“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.