The line between reality and sleep was becoming blurred, so I didn't exactly register the first knock. The second and third knocks came as well, each quieter than the last, but in this space between worlds I could not be bothered. My eyes drifted shut. My breaths became fluid again. There was a second where everything was black with sleep, just before I heard my door crash open.
My body was slammed into high alert, going rigid as my muscles tensed. Erasers? An attack on the palace? I wondered. And then, that would make sense.
The mattress depressed as someone approached, placing their weight on the opposite side of my bed. Why was I faced the other way? Wasn't that seriously unsafe?
The offender leaned into me, just as I assumed they would. I was ready for it. My right hand unfroze and my fingers curled into a sizable fist. As soon as their breath was on my neck I turned and swung. My knuckles connected with solid flesh and muscle, leading an ache up my arm.
A chuckle followed. It was a chuckle that I had grown accustomed to over the past few years, one that could simultaneously fill me with anger and elation, as it did now.
"What the hell?" I asked. My voice stayed at a whisper, even though all I wanted to do was yell. I also kind of wanted to cradle my now-bruised hand, but that wasn't an option either. My pride was too great to allow it.
"I'm sorry," Fang breathed. He ran a hand through his hair, a nervous gesture, but the smirk he was hiding told a different story. "I overslept."
I let my eyebrows raise, let my look read incredulous. "That… that doesn't make sense. You never sleep. You don't even know what sleep is!"
He laughed a little and got up to close my door, skipping a reply. Typical Fang. Words were not his strong suit, not at all. Fighting, now that was a different story. He was one of the youngest knights, yet he was the highest ranked. It was no wonder I fell for him, what with his strength and agility, added on to his devilishly good looks. His hair was the color of midnight and fell just over his eyes. I knew he would grow his hair out longer if possible, but the job required regular haircuts.
Shit. I was fangirling; I did not fangirl. I was dignified and strong and could fight my way through any situation. I didn't get to be this side of myself too often though. To most people I was Princess Maxine Batchelder, the kind of girl that I hated. Prim and proper and perfect, smiling through everything. Yes, Maxine would be the fan girl type.
A sigh escaped me. Fang, true to form, did not ask. He simply pulled me against him, even smiled as I placed my head against his chest, resting my ear right where I could hear his heart thrumming. He was nice enough to raise my puffy hand to his lips, silently asking for forgiveness for startling me.
It was easy to settle into him, to breathe in deep and smell only earth and power and, strangely, a hint of cinnamon. I closed my eyes, willing myself into that peaceful half-sleep again. When I opened them, his deep brown ones were staring at me intently. The emotion behind them was jarring. There were caramel flecks in there, too, which just served to distract me.
"Were you worried?" I finally asked. "Was that why you overslept?"
He nodded once, burying his face in my hair. I vaguely wondered what it smelled like.
All he offered was, "You pick today."
My throat closed up for a second, tightened with physical pain at his words. Half a year ago, I came of age. As soon as my birthday passed, princes from all over the world came for visits, each trying to woo me. My dad urged me to choose each time, telling me how important these connections were, in their own rights. I bought myself time by being difficult, choosey, but now I had run out of options. My parents were throwing a party tonight, and at the end I would announce which prince I wanted to marry. The whole thing made me want to gag, but even worse, my heart was here, in this room with the knight that my parents would never approve of. Anyone of lower class was considered-
Fang's hands traveled up and down my arms, efficiently stopping my train of thought. He grinned down at me, less a smile than a lilt to the corner of his lip. The expression came nowhere near his eyes, but he was making an effort.
Tears welled up deep within me, but I refused to let them fall. I was Max. I was indestructible.
I lifted my head a little, tilting my chin so that my mouth was mere breaths from Fang's. The intention was to kiss my fears away, yet words bubbled up before I could bridge the gap between us.
"How did we end up like this?"
My mouth clamped shut immediately, and my hand flew to cover it, just for good measure. Nothing like that would escape my lips again. It was a dangerous question, one that I never realized I wanted an answer to.
Fang took it in stride. A deep rumble shook his ribcage, and it was a second before I realized that he was laughing, quietly as he could. "Max," he said, amusement clear in his voice, "You looked my way."
"What?" I forgot myself; the word had come out as a screech. I quickly lowered my voice, but the inflection did not change. "Are you saying I started this? By… by looking at you?"
Now he could not keep the smile from his eyes. "You didn't just look. You basically undressed me with your eyes."
I began to shake my head, which prompted him to badly recreate the scenario. He looked down at me through his lashes, blinked excessively, and gave a husky, supposedly seductive breath. The whole thing was hilarious, so much so that I fell backward onto my bed, clutching my stomach as giggles and laughs erupted.
"That's…" laughter squeezed its way between my words, "That's not even… how it… happened…"
He was joining in now too, laughing so hard that tears streaked down his cheeks. I realized in a rush that this was the most I had ever heard him laugh. The irony of it was not lost on me; in the end it was this fact that sobered me.
"I hate you," I tried, knowing that I just didn't have the heart to mean it.
"I love you too," he teased back. I felt my heart speed up, and the kisses he gave me did nothing to help. For once I let myself lean into it, going along with the happiness that bubbled in each touch of our lips.
We stayed locked in that embrace, content to keep the reality of the day off our minds just this once. A voice crept up the hallway and under the door frame, but we were unconcerned. It was just my maid Nudge, the storyteller of us all. She had a habit of walking into rooms without warning, and thus she caught us wrapped up in each other's arms one morning. The look on her face would have been hysterical at the time, were we not so worried that she'd blurt our secret to anyone with ears. It took Fang and I a solid hour to calm her down. We made her swear not to tell another soul, though she turned right around and let the secret slip to Ella, my step-sister. Since then, she was good about our little secret. And, because she told Ella, my sister decided to chase after a knight that she, too, had wondered about. Last I knew she and Iggy were still going strong.
What made us both freeze was the second voice that accompanied Nudge. Regal and graceful, each word felt like a double edged sword. It was my step-mother, Valencia, coming to oversee my wardrobe for the big event.
Fang sprung up immediately, going rigid as he assumed the normal knight position; back straight, eyes forward, hands clasped behind his back. Knights were always to be hidden, to look as still as possible. It was a deceptive tactic, one which worked. People rarely took notice to the shining metal lined across our walls. They were décor to the shallow and the small brained. The thought always made me cringe.
There was a glaring problem- okay, more than one- that I could not address before Nudge burst into the room. She waved her arms animatedly, sweeping full circles and talking up a storm. She did not even glance my way, and did not see Fang standing stone still next to my bed.
Valencia was not so gracious. She crossed the threshold seconds later, her eyes sweeping as Nudge's arms had, finally settling her gaze onto me. Immediately after they found my face, she turned to Fang.
Surprise hung from her words. "Sir Nicholas. To what do we owe the honor?"
The lie was effortless. "I was alerted to screaming, my lady. It is my duty to investigate all such disturbances."
Her eyes traveled down, taking note of his rumpled appearance, from the hairs that stood in disarray to his improper clothing. Most noticeably he lacked a shirt, which was not my doing, thank you very much. As long as I had known him, he slept with black bottoms hanging off his hips, nothing else. The appearance was a far cry from the knighted look my step mother was used to. She could have sounded the alarm right then; she was surely smart enough to make the connection, to see the holes in his story.
"Must have been some dream," she said. Her tone was guarded. "Especially if you managed to wake a knight, Maxine. These walls a thick, the floors even worse. To awake someone a floor below… and the fact that only one person came running?"
Fang was unfazed. "I sleep lightly, my lady."
She looked ready to say more, but Nudge swooped in, taking the opportunity. Her voice drew my step-mom's eyes away and over to the wardrobe, where a sparkling gown hung.
I risked a glance at Fang, poking my tongue out at him. Sir Nicholas, how posh the title made him sound.
"Princess Maxine," he replied coolly, knowing formalities irked me. He turned to my step-mother, nodded to her respectfully. "Queen Valencia. Miss Nudge. I'm afraid I have other matters to attend to."
And just like that, he slipped back through the door. The air felt chilly without his body heat radiating so near to me. I was filled with the same things every time he left; relief that we could no longer be caught, anger that I couldn't love him openly.
The 'L' word stuck in my brain, swirling round and round. The affection made me uncomfortable, but the truth was undeniable. I had lived with knights my whole life, but non like Fang. For three years we had committed to going behind the palace's back, stealing conversations and kisses when we could. Our actions were treasonous; they were desperate. They were the kinds of things that you did if you were in love.
I hopped out of bed suddenly, antsy to begin the day. I had nowhere else to run. There were no other stops to pull. I had bought myself six months, but could not afford a second more. Today I would choose my prince. My father, my step mother, no one would have it any other way.
So, I stepped into the ball gown with a smile. I did not complain about the ridiculous weight of it, or the color (which was a soft pink and completely not my style). I did not comment on the heels that Nudge shoved onto my feet, which felt impossible to walk on. I did my part as gracefully and silently as possible. I was not Max the invincible today, the girl who loved even though she didn't particularly believe in it.
I was Princess Maxine from now on. The mask would become my identity, tried and true. It was the only way I could face those princes out there, knowing one of them would be my future husband. It was the only way that I could protect myself, my true self, from the heartbreak to come.