There wasn’t one cloud in the sky the day Nico’s life changed forever.
He was sitting in the courtyard in the back gardens overlooking the river, his usual destination when he wished to be alone. There was nothing particular that was bothering him, but over the course of the past few months, his father’s insistence that he take on more responsibility as the Crown Prince had meant that Nico’s stress levels were more elevated than usual.
And he’d always found that the best way to relieve stress was to sketch. Today he was drawing the steeple of the Izlian cathedral he could see in the distance, wondering, not for the first time, if he would ever get to see it in person.
He didn’t know much about the reasons for the tensions between Izlia and Ravenna, but he was almost positive that they’re idiotic.
“Your Highness, there you are,” Nico’s manservant, Felix, interrupted his daydreams, a bit out of breath as he came to a stop beside the bench on which Nico was currently perched. “I’ve been searching for you everywhere.”
Nico held back a laugh. This particular part of the courtyard was difficult to see unless you were specifically looking for it, which meant usually, Nico was able to come and go without being seen, one of the many reasons he escaped here so often. “You found me.”
“The king requests your presence,” Felix informed him, his breathing now having returned to a normal rate.
“Let me finish this shading,” Nico responded, turning his attention back to his sketch and using his fingers to smudge the charcoal in the right direction.
He could practically hear Felix wincing as he said, “He said it was urgent, sir.”
Holding in a sigh, Nico packed up his pencils and closed his sketchbook, not wanting to get Felix in trouble by sending him back alone. “Then I suppose I can’t keep him waiting. Lead the way.”
Handing his art supplies off to his manservant outside the royal offices, Nico stepped through the large wooden door to find the king in the midst of writing a letter.
“Nicolas!” King Leopold grinned as he put down his quill and stood, walking around the desk and holding his arms out for an embrace.
“Father,” Nico replied with a bow of the head before stepping forward to kiss each of his father’s cheeks. “I was told I was needed.”
King Leopold’s eyes lit up in excitement. “I received a letter from Izlia.”
“Izlia?” Nico’s eyebrows shot up in surprise. “Really?”
Everyone knew that Ravenna’s relationship with the neighboring kingdom of Izlia had been strained for decades. Nico had heard the stories growing up and although he thought the entire feud was silly to begin with, he also figured that when he was finally king, he might actually be able to do something about it. Apparently his father has already taken the first steps.
“I was surprised too,” Leopold admitted. “It has been some months since the last one.”
“Last one?” Nico repeated, feeling as though he was a bit out of the loop. His father was speaking as though he received daily mail from Izlia. “Your correspondence with Izlia is regular?”
Leopold hesitated before he responded. “It was with Queen Katrina, but the new queen…”
Guilt immediately bubbled up in the pit of Nico’s stomach. Queen Katrina had passed away almost a year ago and despite not knowing Katrina or her daughter, Nico imagined that the new queen was struggling with the heartache. Losing a parent was never easy. Nico hardly remembered his own mother, a fact that saddened him more every day.
“Yes, well, I’m sure she’s had much on her mind since her mother’s passing,” Nico replied quietly.
Leopold nodded. “I’m sure.”
There was a moment of thick silence as they both avoided bringing up the subject of Nico’s mother’s death and Nico decided to bypass the topic altogether by clearing his throat and asking, “What does the letter say?”
“That she wishes to marry you.”
“Me?” Nico blinked in surprise, certain his heart has stopped beating in his chest, “But…why? You are king.”
It wasn’t as though the king receiving proposals of marriage was particularly surprising. He was a king, after all, and ever since Nico’s mother passed away, Leopold had received many offers of alliance. But someone specifically requesting to marry Nico was new. As the Crown Prince, he had some power, but not enough to be enticing until he was actually king, which, his father’s health permitting, wouldn’t be for some time to come.
“And you will be king someday,” Leopold responded with a shrug. “The promise of the future is much more alluring than the present.”
Nico furrowed his brow in confusion, still trying to wrap his head around the entire idea. “I’m not sure I understand.”
“Queen Katrina and I came up with an arrangement of sorts,” Leopold explained, “One which will bring peace and harmony to Sireen once and for all. A permanent union.”
Blinking, Nico realized the ultimate goal of his father’s plans. “My marriage to the Queen of Izlia.”
“Exactly,” Leopold nodded.
He supposed it makes sense in a way. Uniting two of the most powerful kingdoms in Sireen through marriage would assure peace for decades to come, especially if an heir was conceived. Marriage would give the people of Izlia and Ravenna a common goal and purpose as they strove towards peace. Still, Nico wasn’t sure how he felt about the fact that this entire scheme was cooked up behind his back. “Why was I not told before?”
Leopold sighed softly, and his eyes momentarily flashed with guilt. “Katrina wished for the alliance to be her daughter’s choice.”
That was interesting. Both parties being forced into marriage could lead to extended misery, but the fact the Queen of Izlia was making the first move means she was serious about this peaceful future. It also means she’d be more inclined to make their marriage work.
“And what is my choice?” Nico asked, wondering if he was being extended the same courtesy.
He wasn’t. Leopold steadied his gaze on his son and said, “You have none.”
“That seems unfair,” Nico pointed out, crossing his arms over his chest. He was a royal, so he knew his wife had never been his to entirely choose, but he never expected to be forced to marry someone he knew absolutely nothing about.
“Fairness has no place in the world of royals,” Leopold replied, no longer showing an ounce of guilt. “This is about what’s best for our two kingdoms. She understands that. So should you.”
“I never expected that I would be allowed to marry whomever I pleased,” Nico retorted, “but I at least thought I’d be given some sort of say in the matter.”
Leopold sighed again, his gaze softening against his son’s hard stare. “Once you take the crown, my son, you will understand that kings cannot be ruled by their hearts.”
For some reason, those words made Nico’s heart ache. He was raised to be king, so he knew his duties and he knew that he must always put Ravenna first. But that didn’t mean he didn’t wish for a world where he could trust his heart over his head. Nico had always been described as a romantic, with his hopeful optimism and disgust for violence, and he supposed he had hoped he could imbue those traits into the kingdom through his rule.
But perhaps it wasn’t time yet. Perhaps in order for change to occur, he must walk the road one step at a time. And perhaps the first step was marrying the Queen of Izlia.
Inhaling deeply, he squared his shoulders and said, “Fine.”
“So you agree?” Leopold asked, his eyes lighting with excitement.
“Yes,” Nico nodded cautiously, not sure his heart was quite in cahoots with his words, “I agree.”
“Excellent,” Leopold grinned, “I will send a message back Queen Giana immediately.”
“Very well,” Nico replied, pausing before asking his next question carefully. “Will I at least get the opportunity to meet her before we wed?”
He knew very little about the current Queen of Izlia, and he knew that now that he’d agreed, he wouldn’t be able to back out of their marriage, but at least if he spoke to her once before they were husband and wife, he might feel better about the entire arrangement.
“Of course,” Leopold nodded.
Allowing his arms to drop to his sides, Nico asked, “May I be excused?”
“Yes,” Leopold replied, not looking up from his letter, but calling out his son’s name before Nico reached the door. “Nicolas.”
“Yes, Father?” Nico responded, not turning to face the king.
“This is for the best.”
Sighing, Nico opened the door and spoke in what he hoped was a convincing tone when he says, “I know.”