3070 Words
[LENA] It was late afternoon. I was crouched in front of a rose bush in the palace gardens, carefully selecting a bunch of the prettiest white roses I could find. Today was my mother’s birthday, exactly a month after mine, and every year on this day, I would bring her flowers. “Ouch!” I stuck my bleeding thumb in my mouth and winced in pain. I was pricked by a thorn. Luca was immediately beside me. He gently took my hand and wrapped my thumb in a handkerchief he produced from his pocket. “Be careful,” he said. “Here, let me do it.” He continued picking the roses for me, hacking away the thorns with a knife. Then he tied their stems together with a silk ribbon before handing them to me. “Thank you, Luca.” Clutching the bouquet in my hand, I started walking in the direction of the hill behind the palace, near the edge of the forest. I walked past the faded memorial stones on the grassy slope and made my way to the very top of the hill, where a single weeping willow tree stood, its flowing leaves swaying gently in the wind. I knelt beneath the tree and laid the bouquet of white roses in front of a white marble tombstone embossed with flowering vines. “Hello, Mother,” I said quietly, touching the cold stone. “Happy birthday.” My mother passed away when I was three years old. She lost to an illness that even the physicians in the kingdom couldn’t cure. They say I was a splitting image of my mother — straight black hair, pale ivory skin, and striking blue eyes. I've only seen paintings of her. I can barely remember her, but I still have hazy memories of her warmth and gentle smile. Queen Liliana Lavien, the true Queen and monarch of Ephemere. The royal family bloodline runs on my mother’s side. My father became the King Consort after their marriage; he even took my mother’s last name. But my grandmother, who was my mother’s mother, strongly insisted that the throne be passed over to me — the last heir carrying the royal blood — as soon as possible. If it was up to me, I’d rather have my father remain the king forever and leave me out of the cursed royal duties. I made myself believe that it was still far off in the future, but time was quickly passing by and it was giving me anxiety, realizing that it wasn’t that far off after all. In the next two to three years, when they deem me ready, I will be crowned queen. And to add to my dreadful future, there’s also the issue of my betrothal and marriage, which is a requirement before I ascend the throne. My grandmother had always stressed the urgency of producing legitimate heirs to extend the royal bloodline. I was not ready at all. I haven’t been taking my studies seriously. I just wasn’t interested. I wasn’t responsible enough. I knew in my heart that I wasn’t born to be a leader. How am I supposed to run an entire kingdom? “Mother, are you disappointed in me?” I whispered, trying to imagine her face in place of the tombstone marking her grave. If she was here right now, I wondered what she would tell me. Was she like my grandmother, strict and uncompromising? Or was she like my father, benevolent and understanding? I believed she was the latter. Mother, I miss you. I began talking to her in my mind, telling her about my worries, as I sat comfortably on the grass with my legs folded beneath me. Even though she couldn’t talk back, I knew she was listening. It made me feel better. Luca, who had accompanied me, gave me space, not saying a single word, knowing it was what I wanted at that moment. When the sun was high up in the sky and the tree’s shade couldn’t protect me anymore, I stood up. Luca finally came over to pay his respects to my mother’s grave, touching the stone and kneeling with his head lowered. “You knew her, didn’t you?” I asked him. “Yes. I was young then,” he replied softly. “Tell me about her.” I’ve asked him the same thing numerous times before, but still, he obliged. “She was very kind and graceful. She was always smiling. And beautiful.” I smiled. “I’ve been told I look like her,” I said proudly. “So that makes me beautiful too.” Luca’s brows knitted together as he looked down at me. Through the years, I, unfortunately, haven’t gained much height. He still towered over me. “Hmm, I don’t know,” he said, pretending to study me. “Maybe if you grow up and start acting your age, you’ll begin to resemble her. A bit.” “I’ve grown up. I’m a lady,” I muttered, sticking my tongue out in annoyance. “Sure. That’s a very… lady-like behavior.” I scowled at him and turned to face my mother’s tombstone. “Mother, Luca’s bullying me again,” I whined. Luca faced the tombstone and gave a polite bow. “My Queen, I assure you, I wasn’t bullying your lovely daughter—” He paused to give me a slight smirk. “I have protected her and will continue to protect her. With my life. As I’d promised you.” “Why can’t you show me that same respect, huh?” I grumbled. He faced me and bowed. “Your Highness.” “You could at least mean it.” “I do.” “Whatever. Someday, you’ll respect me, too. I’ll be a kind and graceful queen like my mother,” I said. They were just empty words. We both knew I would never be capable of being like her, but Luca responded quickly before I could overthink more. “I believe that.” I looked at him in surprise. Then my expression turned to suspicion, not trusting his sincerity. “You do?” “Yes, I do,” he said simply, no trace of teasing on his face. “You don’t have to be like the late Queen in every way or compare yourself to her. You can be your own person and you will still be a great queen. I believe in you.” Subconsciously, I held onto his words and kept them in a special place in my heart to give me confidence whenever I needed it. Luca knew the right things to say; what I needed to hear. Despite appearing indifferent, I know he cares about me. “And you will still be there with me? When that time comes?” I asked hopefully, feeling a lot lighter. “Always.” He placed a hand on top of my head and ruffled my hair fondly, like he always did. “Now, shall we go before you’ll be late for your lessons, Little Lena?” It was a silly nickname he’d given me when I was still, well, little. It isn’t very fitting now, but he still sometimes calls me by that. “Fine. And I’m not little anymore.” My sociology and governance lessons left me drained. By the end of it, I could tell that my governess, the royal tutor, had reached the limit of her patience. I tried to pay attention, but it was so boring. Everything just seemed to pass over my head. I was a hopeless case. I escaped to the pavilion, nestled in the middle of the pond in the gardens. It had a view of the flowering plants and trees beyond the still waters of the pond, dotted with water lilies. I heard my mother used to come here all the time. I understand why. It was a good place to unwind. A servant came over and set down a ceramic teapot and a tray of sugared snacks on the table in front of me. I absently nibbled on a biscuit as I stared off into space, having glum thoughts about my future. I spotted Luca standing at the foot of the bridge that led to the pavilion. Like the dutiful bodyguard that he was. I waved for him to come over. I needed someone to talk to. “You okay?” he asked me. “Sit with me,” I told him. “I’m supposed to be on guard duty, you know.” I fought the urge to roll my eyes. “You can still do your duty while sitting down, you know,” I said, mimicking his tone. Raising an eyebrow, he took a seat on the stone bench opposite me, and with my orders, a maid poured another cup of tea for Luca. He accepted it gratefully and took a sip of the steaming tea. “Luca, have you ever had a lover?” I asked. He choked on his tea. “I’m sorry, what?” I heard suppressed giggles coming from my maids-in-waiting, who were standing nearby. I gave them a look that made them instantly fall silent, but they were still smiling and stealing excited glances at Luca. I wondered if there was anything wrong with my question. “Have you ever been in love?” I rephrased. “Why are you suddenly asking me this?” he asked, his tall frame hunching over the table, his dark eyes disappearing beneath his hair as he lowered his face, looking uneasy … and was that embarrassment? “Why are you embarrassed?” I demanded, totally clueless. “It’s a simple question. I mean, you should be at marrying age, right? I’ll be married by the time I reach your age. Isn’t that how it works?” I was greeted with another round of excited giggles from the maids. Luca looked even more embarrassed, so I ordered the maids to leave us. They left, almost unwillingly, all the while throwing hopeful looks at Luca. “What is up with them?” I muttered, confused. ~~~ [LUCA] I still couldn’t believe the princess would ask me that question outright. Have I ever had a lover? No. I admit, at my current age, I can’t deny being physically attracted to women. There were too many of them in the palace. And some of them seemed attracted to me as well. It was beginning to be a bit bothersome. That was the reason why Lena was so confused about her maids’ behavior toward me. Ever since I finished puberty and the years that followed that, I began sensing those kinds of looks from the young and unwed females in the palace directed my way. I don’t really understand why. I’m usually quiet and keep to myself. I don’t go out of my way to talk to them. I was very dedicated to my duty, that is, the princess’s protection. Maybe they were attracted to my physical appearance. I’m six-foot-three, with black, chin-length, tousled hair that stuck out everywhere; very dark brown eyes that most of the time looked black; thick brows that always gave me the appearance of frowning; I wasn’t exactly buff, but I did develop a lean and muscular body due to my training. Maybe women are attracted to that? Personally, I think I’m average looking. I’ve often been told that I looked mean, that I was always scowling. Even the princess would frequently make fun of my resting expression. Dark and brooding, she’d say. I’m not trying to be mean; I guess I just looked that way. Relationships did not interest me. I appreciated the women’s beauty, but I’ve never been attracted enough to feel the drive to pursue someone of my own will. As time passed, I learned to decline and ignore their advances. I was content with being alone. I wasn’t exactly alone; guarding and looking after the mischievous princess took up a lot of my time. So to answer the princess’s second question — No. I have never been in love. Still, straightforwardly asking me that, especially in front of her giggling, unwed and willing maids-in-waiting, was mortifying. “Why are they acting like that around you?” Lena demanded, frowning. I stared at her confused face, and I burst out laughing. “What?” she asked, annoyance coloring her voice. “What’s so funny?” There was no way I would tell her the reason. She was so innocent and pure. I wasn’t going to burden her with the complications of mundane attractions and flings. “It’s nothing. They’re just happy to be in your presence,” I answered coolly as I took another sip of my tea, settling comfortably in my seat now that the awkwardness had passed. Normally, servants and guards weren’t allowed to be this close to the princess, but I was the exception. “You’re lying.” “What is all this talk about love anyway?” I asked. She sighed. “Nothing. I’m just thinking about marriage. In a few years, it will happen. But, isn’t there, like, supposed to be love involved?” “I guess,” I answered hesitantly. “Where did that come from? Was that your topic earlier in your lessons?” “Heavens, no. It’s just a random thought.” She stared at me thoughtfully. “Surely, you’re going to be married soon, right? You have to be betrothed. You’re old.” “Hey, I’m not that old. I’m only twenty-two,” I said. “Anyway, no, I’m not getting betrothed to anyone. It doesn’t work that way with us, lowly commoners.” “Shut it, you’re not a lowly commoner.” She hated it whenever I talked about the difference in our status. “But, what do you mean? How does it work, then?” she asked curiously. I pity Lena at times. She was envied for her status and rank, but they didn’t know she was also dealing with her own struggles. As a princess, she had everything she ever needed, but she didn’t have the freedom to do what she wanted. I cleared my throat uneasily. Unlike her, I had a choice. “We don’t have arranged marriages like the nobility does,” I explained, choosing my words carefully. “The common folk don’t have to maintain the purity of their bloodline, or be obligated to unite kingdoms through marriage as nobles do.” “Why do people get married, then, if not for that reason?” “Erm… they marry because they want to? I don’t know,” I mumbled. The subject was getting really uncomfortable for me. “So they marry because of love,” she said with certainty. “I was right.” I shrugged. I wasn’t the right person for her to talk to about this. “I envy you, Luca.” “Why?” I asked in surprise. “You’re lucky. You’re free.” She smiled, but her smile was hollow. “Okay, enough talk about this.” I selected a strawberry tart from the tray of snacks, knowing it was one of her favorites, and handed it to her. “Cheer up, Little Lena. You’re still young; you don’t have to think about it right now. I don’t even think about it, and, like you said, I’m already old,” I said, grinning. “True,” she said, sighing. “Well, that’s good, at least.” “Hmm?” “I’d be sad to see you go.” I frowned. “What are you talking about? I’m not going anywhere.” “Because if you get married, you’re going to leave me.” She looked away and her lower lip jutted out into a pout. I laughed. “No. I won’t. Whatever happens, I am always bound to you. To protect you. I promised I’d stay by your side forever, didn’t I?” She still didn’t look at me. But when she finally did, happiness reflected in her eyes. She smiled, a genuine one this time. However, several weeks later, I was greeted with consequential news. I received a message stating that the commander of the royal guard wanted to see me. I had no idea what it was about. After escorting the princess to her lessons and making sure that another guard was posted outside her door, I headed to the command post. “Commander Olivier, you wanted to see me?” I said after greeting him respectfully. The commander was a middle-aged man with graying hair and a bushy beard. He was powerfully built, despite his age. “Oh, yes. Take a seat, Luca,” he replied in his booming voice. “We need to have a discussion regarding your future.” I listened. I was grateful for the opportunity I was presented with, but by the end of it, a heavy feeling settled in my heart. It appears I couldn’t keep my promise to the princess after all. When I left the command post, I came back to a flurry of worried activity on the way to the room where the princess had her lessons. Apparently, the princess had sneaked out again. I wasn’t worried. I didn’t sense that she was in any harm. Several guards had been deployed to search for her inside the immense palace. I headed outside and went to each of her usual haunts, her secret hideouts. They have been increasing throughout the years, but she could never hide from me for long. I finally found her at the last place I checked. Of course. From afar, I spotted the tip of her blue dress hanging over the side of the roof of the wooden tree house I had built for her years ago. I made my presence known, deliberately stepping heavily on the crunchy leaves as I approached. “Luca! What took you so long?” she called out, laughing. The princess was in a cheerful mood. That’s good. It will help when I break the news to her. “Everyone’s worried about you.” “Why don’t you come up here, Luca? The weather’s nice!” I sighed. “Lena, we need to talk.” Her head poked out from the edge of the roof. “Then, talk.” “Why don’t we take a walk?” I suggested.
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