“Are you sure you’re alright, Bells?” John asked for the tenth time.
“I’m in a fortress with professional body guards,” I responded, slightly irritated from reassuring him so many times.
“We know,” said my mom, patting John’s arm. “I just can’t imagine what it’s like over there today. John had to call in at work because there are so many news people and vans surrounding our house that he can’t get out. Besides, I didn’t want him to leave me to deal with them on my own.”
I had been Skyping with them for a half hour, listening to them go on about how exciting and scary everything had been since the announcement this morning, how proud they were of me, and how much they were looking forward to the wedding. Because of the different time zones, their house has been surrounded by press since twelve o’clock last night. Renee, John, and Louis had all been asked to do interviews and had been called by newspaper and broadcasting stations who were looking to get some sort of inside scoop on me. Tess and Alec had even been approached by some paparazzi on their way to school.
“Where is Leopold?” Renee queried. “I would like to congratulate my future son in law!”
“He had to go and study after we made the announcement from the balcony. He’s got a test on Wednesday,” I told her. “See?” I held my computer out, showing them my empty bedroom, then settled it back on my pillow.
“Strange, I would have thought he would be right beside you, even with the studying,” smiled Renee.
“Apparently, I am too distracting, so I’ve been kicked out so he can concentrate,” I told her.
“Well, just be careful, alright?” said John. “If Leopold is not with you, stay close to those security guards of yours.”
“Will do,” I told him. “And you guys let me know if it gets too bad on your end. I’m sure Felip could have something done about it.”
“We will. Bye, hun,” Renee beamed, blowing a kiss at the camera.
“Love you,” I told them, then ended the call. I sighed and lay back into the pillows, tired. I had already tried to sleep with no success. Leopold said he would be busy until around dinner and it was only about two now. With Phillipa gone, I didn’t have much to do.
I groaned, remembering suddenly that I had homework. I pushed myself up and went over to the desk, grabbing the list of flowers and their meanings, then retreated back to my bed. The list was useless if I didn’t know what any of the flowers looked like, and I was pretty sure I needed to be able to recognize them if I was going to make bouquets with them.
I studied the list. Even after yesterday’s lesson I only recognized a handful of the names and could safely identify less. I opened my browser and typed in the first Latin name on the list. A bright red spiky looking flower popped up. My nose scrunched up. I was pretty sure I had never seen this plant before in my life. This was ridiculous, I had no idea how Phillipa thought I was supposed to memorize all these flowers and leaves in less than two days.
With a sigh, I clicked in a slideshow program, and typed in the Latin name of the spiky flower into the title bar, followed by its meaning underneath, then copied and pasted the picture onto the slide. I repeated this process over and over, working my way down the list, ultimately creating a bunch of digital cue cards.
When Angela arrived, the warm evening sun was slanting through my bedroom windows, striping the room in long lengths of dark shadow and streams of lazy light. I was at the end of my bed, in one of the last sunny spots, flipping through the slideshow for the fifth time. I could recognize a good portion of the list now. Mostly very common plants like irises, hyacinth, hydrangeas, or very strange looking ones like the spiky red one. Knowing what they looked like was one thing, but I was pretty sure that without my list or cue cards, I would still be unable to properly name them even if I did recognize the flower, never mind tell you what their meaning was.
“It is time to get ready for dinner, Mademoiselle,” Angela told me.
I groaned and stretched obligingly, happy for a reason to shut my laptop off. The Royal family was eating dinner together tonight, everyone who was left in the castle at least, in celebration of the official announcement. It was nothing formal, just a small gesture, which was noted by the fact that Angela brought a pair of pants for me to wear. Those pants, paired with a short-sleeved eyelet blouse, was the most casual outfit I had been all summer and it had been deemed appropriate for public viewing. Leopold was dressed similarly when I found him in the hall, casually leaning against the wall while he waited. He was in khakis and a bright green polo shirt that fit tightly over his broad shoulders. It was the same moss green as his one eye, and made the honey, caramel, cinnamon tresses of his tangled hair stand out beautifully. It was rare to see him in color and the effect was quite dazzling.
“Good afternoon?” he asked, pulling me close to his side.
“Productive,” I told him. “And you?”
Leopold nodded, “Good. I am starting to feel confident that I may actually know what I am doing.”
I slapped his arm lightly, making him smile.
“Everything is well in America?” he checked.
“Fine. Well, I mean, a little ridiculous, but I think it will be okay. I told them to call if things got too out of hand.”
“Good, I am glad,” he said, then pulled me to a stop, just outside the doors to the dinning room. “Now, I want to warn you, Fred. There are a lot of people on the other side of the door. It is another tradition. The way the castle staff shows us their appreciation for the wedding.”
“Appreciation?” I asked, looking skeptically at the huge wooden doors before us. All I heard was silence. If there was a horde of people in there, they were doing a very good job of keeping quiet. I couldn’t imagine how good they would be at surprise parties.
Leopold started to explain hastily. “Now that we are getting married, we will be their next rulers. It is their way to show that they will follow us during our reign, and serve us loyally, that they appreciate that we let them serve us.”
“That we allow them to serve us?” I huffed. “Sounds a little barbaric don’t you think.” It seemed ludicrous that they should be thanking us for letting them serve us, if anything it should be the opposite. I felt bad every time one of the staff had to help me, especially when it was something I could easily do myself, like run a bath, make a cup of tea, or open a door.
“Exactly,” Leopold said. “Most of the people who work in the castle belong to families who have served the Royal Family for centuries. Their positions are as ancient as yours or mine, and they take much honor and pride in what they do, and what their ancestors did, as loyal servants to the crown.”
“Oh,” I said, feeling a bit better now. If it was important to the staff to do this, then it didn’t seem so bad. “I didn’t realize that there was such a long lineage involved.”
“Some of the families can trace their history back to the knights in the first King’s Guard,” Leopold said, tucking a few strands of loose hair behind my ear. “Just smile. Be happy for their happiness; be happy for us. We are the future and they are helping us achieve it.”
I rolled my eyes. “You know, you are sounding a lot smarter lately. I thing this King gene may actually be starting to kick in.”
“About time too, I have been having a panic attack while waiting for something to work,” Leopold winked at me, then took my arm and led me into the dinning room. As promised, the staff was lined up along the walls of the dinning room. They bowed and curtsied as we entered and then applauded politely. I felt a blush light across my cheeks and had to fight the urge to hide behind Leopold. Felip, Beatrice, Hector, and Rose were standing there as well, smiling at Leopold and I. It only lasted a few moments before they all disappeared through the kitchen door.
“Please,” I moaned, pulling on Leopold’s hand.
“Please, what?” Leopold asked, allowing me to slow him a bit.
“You know very well what,” I told him sternly, making him chuckle.
Leopold cocked a copper brow, full lips quirked in amusement, and tugged on my arm, drawing me down the corridor. I stumbled slightly and he caught me, his arm sliding around my waist. “You had too much champagne,” he replied.
“Have not,” I huffed and brushed out of his hold, determined to prove him wrong. I was nowhere near intoxicated, though I had to admit I did feel a little light-headed, warm too, and my skin was tingly. It was hardly my fault though, there had been a number of toasts in mine and Leopold’s honor, and the sips had begun to add up. I wasn’t accustomed to drinking, unlike Leopold who seemed completely unaffected despite having tossed back his champagne along with a few glasses of Solisian wine.
“We can not go outside, Fred,” he said, picking up his pace again. I scrambled to keep up with the long stride. “It is dangerous.”
I snorted a little indelicately. “That’s never stopped you before.”
“Well there hasn’t been a mob of people outside the castle walls before,” he frowned. “At least not recently.”
“It’s not like they have pitchforks,” I grumbled under my breath, then caught his arm again, giving in.
“Once security gets things under control again, I will take you outside,” he promised, patting my hand where it sat in the crook of his elbow.
I sighed, but didn’t say anything more. I knew it would be futile. The security around the castle had been doubled in preparation for the announcement. Things had been going well so far, but we were not supposed to leave the safety of our fortress for the next twenty-four hours until the security team was assured that we were in fact secure. Of course, as usual, Leopold was going to be exempt from the rule and got to leave the castle tomorrow.
I told him so, and he pursed his lips, looking at me hard. “I am going to the Royal Air Force Base. If anywhere is more safe than the castle, it is there.”
Based on the still fading bruise on his shoulder, I was willing to bet money against that, but I bit my tongue. Leopold would thankfully be finishing his time there very shortly.
“I will be back in a minute,” Leopold said, leaving me at my door where Angela was patiently waiting. She took me inside and began helping me out of my pants and blouse, and exchanging them for one of the numerous pairs of silk pajamas that I possessed.
I looked around my room as she brushed out my hair. My things had been cleaned up. The papers and laptop I had left out were now, presumably, stowed safely inside one of my desk drawers. The creases I had left when I lay on the bed had been smoothed out again and the stray bits of clothing had been picked up. The room looked as though it was not lived in, as though it was just another of the many unused guest rooms in the castle. I wondered curiously how Leopold managed to get away with having his room constantly look like it had been ransacked, or blown up.
There was a faint knock on the door, and Leopold strode in, dressed in sweatpants and a t-shirt. Angela put down the hairbrush, and bowed slightly, before excusing herself. The second she was gone, Leopold flopped down onto my bed, crossing his arms behind his head as he regarded me expectantly. He pulled me against him, my back pressed to his chest. He ran a hand through my hair, winding it into submission and out of his face.
“It is on my leg,” he said, softly running his fingertips over the silk that covered the outside of my leg, from knee to hip.
I frowned, not sure what he was talking about at first, then as realization hit, I said, “The tattoo.”
I felt his nod. “Hector has one too,” his hand pressed into my ribs, then over my breastbone, above my heart, “and Felip. The Princes of Solis have always gotten them, and worn them proudly. They are never meant to be seen, though, or known about, as it would endanger us, make us identifiable. Now that does not matter so much and it is just done out of tradition. It was a little easier back then of course, when no one ever saw your arms.”
“What are they?” I asked him, wondering what could possibly have marked the skin of all the male royals for who knows how long.
“Symbols of who we are. You know the lions used in heraldry?” he asked. His mouth was very close to my ear. I could feel his breath on the back of my neck.
“Yes,” I confirmed. Thinking of all of the funny gold lions that decorated flags and crests and banners.
“Felip and Hector both have a lion sagent. It represents their role as king, sitting on the throne. Mine, as the second son and commander of the army, is a lion rampant holding a sword. It is supposed to represent my role as protector and defender of the country.
He paused for a moment, then said softly, “I guess ours are backwards now.”
I squinted at the papers, trying to see if the pictures on the page matched the flowers I had in my hand. This morning I had officially been okay’d to go outside, granted with a heavy guard, and only because I had to do my homework. Leopold was gone and Phillipa was due back very shortly for our lesson. I didn’t have much time to figure out the arrangement and the cue cards I had made weren’t very helpful; I could only flip though them so fast.
I scrunched my nose, looking at my bouquet. I needed Orchids, but I think I had picked Freesia instead. I shuffled the cards frustratedly, searching for the photo that matched the flower in my hand. When I couldn’t find it, I sighed and ripped out a cluster of random blue flowers that I thought looked nice. I would just pick a bunch of stuff and figure it out afterward, when Google was close by.
My head whipped around as I suddenly heard the crunch of gravel under feet. M. Arsnault appeared as he rounded a tall, puffy-looking tree. I knew there were about five guards close by, but they had been lurking far enough away to give me the illusion of privacy. I smiled, starting to greet him until I noticed that he was running towards me. My hands froze on the flowers; in my three months here I had never seen M. Arsnault run.
“What’s up?” I asked tightly, my eyebrows knitting together. Maybe I had accidentally picked some sort of sacred flower that had been in the garden since year zero; that would be bad. I looked at the tiny blue flowers, I was pretty sure they were forget-me-nots. Didn’t they grow everywhere?
M. Arsnault threw his arm over my shoulders, crushing me protectively to his chest and hurrying me back towards the castle. There was more crunching as more men in black suits joined us, surrounding my guard and I as we wove through the garden.
“Lamb secure,” M. Arsnault said, holding his hand to his ear. My stomach tightened, my blood running cold. Something must be very wrong.
“What’s going on?” I asked, looking at the security team that surrounded me. None of them said a word.
“What’s happening?” I tried again, my voice harder. I directed the question directly at M. Arsnault this time.
My guard pursed his lips, his grip on my shoulder tightening. “There has been an accident,” he stated. “We need to get everyone secure.”
We were on the steps now, the ones that led up to the ballroom.
“What do you mean? What kind of accident?” My mind went straight to the crowd of people that still lined the castle gate. Had someone actually managed to get in?
“That’s still to be determined,” said M. Arsnault tightly and stopped me at the doors. One of the men in black hurried inside, only to appear a second later to give M. Arsnault a thumbs-up. We moved into the ballroom, my shoes sounding loudly off the marble floors, like the cracking of a whip.
“Well, what happened?” I tried again, frustrated now.
M. Arsnault pulled me to a stop, sighing heavily. He turned me around to face him, his bear paw hands resting on my shoulders. “There was an accident at the base,” he began, his voice steady. “We don’t have the details yet, but we need to get all of you secured in the King’s office.”
My breath caught in my throat, my blood running cold. “Leopold?” I rasped.
Arsnault pursed his lips looking at me sadly, “He’s been injured.”
The bouquet slipped from my fingers. I ran.
Felip’s office was full with people. Beatrice was seated behind the desk in Felip’s chair; her face was pale, gaze focused on the door. Her eyes met mine briefly as M. Arsnault accompanied me into the room. Felip was behind her, pacing agitatedly.
Hector and Rose were standing in front of the bookcase on the left wall. He had his arm wrapped around her shoulders, but his eyes were focused on his father. Rose offered me a weak smile.
Phillipa, who had apparently returned, was sitting in the blue velvet chair. Her cheeks were tear stained, her tiny hands balled into fists in her lap. I was surprised, almost, to see the tears. I went to stand behind her, running my hand down her dark hair.
Felip nodded at M. Arsnault as my guard fell into position beside the door. The other guards left the room.
“Any news?” Felip asked.
“Remi is on his way now,” replied M. Arsnault.
I bit my lip. Remi was the head of the royal security; it was not good if he was coming here himself.
The room was silent as we waited for his arrival, all heads turning when the door opened a few minutes later. A tall severe-looking man pushed through the door and nodded once sharply in greeting, the light from the chandelier reflecting off the top of his baldhead.
“The premises have been secured,” he declared in a gravelly voice. “We have been in contact with the base. It seems there was an accident involving a helicopter the Prince was flying. He is being airlifted to the hospital as we speak.”
I frowned, his words not making sense. Leopold and I had just been flying on the weekend. He seemed perfectly at ease as a pilot, I couldn’t imagine what would have happened to make him crash.
“Send guards over right away to meet him there. Have extras guards travel with the family members who go,” instructed Felip, without missing a beat.
“Right away, sir,” Remi bowed. “The cars will be ready and waiting.”
Beatrice stood, clearly understanding the next step. She had some color back now, a steely resolve settling over her features as she slipped into the next room.
“Hector?” Felip asked.
Hector nodded and released Rose, stepping up to his father’s desk.
“Take care of your mother, and...” Felip paused for a moment, his voice wavering momentarily. “Call if...” he didn’t finish the sentence, he didn’t have to.
Hector nodded and followed after his mother.
Felip’s eyes landed on me next. “Winifred, I would like to ask you to go too. I understand if you say no, we have no idea what the situation may be, or what shape Leopold will be in.”
“No,” I said, “of course. Of course, I’ll go. Thank you.” I scrambled for the door, M. Arsnault turning to follow me.
“Fred,” Felip called, making me stop. I turned to face him, seeing the pain and worry evident in his eyes. “Please take care of him.”
The cars pulled to a stop outside of the new hospital. Guards that were already on the scene surrounded us, helped us from the cars, past the statue of Felip and to the front doors. There was a nurse waiting for us in the atrium. She led us through the sterile halls to a private waiting area.
A woman in a power suit passed though our barricade of security. I recognized Dr. Fleurion from my tour of the hospital a few weeks ago, she was the Chief of Surgery.
She bowed her head slightly, stopping in front of us.
“What’s happened to my son?” Beatrice asked as Hector grabbed hold of her hand.
“Welcome your Highnesses, why don’t we sit down?” Dr. Fleurion offered, indicating a pair of benches.
We did as she directed, sitting stiffly on the furniture.
“Can you tell us what happened?” Hector asked again. His voice was calm, just as Felip’s had been in the office. Practiced.
Dr. Fleurion needed no further prompt to start her measured speech. I didn’t catch most of what she was saying. Unfortunately the conversational French I had learned during my lessons hadn’t covered medical terminology. That, along with the heartbeat that sounded loudly in my ears, made it difficult to understand her.
“Thank you,” Hector told her, earning a small smile.
Beatrice sat rigid beside him, her face carefully blank.
Dr. Fleurion nodded, face full of sympathy. “Please do not hesitate to have someone fetch me if you have any questions. I will update you as soon as I get any news.”
She left us then, hurrying back to the elevators. As I watched her disappear behind the doors my stomach tightened. I could picture the operating rooms in the basement and could imagine Leopold lying on one of them.
“What did she say?” I asked Hector.
He turned to me, his face pale, features set. I held my breath.
“The helicopter Leopold was driving during his test crashed,” he began. I noticed Beatrice’s hand grip his tighter. “There were two of them inside. The other soldier died on the way to the hospital. They had to resuscitate Leopold on the scene, but he made it here. He is in critical condition, but was stable enough for testing and now surgery.”
“That’s all?” I asked tightly. The word resuscitate kept playing over and over again in my mind. He had died. Leopold had died, but he was not dead.
“She said they would let us know as soon as they had anymore information.”
Dr. Fleurion returned exactly an hour and fourty-three minute later. Hector was pacing back and forth between the chairs, his two middle fingers tapping a quick tattoo against his thigh. He froze though at the sound of the elevator doors opening, his head flying up. I put the pudding cup I had been unable to eat down, and gently place my hand on Beatrice’s arm. She hadn’t moved since the last time the doctor had been here, hadn’t so much as blinked.
“So?” Hector asked, slightly harsher than necessary. He seemed to catch himself though, and cleared his throat. He sat down again on his mother’s other side, forcing himself to listen.
“He is stable for now,” Dr. Fleurion said, with a small smile. “His external injuries have been looked after, and they will heal in time. There will undoubtably be some scarring though. He is burned quite severely.”
“Can we see him?” Beatrice asked, voice rasping.
The doctor nodded slowly. “He is just being taken to his room now, but yes in a few moments, I will take you there. There are a few things I would like to tell you first.”
Beatrice pursed her lips, obviously more intent on seeing for herself that her son was okay, than listening to all the reasons why he wasn’t. She listened though.
“I do not want you to be afraid when you see him,” Fleurion explained, pulling out her best bedside manner lines. “The Prince is covered in many places in bandages and splints. His face is bruised and swollen and we had to shave his head.”
Something clicked in my mind then, slowly the pieces of what she had said and what she hadn’t said were coming together. My heart stopped in my chest as the words began to form on my lips. I didn’t know if I wanted to hear the answer to what I was about to ask. “You said that his external injuries had been looked after. Does that mean that there are internal ones?”
“The Prince’s brain was damaged in the impact. This caused swelling and hemorrhaging in his brain. We opened his head to relieve the pressure, but we are not sure how severe the damage to his brain has been. We will not know for sure until he wakes up,” she explained.
Hector jumped to his feet again, too anxious to stand still. “You mean he hasn’t regained consciousness yet?”
“He has not been conscious since the crash. The Prince is in a coma,” she stated simply.
Beatrice gasped beside me, a single tear rolling down her cheek.
“He will wake up though,” I said. Determined not to make it a question, not to doubt that he would.
“I can not say for sure. Every case is different. Just in case though, with your position, I would suggest you start to prepare for the worst. I am very sorry,” she paused for a moment, letting the news sink in, then said, “Now if you will follow me, I will take you up to his room.”
Numbly, I stood, and began to follow. I was having a hard time believing what we had just been told. Two hours ago Leopold had died and come back to life. Now he was alive, but unreachable.
We went up to the seventeenth floor. Guards met us at the elevator doors. More had been set at the entrance to the stairwell. Another pair were stationed at the entrance of the hallway we turned down. M. Lefevre and M. Arnault met us at the last door on the left hand side. Leopold was like sleeping beauty with an army watching him. I was pretty sure that kissing him would not wake him up, however, I was certainly willing to try if that’s what it would take.
Beatrice, Hector and I filed into the room, surrounding the hospital bed where Leopold was sleeping. Dr. Fleurion stepped in, shutting the door behind her.
“What happens now?” Hector asked her. His eyes were fixed on his brother, eyes skimming over the bandages, wires, and tubes that covered his body.
“We keep him here, under monitoring,” said the Chief of Surgery. “We will keep him medicated so he is not in pain, we will change his bandages, and we will put his joints through normal motion every day to avoid stiffness.. You may want to begin looking at options for when he is able to go home.” She paused for a moment, as if she was leaving room to correct herself silently, “if” he was able to go home. “There may be complications when he does wake up. Based on the scans there is a high possibility that he may be blind. I will give you the information on whom you can contact. There are many people and groups who can help.”
Beatrice nodded, “I will take care of that. I will give you the number for my personal secretary so you can forward me all of the information.”
“Very well,” Dr. Fleurion nodded. “Other than that, there is nothing more that can be done until we wake him up. I suggest that you all go home and assess your options.”
“I want to stay,” I blurted.
“You don’t have to do that, Mademoiselle,” Dr. Fleurion said. “The Prince is in very good hands here. I am sure you would be much more comfortable at home.”
“I know, but I want to,” I insisted. I turned to Beatrice. “The guards are all here, I will be fine. I don’t want to leave him here all alone.”
“It goes against protocol,” said Hector. “Plus there is no where for you to sleep. You can come back tomorrow, Winifred.”
Beatrice shook her head. “Let her stay.”
She looked at me, eyes glistening. “Let Winifred stay, she should be here, I want her here with him. Felip would agree.”
Hector rubbed the back of his neck, “Alright, I will go tell security and call Dad. He will be waiting for news.”
“I’ll follow you,” said Dr. Fleurion, “and I’ll make some arrangements on my end as well.”
I was finally left alone with Leopold later that night. Beatrice and Hector had left, Dr. Fleurion had finally stopped checking in on me, and the night nurse wasn’t due for another hour.
Somehow, someone had managed to locate a futon in an office somewhere in the hospital and they had it carried down to Leopold’s room for me to sleep on. I was sitting on it now, wearing the pajamas that had been dropped off for me, hugging my knees to my chest.
I let my eyes roam over Leopold’s broken body. Two of his fingers were in splints, the ends of small metallic pins that held the bones in place could be seen sticking out here and there between the braces. His left arm was in a sling, keeping his shoulder which had been popped back into its socket still. My eyes drifted from there down to his ribs. They were hidden beneath blankets and a hospital gown now, but I had caught a glimpse of it earlier when the nurse had come to change Leopold’s bandages. Leopold’s left flank, from under his arm down to the inside on his left hip was covered in an angry burn. The nurse had told me that it was a severe second degree burn, bordering on third, that it was very painful and that it would scar.
Beneath the damaged flesh, three of his ribs were cracked.
My hand swiped at my cheeks as I finally allowed the first few tears to fall.
My eyes ran upwards, toward the lines of stitches on his bicep, his collarbone, until I finally stopped at his face. His features had been distorted by the swelling. The usual sharp lines of his jaw and cheeks hidden underneath the puffy, bruised flesh. His hair was gone. The thick messy strands of copper and gold had been shorn off and replaced by an angry red line that stitched along the crown of his head. Even the soft gold hair of his arms was gone, apparently singed off by the fire.
He was virtually unrecognizable. There was nearly none of the Leopold I knew left on the bed beside me.
Finally alone, I let all of the pain and the worry of the day wash over me. I took hold of his large hand, careful to avoid the intravenous line, finding relief in the fact that at least his hand felt the same. There was familiarity in the long calloused fingers wrapped through my mine.
Slowly, I cried myself to sleep.