I raise my eyes to the woman reflected back at me. Every part of her has been prepared to look like the queen she was destined to be since the day she was born--from the crown atop her braided updo to the dress that hugs her waist and billows at her feet. Whenever I see myself in a mirror, I no longer see the girl who exchanged whispered I love yous in her mother’s secret alcove a month ago. The dark pools of the eyes reflected back at me seem like they belong to another person entirely. The spark that used to be present since the day I first saw his face is long gone. In its place lies a steely resolve to be the queen my mother and father always wanted me to be.
Through the mirror’s reflection, I can see Marie’s eyes glued to the back of my head. She is frowning slightly, but her furrowed brows straighten out once our eyes meet. I force the steely look in my eyes to soften.
“After serving your queen for weeks, one would expect you to be happy. Serving a queen instead of a princess should earn you a higher salary.”
She shakes her head. “How could I be happy after seeing what Your Majesty had to go through to become my queen.”
I struggle to keep the smile on my face from slipping. “You needn’t concern yourself with the past. I don’t. Not anymore, that is.”
I can see that she doesn’t believe me, that the other two of my ladies don’t believe me, but they’re smart enough not to mention his name in front of me. I turn my attention back to the bay windows and look down at the gardens below. The view of the rose bushes in bloom fills me with an ease I haven’t felt in months. I feel a genuine smile tug at my lips, only to fall at the sight of the back of one of the ground staff.
No, it can’t be. He would never willingly come back here. Especially after our last conversation. It’s wishful thinking on my part. After everything that happened to us, I should know better than to want to see him again.
The familiar sound of his heavy footsteps draws my eyes away from my the garden to his reflection. He confidently strides towards me from the room’s entrance. He holds a gloved hand on the hilt of the sword at his belt--the habit of a soldier ready to spring into action at any moment. While my mother’s crown feels like a burden I can never get used to, he wears my father’s crown so effortlessly that anyone in the kingdom would believe that he was born into those maroon robes instead of a suit of armour.
I turn around and flash him a smile that my father would be proud of. Since he has our most esteemed lords by his side, I meet him halfway across the room, directly in front of our thrones, and hold out a hand for him to grasp. He squeezes my hand before standing by my side to address our nobles.
“Your Majesty,” they seem to say in unison.
I incline my head slightly in greeting. “My lords. I trust that your meeting with my husband was productive.”
Antony makes a show of tucking my hand under his arm. “It most certainly was. We’ve settled on an agreement that will be… beneficial to our kingdom.”
I glanced at him from the corner of my eye. Ever since the day we met, Antony has tried to gain access to the royal family and all the power that comes with it. He confirmed these suspicions soon after we’d exchanged vows that neither of us meant. His weekly meetings with the nobles and royals from neighbouring kingdoms have increased recently. And he always comes back smelling like castor oil.
I soften my features into the look of a lovestruck woman and cling to Antony’s arm. “Won’t you tell me what it is, dearest? Perhaps I could be of some assistance as your queen.”
Antony shook his head. “You needn’t concern yourself with matters of the state. When the time comes for the kingdom to need its queen, I’ll let you know.”
That’s it. I’m tired of this former soldier telling me, his former princess, to sit back while he runs the kingdom entrusted to me since birth. In fact, if one really thinks about it, father wasn’t the one who made Sir Antony Whitkins a king. I said the words that sealed his fate. Surely that grants me permission to be treated with some respect.
Well, I’ve had enough. I’m confronting this mess at its source.
As if reading my thoughts, my trustworthy Marie steps forward and bows before turning to address me.
“Sorry to interrupt, Your Majesties, my lords, but the former king requires his daughter’s presence.”
Detaching myself from the cad I made the mistake of marrying, I grant the nobles a small smile. “You gentlemen will have to excuse me. I’m sure Antony will find some way to entertain you while I keep my father company.”
As soon as I’m away from the throne room, I let my irritation show. My ladies struggle to keep up with my strides the whole journey down to the lower west wing of the castle, so I instruct all of them to wait for me in the garden while Marie accompanies me to hunt down my father. They nod and dutifully stand in the middle of the lawn. With Marie hot on my heels, I turn away from the garden and am just about to turn a corner when I almost collide face first into a sack of manure. The ground staff manages to take a step back before any permanent damage is done to my make up, but that doesn’t stop my irritation from bubbling into a growl.
“Watch where you’re going!”
“Sorry. I didn’t mean to--”
I glance up from Marie’s steadying hand on my elbow just as he moves the sack of manure away from his face. My heart stops at the familiar sight. His eyes seem to search my face and be frozen in place at the same time. A million different moments race through my head until they settle on one: him turning his back on me and walking out of the castle gates without a backward glance. I tear my eyes away from his before he can see the moisture building up under them.
“Eli?” Marie asks. “What are you doing here? Didn’t you leave a few weeks ago?” she adds, seeming to forget that I’m right beside her.
I look up just in time to see Eli cast me a nervous glance before turning his attention to Marie.
“I have something I need to take care of. I can’t leave without doing it.”
“Who let you in?” she asks.
Eli answers her with a question of his own. “Can I talk to you for a second? Preferably alone.”
It takes me a second to realise that his question is directed at me, and my stomach plummets into the ground when I do. I glance at Marie out of the corner of my eye, only to see that she is already looking at me and sporting that same concerned frown from earlier. I don’t blame her. I can’t even bring myself to look at Eli without thinking about our last encounter. But I would also be lying if I said that I hadn’t missed him.
So I give Marie’s hand a reassuring squeeze. It takes everything in me to swallow past the lump in my throat, and I somehow manage to tell him to follow me. I’m so focused on not sneaking a peak at Eli that I don’t pay attention to where my feet take me. When the alcove comes into view, I close my eyes and curse myself for being an idiot. Going to the spot where all of this started is not a good idea. But it’s too late to turn around now that the door is within reach.
As soon as we’re inside and away from prying eyes, I turn around to face him with my back against the door. The only light in the room comes from the thin strip streaming through the crack between the door and the floor, but I don’t need any light to see his face. After all this time, I can still picture every freckle dotting his tanned cheeks, every unruly black curl atop his head, and every groove in the lean muscles that resulted from years of manual labour. But when he reaches to turn the lights on, and I reach out a hand to stop him, it’s because I know that if I look into his eyes, I’ll see every painful moment of our history reflected in them--from the very beginning right until the bitter end.
Eli hastily retracts his hand out from under mine, as if my touch burns him. A sharp pang hits my chest at how quickly he moves away. I clear my throat and fold my arms across my chest.
“We can’t talk all day. I can’t afford to have rumours fly around the castle.”
“Neither can I.”
Another sharp jab to the heart. I shake my head and remind myself to focus. If Antony or the nobles find out that I was with Eli in this room, alone, for more than five minutes, I’ll lose my head.
“You have three minutes to say whatever you need to before I walk out this door.”
I hear Eli let out a shaky breath. “Eloise--”
“Your Majesty. Not Eloise. You don’t get to call me that anymore.”
‘Go back inside, Your Majesty.’
‘Not until you tell me what’s going on. Are you finding a safe place away from my father? You don’t have to worry. He isn’t the king anymore, and I’m the queen now. I hold more power than he does. I can protect our love now.’
His silhouetted frame runs a hand through his curls. “I didn’t come back to the castle to talk about what happened between us.”
“Then why did you come back? Because a stable job in the castle pays better than a job in the village?”
Metal bars were the only thing that separated us. He looked at a spot above my my head as I called out his name. Then he cast those saddened eyes to my wedding dress and shook his head.
‘I can’t do this anymore, Eloise. Us being together was a mistake.’
Eli takes a step towards me. “I came back for a more personal reason than that.”
‘If you’re worried about Antony, you don’t have to be. Our vows can be annul--’
‘It has nothing to do with your father, or with Antony. I just don’t love you, okay!’
I blink away the tears and clear my throat. “You have two minutes left.”
Eli is in front of me in three quick strides. I hold my breath at the proximity. He grabs hold of my shoulders and leans his face closer to mine in earnest.
“You have to be careful of Antony. He’s not the amiable king he has everyone fooled into believing. I’ve been watching him these past few days. He’s using his connections to import castor beans, and he’s using them to--”
I can’t help but let out a laugh in my disbelief. “You don’t love me, and yet you have the gall to be worried about me.”
His hands drop down to his sides. I instantly miss their warmth, and the fact that I crave his presence when he’s so close, that I actually missed him and want him to care about me the same way I care about him, just adds fuel to the fire brewing within me.
“You were the one who left me! You left me after everything I sacrificed to save your life. Do you know how much I hate this stupid crown and the man I’m forced to spend the rest of me life with? I’m stuck in a life I never asked for because I love you, and yet you walked away from what we had without so much as a backward glance.”
“Eloise, that’s not what… I never wanted to--”
“Your time is up.”
I turn around and thrust the door open before he can reach out to me. My heart pounds in my ears with every step I run away from the alcove. I don’t stop running until my feet carry me to my old bedroom. In the comfort of the empty room, I allow the tears to flow down my cheeks. I barely hear the sound of the door opening, but when I feel Marie’s comforting arms envelop me, I immediately stiffen.
“It’s okay, princess. You’ve held it all in for so long that you deserve a little cry.”
And now the tears are flowing for an entirely different reason. It was just a few weeks ago that I was just a princess that she helped prepare for a wedding I never wanted. Now, as a new and unprepared queen, I lean into her embrace as she strokes my hair.
“How did you know to find me here?”
“Whenever you reminisce on your days as a princess, you tend to go to one of two places. Since the alcove is occupied…”
I let out a humourless laugh. “Can you believe I got myself into this mess for someone who doesn’t even love me?”
“With all due respect, Your Majesty, Eli definitely loves you.”
“He definitely does not.”
“He most certainly does. He even left the castle for your sake.”
At my confused glance, she proceeds to tell me how she was covering the shift of a servant who usually delivers food to the prisoners a few hours before my wedding. She witnessed Antony come in just as she was leaving. Something about him seemed off, so she stayed behind and overheard him threatening Eli. According to him, if Eli didn’t leave the kingdom after the king let him live, he would poison both of the royal family members with ricin, starting with my father to secure his place as the new and finite king.
I get up off the floor. Thoughts of castor oil, and what Eli said about the beans fill my head. Antony’s weird behaviour suddenly starts to make sense. I find myself praying with every step towards my father’s quarters that I’m not too late.
Please don’t let me be too late.
He’s the only family I have left.
There aren’t any guards stationed outside his door. Where are the guards? If the king ordered them away from this section of the castle, I’ll kill him myself. My hands won’t stop shaking. I manage to open the door and stumble into the room. What I see keeps me rooted to the spot.
My father is alive. He is standing over Antony’s body with a bloodied sword. He turns to Eli, who stands with a goblet in his hand. The remainder of its contents are dripping onto father’s carpet. Eli looks up from the body of the dead king as my father solemnly says, “If you hadn’t come back to monitor Antony, Eloise would’ve lost a father and this kingdom would’ve fallen into the hands of a tyrant. So thank you. I mean it, Eli. If there’s some way I can repay--”
“All I want is for the woman I love to be safe. I’ll disappear again if you want--”
I cut Eli off by throwing my arms around him in the tightest embrace I can manage. He instinctively wraps his arms around my waist, but holds me even closer when he realises what’s happening.
“I can’t believe you came back for me,” I say as my face settles into the crook of his neck.
“You’re the only reason why I would even enter this castle again.”
My father clears his throat behind us. “I think I found a way to repay you, son. A way that will make all of us happy.”