Chapter Thirty One
I had never really appreciated everything that Angela had done for me since my arrival in Solis. The make-up, hairstyles, and dresses she’d stuffed me into had just been part of the deal. That’s what princesses looked like. Now, as I looked at myself in the mirror, I knew better and I silently thanked her. Angela had been preparing me for battle; my gowns were bulletproof vests, my high heels better than any combat boots, a helmet of perfect curls, a vambrace of diamonds, and lipstick bright like war paint. This was the carefully constructed armor I wore every time I stepped before the council, sat for interviews, or posed for photographs, and it would be more crucial than ever before in the days to come.
I smoothed the lines of my dress and adjusted a pin in my hair, checking for chinks in the mail. It had to be perfect. In the next forty-eight hours, I would be given a country. Not right away of course, I had been assured in every way possible that it was an arduous process, but this would be the start. Arcadis would soon have its freedom and I would, forever more, not only be married to a King, but be a ruler in my own right. The thought was dizzying.
There was nothing more to do, so I took a deep breath and turned to make my way to the front lines.
Leopold waited alone for me in the sitting room. He stood a fraction too late, but properly bowed his head when I entered. I felt my blush rise at the unusual sign of deference. “Ready?” I said.
His eyes were on the twin stone ring on my right hand. “Everything is in place.”
We moved through the halls, Leopold behind and to the right, where tradition put left handed security guards. We passed the hall to the King’s chambers and swept down the grand staircase, around the knight and griffin. The marble atrium glowed gold in the light from the chandeliers. It was the first time I could remember seeing them on.
M. Arsnualt was in position at the top of the hall to the dining room with M. Lefevre posted further down besides the two gilded doors that the room’s entrance. Leopold would be escorting me inside, that way our two guards wouldn’t have to divide their attention between us. It also prevented me from having to reiterate the events of the meeting to Leopold later on.
My stomach twisted uneasily as the double doors were pulled open for me. It was dangerous to have Leopold in such closed quarters with Richard and Antoine. The risk of discovery was much greater, the double edge to keeping him close to my side.
Like the rest of the palace, the grand dining room had been attended to in preparation for the weekend. The dusty, ornate flatware and silk cloth that had decorated the table were gone. Only the four seats closest to the door had been set and in much less extravagant plates and utensils. It looked ridiculous in the grand scale of the room; the lone four seats appeared forlorned in the gaping, jeweled, treasure chest that surrounded them.
The three men rose as I entered and Richard and Antoine bowed in an exaggerated display for the man who joined them. President Charmant, not required to prostrate himself, had no eyes for the men, his keen, dark gaze were fixed on me. As I advanced toward them, Leopold disappeared from the edges of my vision, melting into the shadows along the walls of the room.
“Princess,” said Richard. He stepped forward to take my outstretched hand and kissed my knuckles, before guiding me the last few paces to the table. “Allow me the honor of introducing you to President Charmant of France. President, this is Winifred Morgan, heir to the Sinclair Dynasty.”
They exchanged my hand, President Charmant preferring a hand shake to the traditional kiss. He was a tall middle-aged man, broad across the shoulders, with a brown beard. “It is a pleasure to meet you, Mademoiselle Morgan,” said the President. He spoke in English for my benefit, though Richard had introduced me in French.
“The pleasure is mine.” I said. I was placed at the head of the table, with Richard and Antoine to my left and President Charmant to my right.
“I do wish it could be under better circumstances,” said the President. “I was sorry to hear about Prince Leopold. He is a very promising young man. How is his health?”
I tried to keep my expression neutral, to keep my eyes from flashing to the corner of the room. “Not well, I am afraid, but thank you for the kind words. It means a lot to us both.”
“I am sorry to have taken you from his side.”
I tipped my head and gave him a slight smile to acknowledge his kind sentiment, as I replied, “He would want me here, he knew how important this is.”
A door at the far end of the room opened. Mme. Fraise appeared with a cart that squeaked and clattered as she pushed it the length of the table. I restrained myself from rolling my eyes. She served us bowls of yellow soup before she clattered away again.
“So,” said the President, “Winifred, tell me about yourself.”
The meeting went long into the night. Most of the time was spent answering the President’s questions. It was a test of character more than anything else. Around dessert, we delved deeper into the details of the contract. Richard interjected then, doing most of the heavy lifting for me. I answered a few questions and made a few queries regarding details that Felip and Leopold had pointed out to me. This seemed to please the President; it was evidence that I had carefully read the contract myself.
I was exhausted. The hours of complex conversation and prolonged questioning was taxing and my mind was starting to drift. I wanted nothing more then to go upstairs and review what had taken place during the meeting with my Solisian companions before falling asleep. We had another day of this tomorrow. I dared a quick glance towards Leopold, standing near the door. He’d been on his feet for a long time and I wondered if he had remembered to bring his medication with him.
My attention returned to the table as the President finished the last few bites of his cake. He pushed the plate away, eyes fixed on me.
“Okay,” he said.
I raised an eyebrow a fraction, not letting myself get too hopeful yet.
“Okay?” said Richard.
The President replied with a nod. “Okay.”
“Thank you,” I breathed, almost too stunned to react.
“I have brought the documents with me. We will sign them during the masquerade tomorrow evening. You are a very respectable young woman, Mlle. Morgan. I have no doubt that, with some help and time, you will be a very respectable Queen for these people. Do you smoke?” I shook my head.
“Shame,” said the President. He offered cigars to Richard and Antoine instead. “If there is nothing else to discuss, then perhaps we should let the Princess retire.”
“I would thank you for it,” I admitted and stood so that the men would be free to rise with me and take their leave. “Have a good night gentlemen.”
Leopold held the door as I flowed from the room. It was hard to keep myself in check and not run the whole way upstairs. M. Arsnault and M. Lefevre were gone from their posts in the hall. I heard Leopold murmur into his intercom behind me, calling them back to my salon. I went straight to my bedroom and braced a chair against the closet door. Leopold followed after me and did a perimeter check of the rooms to be sure that we were alone.
He flopped down onto my bed with a groan. “Thank God you don’t smoke.”
“There is water on the bedside table.”
Save for the shake of the pill bottle, the silence was full around us as I changed; the room charged with possibility.
I froze, eyes darting to Leopold as the sitting room door opened and closed. He tapped his ear unconcerned and quietly relayed, “Be right there.”
He pressed the heels of his hands into his eyes.
“Not the honeymoon you’d imagined?” I said.
Flatly, he quipped, “I hoped there would be much more lying down.”
I snorted and helped him to stand. He leaned against me as we joined our guards in the living room. Their eyes went to the lack of space between us.
“I blocked the other door,” I assured them.
Leopold sat down heavily, eyes closed as he leaned his head back against the couch. I snagged his phone out of the breast pocket of his suit and selected the contact I wanted. Felip picked up on the first ring.
“Everyone present?” said the King.
There was a chorus of replies from the four of us in Arcadis, as well as from Hector and Remi, who joined Felip on the other side of the line.
“The highlights,” Leopold corrected his father.
Felip must have heard something in his son’s voice because he allowed the correction. “Proceed.”
“The meeting with President Charmant went well. The documents will be signed before the ball tomorrow.” There was a collective exhale. One of the major roadblocks we faced was not crossed off the list. Tomorrow, I would have a title; my marriage to Leopold would be legal. Good news, as I expected a secret divorce was a much simpler matter than a secret marriage. It also meant that we could proceed with wedding number two.
“Lefevre? Arsnault?” said Remi.
“We scouted the tunnels,” said M. Lefevre. “They run to all of the main rooms in the castle. Most of the doors are locked, however, so we are no further ahead than before.”
“Then we will send the word to the station tonight as discussed,” said Felip.
“I do not have to remind you of the necessity of remaining close to your charges tomorrow,” Remi said.
M. Arsnault said,“No, Monsieur.”
“Remember,” Hector added, “we need as many people to see it as possible, Fred. The Arcadian’s should recognize what they see, but be sure that the President knows.”
“It will be hard to miss,” I assured.
“I want you to send me a full report, men,” said Remi. “We will review it here and inform you of any change in plans that we see fit.”
“Yes, Monsieur,” said M. Lefevre.
There was a muffled sound of a sliding door, then a thump of wood knocking against wood. The four of us turned toward my bedroom door.
“The closet,” I murmured.
“We need to go,” said M. Arsnault.
“Call again in the morning,” the King instructed. The line went dead.
“We will leave, Mademoiselle,” M. Arsnault said. It was after hours, so there was no excuse for all of them to be in my rooms, not when I was safe inside the palace.
Without opening his eyes Leopold said, “I will join you shortly.”
Leopold cut off his near slip of the tongue. “Leave us. I will be careful.”
M. Lefevre pursed his lips and bowed his head. He could not disobey the direct order.
“Call when you are ready and I will pass by on ‘rounds’ to escort you,” M. Arsnault told Leopold. He clasped M. Lefevre on the shoulder, directing his counterpart from the room.
“What’s wrong?” I asked, turning to him. I couldn’t think of any other reason why he wouldn’t go with them, why he would risk himself being discovered like this? My eyes ran over his body, my mind jumping to the worst case scenario. The doctor had warned about the possibility of infection and he looked a little flushed. “If you need help, we can’t send them away.”
The door snapped shut behind the guards and Leopold was on his feet and down the corridor to my rooms.
“Leopold,” I called, following after him.
He pulled the chair away from the closet door.
“Leopold what are you doing?”
The door to my closet inched open, but it wasn’t the elderly maid who stood among my gowns. A woman, only a few years older than myself, was on the other side. She looked straight past me, her icy eyes intense.
“You look like hell, Leopold.”
“It’s wonderful to see you too, Odette.”
She was gorgeous, caramel skinned, black haired, blue-eyed perfection. She had the same sleek, fine build, high forehead, and straight nose as her half-brother, but where Antoine was all hard lines and sharp angles, Odette was softer; warm like burnished gold rather than hard like steel.
M. Arsnault and M. Lefevre wouldn’t be far yet, if I screamed they would hear.
Odette quickly closed the few steps between them and wrapped her arms around Leopold, heedless of his injuries. Leopold winced but said nothing, simply pulled her in close.
“I don’t know what to say.” She admitted in a murmur against his shirt.
“There is nothing you could have done,” said Leopold. He kissed the top of her head and released her. I promptly took up the place at his side; my anxiety fluttered and I had no idea whether to clamp down on it or not.
“There is a lot I could have done,” Odette corrected.
“You’re here now,” countered Leopold.
Her hands twisted together, “I am.”
“I can’t stay,” Leopold told her.
Odette’s gaze flickered to me for the first time. “I’ll take care of her.”
I took hold of Leopold’s sleeve, my eyes growing wide.
“Trust me,” he said.
We sat on the couches when Leopold left. I perched on the cushion, back straight and eyes trained on the woman in front of me. She reclined with an easy grace, carefully watching me.
“I know who you are.” I couldn’t keep the venom from my voice. “Why are you here?”
“To help you,” she stated.
“Because I know the pain that comes when duty interferes with fate.”
I didn’t answer; I wan’t sure how. I didn’t understand why Leopold had left me alone in a room with his killer’s sister. It felt like death sat across from me.
Odette sighed and stretched one of her legs out in front of her. “I’m going to tell you everything now.” She said it simply, as though she couldn’t be stopped. I waited as she pulled herself together.
“Hector and I knew each other our whole lives,” Odette began. “We were friends, good friends. I didn’t think much of it as a child; it seemed natural. Our families worked together, had known each other for generations. When I was older, I realized how much of this had been manufactured, that it was no coincidence that we went to that same school, played the same sports, worked in the same social circles. We got a long well, spent every moment we could together when he wasn’t dragged off to lessons.
“Things changed the night of his seventeenth birthday. He’d been quiet the whole week. I had chalked it up to fatigue from all of the extra meetings he’d had recently. It was a lot for him to manage on top of school, sports, and social requirements.
“There was a huge party at the DuMont castle. Not a ball, a real party, with dancing, alcohol, and short dresses. Hector was sullen the entire time. He would barely look at me. Everyone else seemed to take a keen renewed interest in me, though. Everyone wanted to be my friend that night; everyone but him. Then, at midnight, in the center of the dance floor, he dropped to one knee and asked me to marry him.
“I know what happened,” I said. I had heard the story of how Hector met Rose and how Odette’s family had sworn to get vengeance for the dishonor the DuMont had showen their daughter. She was the reason that all of this had started.
“No,” Odette said. “You don’t.”
She selected her words carefully. “Hector and I loved each other, but we were never lovers, never in love. It was impossible; I would never be in love with any man. He knew, of course, which is exactly why he had proposed. It’s not something that can be public with lives like ours.”
She watched me, waiting to see if I understood the fundamental implication in what she said. Things shifted, like tumblers falling into place. My stomach tightened. I could see Hector, a few years younger, terrified by the future ahead of him, daunted with the duty of being married by eighteen. He had extended an offer to his best friend, something neat and tidy for both of them.
“I would have had everything; he would have protected me. We could have been happy together with our strange arrangement and no one would have been the wiser. Six months in, I couldn’t take it any longer. We started to fight; it felt like I was robbing him of half of his life. I couldn’t take the secrets, the lies; I couldn’t take a whole future of pretending to be someone else. He began to disappear at nights, furious with me because he couldn’t understand why I was being so terrible to him.”
Another tumbler fell into place.“That’s when he met, Rose.”
Odette nodded. “And he was changed, his whole life seemed brighter. That’s when I knew, so I sat him down and told him I was leaving him beause he deserved more than me, but he wouldn’t listen. We cleared the whole wing of the castle with the sound of our yelling. It’s an impossible task: to choose between duty and love. So, Leopold took the choice away.”
That made me stumble. The only Leopold I had known resented his new title. “Leopold doesn’t want to be King.”
“No, but he wanted his brother to be happy. Like I said, it’s an impossible choice. Once it had been decided, Hector, being the man he is, wouldn’t let my reputation be ruined by it. He shouldered the blame and I disappeared.”
“But your family?”
“Doesn’t know, or if they do, they don’t care. Something like that would ruin their reputation; you know how important tradition is. It is easier for them to believe that I was cheated than to acknowledge the truth.”
“So why are you here now?”
“To help. I didn’t know that they had invested so much into me. Otherwise, I might not have made the same decision. We like to think that family can do no wrong. It took me a while to understand what a blindness that was.” She fished an old key out of her pocket. “Luckily, the rest of my family suffers from the same blindness. I have access to everything, the castle, their files, the computers, all of it.”
My mouth fell open.
“All you need to do is proceed with the plan as expected tomorrow. I’ll cover the rest.”
“Why are you telling me all this?” Her family didn’t know, most of the DuMont’ had no idea, and yet she was here baring it all to me.
“An apology, of sorts, and a warning. This is the last chance you have, make sure you know what you are doing.”
I lay in bed after she left, letting the story fall over me. I considered it, prodded at it like a hard candy with my tongue. I tried to reorganize the events by inserting the information that I had just learned, twisted them to find different angles until everything lined up. The hazy edge of incongruity over the last few months slowly lifted, as the reality of what lay underneath sharpened and redefined. I could see Hector and Odette, who had been as trapped by tradition as Leopold and I were. Rose was a last chance at happiness for Hector, at the cost of everything else. Leopold’s closeness with Odette and Hector’s never-ending support for his brother in spite of it, would have made Rose resent him. I remembered sitting at the center of the Canette field listening to Leopold talk about rewriting marriage and ascendancy laws. The hundred times he asked if I was okay, if I was sure. All of the council meetings where he negotiated ancient decrees and mandates for my benefit, to buy me time or ways sidestep and back out. I could hear all of the warnings that had been whispered to me about his contempt and petulance, his unscrupulous and wrathful nature.
To choose between duty and love, Odette had said. It occurred to me that for Leopold, who found all the best ways to escape the palace gates, the choice had been simple.