“Your Highness! Where have you been? Oh, dear! The King is going to be angry! Oh, never mind, hurry up, please!”
“It’s going to be fine. Don’t worry, Amelia,” I told my handmaid as I entered my boudoir.
“Oh dear, we only have forty minutes!” she exclaimed. “Quick, your bath is ready.”
Amelia ushered me to the bathroom, barking orders at the maids to quickly do their jobs. I allowed myself to be undressed and taken to the large stone bath in the middle of the huge bathroom.
The water was warm and inviting as I slowly walked down the marble steps. A heavy fragrance of various floral blossoms hung in the air. I sat compliantly in the scented bath while they washed my hair and scrubbed my body.
My name is Elena Seraphina Lavien. Or Lena for short. I am a princess of the Kingdom of Ephemere. The only princess, in fact.
Today is my sixteenth birthday.
My father, the King, was throwing a grand party for me. It’s a huge event. A resplendent birthday celebration to mark my transition into adulthood. My coming of age. He had invited children, particularly boys around my age — yes, I still consider myself a child —belonging to high-ranking and prestigious noble families, to attend the party. Even princes from other kingdoms were sent out invitations.
I heard the palace servants whispering that my father wanted to find me a match at the party. The perfect highborn boy, fitting of my own royal status, to marry me in the future.
Marry. Ew. Who would want to get married and be stuck with a boy you don’t like for the rest of your life? I am still too young. I think boys are icky and nasty. All they do is boast, play rough, and pretend they’re mighty heroes instead of spoiled little brats that play with wooden swords.
So earlier today, I had sneaked out of the palace and escaped into the safety of my tree house, deep inside the woods right next to my home, where I planned to hide out for the entire duration of the party. It’s not the first time I’ve done this. I’d often take the opportunity to escape my boring, repetitive life inside the palace every chance I got. I wasn’t exactly a well-behaved princess.
It was the perfect hiding place. No one knew about it, except for one other person. The person who built it for me when I was little. Unfortunately, almost half an hour ago, that person found me, dragged me back to the palace, and turned me over to my handmaid, ruining my plans of avoiding the party.
That’s how I ended up back here. Ugh.
After my bath, they dried me up and massaged scented oil on my skin before wrapping me in a silk robe and taking me back to my boudoir. A servant brought out a selection of pretty dresses for me to pick. I didn’t care. I let Amelia choose for me.
Then they made me sit in front of my vanity table while they fixed my hair and painted my face, finishing it off with a suffocating cloud of powder. When they were done, Amelia led me to stand in front of the huge full-length mirror.
“You look so lovely, Your Highness!” she gushed.
I stared at my reflection and my reddened lips turned down into a scowl. I was dressed in a long-sleeved, flowing light pink dress. My long black hair was braided, with silk ribbons and flowers woven into it.
I hated it. It was too girly. And constricting. My dress was so long that I could trip if I wasn’t careful. And I wasn’t.
To finish it off, a silver and sapphire tiara was placed on top of my head. Sapphire. My birthstone. It was also the color of my eyes. A rare blue eye color distinctive to the Lavien royal family in the kingdom.
“It’s time! We should hurry. They’ll be announcing you soon.”
Amelia ushered me out of the boudoir and down the long corridor to the grand staircase, where I’d be making my entrance, while the maids continued applying last-minute touches on me — fixing my dress, tucking loose strands of my hair, or whatever it was they needed to fuss with.
Near the end of the corridor, I saw the person who had ruined my plans, casually leaning against the wall in his Royal Guard formal regalia — a black and midnight blue uniform with gold trimmings. His messy hair was even tucked neatly behind his ear for the occasion. He smirked when he saw me approaching.
His name is Luca.
He is a member of the royal guard, assigned to be my personal protector, my bodyguard. For as long as I can remember, he has always been by my side. Growing up, I was the only kid in the palace, and my father wouldn’t allow me to play with the commoners outside. So I naturally gravitated to the person who was with me at all times.
Luca was six years older than me, but he essentially became my playmate. Maybe I sort of forced him into being one, or maybe he just took pity on me, but whatever the reason, he would always indulge in my childish whims. In fact, he might be the only one that could tolerate my aberrant behavior.
I also consider him my best friend. But not at this moment. He was the culprit responsible for my misery.
I scowled and quickly waved away the maids that were still bustling around me. I hated being dressed up and being forced to mingle at formal gatherings. I hated being the center of attention. Luca knew me well, and he obviously found my sour mood amusing. He fell into step behind me as we continued down the corridor.
“You look excited,” he commented.
“Of course, I am,” I replied haughtily, walking with my chin up. I was still mad at him.
He gave a soft chuckle behind me just as we reached the stone balustrades that connected to the grand staircase. I could see the top of the guests’ heads that were milling about the entrance hall below, and I quickly moved away from the balustrades, accidentally stepping on the toe of Luca’s boot.
“Sorry,” I mumbled, almost tripping on my dress, but Luca caught my arm in time. I snatched my arm away and glared at him. He gave me an amused look and stepped back into the shadows.
“And now presenting,” came the booming voice of the herald. “The center of tonight’s festivity, celebrating her sixteenth birthday, Her Royal Highness, Crown Princess Elena Seraphina Lavien of the Kingdom of Ephemere!”
I took a deep breath and my mind went on autopilot as I revealed myself on top of the grand staircase to the tumultuous claps of the guests below. I smiled automatically and gave a little wave as I walked down the stairs alone, trying my best not to trip. I gave a little curtsy at the bottom and started greeting the guests. Then we proceeded to the great hall, where I was presented with birthday gifts before the banquet was held.
Long tables were arranged on the sides of the enormous great hall, while the middle part was reserved for the dancing area. The guests occupied those tables. A few were familiar, but most were unfamiliar. I saw a lot of children my age dressed in fine clothing, accompanying their parents or guardians, all belonging to the nobility.
There were three of us at the head table. I was sitting on the left of my father, the King. On his right, was my grandmother, the Queen Mother. We are the last three remaining members of the Lavien royal family.
“Happy birthday, Elena,” my father told me as we began eating. “I heard you almost missed your party.”
I smiled as I loaded my mouth full of mashed potatoes and gravy. It wasn’t very princess-like of me, but I did it so I didn’t have to answer him.
But I wasn’t fooling him. He was perfectly aware of my intentions.
“Have you been giving your handmaid a hard time again?”
I looked at him in surprise. A knowing smile played on my father’s lips even though he wasn’t looking at me. I swallowed my food and sighed.
“Father, I don’t want to get married.”
The wrinkles around his eyes grew more defined as he laughed. “You’re not getting married right now, Elena.”
“But I heard rumors around the palace—”
“Yes. Rumors,” he responded kindly. “For now, just enjoy your party. You’re coming of age, my dear. It’s something to celebrate.”
I opened my mouth to retort, but before I could say anything, my grandmother cleared her throat.
“However, as tradition dictates, in a few years, you will be,” my grandmother said from across the table, frowning sternly at me. We were speaking quietly, but her hearing was, apparently, still sharp despite her age. “It’s best for you to entertain suitors as early as now, Elena. You are, after all, the Crown Princess. It is your duty.”
Duty. I hate that word.
I didn’t say anything. I wasn’t really close to my grandmother, and I didn’t want to upset her. Making her angry is something I’ve learned not to do in the past. I was afraid of her.
After the banquet, the dancing commenced, and I was required to participate. I wasn’t a good dancer, and I stepped on several toes of the boys I was dancing with, but they didn’t complain. I was the princess, after all. As I absently danced with them, my mind wandered back to the tree house, and I imagined myself out there, free from all these strangers.
My opinion on boys didn’t change one bit. I was introduced to so many of them that no one stuck in my mind. I couldn’t remember any of their names. Or their faces. They were all the same. Arrogant, smug, and boastful little boys, groomed to take over their family’s noble positions when the time comes.
This was all the adults’ doing. For formality’s sake. They weren’t there for me, personally; they were there because the King called, and they naturally responded with their attendance. Like my grandmother said, someday, one of them is going to be my future husband. Yuck.
After three agonizing hours, the celebration was finally coming to an end. My jaws were hurting and numb from the smile I had to plaster on my face for the entire night. My feet hurt from dancing. I was bored out of my mind.
I had to endure another hour of saying goodbye to the guests, and, at long last, I was finally free. After bidding my father and grandmother good night, I walked calmly in the direction of my room.
But as soon as I was alone, I walked past my bedroom doors and sneaked into a side passage that led to one of the palace’s many towers. I bounded up the spiral stairs, which was a long climb, until I finally made it to the top.
A gust of chilly wind assaulted me as I stepped into the circular stone room. Wide, open windows surround the top of the tower, but not big enough for me to accidentally fall over.
I walked over to one of the windows and rested my hands on the ledge as I closed my eyes and took deep breaths. The evening autumn air was cold but refreshing. It felt like ice in my lungs, but it also eased the tension in my nerves.
Finally, some peace and alone time.
I knew I only had a few minutes before my disappearance was discovered, and my father would order every guard to search for me. My tendency to sneak out never went unnoticed. I would keep doing it, and they would keep finding me, mostly thanks to Luca.
Speaking of Luca, I wonder where he is?
I opened my eyes and flinched.
The princess’s birthday party just came to an end.
I had kept my eyes on the princess during the entire affair, constantly being alert for anything suspicious. It was my duty to guard her while I kept myself invisible. I was in charge of her protection. She was safe within the palace walls, but I was never complacent. I was always ready for anything.
The last guest finally left the palace.
I had been standing the entire time, like the other palace guards, and my stiff legs welcomed the movement as I followed Lena up the stairs, keeping some distance between us. I hadn’t eaten supper yet. I would eat after I made sure she was safely inside her room for the night.
But instead of going to her room, I saw her sneaking out to another passage that branched away from her bedroom corridor.
No surprise there. I knew the party drained her. She didn’t like social gatherings at all. She would often complain about it. I knew she was just looking for an escape. Some place to clear her head.
I didn’t stop her, but I continued to follow her through the passage and up the spiral staircases to the western tower. She hadn’t seen me. I was good at hiding my presence. I remained in the shadows within the staircase, giving her space. It wasn’t my job to tell her what to do. My job was to guarantee her safety, and for the moment, she was safe.
I let her be, for now. She deserved it.
My name is Luca Auger.
From the moment I was born, it was my duty to protect the princess. I came from a family of royal guards that had always protected the Lavien royal family for generations. My father was in charge of the late Queen’s protection. He was the captain of the Queen’s Guard. He was to Lena’s mother, what I was to her now. I haven’t reached his rank yet, but eventually, I will.
A strong gust of wind blew through the staircase. If the princess stays in the cold for too long, she might get sick. I stepped away from the shadows and entered the tower.
Lena was facing the window with her eyes closed. I noiselessly approached her and leaned against the wall beside the window. I waited.
As if sensing my presence, her eyes flew open, and she jumped when she saw me.
“Luca!” she exclaimed. “Don’t scare me like that!”
I shrugged. “I wasn’t even doing anything.”
“Yeah, but you can’t creep up on me like that. Make some sound when you walk, jeez.”
“Sorry. I can’t help it.”
I’m a pretty tall guy, but because of how I was brought up, I’ve learned not to make any sound while moving. It’s a useful skill to sneak up on unsuspecting enemies.
“Yeah, whatever,” she mumbled. “Are you here to take me away again?”
I could tell she was still mad at me for bringing her back earlier.
“If I hadn’t,” I said. “The King would’ve sent out his entire army to search for you. Would you rather have that?”
She scowled and said nothing.
“You know you should be in bed, Lena. You’re not supposed to be here.”
“Can’t I have five minutes of peace to myself?” she grumbled.
“You’ll get a cold.”
“No. I won’t.” She looked up at me with defiance in her round blue eyes, the only part of her that hadn’t changed in sixteen years.
Blue eyes weren’t that rare, but the kind of blue in her eyes was just different. Vivid. More striking and deeper than the regular blue. They would shift to different shades depending on the lighting. This time, they were gleaming like refined azurite under the moonlight. I’ve only seen that mystifying eye color on three people in my lifetime — Lena, the late Queen, and the Queen Mother. A hereditary trait, unique to the Lavien royal family.
“Please?” she demanded. “You owe me.” She folded her arms on her chest and tried to look as intimidating as possible, despite the huge difference in our heights. The top of her head barely reached my chest. It reminded me of an image of a kitten squaring up to a dog twice her size.
I hid my amusement. “Fine. But just a while.”
I shrugged off my uniform jacket and wrapped it around the princess’s frail shoulders. The jacket was too big for her tiny frame, but at least it would keep her warm.
The annoyance on her brows softened. “Thanks, Luca.”
“Now, can you stop being mad at me, please? Your Highness?”
“Call me Lena,” she responded automatically. “I’m not mad at you,” she added quietly.
“So…” I began. “Did you enjoy your party?” I said it with a straight face, but she knew right away that I was teasing. Her face scrunched up into a look of disgust, and she punched me weakly in the arm.
I laughed. Sometimes I wondered if she was capable of running the kingdom. It was her destiny as the only heir to the royal family. Lena may be rebellious at her age, but I believe that when the time comes for her to take the throne, she will be capable of handling it.
And when that time comes, I will always be there by her side, protecting her.
She began to vent, like I expected she would, complaining about how boring and frustrating it was. After watching over her for most of her life, I understood her completely. I listened. I knew that was the only thing she needed. Someone to talk to. Aside from keeping her safe, I also want to keep her happy.
A while later, we left the tower with the princess looking a lot more cheerful. I escorted her back to her room and bade her good night, confident that she wasn’t sneaking out anymore.
I crept down to the kitchen, hoping that there was still leftover food I could scrounge up. Now that my duty was done, I was suddenly hungry. I found a fellow palace guard there, who had also just finished his shift, being served a tray of food by a kitchen maid.
“Over here, Luca,” he called out, beckoning me to join him. “Let me guess, did the princess sneak out again?”
“Nope,” I replied with a smile.