Elizabeth dug her perfectly manicured nails into her palms. The candlelight of the chandeliers were ever flickering, casting eerie glows across the dining hall. She took a sharp inhale, staring up at the ceiling. Augustus shifted in his seat before her, eyes carefully studying the meat on the plate in front of him as if it was fascinating as life itself.
“So…” Elizabeth tried to break the silence, voice light though she knew countless chambermaids and cooks were likely eavesdropping right outside. She dragged her fork through the meal, considering taking a bite. What would her mother expect her to do?
Augustus cleared his throat and Elizabeth held her breath, waiting for him to speak.
“I hear you enjoy sewing?”
She stifled an eye roll. Enjoy was an overstatement. Forced to endure was more like it. She choked back her sarcasm and faked a smile, taking a tiny sip of water from the glass before her.
“And you, I hear you’re quite the horse rider?” She set the glass down with a clang, remembering her manners and unfolding a napkin to place at her lap. God forbid she stained her perfect gown.
Augustus smiled as well, though Elizabeth couldn’t be sure if it was genuine or not.
“Yes, I enjoy competing in neighboring kingdoms whenever I’m able.”
“How nice,” she said, meaning it. If only the women could be allowed to do such sports, even watch them. As a woman of royalty, she would never be permitted to venture onto the same fields that horses trot and lay their business upon. It was improper.
Augustus plucked a small baked potato with his fork, stuffing it into his mouth. He chewed slowly, and the silence stretched.
Elizabeth bit the inside of her cheek, wishing the meal could just end. But no, they were to be forced into an hour a day every day of ‘conversation’ over dinner, and then a short walk around the garden. It could have been romantic, perhaps, in another world. Elizabeth couldn’t wait for it to be over, but at the same time wished it would last longer, because in a few short weeks, they’d be married.
And that would be even worse.
Augustus gestured to Elizabeth’s untouched plate, forking another baked potato of his own.
“Haven’t got much of an appetite, have you?”
Elizabeth grimaced, picking up her fork and moving the green beans around her plate. Light color rose to her cheeks, and she looked down to hide it.
“Come on, you’re making me look fat, take a bite, won’t you?”
Elizabeth raised her eyebrows, unamused.
He picked up another baked potato, moving it in her direction.
“It’s dinner, you’re supposed to eat, you know.”
Elizabeth scoffed, a smile peeking at the edges of her lips.
“From my own plate.”
Augustus waved it around, the potato nearing her face. She set her fork down, crossing her arms.
“You know, that’s very improper of you.”
He smiled, leaning across the table and placing the potato right in front of her lips.
She sighed, taking a tiny bite from the potato and pushing his hand away. She washed down the piping hot bite with water.
Augustus laughed, bringing the fork back to his plate. Elizabeth stared at his eyes, back down in his plate again, and tried to imagine herself loving this man. She traced her finger along the patterns on the table and swallowed saliva.
“Elizabeth. You don’t have any nicknames, do you?” Augustus caught her stare and her eyes widened. As she was about to answer that her mother had used to call her Liz when she was younger, there was a scream from somewhere in the castle.
Augustus furrowed his brows, pushing back from the table and standing.
Stomps littered the halls and he threw open the door. The guards, always stationed at the edges of every doorway, were confused as well, hands brushing the hilts of their swords as they passed worried glances to each other.
Elizabeth blinked, standing up quickly, the napkin falling from her lap. She gathered her gown in her hands, walking to Augustus.
“What is it-”
He stopped her with a hand on her chest, placing a finger on his lips.
A guard came around the hall, sword drawn and face panicked.
“Oh! Princess, thank goodness. Your highness. Prince Augustus, highness. You must go to safety. The castle is under attack, we haven’t got much time! It isn’t safe.”
“Wh- Attacked? By whom?” she demanded, ignoring the bow and Augustus’ arm, still pressed against her.
“There isn’t time! You and the prince must leave- now!”
“What about my parents? And my sister? The rest of the castle?”
“All is taken care of, please, cooperate.”
Elizabeth wanted to argue, but another scream cut her short. She nodded once.
“I’ll take her. My horse is still in the stables. I can take her around back and we’ll flee into the forest. Send someone for us when it’s safe to come back,” Augustus said, pulling Elizabeth’s arm.
The guard nodded, his eyes filled with fear. Augustus pulled on Elizabeth’s arm, leading her somewhere.
She pulled her arm away from him.
“How are we going to leave undetected?” she whispered harshly. Augustus continued walking on, and she had to hurry to keep up.
“The door leading to the stables.”
Elizabeth had never been allowed to venture close enough to the stables, so she hoped he knew where he was going.
They walked around multiple hallways, and she had to force herself to ignore all the noises they passed.
After what seemed like ages, they reached a back door that Augustus threw open, letting Elizabeth walk through first. The moon lit their way as they walked to the stables. He slid open the door, a look of determination set on his face. He found his horse, a large white beauty.
Elizabeth gulped, stepping slightly backward.
Augustus quickly saddled the horse, pulling it out. He had almost hoisted himself upward, when his eyes fell upon Elizabeth. He muttered a string of curses under his breath that she pretended not to hear.
“I take it you can’t ride?”
She raised her eyebrows.
“What do you think!” she spat, anxious and afraid.
Didn’t the prince have sisters? Didn’t he even have an inkling of what it was like?
“You trust me, right?” he said slowly, offering her his arm.
“No!” she said, shrinking away.
He took a long breath, as if it wasn’t the answer he was expecting.
“Well, you’re going to have to. Come on.”
He pulled himself onto the horse's back.
Elizabeth raised her eyebrows.
“What do you mean come on, how do I even get on it?!”
“You just-put your foot in the stirrup-” he sputtered, obviously flustered. Elizabeth tried to listen, nearing the horse slowly. “Take off your shoes first. And the stirrup is that little thing that well...looks like it might fit your foot.”
She kicked off her heels, guessing where she was to put her feet and putting her left foot there. The horse moved and she whimpered.
“Good. Give me your hand.”
She did and he squeezed it.
“When I say three, try and swing over, alright? I’ll help, but you need to be cooperative.”
She nodded, sweat dripping down the back of her neck.
“One. Two. Three!”
She pulled her right leg over the horse, just barely making it. She gasped in relief, hand still intertwined with Augustus.
“Are you alright?”
She nodded, letting go of his hand and hesitantly petting the thin fur of the horse. Augustus turned, picking up the reins.
“I’m not sure…”
He led the horse forward and Elizabeth all but fell, clutching on to the sides of the saddle.
“Hang on, okay?”
“Hang on to what?!” she sputtered.
“Just put your arms around my waist, alright?”
“Excu-” Her complaints were cut short when he squeezed his legs around the horse, and then they were galloping. She yelped, shutting her eyes and leaning forward, pulling her arms around Augustus’ chest.
She mentally took back what she thought about wanting to horse race. If it was this dangerous, she wanted no part in it at all.
When they finally stopped, it had gotten later, and it was so cold Elizabeth could barely feel her fingers. She exhaled slowly, relieved they hadn’t been killed.
“You can let go now,” Augustus said, amusement tinging the remark. Elizabeth scowled, uncurling her arms from his waist.
“That was the worst experience of my entire life.”
Augustus laughed, climbing off the horse and offering her his hand. She took it, sliding off and pulling down her dress. Her hair, windswept and ruined, was a mess. She smoothed it down, absentmindedly thinking the maids would be furious.
All at once, she remembered why they were running in the first place, and worry creased her features.
Augustus placed a hand on her shoulder, meant to be comforting she was sure.
“Everything’ll be fine,” he said calmly, almost convincing himself.
Elizabeth glared at his hand, pushing it off.
“You don’t know that.”
He sighed, as if annoyed with her very existence.
Augustus ran a hand through his hair, exasperated and tired. He clutched the reins of his horse in one hand and she nickered, restless.
“For goodness sake Elizabeth, we’re going to be married in less than a month!”
Elizabeth grit her teeth.
“I am very aware of the arrangement. However, in case you weren’t aware, this marriage is meant to strengthen the alliance between our kingdoms. It won’t really be necessary if my kingdom is taken over!”
Augustus groaned, pinching the bridge of his nose. Elizabeth glowered at him.
“Has your castle really never been attacked? Raided? You’re worrying too much.”
“If that was really true, then why aren’t we hiding in the basements of the castle?”
Augustus stepped a small step backward at that. He bit the inside of his cheek, trying to find a reply that would convince her- both of them, really- that everything was fine.
"I don't know," he said finally in a small voice. Elizabeth frowned. She clicked her tongue, staring up at the moon, which was the only light left of the night, save for the few stars that decided to show themselves.
"They'll come for us if everything's safe. So I suppose all we can do is wait now."
Augustus shrugged, holding tighter on the reins of his horse.
Elizabeth shifted her weight from foot to foot, anxious as more and more time passed them both by. Sounds of the night grew louder and louder, and she found herself holding her breath in wonder. Was it always like this?
It became quite clear that no one was going to come for them, at least not any time soon.
Augustus tied the horse to a branch of the closest tree, making sure to secure the knot before patting him once and sitting cross-legged in front of it on the grass.
Elizabeth creased her brows together. She couldn't imagine spending a night outside of the castle; not only was it going to be horribly uncomfortable, but how could she live with the worry of everything falling apart?
Augustus patted the ground next to him and she drew in a sharp intake of breath before nearing the spot, gathering up her dress and sitting down as gracefully as one could in no light and a poufy gown.
"You know, I don't think I've ever been barefoot for so long," Elizabeth said, trying to focus on something- anything that wouldn't send her into a swarm of worry.
Augustus chuckled softly, leaning back on his arms.
"Don't you ever sleep?"
Elizabeth smiled at his ease, fiddling with her fingers in her lap.
"At least I have socks then."
Augustus laughed again, and for a moment, they weren't hiding but so very vulnerable and exposed, the two of them.
"You know, we've spoken for at least an hour a day this week, and yet still I feel as if I know nothing about you. You know I like riding. What does the princess do in her free time?"
"What, you didn't believe the sewing thing?" Elizabeth asked, tilting her head to the right.
"Not really. That's just what they told me about you."
"They told me you liked riding, and they were right," she challenged.
Augustus grinned. It was probably one of the longest conversations they'd held without being awkward.
"Perhaps. But obviously, with you, they were wrong."
"Well, I enjoy reading poetry. And I like just...watching things."
"Do elaborate?" Augustus cupped his cheek in his hands, turning to Elizabeth.
"I mean, I don't like sewing, but when my mother or maids do it, it's always so calming to look at. And watching it rain is nice too. Or snow, though we don't get much of it here."
"We get tons of it where I live. You'll love it."
Elizabeth smiled, but it was pained this time. She knew he was trying to be sweet, but that statement just made everything all the more real. Sure, he was nice, and maybe easier to talk to than she'd thought, but she'd be going to meet his parents- king and queen of their own place- much too soon for her liking. She wasn't ready.
"You never answered me, you know," Augustus remarked, dragging her painfully back to reality. He was staring at the moon now. Elizabeth followed his gaze.
"About your name? Elizabeth is just such a mouthful, I wondered if you had any nicknames?" he said, slightly teasing.
Elizabeth raised her eyebrows slightly. As if Augustus was any shorter. "Ah. Well, I used to be known as Liz, but that's the extent of it, really."
And then they were quiet again, watching the moon and the stars.
"Elizabeth...I'm sorry. I know I had about as much say in this as you did, but part of me still feels guilty. I know you don't want to get married. I just hope...I hope you can find a way to not be, you know, miserable when we're married."
Their eyes met and Elizabeth parted her lips like she was going to say something. Closed them again.
"I'm sorry too. It's not fair for you to just shoulder that. Don't blame yourself. It's not you that makes me upset...it's just...well it's childish, but I always wanted true love."
"Doesn't everyone at some point?"
Silent again, all that could be heard were the crickets and other creatures of the night. Elizabeth breathed deeply, trying to enjoy the night air without feeling choked with worry.
Augustus moved beside her, placing a hand on her knee.
"Did you hear that?"
"Hear what?" Elizabeth said quietly, but just as she said it, the loud footsteps coming through the forest were very apparent. She held her breath, holding back a whimper. "Augustus..." she whispered.
He stood, ever so quietly and swift.
"Princess Elizabeth! Prince Augustus!"
Elizabeth let out her breath, so relieved she felt tears prickling the edges of her eyes. She stood.
"It's the guard, they've come," she practically whispered, placing a hand on Augustus' shoulder. He wrapped a comforting arm around her shoulder.
The guard broke through the trees, sword drawn and tense features relaxing as soon as recognition came into place.
"We thought you were gone," he said, sheathing his sword and bowing.
Elizabeth stepped forward.
"My parents...The castle...?"
Worry etched his features again and she tensed, bracing herself for the worst.
"The castle is in shambles, but there are no casualties. Yet. Several are injured, and we're lucky we got you out when we did."
Elizabeth let out her breath again. No death so far. That was good.
"Do we know what they wanted?" Augustus said, and the guard only just seemed to realize he was there.
"No. So far, we just have to assume it was random. A few expensive pieces are missing from the kitchen, so we know they stole some things."
Elizabeth pressed her hands together.
"Can I please go home?" she said quietly, and the guard's eyes softened.
"Yes, your highness. Of course."
While the castle was in shambles, with shattered glass and open doors everywhere, nothing compared to the relief Elizabeth felt when she ran into her mother's open arms.
"I thought I would lose you," she whispered, and her mother squeezed her tighter. She hugged her father too, who was crying but seemed overall unharmed.
"I think I'm going to call it a night."
Elizabeth turned back to Augustus, blushing.
Where had her manners gone off to?
She walked over to him.
"Thank you for... taking me to safety."
Augustus leaned over and kissed the top of her head.
"I would do it a thousand times again to protect you, Princess. Good night."
He walked off and Elizabeth smiled. Whatever wall they had somehow broken tonight would make the whole experience a lot more bearable. While she knew she couldn't force love, it didn't mean they couldn't be friends.
She walked to her room that night feeling for once, after one of their many 'dates',that she was looking forward to the next.