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Dinner was quite quiet. The table was huge and it served around twelve people, but Aunt Nina was sitting at the edge, with Ella on her right side as I sat on her left side. Aunt Nina asked Ella to pray and I felt uncomfortable to be there as Ella asked for God’s blessings upon her family and her kingdom. During dinner, as I tried to imitate both of them, I also tried to make a subject with Ella, that gave me brief responses and I soon gave up on talking. After we finished, Ella gave us a good night, hugging and kissing both of us, and then she left.
“Follow me to my office, Nicolle” Aunt Nina asked, getting up and when we passed through the dining room doors, she stopped to talk to Frida. “Tell Justine that it was marvelous, as usual”
“Yes, ma’am” Frida said, entering the room that we had just left.
Everything still felt too weird and to know that while we were having dinner, Frida was standing at the door, waiting, made me feel even more weird, but I didn’t say anything and we kept walking in silence until we passed through what I think was the meeting room. There was a door right next to it and we entered in that one.
We were in the darkest room of that castle. At least compared to the ones I’ve been to so far. Everything was covered in wood and the wood itself was dark, like it came from a cherry tree. Aunt Nina’s chair was black, and when she sat down, she pointed so that I could sit too.
“Darling, we didn’t have time to talk after the reading. How are you feeling?”
I bit my lips, trying to think on what I should say, as she picked up a golden frame that matched her tiny face.
“Everything is going too fast and nothing seems real to me. I don’t know”
“I see. It was shocking to me too to know that your mom recognized your existence. We were on vacation when she met your father and when we came back, I went to school and she spent some time… Away from us. Your grandmother used to say that she was trying to find herself, discovering her soul and mind right before her coronation. Just now, not only me, but everyone else discovered the true meaning for her absence”
And then I remember something that my father told me on my birthday. It was my mom’s sister who told the royal guard about them, which led my father to be beaten up while my mom was taken away.
“But now you’re here, and it was your mother’s desire that you become the queen of Combellmont” she continued. “However, I know that you must be confused and frightened. I can’t imagine how you are handling everything after receiving a lot of news in a short period of time. So, I’d like to make myself clear: I’m here whenever you need. It’s a tragedy that we didn’t have our parents’ support for a long time, but I want to be, to you, the strength that Caroline was to me, and I hope you can be that to Ella too”
She took some time to think and, instead of feeling relieved, I felt intimidated. It was almost like she was demanding that we kept eye contact.
“Thank you” I said, and soon I realized that it sounded like it was rather a question than an affirmation.
“Oh, darling… I’m doing my job here and that’s all. Taking care of you, my nieces and nephew, blood of my blood and Caroline’s children… Everything is simply my job” she declared and it looked like she was about to cry. “I’m sorry that you weren’t able to meet her, Nicolle. She was an incredible person”
“That’s alright” I said, then I corrected myself. “I mean, I can imagine how she was”
Aunt Nina took some time again, taking a napkin on her desk that was between us, taking a deep breath.
“Now, let’s talk about you, okay?” she asked, taking some papers that were on the table. “According to Isaac and Jean, you lived with your father, but he preferred not to come. You didn’t have much and I imagine that your clothes are everything you have and brought”
I hesitated, but she didn’t give me time to think and continued to speak:
“There’s no problem, anyway, we have a personal tailor that works with his wife. We can arrange a meeting between you two on Monday. You can’t go to Lisieux with those clothes. I’m not implying that your clothes are in a bad state, it’s just that they are not… appropriate to a princess. The school you’re going to has its own uniform, but off school hours, girls usually dress casually”
“Okay…?” I said, as Aunt Nina wrote something.
“We are giving you options. We have hairdressers and manicures that can serve you. You just have to ask me or Isaac and we’ll book a professional to you”
“Speaking of professional help, you’ll be tested this week. Nothing you have to worry about, just a check-up. I, myself, do these exams every month. I always had a fragile health, since I was a young lady. You’ll have to do the full exams, including a visit to the dentist and the nutritionist” she informed, smiling while, once again, she analyzed me. “Tomorrow is Sunday. In our family, after the mass, we visit the capitol. Last weekend, when the first reading of your mother’s testament took place, I had to declare your existence, so that everyone started to look for you. Now that a great part of the royal guard is here in Combellmont, everyone must be talking about you being found, so tomorrow you’ll present yourself to the people”
“No” I denied.
“Pardon?” Aunt Nina asked, like she hadn’t heard me.
“I’m not… Going to do this. Aunt, I have just found out that my mom knew my existence, but now she’s dead. I discovered that she was a queen and I was the princess and that I had to live in my kingdom. I moved continents and I met my two siblings and you. I really don’t know how to explain to anyone what is happening” I explained.
Aunt Nina kept staring at me, then, after a couple seconds, she took a deep breath and closed her eyes.
“Okay, Nicolle” she confirmed, then opened her eyes. “I know you’re going through changes and I respect that you don’t wish to appear in public right now, but you need to understand that, by not showing up, you’ll awake a curiosity inside of everyone’s chests and it’s only a matter of time for paparazzi to appear. Everyone will be dying to take a picture of the so-called “lost princess”. So, the sooner you show up, the better”
I hesitated, but kept my mind strong.
“That’s okay. I’ll go to that school during the whole week, right? So nobody will hear from me while I’m there. At least for the whole week I’ll be safe”
“Exactly” she confirmed.
“And, on weekends, I’ll be here, in the castle. After a while, I’ll know exactly what to do in these situations and then I’ll show myself around” I continued, shrugging.
“We don’t 'show ourselves around', Nicolle. The people expect us to visit them on Sundays, when we make important speeches” she explained, once again making me feel like I was a child. “Tomorrow, after the mass, you’ll go back to the castle and I’ll be there until the bandstand starts with Ella and Hugo, where I’ll confirm you were found, but that you weren’t prepared to present yourself”
“Do I really have to go to the mass?” I asked, trying not to make a grimace.
“Oh, of course, darling. You must go to the mass here and in your school” Aunt Nina explained. “Even if you don’t believe in God, the prevalent religion between kingdoms and some other countries in Europe is the catholic. So even though you’re not going to the church to pray, you’ll need to learn about it, since your coronation we’ll be celebrated by a judge and a priest”
“Okay” I confirmed, so that she could stop treating me like a child.
Aunt Nina stopped for a while and then looked at the papers.
“Nicolle, the most important thing that we have to do right now is to archive your declaration of presence and agreement with your mom’s testament. I mean, if you’re willing to agree--”
“I have done it already. Abby helped me to write it and she’ll officialize it when she hands it in to everyone that was at the meeting. Was I not supposed to do that?” I asked.
“Ah, yes. I see that you’re learning that Mrs. Foster was a great choice for your mom” she commented, taking her glasses off. “So that’s all. Have a good night, Nicolle. I’m glad that you’re adapting well”
“Good night” I replied, after getting up. Then, I left.
Sunday morning, I woke up with someone knocking on my door and, as I got up to answer, it was Pearl and Isaac.
“She is a heavy sleeper, that’s all” he said to Pearl when I grunted a heavy good morning.
“Good morning, princess. Your aunt asked me to help you dress up for the mass” Pearl informed me. She had a transparent bag on her shoulder, filled with white clothes.
“And my job here is done” Isaac declared, letting Pearl go inside the room. “Good morning, princess. I see you in about an hour or so” then, after he bowed, he left, closing the door.
I wasn’t even sure that I was awake, but Pearl got in and started to make my bed, putting the clothes she had brought on top of it, waiting so that I could pick something for me.
“Good morning” I said, after a while, getting inside of the bathroom.
I took a shower and, after being awoken by the cold water, I started to act normally. I greeted Pearl again when I left the bathroom.
“Eat breakfast before dressing up, princess” Pearl suggested, offering me a robe and turning away so that I could take off the towel that I was using. It still felt embarrassing.
I felt under pressure and I wasn’t hungry at all. But Pearl kept waiting for me, so I took an apple and started to eat it.
“You shouldn’t have made the bed” I said, pointing to the bed with my head. “Thanks”
“It’s a part of my job, don’t worry. I hope you don’t mind the clothes, we have the same size, so your aunt asked me to give you something. I bought this dress at the beginning of this month, but I’ve never worn it” Pearl explained, giving a short smile. “I’m sure it will fit”
“Thanks” I said again.
After I finished the apple, I cleaned my fingers and started to look at the clothes that Pearl had brought. It was a blue dress with laces. When I put it on, the dress was so long that it hit my knees.
“Now, put this on top of it” Pearl asked, handing me a white cloth. It looked like a cardigan. “There you go. You’re almost perfect”
I looked at myself in the mirror that was bigger than me and felt suffocated and it also felt like I had extra ventilation where I shouldn’t have. I didn’t remember when I last wore a dress and the only skirt I had was Abeley’s, which looked like a plaid kilt that I hated. The dress was smaller than the skirt, but I always wore shorts under it, but this time I couldn’t tell Pearl that I’d like to wear something under the dress due to its size.
“I’ve brought every shoe I thought that matched the dress. We didn’t know your shoe size, so I picked some shoes from your mom. However, if that sounds offensive or makes you sad, I also brought one of mine, one of Frida’s and one of Justine’s”
I tried not to laugh and Pearl got closer with the bag.
“That’s okay. I’ll try each one of them. It was very kind of you to think like this, but, honestly, I’d do anything so they let me use my All Star”
Pearl laughed and I lowered myself, starting to try each pair of shoes.
After putting on all the options, I realized that every one of them had heels and I felt desperate, but, since I had to choose one of them, I chose the one that had the smallest heel, a white and golden shoe. I asked Pearl to help me get up.
“Oh, one more thing!” Pearl paused and picked a small black box and inside of it was a pearl necklace. She put it on me and, after that, she made me look at myself again. “Now you’re perfect”
She smiled and looked satisfied with the job she had done. I felt weird, as if nothing belonged to me, which, in reality, was true.
Staggering besides Pearl, we left the room and she suggested that we go by the stairs, but I begged her to take the elevator. When we got down, every one of the royal guard was at their posts, but I only knew Isaac and Chuck, so I asked myself where Jean could be.
“Good morning, princess” everyone greeted me as I passed by. They also bowed, which I tried to do the same, but after a while I got tired and just nodded at everyone.
Ella came after me, wearing a white and pink dress and she came with Justine, who was carrying Hugo around and, after a while, Aunt Nina got down, wearing white and grey clothes.
“Good morning, ladies. Nicolle, you look lovely!” she praised, holding my face and spotted the necklace I was wearing. “I see that someone gave you access to your mother’s clothes and jewelry. Nothing more fair than that. After a while, I’m sure every single cloth of hers will fit you perfectly”
“Yeah…” I said, smiling, but I felt uncomfortable because Nina was holding my chin.
Then, she let me go and walked towards Justine, taking Hugo away from her and putting him in his carriage.
“I think we are ready to go” she informed the royal guard. Eight guards moved towards the exit of the castle. “Ella, you’ll go with Hugo and I’ll go with Nicolle”
Ella smiled and ran inside one of the cars, with Chuck behind her, as Aunt Nina kept walking calmly and put him in his baby seat.
“Come, Nicolle” she asked and walked towards the first car.
I stumbled as I walked towards her. And, if it wasn’t for the guard that held my elbow at that moment, I would have fallen.
“Oh, darling! If you still need to learn how to walk on heels you shouldn’t have taken this risk” Aunt Nina said, holding my other elbow and helping me.
I wanted to talk back and to ask what was my other option, but I let it go. It was embarrassing enough that way.
On the way, I got really impressed with everything that I saw and I was hoping that I could discover every inch of Combellmont. I saw a lot of people going in the same direction, towards the church, which was huge, and it looked like it was a Victorian style of architecture. Well, if I was about to rule an European country, the least I could do is to know about their history and culture.
“Stay inside the car, Nicolle. I’ve warned the guard that you cannot be seen”
I frowned, asking myself how that would go, but I let Aunt Nina go with Hugo and Ella.
The car continued to move, turning the church around and the driver, which turned out to be Isaac, lowered the little window that separated the driver’s room from my room.
“Princess, when the door opens, I need you to lower your head and follow me as quickly as possible. Understood?”
I nodded and realized that Isaac couldn’t see me.
“Yes” I said, then I remembered that I couldn’t even walk in those shoes.
After the car stopped, I saw someone opening the door and I got out with my head low, walking in my bare feet while someone put a hand on my shoulder and guided me. We only stopped walking when we arrived in a room that smelled like old books and smoke.
“You can put your shoes on now, princess” I heard, realizing that Chuck was talking to me and that he was the one that led me to that place.
I was nervous and my heart was beating fast as my hands grabbed the shoes. When I realized that it was Chuck who had guided me, I felt stupid. He, on the other hand, had his arms crossed and was staring at me. He, as always, looked like he was having fun.
“Take that smile away from your face, Charles” I grumbled, rolling my eyes and putting the shoes on.
Chuck bit his lips, hiding a smile, and, after I had the shoes on again, he got closer, giving me his arm.
“I’ll be your personal crutch today, what do you think?” he said.
“I think that crutches don’t speak” I said, trying to not show my tongue and I held his arm, even if I didn’t want to.
“Don’t show bad behavior, princess. We are inside a church, you know?” he replied and then we left the room and climbed a huge staircase. On the second floor, the number of wooden chairs was quite small and they looked like thrones instead of normal chairs. When I met the others, they had already taken their seats, while the guards kept standing.
The mass was boring, but not as much as I expected and most of the time I kept staring at Ella and Hugo. It’s not like I didn’t believe in God or had no religion, but since I was raised by a drunken father in a city that didn’t like any of us, I wasn’t invited to any church meeting. Thinking about it, I think the only memories I have inside a church were the ones that took place at Abeley, because we used to have long and boring masses. They were the only reason I still believed in God. But I still believed he was too concerned about granting everyone else’s wishes to hear mine.
“Get up, Nicolle” I heard Aunt Nina whispering and I noticed that everyone was standing but me.
I really had a lot to learn. Not only this one, but a lot of Combellmont’s protocols. The new school looked attractive, which meant that I would probably stop looking like an idiot whenever Aunt Nina spoke to me and actually would learn something.
After the mass, the guards that were waiting for us at the entrances started to move around, next to us, and split up each one of us. Chuck, once again, gave me his arm, which I held tightly, since my feet were hurting already. When we started to walk, Jean appeared in front of us.
“Charles, no deviations. Head to the castle. You’ll have a backup car, but the princess will be with you. I need you to be responsible and capable”
Chuck nodded, looking serious.
“Don’t worry, Jean. We only have to go back to the castle and, as you said yourself, we’ll have back up”
Jean nodded and Chuck and I left the church through the same entrance we got in.
Chuck kept holding me and when I almost fell at the end of the stairs, he was the one that prevented me from falling, holding my waist. The last time I checked, it was the first time that I got that close to someone, besides my father, Ella or Justine, because they liked to hug me. For a couple seconds, I stopped and stared at him, finding apprehension in his eyes and, when I lowered my eyes to check his hands, he was still holding me tightly, but, in a matter of seconds, Chuck’s hands weren’t there anymore and the only contact we had was from his hand grabbing my elbow.
“I’m sorry, princess” he kept walking.
“That’s fine. Thanks” I said, walking by his side.
“We are getting closer to that room. Feel free to take off your shoes if you’d like. I can give you my socks so that you won’t hurt your feet” he suggested, moving smoothly until we arrived at that room. He distanced himself from me and crossed his arms again.
“Ah, thanks. But I think I can manage to walk with my bare feet, Chuck”
He nodded, then held my shoes and he was being careful to not touch me again.
“I’m taking the car. Once I’m here, I’ll get down with a black umbrella and I’ll take you to the car”
“Okay” I confirmed, nodding.
“Come, princess” he asked, giving me his arm again.
After that, I walked through the same path we used to get inside the church, but it looked longer than before. We stopped at a dark hall with a big wooden door.
“Stay here, princess. Don’t open the door to anyone that’s not holding a black umbrella, okay?” he alerted me, stepping forward, without touching me again, but checking on me with a look.
“Okay” I repeated and Chuck left.
Everything went silent. I could hear everyone that was outside the church. Their steps. Their conversations. People walking to their homes. But I felt nervous because I was alone. My heart was beating against my ribs and my waist, where Chuck was holding, was vibrating and itching a little.
After a while, I heard the noise of a car coming towards the door and then I saw the shadow of a black umbrella through the stained glass. I opened the door, lowering my head, and walked by Chuck’s side to the car he had just parked.
When I sat down, I noticed that the shoes I was wearing were laying on the car’s floor and, when Chuck finally got in, he relaxed a bit.
“Good job, princess. Except for the fact that you didn’t wait for me to call you. Next time, you have to wait for my call. Don’t open the door until that. For your safety” he explained, putting on his belt and checking our surroundings.
“Chuck?” I asked, thinking about what I should say.
“Yes, princess” he replied, starting the car.
“I thought that we cut off the formality. You can call me Nick” I said.
Chuck sighed, trying not to smile.
“It’s way easier to forget to call you “princess” and call you “Nick” instead. That’s why I don’t do it. Because it’s too easy. And Jean would kill me if he heard me calling you by your name”
“Okay… Charles” I said, narrowing my eyes. “I don’t know why you all insist on calling me princess and it seems a little bit unfair. I mean, y’all call my aunt “Nina” and Rafaella is called by her nickname, “Ella”, but when it comes to me…”
“Princess, what Jean said to the rest of the guard is that you don’t like contact and are reluctant to talk to people, so we thought that the best we could do to treat you fairly is call you princess. Be professional, you know”
I narrowed my eyes again.
“I never told Jean that I don’t like contact”
“Well, the document about your search said that you looked offended when Jean held you away from the window at your apartment, even if it was for your safety. So, he understood that you were reluctant regarding physical touch”
I wanted to open my mouth and complain about it, but thinking about what happened, Jean was kind of right to think that I didn’t like physical touch, so he wasn’t entirely wrong to tell that to the royal guard. I didn’t like when people hugged me, like Ella and Justine do, and I was, indeed, difficult when it comes to friendship, but I had never thought about how all of that could mean that I was rather reluctant when it comes to physical touch.
“Charles, is that why you took your hands away from me earlier, like I had electrocuted you?” I asked, looking through the window and thinking about my life.
“No.” I heard him saying, but I didn’t turn to look at him. I kept staring at Combellmont’s empty streets, thinking about the information Charles had just given me.