Emma stood on her balcony and surveyed the ever growing crowd, a small smile on her face. It was almost time for the official announcement to the kingdom of her engagement to Regina. Many of them had been at the competition she was sure. She had heard more than a few whispers throughout the palace wondering just why the official announcement was taking so long.
“Emma.” Snow White burst onto the balcony, ruining her peaceful moment.
Emma turned and looked at the exact reason that it had taken so long. Or at least one of them, she supposed. The entire council hadn’t exactly been supportive either. The smile slipped into a frown.
“Mother.” Emma inclined her head. “What are you doing here? Shouldn’t you be getting ready?” She smoothed down her white dress carefully. She had been ready for hours now.
“Emma, are you truly sure you want to do this? Once we make the announcement it can’t be undone.”
“It couldn’t be undone anyway, mother. You’re the one who made the decree stating that the winner of the tournament would have my hand in marriage.”
“But there are ways to get out of that now, before the announcement.”
“You mean her death, Mother.” Emma turned back to watch the crowd in the courtyard.
“She doesn’t have to die. She just has to disappear from the kingdom.”
Emma felt her muscles bunching up. She hadn’t been able to relax around her mother since the tournament ended over a week prior. At this point she was questioning whether she ever would again. Royal parents and children had a rather formal relationship at points, but her parents had truly loved her. Now…they still loved her she was sure, but it was hard to remember when her mother was trying to kill off her fiancée.
“If those two things aren’t the same thing mother then I am not princess of this kingdom.”
“Emma…you’ve got to think of what’s best for the kingdom.”
“And you think Regina is not. Believe me, I’ve been listening even if I’d rather not.” She turned to look at her mother. “But you told me months ago that I had to start acting more like a princess and less like a commoner. Every single improvement in how I carried myself as royalty came from Regina. She knows exactly how to rule a kingdom. She is the most qualified to help me defend the kingdom and help me shape it into what I want it to be. Or have you forgotten that she was a princess once upon a time herself?”
“Of the Dark Kingdom, Emma!” Her mother was exasperated now. She reached out and laid a hand on Emma’s shoulder. Emma shrugged it off easily.
“I’m well aware. She competed in the tournament under their flag, and that was after she told me how she ended up here. Believe me, mother, I know.”
“Then how could you want her to rule with you? She’s a murderer. If Cora finds out her daughter is in this kingdom then gods help us all.”
“And who better to help defend the kingdom against her than her own daughter? I’m not calling off the announcement. I will marry Regina as your decree said I would.” She turned to walk back inside her rooms. “You wanted a princess who could make the right decisions and stand by them no matter how hard. Funny how you now have two such princesses and you’re fighting against it every step of the way.”
She grabbed her tiara off her vanity and placed it on her head snuggly, fixing her hair around it so it sat neatly. Emma turned to her mother, still standing in the doorway to the balcony.
“Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go see how Regina is getting on. It’s been quite a while since she was last required to wear a dress and I wouldn’t miss this for the world.”
She swept out of her rooms and strode down the hall. The path between her rooms and Regina’s should have been worn down as much as she had walked it in the week since she had brought Regina up from the dungeons. She had spent every waking moment she could with the other woman. Of course Regina had hated feeling so coddled by her, but Emma had ignored her. Just because the other woman could wield weapons with deadly accuracy and had insight into the everyday workings of court politics didn’t mean that Emma was going to let the woman out of her sight before the announcement. Her mother, or some other court idiot, might get it into their head that it would be great time to kidnap her fiancée to force her to marry someone else. But the announcement would be binding. She could marry no one else but Regina then.
She pushed open the doors and slipped inside. A smile made its way onto her face again. Regina was standing in a dress designed much like her own, mostly white with gold accents throughout. She truly looked gorgeous.
Emma made her way over to stand by Regina as the woman pinned her hair up into a complicated braid. “You know, there are servants to do such things.”
Regina shrugged. “I prefer getting ready on my own, always have. It only intensified after becoming a knight. If you must know I did let the girls you sent me lace me into this gods awful dress. I forgot just how uncomfortable corsets are.”
Emma grimaced in sympathy. Corsets were of the devil. She glanced down at the scoop neck of Regina’s dress. Or maybe not that evil.
“I’m afraid you’ll have to get used to them again.”
Regina slipped the last pin into place and turned towards Emma. “Of that, I’m well aware. Corsets are still better than those idiots you call a council so all isn’t truly lost.”
Emma laughed. “Fair enough.” She tucked a stray strand of hair behind Regina’s ear. “Are you ready?”
Regina nodded. “I’m quite ready to get back to work.”
Emma rolled her eyes. Of course Regina would remember that she had promised that she could return to her knightly duties once they had officially announced their engagement.
“You were assigned to guard me until your commander told you otherwise, were you not?”
Regina nodded. “Though perhaps now it might be a conflict of interest.”
“Why? I’m your fiancée. It would make sense for you to protect me.”
“People who are emotionally invested in those they’re protecting make stupid decisions.”
Emma turned and laid her hand of Regina’s shoulder, relishing the warmth she felt through the dress’s thin fabric. “We are the only two in this entire castle who know that this relationship could evolve into something more than just a fulfillment of duty.”
Regina shook her head. “Perhaps the nobility will see it as such, but the servants? They’re far more observant and clever than you realize. They realize the only reason to risk one’s life for a woman’s hand isn’t power. Power can be obtained in other…far less deadly ways.”
Emma sighed and squeezed Regina’s shoulder before dropping her hand. “We’ll deal with that later then. I want you to stay assigned to my personal guard if you insist on working. You’re about to become a princess, you really don’t have to work anymore.”
“It’s rather because I’m becoming a princess that I want to keep working.” Regina turned away from her. “I don’t want to feel like I’m returning to my childhood. Resuming my position as a knight will help keep such feelings at bay.”
Emma was more than a little taken aback. Regina hadn’t shared such reasons with her before. She wouldn’t have questioned her decision for an instant if she had. But then again she probably should have thought of that before. She knew of Regina’s past, more perhaps than anyone in this kingdom did.
She looked over at Regina’s now slightly hunched form. She wanted to reach out and comfort her, but she wasn’t sure how. They were getting married in a month and yet they weren’t in love, not yet. They had made small, constant steps in that direction since they had met, but they were still at that awkward stage where they didn’t quite know enough about each other, more than friends, less than lovers. She knew Regina had feelings for her and she was pretty sure the aching in her heart at seeing Regina so in distress meant she probably did, but damn if she knew what do to about it.
“Uh, um, I’m sorry, Regina. You should do whatever you think is best for you.” Emma fought not to trip over her words in her frustration with herself.
“Thank you, your highness.”
Emma’s voice softened. “Hey, what did we say about you addressing me by honorifics?”
Regina turned to face her again, face drawn. “That since we’re getting married I should stop such practices.”
“Yeah. So.” She shot Regina a significant look.
The muscles in Regina’s face relaxed just slightly. “Thank you, Emma.”
She sent a small smile Regina’s way. “Better.”
A knock on the door interrupted whatever Regina was about to say next. “My lady, it’s time.” A serving girl of no more than fifteen peeked her head around the door. Her eyes widened at the sight of Emma. “Oh, I’m sorry, your highness, I didn’t realize you were speaking to your betrothed. I apologize.” She curtsied deeply.
Emma waved off the apology. “It’s of no worry. We do need to get to the balcony on time. Wouldn’t do to be late to our own engagement announcement, would it?” She smiled at the girl.
Emma turned to face Regina. “Ready?”
“As ever. I didn’t miss the pomp of being a royal.” She offered Emma her arm.
Emma smiled widely and took it. They walked from the room arm in arm. Emma liked this closeness between them. Not for the first time she was infinitely glad that Regina had won the tournament.
They arrived at the doors leading to the grand balcony a few minutes later. Her parents were already there dressed in their best. Emma had to hand it to her mother, for a Queen she got ready remarkably quick. Probably the years of practice helped. Her dress was more resplendent than either her or Regina’s, the perfect princess gown that had become her mother’s signature, with the white flowers from which Snow drew her name weaved through her hair. For being ambivalent about the engagement she did not look the part.
Through the doors the chatter of the crowd below could be easily heard even from so high up. Butterflies started in the pit of Emma’s stomach. She had spoken in front of large crowds before, but always got nervous right before she spoke each and every time. Not much would be required of her today, but that didn’t help.
Beside her she felt Regina take a deep breath. Emma squeezed her arm. She was glad she wasn’t the only one who was feeling this. Regina smiled at her, just a bare up twitch of her lips. Still, it sent the butterflies into overdrive. Emma sighed silently, that was not what she needed.
The trumpets sounded out on the balcony and the doors opened. Emma forced her breathing to stay slow and even. Her parents strode out to the cheers of the crowd. She and Regina were to stay inside until they were called forward. A few minutes now and Regina would be that much safer from the machinations of her parents and the council. She finally understood the purpose of this tradition, a marriage with a questionable person was better than an entire line ending.
Emma didn’t hear a word her mother said, nor those of her father. She focused on her breathing and the fact that it was all about to become official, which was as soothing as it was nerve wracking. Regina was truly the only one that she had any potential to have anything like love with. But what if it didn’t work out? What then?
But then Regina was pulling her forward and she was looking at her in that annoyed way that she had every single time Emma had done something stupid for a princess and suddenly it was better, her heart stopped pounding in her ears and her breathing slowed to a normal pace without her having to force it. They walked together and stepped to the edge of the balcony and looked out over the crowd who was cheering and some were chanting about the black knight. Emma smiled and turned to Regina, cocking one eyebrow and looking out at the crowd again. She could tell Regina was struggling to hold back her eye roll.
Her mother stepped up beside them and started with the scripted lines for the ceremony.
“Emma of House White, who do you present to the kingdom?”
Emma took a breath and then spoke loudly, voice projecting over the crowd. “I present Regina of House Mills, former princess of the Dark Kingdom and current knight to the White Kingdom.”
“Why do you present her to the kingdom?” Her mother’s gaze on her bordered on harsh, trying to intimidate Emma into changing her answer.
“I present her for the kingdom’s approval so that she may become my fiancée.”
She visibly saw the corners of her mother’s eyes tighten. “Regina of House Mills are you amiable to this proposition?”
“So long as the kingdom accepts me, I am willing.” Regina stood tall, looking over the subjects who were assembled below regally, but still with a small smile on her lips.
Her mother turned to fully face the crowd. “And does the kingdom accept this proposition?”
The roar below was deafening. Emma had to control her expression. It wouldn’t do for everyone to see her shoot her mother a smug look. But damn if she didn’t feel extremely smug in that moment. Regina had much more support than her mother ever counted on, even if it was just from the peasants.
“Then as Queen of the White kingdom I declare that this union shall proceed. Emma of House White is now officially engaged to Regina of House Mills. As per custom of our kingdom you shall marry no other. The wedding shall be in a month’s time and the entire kingdom is invited to the festivities.”
With that her mother turned from the crowd, grabbed her father’s arm, and left the balcony at a rather swift pace.
Emma held back an eye roll at her mother’s rather dramatic exit. She turned to Regina and smiled widely. Regina smiled back more reservedly. Emma grabbed Regina’s hand, waving at the crowd with the other before tugging Regina back towards the palace. With the announcement over with there were still things to do, a council meeting to sit in on, wedding planners to meet with, and she really wanted to get all her other duties out of the way with enough time to spare so that she and Regina could go riding. She had refused to leave the palace in the last week for fear that her mother or someone else would have a convenient accident planned for Regina. Now with their engagement announced, the danger her parents presented was out of the picture and what threat was left was only that they faced every day. Perhaps if there wasn’t time for a ride there would at least be time for a walk in the gardens. She just needed outside of the palace and she was pretty sure that Regina felt the same way.
“So, excited for the council meeting now that they’ll stop suggesting ways to break the decree of the tournament?” Emma asked, heading towards the council chambers.
“Oh, they won’t stop trying until we’re married and they may not even stop then. Your parents could stop them, but seeing as how your mother agrees with them…well, it seems it will be a long while before all such suggestions are stopped.”
Emma groaned. “What in the world will make them stop? It’s even more annoying than normal council meetings when they’re plotting ways to undermine the two of us. I cannot wait until I’m Queen and able to boot them all out and form my own council.”
“That will have many more consequences than you realize if you truly do just ‘boot them out.’”
Emma sighed. “I know. But the past week has made me really wish that there weren’t such consequences.”
Regina hummed her agreement. “Yes, well, they are all rather old. You can replace them as they die off without as much backlash.”
“Then let’s hope they don’t start dying off until after I’m crowned Queen or else we’ll have a council of younger idiots to deal with.”
Regina’s face scrunched just slightly in disgust. “Your mother has interesting choice in advisors.”
“That’s the polite way to put it, yes.”
Emma stopped outside the door to the council chambers. “Wanna guess how many new ideas they have today? Closest one to the right answer doesn’t have to pay attention next time and only gets the highlights from the other.”
“Emma.” Regina leveled her with a look.
Emma slumped against the door. “I know, I need to pay attention so I’m informed while running my kingdom and am up to date on every member of the council’s weakness that can be exploited later, but come on Regina. It would be one meeting.”
“And if I let you bet now you’ll keep making such stupid bets so you didn’t have to pay attention.”
Emma glared at her and went in. She was probably right, but that didn’t mean she had to just bluntly say it. She could practically feel Regina’s smug smile behind her. She had a feeling the rest of her life was going to be eerily like this. She had to marry the know it all. She just had to. Emma flopped down in her seat at the table and resigned herself to listen to yet another boring meeting.
Emma groaned and resisted the urge to get up and bang her head off the wall. She didn’t know that royal weddings required so much freaking planning. How in the world did anyone think it was practical to invite the entire kingdom to a function they only had a month to plan. Though most of the activities for the peasants weren’t their problem, there was still all of the nobility from their kingdom and some from the surrounding kingdoms that would be attending the wedding proper and the feast afterwards. And of course Regina and Emma had to make decisions about all of it. Which one of the palace place settings did they want, what kind of flowers, what sort of dresses did they want, what sort of food, anything and everything. Emma’s head was spinning. Regina had answered each and every question easily and for that Emma was grateful. She had asked Emma’s opinion before every choice, and she had contributed some things, but for the most part she had stared at the place settings so long that they had started to dance in front of her eyes.
Emma made her way quickly into the gardens, Regina at her heels. The other woman’s presence comforted her some, but the as the fresh air hit her she really felt like she could breathe again. She slowed down her pace and Regina finally caught up with her, walking by her side quietly. Emma stepped closer so that their arms brushed with every step. Regina’s hand found hers and she threaded her fingers through Emma’s.
“Can you get one of your guard buddies to come over and check my garden?” Emma asked.
Regina nodded and gestured for one of the posted guards to follow them. They made their way towards the middle of the garden at an easy pace. The dying light of day lit their path. Emma smelled the first hints of night blooming jasmine on the wind. Her shoulders slumped just a little and her muscles started to loosen.
They reached the gate to her garden a few minutes later. She withdrew the key that always hung around her neck and unlocked the gate, letting the guard go through. Emma leaned on the ivy covered wall as she waited for the man to give the all clear. Regina was standing ready at the gate, posture stiff, on guard. She relaxed again when the palace guard came through and nodded.
Emma was through the gate in an instant. She took a shuddering breath as she heard the gate shut behind Regina. She sank down onto one of the many benches and drew her knees up to her chin. Screw propriety at the moment she needed just a minute to decompress. Regina emerged from the plants and sat down beside her. Emma slumped onto Regina and took another hiccupping breath.
“How in the world do people actually do this? You’ve taught me a lot, Regina, but I don’t know about this. How do they really expect one person to do everything? It’s insane!”
“They don’t expect you to do everything, dear. At least not yet, you’re only a princess as of now. It’s all new to you, give it some time and you’ll be used to the amount of work that is required of you. Until then you find ways to let off steam or delegate the least important tasks to idiotic members of the gentry that want to impress you in some way. I know you can do it, Emma, you’re a smart girl.” Regina turned to look at her, looking down at Emma resting on her shoulder. “Head strong and stubborn as well, but I think those things might serve you well being a ruler, especially being the ruler you’ll have to be after your parents.”
Emma laughed weakly at the minor barb in Regina’s words. “Yeah ok.”
“And besides, dear, I’m here to help. It is one of the reasons you agreed to marry me, isn’t it? My experience in the politics of running a kingdom?”
She shrugged. “That was certainly in there, yes, but it wasn’t the main reason.”
Emma didn’t miss the flash of a smile that crossed Regina’s face at her words.
“Yes, well, regardless of the main reasons my experience is here for your use.”
“I don’t want to use you, Regina. Well, I mean I do, but I don’t want to take advantage of you I guess? Or take you for granted? Or maybe it’s both at once? I have no idea anymore. I just know I have nothing really to offer you in return. I’m a mess without any real skills except for horsemanship and I think you’ve got that more than covered.”
“I think saving me from almost certain death was quite a big thing. Besides, it’s not taking advantage of me if I’m offering my services. I’m quite aware of how to say no and put you in your place, or have you forgotten how this all began?”
Emma shook her head, shaking Regina with her just slightly. “No.” She sighed heavily. “I guess you’re right. It’s just…overwhelming. I keep thinking if I had actually taken on the responsibilities when my parents wanted me to then maybe it wouldn’t be so hard now.”
“Perhaps not, but ruling is never easy, nor should it be. Absolute power over people has to come at some sort of cost to remind you just what is at stake for those under you.”
Emma felt a warmth spark in the pit of her stomach. “That was one of the reasons I saved you too. You get it, how I want to rule. No one else seems to. They’re concerned only about the upper class. That’s still not the biggest reason, though.” She felt her eyes drifting shut. She was so very tired.
“Yes, well, I find most people are out only for themselves.”
Emma mumbled her agreement. She should get up. She was totally going to fall asleep right then and there on Regina’s shoulder, but she couldn’t force herself to stand. Dinner was soon and she was going to be late if she fell asleep. But she was comfortable here, leaning on Regina in the twilight. She felt Regina’s arm wrap around her waist and pull her closer. Emma sighed one final time and fell asleep, more comfortable than she’d been in a while.
When Emma woke up there was barely any light in the sky. She yawned again and sat up. She couldn’t have slept long, but she felt much better. Regina looked at her, a soft look on her face.
“Thanks,” Emma said, stretching.
“It was nothing.” Regina glanced away from her. “Even if you do snore.”
Emma shot up from the bench. “I do not!”
“How would you know, you’re asleep.”
“No one else told me I snore.”
“Do you really think someone would actually tell a princess that she snored?” Regina smirked at her.
Emma scowled. “Well, I just—hmph.” She turned away and crossed her arms.
She heard Regina stand from the bench. “Don’t get you undergarments in a twist, Emma. You wouldn’t want to field the questions at dinner about why you’re in a bad mood now would you?”
She deflated. “No.”
Regina walked towards the exit of the garden. “Besides, I think it’s cute.”
Emma looked after Regina’s retreating back, dumbfounded. What in the world had the other woman just said?
“Regina wait up!” She ran after the other woman.