Prince Alexandre arrived three days before my birthday. Philippe, my prince, would be arriving the day after.
Well, at least I didn’t have to meet them both on the same day. I figured after doing my duty of entertaining Prince Alexandre’s courtship today, I wouldn’t have to bother with him for the rest of the duration of his stay in the palace. And then I would be free to spend my time with the only prince I wanted to be with.
Prince Alexandre was the third brother of the Crown Prince, the heir apparent, of the Kingdom of Allore. He was far off in the order of the throne’s succession, so if we do end up married, then he would move to my kingdom and be the king consort when I become the queen. Still, he would carry the might and influence of his kingdom.
That is if we get married. Which would be quite tragic.
But I had a plan.
I planned to make myself as undesirable and as unbearable as possible during his stay in the kingdom. In that way, maybe he would come to the conclusion that I wasn’t the best match for him, therefore making him withdraw the marriage proposal. Hopefully.
I made sure I was dressed in the dullest, most unflattering clothes that I own. Contrary to Cece and Amelia’s suggestions, I chose a plain black dress that was a size bigger than mine so that it billowed around my body like a tent, successfully hiding my figure. And then I put on a black cloak, reinforcing the ‘tent’ look. I didn’t put any jewelry on. I refused anyone to touch my face and hair. I was going to meet this new prince bare-faced.
“Lena, are you mourning? Did someone die?” Cece commented icily, looking me up and down. “Why are you dressed in funeral garb?”
“It’s perfect, then,” I answered, giving her a sweet smile. Perfect for what I have planned.
Cece wrinkled her nose. “Look, Lena, I know what you’re doing. You don’t have to go this far. Do what you must, but you don’t have to sacrifice your elegance and poise for it!”
“Poise, you say?” I said, grinning mischievously. I purposely hunched forward and slouched, admiring myself in front of the mirror.
“Oh please, stop!” Cece said, laughing. “You look so silly!”
“Princess Elena, please stop that!” Amelia shrieked.
I giggled as I looked around the room. The other maids were stifling their own giggles while Amelia looked horrified.
“Oh, don’t worry, Amelia. Whatever I may look like, I’m still the princess. Prince Alexandre would have to accept me for who I am, wouldn’t he?”
“Or what you are,” Cece sniggered. “You look like a bat!”
I laughed and raised my arms up in the air as I walked around the room with the same slouched posture. That earned another burst of laughter from Cece and a pained whimper from Amelia. I straightened up and squeezed Amelia’s arm fondly before taking Cece by the arm.
“Let’s go, Cece. We have a prince to impress.”
“I just… cannot believe you.”
Together, we left the room, our laughter echoing through the corridor as we made our way down to the great hall.
“Prince Andre, we’re almost there,” came the voice of the captain of my personal guard, who was riding on a horse beside my carriage.
I parted the curtain of the window and looked outside. “I see. Thank you, Mauro.”
We finally arrived at our destination. The Kingdom of Ephemere. A smaller kingdom in the southern part of the mainland, where I was to offer a marriage proposal to the Crown Princess on behalf of my father’s orders, the King of Allore.
It was a long and arduous journey, taking almost four days before we finally caught sight of the ramparts and the tall towers of the palace rising in the distance. We’d stopped multiple times to take breaks and rest, but exhaustion was taking a toll on my entire retinue and the horses.
My back and joints were stiff. My carriage’s interior was decked out in the finest cushions, designed to make its occupants comfortable on long journeys. Still, the constant bumping and shaking as the horses drew the carriage over uneven terrain for hours upon hours negated the promised comfort of the carriage’s design.
All I wanted to do was stretch out my limbs on solid, unmoving ground, take a warm bath, and then pass out on a bed. I longed to be indoors. I wasn’t fond of traveling, but I do what I must. I wished I could’ve stayed at home.
But, being twenty years old, I was already of marrying age; and as soon as the news reached our kingdom that the only princess of Ephemere was accepting suitors, my father commanded me to travel immediately. My two elder brothers were already matched, so naturally, the responsibility fell on my shoulders.
Even though Ephemere was sizably smaller compared to our lands, it was situated in a good location — advantageous for trade, as well as a good defense point in the south, in case the empire beyond the sea were to declare an attack on the mainland. They also have rich, natural resources that my father is more than happy to exploit.
Forging an alliance with this kingdom was my duty. My father had tasked me to win the princess’s favor. Their king would have the final decision, but the princess would have some influence as well, regardless of how impactful it was.
Which is something I do not want to do. Woo some strange princess. I haven’t even seen her. I have heard rumors of her beauty and her streak of rebelliousness, but again, just rumors. Even if they were true, it matters not to me.
My heart already belonged to another.
I could not disobey my father directly in his face, but if I was leagues and leagues away from him, maybe I could. Just five days. That’s how long I have to stay in this kingdom. I would still do my duty and discuss the alliance benefits with their king and his advisors. But that was it. I had no intention of wooing this princess.
We finally arrived at the palace courtyard at dawn.
Servants attended to our horses and carried our luggage to our temporary accommodation. The steward greeted us and immediately guided us to our rooms, thankfully. At least there was still time to rest. I was to meet the princess in the afternoon, and the king in the evening. I had a bath prepared for me while I ate from the heaping tray of food that was delivered to my room. When I was ready for bed, I ordered the servants to leave and not disturb me until it was time to meet the princess.
Then I finally fell into the comfort of the soft bed and the snug sheets. I fell asleep in minutes.
I was awoken half an hour before the agreed meeting time. Thirty minutes later, I was fetched from my room and led to the great hall.
The herald announced my arrival, and I slowly walked up to the dais at the far end, closely followed by attendants from my own retinue, bearing gifts for the princess. Those gifts weren’t personally from me. I don’t even have an idea what they were. Someone from the castle had been tasked with preparing them to showcase my kingdom’s wealth.
None of this was personal. This courtship was, in reality, a political visit arranged by our parents. We were just pawns. And now I have to play my part.
I glanced at the princess.
My first impression of her was that she looked like a young nun. Like a contemplative sister, dedicating her life to spiritual worship. Or perhaps she was a widow, mourning the loss of a husband.
She was covered entirely in black. A black cloak over a black dress. Her raven black hair merged into her black clothing. Her small, pale face stood out amid her dark garb. Like a floating head.
I fought the urge to snigger.
“Greetings, Princess Elena,” I said, bowing respectfully.
“Welcome to Ephemere, Prince Alexandre,” she greeted back in a tinkling voice. It reminded me of wind chimes rustling in the breeze. “I hope you’ve had a good rest.”
“Yes, thank you for the gracious accommodation,” I replied as I stood up.
I finally looked at her face. Young. Inexperienced. Childish. The rumors about her beauty were true. But what I really noticed was her eyes. They were of a true blue color, not diluted like the more common blue eyes. Like gems. Sapphires. Or Lapis Lazuli.
Fascinating, but not enough to hold my interest.
I looked away and signaled my attendants to come forward. “Gifts. From my kingdom to yours, Princess.”
I stood patiently at the side while the gifts were being presented to her one by one. It took a long time. That was the reason why we had two carriages in our retinue. One of them was filled entirely with gifts. We would’ve arrived much faster if it weren’t for that.
“Thank you kindly, Prince Alexandre,” Princess Elena said when it was finally over.
But there was still one thing left. Something I was instructed by my mother to personally hand over to the princess.
I stepped once more in front of the dais and produced a small ornate box from my pocket. I faced the box in her direction and opened it.
Inside was a brooch. Its gold frame was shaped into my family’s crest, and it was encrusted with rubies and diamonds. Red and White. My kingdom’s colors.
“I would like to offer you this token, Princess,” I said stonily. “You don’t have to wear it, but if you do, then I would know that I carry your favor. On behalf of the Kingdom of Allore, I hope you accept my proposal to unite our people.”
Empty words. Words I didn’t mean, but had memorized.
Prince Alexandre has hooded brown eyes and dark brown hair that was parted in the middle in a curtained haircut that faded neatly in the back. His waxen skin was almost as pale as mine, but he doesn’t have a smattering of freckles on the center of his face like I do. He was pretty tall, taller than Philippe, but shorter than Luca, if my memory serves me right.
He definitely exuded the aura of grace and royalty, but in my opinion, he was average-looking. Not very memorable.
On second thought, he would’ve been good-looking if it weren’t for his facial expression. In fact, there was no expression at all. His gaze was cold, his eyes stony. I sensed disinterest. Indifference.
He wouldn’t even look at me. He only looked at me once, when he greeted me for the first time. Even as we were both taking the routine stroll in the gardens, he kept his eyes forward, occasionally looking around, but never at me.
I should be pleased by his indifference. I mean, this was what I wanted, right? I wanted him to dislike me.
But then, why am I feeling annoyed? I hate to admit it, but it slightly annoys me that he wasn’t giving me the attention I was used to receiving. I even forgot to do the stupid ‘bat walk’. What difference would it make? He had already found me undesirable from the beginning.
We did engage in polite small talk from time to time. All initiated by me, unfortunately. He didn’t even bother speaking up first. He would respond to my comments or questions with short answers.
I gave up after several minutes and we continued our walk in silence. I was seething in silence.
Ugh. Why did he even come here? What a complete waste of time. For me and him both.
I suspected why. He didn’t come here of his own accord. He was likely forced into this proposal by his parents like I was. But couldn’t he, at least, feign a little interest? Like all the previous suitors?
Whatever. At least my real prince is arriving tomorrow. Philippe would shower me with attention. I held on to that thought in the hopes that it would alleviate my annoyance.
We finally reached the pavilion where refreshments were laid out for us. Prince Alexandre was chivalrous, at least. He pulled up a chair for me and waited for me to sit down before sitting down himself.
I decided to try again.
“So…“ I began.
“Yes?” he replied curtly.
I had no idea what to say.
“Uh… you should try this.” I randomly grabbed a plate of biscuits and held it up to him. In my haste, the plate slipped through my fingers, and the biscuits cascaded onto the prince’s lap. The plate bounced off the table and landed on the floor with a loud crash.
Horrified, my hand flew to my mouth.
“Oh my—! Prince Alexandre, I’m sorry!” I exclaimed as I stood up and hurried to his side. I was about to brush away the crumbs from his lap, but he immediately caught my wrist.
“Stop.” He spoke in his usual flat tone, but a vein was bulging in his temple. “It’s okay, Princess Elena.”
“I–it slipped… I am so sorry!”
“Don’t worry about it.”
I realized he had just prevented me from committing a completely inappropriate behavior. Touching his lap, what on earth was I thinking?! My face burned up in embarrassment. I didn’t attempt to converse again. I barely touched the food. Neither did he. We sat there in silence as the air grew tenser and tenser between us.
When I couldn’t take it anymore, I stood up and made excuses to leave, bidding him to enjoy his stay in the palace. Guilt washed over me. I hadn’t behaved like a proper host and I knew he would be staying for several days. But my guilt was overshadowed by my mortification.
Cece couldn’t stop laughing when we talked about what happened sometime later.
“You dumped a plate of biscuits on his lap!”
“I know. I feel so bad,” I groaned.
“Oh, don’t worry, Lena. He’s not leaving anytime soon. You still have time to make amends.”
“No way! He doesn’t even like me from the start. Why should I even bother?”
“Nonsense. I’m sure he does.”
“But you were there! You noticed, didn’t you?” I demanded. “Did you see how cold he was towards me?”
Cece giggled. She leaned over and whispered, “The maids are referring to him as the cold prince.”
I smirked. “The cold prince. Very fitting.”
“Nevertheless, he is still a prince from Allore, Lena. He has the highest chance of winning your hand. Maybe you should start wearing his brooch.”
“No chance,” I retorted, recalling the ornate box that I had thrown on the back of the pile of gifts in my boudoir, never to be seen again.
I saw him again at supper.
We dined together with my father and grandmother, who were both seated at the ends of the long table, while I sat opposite Prince Alexandre. I refused to meet his eye. They kept a pleasant conversation going on while I remained silent with my head lowered, pretending I was invisible.
They seemed to like him very much. Frankly, I believe it was only due to his status and the promise he would bring should our union ever come to terms, and nothing to do with his personality.
However, he was courteous and refined. I could tell he was very intelligent in the way he spoke, how he seemed to be knowledgeable on every subject thrown at him. He displayed the true qualities of a ruler, something I have yet to show.
It didn’t help my case at all. The chances of concluding a betrothal with him were rising. It would be hell if I were to marry that cold prince.
I walked up to my bedroom glumly. The only thing I was looking forward to was the arrival of my true prince.
It’s going to be okay. Nothing was set in stone. He didn’t have as much to offer as the cold prince does, but I still had time to persuade my father and sway his favor to Philippe’s way.
The following day, I rushed down to meet Philippe in the entrance hall as soon as I was alerted of his arrival. He brought me a huge bouquet of vibrant flowers I’d never seen before. He looked as charming as always, and when he smiled at me, my heart inflated with happiness.
“My Princess! It’s wonderful to see you again,” he said.
“Hello, Philippe,” I gushed. “How was your trip?”
“I could barely sit still.” He plucked a pink flower from the bouquet and leaned in close as he tucked the flower behind my ear, brushing his fingers against my cheek in the process. “I missed you so much, Lena,” he whispered, sending shivers down my spine.
Once again, I was besotted.
I heard footsteps behind me. I immediately pulled away and turned around.
It was Alexandre.