Princess Aoi awoke from her deep sleep and stretched. She rose and walked toward the balcony where, only two weeks prior, she encountered the glowing orb that aided her in appreciation of life and the people she loved. Taking a deep breath of the dewy morning air, she headed to her wardrobe and got dressed for the day. She left her room and walked down the large corridors to her office, where she found Giles, Alyn, Leo, and Louis waiting for her. They bowed as she entered. The princess grew cautious at the unusual sight.
“Is something wrong?"
“Your Highness,” Giles began, “we have just received a letter detailing an official request from the King of Stein.” Princess Aoi’s eyes widened at Giles’ words. “He would like to meet with you and visit the palace.” Alyn sighed in frustration.
“Not only that, but His Majesty King Byron also requests a tour of the castle town with the princess who’s a mere commoner.” Princess Aoi frowned at Alyn.
“Was it phrased that way in the letter, or are you being sardonic, Alyn?” He looked away, a harsh expression on his face.
“It was clearly implied," he huffed. "I don’t trust this at all."
Leo looked at his twin brother and sighed. “I agree with Alyn that it is suspicious, but I don’t think His Majesty believes you’re incapable of upholding your duties to your country.”
Louis stepped forward and spoke reassuringly. “It’s likely nothing to worry over, Your Highness.”
“Although,” Giles cautioned, “it’s not a stretch to be wary of this request. Stein is still fairly secluded and has only recently began to sign trading contracts with neighboring countries. And only two weeks have passed since they opened their borders.” Giles lifted the letter from the princess’s desk and walked toward her. “Ours and Isharui are the only two countries which Stein has not opened its borders or engaged in trading agreements with.” Giles handed the paper to the princess and she began scanning its contents.
“But why would he request a meeting with me?” Princess Aoi looked up from the letter at the men. “Why not our King? Wouldn’t that be more appropriate or beneficial for King Byron?”
“Not quite,” Leo said, leading the princess to her desk. “You are now the ruler of our country, so it’s vital that you begin making important decisions in His Majesty’s place.”
“Leo is correct,” Louis said. “And there may be more to this request than negotiating trading contracts.” Princess Aoi tilted her head in confusion.
“What do you mean?”
“He means,” Alyn sighed, “that King Byron may be planning to propose a unification of our countries”
“Since you two are closer in age than any other nearby rulers, it makes perfect sense. And after all, who could resist a smile like yours?” Leo’s suggestive tone made the princess blush in embarrassment.
“Enough, Leo.” Alyn pulled his brother away from her desk by his collar. Leo shrugged at him.
“If that is what the meeting is centered around, agreeing to Stein’s request to visit is entirely your decision, Your Highness.” Giles gave her a reassuring smile. “However, I believe he is only asking to discuss trading between our countries. What would you like to do?” Princess Aoi looked down at the request document and smiled.
Princess Aoi stood by the gates with Alyn and Giles on either side and a handful of guards as the dark blue carriage came to a careful stop in front of them. A tall man in regal attire stepped out following his aide. Princess Aoi took a few steps toward him and curtsied, bowing her head low.
“I welcome you, King Byron.” She met his steady gaze with a smile. “I am the ruler of this country, Princess Aoi.” King Byron’s aide stepped forward and bowed to her.
“His Majesty is humbled that you graciously accepted his request to visit.”
Giles moved to stand at the princess’s side and bowed before speaking to the King’s aide. “You are Captain Albert, are you not? His Majesty’s advisor and captain of Stein’s Royal Military?”
“I am,” Albert said, placing a hand across his chest and bowing again to Giles and the princess.
“We have a traditional dinner being prepared tonight, Your Majesty. Our country’s national dish, in fact.” King Byron nodded. Giles turned is gaze to the princess. “Your Highness, would you like to escort His Majesty into the palace?”
“Of course,” she said, turning and motioning toward the palace behind the open gates. “If you would please follow me, Your Majesty.”
The King nodded and fell into step behind the princess with Albert at his side. Alyn walked next to Princess Aoi protectively as they headed up the brick path. Upon entering, Giles guided King Byron and Albert upstairs to the rooms they would be using for the few days they would stay at the palace. Princess Aoi sighed and walked to her office, followed by Alyn. There were documents she and King Byron were to look over and discuss in their meeting the next day. Giles informed her earlier that the King would rest from the long journey until their dinner in the evening. She sat at her desk and began reviewing the trading documents once more, making sure every detail was correct and looking for any overlooked mistakes. Though she was well prepared, she still felt anxious. Alyn sighed next to her.
“You’ve reviewed those at least a dozen times, Your Highness. You don't need to go over them again.”
“Just one more document,” she said, picking up three. Alyn reached over and pulled them out of her hands.
“You should go rest. You’ve had an exhausting past few days. Tonight’s meal won’t settle in your stomach well if you’re worn out.” She sighed at Alyn and reluctantly rose from her chair. She walked over to the windows and looked at the garden below, only to find King Byron carefully inspecting a bed of flowers at his feet.
“Alright, Alyn. I’ll go take a walk.” Alyn nodded to her and watched as she quickly walked out the doors of her office. He shook his head once he couldn’t hear her footsteps anymore.
“You’re already doing great, but you’re so unsure of yourself.” He sighed to himself as he walked toward the doors to leave the room. “Maybe King Byron will help you find the confidence you need.”
Princess Aoi walked slower once she reached the garden grounds. She looked around and found that no guards or servants were present. King Byron had been looking at a large willow tree that sheltered a bench underneath it. The princess took a calming breath and walked towards the tall man.
“This is quite a beautiful tree,” he said quietly in a deep, smooth voice. She looked up at him in shock. It was the first time the princess ever heard him speak. She turned to the old tree, still a more than respectful distance from the King.
Princess Aoi carefully walked to his side and looked up at the tree with him, only just then appreciating its beauty in a way she hadn’t before. She then looked up at King Byron’s features. He was a handsome man, only a few years older than herself, with striking dark blue eyes. He looked down to the bench under the tree and began walking toward it. As he sat down, he calmly gazed at her. The King gestured for her to sit on the bench next to him, and she approached, sitting on the bench hesitantly.
“Your country is a beautiful sight.” Princess Aoi’s eyes widened, and she turned to look at King Byron. “I quite enjoyed the long trip from my castle.”
She nodded. “I’m glad, Your Majesty.” The princess turned to face the garden in front of them. “I love this country very much. Hearing others speak of it in such a way is heartwarming.” King Byron glanced down at her.
“I’ve heard that you are very knowledgeable of your citizens’ ways of life, and that has aided you in trading with other countries. You are aware of what is needed and what is not.”
“I simply think of all the times where I visited the market before I was princess and remember what was lacking and what kept coming in excess. I’ve never thought of it in the way you explained it." She met his gentle gaze. "Thank you, Your Majesty.” He gave her a small smile.
“Princess, you do not need to be so formal with me.” Princess Aoi stared at his smile for a second before looking down uncomfortably at the grass. She got the feeling that his smile was a rare sight.
“I don’t understand what you mean by that,” she said quietly as she looked back up.
“Allow me to rephrase.” He turned his body towards her and placed his gloved hand over his heart, bowing to the princess. “I formally request we call each other by our names instead of formal titles while we are alone.” He straightened, giving her a beautiful, gentle smile. “I want you to just address me as Byron, if you’ll allow me to address you as Aoi.”
“What do you mean ‘while we are alone?’”
“Well, I don’t believe Al and Giles will like it if we were to be so informal around them.” Aoi giggled with Byron at the thought of their advisors’ reactions.
They sat in silence for a while, watching the garden and sky and equally appreciating the calm moments they knew they would not experience again for a long time in their busy lives. Suddenly, Aoi spotted a familiar light at the far end of the garden. She watched the glowing orb travel from the ground to the side of the palace, heading in the direction of the balcony outside her room. A thought occurred to her.
“Byron, have you ever wished that you could know what it is like to be a citizen of your country instead of royalty?”
He nodded. “Yes. I find it difficult to know the needs of my citizens and make decisions that will benefit them.” He let out a long, melancholy sigh. “I love my country and would do anything to protect and aid my citizens.” Aoi gave him a smile.
“I feel that way too. Though I do have experience as a lower-class citizen, I still find it hard to know what is best for my country. I want to do my best for my citizens and will do everything in my power to keep them happy.” Byron nodded and gazed up at the willow tree.
“I know many bureaucrats of this country oppose the princess system, especially when a citizen of the lower class is chosen.” He reached down to the grass and picked a small blue flower. “However, I think they are wrong.” Aoi stared at him in awe as Byron carefully reached over and tucked the flower behind her ear. “I have more respect for you than I do any ruler in the world. I believe a perspective like yours will cultivate a much happier country than a leader who only lived in luxury and knows nothing about their citizens’ needs.” She gave him a beautiful smile and he returned one that could almost rival hers. “Aoi, I am here to unofficially ask you for your guidance in making decisions for my country.” He stood and offered his hand to help her up. Aoi placed her hand gently in his and rose.
“I’d be honored to help you, Byron.” They exited the shade of the willow tree and entered the sunlight illuminating the garden around them. As they walked the path to the palace, Albert approached them in a rush. King Byron’s smile disappeared.
“Your Majesty, I’ve been looking for you,” he said with a bow. “There are items that need your attention, and we must get you ready for dinner this evening.” The King showed no emotion.
“Very well, Al.” He nodded to Princess Aoi and she watched them walk away and enter the palace.
“Your Highness,” Louis called as he walked across the courtyard to where the princess stood. Leo waved from Louis’s side.
“How’d the King treat you while you were alone, Your Highness?” Leo wore a teasing grin.
“Shut up, Leo. She’s anxious enough without your teasing.” Louis stopped in front of Princess Aoi and looked down sympathetically. “His Majesty didn’t say anything to upset you or make you uncomfortable, did he?”
“No,” she said, shaking her head quickly, “nothing like that. His Majesty told me that the journey over here was nice and he thinks our country is beautiful.” Leo's eyebrows furrowed.
“I suppose he’s saving important conversation for dinner and the tour around the town,” Leo pondered, folding his arms.
“Or our previous suspicions are correct,” Louis whispered, “and His Majesty is-” Louis stopped speaking when he noticed the princess’s ear.
“What is it, Louis?”
“Your Highness,” Louis said quietly, “what did you two speak about, exactly?” She tilted her head in confusion.
“Yeah, Your Highness,” Leo said, pointing at what he and Louis noticed with a smirk. “If it was only about his journey here and the scenery, then why is there a flower tucked behind your ear?” The princess’s eyes widened and her cheeks reddened.
“It’s just a flower, nothing significant or worrisome,” she rambled. “Anyway, I need to get ready for tonight’s dinner, so if you'll both excuse me.” She rushed past the two men and hurried into the palace, heading in the direction of her room. Leo and Louis looked at each other with astonished expressions, then walked into the palace after her.
Princess Aoi rushed the door closed when she entered her bedroom, breathing heavily from running through halls and up many staircases, desperately wanting to scold whoever gave her the farthest bedroom in the palace. The orb she noticed earlier was dancing around her room as she walked to her vanity to get ready.
“I thought you only came around to grant wishes,” she said as she sat down before the mirror, watching the familiar gorgeous glowing man approach from behind.
“Well, I couldn’t aid my newest client without coming to see my favorite,” he said with a mischievous grin. The princess turned around to face him.
“You haven't realized?” She shook her head. “A man wished he could marry the woman with the most beautiful smile." The princess blinked as he gestured to her. "I told you not to underestimate your smile, little one.”
“You mean King Byron made that wish?” He nodded. “But what about the trial period? What did you take from him?”
“I took what others deem most important about him.” The man’s smile dropped into serious expression. “He is the son of a tyrannical king. The most important thing his citizens believed about him was that he would rule the same way his father did.”
“But he seems so kind,” the princess whispered.
“He is truly kind. I never changed anything about him. I merely erased his citizen’s negative assumptions about his abilities and values. A blank canvas for his actions to paint on."
“And no trail period?"
“He said if he did a poor job, his citizens had every right to hate him. He wants them to form their opinions on his actions, not his father's.” The man smiled at Princess Aoi and placed his hand on her shoulder. “Now, I believe you are needed in the dining hall, Your Highness.” She stood and raced to her bedroom door. Just as she began to open it, the glowing man spoke up
“Smile for me.” She gave the glowing man one last beautiful smile filled with gratitude and happiness. “Never underestimate your smile.”
“Thank you,” she whispered before hurrying down the corridor. She stopped near the entrance to the dining room where Giles stood waiting with Alyn. Giles gave her a stern look of impatience.
“Where did you run off to? His Majesty will be here any second.”
Suddenly, Princess Aoi heard the doors from the opposite hallway open and she moved to stand next to Giles, facing King Byron as he entered the room with Albert. Giles bowed to the King as Albert bowed to the princess.
“We thank you for joining us for this evening’s dinner, Your Majesty,” Giles said.
“His Majesty was glad to accept the offer,” Albert said as he straightened.
Giles gestured toward the dining hall. “Please, follow me.”
Alyn opened the doors and bowed as they walked in. The table had been set ahead of time as usual, though the two settings weren’t at opposite ends. Instead, a certain meddling bureaucrat had the settings across from each other at one end of the table. Princess Aoi looked over her shoulder at an annoyed Giles and the bureaucrat outside the dining room. She watched Leo wink before walking away from his scowling brother who closed the doors on him. She let out a quiet laugh and turned forward when she realized that King Byron had noticed too.
Giles and Albert kept their distance and stood near the door behind King Byron. As he and the princess sat across from each other at the same end of the long table, King Byron gave Princess Aoi a wink. She caught her breath, remembering the smile he showed her in the garden that was absent while others were around. They were silent as the formal dinner was presented and their plates were set in front of them. The servants bowed and stepped away.
“I hope Your Highness will accept the trading contracts that Stein will be proposing during this visit,” he said, lightly emphasizing the word ‘proposing.’ Aoi smiled beautifully at Byron.