“Claudia! There you are.” My eyes snapped to Father, and I jerked my hand behind my back, hiding my phone behind a fold in my dress. He was striding towards me with long, purposeful steps. His silver hair shone in the lamplight like a beacon, commanding attention as much as his presence did.
I had hoped to avoid speaking to him. I was still upset over the fact that he was planning on parading a horde of women in front of my brother, Charles. My father planned on sending him one after another until Charles was satisfied with one of them. Father refused to indulge me even the smallest of choices. Give me two suitors. At least then I could pretend that I had a say in the matter.
“Claudia,” he greeted me.
I gave a small curtsy. “Father.” His eyes dipped to my hand behind my back, and his eyes narrowed.
“Put that thing away. It will rot your brain, like it did to the idiots before us.”
“Yes, Father.” I slipped my phone into my dress pocket. Father believed that technology was what led our country to disaster before the monarchy rose. He and every other older man.
“I wanted to inform you that you will be meeting your betrothed, Prince Leopold, at the ball tomorrow evening.” I rolled my eyes off to the side. Suddenly he gripped my arm with an iron hold, and I jerked my gaze to his. His pale and wrinkled hand was a stark contrast to my smooth and olive skin. A wisp of brown hair swished in front of my nose. He leaned in close and narrowed his eyes. “Do not embarrass me, Child. You will do as you are told. Do you hear me?”
“And what of Charles, Father? Do you ever tell him what to do?” I hardened my stare, refusing to be the first to back down.
“Charles doesn’t get told what to do. He tells people what to do, like a true leader. He is going to be king one day.”
“But you are king now, Father. You should be telling Charles what to do. He will be king of only one kingdom. He must learn now that not everyone is to bow down to him.”
“You had best learn now that you are to be told what to do and will never be the one telling people what to do!” Father’s grip on my arm tightened, and I held back a wince. I would not show weakness. “Soon you will be a wife and you will learn to say, ‘Yes, Your Highness,’ and ‘Of course, Your Highness,’ and never question what your husband tells you.”
He released my arm with a forceful shove, making me stumble. My heels clacked loudly on the marble floor. I was grateful that I was wearing a light day dress and not the heavy evening gown I would wear tomorrow night. “You will meet Prince Leopold tomorrow and you will behave, or so help me, I will marry you off to the next suitor even if he is the fattest, ugliest man you have ever seen.” Father paused and took in a deep breath. “Do you understand?”
My cheeks burned. What I really wanted to do was scream in his face, to tell him that I wouldn’t marry a stupid prince, that I would marry whomever I wanted to. But the look in Father’s eyes made me hesitate. His face was red, his eyes cold grey slates, and suddenly I was noticing how small my arms looked compared to his fists. Father wouldn’t hit me, though—would he?
“Yes, Father,” I said quietly while I stared down at the floor. Father brushed his hands down his suit coat, stopping to tug at its hem, straightening it out.
“Good.” He nodded his head once and then continued down the hall as if the tense conversation had never happened.
My dress was too tight. The ruffled sleeves scratched at my arms. My shoes pinched at my toes, and I had a blister forming on my left foot. But still I stood there—back straight, head held high, next to my brother—and greeted the endless line of guests in front of us.
Our kingdom, being one of the largest and most prosperous, was too big a temptation for the aristocratic families to pass up. When the announcement was made that Charles was now looking to meet his wife at the ball, the palace was almost immediately flooded with letters from fathers accepting invitations to the ball. From far and wide fathers brought their daughters in the hopes of them becoming the next queen.
Most of those daughters were giggly women who had already fallen head-over-heels for Charles despite having never met him. Some of them were stiff, proper women who hoped to impress Charles with their deep curtseys and coy little smirks.
This was all for Charles. The women, the dancing, the lavish food, the sultry mood music. All the pageantry for my special brother, the future king—it made me sick.
As every hopeful lady left my brother’s presence, he leaned towards Father to make a brief, disgusting assessment. “Too skinny, too fat, too ugly, too pale, too plain, too much make-up, too garish.” Fifty, a hundred, two-hundred women. All dismissed, just like that.
To have such a choice! I thought. To deny two-hundred suitors based off a single outward characteristic that he found unappealing! I could only dream of having multiple suitors, let alone a whole palace filled with them. If only my brother knew what sort of freedoms he had. I wanted to cry, knowing that Charles couldn’t appreciate what a gift it was to be born a boy, a future king, with all the choices in the world. And yet, I couldn’t even do that. I had to stand there, greeting guest after guest, pretending that I wasn’t dying inside.
I waited for the telltale throat clearing from Father, the glance in my direction telling me that my betrothed was approaching. More and more guests arrived, and still no signal from Father that Prince Leopold was there. With every passing minute I grew more nervous. My palms began to sweat. A sick, twisting feeling grew in the pit of my stomach, threatening to rise into my throat. I clenched my fists and forced that feeling down, deep down inside. I would not be afraid.
I would be a rock, hard. I would be steel, unyielding. I would be strength embodied. He may be a prince, but I was a princess, and by the end of the night, Leopold would know whom he was dealing with.
“Ahem.” I jerked my head up and looked at Father, but he was not looking at me. I swung my head to the receiving line, and there in front of me was a boy, no, a man. Tall—from my raised platform, my eyes still reached only his nose. He wore an immaculate grey suit with a crisp white shirt underneath, the top two buttons undone. He had mischievous green eyes and untamable golden curls.
“Care to get away?” the handsome stranger asked after a graceful bow.
“I really can’t. I must stay and greet the rest of our guests.” I yearned to be swept away by him, my white knight, rescuing me from the grip of Prince Leopold and jettisoning me far away from him. But I knew that Father would have none of it. I would wait there for Leopold until I died if Father had his way.
“The guests can wait. Come, dance with me.”
“I mustn’t. It would be inappro—”
“Your Father won’t mind. I insist.” One side of his mouth tipped up in a coy half smile. His eyes were full of laughter. Was he laughing at me? Or at the formalities? My eyes widened as I understood.
“Prince Leopold, I presume?” I said as my eyes began to narrow. He must have been laughing at me, then.
“At your service.” He held out a hand. “Now, about that dance?” I lifted my head high and stared up at the ceiling somewhere to my right.
“Dancing is for lunatics in love. And seeing as how I am neither a lunatic nor in love, I shall have to decline. Good day, Your Highness.”
Leopold paused and I smirked. Serves him right. That ought to put him in his place. Any moment now he would to slink off to a dark corner, tail between his legs.
I was quite shocked when Leopold did not, in fact, walk away in defeat but began to laugh. Laugh! The laughter in his eyes spilled out into his smile.
“Your father was right! You do have a fiery spirit!” He put a hand to his chest and let out a deep breath to subdue his chuckles.
I took a moment to compose myself and close my mouth.
“And why, pray tell, Prince Leopold, does that bring you great joy?” I balled my fists, feeling my fiery temper beginning to rise.
“Well, you would make quite a bland partner if you had a timid personality, wouldn’t you?”
“So, my temper is a means to entertain you then, is it?” I raised an eyebrow and pursed my lips.
“No, Claudia, not an entertainment. Never an entertainment.” His eyes softened. “No, I simply hoped that you would be a worthy partner. A woman who would challenge me, force me to be a better person and in turn allow me to make her a better person.”
My heart melted a little at his speech, but I scooped it right back up and put it in its place. I would be a rock. I would be steel. I didn’t melt at the slightest bit of warmth. I wouldn’t.
“Well, be ready for the biggest challenge of your life. You can’t have a wife if you never get married.”
“We’ll see about that, Claudia.” Leopold turned away from me with a wink. I wanted to stomp my feet and swing my fists. Insufferable!
“That’s ‘Your Highness’ to you!” I called at his retreating figure, but he didn’t so much as turn to acknowledge me. I sucked in a deep breath through my nose and let it whoosh out between my clenched teeth. He may be calm and suave now, but just wait; I will break him. I straightened my shoulders and smirked, enlivened with the thought of making Leopold wish he had never met me.
What seemed like hours later, the receiving line had trickled out, and Charles had disappeared to who knows where. I was allowed to step off the raised receiving platform and “enjoy the night,” as Father had said. Yeah, right.
I clung to the outer walls of the ballroom, staying as far away from the dancing as possible, and scanned the crowds, looking for the smug Leopold. I strained my neck left and right but could not catch sight of him.
“Looking for me?” I gasped and jumped back, placing a hand to my heart. There he was, a teasing smile pulling at the edges of his lips, hands tucked behind his back. I scrunched the layers of my dress within my fists.
“Looking to avoid you.”
“You wound me.”
I rolled my eyes. I spun on my heel, ready to leave him behind, but his hand was at my elbow, a feather-light touch.
“Why do you hate me so?” His eyes were open. Honest.
“I don’t hate you. I hate the idea of you.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Look around you.” I waved my hand in the direction of the dancing. “A whole room full of prancing peacocks.”
“Actually, it’s the male peacocks who—”
“My point is that there are a million women in this room and my brother, darling Charles, gets to decide which of them he wants to marry.”
“And I don’t! I’m stuck with you.”
“Stuck with me?”
“Yes!” I almost screamed. “I don’t get a choice. My father points to you and commands me to say, ‘I do,’ and I must!” Leopold’s eyebrows furrowed. “I don’t have the luxury of choice. I am a slave to my father’s wishes.”
The fury that had burned at the beginning of my tirade quickly fled my limbs, leaving me tired and suddenly very sad.
Leopold’s hand that had still been loosely wrapped around my wrist fluttered back down to his side.
“So, let me get this straight.” He paused. “You don’t want to marry me simply because your father said you have to?”
“Well, when you put it tha—”
“So, because you weren’t given a choice now, I’m not given a choice? I simply have to accept the fact that you have chosen to hate me without knowing me, judged me without hearing what I had to say, despite the fact that I might be—oh I don’t know—a good person?” He calmly folded his hands in front of him. “Did that about cover everything?”
My mouth gaped open, but no matter how hard I tried, no words came out.
“Then you are no better than that precious brother of yours that you criticize so much. Good evening, Your Highness.” He turned stiffly and then briskly walked away without uttering another word.
I reeled back, my formal title feeling like a slap. What have I done? I pressed my fist against my lips and sucked in a breath, staving off the tears, and then dashed out a door leading to one of the many balconies. I pressed my back to the pillar and let the night air cool my burning cheeks.
After a few breaths I pushed away from the pillar and walked to the railing, gripping it tight. When I looked down to the ground below me, I wanted to laugh. There was Charles waltzing slowly with the most beautiful girl I had ever seen, and the usual bored expression that adorned my brother’s face was gone. He looked at her with adoration more radiant than that which the sun bestows upon the earth.
A smile split my face in two but was quickly replaced with a frown. If Charles, the most self-centered man on the planet, could have love then so could I. I needed to fix this. I dashed back inside in search of my mysterious stranger, my smug prince, my Leopold. Once inside, my head darted left and right before landing on a pair of hunched shoulders. As I approached him, my hands jittered like I was playing an invisible piano. I tapped once on those hunched shoulders, and he turned, startled.
“May I have this dance?” I held out my hand while he stood there, eyes wide. Please forgive me. He deliberated what to say for a moment. Then he spoke.
“I thought dancing was for lunatics in love?”
I took on a faux air of indifference. “Well, perhaps I am a lunatic then.” I smiled slowly. “Or maybe I am just realizing I want to know what it is like to be in love.”
“Then, in that case, you may have this dance, Your Highness.” Leopold smiled and took my hand gently. “Although, I have to warn you, I’ve been trying to get you to dance all evening but I’m actually quite terrible at it.” He scratched at the back of his head, his cheeks showing the tiniest hint of pink.
Though elated at his acceptance, I couldn’t help one more jab. “That’s Claudia, to you, my dear Leo.”