. I remembered the word from the lessons yesterday, but had no idea what it was.

Leopold nodded once, “Floriography.”

Well that cleared things up. “I thought you said that the castle is open for tours today. Isn’t the garden off limits then?”

“Phillipa is having it closed off for a period of time for the lesson. I’m going to do a bit more here and then come find you. We are going to review a few things,” he said, tossing the notepad down along side his text. I watched as he flexed his hands, cracking his knuckles.

“Right,” I frowned, “ You’re staying then? It’s Monday, I thought you were leaving today.”

He smiled, a true excited, happy smile, twisting a strand of my hair around his finger and said in all seriousness, “And miss the big day? Never.”

I turned my head, looking up at him fully. Something must be up, Leopold was never this excited about royal events and I was sure he had said he had planned on leaving today. What had changed? I decided to drop it for now, and rolled out of the bed. “So twelve?” I checked, walking over to his desk. My phone was there, charging. I unplugged it, making the screen blink to life. Sure enough there was an event message answering my question. I wondered vaguely whose job it was to keep everyone’s schedules updated. I could picture a man locked up in a tiny square room filled with computers, going mad with organizing it all.

“If you wait a moment, I will walk with you down the hall,” said Leopold, rising. “I think I will work in the library today.”

I found Phillipa and Rose in the center of the rose garden. They were sitting on the edge of a large fountain featuring a statue of a woman with hounds in the center. During one of my tours, M. Arsnault had informed me it was supposed to be Artemis, the Greek goddess of hunting. He couldn’t tell me what business a hunting goddess had in the middle of a garden though. “I didn’t know you were coming,” I said to Rose as she and Phillipa stood to greet me. Usually Rose spent the weekends with her parents, at their bakery.

“Hector insisted I move in for the next few days, until things settle down a little,” she explained.

“Sorry,” I offered. It hadn’t occurred to me that Rose might be in danger outside the castle walls. Were they really expecting that much of a reaction to the engagement announcement?

Rose shrugged, smiling, “It’s hardly an inconvenience.”

“Yes, yes,” said Phillipa impatiently and handed Rose and I each a sheet of paper that was divided into four columns. The first two columns were lists of different kinds of plants and flowers and the scientific names. The third column contained a definition of sorts and in the fourth were a few words that seemed to be chosen at random.

“What’s this?” asked Rose, frowning at the sheet. At least she seemed to be as confused as I was for once.

“Floriography,” I told her, smiling at Phillipa.

“Which is what exactly?” Rose asked, scrunching her nose.

“The language of flowers,” said Phillipa dreamily. “It became popular in the Victorian era as a way to send coded messages through different floral arrangements.”

“Doesn’t sounds particularity critical,” I told her, remembering Leopold’s earlier words. Rose snickered.

“On the contrary, it is very useful, many aristocrats still practice it. Floriography can be particularly useful if you have to send flowers for congratulatory purposes, like the birth of an heir, to give condolences, such as for a death, or to set the tone of an event,” explained Phillipa, trying, perhaps in vain, to win us over. I was pretty certain it was less complicated to write a letter than to try and send a vague coded message in bouquet form. Phillipa wouldn’t have any of that though.

“You will need to know this for your wedding if nothing else. The message you send with your bridal bouquet will be analytically torn apart and examined under a microscope,” she said while heading for a path on the other side of the fountain. “Come on, let’s get started.”

She led us through the gardens, pointing out different flowers from the list, naming their meanings. Some seemed pretty straightforward; daisies for innocence, red roses for love, ivy for endurance, while others were strange. Someone seemed to have a vendetta against marigolds as they got stuck representing pain and grief. Although I wasn’t as interested in the art of floriography as Phillipa, I was happy to be outside. The late August afternoon was warm and dry with none of the damp humidity there had been earlier in the summer. It was more like the weather I was used to in Arizona, minus the blazing heat. I thought of the cacti that grew in the desert, and wondered if they had a meaning too, or if no one had bothered to add them into the code since it would be impractical to put them in a bouquet. I wondered if Leopold had been to the desert and if he would ever get to see my home. Somehow I couldn’t quite picture him in my house in Scottsdale, which was minuscule in comparison to the castle. It seemed far too common and mundane of a place for him to be comfortable, much too still and calm. I could seem him liking Forks though, where Louis lived. Its green forests and isolated location would be much more Leopold-like, not to mention the cliff jumping, the ocean, and the mountains.

“We are going to stop for the day now, Leopold and Winifred have a meeting to get to,” said Phillipa. We had just gone through the herb garden. It turns out Ophelia wasn’t so crazy in Hamlet after all.

“That’s it?” I asked surprised. We had only gone through half the gardens.

Phillipa nodded, heading towards the back door of the castle. “It’s all we have time for. Keep those sheets though, you will need them for your project.”

“You’re giving us homework?” wondered Rose, bemused.

“I want both of you to bring a bouquet with a specific message to me Wednesday afternoon, when I get back,” confirmed Phillipa.

“You’re leaving?” I asked, surprised. I thought Phillipa would be the one talking me through the announcement tomorrow.

“Rose has come to the castle, and I am leaving. I am going to stay with Hugo for a few days until things settle a bit,” Phillipa explained. “I don’t like being stuck in the castle.”

Well that makes two of us, I thought. My phone vibrated in my pocket, so I quickly pulled it out. There was another event message, this one telling me to be in the casual dinning room in ten minutes.

“Well, I will see you Wednesday then,” I told Phillipa, stopping just outside the door. “Say hi to Hugo for me.”

I hugged her briefly as the guards pulled the doors open, then ran up the stairs as Phillipa and Rose disappeared down the corridor, heading for Phillipa’s suites.

I curtsied briefly as I walked into the dinning room. Felip was at the head of the table, papers spread out before him, with Leopold seated at his right. “Hello Winifred,” Felip said, after he put down the sandwich he was eating.

“How are you doing?” I asked him, sitting on his left. Felip pushed a plate of cut sandwiches towards me. I accepted one gratefully; I had missed lunch due to the flower message lesson. It was clear that this wasn’t any kind of formal meeting. Felip’s suit jacket was off, hanging over the back of his chair. His shirtsleeves had been pushed up to his elbows, his tie was loose, and collar undone. Leopold hadn’t even changed out of the jeans and hoodie he had pulled on this morning and his feet were still bare.

“We just have a few general questions, Fred,” Leopold told me. He was fiddling with the zipper of the hoodie, pulling it up and down its track quickly. I caught glimpses of the bare skin of his chest. He hadn’t even bothered to put a shirt on underneath.

“Alright,” I consented.

“Firstly, we want to be sure that you are prepared for tomorrow,” said Felip, picking up one of the papers in front of him.

Leopold leaned forward, resting his elbows on the table. “There is no way out after this, Fred. Not ever.”

“I know,” I told them. I knew what this meant. I had weighed all my options, and been told again and again what they would mean by a lot of people. I knew what I was getting into.

Leopold relaxed again, sitting back in his chair. “Good. You should know there has been a change of plans then, which is why I am staying until Tuesday night.”

“It has been decided that you and Leopold will make a brief appearance on the balcony tomorrow morning, making your engagement announcement to the people,” Felip told me.

I nodded, it sounded easy enough, all I would have to do is stand and wave. Was this all they were concerned about?

Felip cleared his throat and grabbed another paper. “I would also like to discuss after, Winifred.”

“After?” I repeated. I was going to need a little more clarification, that was a very open ended statement.

“There is a lot that must be done in the coming months,” Felip began. “After tomorrow, you will be tied to our family. You will start making regular appearances at public events, council meetings, and formal events. On top of that, once the month is over, your lessons with Phillipa will be coming to an end.”

“Really?” I asked, surprised.

“You need to begin focusing on the behind the scenes work of the job. You will start attending lessons with me,” said Leopold. “We will be spending our time split between Solis and Arcadis. Richard is expecting us by October.”

“Oh,” I said, suddenly nervous. Things were going to get serious then. Princess lessons were being exchanged for Queen lessons.

“You will be called in every once in a while for the wedding planning, or events. We will be in Arcadis for a couple months though,” Leopold said, then glanced at his father, “I want to take you back home before the wedding too. To Phoenix, or Washington, wherever you like, it may be the last chance you get. We are waiting for clearance though.”

“More pressingly though,” interrupted Felip. “We want to discuss school.”

To me school sounded like it was the least of my worries right now. Between the wedding, learning how to run two countries, traveling the world, and going to fancy dinners, I was fairly sure there wasn’t going to be any time left for school. More over, I was pretty sure that it wouldn’t be a good idea for me to just to walk into my old high school.

“You have one last year of high school to complete,” stated Felip. “Hector, Leopold, and Phillipa have all been enrolled in private schools. Phillipa will be returning in a few weeks, but Leopold has optioned to have private tutoring to finish his secondary school degree since it will work better with his schedule. I would suggest the same for you, but we can have you enrolled with Phillipa if you prefer.”

“No, no, that’s fine. I will do like Leopold,” I told him. It definitely sounded like the more flexible of the two options.

“There is also the matter of university. I do not know what you had been planning on before all of this, but if you would like to pursue a university education, I am sure we could have something arranged for you,” Felip added, frowning softly.

“I wouldn’t even know where to begin,” I told the King. “Will you be going to school, Leopold?”

He shook his head, “No, at least not right away. Originally, I planned to continue my education through with the Air Force, but now I need to focus on catching up on all my duties.”

“Is it common for people like us to go to university?” I asked. It seemed so strange. I suppose lots of people work while going to school, through our jobs were just a little above the ordinary.

Felip nodded. “It depends on your preferences and what is happening during your reign. My grandfather was unable to go to university because he grew up during the wars. His presence was needed constantly at the castle or with troops, so he settled for ‘on the job’ training. Now that things are more peaceful, it has been easier. I have a medical degree and Hector is studying economics.”

“I’d have to think,” I told them honestly. “I guess it depends on how well I do with everything and what happens over the year.”

“Of course,” Felip nodded. “We would highly recommend you do something with your time, university is a good option. It is not, however mandatory. We will be teaching you any subjects that are crucial to your job such as oratory skills, economics, politics. We can even teach you more languages should you desire it.”

“Just think about it,” Leopold said. He grabbed a sandwich and turned to Felip, “Is that everything?”

The King looked down at his papers. “I believe so.”

“I would like to take Winifred then, if that is alright,” Leopold asked him.

“Of course,” Felip said, smiling. “Do you have plans?”

Leopold swallowed down his sandwich. “I would like to get out one last time.” I was surprised he admitted this to Felip. I was pretty sure that we weren’t supposed to be going out, especially not tonight.

Felip nodded though, raising his eyebrow a fraction. “Just be smart about it.”

“Oh,” said Leopold, smiling as he stood up, “I am always smart.”

“We are going to have to get through the tourists,” Leopold said, making me smile. I knew exactly where this was heading.

“We are going into town then,” I stated and slipped into my closet. Angela wasn’t around so I was going to have to hunt for what I wanted.

“Unfortunately, the guards will be joining us, but yes, we are going to town. I will be right back, I just need to get some more casual shoes,” he told me.

“Maybe a shirt too,” I called back.

Leopold laughed, “I think the public would appreciate my shirtless state. I was even contemplating whether I should bring the sweatshirt or not.”

I poked my head around the doorframe to find him rubbing his hand across the muscular ridges of his stomach, “Well, I don’t mind, but hey might not let you inside anywhere. ‘No shirt, no service’,” I teased.

“On the contrary, I think my nudity would be very well received. Besides, I should really take this opportunity to work on evening out my tan” he said before disappearing down the hall.

I snorted, thinking of the horrible tan lines he had managed to get from his Cannette and military uniforms. His hands, forearms, and face were golden brown, but further up his arms and down his torso his skin slowly faded to an icy white. “Too little, too late,” I called after him.

I pulled my dress and heels off, grabbing a folded dark pair of jeans from one of the shelves. A t-shirt came next, black and v-neck, followed by a grey cardigan. I stepped into a pair of black flats before heading back into my bedroom and toward the mirror. Leopold came back as I was twisting my hair up on top of my head. “Good to go?” I asked as his reflection appeared next to mine. He had in fact put a T-shirt on, a white one, along with a pair of black Converse and a hat.

“Oui,” he said, handing me a pair of sunglasses. He pulled my door open, indicating for me to go through to the hall.

“I think I know what I want for my birthday,” I told him.

“Oh really. Have a request, do you?” he asked me. We were going through the back corridors again, down the maid’s stairway.

“Well, if I got my own sunglasses, I wouldn’t have to borrow yours all the time,” I told him.

Leopold smirked. “You are asking for sunglasses?”

“Yes,” I told him, not finding the humor in it.

“Here I was, planning a private cruise through the Mediterranean and all I had to do was let you loose in my closet,” he said, shaking his head.

“What?” I gasped. “We are going on a cruise?”

“Not anymore,” he said, then he rolled his eyes. “Relax Fred, I was kidding. Now shhh, we are here.” He edged the door open, making sound flood into the tiny sterile hall. The security sensor on the wall flashed. Leopold wound his fingers through mine and pulled me into the room. We were in one of the Galleries, the one with the painting of Leopold and Winifred. There was a young couple staring up at it. The woman was taking a photo as the man stood beside it, trying to imitate Leopold’s stance. We stepped in unnoticed, blending into the crowd like common tourists. It was nice to be unnoticed again, no one looked twice at Leopold and I as we wove through the galleries and halls.

“I would think that there would be an easier way to do this,” I said to Leopold. It seemed strange that we were sneaking out of the castle even for outings that everyone knew about.

“Well, I wanted to scale down the balcony,” Leopold said, slipping easily now into English, “but apparently that would draw too much attention.”

“Should have done that shirtless,” I teased. “You would have beat out our engagement announcement for the front page.”

We were in the lobby now, passing by the ticket stand that had been set up for the day and the line of docents waiting to help the tourists. There were two of the King’s Guards by the door, dressed in full uniform and put out on display. They stood motionless at the entrance, unmoving while school kids ran around them and people took photos.

I wondered if the tourists would joke around the guards so much if they knew how dangerous they really were. They looked purely ornamental in their costumes but every single one of the King’s Guards was a highly trained soldier who had been specially recommended for the honored position by the Solisian military. In other words, they were very well trained to use the very real and loaded guns that they held, should it become necessary.

The guards snapped to attention as Leopold and I passed through them on our way down the front steps. They stomped their feet and thrust their rifles forward, presenting their arms. A little boy beside one of them squealed in delight, clapping his hands. More pictures were taken, the tourists thrilled that the guards had moved. None of them seemed to realize that they were saluting a member of the royal family. If the tourists had assessed the whole situation, they may have noticed that Leopold and I didn’t seem excited about it, and strangely enough, we didn’t turn and look like everyone else. Of course, we were too accustomed to the guards and too concentrated on getting out to even think about slowing down. People did take notice of the car at the bottom of the steps though. There was a crowd loosely standing around the black Mercedes, probably waiting to see who was going to get in. M. Lefevre and M. Arsnault were standing stiffly on either side of the car, as usual. We didn’t go towards the car, but instead walked right past it towards the front gates where there was another car just outside the barricade in a non-parking zone that was attracting attention.

“We’re going out in the Batmobile and you didn’t think people would notice?” I asked.

Leopold laughed, “It’s a Lamborghini Aventador, actually. I thought it was less conspicuous than a Mercedes, they are always a bit of a tip off.”

“And this isn’t suspicious at all,” I muttered as Leopold opened my door, which pulled upwards from its hinges. The eyes of a few men who were admiring the car, grew larger. I looked back towards the castle where the Mercedes was slowly making its way down the driveway without taking out any of the flocking tourists.

“After nearly two decades, I have learned that when it is impossible to go unseen, it is best to cause as much of a scene as possible,” Leopold stated as he sat down beside me. The ignition purred to life and Leopold slid the clutch into gear. “Then people tend too look at the wrong thing, the more conservative, subtle thing.” He nodded forward, towards the Mercedes with the Solisian flags waving on its hood. People in the streets were stopping and pointing as it drove by. No one even thought to look at the black car that trailed it, seemingly unable to pass the official vehicle in front of it.

We made our way slowly through the old town, causing quite a stir. Things moved faster the closer we got to the new city. The modern grid of traffic was easier to navigate than the ancient twisting cobblestone streets that circled the castle.

The building we pulled up next to was anything but modern. It looked like it had somehow been placed into the wrong half of the city. Its white marble walls and columns were grey and warped with age and the sea air. Heavy cast iron lanterns were hanging on either side of a large wooden door that was meant to be black, but had been scratched so much that a hundred other different coats of paint veined through it, straight down to the wood underneath. The sign across its front said Taverne Capitaine Garmont in garish gold lettering.

“Where are we?” I asked, as Leopold helped me out of the car. A shiver of worry ran through me as I thought back to my first few weeks in Solis, when I had been warned again the alcoholic, troublesome prince.

“A bar,” Leopold told me, doing nothing to calm my previous concerns. I glanced over my shoulder towards our guards. They didn’t seem worried as they followed us down the steps. Felip had even given his approval for us to come here.

We stepped inside and I was instantly surrounded by noise. Loud music was coming from a corner where there was a band set up. People were sitting in large groups around worn wooden tables, barrels, and at the bar. Chandeliers that looked much like the lanterns outside hung from rafters that were made of beams the size of full-grown trees.

“What is this?” I breathed.

“It used to be an Inn used by the less… wanted visitors of the island,” Leopold explained. “Pirates used to use the Islands to hide because they are difficult to navigate around, particularly this location. There are a lot of underwater rock formations and shipwrecks. They weren’t welcome in the old town, so they made their own village here. Eventually, most of the buildings were destroyed in a fire, but this one survived.”

We were at the bar now, so Leopold ordered us drinks.

“There were pirates?” I repeated, curious as I followed him through a crowd to one of the barrel tables. Pirates had never been mentioned in any of my lessons.

“There were, and a lot of treasure too. My relatives found a lot of it and people still find it. Gold coins wash up on the beach occasionally. Sometimes spelunkers find a cave filled with jewelry. The museums keep track of most of it.” Leopold shrugged, bored. “Mostly it is just university kids and tourists who come here now.” He nodded into the room. There were a lot of kids, all around our age.

“The university is close by?”

“It is at the end of the street. The explorer who caught one of the local pirate lords used the reward money and part of the treasure he seized to build the school,” Leopold said.

I frowned. It seemed wrong somehow to have a school built on an old pirate village. “Why here?” I asked Leopold, suddenly suspicious.

“A few reasons, but it seemed appropriate mainly; the old world and the new one are side by side here. I thought this would be helpful,” Leopold replied, “I wanted to show you what you are missing and I wanted to celebrate.”

“I don’t understand,” I told him. The band had picked up their tempo, no longer playing folk songs, instead playing loud rock music. The students cheered and I had to yell to be heard over the sound.

“You will never be able to come here again,” Leopold said sadly. “You will never be able to go to school like you would have. You can’t go outside in your pajamas or walk your dog around the corner to get milk and our kids won’t be allowed to go to the park. Our grandchildren will probably be married off to royalty all over Europe.”

“It’s okay,” I told him, taking hold of his hand.

“But it’s also not,” Leopold said, “so tonight is to say goodbye to our other lives, the ones where I wasn’t me, and you got to be yourself. It is also to celebrate because now that we have left our other selves behind along with everything we could have been, we are now something else. While our new selves are trapped in ways our other selves never would have been, we can now do so much more then we ever could have before. I plan on taking advantage of that as much as I possibly can.”

I raised my glass, smiling broadly across the table at Leopold. “To our new selves.”

“Fred. Fred.” There was light weight hovering over me and something was tickling my throat. “Fred.” The voice was deep; I could feel its vibrations running through me, “It is time to wake up. I need to show you something,” Leopold murmured softly, his lips brushing against my skin. I could hear contained excitement in his voice but there was also a nervous edge to it. I could feel tension in the muscles of his back as I hugged him to me.

“Too early,” I told him. It wasn’t light out yet, and the room outside the blankets was cold.

“I know,” Leopold said, but he pulled me up anyway. I brought the blanket with me, wrapping it around me as I followed him down the hall to the library.

The TV was on, its light flickering though the dark room. I shared my blanket with Leopold as we sat side by side on the couch, his arm resting on my shoulders and his heat warming me. “Look,” Leopold said softly, nodding towards the screen.

I squinted, focusing on the picture in front of me. My mouth fell open; the castle was on TV, with a crowd of people pooled in front of the gates.

“Is that…?” I left the question unfinished, not sure whether I wanted to know the answer or not.

“They made the announcement,” he explained softly, his thumb rubbing calming circles on my arm.

“This is live?” I gasped, fully awake now. I grabbed the controller, and began clicking through the channels.

My face flickered across the TV screen; clips of the interview from Friday, stills from the photo shoot of Leopold and I, images of the castle and the crowd, Solis, and Arcadis, filled the screen. Narrative accompanied the clips with some stations broadcasting in English, others in French, Spanish, and even German.

“We are due out there in an hour,” Leopold said.

“It’s unbelievable.” It was so strange that all those people were waiting for us.

“There is more,” he said, and stood. Leopold took me to the main balcony that overlooked the square that was situated at the top of the stairs. Carefully, he pulled aside the heavy velvet curtain that usually blocked out the huge wall of windows and doors. My breath hitched, blood pounding in my ears, as I looked through the inch wide gap. Phillipa had warned me it would be bad, but I hadn’t expected this. The square in front of the castle was packed full of people. They were pressed up against the wall and gate of the castle, screaming, cheering, and holding signs. Bunches of flowers sat in the yard inside the gates, presumably having been thrown onto the property. There were news vans parked out front, cameras trained on the castle, and reporters standing under lights with microphones. The sunlight was just peaking over the horizon, and already hundreds of people were awake, waiting and ready.

Angela was waiting for me when I went to my room. “Congratulations,” she beamed, taking away my blanket. I drifted in and out of sleep as she worked on my hair and makeup. I was surprisingly calm despite the fact that I knew I was going to have to stand in front of that crowd in the next hour or so. Maybe it was because I was so sleepy, or maybe because I knew this would just be the first of many times I would have to do this. This was our first appearance as an engaged couple and I suspected the event was very small compared to the ones that hadn’t happened yet, such as weddings, births, and anniversaries of various kinds.

The dress she put me in was white, decidedly undecided between being Solisian and Arcadian. It was made up of complicated folds and pleats that formed tightly to my arms and torso before smoothing and billowing around my legs. Angela had fastened a fascinator on top of my head, decorating the loose curls that hung down past my shoulders. It was all very conservative and delicate.

I was then sent down the hall, back towards the main staircase and the balcony. There was a handful of guards and servants there now, all waiting for the signal. Leopold was waiting as well. He was in uniform, deep blue pants and jacket, all trimmed in gold and rows of medals shined upon his chest. His sword was on his hip.

“Ready, love?” he asked, as I stopped beside him. He brushed his knuckles against the back of my hand.

“All set,” I said.

Leopold nodded at the guards and they pulled the doors of the balcony open. Arms linked together, Leopold and I stepped out onto the balcony. The noise was instantly deafening, the crowd below us roared as soon as we were outside. Millions of lights flashed as photographs were being taken. People were yelling, holding their cell phones up in the air, and waving flags. My breath caught in my chest and my hands trembled as we reached the railing. It was just so big; there were so many people.

“Are you alright?” Leopold asked softly, leaning down close to my ear so that I could hear.

“Yeah,” I told him, finding my words.

He smiled crookedly, “Then say hello to your people.”

So I did. I waved, just like Phillipa had made me practice, and stared down in amazement at the crowd below.

Chapter Nineteen

“Are you sure you’re alright, Bells?” John asked for the tenth time.

“I’m in a fortress with professional body guards,” I responded, slightly irritated from reassuring him so many times.

“We know,” said my mom, patting John’s arm. “I just can’t imagine what it’s like over there today. John had to call in at work because there are so many news people and vans surrounding our house that he can’t get out. Besides, I didn’t want him to leave me to deal with them on my own.”

I had been Skyping with them for a half hour, listening to them go on about how exciting and scary everything had been since the announcement this morning, how proud they were of me, and how much they were looking forward to the wedding. Because of the different time zones, their house has been surrounded by press since twelve o’clock last night. Renee, John, and Louis had all been asked to do interviews and had been called by newspaper and broadcasting stations who were looking to get some sort of inside scoop on me. Tess and Alec had even been approached by some paparazzi on their way to school.

“Where is Leopold?” Renee queried. “I would like to congratulate my future son in law!”

“He had to go and study after we made the announcement from the balcony. He’s got a test on Wednesday,” I told her. “See?” I held my computer out, showing them my empty bedroom, then settled it back on my pillow.

“Strange, I would have thought he would be right beside you, even with the studying,” smiled Renee.

“Apparently, I am too distracting, so I’ve been kicked out so he can concentrate,” I told her.

“Well, just be careful, alright?” said John. “If Leopold is not with you, stay close to those security guards of yours.”

“Will do,” I told him. “And you guys let me know if it gets too bad on your end. I’m sure Felip could have something done about it.”

“We will. Bye, hun,” Renee beamed, blowing a kiss at the camera.

“Love you,” I told them, then ended the call. I sighed and lay back into the pillows, tired. I had already tried to sleep with no success. Leopold said he would be busy until around dinner and it was only about two now. With Phillipa gone, I didn’t have much to do.

I groaned, remembering suddenly that I had homework. I pushed myself up and went over to the desk, grabbing the list of flowers and their meanings, then retreated back to my bed. The list was useless if I didn’t know what any of the flowers looked like, and I was pretty sure I needed to be able to recognize them if I was going to make bouquets with them.

I studied the list. Even after yesterday’s lesson I only recognized a handful of the names and could safely identify less. I opened my browser and typed in the first Latin name on the list. A bright red spiky looking flower popped up. My nose scrunched up. I was pretty sure I had never seen this plant before in my life. This was ridiculous, I had no idea how Phillipa thought I was supposed to memorize all these flowers and leaves in less than two days.

With a sigh, I clicked in a slideshow program, and typed in the Latin name of the spiky flower into the title bar, followed by its meaning underneath, then copied and pasted the picture onto the slide. I repeated this process over and over, working my way down the list, ultimately creating a bunch of digital cue cards.

When Angela arrived, the warm evening sun was slanting through my bedroom windows, striping the room in long lengths of dark shadow and streams of lazy light. I was at the end of my bed, in one of the last sunny spots, flipping through the slideshow for the fifth time. I could recognize a good portion of the list now. Mostly very common plants like irises, hyacinth, hydrangeas, or very strange looking ones like the spiky red one. Knowing what they looked like was one thing, but I was pretty sure that without my list or cue cards, I would still be unable to properly name them even if I did recognize the flower, never mind tell you what their meaning was.

“It is time to get ready for dinner, Mademoiselle,” Angela told me.

I groaned and stretched obligingly, happy for a reason to shut my laptop off. The Royal family was eating dinner together tonight, everyone who was left in the castle at least, in celebration of the official announcement. It was nothing formal, just a small gesture, which was noted by the fact that Angela brought a pair of pants for me to wear. Those pants, paired with a short-sleeved eyelet blouse, was the most casual outfit I had been all summer and it had been deemed appropriate for public viewing. Leopold was dressed similarly when I found him in the hall, casually leaning against the wall while he waited. He was in khakis and a bright green polo shirt that fit tightly over his broad shoulders. It was the same moss green as his one eye, and made the honey, caramel, cinnamon tresses of his tangled hair stand out beautifully. It was rare to see him in color and the effect was quite dazzling.

“Good afternoon?” he asked, pulling me close to his side.

“Productive,” I told him. “And you?”

Leopold nodded, “Good. I am starting to feel confident that I may actually know what I am doing.”

I slapped his arm lightly, making him smile.

“Everything is well in America?” he checked.

“Fine. Well, I mean, a little ridiculous, but I think it will be okay. I told them to call if things got too out of hand.”

“Good, I am glad,” he said, then pulled me to a stop, just outside the doors to the dinning room. “Now, I want to warn you, Fred. There are a lot of people on the other side of the door. It is another tradition. The way the castle staff shows us their appreciation for the wedding.”

“Appreciation?” I asked, looking skeptically at the huge wooden doors before us. All I heard was silence. If there was a horde of people in there, they were doing a very good job of keeping quiet. I couldn’t imagine how good they would be at surprise parties.

Leopold started to explain hastily. “Now that we are getting married, we will be their next rulers. It is their way to show that they will follow us during our reign, and serve us loyally, that they appreciate that we let them serve us.”

“That we allow them to serve us?” I huffed. “Sounds a little barbaric don’t you think.” It seemed ludicrous that they should be thanking us for letting them serve us, if anything it should be the opposite. I felt bad every time one of the staff had to help me, especially when it was something I could easily do myself, like run a bath, make a cup of tea, or open a door.

“Exactly,” Leopold said. “Most of the people who work in the castle belong to families who have served the Royal Family for centuries. Their positions are as ancient as yours or mine, and they take much honor and pride in what they do, and what their ancestors did, as loyal servants to the crown.”

“Oh,” I said, feeling a bit better now. If it was important to the staff to do this, then it didn’t seem so bad. “I didn’t realize that there was such a long lineage involved.”

“Some of the families can trace their history back to the knights in the first King’s Guard,” Leopold said, tucking a few strands of loose hair behind my ear. “Just smile. Be happy for their happiness; be happy for us. We are the future and they are helping us achieve it.”

I rolled my eyes. “You know, you are sounding a lot smarter lately. I thing this King gene may actually be starting to kick in.”

“About time too, I have been having a panic attack while waiting for something to work,” Leopold winked at me, then took my arm and led me into the dinning room. As promised, the staff was lined up along the walls of the dinning room. They bowed and curtsied as we entered and then applauded politely. I felt a blush light across my cheeks and had to fight the urge to hide behind Leopold. Felip, Beatrice, Hector, and Rose were standing there as well, smiling at Leopold and I. It only lasted a few moments before they all disappeared through the kitchen door.

***

“Please,” I moaned, pulling on Leopold’s hand.

“Please, what?” Leopold asked, allowing me to slow him a bit.

“You know very well what,” I told him sternly, making him chuckle.

Leopold cocked a copper brow, full lips quirked in amusement, and tugged on my arm, drawing me down the corridor. I stumbled slightly and he caught me, his arm sliding around my waist. “You had too much champagne,” he replied.

“Have not,” I huffed and brushed out of his hold, determined to prove him wrong. I was nowhere near intoxicated, though I had to admit I did feel a little light-headed, warm too, and my skin was tingly. It was hardly my fault though, there had been a number of toasts in mine and Leopold’s honor, and the sips had begun to add up. I wasn’t accustomed to drinking, unlike Leopold who seemed completely unaffected despite having tossed back his champagne along with a few glasses of Solisian wine.

“We can not go outside, Fred,” he said, picking up his pace again. I scrambled to keep up with the long stride. “It is dangerous.”

I snorted a little indelicately. “That’s never stopped you before.”

“Well there hasn’t been a mob of people outside the castle walls before,” he frowned. “At least not recently.”

“It’s not like they have pitchforks,” I grumbled under my breath, then caught his arm again, giving in.

“Once security gets things under control again, I will take you outside,” he promised, patting my hand where it sat in the crook of his elbow.

I sighed, but didn’t say anything more. I knew it would be futile. The security around the castle had been doubled in preparation for the announcement. Things had been going well so far, but we were not supposed to leave the safety of our fortress for the next twenty-four hours until the security team was assured that we were in fact secure. Of course, as usual, Leopold was going to be exempt from the rule and got to leave the castle tomorrow.

I told him so, and he pursed his lips, looking at me hard. “I am going to the Royal Air Force Base. If anywhere is more safe than the castle, it is there.”

Based on the still fading bruise on his shoulder, I was willing to bet money against that, but I bit my tongue. Leopold would thankfully be finishing his time there very shortly.

“I will be back in a minute,” Leopold said, leaving me at my door where Angela was patiently waiting. She took me inside and began helping me out of my pants and blouse, and exchanging them for one of the numerous pairs of silk pajamas that I possessed.

I looked around my room as she brushed out my hair. My things had been cleaned up. The papers and laptop I had left out were now, presumably, stowed safely inside one of my desk drawers. The creases I had left when I lay on the bed had been smoothed out again and the stray bits of clothing had been picked up. The room looked as though it was not lived in, as though it was just another of the many unused guest rooms in the castle. I wondered curiously how Leopold managed to get away with having his room constantly look like it had been ransacked, or blown up.

There was a faint knock on the door, and Leopold strode in, dressed in sweatpants and a t-shirt. Angela put down the hairbrush, and bowed slightly, before excusing herself. The second she was gone, Leopold flopped down onto my bed, crossing his arms behind his head as he regarded me expectantly. He pulled me against him, my back pressed to his chest. He ran a hand through my hair, winding it into submission and out of his face.

“It is on my leg,” he said, softly running his fingertips over the silk that covered the outside of my leg, from knee to hip.

I frowned, not sure what he was talking about at first, then as realization hit, I said, “The tattoo.”

I felt his nod. “Hector has one too,” his hand pressed into my ribs, then over my breastbone, above my heart, “and Felip. The Princes of Solis have always gotten them, and worn them proudly. They are never meant to be seen, though, or known about, as it would endanger us, make us identifiable. Now that does not matter so much and it is just done out of tradition. It was a little easier back then of course, when no one ever saw your arms.”

“What are they?” I asked him, wondering what could possibly have marked the skin of all the male royals for who knows how long.

“Symbols of who we are. You know the lions used in heraldry?” he asked. His mouth was very close to my ear. I could feel his breath on the back of my neck.

“Yes,” I confirmed. Thinking of all of the funny gold lions that decorated flags and crests and banners.

“Felip and Hector both have a lion sagent. It represents their role as king, sitting on the throne. Mine, as the second son and commander of the army, is a lion rampant holding a sword. It is supposed to represent my role as protector and defender of the country.

He paused for a moment, then said softly, “I guess ours are backwards now.”

***

I squinted at the papers, trying to see if the pictures on the page matched the flowers I had in my hand. This morning I had officially been okay’d to go outside, granted with a heavy guard, and only because I had to do my homework. Leopold was gone and Phillipa was due back very shortly for our lesson. I didn’t have much time to figure out the arrangement and the cue cards I had made weren’t very helpful; I could only flip though them so fast.

I scrunched my nose, looking at my bouquet. I needed Orchids, but I think I had picked Freesia instead. I shuffled the cards frustratedly, searching for the photo that matched the flower in my hand. When I couldn’t find it, I sighed and ripped out a cluster of random blue flowers that I thought looked nice. I would just pick a bunch of stuff and figure it out afterward, when Google was close by.

My head whipped around as I suddenly heard the crunch of gravel under feet. M. Arsnault appeared as he rounded a tall, puffy-looking tree. I knew there were about five guards close by, but they had been lurking far enough away to give me the illusion of privacy. I smiled, starting to greet him until I noticed that he was running towards me. My hands froze on the flowers; in my three months here I had never seen M. Arsnault run.

“What’s up?” I asked tightly, my eyebrows knitting together. Maybe I had accidentally picked some sort of sacred flower that had been in the garden since year zero; that would be bad. I looked at the tiny blue flowers, I was pretty sure they were forget-me-nots. Didn’t they grow everywhere?

M. Arsnault threw his arm over my shoulders, crushing me protectively to his chest and hurrying me back towards the castle. There was more crunching as more men in black suits joined us, surrounding my guard and I as we wove through the garden.

“Lamb secure,” M. Arsnault said, holding his hand to his ear. My stomach tightened, my blood running cold. Something must be very wrong.

“What’s going on?” I asked, looking at the security team that surrounded me. None of them said a word.

“What’s happening?” I tried again, my voice harder. I directed the question directly at M. Arsnault this time.

My guard pursed his lips, his grip on my shoulder tightening. “There has been an accident,” he stated. “We need to get everyone secure.”

We were on the steps now, the ones that led up to the ballroom.

“What do you mean? What kind of accident?” My mind went straight to the crowd of people that still lined the castle gate. Had someone actually managed to get in?

“That’s still to be determined,” said M. Arsnault tightly and stopped me at the doors. One of the men in black hurried inside, only to appear a second later to give M. Arsnault a thumbs-up. We moved into the ballroom, my shoes sounding loudly off the marble floors, like the cracking of a whip.

“Well, what happened?” I tried again, frustrated now.

M. Arsnault pulled me to a stop, sighing heavily. He turned me around to face him, his bear paw hands resting on my shoulders. “There was an accident at the base,” he began, his voice steady. “We don’t have the details yet, but we need to get all of you secured in the King’s office.”

My breath caught in my throat, my blood running cold. “Leopold?” I rasped.

Arsnault pursed his lips looking at me sadly, “He’s been injured.”

The bouquet slipped from my fingers. I ran.

***

Felip’s office was full with people. Beatrice was seated behind the desk in Felip’s chair; her face was pale, gaze focused on the door. Her eyes met mine briefly as M. Arsnault accompanied me into the room. Felip was behind her, pacing agitatedly.

Hector and Rose were standing in front of the bookcase on the left wall. He had his arm wrapped around her shoulders, but his eyes were focused on his father. Rose offered me a weak smile.

Phillipa, who had apparently returned, was sitting in the blue velvet chair. Her cheeks were tear stained, her tiny hands balled into fists in her lap. I was surprised, almost, to see the tears. I went to stand behind her, running my hand down her dark hair.

Felip nodded at M. Arsnault as my guard fell into position beside the door. The other guards left the room.

“Any news?” Felip asked.

“Remi is on his way now,” replied M. Arsnault.

I bit my lip. Remi was the head of the royal security; it was not good if he was coming here himself.

The room was silent as we waited for his arrival, all heads turning when the door opened a few minutes later. A tall severe-looking man pushed through the door and nodded once sharply in greeting, the light from the chandelier reflecting off the top of his baldhead.

“The premises have been secured,” he declared in a gravelly voice. “We have been in contact with the base. It seems there was an accident involving a helicopter the Prince was flying. He is being airlifted to the hospital as we speak.”

I frowned, his words not making sense. Leopold and I had just been flying on the weekend. He seemed perfectly at ease as a pilot, I couldn’t imagine what would have happened to make him crash.

“Send guards over right away to meet him there. Have extras guards travel with the family members who go,” instructed Felip, without missing a beat.

“Right away, sir,” Remi bowed. “The cars will be ready and waiting.”

Beatrice stood, clearly understanding the next step. She had some color back now, a steely resolve settling over her features as she slipped into the next room.

“Hector?” Felip asked.

Hector nodded and released Rose, stepping up to his father’s desk.

“Take care of your mother, and…” Felip paused for a moment, his voice wavering momentarily. “Call if…” he didn’t finish the sentence, he didn’t have to.

Hector nodded and followed after his mother.

Felip’s eyes landed on me next. “Winifred, I would like to ask you to go too. I understand if you say no, we have no idea what the situation may be, or what shape Leopold will be in.”

“No,” I said, “of course. Of course, I’ll go. Thank you.” I scrambled for the door, M. Arsnault turning to follow me.

“Fred,” Felip called, making me stop. I turned to face him, seeing the pain and worry evident in his eyes. “Please take care of him.”

***

The cars pulled to a stop outside of the new hospital. Guards that were already on the scene surrounded us, helped us from the cars, past the statue of Felip and to the front doors. There was a nurse waiting for us in the atrium. She led us through the sterile halls to a private waiting area.

A woman in a power suit passed though our barricade of security. I recognized Dr. Fleurion from my tour of the hospital a few weeks ago, she was the Chief of Surgery.

She bowed her head slightly, stopping in front of us.

“What’s happened to my son?” Beatrice asked as Hector grabbed hold of her hand.

“Welcome your Highnesses, why don’t we sit down?” Dr. Fleurion offered, indicating a pair of benches.

We did as she directed, sitting stiffly on the furniture.

“Can you tell us what happened?” Hector asked again. His voice was calm, just as Felip’s had been in the office. Practiced.

Dr. Fleurion needed no further prompt to start her measured speech. I didn’t catch most of what she was saying. Unfortunately the conversational French I had learned during my lessons hadn’t covered medical terminology. That, along with the heartbeat that sounded loudly in my ears, made it difficult to understand her.

“Thank you,” Hector told her, earning a small smile.

Beatrice sat rigid beside him, her face carefully blank.

Dr. Fleurion nodded, face full of sympathy. “Please do not hesitate to have someone fetch me if you have any questions. I will update you as soon as I get any news.”

She left us then, hurrying back to the elevators. As I watched her disappear behind the doors my stomach tightened. I could picture the operating rooms in the basement and could imagine Leopold lying on one of them.

“What did she say?” I asked Hector.

He turned to me, his face pale, features set. I held my breath.

“The helicopter Leopold was driving during his test crashed,” he began. I noticed Beatrice’s hand grip his tighter. “There were two of them inside. The other soldier died on the way to the hospital. They had to resuscitate Leopold on the scene, but he made it here. He is in critical condition, but was stable enough for testing and now surgery.”

“That’s all?” I asked tightly. The word resuscitate kept playing over and over again in my mind. He had died. Leopold had died, but he was not dead.

“She said they would let us know as soon as they had anymore information.”

***

Dr. Fleurion returned exactly an hour and fourty-three minute later. Hector was pacing back and forth between the chairs, his two middle fingers tapping a quick tattoo against his thigh. He froze though at the sound of the elevator doors opening, his head flying up. I put the pudding cup I had been unable to eat down, and gently place my hand on Beatrice’s arm. She hadn’t moved since the last time the doctor had been here, hadn’t so much as blinked.

“So?” Hector asked, slightly harsher than necessary. He seemed to catch himself though, and cleared his throat. He sat down again on his mother’s other side, forcing himself to listen.

“He is stable for now,” Dr. Fleurion said, with a small smile. “His external injuries have been looked after, and they will heal in time. There will undoubtably be some scarring though. He is burned quite severely.”

“Can we see him?” Beatrice asked, voice rasping.

The doctor nodded slowly. “He is just being taken to his room now, but yes in a few moments, I will take you there. There are a few things I would like to tell you first.”

Beatrice pursed her lips, obviously more intent on seeing for herself that her son was okay, than listening to all the reasons why he wasn’t. She listened though.

“I do not want you to be afraid when you see him,” Fleurion explained, pulling out her best bedside manner lines. “The Prince is covered in many places in bandages and splints. His face is bruised and swollen and we had to shave his head.”

Something clicked in my mind then, slowly the pieces of what she had said and what she hadn’t said were coming together. My heart stopped in my chest as the words began to form on my lips. I didn’t know if I wanted to hear the answer to what I was about to ask. “You said that his external injuries had been looked after. Does that mean that there are internal ones?”

“The Prince’s brain was damaged in the impact. This caused swelling and hemorrhaging in his brain. We opened his head to relieve the pressure, but we are not sure how severe the damage to his brain has been. We will not know for sure until he wakes up,” she explained.

Hector jumped to his feet again, too anxious to stand still. “You mean he hasn’t regained consciousness yet?”

“He has not been conscious since the crash. The Prince is in a coma,” she stated simply.

Beatrice gasped beside me, a single tear rolling down her cheek.

“He will wake up though,” I said. Determined not to make it a question, not to doubt that he would.

“I can not say for sure. Every case is different. Just in case though, with your position, I would suggest you start to prepare for the worst. I am very sorry,” she paused for a moment, letting the news sink in, then said, “Now if you will follow me, I will take you up to his room.”

Numbly, I stood, and began to follow. I was having a hard time believing what we had just been told. Two hours ago Leopold had died and come back to life. Now he was alive, but unreachable.

We went up to the seventeenth floor. Guards met us at the elevator doors. More had been set at the entrance to the stairwell. Another pair were stationed at the entrance of the hallway we turned down. M. Lefevre and M. Arnault met us at the last door on the left hand side. Leopold was like sleeping beauty with an army watching him. I was pretty sure that kissing him would not wake him up, however, I was certainly willing to try if that’s what it would take.

Beatrice, Hector and I filed into the room, surrounding the hospital bed where Leopold was sleeping. Dr. Fleurion stepped in, shutting the door behind her.

“What happens now?” Hector asked her. His eyes were fixed on his brother, eyes skimming over the bandages, wires, and tubes that covered his body.

“We keep him here, under monitoring,” said the Chief of Surgery. “We will keep him medicated so he is not in pain, we will change his bandages, and we will put his joints through normal motion every day to avoid stiffness.. You may want to begin looking at options for when he is able to go home.” She paused for a moment, as if she was leaving room to correct herself silently, “if” he was able to go home. “There may be complications when he does wake up. Based on the scans there is a high possibility that he may be blind. I will give you the information on whom you can contact. There are many people and groups who can help.”

Beatrice nodded, “I will take care of that. I will give you the number for my personal secretary so you can forward me all of the information.”

“Very well,” Dr. Fleurion nodded. “Other than that, there is nothing more that can be done until we wake him up. I suggest that you all go home and assess your options.”

“I want to stay,” I blurted.

“You don’t have to do that, Mademoiselle,” Dr. Fleurion said. “The Prince is in very good hands here. I am sure you would be much more comfortable at home.”

“I know, but I want to,” I insisted. I turned to Beatrice. “The guards are all here, I will be fine. I don’t want to leave him here all alone.”

“It goes against protocol,” said Hector. “Plus there is no where for you to sleep. You can come back tomorrow, Winifred.”

Beatrice shook her head. “Let her stay.”

She looked at me, eyes glistening. “Let Winifred stay, she should be here, I want her here with him. Felip would agree.”

Hector rubbed the back of his neck, “Alright, I will go tell security and call Dad. He will be waiting for news.”

“I’ll follow you,” said Dr. Fleurion, “and I’ll make some arrangements on my end as well.”

***

I was finally left alone with Leopold later that night. Beatrice and Hector had left, Dr. Fleurion had finally stopped checking in on me, and the night nurse wasn’t due for another hour.

Somehow, someone had managed to locate a futon in an office somewhere in the hospital and they had it carried down to Leopold’s room for me to sleep on. I was sitting on it now, wearing the pajamas that had been dropped off for me, hugging my knees to my chest.

I let my eyes roam over Leopold’s broken body. Two of his fingers were in splints, the ends of small metallic pins that held the bones in place could be seen sticking out here and there between the braces. His left arm was in a sling, keeping his shoulder which had been popped back into its socket still. My eyes drifted from there down to his ribs. They were hidden beneath blankets and a hospital gown now, but I had caught a glimpse of it earlier when the nurse had come to change Leopold’s bandages. Leopold’s left flank, from under his arm down to the inside on his left hip was covered in an angry burn. The nurse had told me that it was a severe second degree burn, bordering on third, that it was very painful and that it would scar.

Beneath the damaged flesh, three of his ribs were cracked.

My hand swiped at my cheeks as I finally allowed the first few tears to fall.

My eyes ran upwards, toward the lines of stitches on his bicep, his collarbone, until I finally stopped at his face. His features had been distorted by the swelling. The usual sharp lines of his jaw and cheeks hidden underneath the puffy, bruised flesh. His hair was gone. The thick messy strands of copper and gold had been shorn off and replaced by an angry red line that stitched along the crown of his head. Even the soft gold hair of his arms was gone, apparently singed off by the fire.

He was virtually unrecognizable. There was nearly none of the Leopold I knew left on the bed beside me.

Finally alone, I let all of the pain and the worry of the day wash over me. I took hold of his large hand, careful to avoid the intravenous line, finding relief in the fact that at least his hand felt the same. There was familiarity in the long calloused fingers wrapped through my mine.

Slowly, I cried myself to sleep.

Chapter Twenty

Time in the hospital was made up of small eternities. The hours were fluid, running into each other so that they blurred and pooled together. Minutes dragged on infinitely, counted out in the beeping of heart monitors and breaths. I could only be sure of what time it was because of the visitors. Nurses came on set schedules to check vitals, give medications, and change bandages. Security guards, doctors and custodians came too, all passing in and out of the infinity Leopold and I were encased in.

I spent my time going over documents, all sorts or treaties, laws, and accords. It was homework that had been brought to me by M. Arsnault, things that I would be covering in law, economics, and civics lessons in the months to come. It was the only thing that kept my mind busy. Anything else, books, TV, wedding planning, all allowed my mind to drift into dangerous panicky territory. As long as I could focus on taxes and budget plans, I could stay calm and rational.

Leopold stayed asleep. His bruises melted together, his skin grew less puffy, cuts began to seal, but he did not wake up. The nurses and doctors assured me that everything was fine, his injuries were healing well, and that he would wake up when he was ready. They said it was good that he was asleep, that sleep would help him heal and his body was helping him by letting him forget all of this. It was what they didn’t say that scared me; that he may not wake up or that there may be something even worse to discover when he did.

The DuMont’ took turns visiting. It was Phillipa who came first, on the second day we had been in the hospital, bringing Hugo with her. She went straight over to her twin and delicately placed her fingertips on his cheek. “What have you done this time?” she asked softly. I looked away, feeling as though I was intruding on something far too private.

“How are you doing, Winifred?” Hugo asked in concern as he bowed his head slightly in my direction.

I shrugged, “Alright, reviewing extradition laws.”

Hugo raised his eyebrow slightly, suspiciously, in a way very similar to Leopold and Phillipa, but he didn’t say anything, just folded his long gold limbs into one of the hospital chairs. I wondered vaguely if I had picked up any traits from the royal family. Obviously they had taught me how to act like them and be like them, but I wasn’t sure if I had managed to actually do it. Had I, like Hugo, been around them enough to take on some of their mannerisms or habits? I hoped I had, it would be like having a tiny part of them in me, like a souvenir of my time with them.

“How is everything outside?” I asked Phillipa as she sat beside me on my futon.

“Crazy,” she said, wiping a hand under her red rimmed eyes. “The story has been all over the news. There are camera crews and people lined up around the entire castle. They had to shut some streets down.”

“Jesus,” I breathed. I had expected it to be bad, but closing roads sounded a bit ridiculous.

“It’s because it happened so close to the engagement announcement. One second you are a lost princess getting married to a prince, and the next second he is in intensive care in the hospital. The news didn’t even have time to get old before it changed,” said Hugo, smiling apologetically at Phillipa. “Sorry.”

“Have you heard anything back from the base yet?” I asked hopefully. There was an investigation underway to find out what had caused the crash. I was being hopeful, as it had only been two days.

Phillipa shook her head, “Nothing yet.”

“And how are things at the castle?” I tried next. I knew I probably had it fairly easy here. I was locked inside, shut away from all of the mess the accident had caused.

“Not good,” Hugo said honestly before Phillipa could sugar coat it. He placed a hand on Phillipa’s knee, steadying her.

“Felip and Hector have been in endless meetings. The Council is in a huge uproar. They are all upset about what happened, obviously, but they are being vicious,” Phillipa said, harshly.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

Phillipa huffed. “They are doing the right thing, trying to sort out what happens in the worse case scenario, but they are just being a little insensitive about it all. They are demanding to know what will happen if…if Leopold dies. Some of them have asked Hector to leave Rose, and reconsider taking the crown again. Most though are leaning towards giving it to the next in line for succession.”

“Meaning Antoine gets to be King and your family loses the rights,” I said.

Phillipa nodded, squeezing Hugo’s hand. “I know they have to do this, but it is killing Felip. Hector is having a rough time too. He’s considering taking back his position. He hasn’t said anything, but I know he is. He doesn’t want centuries of tradition and bloodline to be thrown out the window. He shouldn’t have to do that though. And imagine poor Rose.”’

“And Beatrice?” I was worried about the gentle queen. I had not seen her since she left the hospital on Wednesday night, shaking and clinging to Hector’s arm.

“She is making arrangements,” Phillipa said. “As many as possible. She is hunting down options and specialists and information for any and all of the possible scenarios for when and if Leopold wakes up. She is making some for you too.”

“For me?” I frowned. I didn’t understand. What would Beatrice be planning for me?

“You know, for after. For whatever you choose,” Phillipa said, then she looked down into her lap. “I know I shouldn’t ask this of you, but I have to. I’m scared of what will happen if I don’t.”

“What do you mean?” I put my hand on her back, feeling the sharp line of her shoulder blade underneath the blazer she had on.

“Phillipa,” Hugo warned lightly, she didn’t listen though.

“Please stay Fred,” she told me, looking up at me. Her green eyes were bright and fierce. “Stay with him. I don’t think he will be strong enough if you are not with him. Even if he doesn’t need you, I will, all of us will. I will understand if you say no, but I have to ask, to at least try.”

I held her gaze, straightening my posture. “I’m not going anywhere. No matter what,” I vowed.

Phillipa smiled softly, nodding once. “You are better then any of us could have asked for.”

***

I let the hot water run over me, working the tension out of my back and shoulders. It pooled around my feet in the basin of the sterile hospital bathtub. It was nearly eight. Phillipa and Hugo had left 15 minutes ago, leaving me with more homework to go through and some fresh clothing. The nurse had arrived as they were leaving, coming to change the bandages on Leopold’s burn. Her name was Claire; she came every night at this time. I had excused myself as Claire turned back the sheets that lay over Leopold, and arranged his gowns strategically to reveal the angry red line of fragile burnt flesh that ran down Leopold’s ribs and waist to the inside of his left hip, and a small flash of black that stood out smartly against the white of his flesh and the bright scarlet of the wound. When I had seen it before, I had to quickly return to my budget planning to force my mind blank. This time, I had carefully slipped into the en-suite to take a few personal moments while Claire applied silver laced ointment to Leopold’s flank.

I turned off the taps and grabbed the thin hospital towel that hung on a hook on the back of the bathroom door. Stepping out of the shower, I wrapped the towel around myself and moved to the mirror that hung over the sink. There were two toothbrushes on its edge. The green one was mine, while the untouched blue one was waiting for Leopold to wake up.

I wiped my hand across the cool glass, clearing the condensation from its surface, and stared at my reflection. I would have thought that I would look different after all of this, that the royalty and high society life would have changed me somehow. When I looked in the mirror though, I still just saw me, Fred Morgan, with the same long dark hair, dark eyes, pale skin, and slightly too large mouth looking back at me. There was no beautiful queen or wise leader, just an ordinary girl.

I shook my head, fingers digging into the slick porcelain sink. “Wake up,” I murmured softly, “Please, Leopold, wake up. I can’t do this without you.”

Hands shaking, I pulled on a pair of sweatpants and one of Leopold’s sweaters. There was no point in worrying; I had no control over what would happen, not yet at least.

I stepped out of the bathroom to find M. Arsnault standing awkwardly beside Leopold’s bed. M. Lefevre was with him, looking down somberly at his charge. Claire was nowhere in sight. Their backs were turned to me so they didn’t notice as I slipped into the room. The guards had been a silent presence in the hospital, much like back at the palace. I knew they were always there waiting just outside, but I didn’t see much of them, only a glimpse when they brought someone in, or a brief hello when they delivered food. I quickly braided my shower damp hair before deciding to make them aware of my presence.

“How are you two doing?” I smiled weakly. “Getting bored out in the hall?”

M. Arsnault startled, turning quickly on his heel. “Mademoiselle! I am sorry, we knocked but…” he gestured toward the bathroom.

“We brought you food,” M. Lefevre said, thrusting a brown paper bag toward me.

“Thanks,” I told him, accepting the package.

He looked to the ground, awkwardly shifting on his feet, as he seemed to contemplate something. I watched, amused, and took a seat on the futon, unwrapping the sandwich that he had brought for me. “How is he?” he asked finally.

“Not great,” I told him and took a bite.

Lefevre nodded sharply. “Will he be alright?”

“Will we, he, be going home soon?” M. Arsnault stumbled at the same time.

My heart warmed slightly. It was easy to forget sometimes how attached they must be to their wards, because they were always on the sidelines. It was clear that they were just as concerned about Leopold as the rest of us, though they were not necessarily kept in the loop on the details of his condition.

“We don’t know,” I said automatically. The answers were well rehearsed by now. “We won’t know until he wakes up, if he does wake up.” Another set of sharp nods. I took a sip of the coffee they brought me. “You can stay for a bit if you like. Sit with him for a while.”

“No, that would be highly inappropriate,” said M. Lefevre shaking his head.

I shrugged, “I don’t know, I may need some protecting. I think that there could be a possibility of someone climbing through that window. You wouldn’t even know it if you went back outside.”

M. Arsnault smiled. “That is true. Danger is likely in a sealed seventeenth story window.”

“You never know. I would feel much safer if you were here,” I tried. I didn’t tell them that I wouldn’t mind the company either.

M. Lefevre slowly lowered himself into the chair beside Leopold’s bed, “I guess we have no choice then.”

M. Arsnault sat beside me, taking a few of the fries I offered him, “Thank you, Mademoiselle.”

***

Felip arrived early the next morning. Dr. Fleurion led him into the room with Leopold’s chart tucked under her arm. He looked calm and collected, but I could tell from the faint tremor of his hands and the purple smudges under his eyes that he was anything but. I stood as he entered then moved to leave but he waved me off.

“It is all right, Fred, you can stay,” he said, his voice tired. He ran a hand through his hair and went to stand at the foot of Leopold’s bed, his hands clasped behind his back in a well-practiced facade of resoluteness. I could see his wavering strength though, in the set of his shoulders and the line of his jaw; Felip wore his worry in the same ways as his son.

“What can you tell me, Doctor?” he asked, gazing down at Leopold’s form. His intelligent green eyes ran across the bruised and bandaged skin before settling on Leopold’s closed eyes as if he could see the green and gold beneath the paper thin eyelids.

“The Prince is doing well,” Dr. Fleurion announced. She looked tired today as well, I suspect the extra tension of having such a high profile guest was putting some extra strain on her already loaded schedule. “His lacerations are healing nicely; we will be able to remove some of the stitches in a few more days. The fractures are healing well; it does not look like they will require any physiotherapy afterwards. The burn will take much more time to heal. It is doing fine though, no signs of infection.”

“What about his head?” Felip asked, clearly not wanting to beat around the bush.

“The swelling has gone down considerably, which is good,” began the Chief. “Recent scans show brain activity is constant. There are no signs of further hemorrhaging or clots. All of these things are positive.”

“Any further thoughts on the state of his coma?” Felip pushed.

“I would say that you should remain hopeful. Your son is doing very well,” she assured us.

“Thank you,” Felip said dismissively. Dr. Fleurion bowed slightly and let herself out. The second the door closed, Felip’s demeanor changed. His shoulders fell slightly, along with the careful expression on his face. He moved to Leopold’s side and reached out as if to touch him but then thought better of it and let his hand fall. He crumpled backwards into one of the tiny hospital chairs and leaned forward, elbows on his knees, heels of his hands pressed into his eyes.

“It’s not for sure yet,” I said trying to reassure him. “He will wake up. Everything will be alright.”

Felip interrupted me. “It is done, Fred. Something has changed. I can feel it,” he breathed.

I nodded. “Me too.”

He tilted his head, looking at me through sad eyes. Morning light that filtered through the window and into the room illuminated his tawny hair, turning it gold. He looked like a fallen angel. “I don’t know what to do,” he whispered, and in that small admission, I could see how broken he was, all the hurt that he carried. I had never really thought about what the last few years would have been like for him. What it would have been like for him to deal with his son renouncing the throne for Rose. Then to stand behind his other son and make everyone else believe in him, only to have all that taken away from him in an instant. I thought back to yesterday, about what Phillipa had said about the Council and the pressure they were putting on him. His family had ruled Solis for hundreds of years through wars, disease, and famine, but this small cluster of events could bring it all to an end.

“He will be fine,” I told him, trying to will it to be true.

“But should I let him be fine?” Felip challenged. “Even of Leopold wakes up perfectly healthy, is it worth it? Should I risk losing my son for the sake of keeping the country? That is not right.” Felip was fighting with himself, between being the king and being a father.

“Leopold will want to do it,” I told him knowingly, “and he can. It may take some time but you will see.”

Felip gave a shaky sigh, “He can not do it and stay whole, especially if this accident deters him in anyway. He has already been through so much. He might be able to do the job, but I am afraid he will lose himself in the process,” he told me.

“Don’t worry,” I said. “I won’t let him.”

Felip looked up at me through hooded lids. He closed his eyes briefly, sighing heavily, and then straightened his posture, his face resuming its previously calm mask. “You are due to depart for Arcadis in a week, Fred. I want you to consider going, even if Leopold is still here. I think it is important.”

“Why?” I asked, mildly horrified at the thought of leaving Leopold like this. I wasn’t sure how Felip was even considering it. Especially since it had just been last week he had admitted that Richard may be up to something underhanded. Now he was contemplating having me go and live with the Governor alone.

“You need to continue on with life as normally as possible, as do we all. Leopold will be fine here. He will wake up when he is ready, and I promise, you will be of the first to know when he does. I can assure that.” He paused for a moment, playing with his cufflinks. “Hector will be coming tomorrow. I am sure he will have news for you as he has gone to the base today. It seems that they may have found something of interest.”

“You don’t want me to stay with Leopold?” I asked, still stuck on the fact that he thought I should leave.

Felip stood and placed his hand on my shoulder. “I have done everything I can to make you stay but you need to be somewhere else now.”

***

“Good afternoon, Fred,” Hector said as he strode in the next day. He had two cups of coffee in his hands and passed me one before wrapping me in a brief hug. I took a sip gratefully when he pulled away and closed the folder I had been reading. He must have spoken to the guards or one of the maids as my coffee was made the only way I would drink it; laced with so much sugar and milk that it practically wasn’t coffee any more.

“What’s up?” I asked, looking at his troubled face. There was something different about him. Felip and Phillipa had both looked exhausted with their worry. Hector seemed more like he was filled with an urgent energy, as though he was bent on solving something or breaking something.

“This is strictly a business call I am afraid,” he said briskly. “I have some questions I need to ask you. I think I have figured something out.”

“Alright, shoot,” I said, suddenly feeling slightly nervous. His energy was contagious, in me though, it had a stillness that went to the bone.

“I need you to run through a few events with me, for clarification,” Hector began. “At the beginning of the summer, Antoine tackled Leopold at a Canette match, shortly after your arrival, correct?”

“That’s right. Leopold had a temper tantrum in the middle of the field,” I said, smiling briefly.

“Exactly,” Hector replied cryptically. He moved on before I could question it though. “And at the Regatta held in for the governor’s arrival?”

“I fell into the river,” I told him.

“How?”

“Antoine came to talk to me when Leopold left. I was trying to get away form him.”

Hector nodded. “And when did you get the necklace, Queen Winifred’s necklace?”

“Richard gave it to me the first time Leopold left to go to the base, after he told me the story of Leopold and Winifred and the French King,” I replied.

I was beginning to see a pattern in the questions and answers. “Where are you going with this, Hector?”

“All of the cases involve attempts to make Leopold look bad, or to try to separate him from you,” Hector said, confirming my thoughts. “Antoine made Leopold look juvenile at the game, he tried to steal you from Leopold at the Regatta, then there was the incident with your hoop skirt at the Garden Party, and Governor Richard tried to threaten you to stay away from Leopold with his story, while simultaneously bribing you with the necklace.”

“I know, but I don’t see what this has to do with anything. Felip said there was nothing we could do about it,” I said, and put down my coffee.

Hector shook his head. “Tell me about his shoulder.”

My face must have showed some surprise as Hector quickly added, “I read about it in a file at the base. It was very irresponsible for Leopold to keep that from us, much less make you do so as well.”

“It happened during that bad storm, right before the garden party. Leopold went on a rescue mission to help some fishermen who had been caught out in it and was thrown against the side of a cliff while he was belaying down,” I told him, thinking of the bruise that had covered Leopold shoulder. It had seemed so bad at the time. Compared to the injuries he had now though, it was nothing.

“Convenient, considering Antoine was the one piloting the helicopter,” Hector said sharply. He sat down, some of the energy burning out of him. His hand rubbed the back of his neck, just bellow the cropped dark curls. “What did Richard say to you the other day before the engagement?”

“He told me that I didn’t have to marry Leopold. Threatened that something bad may happen if I did.” I felt the blood drain from my face as the pieces clicked together. “Hector, what did you find out at the base yesterday?”

Hector didn't answer right away, he was looking down at Leopold, his large hands balled into fists. "God, even bald and bloodied he still manages to look smug," he almost whispered. There was affection in his eyes, and finally, the smallest hint of worry. "He is going to wake up," he said, louder now. "He's too damn stubborn not to. He will wake up and keep on us off and scaring the hell out of us as usual."

“What did you find at the base, Hector?” I pushed. I held my breath, not sure if I wanted the answer I was asking for. Not even sure what I wanted the answer to be.

Hector sighed, “Nothing. The inspection came up with nothing. Everything was perfectly fine. Leopold did nothing wrong. The helicopter was in perfect condition.”

“That’s good news then,” I said, slightly relieved. I knew it would kill Leopold if he knew that he had been responsible for the accident.

“That’s what I thought, but it doesn’t make any sense. How does a helicopter that is perfectly sound crash on a perfect flight?” he asked, finally getting to the point that was clearly troubling him. I shook my head and pulled my legs up onto my futon, tucking them underneath me. “The only thing I could see on the report that seemed strange was that Antoine was the one who checked the helicopter before take off,” Hector stated.

“You don’t think that he did something?” I asked. Somehow the idea was both terrifying but logical at the same time.

“It is the only thing that makes sense,” grumbled Hector frustratedly. “I just don’t have any proof. None of these situations have any solid proof behind them, no substantial evidence that will actually amount to anything.”

“You think Antoine and Richard tried to kill Leopold?” I said, still stuck on the fact that he had just accused two people of attempting murder on the prince of a country.

“It makes sense. With Leopold out of the picture, Antoine would become the leader of Solis. Their family has always been power hungry. I made it worse though, they have been out for revenge since I ended my engagement with Odette.”

“What are we going to do?” I wondered, hoping that this time there would be an answer.

“I do not know, not yet. We must wait, I guess. Wait until we find the piece of evidence that will catch them. Wait until Leopold wakes up. Wait until the two of you are married and you can claim ownership of Solis as well.”

“I don’t really like any of those options,” I told him.

Hector shrugged. “Me neither. But that is all we have for now.”

“What does Felip think?”

“I told him about it. He hasn’t had much time to discuss it with me yet though. I don’t want to bug him or Mom with it too much yet. They have a lot going on,” he admitted. “For now though, I would say that this is the safest place for both of you. It’s got more security then the castle does. It would be awfully hard to get Leopold out of here without causing much suspicion, even if they did get past the guards,” Hector joked, trying to lighten the mood. I had caught something in his words though that stopped me from laughing.

“Safest place for both of us?”

Hector looked at me somberly. “If they are after Leopold, I am sure they will come for you next. Their family has ties to the Sinclaire throne in Arcadis as well. Why stop at one country when you could rule two?”

I didn’t respond; I wasn’t sure how. My head was spinning from all of the information that he had just thrown at me, from all of the random events that now had meaning. I took a sip of the now cold coffee, just for something to do. My hand ached to grab my tax folders again so that I could get lost in the numbers and unyielding rules.

Hector stood, rubbing his jaw line. “Rose says hi. She couldn’t come but she will call you later.” He moved toward the door, “Phillipa wanted me to remind you that the funeral for Guillaume Belmonte is on Wednesday. You are expected to show up.”

Hector hesitated, his eyes on Leopold. “I will let you know if I find anything else out, Fred. Stay safe. He will kill me when he wakes up if I have let anything happen to you.” With that, Hector left, leaving me even more anxious and confused then before.

Chapter Twenty One

I stood in the elevator, hands trembling. It was as though I could physically feel the distance that was stretching between Leopold and I; my panic grew with every floor we descended. We were getting closer and closer to the outside. I would soon be at the edge of the universe that Leopold and I had been trapped in for the past week and I was terrified that if I left, nothing would be the same when I got back. I told myself that I would only be gone for a few hours, that everything was going to be fine. I was going to go back to the castle where I would see Phillipa and Hector. Guards were traveling with me and many other Royal Guards remained at the hospital to keep Leopold safe. As the numbers that were flashing above the elevator door grew steadily lower, my breathing picked up and my heartbeat pounded a rapid tattoo in my ears. I couldn’t help but worry about all the people I was about to see, the lawyers, counselors, soldiers, photographers, reporters, ladies, and dukes. I also worried about something happening to Leopold before I got back; about being alone.

Something suddenly shifted beside me, pulling my attention back to my surroundings as M. Arsnault reached out and pushed the emergency button on the elevator wall. The lift jolted to a stop. His voice was calm and steady as he spoke, “I can have you out of there in under two minutes, Mademoiselle, and back here in less then ten.”

I took deep breaths through my nose while wringing my hands together, the rough black lace of my gloves twisting around my fingers. Slowly I steadied, then nodded at my guard. He pushed the button again and the elevator resumed its descent. I settled my features into a careful expression before we stepped out of the elevator, our footsteps echoing through the atrium of the hospital. The outer walls of the atrium were made up entirely of glass so the photographers and news crews waiting in the street could see everyone who moved through the lobby. For this reason, the space was nearly empty, with the exception of the occasional nurse and a handful of castle security guards. The mob of paparazzi that was waiting just outside, poised for the hunt, paused briefly as they considered us, from where they sat.

“I will be with you the whole time, Mademoiselle,” M. Arsnault assured me.

Then it hit, in a great blinding rush. As soon as they realized who was walking across the white stone and toward them no less, the crowd erupted into a frenzy. I didn’t react, I just kept moving, keeping pace with M. Arnault who had moved up to stand beside me. The rest of the guards around the room stepped into formation around us. The guards stationed outside rushed toward the door, waiting to protect me from the people who were pressing closer and closer into the barriers that had been set up. I could just make out a sleek black car at the other end of the barred pathway. It was circled by police officers in reflective vests who were trying to keep people away from the car and off the street.

The paparazzi started yelling my name as soon as I was through the doors. All of them, in more languages then I thought possible, were shouting questions at me. I could feel M. Arsnault at my side, his hand brushing my back, just short of enveloping me in his arms and rushing me away should the need arise. There were three guards behind us, watching for M. Arsnault’s directions, and three more in front, keeping back the reaching arms. When we finally made it to the car, I was quickly stuffed inside, my security forming a wall between the car and the crowd. M. Arsnault jumped into the seat beside the driver and we slowly began to creep forward along with the police who were on foot in front of us, gently nudging back cameras, recorders, and notebooks. Hands balled into fists, I looked back at the hospital once more before settling into my seat and giving up.

“God, they are awful, terrible, parasitic monsters,” said Hector, voice edged in steel. He was furious. I could see tension laced through his entire body, wrapping tighter and tighter to his center.

Phillipa just took my hand in hers, squeezing tightly for a moment. “So,” she said, “I didn’t think I would have to give this lesson for a long time but…” I nodded, urging her to continue. I was grateful for the distraction, for something normal.

“We do not go to funerals often,” she began, clearing her throat. “Usually it causes too much of a commotion. Our presence tends to take away from the reason for the gathering. This is a special case. We have to go to thank the family and the deceased for their service to the county and the crown, for dying while protecting the prince.”

“I thought we didn’t know what happened,” I said, confused.

“We still don’t,” Hector murmured, “so anything is possible.” I nodded, understanding, more manners and policies.

“We need to do our best to fit in,” Phillipa continued. “Do not draw attention to yourself. You will be under great scrutiny. Everyone is waiting to see you and how you will react. You should not smile, laugh, or sob; remain resolute.”

“The rumors will spread like wild fire if you don’t,” added Hector darkly. “Your reputation will be ruined. You will be deemed weak or unfeeling, definitely unfit to rule.”

“People are going to get all of that from seeing me go to a funeral?” I scoffed doubtfully.

“If you allow them to,” he replied shortly.

Phillipa glared at her brother for a moment before pursing her lips and turning back to me. “You’ll be fine. Just do as you always have, and everything will be alright.”

“Are Felip and Beatrice coming?” I wondered. It would be easier if they were. Somehow when they were around, everything always ran smoother. They had a calming affect on situations as if their awe-instilling presence acted as a balm. It was as if etiquette mattered more somehow when the King and Queen were involved. Their authority even overpowered their popularity. Hector, Leopold, and Phillipa had more of a superstar effect which tended to evoke chaos. People cared more about getting close to them than respecting them. Maybe it was a generational thing, or maybe all of the mistakes they had made humanized them more. Dating the daughter of bakers, and riding fast motorcycles was much more laid back then getting betrothed to a duchess and riding around in a glass carriage.

“Yes,” Phillipa replied. “We will be following the usual formation and protocol. There will be more security than usual but that will not change much for us. You will stay at the castle tonight?”

She looked too hopeful, I felt kind of bad when I said, “No. I think I will just go back to the hospital after the service. I can’t…I won’t-”

“It is okay. That is fine,” Hector agreed, suddenly slightly calmer. He pinched the bridge of his nose, “How is he doing?”

“The cat scan today showed that the swelling has gone down more,” I told him.

He nodded once, sharply. “Good.”

The car slowed, bouncing as we hit a speed bump. We rolled through two massive cast iron gates and into the cemetery. The grassy hills were lined with monuments and tombstones of various styles and age. It seemed that the older ones were more on the right hand side, closer to the sea. They were ornate affairs, covered in angel figurines and carvings of flowers and quotations. Some of them were falling apart, the names and dates worn off by centuries of wind and storms. Even further away, lined up along the edge of the cliffs, I could see mausoleums, all made of glistening white marble. The names of many of the Solisian aristocratic families were emblazoned above the doors.

When we came to the crossroads at the top of the hill, we turned left toward the new side. There were cars parked all along the roadside and there was a group of people standing about fifty feet into the sea of tombstones. The surrounding area was spotted with a handful of people dressed in black suits, most standing under trees or next to larger monuments. They could have been other mourners but they weren’t, they were members of the Royal Guard. I wondered why they thought it necessary to have so many of them here. I didn’t think that the news crews would be tactless enough to consider interrupting the funeral. Even if they were, there seemed to be more guards here than what was normally required for that kind of situation.

I exhaled deeply as we pulled up behind a bright yellow sports car. I closed my eyes, listening to the sounds of shuffling around me as the other passengers shifted to get out of their seats. I concentrated, focusing on remembering the procedure and gestures that were necessary for going out in public. Beatrice and Felip would go first, followed by Hector and Phillipa, then Leopold and I would follow at the back. No, it was just me this time; I would be at the back alone. No touching, no curtsying, no smiling, no crying, no feeling allowed.

M. Arsnault opened my door and held out his hand to help me up. Beatrice touched my shoulder as I moved past her and Felip smiled weakly. I smoothed the pleats of my black dress and fell into my place in line before we started across the lawn.

As we grew closer to the pool of black clothed people, they began to take notice of us. Solemn heads turned to watch us, bowing grimly, both in respect to our titles and to our own pain. We moved through the crowd until we were at its center, the turning point that they all carefully circled around. The casket was there, hovering over open ground. It was closed and covered by a large Solisian flag. There was a line of uniformed soldiers standing at attention behind it. The Royal Family approached the casket, all of them standing shoulder to shoulder around it. I followed suit, ending up at its head. One by one, they all reached out and placed their right hand’s delicately onto its lid. I hesitated, watching as they bowed their heads, and then reached out myself, the lace of my gloves sliding across the grey of the flag. I did math while I waited for the okay to move again. I divided 78,892 by 1,793, distracting myself so that I would not focus on the emotion. It was the only way I trusted myself not to break the rules Phillipa had given me.

I was startled out of concentration by a deep voice that I recognized instantly and goose bumps prickled across my skin in response as I stood frozen in place. “Did you know him well, Princess?” asked Antoine. His voice was laced in honey, no traces of malice or regret.

All the same, my mouth was acrid and I had to swallow my own words before I could reply. “No,” I said, resisting the urge to run. “I did not.” I opened my eyes to see why no one had thought to warn me of his arrival, or had jumped in to rescue me yet. It seemed that as I focused on mathematics, the DuMont family had moved on to speak to a small group of people, not noticing the caboose lagging behind. I cranked my head around to try and see through the mass of black, hoping to catch one of their eyes. A castle guard who was watching me, took a few steps forward toward Antoine. As much as I wished he could come and help me, since it was evident that everyone else was occupied, I figured it would cause too much of a scene. I waved him off subtly and he returned to his statue-like stance under his tree.

I could do this, there was no proof that Antoine was really a risk to me. If anything, he seem more interested in marrying me than murdering me and I didn’t think he was likely to try either of those things at the funeral. Finally, I turned to face him, squinting against the sun. He was standing surprisingly close to me, and I had to angle my neck awkwardly to allow for his height. He was in uniform, like the guards behind him. The white jacket and pants almost offensively out of place considering the circumstances. “Did you?”

“I trained him. I was the Captain of his Flight, he reported to me,” Antoine said, his usual smile falling slightly.

“I’m sorry,” I told him sincerely.

Antoine shrugged slightly, his head hanging to look at the grass, “It happens in our business.” He cleared his throat and stood straight again, his blue eyes piercing into mine, “How is Leopold?”

“We remain positive,” I replied tersely, trying not to bristle too much. Maybe he was actually concerned and not just asking because he was waiting to move all his stuff into the castle should the opportunity arise.

“Good. I really hope this does not prevent you from coming to Arcadis this week. I completely understand that it may, but I will be disappointed. I think the trip would be good for you, Princess and my uncle has so much to teach you. Here,” he reached into his pocket, “I have a gift for you. Well, I guess I am technically just returning it to its owner.”

He placed a tiny figurine in my hand. It was a lady carved out of white stone. She was wearing a tiny gold crown and her eyes were made of emeralds. She wore robes decorated in flowers and was holding a sapphire cupped in her palms.

“What is it?” I asked, turning her around.

“It is supposed to be for good luck. People in Arcadis used to make tiny statues of deities that they carried around with them for good fortune. She is supposed to be the goddess of love and hope,” Antoine explained. “I wanted to make sure I gave it to you before I left.”

“You aren’t staying for the funeral?” I asked him, wondering why on earth he was here then. Maybe I should have called the guard over.

“No, I just came to give my respects to his family. I have to go and meet clients of my uncle.”

“Oh,” I managed rather indelicately. I was saved from having to say anything else as Hector all of a sudden appeared beside me.

“Everything alright, Winifred?” he asked, his voice as imposing beside me as his huge muscled form.

“Fine,” I assured him, looping my arm through his. I was fairly certain it was the only way I was going to be able to restrain him if Antoine decided to say something stupid. “I was just saying goodbye.”

Antoine looked as though he wanted to say something more but thought better of it and bowed to both of us instead. Without another word, he slipped off into the crowd and toward the cars.

“Walk with me,” Hector said in English, “I will take you to be introduced to the Belmonts.”

I let him lead me across the lawn to where Carlise and Beatrice were still speaking with the same group of people.

“Was Guillaume in Leopold’s team at the base?” I asked, feeling kind of bad that I hadn’t thought to do so before.

“No, he wasn’t. Guillaume was an officer. He was in charge of doing Leopold evaluation, they did not work together on a regular basis,” he explained.

I didn’t respond, I wasn’t sure if I should. I didn’t know if it was a good thing or not that Leopold did not know the man personally, unsure if it changed things somehow.

“Are you sure you are alright?” Hector asked softly. Concern was evident in the line of his mouth. “I am so sorry.”

“It’s fine,” I said, patting his hand. “He just wanted to say hi and give me more stuff.” I held up the figurine for his inspection.

Hector’s brow furrowed as he took the statue, turning it over in his palm. He hummed, the muscle in his jaw jumping.

I was about to ask what was wrong but we had arrived at the group of people. Hector slid the statue out of sight and into the pocket of his suit, smoothing out his features. I did more math, reciting multiples of 17, as I was introduced to the members of Guillaume Belmont’s family, first his mother Stephanie and his father Guy, then his little sister Julie and his girlfriend Marie-Anne. I exchanged brief condolences with them all. The last member of the group was an old man who’s eyes were glistening with tears. Hector murmured softly to him in a language I didn’t understand, his large hand strong and steady on the man’s shaking shoulder. They spoke quietly for a moment before Hector introduced me. The old man glanced up at me through his large dark eyes, holding my gaze fiercely, just as Antoine had earlier. The man’s gaze wasn’t predatory though, more searching, almost as though he could see into the very depths of my soul.

“This is Saripho Belmont,” explained Hector. “He is Guillaume’s grandfather. He flew here from the Ivory Coast.” So I had been wrong, he had been speaking French, just a different dialect.

The man reached out to take my hand, his own dark leathered fingers rough, knobby, and stiff as they wrapped themselves around mine. His voice was rough too, but strong when he spoke to me.

I looked up at Hector, and said somewhat guiltily in English, “I don’t understand.”

“He said that pain makes death easy, it is love that make it hard,” Hector translated.

I frowned, confused. It seemed like a strange thing to say. I shook my head and started to respond but the man squeezed my hand tighter, speaking with more urgency now. Hector listened intently before relaying the message back to me in English once again. “He says, love is what makes life worth living. Pain is what makes it easy to let go. He is sorry and wants you to know that you should do whatever it takes, to do what is best for you and Leopold, even if it is painful.”

Chapter Twenty Two

In Solisian Law, Council can not meet at court without the presence of the King and either the Prince, who is the successor to the King, or the Leader of National Defense. Without the attendance of both of these men, the country was considered to be in a state of war. Leopold still held both of these latter titles. Without him, the regular functioning of the courts could not proceed. The country was at war with itself. It was fitting then that the Council met in the War Room. Felip was waiting for me outside the room’s surprisingly unimposing door. He had changed from his black funeral suit into another black suit with a fresh shirt and a bold power tie and gained a few more lines beneath his eyes in the few hours we had been apart. I ducked my head slightly in greeting. It would only be the two of us from the family attending this meeting. He watched me as I came towards him, his green eyes surprisingly bright and determined. He didn’t say anything, didn’t have too, he just set his shoulders back and nodded once, raising one eyebrow in silent question. I smiled in response before following him through the door.

The members of the Council stood as we entered. Felip took his seat at the head of the table, this time with me at his right side. Almost deliberately slowly, the King put on his reading glasses and began to flip through the folders in front of him. The room waited silently for him to address it and commence the verbal free for all that was inevitably going to ensue. I waited, happily watching him exert the bit of control he still held over them, while they squirmed and shifted in the stale parchment scented air of the room. They deserved it after everything they had made Felip, Beatrice, Hector, and Phillipa go through over the last week. I sunk further into my crushed velvet chair. The War Room was one of the many rooms in the castle that had lost its practical uses over the centuries. I’m sure that at one point in time it had been crucial to have a room designated to planning battles and the movement of troops and artillery. Now that the entire process of war had been removed from the inside of the castle with the exceptions of signatures and aesthetic affaires, the War Room was really more of a dark, old, map room with a heavy wooden table in its center.

Finally, Felip cleared his throat saying, “Let us try to keep this brief tonight, messieurs, for Mademoiselle Winifred’s sake. I will entertain your more detailed questions tomorrow. Who would like to begin?”

Councilor Beaucage was the first to speak up, his chair creaking under the pressure of holding his immense form as he leaned over the table, his eyes boring into me. “We were hoping Mademoiselle would give us an update on His Royal Highness’s condition,” Beaucage stated, extending thick sausage fingers in my direction.

I understood what this request was at once. They weren’t really curious how Leopold was doing, they already had pages and pages of information regarding his condition in front of them, all signed by his doctors. What they were really after was how I was doing; whether I was strong enough to be in this meeting. “The Prince is doing well,” I said, aware of all of the evaluating eyes that were on me. I forced my voice to be clear, my hands not to shake. “His body is continuing to heal without any further complications. He remains asleep, however.”

“Any more information on when he is expected to wake up?” Beaucage directed at Felip this time. It seemed I had passed the test and wasn’t about to be thrown out of the War Room, at least not that second anyway.

“None,” Felip told him, sounding somewhat exasperated, as if the Councilors should know better then to ask. “The Prince will wake up when he is ready.”

“And if he does not?” asked Beaucage. I took note of the Arcadian green tie he was wearing.

“Leopold has until his eighteenth birthday to accept or decline his role as King. As we have discussed, my son can remain in a coma for another nine months and twenty seven days if he must.” Felip spoke softly and calmly, concentrating on pouring two glasses of water from the crystal decanter before him.

“Government cannot continue on like this for nine months, Your Majesty,” appealed Governor Montcalm. “There needs to be someone who will take the roles of the Prince until he returns. You must allow your other son to return to his rightful position.”

Felip placed one of the glasses of water in front of me. “I will allow no such thing,” he said. “We agreed that my family would be allowed a month before we were forced to declare anything. Hector still has three weeks before a decision must be made and I will not force his hand before that time.”

“Who will he marry, Monseigneur? How are we to find another bride for him in less then a year?” asked Montcalm. His wiry mustache quivered as he huffed and puffed in his distress.

“Perhaps it would then be better to give the role to Antoine Dublais. It would take out an extra step of finding a temporary fill in if he will be the one ascending the throne,” suggested Beaucage.

“This still does not solve the problem of marriage,” exclaimed Montcalm.

“Providing the meetings with France go well, Mademoiselle Sinclair could marry any of the gentlemen to make the process official and legally binding,” said the ruddy-faced Governor Pommier.

The attention of the room shifted back in my direction. I tried to keep my face even as I processed the fact that they were considering keeping me around to sell off to the highest bidder. “Winifred is capable of making her own decisions, and will do so when the time comes,” Felip told them.

“What will she be doing now though? Mademoiselle cannot stay in the hospital forever. People are beginning to ask questions.” Pommeir kept his beady eyes trained on me.

“She should be going to Arcadis as planned,” Beaucage cut in. “That is the only way we will be moving forward with any of this.”

“She may be in danger though,” added the very old Governor Rivet from the corner. “We still do not know for sure what caused the accident. What if Mademoiselle is the next target? She could be in put at great risk if she left our protection.”

“There is no sense in being paranoid, Rivet,” said Montcalm. “Mademoiselle Sinclair will be perfectly safe with Governor Richard and Antoine Dublaise.”

I thought of the necklace and statue Antoine had given me, all of the times he had tried to get between Leopold and I, about the fact that he was the one who inspected Leopold’s plane before the test. There was plenty reason to be paranoid if you considered all of the circumstantial evidence. Whether all of this actually added up to something nefarious or not was yet to be proven.

“We cannot send her away,” insisted Governor Trembler. “How will that look to the public if their princess leaves her ailing prince, much less to go off frolicking with the next in line for the throne. Rumors of conspiracy will spread like wild fire.”

“The trip has been planned for weeks! She must go! If we have any hope of piecing things back together when all of this is over, Mademoiselle Sinclair must go to Arcadis. She has duties there as well!” replied Beaucage, slapping his chubby hands on the table top like an upset child.

“Perhaps Prince Hector should go with her, for propriety’s sake, she should not be going alone. Or, even better, Princess Phillipa,” suggested Montcalm.

“Hector is needed here. He is doing his best to keep up with Leopold’s duties until we know for certain what will happen. Phillipa is helping Beatrice make arrangements for Leopold when he returns home. Either of them could go, of course, but their skills are invaluable here at the moment,” Felip said, putting an end to the tabletop crossfire. “Ultimately, the decision is up to Winifred. We will agree to support her in whatever she does.”

All of the attention fell on me again as the room pressed inward.

I began to calculate thirty five point two percent of six hundred and seventy one.

I sat in the center of my bed as Angela nervously danced around me, packing my bags. She kept throwing cautious glances in my direction every few seconds. Clearly she was worried but I appreciated that she didn’t say anything since I was sure that if I had to have a conversation right now, I would choke on any words I tried to speak. Felip had said he would give me twenty-four hours before he announced my decision. Twenty-four hours to change my mind, although both he and I knew that I wouldn’t, I couldn’t. He had pulled me aside after the Council had left and, bracing his hand on my shoulder, placed a single kiss on my forehead. He knew this was it.

Angela had tried to convince me to stay in the castle overnight. She told me I should sleep, that she could pack up some things for me in the morning. There was no point in that though, I wanted to do this as soon as possible. No point in drawing anything out since I wasn’t going to sleep anyway. As I sat sorting out the issues in my head, it was comforting having her work around me, something familiar to help anchor me. I tried to force my mind blank so I didn’t have to think about what I was doing. So I didn’t have to justify my actions to my heart or think about how others would judge me. This was it, the choice that had to be made. Tears threatened to fall, but they had to wait. Although I would allow myself that privilege later, I needed to appear strong, like a leader, in front of others.

When M. Lefevre and M. Arsnault arrived, M. Lefevre took my luggage from Angela and headed back down the hallway, to the car that I was sure was already waiting out front. I got up from the bed and straightened the suit jacket I was still wearing from the meeting. Angela stood facing me with her hands clamped tightly in front of her. Felip had promised he wouldn’t tell anyone the news until I was already gone, so only Angela and my guards were privy to my decision. “I wish you well, Mademoiselle,” Angela said formally. “Take care of yourself.”

Unable to stop myself, I hugged her tightly. “I’m going to miss you. Thank you so much for everything! You have no idea how big of a help you have been.”

Angela patted my back. “I believe in you, Mademoiselle. You will do right.”

M. Arsnault cleared his throat meaningfully. I wasn’t exactly being tactful or regal at the moment and I had a plane to catch. My guard followed me closely through the halls; I don’t think he was confident that I was truly alright. We met no one on the way out other than the few guards who acknowledged me in subtle recognition as we passed. With the exception of the still heightened security, there was no one walking about the castle; the usually noisy castle was practically on lockdown.

I shivered as we slid into the cold night air. I braced myself on M. Arnault’s offered arm as I fumbled down the steps. He held the door of the car open and I slipped into the empty back seat. Gravel crackling under the tires sounded like shots from a gun as we rolled across the drive. As soon as the tires hit the stone street though, all was silent. Like a shadow we passed through the gates, away from the security of the castle.

“You will have fifteen minutes in the hospital once we arrive, Mademoiselle,” M. Arsnault reminded me softly from the passenger seat.

“Thank you.” Watching out the window as we drove, the streets were all familiar. I knew exactly where we were, the names of the buildings, the names of the battles that had happened in the fields we passed, and I could read and understand all of the signs in the shop windows. All of the things that had seemed so scary and foreign a few months ago now just felt like home. My stomach knotted.

It was quiet when we pulled up at the hospital. Nearly all of the photographers had gone home for the night, with only a few left who had been put on watch over the night shift. They perked up as our car pulled up, lifting sleepy eyes to see whether it was worth pulling their cameras out. They started to get really excited when they saw my team of guards file out of the Hospital atrium and head towards the car. I waited patiently until M. Arsnault came around and opened my door. He helped me out, then placed his hand firmly on my back as we began to move forward with the rest of the guards. Some of them stayed back with M. Lefevre and the car, keeping back the photographers who fluttered around the vehicle, trying to get a glimpse of anyone else who could be inside. My hands were shaking again by the time we made it to the elevator, so I closed them into fists in an attempt to still them. There was a ping as the doors slid open to Leopold’s floor. M. Arsnault’s hand nudged me forward into the sterile hall. “I will wait here for you, Mademoiselle,” he told me, and nodded encouragingly down the corridor.

I swallowed hard and nodded. My shoes clacked loudly on the linoleum as I rounded the nurse’s station. The nurses in their purple scrubs smiled at me, nodding their heads and the few guards stood to attention as I passed them. Finally, I reached the door to Leopold’s room. A young guard with tired eyes held it open for me as I stepped over the threshold into the dark space.

Nothing had changed since I left. I hadn’t expected it to, but I was still disappointed somehow. The dim lights from all the monitors cast an odd multicolored glow in the room with long and strange shadows on the walls and floor. I sat down in the chair beside the bed and gave a shaky exhale.

“I have to leave you for a while,” I told Leopold and reached for his hand, grasping it delicately between both of my own. I was scared I would crush the tiny bones in his hand now that they were so much closer to the surface then they had been just a few weeks ago. He didn’t answer of course, which made it that much harder for me to continue explaining myself. If he had been awake he would have yelled, most likely in multiple languages and he probably would have thrown something too. The first few tears began to roll down my cheeks.

“It is for the best, I promise,” I pushed on. “It is the only way we are going to get answers. Antoine and Richard are up to something, I just know they are and this could be the only way to catch them. Don’t you try to talk me out of it. You would do the same if it were me in the hospital.” I reached forward, resting my hand against his stubbled jaw. “I just can’t let your family suffer anymore. Hector and Rose should be allowed to stay together. Phillipa needs to stop crying. Felip shouldn’t be worrying about who is going to take over for him. I’m the only person who can fix all of that. Especially now, with you injured and in a coma.” I leaned forward, resting my chin on his shoulder. He still smelled of Leopold underneath all of the antiseptics he was coated in. “You are always trying to save everyone, Leopold. I know you are, even if they don’t. Let me be the one to save them this time. We are a team, you and I, and it is my turn to step up.” I stood, wiping the tears off my cheeks. Leaning forward, I placed the lightest of kisses on his cracked lips. “I’ll be back the second you wake up,” I vowed. “You won’t even know I was gone.” I took a few deep breaths in the darkness of the room, steadying myself. “Je t’aime,” I whispered to him and then left, pushing back into the hallway.

“Ready?” I called to M. Arsnault who was still standing in front of the elevators. One of the guards at the side of the hall jumped slightly at the sudden noise.

M. Arsnault cocked an eyebrow, “Of course, Mademoiselle.”

“Me too,” I told him, the edges of my lips curling up. As soon as we were out of earshot I added, “I hope you are ready for this; it’s just going to be you and me for a while. Think you can handle it?”

My guard chuckled slightly, pressing the button for the lobby. “I think I have done alright so far, Mademoiselle. Although, you do tend to keep me on my toes.”

“Well things are about to get a lot more interesting, I hope. I am going to need your help though, I need to find evidence against Antoine and Richard.” The elevator doors slid open but I paused, staring straight into M. Arsnault’s eyes.

“You can have my help for whatever you wish, Mademoiselle. I would never let you face those barbarians alone,” he swore valiantly.

My smile grew. “Then let’s go catch that plane. I am supposed to meet with the rogues for breakfast tomorrow, in my castle.”

Chapter Twenty Three

“So do you have a plan, Mademoiselle?” asked M. Arsnault. He had been quiet during the flight until now. I guess he was getting worried about what we would be doing once we landed. M. Arsnault wasn’t going to be able to be as connected in Arcadis as he had been in Solis. My castle didn’t have the same interface, or security, and he was an outsider. M. Arsnault was coming primarily for my protection since we didn’t know what I was walking into, but he was also coming as my chaperone just as he had been since the beginning of the whole princess situation. Now, however, he wasn’t going to have access to all of his usual information and monitoring capabilities, nor would he have access to the schedules of all of the castle’s occupants. Any information and plans were going to have to be sorted out between him and me; no one else could be trusted.

The clouds were just starting to turn pink as the sun inched upwards. The coast of Arcadis was shimmering into view, backlight by the weak light. I could just make out the silhouette of the castle towers and surrounding hills as we made our approach. The late nights were finally catching up with me. My eyelids felt heavy as I scrubbed at them and turned away from the plane window to face my guard. “No idea. When we have breakfast with Richard and Antoine, I am sure they will have some sort of schedule for me that we are going to have to work around. We will figure things out after that.”

“I am sure you can reschedule the meeting, Mademoiselle. You should get some rest. I can talk to Richard when we land,” M. Arsnault offered. He was looking at me a little worried, as if he wasn’t sure if I was going to make it up the front steps of my castle.

“It’s all right. I just want to get it over with. I’ll take a break after, promise,” I said, offering a smile, trying to be reassuring. M. Arnauslt’s eyes narrowed slightly but he didn’t say anything more on the subject. “Is there a car meeting us at the airport?” I asked him. I wanted to know how much longer exactly until we would be at the castle. More specifically, how long I was going to be in public and have to make a conscious effort at appearing like I had it together. The flight had seemed a lot longer this time then when Leopold had flown me in the helicopter.

“We are not landing at the airport,” M. Arsnault admitted, sounding slightly guilty. “We have been circling the airport for a while, waiting for the okay to land. It seems that the press was somehow made aware you were arriving in Arcadis tonight. They are lined up and waiting at the airport hoping for the chance to ask you about Leopold, and why you have left, and so forth.”

Great. So this was going to be even more complicated than I had anticipated. “Will there be more security meeting us there then?” I asked. It wasn’t that I doubted M. Arsnault’s capabilities. I was more concerned for his own well being as well as mine. There was only so much one man could do.

“No,” my guard said. “I spoke with the pilot and we have decided we are going to land on the castle’s beach. Someone will meet us there to walk us up to the castle,” my guard explained as the plane began to dip.

“Are you sure that’s a good idea?” I asked. It sounded safer to face all the paprazzi than to land on a thin strip of rocky beach.

“I am very confidant,” M. Arsnault stated, closing the subject. It seems it was to late to change the decision anyway as at that moment he began to feel around for the ends of his seatbelt. I didn’t need another warning. I clipped mine together too and gripped the armrests of my chair. Landing on a tarmac was bumpy at the best of times, I couldn’t imagine the beach being any better. It was going to take some skill to land on it, as hitting the ocean or grapevines running along either side didn’t seem like good options. I closed my eyes, unsure whether the sudden unease in my stomach was from the plane’s descent or because I was about to be in the same building as the man we suspected of being Leopold’s attempted murderer. We hit the ground hard. Glass tinkled wildly somewhere in the cabin. My phone slipped off my lap and fell to the floor. My nails dug into my palms, my breath held tight in my chest. The plane kicked and jumped across the uneven beach for a few nerve-racking moments, then all was still.

There was shuffling beside me as M. Arsnault sorted himself out. He unbuckled himself and stood, exchanging a few fast words with the crew. With a reassuring voice, he inquired, “Are you ready, Mademoiselle?”

I uncurled my fingers, flexing and closing them into fists and then opened my eyes. M. Arsnault was looking down at me expectantly and holding out my fallen phone toward me.

“Thanks,” I told him, while I unclasped my seatbelt. My legs shook slightly as I stood; I needed to rest soon. Accepting my phone, I brushed past him toward the already unfolding staircase. Reaching into the pocket of the leather coat I had borrowed, I found a pair of aviators and slid them on. They were less to hide my eyes from the still rising sun and more to hid the fact that I had been crying. I made it down the steps to the sand. There was a man in a suit waiting by the tree line. He was very tall and very thin with dark grey hair that stuck up impossibly straight. The man bowed slightly in my direction when he saw me watching him.

“That must be our escort,” noted M. Arsnault, appearing behind me. “I suppose we should present ourselves to him. The pilot said that there was someone coming to get your luggage.”

“Sure,” I said distractedly. My phone had started vibrating as soon as I turned it back on. I looked down at the screen. There was a message from Hector, five of them, actually, all of increasing urgency. My palms were suddenly clammy. I held the screen up in M. Arsnault’s direction, showing him the messages. “Just give me a sec, please.”

“Absolutely,” my guard nodded.

I stepped out of my heels and hit dial. The sand was cool under my feet as I walked out of hearing distance from the plane’s crew and the tall man. Hector picked up on the first ring.

“Fred,” he exclaimed sounding relieved. “Finally.”

“What’s happened?” I asked quietly, expecting the worst. I chewed my cheek, bracing myself.

“That is what I want to ask you,” Hector said, the bite of anger edging his voice.

I relaxed slightly, this was about me, not Leopold. “I had to do it,” I told Hector.

"You really did not. You are just as stubborn as my brother. I can't believe -" his accent grew thicker as he went on. Hector caught himself after a moment through. He breathed deeply before moving on.

“I need to do this Hector. It’s the only way I can help,” I said.

“I know. It does not matter anyway, it is done; you are there. I called because I have information, not to lecture you,” Hector told me, his voice steadying.

I had to smile slightly. The small flash of temper was so familiar. It was there in Hector and Felip, hiding underneath their usual calm exteriors. Leopold too, he was just so much worse at keeping his hidden. “What’s up?” I asked.

“The figurine that Antoine gave you, I had it appraised. It is from a collection that belongs to a Duke in Arcadis. He collected them and kept a very detailed record of his figurines in his journals. The one Antoine gave you was buried with the girl who had been betrothed to the Duke’s son. He died in battle against the French before they were married. It was the figurine that the Duke had given to his wife before they were married.”

“So it is valuable and did not get buried after all,” I summarized as I turned away from the sun. It’s light warmed my back, making me feel even more sleepy.

“Indeed,” said Hector. “Another object, like the necklace, that Richard and Antoine should not be in possession of.”

I glanced back up the beach where M. Arsnault and the tall man were standing a few feet apart. Both of them had their hands clasped loosely in front of themselves. Both of them were staring directly at me. The only difference was that M. Arsnault was holding my discarded heels. “So what does that mean?” I asked Hector.

“Felip and I think that Richard and Antoine may be involved in some black market trading. We want you to keep a lookout for some other valuable items that are supposed to be missing or lost,” Hector explained. “There will be a folder of images sent to your phone. They are items that you should look for while you are in the castle.”

“Alright,” I said, frowning. This really wasn’t what I was expecting. What did black market deals have to do with any of this? How did this relate at all to Leopold’s accident? “I don’t understand how this will help, but I will keep an eye out for the valuables.”

Hector sighed. “It may not be perfect, but if we cannot get evidence to support that Antoine attempted to murder Leopold, this would be another option. At least we could accuse him of something. Legal charges like that would make it impossible for Antoine to become King.”

“Okay,” I agreed, “I will check it out.”

“Good,” said Hector. Then firmly he added, “Please be careful, Fred.”

“I promise,” I told him, only hoping that I would be able to be careful enough.

“Keep me updated,” he added.

“You too,” I told him. The line went dead. Well, at least I had a direction to go in now. I crossed back up the beach toward the two waiting men. “Sorry about that,” I told them, smiling. M. Arnault raised his eyebrow in silent question. I nodded slightly in his direction. We would have to talk later.

“Mademoiselle, this is M. Fraise,” M. Arsnault said, indicating the tall man. I had to bite my lip to stop the hiccup of laughter that threatened to surface.

“It is a pleasure to meet you,” I told M. Fraise, holding out my hand. He accepted it stiffly, bowing low as he kissed the back of my hand. My fingers were tiny in his massive, cold paws.

“It is an honor, Princesse,” he said in accented French. His voice was deep and gravely, resonating deep in his chest. He looked more like he belonged to the Addams Family then in Marie Antoinette’s castle. “We have been eagerly awaiting your arrival. If you would follow me, I would be happy to escort you to the castle.”

“Thank you,” I told him, stepping back into my heels. With a man on either side of me, we began weaving up through the rows of grapevines toward the glistening gold outline of the Sinclaire Castle. I don’t think that anyone had really thought out this little expedition through the vineyard properly. Sure, it sounded like a good way to see the castle grounds, until you had to do it in heels, with no sleep. It wasn’t exactly a short walk either. We tripped our way across the roots and stepped over squished grapes for at least fifteen or twenty minutes. M. Arsnault was very kind and let me cling to his arm for stability. The sun was fully above the horizon by the time we made it to the gardens. The square garden beds were flaming and sparkling with flowers of all kinds and colors. Gold statues and fountains glistened at their centers. Everything was manicured; all of it perfect. To say I was glad when we made it to the front steps was an understatement. The feeling didn’t last long though.

“Welcome, Princess! It is my pleasure to welcome you to your home!” cried Richard. He was standing at the top of the steps grinning broadly with Antoine beside him, both of them in dark green suits. If it was possible, Antoine looked even happier than his uncle. They both bowed their heads.

“Come join us inside, Princess,” continued Richard, waving his had toward the thirty foot tall gold front doors. “Breakfast is waiting. We will have a little meeting while we eat and then you can do as you please with the rest of the day, yes?”

“Sounds fantastic,” I told him, forcing a smile. “I’m starved.”

The entrance hall of the castle was made of white marble. The floor tiles were laid out in a complicated patterned and gleamed like snow. It looked almost crystalline. The marble spun upward in even intervals into great trunk-like pillars that stretched to the ceiling. Each pillar was carved into the shape of a woman, man, animal, or something in between. Their hair and fingers branched out and up, spanning to form a web across the ceiling. In the spaces formed by the web, there were murals depicting scenes of battle, pastoral life, and legendary figures. Doors were carved out spaces in the marble walls, leading off in every direction. A grand staircase flowed upwards, rising like a wave. Half way up, there was a landing where a great gold statue of a knight on a rearing horse was fighting off a griffon. The staircase then divided up into three sections.

“Impressive, no?” said Antoine, appearing at my shoulder. We were going though one of the many doors, into a hallway trimmed in gold and crystal.

“Beautiful,” I told him, too in awe to manage anything else. It was what he wanted to hear anyway. I was supposed to be impressed by all of this, not scared.

“Your ancestors knew the importance of beauty,” he acknowledged, smiling. A piece of his dark, straight hair fell in front of his eyes and he brushed it away impatiently.

M. Fraise suddenly spurted forward, his long stride driving him to the front of our group. He reached for another set of gold doors I hadn’t noticed amongst all of the other intricate ornament, holding one of the doors open for us.

We entered what I hoped was the grand dinning room. This was mostly because I was fairly certain that it was impossible for anything to be grander, especially a room whose sole purpose was for dining. The inside wall was lined by three fireplaces, each taller than myself. The outside wall was made up of windows that looked out onto the gardens. The ceiling had a large glass dome overlying the center of the table, which looked up to the sky. On either side of the skylight was a chandelier with so many beads of crystal that it looked like a snowball. The floor was covered by a huge meadow-like Persian affair that looked more like it belonged in an art gallery and less a rug that had been stained by the table droppings of too many self-indulgent aristocrats. The table was large enough to seat fifty people and completely laid out with the proper silver, china, and glass to serve a full banquet dinner. It seemed pretty strange to have it set and collecting dust considering there hadn’t been anyone in the castle and three people really didn’t require the whole table to be ready for service.

Antoine pulled out the chair at the head of the table closest to us, indicating for me to sit. He and Richard then took the seats on either side of me. I looked over my shoulder to see M. Arnault standing guard by the door. M. Fraise, however, had disappeared.

“Now first things first,” began Richard. “How is your betrothed doing?” he glanced at me curiously, half distracted by extracting his napkin out of its ivory holder. He spread the silk over his lap.

“Much the same,” I reported, trying to keep my expression even. “Leopold is still holding stable. We just need time.” M. Fraise reappeared from a side door pushing a trolley that was stacked with food, all laid out on silver and gold platters. He bowed solemnly when he arrived at our end of the table, then he began to pour us coffee.

“It is all truly awful business,” Richard continued. “Our thoughts are with him.”

“We are very happy to have you here though,” Antoine cut in. He was dumping half the pitcher of cream into his teacup. “It was very brave of you to tear yourself away from the Prince in his time of need.”

It was hard not to roll my eyes; they were laying it on really thick. “I can’t let things get in the way of my duties, can I?” I replied, grabbing a bagel.

“That is very wise of you, Princess,” Richard smiled.

“So what’s the plan?” I asked, trying to get to the point.

“Well,” Richard said, taking a beat to compose his words. I had cut him off before he could continue rambling. “We thought you could have today to settle in. Tomorrow we can acquaint you properly with the castle and begin lessons.”

“Are there any meetings or events I need to be aware of?” I questioned. When I had shown up in Solis I was scheduled to make quite a few appearances.

“None, Princess,” said Richard. “We are here for your education alone. There are a few things you should know though, for the sake of your security. No one has lived in the castle for a long time, Mademoiselle. It has mainly been used for business meetings and as a tourist attraction. As such, it is not fully staffed. You would do well not to leave the safety of your rooms until the castle is operational again. There are plans in the making, but nothing can be done until discussions with France have moved along further.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” I lied. “And you are sure I don’t have to meet with the French? I thought that was part of the deal with me coming here.”

“The meeting was postponed a few weeks,” was all Richard had to offer as answer. “Now, you should get some rest, Princess. M. Fraise would be happy to take you to your rooms.”

Apartment would have been a better description for my rooms, especially since there were two levels. The first floor was for work and receiving guests. It was made up of an office, drawing room, and small dinning room. There was a staircase in the drawing room that led to the bathroom, dressing room, and bedroom. The entire apartment was coated in flowery, emerald wallpaper. “Here we are, Princess,” groaned M. Fraise when we arrived in my bedroom. There was a woman there. Long and lean with grey hair that was cut bluntly near her jaw. She was pulling things out of my suitcase and arranging them in the adjacent dressing room. “This is Mme. Fraise,” M. Fraise introduced. The women stopped her work and curtsied. It was clear the two were related. They had the same long nose, sallow cheeks, and sunken eyes. “She will help you with anything you may need.”

“Great,” I said, faking a smile. I was living in a castle with Lurch and Grandmama Addams. M. Fraise bowed dutifully and made his exit.

I sank into one of the green silk chairs that was in the room, scrubbing at my face with my hands. M. Arsnault stood loyally beside me, waiting for direction. I glanced at the skeletal form of Mme. Fraise as she floated in and out of the closet. There was no way I was going to sleep with her hovering like that. “Why don’t we go for a walk?” I asked M. Arsnault. It would give the opportunity to fill him in on my talk with Hector and explore the castle at the same time. Plus, I thought inviting him would be the right thing to do. I couldn’t imagine anyone would be too happy if they had to send out a search party because I got lost in the palace.

“If you wish, Mademoiselle,” M. Arsnault agreed. He held the door open for me and we exited into a second floor hallway.

I looked down one end and could make out the railing that wrapped around the mezzanine, which looked down on the marble entrance hall. The other direction went down quite far, doors speckling the walls on both sides of the hall at even intervals. I went toward the mezzanine, figuring we could start in the middle and work out way out. If it was anything like the DuMont Palace, all the most important rooms were near the heart of the castle, and important rooms tended to hold important objects.

I quickly and quietly explained my phone call with Hector to M. Arsenault. He took my phone, flipping through the files of statues, paintings, weapons, and jewelry that Hector had sent. I figured it would be best for him to see them, so that he would have a better idea of the kind of things we were looking for.

“So we are going on a treasure hunt?” he asked, glancing down at me. I could have sworn I saw a flash of excitement in his eyes. I supposed hunting for stolen objects was more exciting then babysitting me.

“Seems like it,” I agreed. I looked across the mezzanine, then down at the lobby below. There wasn’t anyone in sight, just dozens of doors. “Pick one.”

M. Arsnault shrugged, pointing towards the double doors in the center of the back wall. They were open, showing yet another hallway into which morning light poured from a few rooms whose doors were open. As we approached the first opening, I realized with surprise that there was a piece of plastic in front of the doorway, screwed into its frame, stopping us from going inside. I put a hand on the warm plastic, looking into the room on the other side. It was a library with big mahogany shelves, tables, and chairs. Thick bound volumes were lined up perfectly on the shelves, a few of them left open on side tables and desks next to jewel incrusted oil lamps.

“It must be used for the tours,” noted M. Arsnault. He pointed to the next doorway. It also lead to the library but it was not blocked off this time. Instead, thick red ropes sectioned off about a ten foot squared section of the room in which the floor had been covered with thick durable carpet. It was like a viewing station, so that the guests on the tours could enter a small part of the library.

“So we are in the part that is used as a museum,” I said.

M. Arsnault nodded. “The Sinclair Palace has been mostly untouched since it was abandoned by the French elite. It is more of a historical monument than a functional building, unlike the DuMont Castle which has been constantly updated with modern conveniences.”

“But my room has electricity,” I said, remembering seeing the switches on the wall.

“I imagine that the parts of the palace that are used for public functions and government meetings have been updated. Your palace is enormous though, Mademoiselle. I doubt the government could see the reason in outfitting the entire building with air conditioning and wifi when the majority of the rooms are hardly ever used.”

I thought of the dinning room earlier. The entire room had been set up for a black tie, full course dinner. There were light bulbs in the chandeliers though. It must be one of the rooms used for functions and tours, always kept ready to impress. I closed my eyes, trying to orient myself within the castle based on the blueprints I had been forced to study. We were on the second floor near the Royal Library. Below and to my left was the Dinning Room. The Ballroom then had to be below us on the right. Across from the library was a Salon and Smoking Room and at the end of the hall was the King’s Bedroom. I opened my eyes. Sure enough, the room at the end of the hall was open. I went to it, not surprised this time when there was plastic in my way. The entire room was gold, the walls, the curtains, and the furniture. The bed was raised up on series of step-like platforms, facing a huge fireplace. Gold window frames stretched from the floor to the ceiling, looking out onto the square gardens below. It was nothing less than a bedroom fit for a king. I could think of no better place to hide a fancy object than in the King’s bedroom. I cranked my neck, trying to see the whole room but it was no use. Standing in the doorway, I could only see so much. There were three other doors, presumably leading to the other rooms in the king’s suite. I looked right, to one of the closed doors. I mean, there were only so many options. When I pulled on the handle though, it was locked. I crossed the hall, choosing another closed door. It was locked too. In fact, every other door in the hallway that wasn’t barricaded was locked.

I turned to M. Arsnault. “What do you think? Are they locking us out or locking us in?”

Chapter Twenty Four

Nothing changed that whole week. All day I was confined to my rooms. Every morning Mme. Fraise woke me up and shuffled me into the sitting room to eat lukewarm porridge and drink cold coffee. Afterwards, M. Arsnault and I spent the day playing cards, reading, or playing on the Internet. I reviewed the documents I had brought with me from Solis and the files of stolen items. Governor Richard and Antoine had been unavailable to see me since my arrival and my schedule had remained empty. Tours came in and out of the castle all day, making it impossible for me to go and explore anything outside of my suite. Plainly, I was bored and frustrated. By Thursday, I didn’t even bother to change out of my pajamas.

There were only two things that broke up the monotony. The first was the calls from my friends and family. None of them could offer much advice as to how to improve my current situation, but they at least helped to keep my mind off of it. There was still no news from the hospital; nothing had changed.

The second distraction was my nightly unauthorized excursions with M. Arsnault. Every night, after all the tours had ended and Mme. Fraise had done her final round for the evening, my guard and I would go exploring. Some nights we just walked the halls, stretching our legs, while other nights we spent hours hunting for any of Hector’s items. We would go into one of the few rooms we had access to and search through all the ornate trinkets and decorations for anything that looked important. So far we had come up empty.

Between the late night treasure hunts, the inactivity all day, and the constant worry about Leopold that gripped my mind whenever I wasn’t distracted, I found myself plagued with insomnia. It felt like as soon as I finally did fall asleep Mme. Fraise was waking me up only five minutes later. Friday morning though, it had gotten to the point that I was also awake even before Mme. Fraise had come for me. I lay on my back, staring up at the stupid carvings on the ceiling, trying to decide whether to look at trading documents, to practice French verbs, or to download a Meg Cabot novel. The options were riveting. The tours would end early today though, and the Adams family’s shifts were shorter for the weekend. That meant that M. Arsnault and I could stay out longer tonight. I wondered vaguely what time it was. I had no idea what time Mme. Fraise normally came in, but judging by the consistently lukewarm temperature of my breakfast, I’d have to guess that she waited a while before she woke me up. I would be sure to make a note of the time she came today.

I rolled onto my stomach, reaching for my laptop, which I kept in the drawer of the bedside table. I could read the news, check the time, and keep myself occupied until something happened. I’d just pulled on the drawer when I heard a door open behind me. I looked over my shoulder to see Mme. Fraise emerging from my closet. She startled when she saw me staring at her.

“Oh, Princess, I did not realize you were awake,” she croaked, halfway in the closet still, her boney hands like claws on its frame.

I stared at her bewildered. How long had she been in my closet? I had to have been lying awake in bed for at least a half hour. “What were you doing in there?” I asked before I could think about whether or not I should.

Pursing her wrinkled lips and stepping fully into my room, she finally stated, “Putting you clothes away.” I didn’t buy it, but I didn’t have any other reasonable explanation to counter with.

“Would the Princess like to move into the drawing room?” the maid asked, approaching the bed with a dressing robe in hand.

I shook my head and finished fishing my laptop out of the drawer. “I think I’ll stay here a bit longer.” Settling in to the pillows, I opened the computer, watching the screen blink to life, hoping that Mme. Fraise would leave me alone and go off to do whatever it was she did. No such luck though.

“You should not do work in your bedroom, Princess. It is not good for your health,” she said, stepping up to the side of the bed. She held the robe up by the shoulders, waiting for me to get up and shluff the silk onto my shoulders.

“Nah, I’m alright. Thanks though,” I said, not getting up.

“Your breakfast will be ready shortly, Princess,” she persisted. “I must insist you move to the other room so that you can eat your breakfast comfortably.”

I looked up from the computer screen and into her cold eyes, her face a practiced mask of emptiness. It didn’t look like she was going to leave anytime soon though, so with a heavy sigh, I gave in, flipping back the sheets. “Fine,” I grumbled, shoving my arms into the offered robe. I picked up my laptop and stomped through the door to the living room and flopped down onto the leather couch. My silk robe was slick on the leather, making me slide down until I was slouched in a very undignified position that was no where near as comfortable as my bed. The maid didn’t follow. Opening a browser, I pulled up the homepage of the main Solisian news network. The headlining article read “Sleeping Beauty’s Princess Missing”. Skimming the article it seemed that people were starting to get upset with my absence. After being seen leaving the hospital at the beginning of the week it had been released that I had gone to Arcadis for preplanned meetings. Now that a week had passed though and I hadn’t been spotted out in public or at any of the events I had been supposed to appear at, the article was questioning where I was and what I was doing.

“They’re mad I’m not with him,” I muttered, shutting the laptop. M. Arsnault raised an eyebrow as he stepped in from the hall. He had his suit pants and dress shirt on, but no jacket. It seemed that even he didn’t see the point of getting dressed anymore.

“You have responsibilities,” he stated, then yawned. “Or that is the theory.” He was trying to be comforting. I pushed myself upright, folding my legs underneath me. He sat on the couch across from mine.

“They are right though. I am not getting anything done here, I should just go back. Then I can be there when he wakes up,” I reasoned.

“You need to stay here a while longer, Mademoiselle. You know that. This may be the only chance we get,” my guard’s voice was still thick with sleep. I knew what he meant, what he wasn’t saying. I needed to be here on the off chance I might actually find something that could help uncover who was plotting against Leopold, or at least implicate Gov.Richard and Antoine in criminal activities.

"I know, I know, but I feel useless. I wish -"

Grandma Addams reappeared, carrying a tray full of food from my bedroom into the sitting room. “Voila, Princess, your breakfast is served. If you require me for nothing else, I will go and perform my regular duties.” She placed the tray on the table, making the china and silver rattle.

“Sure, you may go,” I said dismissively.

The maid bowed in gratitude. “Remember that the tours end at four today and I will be departing shortly afterwards.”

“Yes, thank you,” I agreed, putting down my documents and picking up the bowl of porridge. It was cold. Apparently my wake up time had nothing to do with the food quality.

“Be sure to ring for me if you require anything, Princess,” she said, backing out of the room the way she came.

I rolled my eyes and slouched back into the couch. “I miss Angela.”

“I miss food,” retorted M. Arsnault as he wrinkled his nose at the cold porridge. He pushed his away and reached for a mug and the carafe of coffee instead.

\^^^/

I spent the day reading a French book by a Solisian author, or at least trying too. Some of the French vocabulary was still too difficult for me to read. The book was on the historiography of the Solisian Revolution so I had a feeling I would have missed a few things even if it were written in English.

Around four in the afternoon, Mme. Fraise returned and made me get off the couch and take a bath. She promised they would have dinner on the table by the time she left at five. I sat in the tub for an hour. After washing my hair twice, I decided that I could probably go the third day without shaving my legs, and continued soaking well past the time it took my skin to shrivel. It was only once I had heard the maid come and go with the dinner trolley she promised that I deemed it safe to get out of the bath. I dried off quickly, pulled on a pair of jeans and a tee shirt, and piled my damp hair up in a bun.

M. Arsnault was eating a forkful of peas when I returned to the sitting room. “Chicken pie,” he told me and pointed at the plate that had been left for me. “It’s not bad actually, best meal so far at least.”

We ate in silence for a while. I picked the crust off the top of my slice, letting the pastry dissolve on my tongue. “What do you think about having a look at the throne room tonight?”

“We haven’t been down that bit of hall yet,” M. Arsnault agreed. “Have you heard anything else from them today?”

I nudged a burnt carrot to the edge of my plate. “Nope. You?”

“Nothing outside of the usual reports.”

“That’s good though, right?” I asked him softly. Was it strange that we had heard so little from the castle?

“It’s good, Mademoiselle. We would know if something were wrong,” he assured me.

A clock chimed six. Everyone would be out of the castle by now. I put my plate with the pie down on the table. It wasn’t that good. “You ready?”

M. Arsnault looked down at his dinner and pursed his lips. “Yeah,” he agreed, “May as well. It’ll be easier with the daylight anyway; we won’t have to hunt for the light switches.” He stood, brushing out the wrinkles in his shirt and pants.

“One sec,” I said, running into my bedroom. I went to the bedside table and grabbed my phone. It had all the pictures that Hector had sent in it. As I turned back around to leave I noticed that the light in my closet was on. I frowned. I was pretty sure I had turned it off after I had gotten dressed. I shrugged, and went over and flicked the switch off before joining my guard.

Together, we went out into the hall and headed towards the sweeping staircase of the atrium. The air smelt funny, like all the colognes and perfumes of the visitors that day were trapped in the giant dome of the entrance. I wrinkled my nose.

“Do you have the map?” I asked M. Arsnault. He had stolen one of the tour pamphlets for the castle our second day here. It had the layout of the castle on it. There were X’s over the rooms we had checked so far. The frustrating part was that we couldn’t even get to half the rooms on the map; they were locked down.

When we reached the bottom of the stairs, he pulled the well-creased paper and pen out of his back pocket and unfolded it. “We did this whole side already,” the guard said, indicating the left hand hall I had been in on my first day here. The dining room and ballroom had come up blank for stolen priceless artifacts.

“And the crown room is down here, right?” I asked pointing to the right.

“Yes, past the greenhouse. I can’t imagine there would be anything in there though,” M. Arsnault said.

“Doubt it,” I agreed. “If we finish the crown room quickly though, we can go down to the Violet Room. That’s where the King would hold meetings with foreign dignitaries. He may have kept some fancy knickknacks in there to show off.”

“Yes, Mademoiselle.”

We started down the right hand hall. At first, it was a replica of the left. There were big mirrors against the interior wall reflecting the watercolor light of the sunset shining in through the windows on the wall opposite. About thirty feet down though, the wall of mirrors became windows too, a whole room of them, containing a tropical forest. Leaves and flowers of varying kinds and colors crawled across marble counters, statues, and columns.

“Wow,” I said, pressing my hand up against one of the warm panes. “I didn’t think they would still have it functional.” The garden had been kept by one of the Arcadian Queens, Marie III. She had been a healer, and used her garden to make ointments and medicines for soldiers wounded in her husband’s army.

“The Queen collected some very rare plants, Mademoiselle. Luckily, the people who took over the castle recognized that and maintained them after Arcadis was taken. Also, the French had a weak spot for beauty. We should continue though,” M. Arsnault urged, “before we lose more light.”

“Look though,” I said pointing toward a tree with little fluffs on it, that I was pretty sure was a willow tree. “M. Fraise is in there. I thought he had gone home with Mme. Fraise.”

“I suspect that they are taking shifts. He will probably be taking care of us for the weekend instead of his sister. I doubt they would leave us alone in the castle, Mademoiselle.”

I pulled on the door to the green house. “It’s locked. How did he get in there?”

M. Arnault pointed across to the other side of the greenhouse where a panel in the marble wall was propped open by a spiky green potted plant. “There’s a secret entrance to the servant halls. They probably use them to cross the castle when the guests are here in the daytime.”

I thought back to the servants’ corridors that Leopold and I had used to escape from the castle. If only we could find an unlocked room with one of those open doorways. Then, we would have access to the whole castle. I tried the door one more time for luck, but it was no use.

“Come on,” I sighed to my guard, “let’s go see the crown room.” We would have to keep doing this the slow route until a better opportunity presented itself.

We marched on down the hall for another forty feet or so until a roped off doorway appeared. A pair of huge gold doors with the St. Clair crest emblazoned on them opened into an extremely Arcadian room. The floor was made of green stone, the walls striped with white and blue marble. Huge tapestries hung from the walls laced with branches and spotted with faces that formed the Arcadian royal family tree. In the center of the room on a pedestal, was a very large, very gold chair that had been carved to look like a wave breaking against a rock. In its center was a green velvet cushion with a heavy looking crown and scepter encrusted with jewels sitting on it. To top it all off, there was a white fur cap draped over one of the splash-like armrests.

They were fakes, of course. The real ones, I had been told, were in safe keeping in the DuMont’ vaults somewhere under the castle in Solis.

“That’s it?” I asked. I mean, sure it was a flashy room, but besides the old carpets on the walls, the uncomfortable looking chair, and the fake crown and scepter, there was nothing in it. I checked my phone.

“What were you hoping to find, Mademoiselle?” M. Arsnault asked. I handed my phone to him.

“Hector said that there is supposed to be the sword from the painting of Queen Winifred and suits of armor guarding the room. I thought for sure they would have it in here. It’s part of the crowning ceremony for Arcadis and it’s been missing for centuries. They didn’t even have the decency to make a fake like those made of the other missing artifacts.” I tapped the screen of my phone so it was showing a close up of the sword as it was depicted in the painting of the crowning of King Charles IV. The hilt and handle were embedded with sapphires, emeralds, and diamonds.

“It is unusually barren for a throne room,” said M. Arsnault. He leaned closer, his breath fogging against the plastic that blocked the doorway.

“The room’s contents have been placed in storage until they can be sent to specialists to be restored and appraised,” said a deep voice from down the hall.

I jumped as M. Arnsault stepped in front of me and jammed my phone into his pocket.

“I did not mean to frighten you,” continued the voice in a thick accent. My skin prickled as I recognized the sickeningly sweet tones.

“It is no problem, Antoine,” I said, poking my head around my guard’s broad shoulders. I wasn’t sure if I was going to need protection or not.

“There is a problem though, Princess,” Antoine said, coming towards us. His voice had taken on a harsh note. “What are you doing here?”

“I needed a walk. I’ve been trapped in my rooms for days,” I said, smiling brightly. “And how about you? I thought you and your uncle were away.”

“I just returned today. I was working in my office,” Antoine explained, pointing back down the hall towards a cluster of closed doors. “Uncle will return Monday.”

“Well how about you take a break and come for a walk with us?” I offered. It wasn’t exactly my idea of fun but I figured I might be able to get some information out of him.

“Sorry, Princess, I must insist that you return to your rooms. It is not prudent to have you wondering the halls.” He held his hand out towards the atrium, “Allow me to walk you back.”

“We could go outside instead?” I tried as I let him lead me past the greenhouse. M. Arsnault was a quiet force following close behind us.

“I am afraid not, Princess,” Antoine said again.

I decided it was time to pull out my last card, and pray that it would lead me somewhere. I stopped at the bottom of the stairs, making Antoine stop and pivot to face me. “Please,” I begged him. “I need fresh air and exercise. I am going crazy in here. I need something to do.” I put my hand on his biceps, “Please?”

Antoine sighed heavily. “Come and see me in my office tomorrow evening. I will put a call in to my uncle to see if he will let me walk you outside.”

“Oh thank you!” I cooed, playing the damsel in distress. “That means so much to me.”

“I am not promising anything, Princess,” Antoine insisted, pulling me towards the stairs. “We cannot have you feeling unwell though.”

“It really has not been good for my constitution,” I agreed, hoping it sounded good. I was pretty sure I had read that line in some wanton historical romance Tess had been reading.

“Yes, well, I will see what I can do. Good night, Princess,” Antoine said, stopping at the door of my salon.

“Goodnight, M. DuBlaise,” I said smiling, and offered him my hand. He took it, placing the obligatory kiss on my knuckles before he swept away.

M. Arsnault cocked an eyebrow as he pulled the door open for me. “What?” I asked, in mock defense, throwing myself onto the couch. “We need answers. Either I will get him to talk or this will give us a chance to take a look at the grounds. We need all the information we can get.”

“I am impressed, Mademoiselle. That was very ingenious of you,” M. Arnsault said, smiling.

“A girl has gotta use what she can,” I shrugged, smiling smugly. “Let’s just hope it actually works.”

\^^^/

I wasn’t even mad when M. Fraise woke me up the next morning, a little creeped out yes, but not mad. The day was uneventful, but I was even more anxious for the evening to come. I watched tourists bobble across the lawn, snapping pictures of the gardens, and finished reading the historiography book. Around four, I decided to shower, figuring I should probably shave my legs so I didn’t scare Antoine away. When I was done, I dried my hair into soft waves and put on a green sundress. I even put a little makeup on.

“What do you think?” I asked M. Arsnault, twirling for him as I reentered the salon.

“Beautiful, Mademoiselle,” he assured me, looking up over the top of my computer screen. “Are we leaving now?”

“Might as well. It’s after five, so the tours have ended. Dinner will still be cold when we get back.”

“Very well,” my guard chuckled, standing. “After you.”

“Do you know which room it is?” I asked him, realizing I hadn’t seen where Antoine had appeared from last night.

“Yes, Mademoiselle. I spoke with M. Fraise and he said that M. DuBlaise uses the salon attached to the Violet Room as an office while he is here.”

“Interesting,” I noted, jumping off the last step. My heels cracked against the stone floors.

We passed the greenhouse and throne room again until we reached the fifth door of the hall. It was open, showing green walls and the edges of cracked leather sofas. I stopped in the doorway, facing Antoine who was seated at a large modern looking desk across from the doorway. “Hello,” I said, knocking lightly on the doorframe.

Antoine looked up from the computer he was working on, but when he realized it was me, jumped to his feet. “Hello, Princess,” he purred. “I was just about to call M. Fraise to go and fetch you. Please come in.”

“Thanks,” I said, taking a seat on the couch. M. Arsnault stepped into the room, settling into position just inside the doorway.

“Did you speak with your uncle?” I asked, trying to sound hopeful.

“I did,” Antoine confirmed as he sat back down, folding his hands in front of him on his desk.

“And?” I pressed eagerly.

“Like myself, he did not like the fact that you were out of your suites. He does, however, see the necessity for some fresh air so he has given me permission to take you out on the grounds in the evening,” Antoine explained. He sat back in his chair, waiting for me to answer.

“That’s fantastic!” I exclaimed. Antoine didn’t look so excited though. I guess he didn’t like that he had been charged with babysitting me. “Thank you so much! Can we go now?”

“What?” he blurted. He looked down at his desk, “I mean, there is some work I should finish. I supposed it could wait, though we cannot be long.”

“Excellent!” I said, cutting him off before he could change his mind.

“I do hope I am not interrupting anything,” said a voice from the doorway. I turned around to see Governor Beaucage standing halfway into the room. “Oh, Princess,” he said, nodding his head as he saw me, “I am sorry, I did not realize you were here.”

“No problem,” I told him tightly.

“I just came to discuss some matters of business with M. Dublais here. I should have called before I popped in.” The man chuckled, carefully watching my face. Something about this didn’t feel right. What ‘matters of buisness’ could the two of them possibly have here in Arcadis?

“Perhaps I should come back later?” he suggested.

“It is alright,” I said standing. “Antoine and I were just about to go for a walk. I need to change my shoes though, so why don’t you boys talk and then Antoine can come and get me when he is ready.”

“Thank you, Princess,” Beaucage muttered, sliding further into the room. “May I say though, before you leave, I am so very happy to see you here. It is positively thrilling to see you so comfortable in your rightful home. With you and M. DuBlaise, Arcadis will be whole again.”

“Erm, well, yes, we can hope,” I said, frowning. I wasn’t completely sure what the governor was talking about. I wasn’t too sure I wanted to know either. “Well, I will see you later.”

“Goodbye, Princess,” the two men called as I scuttled out of the room with M. Arsnault behind me.

“What do you think that’s about?” I asked under my breath, hurrying down the hall. “And what is a governor of Solis doing here in Arcadis?”

“I am not sure, Mademoiselle, but I do not like it,” said M. Arsnault. We passed the greenhouse. M. Fraise was inside watering the plants again, the door in the wall still propped open.

“Maybe I can get Antoine to tell me on our walk,” I thought out loud.

“Do be careful though, Mademoiselle. You cannot be too obvious or Antoine may suspect something.”

“I’ll be careful,” I told him. We were back in my room now. “Start eating if you like,” I called to my guard as I went into my bedroom. “I’m just going to change.”

I stepped out of the heels, leaving them in the middle of the carpet, and pulled the green dress over my head. The jeans I had worn yesterday were still on the floor too, so I tugged them on. Obviously, M. Fraise was not as fastidious in his duties as his sister. As I pulled the tee shirt on, I noticed that my closet light was on again. That was two days in a row; it couldn’t be a coincidence. I always turned it off, and Mme. Fraise seemed to spend half the day in there and it hadn’t been left on once. M. Fraise hadn’t even put clothes away and the closet light was suddenly on. Something wasn’t right. I padded carefully across the room, suddenly nervous. The closet was empty, but my heart still stopped, because along the back wall there was a seam in the paneling and a crack in the shelves that wasn’t usually there. I pushed a row of sweaters aside and tugged on the shelf, making it swing forward. It was a door and there was a staircase behind it. It was one of the servants’ corridors!

“M. Arsnault,” I called excitedly. “M. Arsnault!” I heard shuffling in the other room as my guard jumped up. “M. Arsn-” I started again but a ringing noise interrupted me. My phone. I ran back into my bedroom and picked it up off the bedside table just as M. Arsnault came barreling into the room, looking ready to kill someone.

“Hello?” I said, trying to contain my excitement about finding the door and trying not to laugh at my overly anxious bodyguard.

“Fred? It’s Phillipa,” said the tired voice on the other line.

I sobered immediately. “What’s happened?”

“You need to come home,” she said. “He’s awake. Leopold is awake.”

Chapter Twenty Five

Everything happened very quickly after the phone call. The secret door forgotten, I ran toward my bed, throwing my laptop and phone into a bag. “We have to get out of here,” I told M. Arsnault as I rifled through a chest of drawers for a sweater. “Phillipa said the helicopter should be here in ten minutes to pick you and me up.”

“Yes, Mademoiselle,” my guard replied, all business now. He shouldered my bag and dutifully followed me as I twisted through the halls and down the stairs at top speed.

Instinctively, I went straight for the front doors, but just like every other day I had been here, they were locked and didn’t even budge as I threw my body weight into them. “I don’t know why I would even try,” I growled through gritted teeth, then turned on my heel and stormed down the right corridor toward Antoine’s office.

I became aware of a humming sound, growing increasingly louder. At first I thought it was the sound of my own pulsing blood, wildly coursing through me in my anger and desperation. As I passed one of the huge windows that looked out onto the front lawn of the castle though, I realized that the sound was coming from the DuMont family’s helicopter that was waiting there, sending waves rippling across the lawns and vineyard.

I pushed forward, charging into Antoine’s office without knocking. Antoine and Beaucage jumped up, clearly surprised. “I need to get outside,” I told Antoine urgently.

The false prince’s face fell into a practiced smile. “I thought I told you I would come for you when I was done here, Princess. It is very rude of you to-”

I cut him off, not wanting to waste any more time with his condescending nonsense. “No, I mean, I need to leave. Now. There is a helicopter here to pick me up. Please open the doors.”

“I am sorry, Princess,” Antoine said slowly. He eased himself back into his seat, folding his hands on his desk. “I cannot allow you to leave, I have very specific orders. It’s for your safety, as you know.”

I was about ready to scream, or chuck one of the crystal decanters at his greasy head. Instead, I took a deep breath, steadying myself into rationality and calmness. “Antoine, I was just speaking with the DuMont family. Leopold’s condition has changed; they require my immediate return to Solis.”

Antoine’s eyes grew slightly larger, a muscle in his lip jumping. Beaucage’s mouth dropped opened and he choked out his first words since I had reentered the office. “Something has happened with the Prince?”

“Yes,” I told him shortly.

Antoine had seemed to gather himself and spoke again, his words carefully measured. “All the same, Princess, I cannot permit you to leave. I am very sorry.”

“So call Governor Richard,” I ordered, my patience wearing thin again.

“He is very busy right now,” Antoine replied, his posture stiffening.

“Then I will call King Felip, and tell him that you are preventing me from leaving Arcadis as he ordered.” I held my hand out as M. Arsnault reached into my bag, withdrew my phone, and placed it in my palm. If this didn’t work, I was mentally preparing myself to crawl out one of the gold gilded windows to make my escape.

“No,” Antoine said, holding his hand up to stop me. “That won’t be necessary. I will try and contact my uncle.”

“Thank you,” I told him, trying not to smile.

Antoine picked up the phone on his desk, quickly dialing a number he had memorized. There was a thick silence as it rang. Beaucage was looking between the two of us, looking both impressed and unsure. "Yes, hello, Uncle," Antoine said finally. There were muffled tones that could be heard from the other end of the line. "Yes, I know, I am very sorry to be interrupting you. I have the Princess here with me and she is -", Antoine was cut off by the now angry sounding mumbles. Antoine's face fell, his mouth drawing into a hard line. "Yes, very well. All right, Uncle. Thank you." He hung up the phone, and slowly stood, reaching into his pocket.

“If you will excuse me for a moment, Governor, I will just see the Princess out and then we may resume,” Antoine said, drawing out a set of keys from his pocket.

“You are going to let her leave?” said Beaucage, startled.

“My Uncle commands it,” Antoine said flatly, stepping out from behind his desk. Antoine, M. Arsnault, and I returned to the atrium. Antoine reached up and put his key into the lock and pulled the door open. I was finally, finally free.

“Thanks,” I said briskly as I bolted past him, Antoine caught my arm though, holding me back.

“It would be very much appreciated if you would keep me informed of the Prince’s condition,” he said. “I know this is all a very delicate situation. Hopefully this will mean everything will soon be resolved.

“Oh, I promise you will know as soon as I do,” I vowed vehemently, then, tucking into M. Arsnault’s side, I hurried into the buffeting wind toward the helicopter.

The Royal Guards bowed like falling dominos as I hurried through security checkpoints. The helicopter had landed on the hospital roof, and I was now twisting through stairwells and hallways on the way to Leopold’s floor. As I turned around the final corner I found M. Lefevre waiting at the door to Leopold’s hallway. “Happy to see you again, Mademoiselle,” he stated formally, but I could have sworn his lips twitched upwards.

M. Arsnault clasped his partner’s arm in greeting.

“Go on, Mademoiselle,” my guard instructed, as they pulled apart. “I will come and check on you in a little while.”

M. Lefevre held the door open and I slipped through into the dim hallway. I stood there for a second, trying to steady my breathing. I was scared and I wasn’t sure if I was ready for the answers that were going to come with Leopold’s awakening. Phillipa hadn’t given me much information on the phone. I didn’t know what would happen if there were further complications with his health now that he was awake. I also wasn’t sure what would happen if he had the information on Richard and Antoine that we had been looking for. There could be so many complications with him, his family, our countries, us. I took a deep breath. Everything just needed to be still again, simple again, like sitting on a lawn chair beside the pool in Arizona, like eating French fries in the mall food court, like riding along the coast on a motorcycle. I bit my cheek to hold back my tears, before continuing down the hallway.

Beatrice was sitting on my futon, with paperwork in her lap and reading glasses perched on her nose. One hand was flipping through the pages balanced on her legs while the other was gently resting on Leopold forearm. “How is he doing?” I asked from the doorway, as I curtsied for the Queen.

Beatrice, looked up through tired eyes. “Winifred,” she said and smiled, “we have been waiting for you.”

I stepped into the room, dropping my bag beside the door, and sat in the chair on Leopold’s other side.

“He’s asleep again,” she continued, looking down at her son. “They said it would be like that for a while, that he will come in and out of consciousness.”

“Do we know anything else yet?” I asked.

She shook her head. “They said they would wait until morning to do tests. They want to give him a little more time to stabilize.”

“How was he? Was it bad?” I had always pictured Leopold crashing back into consciousness like some demigod ripping his way out of the underworld; that his passion and temper would get the better of him and he would be back to his defiant self.

“He was barely conscious,” Beatrice said, “very calm. Quiet.”

“So he hasn’t said anything about what happened?”

“No, he only made sounds that were between a mumble and a moan, nothing coherent. The doctor said he should be stronger every time he wakes up. We are going to have a meeting tomorrow after the tests to decide how to proceed. We would be very happy if you would come,” she said as she unfolded her legs, putting the papers down beside her. Then, quietly, she added, “How have you been, Fred?”

“I have been alright. Better now though, I’m so glad to be back,” I replied, but said nothing more. I had naively thought he would wake up normal, like flipping on a light switch, and couldn’t help but be a bit disheartened. Besides, both of us were too tired for stories about secret passages and stolen artifacts right now, and I wanted Felip and Hector to be here when I reported what I knew.

Beatrice nodded and ran a hand through her hair. “I should get home. Are you coming?”

“I think I will stay here if that if still all right,” I said, watching as she stretched delicately.

“I thought you might say that, so I took the liberty of having a few things brought for you,” she smiled and indicated a bag on the table under the television. Beatrice stood and I stood with her. “Felip and I will be back tomorrow morning,” she said as she packed her things. “Then we will know more and can decide what to do.” She seemed to be saying the last part more to herself then to me, as if it was the only thing getting her through the next few days. She stepped around the bed and came to stand in front of me. “Thank you, Winifred,” Beatrice said and kissed my cheek.

Without hesitation, I wrapped my arms around her, “Thank you too.”

She pulled away after a moment, wiped her eyes quickly, and smoothed her dress. “Until tomorrow then.”

“Have a goodnight,” I told her as she stepped into the hall.

“Oh,” Beatrice said, turning, “Winifred, if he wakes up again please do not mention that you were away. I think it would be best if we keep that from Leopold for now.” The Queen smiled once more, then she was gone.

I collapsed back into the chair, folding until my stomach was resting on my thighs and my hands were wrapped around my ankles. It was a little disappointing that Leopold was still asleep; that he had barely even been awake. I had been expecting to walk in and find him sitting up in his bed, ordering around the nurses, and complaining about how itchy his stitches were. Instead, he was asleep, as if nothing had changed at all since I left. I sighed. We would know more tomorrow.

There was a slight knock on the door. Making myself sit up, I called them in. M. Arsnault stepped through the door, a brown paper bag in his hand. “Here, Mademoiselle,” he said, passing me the bag, “I took the liberty of ordering you some food. It should be better than what we have eaten the past week at least. I will be escorting Her Majesty back to the palace so that I can meet with M. Remi to tell him what we have discovered.”

“Oh, all right,” I said, accepting the food. “Thank you.”

“I will be back in a few hours,” he assured me. “Until then, let M. Lefevre know if you require anything.”

“Take you’re time, you need a break. I am sure I will be fine,” I told him, hoping he’d take me seriously.

“Yes, Mademoiselle,” he stated, and bowed. “Have a good evening.”

The door clicked shut. I got up and went around to the other side of the room. Leaving the bag of food on my futon, I grabbed the overnight case Beatrice had left and stepped into the bathroom. It was almost nine at night now, and I wasn’t expecting to be called away or have anyone else visit, so I changed into the pajamas that had been packed for me. I braided my hair back and splashed some water on my face then went back into the hospital room. To my great amusement and excitement, M. Arsnault had ordered me a bacon cheeseburger and fries. Like Beatrice had been, I sat cross-legged on the futon, slowly munching away on the fried food, watching Leopold. I studied him carefully, looking for slight movements, the twitch of a hand, the curve of his lip, a flutter in his lashes, trying to find any sign that he was or had been awake. There were changes since I had left him. His skin had lost its chalky pallor, his red-brown beard had started to grow in from lack of shaving, the once angry red wounds that had ripped across his skin were now faded to pink, and some of the stitches had even begun to fall out. These were all positive things, but it wasn’t what I was after.

I crumpled up the brown bag and tossed it in the general direction of the garbage. “I think we need a vacation after all of this,” I said, and lay down across the futon, pulling the blanket that was folded across the back down over me. “I would love to take you to Arizona, it’s so different from here. It would be a nice break for you too, to get away from the castle for a while. We could also go to Forks. You would love it up there with all of the trees and water. We could go cliff jumping. I’m sure Louis would love to meet you.” I turned onto my side, bringing my knees to my chest, and faced Leopold. “Or you could take me skiing, like you promised, or on that cruise.” I reached out, tucking my hand between Leopold’s shoulder and the mattress. “I’ll go anywhere really, as long as you wake up. If you don’t, I’ll go nowhere.” Reaching up with my other hand I clicked off the bedside lamp. “Goodnight, Leopold. I love you.”

Suddenly alert, I snapped awake in the middle of the night. Something had shifted in the room, waking me suddenly and uneasily. I frowned, my stomach tightening, and tried to stretch. My hand wouldn’t pull free though, it didn’t slide from where it was wedged as it normally did. I opened my eyes, the darkness lit only by the lights of the monitors and IV pumps. As I scanned the room, my eyes were suddenly captured by a pair of golden eyes; Leopold was awake and watching me intently. He was holding my hand, his fingers laced through mine. I froze, trying to process everything. The fact that he was awake, that his eyes matched, that he seemed to know who I was. I was afraid that if I moved the moment would somehow disappear, that I was only dreaming and that as soon as I woke up, Leopold would slip through my fingers again. So long as we stayed just like this, the moment was magic and untouchable.

“Hi,” Leopold said, voice thick and raspy.

I probably should have call for someone, for security or a nurse, but I didn’t, couldn’t. Instead, scared to move or to breathe, I whispered, “Hi.” The edges of Leopold’s lips quirked upwards and his hand tightened around mine. His eyes were hooded now; I was going to lose him soon. “I missed you,” I breathed, my throat tight.

Leopold’s brow furrowed, his grip tightening slightly. “I’m sorry,” then he was gone. The room was quiet, still, and dark, as if nothing had happened at all.

The nurses and doctors arrived early the next morning and took the still sleeping Leopold away for tests. I got up and showered while they were gone, wasting time drying my hair and getting dressed, while I waited for the Royal Family to arrive. At exactly eight o’clock, a guard who had been sent to take me to the conference room, knocked on the door. Felip, Beatrice, Hector, and Phillipa were all waiting in the conference room when I arrived. I slid into the chair next to Hector, accepting the Styrofoam cup of coffee he slid toward me.

Dr. Fleurion strode into the room, lab coat flowing behind her, a file tucked under her arm. “Good morning,” she said, nodding her head slightly. She went to the computer in the corner and pulled some up some files, various images of x-rays and MRI scans, then sat at the head of the table, opposite to Felip. The King was looking intently at the screen, eyes flipping between the images. I remembered suddenly Leopold mentioning that Felip had gone to medical school and wondered how much more he knew about Leopold’s condition because of his knowledge compared to the rest of us.

“So what can you tell us?” Beatrice asked, unable to wait any longer.

“The tests we had done this morning came back with excellent results. The swelling in the Prince’s brain has reduced significantly. There does not appear to be any further hemorrhaging since he was brought in. The wounds and burns continue to heal well. The only area that will take more time to heal is the burn down his left side. We had some more x-rays done. His collarbone and fingers are healing well. We took the pins out of the bones in his hands.”

“So he’s going to be alright?” Phillipa asked, needing confirmation that what the doctor was saying was in fact good news.

“It seems like the Prince is on his way to a full recovery,” Dr. Fleurion assured the princess.

“So what is next?” Calisle asked. “He should be gaining more consciousness. Do you have any idea whether or not his mind has been affected at all?”

“Unfortunately, he has not been awake long enough for us to know for sure. We will have to wait and see how he reacts to all of you. If he remembers you, that is usually a good indication that his memory is not lost,” the doctor explained.

“He remembers,” I said, without thinking.

Everyone in the room turned to face me.

“What did you say, Winifred?” asked Felip.

“Leopold woke up last night,” I explained, digging my nails into Styrofoam. “Not for very long, but he knew I was me though.”

“That is good,” said Fleurion, making a note in her folder, “very positive. Hopefully he will continue to do so with others.”

“What do we need to know going forward?” asked Beatrice.

“Well, so long as Leopold continues to wake up more and more over the weekend, I would send him home with you by Monday, if you so desire.”

“Really?” Emmet asked, sounding both excited and unsure.

“Yes, there is no reason not to. I think it would be safer and more comfortable for the prince at home, and probably much less stressful on all of you, too.”

“Will he need any sort of after care?” Emse shot back, making notes of her own.

“If Leopold can walk and eat when we release him there will only be minor things for you to worry about. He will need medication applied to his burns. He will require bed rest and a lot of sleep. He should not be physically active for quite a while longer yet. I will give you a list of instructions, symptoms to look out for, and dates he will need to come in for checkups. Other than that, he should be fine.”

“That is fantastic news,” Felip said, smiling earnestly. “We will have to make arrangements for him to return to the castle.”

Hector nodded, “We need to figure out how we are going to play this out.”

Felip looked to the doctor, “Please make sure that the fact that Leopold is awake does not leave this hospital.”

The doctor nodded, “I promise complete discretion.”

“What about his eyes?” I asked.

“Yes, thank you, Mademoiselle,” Dr. Fleurion said, and flipped to a certain page. “So far, the Prince’s sight seems to have been unaffected by his injuries. We did an eye exam and everything came back normal. Due to the location of the swelling, however, the Prince may experience some problems with his vision until the rest of the swelling goes down and releases the pressure on the ocular nerves. We won’t know how badly his sight will be affected, if at all until he is awake for a longer time.”

“No, I meant, why are his eyes a different color now,” I clarified. If they had done an eye exam I couldn’t figure out how they had missed it.

“I am afraid I don’t understand, Mademoiselle,” apologized the doctor, “the Prince’s eyes are the same color as when he arrived.”

“What are you talking about, Winifred?” Felip asked, frowning.

“Leopold normally has one green eye and one gold eye,” I explained. The members of the Royal Family nodded, agreeing with me, but Dr. Fleurion’s eyes grew wide. I continued, “When he woke up last night, both of his eyes were gold.”

“You are sure?” the doctor asked.

“Positive,” Beatrice said.

“The prince’s eye’s have been brown since his arrival, I didn’t even consider to check his files from the old hospital for anything that said otherwise,” explained the doctor.

“Don’t you watch the news or read magazines?” asked Phillipa, irritated. “It’s one of Leopold’s most distinguishing features.”

“Phillipa,” Felip chided lightly, “it was an easy mistake. Dr. Fleurion comes from France. It is likely she hadn’t seen pictures of Leopold until recently due to the media ban. There is nothing wrong with Leopold’s eyes as she said, so why would them being a normal color be notable.”

“I am most embarrassed,” said the doctor blushing. “I am so sorry.”

“It’s alright,” Beatrice said. “Why do you think it has happened though?”

“It is likely heterochromia induced by the accident. Sometimes, if you hit your head hard enough, your eyes can be affected in a way which causes them it change color.”

Hector smiled. “He will be so happy.”

“The Prince should be back in his room any moment now if you would like to go see him,” Fleurion said. “The nurses were told to return him after his bandages were changed. Do you have any more questions?”

“No,” said Felip. “Thank you very much doctor. We will be in touch shortly with instructions regarding what information we wish to release to the public and press. I am sure you have other work to attend to.” She stood, and bowed before leaving the room.

Felip relaxed back into his chair, rubbing the back of his neck. “He can come home,” he said, smiling. Beatrice took his hand.

“What are you thinking?” asked Hector.

“Now is not the time,” replied Felip, standing. “We will have a meeting at the castle tonight to plan everything. For now, I am going to go and talk to Leopold.”

Leopold was awake when the nurse wheeled his bed back into his hospital room. He has lying down, his eyes closed, but his body was lined with tension. The muscles of his jaw were tight, and the hand that wasn’t completely wrapped in gauze was balled into a fist.

“Leopold?” Beatrice said softly once the nurse excused himself from the room. Leopold frowned slightly, his eyes fluttering open. Everyone instantly surrounded the bed, smiling broadly. I held back a bit, giving them their space as a family.

“How are you feeling?” asked Felip, at his son’s side.

“Starved,” Leopold croaked, making Hector laugh.

“What’s happened?” he asked in thick French.

“You were in an accident,” Beatrice told him, taking his hand gently, “but everything is alright now. You do not need to worry about all that right now.” Leopold bit his lip, contemplating her words, but didn’t push any further.

“Is there anything we can do for you?” Phillipa asked from the end of the bed.

“No, I am fine, just tired,” he told her. He was still frowning slightly, body still tight. It was a lot for him to take in all at once. He needed some time to process things, to wake up fully.

“We will let you sleep then,” Felip said.

“See you soon,” Hector said, while Beatrice kissed his forehead.

Leopold shut his eyes and the room exhaled.

“If all goes well, we will be back Sunday morning, Winifred,” Felip told me. “I will hold off on our meeting regarding Arcadis until then. Take care of him.”

Moments later they were gone and I was still waiting.

I spent most of the day reading. My mind needed a break from all of the worrying and frustrations, from medical terms, and mazes of secret passages. It was quiet in the hospital and a sense of calm that I hadn’t felt in weeks was starting to return.

“Is it any good?” said Leopold, awake again for the first time since his family had left. It was the middle of the afternoon now.

I jumped, dropping the book. “You’re awake!” I said, going to his side. Leopold smiled up at me lazily. “Do you need anything? Here I’ll call the nurse,” I moved to go to the doorway but Leopold caught my hand.

“I’m fine, Fred. Come here.” He moved over, making room for me on his hospital cot.

“I shouldn’t,” I said, resisting his pull.

Leopold raised an eyebrow, “Please.”

I relented, carefully folding myself into his good side. Leopold sighed, the tension leaving his body.

“How bad?” he asked after a moment.

“I don’t know if I should-”

“Fred.”

I bit my lip, burrowing further into his side. “You have cuts and burns all over. They have mostly healed though, with the exception of the burn down your left side. You also have two cracked ribs, a broken collarbone, and a few broken fingers. You were in a come for about two weeks.”

Leopold nodded slowly. He took a strand of my hair and began twirling it through his fingers. “How is everyone taking it?”

I choked back a laugh. “Your family has been worried sick. There have been news crews from all over the world outside the hospital, waiting to get a glimpse of anything they can. The council has gone into crisis mode trying to make plans for all sorts of possibilities.”

Leopold searched my face looking for answers I wasn’t giving him. “And what about you, Fred?”

“I was so scared,” I finally admitted, letting the tears spill over. “I’m just so glad you are awake. I don’t know what I would have done without you.”

Leopold brought his hand up, his thumb brushing the tears from my cheek, “I’m sorry.”

I laughed, “You have no reason to be. It’s hardly your fault.”

He placed a kiss on top of my head. “It is all over now.”

Chapter Twenty Six

“You must be joking,” Leopold said, bemused, as he glared at the tray the nurse had just placed in front of him. There was a paper cup on it and a small plate with three cookies. “What is this?”

“Peppermint tea and arrowroot biscuits,” the nurse reported.

“I said I was hungry,” Leopold said, looking at the nurse expectantly.

“And here is your food, Sir,” the nurse replied smiling, too cheerfully.

“That, is not food,” Leopold told him, pointing to the tray.

“If you can keep this in, Sir, I will bring you something else,” the nurse assured him. “Doctor’s orders.”

Leopold’s lips drew into a thin line but he said nothing else, as the nurse bowed slightly and excused himself. Leopold turned to look at me. I was sitting cross-legged on the futon, smiling back at him. It was rather amusing watching him and the nurses interact; neither was quite sure which one was in charge of the other. “I need your help,” Leopold told me, holding out a cookie.

I shook my head, “Oh no, that’s all on you.”

“Luke warm flavored water and stale biscuits do not count as food, Fred,” he muttered, tossing the cookie back onto the plate.

“If you eat that,” I told him, “and you get the official okay, I will send M. Arsnault out to get you real food.”

Leopold pouted, but picked up one of the cookies again and took a small bite. He grimaced and reached for the tea, presumably to help wash the cookie down, but the taste of the tea only made his expression worse. “Oh God,” he said, finally swallowing, “tell me something to distract me.” He took another tentative bite.

“Well, Phillipa left me a book full of flowers to look at for the wedding and I’m supposed to pick something I like. You could help me,” I suggested, grabbing the binder that had been left for me out of the bag. Leopold slid over, making room for me on the bed. I cautiously laid down, careful not to bump him, and opened the binder on my lap.

“Are you sure?” Leopold asked, his face darkening slightly.

“Yes,” I assured him, “I need help. I know nothing about flowers. The whole floriography thing was kind of forgotten after the accident.”

“No, Fred,” Leopold said quietly, “are you sure you still want to go through with the wedding? I would not blame you if you said no, especially after all that has happened. I am sure that the governors would understand. Something could be arranged.”

I shut the binder, turning to face him, “Oh no, don’t you dare, Leopold! You have no idea what has been happening. We are getting married now, whether you like it or not, you are stuck with me! Besides, it is the only way everything will work out.”

I’m sure my sudden outburst must have looked a little ridiculous, because Leopold laughed slightly before leaning over and placing a kiss on my temple. “Yes, Princess,” be murmured.

I huffed, leaning back into the pillows and opened the binder again. “Now, I know you Solisians really have a thing for roses, but I can’t say that I like them very much. They are too formal looking.” Leopold picked up the last cookie as I opened the book to one of the pages Phillipa had marked. “Your sister also suggested Lilies, which is what your mother had, but they just look too stiff.” What I wasn’t saying was that they reminded me of the gardens at the Sinclair Palace, the prison which I had just escaped. Arrangements with roses and lilies looked far to orchestrated, much like the symmetrically laid out gardens in front of the vineyard.

“So you are looking for something less traditional?” Leopold asked, and waved his hand slightly. Gathering what he wanted, I started to turn the pages of the book slowly. A line formed between his brows as he focused. “There, stop,” he said after a moment. It was a page with little blue flowers, bearing the title ‘Veronica’ at the top of the page. “I have an idea,” Leopold said.

I raised my eyebrow at the tiny blossoms and looked at Leopold, who had stopped to sip his tea. “They grow in the field behind the castle,” he explained.

I thought back to the huge field we rode through and the myriad of colorful flowers dotting the grass and nestled along the bases of the trees in the orchard. They were indeed beautiful.

“You think I could make a bouquet out of wild flowers!” I realized out loud, and smiled.

Leopold nodded. “Of course, why not? They are less formal, but grow naturally in Solisian soil.”

Most of the best memories I had with Leopold were on the DuMont estate, so it made more sense that I should carry Veronicas, than a fancy bouquet consisting of expensive exotic and imported flowers. “It’s perfect,” I told him, tossing the binder on the futon. “Shall I go find that nurse, since you’ve finished? Maybe we can get you some real food.”

“Please,” Leopold said. His eyes were getting heavy though, so I slid off of the bed, careful not to disturb him as he was pulled back into sleep.

________________________

I began to see a pattern in Leopold’s schedule, if you could call it that. He seemed to wake up three times a day, the late morning, the evening, and again in the middle of the night. Apparently, that was normal, at least that’s what the nurse said when I asked him.

“So when do you think he will be up next?” he asked, tapping at the screen of the IPad he carried.

“Around one or two in the morning,” I told him, thinking of the night before.

The nurse nodded. “Push the call button if he is still hungry and you can see if he is able to eat something more substantial. If he is at least able to keep enough fluids down, the doctor said we will unhook him from the IVs tomorrow. That way, it would be easier for him to move around.”

“Sure thing,” I told him.

“He just seems to fight you less,” the nurse smiled. “Do call if you need anything though,” he insisted, looking at me pointedly. He checked a few of the machines, typed a few more things into the computer and then left, bidding me goodnight.

I leaned back into the futon, bringing my knees up to my chest. I was going to stay alert until he woke up, so I was ready this time. It was Saturday night, so if everything went well tomorrow, Leopold would be going home in just over 24 hours. It seemed too good to be true, now that it was so close. I didn’t really understand how things were going to work once he got to the castle, though. He still slept most of the day, although the doctor had said he would gradually stay awake longer and longer but he would be on bed rest for a while, something that would not please Leopold. I also fretted about talking with him regarding the accident. Soon, we were going to have to ask Leopold if he remembered anything about it. So far, he had not mentioned anything that had happened and he had not asked for any more information about why he was here either. I didn’t want us to force him to remember something that he may be better off forgetting.

Then there was the whole mess with Antoine and Richard to sort out. If Leopold was going to be in the castle again, I was pretty sure it wouldn’t take him long to figure out if I wasn’t there. Did that mean that my mission would get called off? How were we supposed to prove anything?

I groaned, scrubbing at my eyes with the base of my hands. I was sure that the King, Hector, Remi, and M. Arsnault were making all kinds of plans at the castle but I had no idea what they were. Hopefully, after the next twenty-four hours or so, I would know what was happening.

“Ca va, ma belle?” Leopold asked, his voice thick, startling me from my thoughts.

“I’m fine,” I told him, smiling softly, “Just a little tired.”

“You shouldn’t have stayed up,” he said.

I shrugged, and pointed to the tray beside him. “I got you food.”

Excitement brightened Leopold’s face suddenly. “Thank God,” he said, reaching for the paper bag. I stood up and helped him pull out the Styrofoam containers.

M. Arnsult had sent someone to get it earlier in the evening. I figured if they wanted him to eat more, I could at least give him something he would enjoy. “It’s from M. Liu’s,” I said, plopping back down on the futon to watch.

“You are a goddess,” he smiled. Still not having much use of the fingers on his left hand, Leopold held his fork in his right fist and stabbed roughly into a piece of lemon chicken. “Mmmm,” he groaned, satisfied. “So much better than those terrible biscuits.”

I scooped up the fortune cookies before retreating to my seat. “Right or left?” I asked Leopold, holding a cookie out in each hand.

“Left,” he decided around a mouthful of rice.

I opened the package, cracked the cookie open, keeping the fortune for myself but placing the cookie next to Leopold.

I cleared my throat dramatically, trying not to laugh as I read Leopold’s fortune. “You will marry your lover,” I announced, smiling broadly. Leopold raised an eyebrow, smirking playfully.

“Well, I am glad the cookie thinks so,” I said, “because I was really worried that the centuries old decree wouldn’t have much hold if it didn’t.”

He shrugged matter-of-factly, popping half of his cookie into his mouth. “What does yours say?”

I shattered my cookie and read: “Trust your intuition.”

Leopold snorted indelicately, “M. Liu is losing his touch.”

I wasn’t so sure about that, but I wasn’t about to tell Leopold otherwise. I yawned, and passed my cookie pieces over to Leopold.

“Sleep, Fred,” he said, “I will be fine. Besides, I am sure that it will not be long before I join you.”

I would have protested but all those late nights treasure hunting seemed to be catching up with me, so I did as I was told.

__________________________

The doctors arrived early the next morning, headed by Dr. Fleurion herself. “Good morning, Mademoiselle,” she acknowledged, ducking her head slightly. Nurses filed in after her, grabbing various implements or waiting for instructions.

“I hear the Prince has eaten,” she said, pulling up something on the iPad she held.

I nodded, “Yes, everything that the nurse brought to him yesterday, as well as some Chinese food last night.”

“Chinese food?” the doctor inquired, pursing her lips.

“Yes,” I confirmed hesitantly.

“Harsh foods cannot-” she started to explain, then thought better of it. “Please notify hospital staff next time; we want food introduced carefully. There were not complications as far as you could tell? He had no complaints? Stomach upset, pain?”

“None that I know of,” I confirmed.

“Good. His stats have all remained stable,” she slid the iPad into her lab coat pocket. “Mademoiselle, I am now comfortable with removing Prince Leopold from the remaining support he has been on. We will remove the IVs, catheters, and monitors that he is still attached to. It is a big step. We would like to do this before he wakes up next as it will be more comfortable for him.”

“That’s fantastic!” I said, a little too excitedly.

The nurses seemed to hesitate for a moment, watching me as they awkwardly stood around Leopold’s bed.

Dr. Fleurion cleared her throat. “Mademoiselle, this may not be comfortable for you to watch.”

I jumped up, gathering what everyone was waiting for. “Here, I’ll go grab some coffee so you guys have more room.”

I slipped out, making the guard at the door stand a little straighter, and headed down the hall.

“Hello, Mademoiselle,” M. Arsnault bowed, as I moved toward him and M. Lefevre.

“Coffee?” I asked pleasantly, offering a hopeful smile. It was funny how I had hated the stuff just a few months ago and now I practically lived on it.

“I would be happy to join you,” my guard conceded, falling into step behind me. “Is everything alright?” he pressed softly after a few paces.

“Fine,” I told him, “Good actually. They want to remove all the tubes and stuff. They figured I probably wouldn’t want to see.”

“Very good,” the guard replied, calling up the elevator. We traveled the rest of the way in silence, cautious of all of the open spaces, watching eyes, and unknown ears.

“So what did Remi and the King have to say?” I asked him quietly, once we were huddled over paper cups at a table in the cafeteria. M. Arsnault and I hadn’t had the chance to talk much since I had been back. I knew that he had gone to give the report of what had happened in Arcadis to the head of security and the King, but I wasn’t sure if things had progressed farther than that. I was curious to know whether he had any insight into what everyone thought about our trip, or what we were supposed to do next.

“We definitely gave them a lot to think about,” M. Arsnault said. “They were obviously extremely displeased about the situation, especially regarding how you were treated during your stay.”

I waved dismissively, “I am more concerned about what Richard and Antoine are doing and how we are going to stop them.” I took a sip of my cup, stopping myself from saying anything more.

"It will all be sorted out," he assured me. "The best thing would be if Leopold has information that we do not, if he heard or saw anything around the time of the accident. However -"

“We don’t want to push him too hard and slow down recovery,” I finished. I wasn’t going to find anything out now then. All this cloak and dagger stuff was starting to get to me.

There was silence as we both sipped the rich, piping hot brew. Then, after a few moments, M. Arsnault quietly asked, “How is he?”

I sighed, “Awake, but still very fragile.”

“Do not worry, Mademoiselle,” my guard said, “le Prince will be back to his stubborn self shortly. I am sure of that.” He glanced at his phone, checking the time. “I would think that everything should be sorted up there.”

I stood in silent agreement. “Hopefully they didn’t wake him up with all of it.” Coffee in hand, we headed out of the cafeteria and back toward the elevator.

“Shall I get some more food for le Prince?” M. Arsnault suggested.

“Probably not. I don’t think that they were too keen on the Chinese food thing.”

M. Arsnault chuckled, shrugging, “That is too bad.”

__________________

“Good morning,” I smiled at Leopold as he woke up. He hummed, running a hand across his face, then startled, holding it out from him. “They unhooked you from everything,” I said, explaining the lack of tubes and wires attached to the back of his hand.

Leopold grinned, wiggling the fingers of his right hand.

“You have to take those now, though,” I told him, pointing to a little plastic cup with pain pills in it. “They said you are probably going to want them for a while yet.”

“At least these are more portable,” he said, placing the pills between his lips and swallowing. “What else did I miss?”

“Well, you see, with great freedom comes great responsibility,” I paraphrased. Leopold didn’t seem to get the joke though, so I just repeated what the doctor had told me when I had returned to the room about an hour ago. “They want you to go for a walk with me. It is the last test you have to pass to get cleared to leave,” I explained. “Just to make sure that everything is in working order, and to verify that you can get up and about by yourself when necessary.”

Doctor Fleurion had decided it would be okay if I took Leopold out by myself. She figured he would handle it better that way. Besides, we were just walking down the hall and there were plenty of guards to get help if necessary.

“Do you want something to eat or drink?” I asked him, “We do not have to take the walk right away.”

“No,” Leopold said, “I want to get this done so we can go home.”

“Alright,” I agreed, pushing myself up. I went around to the other side of the bed, the one closer to the door. “Just be careful,” I told him.

Leopold nodded and carefully pushed the blankets off. He braced his arms to spin himself, then winced, pulling his left arm in close. “Left side is not so good, huh?”

“No,” I said simply. Leopold nodded once, biting his lip. Using his right arm for balance, he turned until his feet dangled off the edge of the hospital bed. There was a bruised line across the tops of his feet. He looked at it curiously for a moment, frowning slightly. I grabbed the scratchy hospital blanket off the bed behind him, wrapping it over his shoulders since he had nothing but the hospital gown on. Phillipa or Beatrice had sent a robe for him, but I wasn’t sure if he would be willing or able to wrestle himself into it. When I held out my hand in silent question, Leopold grasped my arm, using it to steady himself as his feet met the cold, hard tile floor and he slowly stood upright.

Leopold raised an eyebrow, looking down at me. I smiled, “Okay?”

“Fantastic,” he replied. I spun around so that I was on his right side, our arms linked together, and we slowly stepped out of the room and into the hall. The guards came to attention as we exited, saluting as Leopold passed. They were on their best behavior, probably happy and surprised to see him out.

Leopold took a few steps, adjusting to his vertical position, before continuing on sure and strong, standing straight as always. He gave me a smug glance, “We could be home by tonight.”

“What will you do first?” I asked, playing along. We headed down towards the big window at the end of the hall.

“Have a proper shower,” Leopold groaned. He ran a hand along the stubble of his jaw, “I am sure it has been far too long. After that, I will undoubtedly be wanted by the Council.”

“Let them wait,” I told him. “You deserve some time to yourself.”

“Unfortunately, I am fairly certain that is what I have just had,” he said, taking in the empty rooms that lined our hall.

“I will fight them off if they try to summon you,” I promised.

Leopold chuckled slightly, then winced.

“You need at least a few days,” I continued.

“It will be fine,” Leopold said. “I will just sit at the table and pretend to listen. Promise. No actual work will be done.”

“Well the Council will be happy if you make an appearance. I don’t think they are enjoying their move to the War Room.” We had reached the end of the hall and started turning back. Though his pace had slowed, Leopold was pressing on. He held his left arm close to his chest, simultaneously keeping his shoulder from moving and protecting his ribs.

“Honestly, I am surprised that they did not just hold their meetings in my hospital room,” he replied. He was quiet for a moment, concentrating, then asked, “What is the plan for tomorrow?”

“Dunno,” I shrugged. “Everyone is kind of waiting on you to decide.”

“I will call Felip,” Leopold stated. “I want to know what I am walking into before it is too late to change the plan.”

We made it back to Leopold’s room. He eased himself back onto his cot, blanket now tangled around him, while I fetched my phone from the futon. Leopold made room for me beside him so we could squeeze together on the bed. With the phone balanced on my bent knee, I quickly selected the correct number and hit speakerphone.

“Fred,” Felip answered on the first ring, “is everything alright?” I could hear the tension in his voice; worry and anxiety tumbling from his lips.

I smiled encouragingly at Leopold, nodding towards the phone.

“Everything is fine, Father,” he assured. “Besides the food, at least.”

“Leopold,” Felip sighed, his relief evident. “It is very good to hear your voice. How are you feeling?”

“Fine,” Leopold dismissed. “We wanted to talk to you about tomorrow, the plans for leaving.”

“Everything is going well then?” The King asked.

“Yes, of course,” Leopold clipped.

Felip didn’t respond, letting the line fall silent for a moment. Then he said, “Is Fred with you?”

“Here,” I confirmed.

“Good,” Felip said. “We want to do this as quickly and quietly as possible.” He put emphasis on the word ‘quietly’. Not enough to tip off Leopold but enough for me to understand what he meant. I was not to tell Leopold anything that would make him suspicious that we were hiding things from him. I was not to give him any information about the necessity of keeping his status a secret.

“Got it,” I said. Making Leopold frown slightly as he suddenly became aware that this conversation was doing much more for me than for him.

“We will come over tomorrow morning to speak with Dr. Fleurion and sign the paperwork,” Felip decided.

“I hardly think it is necessary for everyone to come,” Leopold interjected. He was irritatedly picking at some of the medical tape around his broken fingers. “You could just send a car. I am sure the papers can be settled later.”

“Everyone is excited to see you,” Felip told his son. “Besides, it will make for some good photographs for the press.”

Leopold’s frown deepened but he didn’t say anything.

“What time would be best?”

This one was for me again. “He will be up around ten.”

“We will see you in the morning then.”

____________________

“This is worse than the biscuits,” Leopold said, swallowing the grayish lump of scrambled egg that jiggled on the end of his fork. He grimaced, reaching for the cup of milk that resided next to the plate on the tray.

There was a knock at the door. I gave him a pointed look before giving permission for the visitor to come in. Hector’s head slowly appeared through a crack in the door. “Good morning,” he whispered, giving me a tiny smile. He look toward the bed, his smile growing as he saw that Leopold was awake. Assured that he wasn’t being disruptive, Hector stepped fully into the room. He had a tray of coffee on one hand, a paper sack in the other, and a duffle bag slung over his shoulder.

“Thank God,” Leopold murmured, dropping his fork and pushing the plastic tray of food away from him. He accepted a cup of coffee and the paper bag from his brother.

“Good morning,” I told Hector, taking one of the other cups as the large prince came up beside me. He dropped the bag he carried onto the futon. “Everyone is getting organized in the lobby,” Hector told me.

“Great,” I replied, understanding my queue. I looked between the two brothers, Hector, who was already rummaging through his bag and Leopold, who had already managed to eat half of the chocolate croissant Hector had handed him. “A nurse should be here in a moment to help. Call if you need anything.”

Coffee in hand I walked to the lobby at the end of the hall. Felip, Beatrice, and Phillipa, along with a few of the security guards and Dr. Fleurion, were standing around the nurse station. They made room for me as I approached, sliding in next to Phillipa. Felip was signing some papers, release paper most likely.

“Hello, dear,” Beatrice said, kissing me on the cheek.

“Morning,” I replied, brightly. “Hector sent me down to see you.”

“Very good,” Felip replied, still looking at the papers. He signed the bottom of another page before placing the pen down and pocketing his reading glasses. “There,” he said, handing the papers to the Doctor.

“Thank you, Sir,” she replied. “I will just go and check on the Prince now.” She stepped out from behind the counter, heels clacking down the hall to Leopold’s room.

“I thought we would just quickly go over the plan with you while Leopold gets ready,” Felip said, addressing me now. He directed us to the vinyl hospital benches on our right, as the guards took their positions at the exit points.

“We are going to sneak Leopold out of the hospital,” the King began. I couldn’t help the look of disbelief that must have been evident on my face, as Felip quickly began to explain. “We came to the decision that we will have the most options if it is believed that Leopold’s status continues unchanged. As long as his condition is static, so is everything else.”

“Okay,” I said understanding. This way Leopold would be kept safe; no one else would try to hurt him. This would maintain the illusion that Leopold may not wake up, the question of my marriage to him unresolved, and all of the political options would still appear viable. There were two parts to this plan that I was having difficulties with though. Mainly: “How are you explaining this to Leopold?”

Felip sighed knowingly. “Hector is going over it with him. For now, we are just telling him that it is for his security, that we want him to have more time to heal before he has to go before the press.”

That wasn’t going to work, Leopold would see through it immediately. We both knew that though, so I moved on to the next question. “How are we going to do this?”

“That is why we all came,” Phillipa said. “We are going to be a distraction.”

“Leopold is being dressed as a member of the guard right now,” Felip added. “He will go unnoticed with all of the others surrounding us. Just act as you normally would if he were not there.”

It made sense. The amount of security guards did go up when all of the Royal Family was present; one more would likely go unnoticed. We all knew how good Leopold could be at going unnoticed. Hopefully, our distraction was big enough that nobody put together what we were doing.

Clacking sounded through the hall again, halting our conversation. Dr. Fleurion reappeared, coming towards our little group. “The Prince’s dressings have been changed over his burns, and the one’s around his head have now been removed.” She held out a paper bag which one of the guards quickly stepped forward to grab. “He is not wearing a sling right now but he should have one on whenever he is not asleep. There are more bandages in there, along with antibiotics, pain medication, and ointment, as well as further aftercare and treatment instructions and contact information.”

“Thank you, Doctor,” Felip said, as he stood to shake her hand. We all rose with him. Dr. Fleurion blushed, withdrawing her hand. “He is ready now,” she confirmed before making her exit.

The guards around us dispersed, presumably moving into position. Felip nodded down the hall, giving me leave to collect Leopold. Hector was adjusting the cuffs on the black uniform jacket Leopold was wearing when I returned. They pivoted to look at me as I entered, Hector stepping back, eyebrow raised in silent question. Fully dressed, Leopold looked nearly perfect. His clothes hid the worst of the scars and injuries. The scar along his eyebrow and the row of stitches on his head were the only signs that something had happened at all.

“What do you think? How does he look?” Hector asked as he placed a large hat that some on the officers wore, on Leopold’s head.

‘Livid’, I wanted to say. Leopold indeed looked livid and irate, only just managing to keep himself composed. He had to be uncomfortable right now and he had to be frustrated with not being told what was really happening. That wasn’t what Hector was asking though. It was a good disguise. With the stubble that was now on his jaw and the much shorter hair, he wouldn’t be recognizable as himself at first glance.

“You look good,” I assured both of them. “Ready?”

“Almost,” Hector replied. He reached into his bag one more time, pulling out a pair of sunglasses that he unfolded and passed to Leopold. “There.”

I took my spot at Leopold’s right side and linked my arm through his, steadying him. The others fell into position around us as we came to the lobby. Everyone, including MM. Lefevre and Arsnault piled into the elevator and silently descended, anxious to have this over with. I released Leopold when we reached our floor, looking up at M. Lefevre who gave me a nod of reassurance and inched closer to his charge.

The flashes started going off the second the elevator doors opened, as the photographers tried to take pictures through the huge windows of the hospital’s atrium. We moved toward the doors, Felip and Beatrice in front, Hector and Phillipa behind. I was sandwiched in the middle, trying to keep an eye on Leopold without looking suspicious. He soon fell into my periphery though, disappearing among the other black suits that formed a wall of protection around us. Two guards pulled the main doors open and we stepped out onto the front steps. The five of us paused briefly in a line on the top of the stairs, letting the cameras capture a few shots. The questions started, but we didn’t acknowledge hearing them, instead continuing on our way down the steps, towards the three waiting cars. I aimed for the middle one with the guard already there and holding the door open expectantly. It wasn’t until I was side by side with him that I realized that it was Leopold who was holding the door. I slide into the Mercedes, with him following stiffly after. The door shut with a thud, muffling the shouting crowd. Safe from the cameras, behind the tinted windows, Leopold pulled his sunglasses off, pinching the bridge of his nose. He was pale, his body coiled tight with tension.

“Okay?” I checked, watching him carefully. We were on the main streets now, slowly making our way through the morning traffic.

Leopold gave me an exasperated glance, but nudged the back of my hand with his before twisting our fingers together.

Chapter Twenty Seven

I was summoned before the King.

After leaving Leopold with Mike fluttering anxiously around him, I made my exit and found my way to the War Room. The men were already there and waiting when I arrived. Hector, Remi, and M. Arsnault stood as I entered, the later stepping forward to help me into my seat.

“He’s settled?” Hector asked.

“Fast asleep,” I assured him.

“Good,” he nodded then squared his shoulders, turning to his father.

“We wanted to meet with you now that you are back so that we can all review all that has come to pass in the past few weeks and agree on a plan of action as we move forward,” Felip began in slow, measured French. I nodded, signifying that I understood. “M. Arsnault has given us a full report of your time in Arcadis,” Felip continued, “and I must say that we were very upset to hear the state of affaires. It seems to me that we were correct in believing that Richard and Antoine are involved in something nefarious. However, I do not believe that we have progressed any further in accumulating evidence which would hold in a claim made against them.”

“Yes, Sir,” I confirmed. I could tell that they were building up to something.

Felip sighed, leaning back in his chair. “Has Leopold said anything since he has woken up regarding the accident?”

“Nothing,” I replied shortly. The corner of Felip’s mouth twitched, a tiny reflex marking his disapproval.

“I did not think it was right to push him and ask,” I added, when nobody spoke.

“Yes, of course. You were absolutely right,” the King assured.

Remi murmured something too fast and low for me to catch. Felip nodded once in silent reply. “Our problem is, Winifred, that we do not know where to go from here,” Felip explained. “Now that Leopold is home, and will soon be healthy again, any of the potential threat to our family’s claim to the throne has ended. Your marriage can continue as expected, solidifying your claim as well. Council will be held again once he can attend. The problem, in the most basic sense, has been solved.”

“It doesn’t take away the threat though,” I said, realizing where this was going.

“Exactly,” the King confirmed. “Which means that we will have to make some security adjustments. I cannot risk something like this happening to you or Leopold again.” He gestured towards the head of security, “Remi has made the suggestion – and I agree – that you should not return to Arcadis to finish your training at this time. It may make our interactions with France more difficult in the long run, since we will be separating you from the country both physically by keeping you here and politically through keeping you from their liaison, but it is what we are most comfortable with until things have settled.”

“We considered asking you to go back,” Hector injected, anticipating my question. “Especially since there could be something of interest found if we decided to look into the possibility of using the servants corridors to have you access more of the castle in secret. It would be a lot of potentially useless effort though when there is much safer and better uses of your time.” He smiled slightly, with a hint of knowing mischief. “We may have also added into the calculations how long it would take for Leopold to notice you were missing and freak out.”

“No, that makes sense,” I said, and it was true. My treasure hunt had been useless so far, almost embarrassingly so, and I was getting nothing accomplished training-wise in Arcadis since Richard was otherwise distracted. “But what are we going to do? Leopold can’t stay hidden forever. He is already thinking he’s going to show up at the next Council Meeting.”

“For now we will make it so that he is unable to,” Hector said. “We heard about Beaucage. If he finds out that Leopold is here in the castle then he could report back to Richard or Antoine. We can not take that chance.”

“I am going to tell Leopold that his presence is not required at Council until further notice, so that he has time to heal. That should give us more time before he starts to question us,” Felip explained. “Meanwhile, I want you to relax. We are still working on this, Winifred. Something will be found.”

“And what do I do now?” I asked, “How can I help?”

“Keep le Prince occupied,” Remi suggested.

“Yes,” Hector agreed, “He’s probably going to be pretty unhappy once he finds out how much he is not allowed to do. Phillipa has some appointments lined up for you too. Wedding stuff.”

“Do you have anything you would like to add, Winifred?” Felip asked.

“Nothing at the moment,” I said, maybe too quickly, but there was nothing else to say.

“That is all for now then,” Felip decided. “You are all dismissed.”

Hector called after me once we were free from the War Room, quickly catching up until he fell into pace beside me.

“Mom and Dad are busy tonight so we don’t have to have dinner in the dinning room,” he said. “Phillipa and I thought it would be fun if we all met up in her suites instead. Rose and Hugo will be there too.”

“Sounds good,” I agreed. It would be nice to have a relaxing evening and just hang out.

“I didn’t have the message passed along to Leopold, just in case. He’s welcome to come though. In fact, if you think he is up for it, I would ask that you encourage him to come. It would mean a lot to Phillipa.”

“Absolutely,” I told him. “I will do my best.”

________________

The days were getting shorter now as summer was coming to its end. The sun had already started to set by the time I made it back to my room. Warm orange light filtered in through the open windows, the lazy breeze making the curtains dance. It was going to start getting cold soon. I fell back onto my bed, letting my eyes fall shut. I needed to go and check on Leopold but just wanted a minute to be still. Being back in the castle, I felt calm for the first time in weeks. Everything was finally starting to feel normal again.

“Mademoiselle!” Angela cried, running out from my closet. She stopped at the foot of my bed, ginning broadly down at me.

“You have no idea how nice it is to see you,” I said, holding my hand out to her. She grasped it, pulling me upright.

“Mademoiselle,” she repeated in meek protest then frowned as she started to pull pins out of my hair.

“I’m, serious,” I told her. “I missed having you around.

My maid hushed me as she leaned down and pulled my heels from my feet. “I am very happy to see you too, Mademoiselle. Now, come. I have run a bath for you.” I let her lead me to the bathroom, content to listen to her tiny sounds of disapproval as she took on the state of my clothes, nails, and skin.

“Is there anything else you need, Mademoiselle?” she asked softly, taking my sweater from me.

“No, but thank you. Do you know how Mike has been doing with Leopold?” I asked, hoping she had heard something though the castle network.

“Le prince slept through most of your meeting, but he is awake now,” she informed me dutifully.

I sighed and crinkled my nose, as she worked down the buttons of my blouse. “I should probably go then.”

“Wash your hair, Mademoiselle,” she instructed, pointing at the claw foot tub. “You can go and fix le Prince as soon as we are finished fixing you.”

_______________________

Leopold’s room was bare now; the usual mess of clothes, papers, and books that covered every flat surface had been cleaned up in his absence. All evidence that it was usually so cluttered and well used was gone. It looked just like the countless number of empty guest rooms in the palace. There were tiny signs of Leopold’s return though, like fingerprints on a clean window, a wrinkle in the sheets, a lumpy pillow; small things, as if he were slowly re-staking his claim. I heard sharp voices coming from the cracked bathroom door and, smiling knowingly, went to investigate. They were arguing in French; Leopold’s curses followed by Mike’s quick apologies. I knocked lightly on the door and a moment later Mike’s head appeared around the door frame. “Bonjour, Mademoiselle,” Mike said, inclining his head. “We are nearly done, if you do not mind waiting a moment. Is there something in particular-”

“Let her in,” Leopold called in clipped French.

“Of course,” Mike said, opening the door further so I could pass. I thanked him, brushing past him, through a wall of hot, thick, spicy air. Mike had obviously been in the process of helping Leopold get cleaned up, as there were discarded towels piled in one corner of the room and various pieces of clothing, bottles, and tools scattered across the rest of the floor and counters. Unlike the bedroom, the state of Leopold’s bathroom had quickly deteriorated since his return. Leopold was standing in the middle of the room, his skin damp and face now clean shaven. He was in sweatpants, but his feet and chest were bare. There was a piece of fabric bunched in his right fist, which he held out for Mike to take. The butler accepted the crumpled T-shirt, shaking it out with a grumble.

“I was hoping you’d be awake,” I smiled, leaning on the counter in front of the sink. “Thought I would come and see if you were up for dinner.”

“Absolutely,” Leopold said, words muffled as Mike pulled the T-shirt over his head.

“If you prefer, Monsieur,” Mike said, “I would be happy to have food brought here. You should rest.”

“No,” Leopold said, sliding his right arm up into his sleeve. “I have had enough lying around.”

“We’ve been invited to dinner in Phillipa’s suite. I am sure everyone would be happy to visit with you,” I assured him. I wan’t too sure how long he would last with that many people around. Since he had woken up, his level of patience had been even less than it was before. Leopold started to say something in reply but then hissed in pain as Mike tried to pull the shirt down over his left side.

“If you could just bend your arm slightly, Monseigneur,” Mike requested.

Leopold glowered at him. “It doesn’t move.” I now understood what they had been arguing about before I came in. Leopold didn’t have the mobility in his left shoulder to pull his arm through the second sleeve due to his injuries. “Stop,” Leopold growled, clearly irritated.

“But, Monsieur,” Mike insisted, reaching beseechingly toward his half-dressed charge.

“Leave it,” Leopold said. Mike released his hold on the shirt, then gave a small bow and left the bathroom. Wincing, Leopold pulled the T-shirt off again using his good arm and discarded it on the floor. He sighed, eyes focusing over my shoulder, on the mirror above the sink. His face fell as he ran his fingertips over a scar on his pectoral. “I look like hell,” he murmured, watching his reflection.

I pushed away from the counter, going to him. Gently, I took his hand and placed a single kiss on its back before pulling him back towards the bedroom. “Wait here,” I said, leaving him by his couch. I went to his closet, grabbing a sweater which had a zipper up the front. “Left arm first,” I told him when I returned. Gently, I pulled the sleeve up over his arm, careful to avoid the burn on his ribs, then held the sweater up for him so that he could reach back with his other arm to pull it on.

“Thank you,” he murmured as I zipped it up. He went to his dresser, grabbing the sling Dr. Fleurion had sent him home with. He pulled it on, carefully folding his left arm inside.

“Feeling better?” I asked, almost sarcastically, taking in the restless line of his shoulders. His anxious irritation contradicting greatly with the still evident amount of energy simple actions cost him.

“Yes, actually. It feels good to be clean,” he said, indicating the door with a nudge of his chin. “What did you get up too?”

“Not much,” I lied. “Reviewed some security protocols, then got cleaned up myself.” Leopold pursed his lips, but didn’t say anything. He pulled me closer to his side, wrapping his arm around my shoulder so that he could lean into me as we descended the stairs to Phillipa’s floor. “We could have cancelled,” I offered.

Leopold shook his head. “I’m not lying in bed any longer.” The door to Phillipa’s sitting room was ajar; music flooded out into the hall along with the aroma of pizza.

“No need to be a hero,” I warned Leopold. “Just let me know if you need to leave.”

Phillipa was alone in the room when we arrived, sitting cross-legged in a plush gold armchair. She glanced up as we came in, probably expecting Hector or Rose, and then jumped to her feet, eyes growing wide as she realized it was us. “Oh, hi!” she said, “Sorry, I didn’t know you were coming.” Her voice was steady, but she was carefully guarded, even more fragile than her normally delicate appearance. It was easy to forget that Leopold and Phillipa were in fact twins. Their physical appearances and personalities were so different you would think it was impossible. What gave it away was how close they were. Not in the sense that they were the best of friends, but in the sense that they always tended to know what the other person needed most and would be the first person to jump up and defend the other. Phillipa had been the only one truly rooting for Leopold since I had arrived here, after all. The last few weeks must have been especially hard for her. She, out of all of us, had the least say in what was happening and had no choice but to let everything unfold, silently watching from the side lines, waiting to deal with whatever was left over at the end.

Leopold knew this, and saw how hurt she was. I could feel his defenses drop as he took his arm off of my shoulder’s and extended it towards her, offering a small smile. “Come here, Phillipa. It’s all right.”

Bottom lip quivering, she came to him. Too afraid to hurt him with a hug, she kept her arms at her chest, letting Leopold hold her into his right side. He dropped a kiss on the top of her head. “Don’t you ever do that again,” she told him, wiping at her eyes as she pulled away and flitted back to her chair. “Now eat. You are far too thin.”

Leopold rolled his eyes, but grabbed my hand, taking me with him to the sofa, happily digging in to the pizza.

“Glad to see you’re catching up on some of the meals you missed,” boomed Hector as he swung into the room. Rose and Hugo were close behind him. Their arms were filled with various other junk food, seemingly having raided the kitchen for supplies. They dumped their loot on the table.

“It is good to see you,” Hugo told Leopold, as he sat at Phillipa’s feet leaning back against the chair. He took one of the cans of beer, cracking it open. Hector sprawled across the other sofa, eating a bag of chips, with Rose sitting daintily at one end. If it hadn’t been for the silk and velvet covering on all of the furniture or the Persian rug at our feet, the scene would have looked common.

The room fell into silence, with everyone picking uncomfortably at their food. There were too many secrets right now; it was hard to find a topic that was okay to bring up. Rose managed to do it in the end. “So,” she said, clearing her throat, “when do we get to go wedding dress shopping?”

Phillipa leapt at the chance to fill the silence. “This week or next, hopefully. I have to check Bell’s schedule and have the designer called.”

I groaned.

“It will be fun, Fred,” Phillipa said, popping some popcorn into her mouth. “We will make a day of it. We can go and visit the church too, or arrange to do some taste testing for the menu.”

“You need to pick bridesmaids and groomsmen still too,” Rose said.

“Absolutely, as well as their dresses,” added Phillipa.

“What have you started?” Emmet complained to Rose, passing her the bag of chips. Hugo gave him a knowing look and handed him a beer. “Remember you have to share now,” Hector continued. “Fred has lots of meetings she is going to have to start attending. Your etiquette class monopoly won’t last much longer.”

I sighed, reaching for my own piece of pizza, and settled back into the couch to watch them argue.

“I am keeping her for a few days first,” Leopold declared throwing in his two cents. “We have some things that are of top priority to accomplish.”

Phillipa scoffed, “You can’t have her all of the time. You’ve just had her for nearly three weeks.”

“Yeah,” Hector agreed. “We at least get her when you’re asleep. That’s only fair.”

“We will see,” Leopold said, a bit smug, and swung his legs up onto the couch so that they rested on top of mine. Phillipa playfully threw a handful of popcorn in his general direction.

Hector frowned, looking at the bruised line along the tops of his brother’s feet that cut off an inch or so before the toes. His face smoothed after a moment, as realization hit. “A toast,” he said, raising his beer, “to steel toed boots.”

The chatter continued on a while longer, everyone steadily becoming more comfortable. Leopold grew more quiet as everyone else grew louder. I wasn’t surprised when he pressed his heel into my thigh signaling that he was ready to leave. Leopold muttered the French equivalent of “we’re gonna head out” as he picked himself up off the sofa, earning a round of ‘boos’. He held his hand up in defense.

“You don’t have to take her with you,” Phillipa complained, beseeching me with her eyes.

“I’ll check in with you tomorrow,” I promised her. “I’m tired too and really excited to have my bed back.”

“Have a good night,” Hector waved. He gave me a knowing nod as I escorted Leopold from the room and wrapped his arm around Rose.

I trailed Leopold silently through the halls and back up the stairs to our floor. He went straight through the door of his room to his dresser and grabbed the bottle of pills sitting on the top. I watched him attempt to twist the lid off with one hand. “Want help?” I asked, holding my hand out to take it from him as he tried to bite the lid off with his teeth. Leopold grunted his approval, depositing the container in my waiting hand. He swallowed the two pills that I gave him dry, then went to his desk, rifling around through the drawers until he pulled out a pack of cigarettes and a lighter. He jerked a cigarette from the pack and holding it between his lips, he tried to light it. When he couldn’t quite manage the motion with his right hand, he looked up at me hopefully. I firmly shook my head no. With a disgruntled sigh, he tossed the cigarette and lighter back onto his desk. I thew back the blankets, coaxing him sweetly, “Come on, get in.”

Grumbling, he shuffled over and eased himself onto the bed. Leopold pressed the heels of his hands into his eyes, yawning. “I am so tired of being tired,” he said.

I placed a kiss on his forehead. “You’ll feel better soon. Sleep well.”

He sighed as I slipped out of the room. I didn’t want to disturb the sleep he needed or risk bumping into him, so I felt sleeping in my own bed was the safer option. After making the short trip to my room, stripping off my clothes and leaving them in a folded pile on the sofa, I slipped into the soft pajamas that Angela had set out for me before she left. Crawling into my large, luxurious bed, I quickly fell into a deep and dreamless sleep.

_______________________

Some time later, I awoke to screaming and my stomach dropped. Without hesitation, I leapt from my bed and sprinted down the hall, throwing the door to Leopold’s room open. The light of the moon lit the whole room in silhouettes and long shadows. I stood there for a moment, heart pounding, as my brain tried to make sense out of what was happening. Leopold was still in his bed, his legs tangled in the blankets, hands grasping at the sheets, and skin slick with a feverish sweat. He let out another agonized cry. I went to him, approaching more cautiously now, and kneeled on the bed beside him. Reaching out, I laid a hand on his chest. Leopold startled awake with a gasp, wild eyes searching the room in panic. He threw himself upright wrenching his arm in a way which must have hurt him quite a bit. His breath was coming out in quick, short pants.

“Shhh,” I soothed, moving my hand up to cup his cheek. Leopold’s eyes found mine and his shoulders dropped. He let his head fall forward to rest in the crook of my neck, his trembling hands twisting into my night shirt.

There was the sound of heavy, booted footsteps rushing up the corridor towards us. A pair of night guards tore into the room, throwing the lights on. I blinked against the sudden brightness, but Leopold didn’t react, too focused on trying to gain control of his breathing. One of the pair broke off to secure the perimeter, the other approached the bed, bowing slightly before addressing Leopold and I. “Is every thing alright, Monseigneur, Mademoiselle?” he asked, carefully, discretely scanning us over.

“All clear,” the other one called, returning from the balcony. He came to stand next his partner, both of them looking expectantly down at us.

“I think we are okay,” It came out as a question.

“Do you require medical attention?” The first one asked.

Leopold cleared his throat. “No. Everything is alright. Sorry to alarm you.” His voice was hoarse.

The guards looked at each other, communicating silently for a moment before turning to me. I nodded at them, signally that we would be alright. “Let us know if you need anything,” the first one said, deciding to trust us. They bowed shortly before making their exit, shutting off the lights and shutting the door on their way out.

Leopold let out a big breath, his fingers loosening their hold on my shirt.

“What can I do?” I whispered.

“I’m sorry,” was his answer.

I hesitated a moment. “Do you want to talk about it?”

He gave a light grunt, wincing in p