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.”