Chapter Twenty Eight
“I remember,” Leopold panted, the weak early morning light turning his complexion grey.
“Shh,” I soothed, gripping his hand tightly. “It’s alright, you’re safe. I’m here.”
As I kissed his temple, I could feel his pulse hammering beneath his skin.
He swallowed more air. “Fred.”
“Yes, I’m here.”
His breaths became deeper and slower until he gave a final shaky sigh and turned to me. “There was a school,” he whispered, already half asleep again.
I hummed, hoping it was answer enough to calm whatever this nightmare was.
“That’s why I didn’t land the helicopter immediately, the only place was a schoolyard,” he continued. I froze, eyes flying open.
“What do you mean?”
“There were kids outside playing, so I tried to go farther, but then it was too late to land.” Leopold opened his eyes, pain written across his features. “Guillaume.”
I reached up, cradling his jaw in my hand. “It’s not your fault Leopold. You did so well.”
“It doesn’t feel like it.”
When he was asleep again, I quietly climbed out of bed, pulled on a robe, and went in search of Felip.
Leopold crinkled his nose, “This is my least favorite part.” I started at his sudden appearance. He was standing behind me, reading over my shoulder as I reviewed notes from the last economic report. The next Council meeting was in less than an hour and I was supposed to attend. We were to be reviewing projected increases in tourism, how it would affect the country’s budget, and where the money should be directed.
“I don’t completely understand most of it still, but I find it very interesting.” I marked my page as Leopold came around the couch, sitting next to me.
“I understand it, but it bores me. I would much rather do the legislative half.”
I let him take the papers off my lap, as I made a casual evaluation of him.
“Maybe we can split the work like that instead of by country. I’ll take all the economic meetings and you can do the law stuff.”
Half of Leopold’s mouth smiled, as he squinted at the page. “Do you want my help with any of it?”
“Thank you, but it’s too late to try to make sense of it in time for today’s meeting,” I held my hand out for the folder. Leopold continued to read them. I rolled my eyes, pulling them gently away from him. He had taken a keen interest in all my meetings the last few days. Probably because they were all of the ones he usually was occupied with. Now, unable to attend, Leopold would eagerly press me for information as soon as I returned. Sometimes he would attend my private meetings with Felip and Hector, if they let him, under the guise of helping me. Really, he just wanted to stay on top of what he was missing.
“Why don’t you rest?” I offered. “I can fill you in when I get back.”
Leopold grunted, spinning so that his legs dangled off the arm of the couch and his head rested in my lap. “I don’t see why I can’t come observe.”
I placed my hand on his chest, “You will soon enough. We are a team, let me take your place for now.”
He cocked an eyebrow, “In sickness and in health and all that?”
Smiling, I suggested, “Why don’t you meet with the chef to go over his preliminary recommendations for the wedding dinner?” I suggested. Wedding planning was another way I was keeping Leopold distracted. When he wasn’t having me fill him in on business meetings, I was having him take my place in many of the wedding decisions. Phillipa acted as intermediary between us and the contacts so there was no danger of anyone finding out who was really making the decisions about what the salad dressing should be, what vehicles we would leave in, or which uniform the groomsman would be allowed to wear. Leopold, surprisingly, had thrown himself fully into it.
He looked up at me, “I thought you wanted to come?”
“Go without me. You can narrow down the options, then I’ll do the taste testing with you when it’s time.”
Leopold reached towards my phone, which sat on the coffee table. “I’ll text Phillipa and have her move the meeting up until the same time as yours.”
His stretch didn’t quite make it, so I rolled my eyes and grabbed it for him, placing it in his right hand. Leopold propped the phone up on his leg and began to flick through the prompts with his index finger. There was a knock on the sitting room door. “Entrez,” Leopold called, not bothering to sit up. Rose stepped in and curtsied low, longer than necessary. “Rose,” Leopold acknowledged, setting the phone down on my leg.
“What’s up?” I asked and indicated the armchair next to us.
Rose crossed the room and stood next to the armchair. “I was hoping to speak with Leopold.”
I saw the brief flash of surprise on Leopold’s face before he answered.
“Yes, alright.” Pushing himself upwards, Leopold motioned to the chair again and this time Rose sat down. I glanced between the two of them and started to collect my things. Leopold caught my eye, realizing what I was doing, and pleaded silently for me not to leave. His shoulders were squared, already taking defense. I gave him a pointed look and he nodded once in response, sinking back into the sofa.
“I am going to go get ready for my meeting,” I told them, before turning to Leopold, “No peas.”
“I will assure that they are in every course,” he promised.
Hector was waiting in the hall, leaning against the doorframe.
“Should I be worried?” I asked.
Hector shook his head, smiling. “Nah, this has been coming for a while, it’s good. Come, I will walk you to the meeting.” Hector took the folder from me, tucking it under his arm. “Are you still holding up alright?”
“Fine. What are they talking about?” I continued.
Hector put one of his large hands on my shoulder, squeezing in gentle reassurance. “I will let Leopold fill you in later. I am sure he will want to tell you about it. It will be fine...I think.”
“So long as one of them doesn’t say something stupid.”
“Good afternoon, gentlemen,” Felip said, taking his seat in the War Room. “Before we get things started, I would like to inform you that we have Mademoiselle Sinclair joining us today. As some of you know, she has been attending meetings with me for the larger portion of the week and she will be attending council meetings for the foreseeable future as well. Questions?”
I braced myself, already prepared for the onslaught of questions that had nothing to do with tourism or the economy. I had been facing the same battle the whole week in the sessions Felip had with various ministers. There were all more interested in the fact that I was at the meetings than the planned agendas.
Unfortunately, there were a number of Governors present today who had not heard the spiel yet.
“I thought, Mademoiselle Sinclaire was in Arcadis,” said the minister of agriculture.
“She has returned to us for the time being in order to remain close in case something should change in Leopold’s condition,” Felip replied, practiced. He sorted through the papers in front of him and began patting his pockets in search of his glasses.
“Has something changed that we should be aware of?” came the next question, from the minister of health.
“No,” replied Hector, stepping in. “We were worried that it had a few days ago, but Leopold is stable once again.”
“Should la princess not return to Arcadis then?” asked Beaucage.
“She only left to fulfill previous arrangements but we are now rescheduling all non-critical events for later dates. The majority of the schooling that was to be done in Arcadis can be done from here until the future is more stable.”
Beaucage seemed unsatisfied with that answer but didn’t say anything more.
“Anyone else?” Felip invited.
I could feel all the eyes on me, all of the unasked questions lying heavily in the air. Carefully schooling my expression, I tried not to think too much on the fact that I was the only woman in the room, by far the youngest person, and in the most crucial ways still an outsider. With no education in this area and no Solisian citizenship, I truly shouldn’t have been allowed in the meetings. Yet now, I was in a strange limbo zone, where my presence and attendance had become more significant then that of any of the governors.
“No,” said Felip, a bored challenge. “Then let us begin. M. Montagne, if you please.”
The tall man in charge of tourism cleared his throat, running his hand across his goatee. “Yes, well, it is expected that with the news of the upcoming nuptials between the le Prince and Mademoiselle Sinclair, along with the liberation of Arcadis from France and Mademoiselle Sinclair’s status as an American, there will be in increase in tourism to our country. The profits from the wedding alone are projected to be...”
I dutifully took notes for the better part of two hours, trying hard to keep up with the rapid-fire conversation. The arguments were endless, as the governors tried to sort out how much of the profits from the weddings the two royal houses would get to keep, and where the rest of the money would be best used. All of the Governors and ministers had a say about why they needed the extra money for whatever they happened to be in charge of. Felip had to listen to all of their arguments and try to decide what seemed the best course of action. Watching him was the most interesting part of the whole process. Felip was extremely impressive in the way in which he mediated the conversation.
When we were all finished, I quickly packed up my things, shoving them into my folder. I flipped my phone over, skimming through the missed messages. Leopold was finished with his meeting as well, and waiting for me in his room.
“I think that is good enough for today, Winifred,” Felip told me, drawing my attention back to the room. “Unless you have pressing issues that you wish to address.”
I heard the unasked question, remembering our hushed meeting this morning over yawns and coffee, interrupted by Hector crashing into the room beside the guard who had been sent to fetch Felip. “No, nothing urgent.”
Felip quickly clasped my hand before releasing it. In hushed tones, too low to be overheard he added, “We can review this tomorrow in private. I am quite sure Leopold will want to hear most of what was discussed.”
Leopold was lying on the floor of his balcony, wrapped in the duvet he had pulled off his bed. He lifted it with his arm in invitation, when he heard the door click open and closed. I stepped out of my heels, trying not to giggle, and laid down beside him, tucking myself close to his uninjured right side. Leopold wrapped the blanket around us again, cocooning us away from the chilly fall air. “Learn anything interesting?” Leopold asked, watching the sky.
“Felip says that you can come learn about it in lessons tomorrow,” I offered and pressed my cold feet against his calves. Leopold hissed lightly but didn’t pull away.
I smiled, “How was your afternoon?”
“I think I may have given the chef a heart attack. I guess Phillipa didn’t notify him that I would be the one attending the meeting,” Leopold chuckled. “It’s not like he doesn’t know that I am here.” The chef was in fact one of the few staff members who was privy to Leopold’s whereabouts. I guess that he just hadn’t been expecting to see Leopold causally discussing menus. “We have options picked out for you to taste whenever you are available,” he concluded. “Our guests will not go hungry.”
“And what about Rose?”
Leopold paused, turning to face me, “She apologized,” he said, as if he couldn’t quite believe his words.
“For not believing in me, for thinking so badly of me. She said she had been wrong, that I am one of the most brave and honorable men that she knows.”
“I am glad she came to her senses,” I told him, then bit gently into his shoulder. “I hope you told her that didn’t mean we could trade. Hector is nice enough, but I’ve grown fairly attached to you.”
Leopold laughed. “I think that they would disband the monarchy if we told them Hector and I were trading back positions. How did the meeting go?”
I sighed, “Fine. They were discussing how much money our wedding was going to bring in and where the extra funds should go.”
Leopold’s attention was peaked now, “Did Felip mention the women’s shelter?”
“And the scholarship?”
“And the -”
" -road work for the mountain pass. Yes. Don’t worry, he said you can come with me tomorrow.”
There was a brief pause. I bit my lip, considering my next words. “How are you feeling?”
“Bored,” Leopold replied quickly.
“Very bored,” he amended.
“And how do you proposed we fix that?” I asked, trying to keep up with the unexpected turn in how I had thought this conversation was going to go.
“We could go riding.” Leopold said hopefully. He began sliding his thumb along the inside of my knee absently, fidgeting.
“You’ll get hurt,” I replied firmly.
Leopold groaned in protest, his fingers digging into my thigh. “I’ve got so much medication in me I’m practically numb.”
“That’s not a good reason. You can’t risk-”
“- my recovery. Yes, I know,” Leopold finished, tone much harsher now. Then he added, “Sorry. I’m just so tired of being idle. I wasn’t being serious. How about a walk?”
I pursed my lips, thinking about all of the Governors that were still likely to be on the castle grounds. “Now is probably not the best time.”
Leopold was polite enough not to question why. Quickly trying to come up with an option to distract him, I smiled when inspiration hit. “I’ve got an idea,” I told him, and pushed myself upwards, throwing my leg over him so that I was straddling his hips. I held my weight carefully over him, hoping the distraction would keep his mind occupied for a moment.
Leopold raised an eyebrow, smiling cheekily up at me. “Good to know this is still on the table, even though walking is out.”
Pleased, I reached over Leopold’s head and picked up my phone, which sat beside my shoes. “Just need to make some plans.” I told him, selecting the necessary contacts. Leopold hummed, hand sliding form my leg to my waist.
The reply light up my screen almost instantly. “Can you be ready in ten minutes?”
With the cannette season finished, the field had largely been abandoned for the rest of the year. Teams could still come and practice, and stable hands still took care of the horses, but the stadium was empty most days. Because of this, it hadn’t been hard to have the place evacuated and put under lock-down for the afternoon without too many questions being asked. A small group of security staff had been sent ahead to secure the building and field, so by the time Leopold and I pulled into the back lot, there was no one to be seen.
“I thought you said no riding,” Leopold said, smiling broadly as we walked through the stables.
“You are not to get on the horse,” I started, but by then, we had reached Dave’s stall and Leopold wasn’t listening anymore.
He went straight to his horse, murmuring softly as he ran a hand down its neck. Leopold made some sort of clicking noise and the horse snorted and nudged Leopold’s shoulder with his nose. I stood carefully back, observing their conversation from the stall door. “Well, mon ami,” said Leopold, softy scratching between Dave’s eyes, “would you like to go for a run?” He released his horse, throwing his arm over my shoulders, as we made our way out into the stadium. Dave sauntered along beside us, his ears flicking back and forth. When we made it to the field, Leopold made another sound and Dave shot off towards the left goal posts at top speed. I felt the muscles in Leopold’s arm contract as he watched, body tense with tightly control anticipation. After a minute, he sighed through his nose and taking his eyes off Dave, he pulled me down to sit with him at center field.
I rested back on my palms in the short-cropped grass and looked up into the stands. Guards, spaced at regular intervals up in the stadium, stared back.
“Dave seems happy to see you,” I observed.
“He gets lonely in the fall, since I am here less. I may have him moved to the castle.” He whistled and Dave banked, circling around the goal posts.
“Don’t they take good care of him here?”
“Yes, but you and I have a busy winter ahead. I don’t think we will have much time to do things like this much longer.”
We fell into silence, both of us contemplating the realities of our life which were soon to become very real. Dave thundered past. I scrunched my nose, my face warming. “How many children do we have to have?”
Leopold laughed. “That’s what you’re worried about?”
I shrugged. “I’ve never really thought about kids but it seems like it’s now part of the job description.”
“Two,” he said, still far too amused for my liking. He then continued, sobering, “Traditionally, you need to have two sons, as women are not allowed to inherit the crown. I was working with Felip to try to have that changed, through. If I have a daughter, I want her to have equal rights to her brothers.”
I stared, eyes wide, not knowing what to say. Leopold took the silence the wrong way and spoke quickly, trying to amend whatever he though had upset me. “Of course, we don’t have to think about that for a while yet. Felip and Beatrice were ten years older than us when they had Hector.”
“You’re amazing,” I interrupted.
“Well, it isn’t fair. I was going to wait to tell you and Phillipa, but you asked. I want to work on the marriage laws too, perhaps as a wedding gift for Hector and Rose. It will take time though.”
Once again speechless, I turned back to Dave, watching as he blurred across the field.
I was awakened softly, a hesitant hand on my shoulder. Leopold’s warm body was still where it pressed against mine, so it was someone else. When I opened my eyes, Mike was crouched down at my bedside.
“I am so sorry Mademoiselle,” he whispered, eye cautiously flicking towards Leopold. “I have been asked to fetch you.”
I nodded, and started to untangle myself from the sheets. Leopold’s arm tightened around me, the thick ropes of muscle holding me like a vise. “What’s wrong?” he demanded, voice clear.
“N-Nothing , monsieur,” Mike stuttered.
“If nothing is wrong, then why are you waking Winifred up in the middle of the night?” He had spoken in French, the words growling together.
I squeezed his forearm, “It’s okay, I am sure it won’t take long.”
Leopold released me but climbed out of bed too and began searching for a sweater.
Mike looked between us, hesitating.
“Well?” Leopold urged, jaw set.
“The King asks to meet with her in his office,” Mike announced, defeated.
I reached for my robe, “Go and tell them we are on the way.” I knew there was no stopping Leopold now. The least I could do was give everyone a heads up that he was coming. Mike bowed and scurried from the room.
I looked at Leopold, “Are you sure?”
He swallowed thickly and pulled the cuffs of his sweater down over his fingers. “I am ready.”
The usual collection of people was gathered in the King’s office, only they looked much less put together than usual. Felip was behind his desk, glasses on, reading the screen of a laptop. Hector stood behind him, his hair a mess, a cigarette in one hand and coffee in the other. The two of them looked exhausted, already having been woken up for an early meeting just yesterday. Remi leaned against a bookcase. Though he was not in pajamas like the rest of us, he had no suit jacket on and the tails of his shirt were untucked.
“We really must stop meeting like this,” Hector drawled, inclining his head. He held the cigarette out over Felip’s desk in offering; Leopold eagerly accepted.
“You didn’t have to come,” was all Felip said to him, and pointed at the empty chair across from him. Leopold glanced at me, etiquette making him waiver, before accepting the seat. Remi pulled another chair forward for me.
“I was hoping to catch you all still awake,” Felip half apologized. He looked at me, “We received an email a half hour ago from Richard.”
“What about?” I asked, trying to keep the note of worry from my voice. I was all too aware of Leopold’s presence.
“There is to be a conference,” Felip explained, pinching the bridge of his nose. “The President of France is going to be in Arcadis at Sinclair Palace to meet with you and other politicians and dignitaries involved in the liberation of Arcadis. Your presence is required and we cannot refuse without grounds. They are forcing our hand.”
This was it then. We knew it would only be a matter of time before something broke and the little bit of respite we had had in the past few weeks would be over.
Leopold pursed his lips, but didn’t say anything.
“We need to know what we are walking into,” Remi said, “and if we knew the truth of what happened, things would be much more clear. There is no way that they are simply calling you back, Mademoiselle, purely for the good intent of Arcadis.”
I flinched, while Felip has chosen his words carefully, Remi had made a mistake that there would be no going back from.
“Back?” Leopold echoed, danger scraping at the edges of his polite inquiry. He had found the hole.
“Yes, back,” Felip confirmed.
Everyone was watching Leopold now, as he turned to look at me. I picked at a thread in my dress, feeling suddenly ashamed of my actions, but stared back at him, determined. “I was in Arcadis for a while when you were in the hospital,” I admitted.
A muscle in Leopold’s jaw tightened. He swallowed, as if we were verifying what he already knew, confirming his worst fears. “Why?” Not, why did you leave me but why was I permitted to go.
“She was supposed to go and at the time, we believed the situation to be safe,” Remi answered on my behalf.
“Because I was obligated to,” I told him instead. It was something true, something he himself would understand.
Leopold turned to Felip, “And what happened to make it inadvisable for us to go there now?”
Felip pinched the bridge of his nose, “Before we tell you any of that, I need to ask you a question, Leopold. If you are unable to answer, it is okay, no one will press you. Just know that even the smallest detail may be helpful to us.”
Leopold fell back in his chair, taking a draw from the cigarette. “If I answer you, will you tell me everything that has been happening?”
“Yes,” Felip said. Leopold nodded once. The room leaned in.
Felip’s voice was pained when he spoke his bargain, in an implied apology. “We need to know what you remember, son. What happened during the accident.”
Leopold didn’t flinch. He took another draw from the cigarette, slowly releasing the smoke and then said, “I want Guillaume to be honored with a postmortem award.”
“We will see what we can do,” the king conceded.
“Everything was fine,” Leopold began, and I felt the hairs on my neck prickle in warning of what I knew would come. “The preflight check went well, as did the take off, but Guillaume seemed distracted the majority of the flight. I naively was concerned that his behavior was a reflection of something I was doing wrong. We were in the air for forty-two minutes before I noticed that there was any problem at all. A signal light came on which indicated that we had lost oil pressure. Guillaume started swearing, muttering to himself. I activated the emergency lubrication system as per procedure, but that too failed after a few minutes. We were going into engine failure. We were low over the city so there was not much I could do safely. I put the helicopter into autorotation, hoping to buy us more time, so I could get to a field or beach. Guillaume started apologizing, which finally got my attention. That was when I realized that there may be a bigger problem, that there may be a reason why no one was responding to the distress calls.”
No one dared interrupt him; Hector had turned pale as the story progressed, knuckles white as he gripped the edge of the desk. I reached over, taking hold of Leopold’s hand as he took a shaky breath.
“He started talking about the Cliffs of Morencie and I snapped at him, ordered him to speak clearly. It worked and he started going on about how the accident a few weeks before, when I damaged my shoulder, hadn’t been an accident. He had been copiloting the helicopter with Antoine while I was repelling down to the fishing boat. Apparently, there was another boat out in the water, close to the cliffs that Antoine didn’t want me to see. He banked on purpose, changing our direction, my line of sight, and throwing me into the cliffs.”
Remi was jotting notes down, mouth drawing into a hard line.
“Guillaume confronted Antoine about it afterwards, but Antoine threatened Guillaume’s family, made him swear secrecy. He blackmailed Guillaume into helping him organize my helicopter crash. Guillame refused last minute though and then made sure that he was my tester. He did not think that Antoine would have time to organize a new plan, but wanted to make sure he was there to tell me the truth if something did go wrong. By then, we were over a school. I could have, probably should have tried to land. It was the safest option we had. There were children outside playing though, so I made the decision to go further. We were so close to the city line, but not close enough, obviously.” Leopold paused, his hand trembling slightly under mine. “After that, there isn’t much.”
“Thank you,” Felip told him, after the room had let out its breath.
“Why didn’t you mention any of this before?” Remi asked.
“I did not remember it, not in anyway that made sense. It has taken me a while to piece back together the memories and what they mean.”
Remi opened his mouth to ask another question but Hector held up a hand, stopping him. “I think that is enough for the night.”
“I need to know your end of the story,” Leopold said. It was more of a reminder than a demand though. He had spent his energy and the late hour and long day were beginning to tax him.
“We will meet again tomorrow,” Felip decided, closing his laptop. He glanced at Leopold, “In the afternoon.”
Afterward, Leopold and I were in his room again, blanketed by the dark. He shivered, pressing closer to me, although his skin was hot against mine. Knowing there were no words that could be said, I kissed him. There was nothing soft about it, only deep hard hunger. Later, lying so closely wound that we shared breath, I finally felt Leopold’s body loosening slightly, releasing the tension he had been carrying for weeks. I fell into a fitful sleep, worrying about all of the truths we had just learned and knowing there were many more yet to come.