In the light from the setting sun the gold of my dress shimmered like stars. It refracted onto the jagged surface of the stone wall before me, creating sparkling pin pricks of light around the entrance of the chapel. We were in one of the oldest parts of the palace grounds, near the center, and the stones of the pathways had been polished smooth and shiny by centuries of footsteps. I pulled at the navy chiffon of my dress, sending the train flying back behind me. The color and mid-thigh slit were the only features that differentiated this beautiful ball gown from a wedding dress. It was stunning.
I bowed my head as Felip stepped out of the chapel “You look beautiful, Fred. My I?” he asked, offering his arm.
“I had hoped that you would,” I told him and linked my arm through his.
“Everything is set inside,” he told me, voice quiet. “Are you ready?” I could feel the weight of all of his unasked questions in his gaze.
I took a deep breath, squared my shoulders, and responded, “Yes.”
“I know that you will be amazing,” Felip promised, vowed.
He nodded to M. Lefevre and Arsnault who stood guard by the doors. They pulled them open and we stepped forward.
Leopold was standing at the end of the very small aisle, next to a clergyman in white robes. He stood outlined, a silhouette, by his black suit and black hair. Colors swirled around the rest of the room as the stained glass windows cast multicolored squares of light across the walls, pews, and gilded ceiling. Leopold offered a smile as I approached, his amber eyes intent. We stopped before the altar and Felip placed a kiss on my forehead before he passed my hand to his son. The King retreated back to stand behind Leopold.
Leopold stepped close and leaned down to whisper a warning in my ear, “Last chance.” The tone was playful but his hand gripped mine tightly.
I squeezed back, “No, this is just the warm up.”
Leopold’s smile grew and he led me forward the last few steps, into a stretching rectangle of green light. The priest began to speak in an old French dialect, which belonged to the earliest inhabitants of the island. Some of the words were the same, most I couldn’t understand. His mouth and tongue slid over the words like wind through leaves or water on the shore. I smiled, knowing that Leopold had chosen this ceremony for a particular reason. At our official wedding the ceremony would be more modern, marking the continued relationship and growth of the Church and Crown through history. The words that were to be spoken here, now, were the words that would have traditionally sealed the Decree between our countries; the ceremony from the time in which all of this started.
The priest paused. Leopold, switching into English for my benefit, began to recite the ancient vows.
“You cannot posses me,
But while we both wish it, I give you that which is mine to give.
You cannot command me,
But I shall serve you in the ways you require.
I pledge to you my love, and everything that I own.
I pledge that yours will be the name I cry aloud in the night
and the eyes into which I smile in the morning.
I promise to honor you above all others,
I shall be a shield for your back as you are for mine.
I pledge to you my living and my dying, both equally in your care.”
It was easy to see the respect and understanding that both Royal families had had for each other in the vows. Neither son nor daughter, neither country, was to be held above the other in this union. Both were of equal importance and equal voice. My vision blurred slightly as the meaning of the vows finally hit home. I squeezed Leopold’s hand tighter in silent thanks and repeated the vows back to him.
The priest spoke again and Leopold produced a simple golden band from his pocket. It was embedded with two stones, on opposite sides of the ring, one green, one blue. He slid it onto the ring finger on my right hand and spoke the final vow.
“With this ring I wed you.
With my body I protect you.
With my life I honor you.”
With that, he leaned forward, and placed the softest kiss on my lips.
The final words of the ceremony I understood: “I now pronounce you husband and wife.”
The last of the sun’s light slipped below the horizon, and we were left in the flicking light of the candles, surrounded by the night.
We were lead over to a table next where the marriage certificate lay waiting. The curling script made official the ceremony which had just occurred. Leopold took the quill from the inkpot which sat waiting and carefully signed his full name where the priest indicated. With shaking hands, I followed suit, and scratched my name out next to his.
The priest dripped wax from one of the near by candles onto the paper, then slowly removed his signet ring and pressed into the puddle. Carefully, he rolled the certificate then held it out for Felip to take.
“It will be safe, Felip promised. “Just one last thing. Even if this must remain secret, it musn’t be forgotten.” He motioned for us to stand before the great gilded doors. M. Arsnault stepped out of position and pulled a camera off of the pew nearby. In the dark aisle, the flash was like lightening.
The rest of the family was waiting for us in the solarium, because despite best efforts, a secret wedding can’t remain secret for long. Plus, they wanted to say their goodbyes. Our plane left at first light.
“Congratulations,” Phillipa beamed as we entered. She quickly hugged us both. “But don’t you think this means I will let you get out of any of the fun I have planned.” She plucked at the skirt off my dress appreciatively. “I knew this was the right choice. You look amazing.”
Hector passed me a glass of champagne. “Felt wrong not doing anything. We got cakes, too.” He pointed to the coffee table where a selection of cupcakes sat waiting.
“Thank you,” Leopold told him, as Beatrice gave him a one sided hug. She moved to take his glass - he wasn’t supposed to drink with his medication. Leopold help it out of her reach though, smiling smugly. Beatrice rolled her eyes but let him be, coming for me instead.
“Now you are officially my daughter.” She kissed both my cheeks.
We stayed a while longer, making small talk with the family. It didn’t last long though, the room was too nervous, the celebratory air ruined by the reasons which made the wedding necessary and by our upcoming departure. Eventually, Leopold and I left, claiming we needed to get some rest before our flight.
Leopold’s hand bunched in the material at the waist of my dress as we slowly made our way back to our wing. “Alright?”
“Yes, fine,” I told him. “Better than fine.” My mind was sort of hazy, washed out with all of the action and emotion form the last few days. The wedding had been a brief moment of pause. A private revelry, and it’s blaming effects had calmed the constant hum of thought and commotion. My nerves were starting to return now though. Im only a few short hours we would be in Acadis.
He lead me into the darkness of his room, the door sliding shut behind us. He spun me to face him at the foot of the bed.
“You really do look stunning,” Leopold murmured appreciatively. His hand moved further up my waist, his thumb running back and forth against the jagged gold.
“If you think this is nice, wait until you see my actual wedding dress,” I half joked, felling suddenly awkward.
“I look forward to it,” he replied, distracted.
My hands were on his chest, palms flat against his lapels. “We’ve already been married now, though.”
“Yes,” Leopold replied, watching me through hooded eyes, “But next time the whole world will know that you are mine.”
He kissed me fully on the lips then, slow and thorough. My hands moved up to his shoulders, and he let me slide his suit jacked unceremoniously to the floor. Leopold backed be up into one of the bed posts; the carved wood bit into my back, pressed the sequins into my skin. He was still holding back, I could feel it the tightness of his muscles. He wasn’t going to give in, either. Not yet, with his injuries, and so much still unresolved. Probably not until we’d been married twice. At the same time tough, I could tell he didn’t want to listen to that rational. His desire and lack of action and purpose over the last few week were coming to a head, and a dangerous energy was lurking just beneath his skin.
His shirt came off next. My hands worked down the row of buttons, tugged the hem free from the waistline of his pants. His nails dug into my leg - a warning - as my nails dragged gently down the still sensitive skin of his abdomen, close to the still healing scar.
Frustrated with my dress, Leopold’s deft fingers found my zipper, and pulled it down in one smooth movement. The weight of the beads pulled the dress straight off, slithering down my skin into a pool at my feet. His hand roamed across my back, through my hair, under the straps of my bra, as if he couldn’t get close enough. His hands squeezed my hips tight before he pushed away; swearing as he backed up. I could see the quick rise and fall of his chest as he looked me up and down - wet his lips. I stayed pinned in place against the post, pulse hammering, as I tried to catch my own breath.
Leopold mumbled something to himself in french and ran a hand through his hair. He let out a long breath then approached me slowly, almost hesitant. His arms wrapped around me and he placed a single kiss on my shoulder before resting his forehead in the crook of my neck. “Thank you for agreeing to do this. You have no idea how much of a relief it is to me. Je t’aime”
“I love you too,” I told him. “Always.”
We left for the airport before dawn. Leopold held the door open for me and I stumble into the car, half awake. He was in full disguise now, wearing the same navy suit as all all of the other Solisian guards.
“You look good,” M. Arsnault smiled at him from the front seat.
Leopold gave him a dry glance.
Most of the photographers that had been posted outside the palace since the accident had not set up for the day yet, so we slid smoothly through the gates and up the cobblestone streets, largely unnoticed.
With a flash of the gold card, our car was given direct entrance onto the tarmac. We pulled up along side the tiny jet, grounds crew running over to grab our luggage and take the car. Leopold escorted me up into the plane, M. Arsnault following close behind, while M. Lafevre spoke with the pilot.
We took our seats, Leopold careful to leave the space of the aisle between him and I.
“You are going to want to take that out,” M. Arsnault told Leopold, referring to the comms unit that he had been given. It was multi purpose really. For one, it was part of the costume; all of the security guards wore one and used them for their work. Second, it would help them keep track of him and instruct him. Leopold flicked it off, and removed the bud from his ear.
“They are ready for take off,” M. Lefevre announced, returning. “There is a crowd already outside the Acadian Airport, and a few news crews near the palace grounds. They are waiting for all of the arriving guests.”
The plane started to move along the tarmac.
“You two should get some rest,” M. Arsnault said. He pulled the blinds down over the cabin window closet to us. “We have a long few days ahead of us.”
The airport was packed. Stifling with people. There were security guards everywhere trying to direct the crowds of travelers and to hold back the onlookers, photographers, and reporters. The signing of the contract was international news; Acadis would be a country again. From the second we stepped off the plane, everyone was on high alert. This is when all of the planning over the last few weeks became critical. If the smallest detail went wrong, the ramifications could affect possibly thousands of people.
M. Lefevre took point, guiding us through the airport. Leopold stayed next to me, a pace behind, as if he were ready to block me from the crowds. M. Arsnault came up the back, protecting the both of us from the unknowing crowd. If the guards stayed too close to the two of us now, if would be suspicious, what with another guard right at my side. They had to give Leopold and I space, but too much made them uneasy. It attracted the potential for something to happen to one of us. If Leopold had to protect me from something, or someone, we was still too weak to avoid injury. There was also the possibility that someone would see through Leopold’s disguise, which loomed over all else. If he was recognized, our secret operation would be ended.
M. Lefevre broke away from our group after we were waved through security and we configured. M. Arsnault coming up to my left side. Leopold had been instructed to stay on my right, keeping his injured ribs away from the risk of being bumped.
“Ready?” M. Arsnault asked.
“Sure,” I replied, nerves evident in my voice. The cameras and people that had been trying to get glimpse of us through the glass walls would have an unobstructed view the second we walked into the main atrium.
“Just through here and straight to the car. M. Lefevre will be waiting for us,” my guard assured.
A team of airport security greeted us at the atrium doors, fanning out to hold back the crowd that crushed inwards. The cameras started going off as people yelled. Some were holding signs, whose messages ranged from ‘Yankee Go Home’ to ‘All Hail Queen Winifred’. It was worse when we got outside. The airport security no longer able was wearing thin, too busy trying to keep the inside under control. M. Lefever ran over to join us. He and M. Arsnault spreading their arms wide to clear a path to the vehicle. Leopold pressed closer, his hand flexing as he resisted the urge to take hold of me. We made it to the car and he pulled the door open, bracing an arm on the door and one on the car roof so that his body hid me as I ducked inside. M. Lefevre revved the engine, warning the crowd around the vehicle to step back.
“Alright?” Leopold asked.
“Think so,” I replied, slightly breathless. “You?”
“Mmhm,” he said, turning distractedly to face the crowd that was still pushing tightly against the windows. We were moving forward slowly. Once we managed to change lanes we would be free.
“That’s insane.” I ran a ran through my hair, sure it was a mess after sleeping on the plane and struggling though all of the people. Probably looked great in all of the photos.
“History might be made this weekend,” Leopold said. “No one wants to miss it.”
M. and Mme. Fraise were waiting for us when we pulled up to that cascading from steps of the Sinclair Palace. Leopold clucked his tongue as the car rolled to a stop in the gravel.
“I know,” I said dryly. “My castle is so much better that yours.”
Leopold pursed his lips. Caught somewhere between being unamused and trying not to laugh. “I can’t believe that Richard and Antoine are not her to greet you,” he said.
I shrugged. “I think all of us prefer it that way.”
He got out of the car, coming around to open my door for me. M. and Mme. Fraise bowed their heads.
“So nice to see you again, Princess,” Madame crooned as her counter part hobbled down the steps to fetch the luggage.
“Thank you,” I replied, not feel so very welcomed at all. Leopold, who was still beside me, was staring slightly opened mouthed at the old woman. Obviously she was not the kind of help that he was accustomed too.
“The Governor had instructed me to let you all get settled in and freshened up. Then he will take brunch with you and M. Dublaise in the gardens,” said the croon.
“Sounds wonderful,” I replied and let her lead me inside.
The palace had been cleaned since I had last been here. The dust and cobwebs were all gone, the floors polished, the windows cleaned. Someone, had gone to great lengths to prepare the estate for the weekend. I wondered what else had changed. If this meant that furniture had been returned, or maybe even rooms unlocked. It looked like our job may have just gotten easier. I tired not to get too far ahead of myself as were went up the winding staircase to my suite.
My rooms had gone more of less unchanged since I had left. The belongings I had left here had been cleaned up and put away, the linens on the bed changed, but overall it was as if I hadn’t left.
“I have taken the liberty to run a bath for the Princess,” said Mme. Fraise. “I will show your men to their rooms and then come back to assist you.”
“I’ll stay,” said M. Arsnault, non negotiable. “I already know where my room is.”
Mme. Fraise paid no attention to him. She simply walked out the door of my sitting room, expecting the men to follow her.
M. Arsnault have M. Lefevre and Leopold a nod, indicating it was okay for them to leave.
I fell onto the couch the moment the door swung shut and pressed my hands into my eyes, groaning. “Is is bad that I am exhausted already?”
“Like we never left,” he agreed, sitting too. He picked up the paper that had been left out for him. “I just hope that they brought a better chef in for the party.”
I sighed and pushed myself up. “I should get cleaned up. You should order some food up for you and the other guys.”
My bags had magically appeared in my room since I had arrived. No one had started to unpack them yet, though. I eyed my closet wearily. The door was ajar. I shivered, suddenly not wanting to go near it. I riffled through my drawers instead, trying to find something acceptable to wear amongst the clothes that I had left behind during my hurried departure.
“How about this?”
I started, whirling around.
Mme. Fraise was behind me, holding out a sundress.
“Looks good,” I squeaked, hand still over my pounding heart. “Thanks.”
I took the dress from her bony hand and slipped into the bathroom, sure to lock the door behind me.
When I returned to the sitting room, all three men had plates balanced on their lap. The trolly was in the corner the room covered in half ravaged plates of food. There was a plater with golden, crusty bread and jams in the center of the coffee table. M. Arsnault gave me a thumbs up. Apparently the palace improvements had in fact included a new chef.
“So what’s the plan?” I asked and snuck a piece of bread.
Leopold snatched it from my hand. “You’re going to brunch.”
“I am going to escort you down,” said M. Arsnault. He stood, crumbs dropping from his lap. “These two are going to get themselves aquatinted with the grounds.”
“We will meet up afterwards to go over everything we know and get ready for the presidents arrival and dinner tonight,” M. Lefevre finished.
“Be careful,” I reminded gently and placed my hand on Leopold’s shoulder.
“We will be alright, Mademoiselle. You have the more difficult task,” said M. Arsnault.
M. Arsnault swung the door open. “Alright, let’s get started.”
My guard and I walked down the now very familiar staircase and down the left hall. The door to the green house was wide open and we curved a way through the foliage until we came to the other side which opened to the patio. Richard and Antoine we already seated at the set table. Antoine had his legs crossed, a cup and saucer delicately balance in one hand. M. Arsnault cleared his throat as we stopped before the table. The two men turned, jumping up.
“Winifred,” Richard smiled, bowing slightly. “What a pleasure it is to have you back with us.”
Antoine reached for my hand and placed a kiss on my knuckles. “You look, lovely as always, Princess. Please, join us.” Without letting go, he lead me around to an empty chair.
“Please, tell us of your time in Solis. How is everything?” Richard asked thoughtfully. M. Fraise approached the table and started to serve us tiny bowls of fruit. I glanced up at my Arsnault, who stood by the door. This was it, the game was on.
“Unfortunately,” I reported, and speared a strawberry. “It was not very good at all.”
“Oh no,” Richard winced. “So the Prince then?”
I tried to make myself look grim. “No improvement. The thought that he was doing better for a few days. That’s why I was called back. No such luck though, he continues to be unresponsive.” I sniffed, whipping at my eyes. “They said that they are going to need to start looking at other options soon.”
“Tragic,” Antoine said, looking aghast. “He was such a promising young man. An excellent athlete. A real leader.” He looked down into his tiny cup. My grip tightened around my fork as anger towards him started bubbling to the surface.
“What will the DuMont’ do?” Richard wondered. He started to butter a scone.
“I am not sure,” I shrugged helplessly. “I told them that I would do whatever I can to help though. That I am invested in this whole situation now. The future of Acadis depends on my being here and I intend to stay and follow through with what I have agreed to do.”
“That is very nobel of you,” Richard said, and patter my hand. “We are all so very pleased to hear this. Acadis will be forever in your debt.”
“That is why I am so anxious of the events this weekend,” I threw in, hoping to get them from prodding too much further into Leopold’s condition or Solis. “It’s too bad that I missed some of my training time here.”
The main course had arrived now and Antoine helped himself to some ham. “Oh don’t worry, you will do wonderfully. Richard and I are here to help with everything. You just need to show up.”
I stirred a bowl of Greek yoghurt. “What a relief.”
“So?” asked Leopold when M. Arsnault and I returned to my rooms. He and M. Lefevre had been looking over maps spread over the top of the coffee table before we had come in, but had jumped up when we arrived. Leopold moved to sit before catching himself and waiting until I plopped myself down beside him.
“I feel like I need to wash my mouth out with soap,” I wrinkled my nose. “I always feel so dirty after talking with them.”
M. Lefevre snorted.
“She did very well,” M. Arsnault said, probably much more helpfully. “They suspect nothing of her and are fully prepared to take head in the transactions this weekend.”
“Exactly,” I agreed. “I did a pretty good job too of making them believe that you are basically on death door.”
“Now we just need to wait and hope one of them slips up,” said Leopold.
“Did you two find anything exciting?” I hoped.
Leopold shook his head, “Nothing we didn’t already know.”
I sighed and leaned forward to examine all the papers on the table. “Alright, lets go over the plans for tonight once before I have to get ready.”