Regina barely saw the Princess for the next three days. Uncharacteristically she stayed in her room for most of the day only coming out for meals. Regina was delighted. Her job was so much easier when she didn’t have to go running through the woods after an idiotic child. It was worth the death glares that the Princess sent her ten times over.
But then her relatively easy job was interrupted by a visit from another suitor. It annoyed Regina to no end to have to sit through the meetings, but at least if the Princess was trapped in the jaws of some equally idiotic man then it was almost the same outcome, just with more hot air. So she walked behind the Princess and her handmaid to another one of the many parlors and took up her position without too much inner complaining.
Regina looked over the man in the room and almost had to hold back a snarl of disgust. He was an old man, easily old enough to be the Princess’s father, maybe even grandfather. How nobility ever thought it was acceptable to marry a girl to an old man she would never understand. It was sickening.
“Ah, Princess, you’re as beautiful as they say. The last time I saw you, you were but a girl.” The man bowed as deeply as possible, which wasn’t much. He moved as stiffly as a man made from stone.
“Earl Grandower, how pleased I am to see you again.” The Princess’s tone was cool and detached. She glanced down at the man like he was so far below her he didn’t really merit notice.
Regina looked her over. Her posture was straight. Her attitude was much better this time around. Perhaps the girl had listened after all. If she didn’t lose her head halfway through, she might make it through this alive.
“How are your parents? I must say I was surprised when they sent out their summons for suitors. I quite thought that they would let you marry on your own terms.”
The Princess walked over to the window, steps slow and controlled. “That makes two of us, my lord. But needs of the kingdom must be put before my own in this case.” The Princess turned around and swept her eyes up and down the Earl significantly. “Not all choice is lost to me at this juncture. There is still a silver lining.”
“Right, right, there always is in these types of situations. I did come to quite love my wife, gods rest her soul.”
“I remember her, lovely woman. I would have loved to get to know her better. Perhaps in another life she could have become like a second mother to me.”
Regina had to stop her eyes from rising to her hairline. My, my, the Princess had taken her lecture to heart. She was playing this game much, much better this time.
“I’m sure she would have loved to be so close to you, Princess.”
The Princess nodded slightly. “How are your other children? I heard your oldest just had a child of his own. It’s always lovely to see a loyal noble line continue on into the new generations. The old guard is valuable of course, but I shall need the younger generations to help me make this kingdom as great as it should be.”
Bringing up his age, his wife, and family in rapid succession, Regina had to admit she was impressed. Those were his biggest weaknesses in this suit, most assuredly, but of course the most obvious. But for only having just started this was quite good progress. Perhaps she wasn’t quite as stupid as Regina had thought.
“Ah, but age and wisdom have their own benefit.”
Emma’s cool gaze met the Earl’s. “Perhaps, but someone thought it was wise to spend almost all of the kingdom’s gold on a war we could not win and then spend the rest on too much aid to the peasants, and that most assuredly wasn’t the younger generation fault. We were small children at best, most of use weren’t even born when those decisions were made. And it’s been quite a few years, but the problem is not fixed. The only new ideas I’ve heard come from the young. The old guard are content to sit back and let the problem fix itself, but that is no way to rule.”
Regina knew enough about the kingdom’s politics to know that years ago the Earl had been on the war council that had advocated the war against the Maratinia kingdom. The guards still talked about the war and those who advocated for it. So many people had been slaughtered that anyone involved had been disgraced. The King and Queen had had to dismiss the entire war council for fear of revolt. What they were thinking going to war against a kingdom that not only allowed the use of magic but whose soldiers could turn to mermen as soon as they hit water was beyond her.
“All of the fixes they propose are preposterous. They are not worth trying.”
“Are you saying that you would rather keep the kingdom in abject poverty than try something new? No solution is foolproof, but fixes can be made. Flexibility is quite the virtue when running a kingdom.” The Princess walked to one of the trays of baked goods and picked off a scone casually. “But then perhaps that isn’t obvious to the older generation. They are quite stuck in their ways.”
Regina saw the instant the moment realized that he might have met his match in a twenty year old girl. His face started to turn an interesting shade of red and he stepped back from the Princess. The girl for her part took a dainty bite of her scone, looking as innocent as can be.
The man sunk down in one of the chairs. “So tell me of your parents. It’s been quite some time since I’ve seen them.”
From then on the conversation stayed to safe topics, mainly the King and Queen. He made no move to steer the conversation back to the Princess’s eligibility for marriage. Regina had to admit he was one of the easier men for her to dodge, the age gap was a formidable opponent, at least in this case. Regina was quite sure Emma’s parents would not foist someone so old on her. They generally tended to try and be as good as their name implied, but still letting a suitor down gently was key to keeping allies in the long run.
She swallowed hard. If only her own mother had been so understanding. Her fists tightened at her sides. She would not think of this now. On the job was no place for personal thoughts.
When the Princess finally said her goodbyes an hour later, Regina followed behind at her at her normal interval. The door to the parlor shut behind her, obscuring the defeated man’s face. She didn’t know what had possessed him to even try to court someone who could be his youngest daughter. Nobility. She rolled her eyes.
Regina caught the tail end of the Princess’s dress flitting through a doorway that Regina knew wasn’t there normally. She made for the door but it shut in her face. She wanted to scream. The idiot had been doing so well, but she couldn’t just keep it together for a few more minutes. It seems the politics lecture had taken root but gods forbid the safety lecture actually get through her thick skull.
She searched the wall for a switch or anything that would open the door again so she could track the Princess but found none. For the Gods’ sake there had to be a way to open it somewhere, but she did not have time for this. She resisted the urge to kick the wall and scream. She was going to document every single secret passage after this. For now, she had to find the Princess. Then she was going to scream until she thought the stupid girl actually got it through her head that she couldn’t just run off like this.
She had one sure fire way to find the girl, but it was risky. At this point, she’d have to take it, though. Regina’s eyes darted up and down the hall. No one was coming or going, but it was better to find somewhere more secluded.
Regina dashed down the hall until she found one of the many hidden alcoves that dotted the castle. She took a few deep breaths and cleared her mind. She had to be completely focused for this. She pulled out her sword, letting the light catch it so it reflected her face clearly. Regina closed her eyes, still keeping one ear out for footsteps. If anyone caught her she would be dead before morning.
An image of the Princess filled her mind as she channeled her energy towards her sword. The sword started to glow under her hand as Regina blinked her eyes open. For a minute all she saw was golden light but finally the image resolved into the Princess sitting on the edge of a fountain trailing her hand through the water gently. Regina looked over the fountain carefully. It looked familiar, but not overly so. It couldn’t have been in the gardens proper. She made her rounds through there often enough that she knew every nook and cranny of the place.
Regina cocked her head to the side. There was only one area of the garden that wasn’t patrolled. The Princess’s garden was at the center of the garden complex, surrounded by a high fence covered in ivy and flowers. She had been in there only a handful of times the other times she was guarding the Princess. That’s where she had to be.
Her sword stopped glowing as she put it back into her scabbard. She set off quickly. The Princess was not in danger in the middle of the garden patrolled by a legion of guards, but if the idiot decided to go anywhere else she needed to be nearby.
Regina made good time into the gardens and rushed to the middle. She came to the gate, still locked by a padlock that only the Princess had a key. She scowled. The secret passage had to have lead into the garden itself then. A good fact to know for later, but for now quite irritating.
Again Regina glanced around and saw no one. She waved her hand over the lock quickly. It unlocked easily and she quickly slipped the lock off and opened the gate to the garden. She set the lock on the inside of the wall and set off towards the center of the garden.
Regina looked around. She could see why the Princess would come here. It truly was beautiful and if the girl had only waited for her she would have been perfectly agreeable to escort her here and let her be for a little while, but of course that was the sensible thing to do so of course it didn’t happen. Regina let out an aggravated breath and stalked forward.
The Princess was exactly where Regina had seen her. She glanced up at Regina but didn’t say anything, just kept trailing her hands through the water listlessly. Regina took up position right in front of her, hands on her hips.
“Princess, I do not like having to repeat myself, but it seems I must for you must be quite dense. You cannot run off without me. Ever. Or at least one of the other guards if you do not want me.”
“I didn’t run off into the woods. I came to someplace safe,” the Princess interjected.
“You do not know that this place is safe. You never know if a place is safe until you’re there. Just because this is in the middle of the palace gardens and locked tight doesn’t mean that it’s safe. If someone wants in here there are ways.” She would know. She had gotten in here quite easily.
“In fact, this would be a perfect place to hide if someone wanted to assassinate you. It’s isolated, you’re the only one who comes here with maybe one or two guards. Were in not for the fact that it’s in the middle of the palace grounds this would be the most dangerous place for you to be.”
The Princess deflated. “I just needed to be alone.”
“You don’t get to be truly alone, Princess. No one of royal birth ever does. That being said I could have given you the space you needed. This garden isn’t that small that I couldn’t have found a place to stand where I could have been at a good distance to protect you but still not have been in sight. That’s as alone as you’ll ever get. Get used to it, it will only get worse when you’re Queen.”
“I didn’t ask for this.”
Regina laughed. “No one ever asks for the station they were born into, but you just have to suck it up and deal with it the best way you can.” Regina sighed heavily and looked at the girl. She looked utterly defeated. Regina sat down beside her on the edge of the fountain.
“You were doing so well, Princess. You were defending yourself using his political downfalls. You were playing the game wonderfully. For only a few days’ time your improvement was remarkable. I could believe that you’ve been trained to be Queen since you were born. Granted, you still need much more practice, you only saw the most obvious things, but you have time to come to grasp the subtleties. You held yourself as the young royal you are, that was the most important part.” Regina turned to look at the Princess in the eyes. “But you threw that away the second you decided to run from me again, then you became no more than a child again. And children do not live in this game very wrong.”
The Princess looked at her, eyes widening slightly. “You really think I did ok in there?”
Regina nodded. “You acted like a true Princess who knew the ins and outs of politics.” She paused. “Until you decided to run here.” She motioned around the garden.
The girl swallowed. “Yeah.”
“I know this isn’t what you want, having old men trying to force themselves on you, but unless you want to end up marrying one of them, you have to get better at this game. You cannot run. They will eat you alive. They will go above your head, tell your parents you’re a foolish girl who can’t decide what’s good for the kingdom and suddenly your husband will be as old as your father. You play the game to shut them down cold. You play the game so you can choose the least offensive option and you have a shot at happiness. Or you end up miserable.” Regina stood and started walking towards the gates. “Or worse.”
She felt the Princess stand behind her and follow her out of the gardens without her having to say a word. Regina bit the inside of her lip. Perhaps the girl wasn’t quite as annoying as she had first thought. There were quite a few parallels between the Princess’s life with her own life. She glanced over her shoulder and the downturned head of blonde curls. Regina swallowed, she was doing what she could to help the girl, she assured herself. The rest was up to her. She couldn’t protect her forever. She had been coddled until it was too late and that hadn’t gone well at all.
By the time she locked the gate behind them, the Princess was composed again, head held high, serene expression firmly in place. Regina glanced at her and nodded slightly. That was exactly what she needed to do. The slight spark of warmth in the girl’s eyes baffled her, but she brushed it off and headed for the palace.