"This is so stupid!" Gen fumes, slamming the library door and throwing herself into the chair across from Jared in a huff.
He doesn't look up. "The meeting didn't go well?"
"I don't know what else I expected," she says bitterly, crossing her arms. "I did everything I could, and they still--" she sighs, pushing her hair back out of her eyes. "It went as well as it could have. My research was excellent--thank you again--and I made the best arguments I could. But I couldn't have convinced anyone who wasn't already on my side."
Jared closes his book and looks at her, frowning. "I'm sorry. I was hoping you could at least get Lord Westfall."
"No." She sighs. "He likes to act as if he's reasonable and open to change, but I believe he's fundamentally opposed to a female ruler."
"And you couldn't fool him into thinking you'd let your husband take over?" Jared teases gently.
"If I found a husband who was any good at ruling I might let him help. Regardless, I phrased it more positively for them. But we still don't have the votes to overturn the law." She scowls. "What's the good of being a monarch if you have to listen to a council?"
"There are still some advantages," says Jared dryly. "Although I'll admit that in this particular case, it's not doing anyone any good." He worries his lip. "So, what are you going to do?"
Gen scrubs her face with her hand, leaning back with a long sigh. She spent a year trying to convince the council that she could rule without a King, to no avail. Now, she's exhausted her last-ditch effort too; she hasn't convinced them she could rule with a non-royal husband either.
"I have to find someone to marry," she says. "A prince. Before my twenty-first birthday. Or there will be a crisis of succession, and one of those council members who doesn't support me will get one of their people onto the throne. It wouldn't be a disaster," she's compelled to add. "None of them are awful. But it's my throne, and I'd be a better ruler than any of them."
"You would," Jared agrees. "You know I'm your most loyal supporter."
"I know. Which is good, because you're going to have to come with me."
He raises his eyebrows. "Come with you?"
"I may not be able to rule alone like a prince," Gen says grimly. "But I can go and find someone to marry like one. And who better to help me than you?"
"I thought the entire reason behind this exercise was that there weren't any princes for you to marry," says Jared. "Aren't they all out on their own quests for other princesses? Uh, inferior princesses, obviously."
"Obviously," Gen says, laughing. "But yeah, you're right. There is a shortage of princes I can marry, and spending a year and a half trying to convince the council I could rule by myself didn't help. So my best chance is to find a prince who's on a quest to find a princess and convince him that he'd rather abandon the quest and marry me." She makes a face. "It seems a little heartless, but my options are sadly limited."
"And you're expecting me to help?"
"Well, I need an escort."
"Typically princesses take a lady-in-waiting. So as to avoid accusations of impropriety."
Gen frowns. "But--you're my best friend. And you're my tutor, so it's not improper. I'm sure plenty of young ladies go traveling with their tutors."
"Their tutors are proper matrons or spinsters who never approve of any fun," says Jared. "Not boys barely older than they are. Who were their friends first, might I add."
"Well, the other tutors were awful," Gen says. "They never taught me anything interesting."
"I'm aware." He sighs. "Did your parents approve?"
"Approve is a strong word," Gen hedges. "But yes, they said we could go."
"And when are we leaving?"
"Tomorrow. Time is somewhat important. I've only got six months."
"Well, I guess I'd better get packing."
"So there are three princes close enough we might be able to find them in the next six months?" asks Gen. She's lying stretched across the seat of the carriage across from Jared, eyes closed. She's probably not going to fall back to sleep, but if she does, she'll at least be comfortable.
"Maybe," says Jared. He's awake, of course. He has maps and reports and everything.
She'd be lost without him.
"First we're going to see Prince Osric," he continues. "Do you remember Prince Osric? We met him a few years ago."
"Funny? Black hair?" Gen tries. Jared nods. "Yes, I know him. Aren't he and Katie engaged? Why is he on a quest?"
Jared shrugs. "I'm just reporting on the correspondence I found. Prince Osric is searching for a bride. And--oh. He's trying to save Princess Katherine of Cassidonia, who is apparently stuck in a tower somewhere." He lets out an amused huff, and Gen cracks one eye open to look at him. He gives her a wry smile. "How does this always happen to princesses? And why hasn't it happened to you?"
"It's not usually our fault. I'm just lucky enough that my parents didn't upset any witches or wizards." She yawns and stretches. "Okay, so, Osric is rescuing Katie from a tower. I don't know if that's worth it. I wouldn't want to break them up. I like them."
"It's on our way." Jared rubs the back of his neck. "You know I don't like your odds, right? Our next prince isn't even a prince."
Gen sits up, resigning herself to a real conversation. "A prince who isn't a prince doesn't do any good."
"No, no," says Jared. "We're going to stop by the cave where Princess Adrianne is slumbering. And has been slumbering for--a really long time. Occasionally princes come from far-off lands because they want to be the one who finally breaks the spell. I don't know if there are any around right now, but again, it's on our way."
"On our way to what, exactly?"
"I think Jensen is your best bet."
"Jensen "I'm never getting married and you can't make me" of Ackles?"
"He likes you."
"He doesn't want to be married."
"Neither do you," says Jared. "Look at how much you have in common."
Gen snorts. "Certainly a great start. But I suppose you're right. And we can get to Jensen in only a month or two. If he won't marry me he'll at least give us some advice on where we can go next." She smiles. "You're not bad at this, Padalecki."
"Just keep me on as an adviser when you're Queen."
Gen frowns a little. "Adviser?" she says, dubious. Jared's too important to just be an adviser.
"Or something equally impressive," he says, waving his hand. He gives her a smile. "But for now, go back to sleep. I can tell you're exhausted."
Gen can't deny it, so she settles down on the seat again. "How long until we get to Prince Osric?"
"Depending on the weather and the horses? At least a week, maybe two." He smiles. "We won't be there when you wake up, I'm afraid."
"I'm in no hurry to arrive," Gen tells him. She yawns and curls up. "I can think of many worse things to do with the next few months than spending them with my best friend."
"Like spending them arguing with the council?"
"For a start."
The trip is as pleasant as Gen hoped it would be. Jared takes the lead when they have to stop; Gen's much better with politics and state affairs, but Jared is the expert on non-royal life. They pretend to be brother and sister the first night and newlyweds the next, passing off more easily as the second than the first (Jared's much too tall, and their coloring is quite different).
"I'll come up with something better tomorrow," Jared says, pink to the tips of his ears. "I panicked, it was presumptuous--"
"Oh, no," Gen says, waving her hand. "Newlyweds is a great idea. Of course we'd be traveling together." And she thinks it's a great idea right until Jared opens the door and they see the room they've gotten has one large bed in the middle. "I suppose that's the natural assumption," she says, going over to test the bed. It's nicer than the one yesterday, but not nearly as soft as what they have in the palace.
"I'll sleep on the floor," Jared says quickly.
"Don't be ridiculous. I know you're large, but we'll both fit without any trouble."
"It's beyond inappropriate," he says. "I can't share a bed with you. You're--it's completely out of the question."
"It's not," she persists. "No one else is here. No one will ever know. I certainly won't tell. And don't pretend you don't need a good night's sleep--you're far too tall to be cramped in a carriage all day."
"I'm coming up with another story for tomorrow," Jared says, but she can see the fight's gone out of him. "But I guess one night is okay. I do need to stretch out."
It's certainly awkward at first. Jared is warm, and Gen can feel the heat coming off of his side, even though there are a few inches of space between them. But once Jared's breathing evens out, she stops worrying about disturbing him and can relax, and she falls asleep without much trouble.
She wakes up once in the night, when Jared rolls into her, making a soft noise and wrapping an arm around her. She's going to push him off or wake him up, but it's actually nice, and she curls against his chest, snuggling in close, and goes back to sleep.
The next time she wakes up, it's because she's suddenly alone. She looks up and sees Jared halfway out of bed, white as a sheet. "What?" she asks.
"I--that was--I was--"
"You were warm," says Gen.
"I know you're not worried about impropriety," he says. "I don't know why, but I understand that you aren't. But I--you're my princess, Gen. You're going to be my queen. This is completely--I can't."
Gen frowns. "Even if I don't mind?"
"You should mind."
She thinks about it for a minute, but she can't make herself care at all. "We'll just try to get separate beds from now on," she says, because she can care that he's upset. "But it was nice. Much warmer than before. You should reconsider."
Jared rubs his face. "You're going to be the death of me."
"Come on," she says brightly. "We have a long trip ahead of us."
For the next few days, Jared tells innkeepers that they're engaged, and that mostly solves the problem. One man gives him a big wink, and Gen isn't surprised to discover they've only gotten one bed, but the innkeeper also sent a bottle of wine, which was considerate of him. The wine isn't even half bad, and it loosens Jared up enough that he barely protests sharing the bed, and doesn't bother leaping out of the bed when he discovers they're entangled in the morning.
Gen's even a little disappointed when they reach the town of Oros, the closest settlement to Princess Katherine's tower. She's been having a good time, and even if there's no chance Prince Osric will want to marry her, Gen doesn't particularly want to burst the little bubble they've been living in. She'd rather just spend a few months traveling with Jared, but then she'd get home and have the same problem as before--no prince, no kingdom.
It's midday when they arrive, and Gen's grateful to get out of the carriage and walk around earlier than usual.
From the way Jared creaks, he's even more grateful than she is.
"So, do you know if Prince Osric is already here?"
"I think so," he says, cracking his neck and back. "But I don't know. He's a lot farther away than we are."
"You're looking for the prince?" a girl helping with the horses asks.
"Prince Osric, yes," says Gen. "Has he already arrived?"
"Yes, he's at the tower," says the girl. "He goes every day to spend time with the princess."
Jared and Gen exchange a look. "He hasn't saved her yet?"
The girl shrugs. "He still goes every day, so I suppose he hasn't."
"Where's the tower?" Gen asks.
"Just a mile north of town. It's a real surprise," the girl adds. "We always thought the witch was rather nice. Anyway, just follow the road straight out of town and you'll get there. It's an easy walk. Or you can wait for your carriage."
"Oh, no," says Gen. "I'd love to walk. We've been cooped up in the carriage for days. The air will do us good." She flips the girl a coin. "Does something about this seem odd to you?" she asks Jared, once they're a little ways out of town.
"All of it seems pretty odd," Jared says. "I thought we'd beat him here. And if we didn't, I thought--well, he would have already saved her."
"Not that he'd be talking to her every day?"
"For a start."
She sighs. "I hope that doesn't mean he can't marry her."
Jared snorts softly. "You know you're supposed to want to find someone to marry, don't you?"
"I know. But that doesn't mean I can just magically make myself want it."
"Yeah, I know." He smiles. "Well, maybe Prince Osric will be better than you remember."
"I don't remember him being bad. But I don't remember wanting to marry him either."
Jared's about to respond when they see the tower and, at the same time, hear someone yelling. It's a man saying, "I think cards was a bad idea!"
Gen and Jared exchange a look. "Prince Osric?" she calls hesitantly.
The man turns and squints at them. "Genevieve? What are you doing here?"
"I could ask you the same thing." She looks up a the tower, sees Katie leaning out the window. It's not even a very high tower. Two stories, maybe. "Hi, Katie," she says, once they're a little closer. "Good to see you again."
"You too," says Katie. She leans closer. "And you're Jared, right?"
Jared gives a slight bow. "Your highness."
"So, um," says Gen. "What is happening with you two?"
Osric rubs the back of his neck. "Well, I'm rescuing her."
"You're playing cards."
"She has a basket she can use to pass stuff up and down," Osric says. "Cards were a bad choice."
"We both need to see them," Katie adds.
"I thought you were rescuing her. How do cards help?"
"Well, um--her hair isn't long enough yet. And I wanted to make something for her to jump into, but I'm not doing that well with that."
"I really don't want you climbing my hair," Katie adds. "That sounds like it would hurt."
"What did you do to get locked up?"
Osric and Katie exchange a look of their own. "You say what you're doing here first," he says.
"I'm supposed to be finding a prince to marry. Jared said you might be looking. At least until I heard you were here trying to help Katie."
"You heard that?" he asks, sounding excited. "When?"
Jared shifts, embarrassed to be put on the spot. "Just before we left?" he says. "I'd heard you were out looking for a bride about a month back, the update about Princess Katherine was fairly recent."
"Oh, good," says Osric. "Yes! I wanted to make sure I'd waited long enough to make it seem natural."
"Osric's parents didn't want him to marry me," Katie says. "I'm not set to inherent the throne, and neither is he, so it's not a match either of our families approve of very much."
"But if a prince rescues a princess, he always gets to marry her. And if you tell a lot of people you're going on a quest to rescue a princess and drum up a lot of support then--"
"You'll be in good shape once you actually rescue her?" Gen says dryly. "Did you just find a witch to annoy?" she asks Katie.
Katie flushes. "I just asked her for a favor. She put me up here. I asked for something easy, but it's really not working very well so far."
"What exactly is the curse?"
"No man can release her from the tower," says Osric, with a sigh. "Which isn't very easy! I thought I could just open the door! I thought if there was a door it would just work!"
"Have you tried the door?" Gen asks, looking up at Katie.
"There's nothing to open on this side," says Katie, sighing. "I tried that right away!"
Gen huffs. "Princes are so stupid. Osric, where's the door?"
"Um, around here, in the back," he says with a frown, leading them to the back of the tower. "But--"
Gen yanks the door and it opens without protest. "You don't have to be a prince to rescue her," she says. "You just have to be a girl."
Osric stares at her. "Seriously? That was all I had to do? But--I was designing something for her to land on! I was getting so close! Her hair's getting so long!"
Katie looks down from the top of the stairs. "Did you just open the door?" she calls.
"Well, I'm not a man," Gen says, shrugging. "I thought it was worth a shot."
"I knew we shouldn't have just assumed she was evil!" Katie says. "She seemed nice!"
"I thought it would be something I could do! She said it would be easy!"
"It was easy," Jared interjects.
That seems to remind the two of them that they aren't alone, and Osric looks back at them with a sheepish smile. "Uh, yeah, it was," he says. "Thanks, seriously." He glances back at Katie. "We should still probably give it another week or so, right?"
"Yeah, I think so. Make sure that the word has gotten back about your quest."
"Do you really think this will get everyone on your side?" Jared asks. "Just like that?"
"It's easy to get public opinion on your side," Katie says. "Osric and I are very popular with our subjects. If they hear he's gone on a quest to rescue me, they'll be thrilled. Our governments could still oppose the match, of course, but it's much riskier for them. They'll come off as the bad ones. Getting in the way of star-crossed lovers. Our parents won't want that to happen." She looks over at Gen. "What have you been telling people about your quest?"
"I haven't been saying much of anything," she admits.
"Well, you should work on it. You have to get married, don't you?"
"I do. And to a prince."
Katie shrugs. "I had to get married to a prince with a kingdom. Tell everyone you're, I don't know. On a quest to find your true love. So then when you come back with--whoever you come back with? You might be able to get your people on your side. They like you, right? You're popular."
"I guess," says Gen.
"Well, you should think about it. At least try not to sound so resigned. You're out to find love! That's something to be excited about."
She makes a face. "I'm not very optimistic about it," she admits. "What if I don't find anyone to marry?"
Katie gives her an odd smile. "I think you'll find someone."
"Do you really think that's going to work?" Gen asks Jared. They're already heading to their next destination; she clearly doesn't have a chance with Osric. Not that she really wanted one. "You think they'll be allowed to get married?"
"I don't know," says Jared. He's been quiet, staring out the window at the passing landscape. "I think they're right about--well, I think you should try to sound a little more enthusiastic. As if you're excited about getting married."
"I'm not a great liar."
He looks back at her, surprised and maybe a little hurt. "You really don't want to?"
She shifts, uncomfortable. "I wouldn't mind getting married, if I was in love with someone. I'd like companionship and--" she flushes. "Well, I'm sure there's a lot to recommend marriage. But not to any of the princes I know."
"If you can sound enthusiastic about finding love, I think you should," Jared says firmly. "And you should actually look."
Gen snorts. "Oh yeah, that'll work. Where am I looking? I don't even know if we'll see any princes with Princess Adrianne. And Jensen is--" she makes a face. "I liked Jensen a lot last time I saw him, but I couldn't--"
"Sorry," Jared says, soft. "I'm not trying to pressure you. I just want to help, and I don't know what to do."
Gen crosses so she can sit next to him, leaning against his side. He stiffens, but then relaxes, sliding her arm around her slowly. "I know," she says. "But you're already helping. I'd be totally lost if I had to do this alone."
"You'd have someone with you. They don't just let princesses run around going wild all by themselves."
"Don't remind me," she says, making a face. She yawns. "I'll try to sound more excited about marriage. How long until we get to Princess Adrianne?"
"A week, at most," says Jared. "She's not far." He shifts a little, moving closer. "I don't think you should marry Prince Jensen either," he admits, voice soft.
"Good," she says, and falls back to sleep.
Princess Adrianne has been in a cursed sleep for generations. So long that her country doesn't even exist anymore. Most people believe that whoever could have woken her up died a long time ago, and no one really knows what to do with her. Princes still come as a kind of pilgrimage, trying to see if they could be the one to wake her, but, obviously, none have ever succeeded.
"How weird would it be if it did work?" Gen asks. They're hiking to the cave where the princess sleeps; no one in town knew of any princes there, but since they came all this way, it seems like a shame not to at least stop by. "You'd just be marrying this girl who's been asleep so long that--" she swallows. "It's going to be so strange for her if she ever wakes up. It's got to be so different."
"Worse than never waking up?"
Gen shudders. "I don't know. I don't even want to think about it. But--" She stops, realizing that she was about to say, you'd wake me up, and--it doesn't really work like that. If Gen somehow got herself cursed, Jared might try to break it, but most curses have very strict rules. Best friends don't cut it. He'd have to be--
"I guess it's scarier for you," Jared says, apparently not noticing her distraction. "Princesses are cursed a lot more than tutors."
"Yeah," Gen says, not looking at him. "But I doubt anyone really wants to curse me. And I don't think sleeping is a popular curse these days anyway. Not after Adrianne." She risks a glance at him, but the sight of his jawline and mouth makes her flush. "Are you going to try it?" she asks.
"Kissing her," says Gen, looking firmly at her feet. "Since we're here."
Jared clears his throat, coughs once. "No," he says. "Not a prince, you know? She'd just be disappointed if I woke her up."
"She wouldn't," Gen says firmly. "She--" She stops, because there's a girl by the side of the road, a pretty redhead who seems to be taking a break. Or maybe in trouble. "Excuse me," she tries. "Are you all right?"
The girl looks up. "Oh, hello. I wasn't expecting anyone. I'm fine, thank you. Going to see the princess?"
"We're--I'm looking for true love," says Gen, awkwardly.
The girl raises her eyebrows. "With the princess?"
"We thought there might be some princes. Trying to wake her up."
"You were going to just snatch them up after they failed?"
"I would be nice about it!" Gen protests. She frowns. "Anyway, who are you? Why are you here?"
"What she means is, I'm Jared," he says, extending his hand. "And this is Princess Genevieve. She's not always good at being polite."
"Felicia," says the girl, standing and brushing herself off. "You can go first."
"Wait," says Gen. "Felicia? Of Day? I remember you."
Felicia looks away. "I'm not of Day anymore."
"You refused to be married," Gen says slowly. "Prince Richard married someone else and you're--no longer welcome in Day?"
"No," she says. "I'm not a princess anymore. I don't mind. We didn't get along."
"So--what are you doing here?"
Felicia slants a look at her. "I'm looking for true love, like everyone else. I'm going to kiss the princess."
Gen blinks. She's heard of such things, of course, but--princesses marry princes. That's how it is. Princesses don't get to choose things like that. Not if they want to stay princesses.
But Felicia doesn't, apparently.
"What will you do if it works?" she asks. "She doesn't have a kingdom anymore, and neither do you."
Felicia shrugs. "No, but--I'll have her."
"And that's enough?"
Felicia flashes her a smile. "Well, if she's my one true love, it should be, shouldn't it?"
Gen glances up at Jared; he raises his eyebrows. "Do you want company?" she asks Felicia.
"I've been putting it off," Felicia admits. Now that she knows Gen and Jared won't be trying to stop her, she's loosened up. "I don't know what I'll do if she doesn't wake up, you know? I don't really have a back-up plan."
"I know what you mean," Gen says. "If I don't find someone to marry, I'm not sure what I'll do."
Felicia snorts. "That's an awful law, by the way. And it's all so stupid! We're supposed to--true love is so important to all these curses and to all these people, but as soon as you're just a woman trying to make yourself happy, it all falls apart." She flashes an embarrassed smile at Gen. "Not that I need to tell you that."
"I'm sorry about what happened to you too," Gen says. "But, you know--if this doesn't work out, you're welcome to come to Cortesia. I'm sure we could find a place for you."
"Assuming you're the queen."
"I think we wouldn't mind regardless. But it would be easier if I was queen, I'm sure."
"Even if this works, you might need somewhere to go," Jared notes. "We'll be back in--a month or two?"
Felicia eyes him. "Not to be rude, but--who are you, exactly? To the kingdom."
"He's my oldest friend and most trusted adviser," Gen says, before he can answer. "He's very important to the kingdom."
"Hm," she says. "Well. That's good to know." She stops outside the mouth of the cave. "So, I just go in and kiss her. And then I'll see what happens." She gives Gen a smile over her shoulder. "You aren't looking for a princess, are you?"
"I don't think so," Gen says, laughing softly. "But if I were, you'd be at the top of my list. Do you want us to come in with you?"
"No, I think I'll be all right alone," she says. She lets out a breath. "What happens if she wakes up and doesn't like me? Or women?"
"I think if you're her true love, she should like women," Jared says gently.
"You would think. Okay, you should come in with me," she says to Gen. "You can wait out here," she adds to Jared.
Gen follows Felicia into the cave. "Where are you going after this?" Felicia asks.
"Ackles," says Gen. "Visiting Jensen. Not that I think he'll want to marry me either."
"What about Jared?"
Yesterday, Gen would have pretended to not know what she meant. Yesterday, even, she might not have made the connection. "Jared isn't a prince." She flushes. "And I feel silly saying that to you. You lost your kingdom for your beliefs. I could do the same for mine."
"I wouldn't blame you," says Felicia. "But I'm hoping this girl in here will look at me like Jared looks at you."
"I hope so too," Gen says, aware that she's blushing. "Come on, go ahead. Don't let my country's stupid laws distract you. Go try for your girl."
Felicia takes a deep breath. "Well, what's the worst that can happen? She doesn't wake up?"
"Her waking up might be worse."
"Just go," says Gen, giving her a little push. "There's only one way to find out what's going to happen."
"Right," says Felicia.
Princess Adrianne is very tall, with curly blonde hair and a lovely smile. She's understandably surprised by how long she's been asleep, but she doesn't seem very upset.
"I begged for the witch to put a spell on me" she says, giving Felicia a small, shy smile. "She was--sympathetic. She had similar feelings about marriage. I wasn't sure I'd ever wake up, honestly. I thought that would be better." She ducks her head. "I'm sure that sounds very dramatic, but I didn't see any other options. My stepmother wanted me to marry her son, and he was horrible. Even leaving aside my own inclinations."
"You don't have to explain it," says Felicia. "I'm just glad you weren't hoping for a prince."
"Quite the opposite," says Adrianne, giving Felicia a wide, dimpled smile.
It's sweet, and it makes Gen ache a little. She's sure it won't be quite this easy, but when they part ways--Gen and Jared to Ackles, and Felicia and Adrianne back to Cortesia, with a letter of introduction from Gen--she can't help but feel jealous of them.
"If I have to leave Cortesia, you'll still be my friend, won't you?" she asks Jared. "You'll come with me?"
"Of course," he says, without hesitation. "I wouldn't stay there without you. I don't know what I'd do."
"Well," she says. "Good."
They reach Ackles early in the morning, three days later. It's been quite a while since she last visited, but she notices something's wrong almost immediately.
He yawns, blinking awake. "What?"
"There's, uh--there's something there. Or--not? I don't know."
Jared comes over, looking out the window. There's a great darkness surrounding the castle; Gen can still see the tip of the tallest tower, but it's mostly just blackness, like dark scaffolding over the entire place. "Shit," says Jared. "What happened?"
"I don't know." She leans over for the driver. "Can you stop at the first inn? We need to find out what's happening."
"It must be recent," Jared says, squinting. "I hadn't heard anything about it yet. And this is--noticeable."
"Ackles isn't a very popular place to visit, but you're right. We should have heard something."
The streets are empty, and the inn they stop at is too. It doesn't look deserted. It looks like they all vanished. Gen shudders. "What happened here?" she asks Jared.
"I don't know," he says, moving closer to her. "What do we do?"
"I think we have to go to the castle and see what's happening. I don't think we have a choice."
"I guess not." He doesn't sound convinced.
"We've already helped rescue two princesses. We might as well save a kingdom while we're at it."
Prince Jensen is outside the castle, looking up at the darkness. He looks exhausted, as if he hasn't slept in days. He's the first living person they've seen. It's as if everyone else just up and ran, leaving their things in the street.
"Jensen?" Gen asks, cautious.
He jerks up; maybe he was asleep. "Genevieve?" He squints. "Jared? Shit, did you guys already hear about this in Cortesia? How?"
"We were on our way. We had no idea. What happened?"
He runs his hand through his hair. "I got cursed. My stepfather found out I was planning to get married. He overreacted."
"He cursed your entire kingdom? What's the curse?"
"I have to find her. Uh, Danneel." He flushes. "My, um. My fiancee. In all that." He gestures to the dark shape.
"I thought you didn't want to get married."
"I was trying to hide it from my stepfather. She's--she's a servant, I knew he wouldn't approve. So now he's imprisoned her and the rest of the kingdom in a labyrinth made of darkness." He sighs. "Come on, I was about to try exploring it again."
"Don't you have anything?" asks Jared, following him into the labyrinth. "Like--string? That's what people usually use in labyrinths, right?"
Jensen rubs his face. "I can't even tell where the walls are most of the time," he admits. There's a white string on the ground, leading far down the corridor to the left of the entrance. Jensen follows it to its first turn; it feels like almost a mile. "It's only been a few days, but I've barely made any progress. I came out to get food, but--it took me a full day to find the first turn. I don't know what I'm going to do."
"Isn't there another way to break the curse?"
"Yeah, there is, because he is that much of an asshole," says Jensen, with a groan. "The labyrinth will only disappear with true love's kiss, so I have to find Danneel before I can--" he stops as the labyrinth disappears, melting into sudden, bright light.
At least, that's what Gen assumes is happening. She's dimly aware of the light out of the corner of her eye, but she's more interested in pulling Jared closer. It takes him a second to realize what's happening, but as soon as he does he's kissing her back, and it's perfect.
He pulls back a second later, looking at her with this wild grin.
"Where'd Jensen go?" she asks, voice soft.
Jared glances around. "I think he found his kingdom." He licks his lips, which is distracting. "You kissed me," he observes.
"It broke a curse."
"I'm a good kisser." She looks over at Jensen. "He's not going to marry me."
"I really hope not."
Gen smiles. "So you're not mad at me."
"Well, you're definitely my true love," he says. "We have proof."
"I'm not sure that's going to convince the council," Gen admits. "But I guess we can always live with Felicia and Adrianne."
"Have I mentioned that I also love your optimism?"
Jared's smiling wider than she's ever seen him smile. "Close enough," he says, and leans in to kiss her again.
Jensen's fiancee is just about as sarcastic and grumpy as he is; Gen likes her immediately. "His stepfather's been exiled, which is great, except that it means we have to have a real wedding now that we aren't trying to hide it from him," she explains to Gen, as they head towards the great hall. Jensen's mother is planning a send-off ceremony to thank them for their help. It's a sweet gesture, but Gen's not particularly excited. In a few weeks, they'll be back in Cortesia, and she'll have to admit that she won't be marrying a prince.
Still, it's hard not to smile at Danneel's obvious annoyance. "You don't want a wedding?"
"Not a big royal one. Just something small." She makes a face. "I'm going to be the worst queen, seriously. But I love Jensen, so I'll live."
"That's sweet," says Gen. "I hope it works out."
"We'll manage," says Danneel, with a wave of her hand. "Jensen's a pretty good king, we'll be fine. He'll make sure I don't kill anyone. What about you? Your giant boyfriend's not a royal either, right?"
"Uh, no. I don't really know what we're gonna do."
Danneel gives her a private little smile. "I hope it works out."
Jared is already waiting in the great hall with Jensen and Queen Donna, shifting back and forth uncomfortably. He's never felt comfortable in front of crowds, and he's dressed up in some fancy new clothes, made by Jensen's personal tailor. He lights up when she goes to stand with him, and she's pretty sure she does too.
She doesn't know how she didn't realize how she felt sooner.
"Princess Genevieve, you and your citizen have done a tremendous service to our kingdom," Queen Donna says. "I cannot thank you enough for your help."
Gen bows. "We only did what was right," she says. They've been glossing over what Gen and Jared actually did, although she has to wonder if it wouldn't be good publicity for them if they did tell everyone. True love saving an entire kingdom. That's pretty impressive. "We're happy we were able to help."
"There is no reward we can offer you that will truly pay back the debt we owe you," the queen continues. "But my son made a suggestion which I believe may go part of the way to making it up. Jared Padalecki is henceforth taken into the House of Ackles. As a younger and adopted son, he is ineligible to inherit the throne, but he will carry the title Prince of Ackles."
Jared's jaw drops. Gen wouldn't be surprised if hers does too. Jensen and Danneel are grinning. A prince. Maybe not a traditional prince, but between this and true love's kiss, no one could possibly argue with the match.
"Your Highness," Jared stammers. "I don't know--I can't--"
"You can and you will," says Jensen. "Who knows how long it would have taken for me to get through that on my own?" He grins at Gen. "I'm sorry we can't offer anything to you, Princess Genevieve. I hope your citizen's acceptance into the House of Ackles is reward enough."
Gen grins up at Jared. "I think I'll be able to live with it."
"I would have been an excellent prince," Gen says.
Jared stirs; now that he's a prince and she's his true love, he's much more comfortable touching her. She even convinced him they could share a bed, although he refused to do anything in it other than sleep until they were married. She suspects he's worried that they won't let him marry her.
She'd like to see them try. Except that she wouldn't.
"You would," he says, yawning. They're taking the long route back to Cortesia, stopping by villages and letting it be known that Prince Jared of Ackles exists. It's a lot of riding around in the carriage and napping. And some kissing, which is Gen's favorite part. "But I think I prefer you as a princess."
She waves her hand. "I do too. But still. I saved two princesses, one serving girl who's going to be a queen, and the entire kingdom of Ackles. I don't think any prince has ever had such a successful quest for a bride."
"Most princes stop after they get the first princess. They're just looking for one." She pokes him in the side, and he laughs and relents. "Sorry, because they're quitters."
"Exactly." She stretches. "And I stopped as soon as I got someone I could marry. It just so happened I saved some other people first. With your help," she adds, inclining her head to him.
"You're a much better prince than I am," he says.
"Well, you have time to get better at it."
He ducks his head, blushing. "You really think anyone's going to take me seriously as a prince?"
"Ackles adopted you. It's formalized. You have the scroll to prove it. And you'll be married to a princess. I don't think anyone will be able to claim you're not a real prince."
He laughs. "Who said I was marrying you?" he teases. "You haven't even asked yet. And there are a lot of princesses, I'll have to think about--"
She elbows him. "Hey, Jared, will you marry me?"
He grins, all bright and dimpled. "I thought you'd never ask."