A week passed by. The Princess seemed to heed her advice, always consulting with her guards before going places, even if it was still more spur of the moment than Regina would like, the girl was trying. The glares thrown her way had shifted into unreadable looks. Regina wasn’t quite sure what in the world her looks could mean, but as long as the Princess wasn’t running off to get herself killed, she didn’t quite care too much.
Ruby walked into the room where the Princess was reading, curled up in a window seats in one of the sitting rooms. Regina read the stiffening of her posture easily. Ruby was the girl’s friend, but rarely showed up in the middle of the day just to talk. The handmaid had other duties to tend to during the day. So when she showed up while the sun was still above the horizon, it was usually to fetch the Princess for something the girl wasn’t particularly fond of. Suitors meetings seemed to be the only thing she was fetched for anymore. There had been three more within the week that had passed. She had beaten them off effectively, if a little heavy handed, just as Regina had suggested.
“There’s another suitor to meet you, your highness,” Ruby said.
Emma sighed and closed her book. “Of course there is. They seem to be coming out of the walls like common vermin anymore.”
“Oh, but this one is handsome.”
Emma leveled her with a look. “So were two of the last three, but they were absolute gits.”
Ruby shook her head. “This one is different, trust me, Princess. Just meet him, you’ll see.”
“Since I have no choice in meeting him, yes I suppose I will.”
Emma stood and strode from the room, Ruby running to catch up and lead the way. Regina followed after. She had no illusions that the man the Princess was no different than the others, except maybe a better actor. She wondered if the Princess would see through the façade or not.
The parlor Regina had stood in for many hours this week looked exactly the same. The prospective suitor popped up from the couch as soon as the Princess entered the room, a light blush coloring his face for being caught unaware. Regina’s eyes flicked up and down, appraising. He was in no way a threat; he didn’t even wear a sword and there were no outlines of hidden weapons anywhere. She did have to admit he was quite attractive, if pretty boys were your thing.
Regina glanced over at the Princess, who was quite obviously taking him in and enjoying the view. The knight had to stop herself from snorting. Of course the Princess liked pretty boys. Princesses were always supposed to go for the pretty, charming ones.
“Princess,” the man bowed. “I’m so glad you decided to grace me with your presence. I know I showed up on quite short notice, but I wasn’t even aware I was making this journey until a few days ago.”
“It is no problem. I’m seeing quite a few suitors, one more is of no consequence.” Emma looked him up and down once more. “But I do not recognize you. I haven’t seen you around court it seems.”
The man shook his head. “You wouldn’t have. My father, Viscount Weschecer, and my older brother were the ones who frequented court while I stayed at home and made sure our affairs stayed in order.” The man swallowed hard.
“What brings you to court now? Your father and older brother have no interest in the courting of a princess?”
“They would were they alive, your highness. But they died a week ago in a carriage accident.”
The Princess took a dainty step back, mask slipping for just a moment to reveal shock. “I’m sorry to hear that, my lord. I offer my condolences though I know they mean little.”
The man nodded. “Thank you, your highness. They mean more than those who have come before you.”
“Please, sit.” The Princess motioned to one of the couches and the Viscount sank down immediately and Emma took a chair near to him.
“I only resolved to go on this trip because it was the only way the advisors would let me leave our provinces so soon. But I found that I needed a chance to breathe before assuming all of their duties, some time to grieve, if you will. It served as an easy excuse to go amongst the people I preside over and see what I could do to improve their condition. The advisors don’t look too kindly on such ideas. Since I wasn’t raised as the heir they say I have no idea what the province needs and are trying to plow right over me, but the peasants don’t deserve that. I wasn’t quite in the state of mind to fight when I left, but I find I feel better now that I’ve had time to absorb everything. Being in your presence doesn’t hurt, your highness.” He smiled shyly.
Regina could see that the girl was utterly taken with that line of drivel. She rolled her eyes since no one was watching. Yes, he was obviously such a sensitive soul who just wanted to help the peasants and deal with his family member’s deaths. No ulterior motive at all. Still, out of all the suitors this one seemed to have the most promise, drivel or not, the Princess seemed to actually be intrigued.
The Princess blushed lightly. “I’m glad you’re feeling better after such a terrible tragedy. The peasants really do need us to fight for them. There are quite a few things that need to be changed in this kingdom regarding their treatment.”
The Viscount lit up. “I see I have a kindred political soul.”
“Indeed you have. My parents are wise people, but not always so wise politically. I seek to strengthen our rule while strengthening our kingdom. They are not two mutually exclusive things.”
“So I believe as well.”
The Princess smiled. “So, Viscount Weschecer, perhaps you should tell me a bit more about yourself?”
The man returned the smile. “It would be my honor.”
Regina held back a snort and tuned out. She did not need to listen to such mindless flirting. So the Princess had finally found herself a husband it seemed. At least she could be on her way back to her regular rotating job soon. Her eyes tracked over to the girl.
But perhaps maybe she didn’t want to go back now.
“Would you like to go riding?” The Princess asked later, the sun high in the sky.
Regina perked up once again, actually listening to the conversation again for the first time in hours. The Princess looked at her with questioning eyes. Regina nodded, held up a hand to indicate for her to wait for just a moment, and started to walk out of the room. Before she exited, though, she managed to catch the Viscount’s reply.
“I-I, um, that would be lovely,” came his halting reply.
The corners of Regina mouth turned up slightly. Well, that was the most hesitant she’d heard the man all day. She wondered exactly what that was about as the door to the parlor shut behind her.
Once in the hall she grabbed the other guard assigned to the Princess, and another random guard from the hall just to be sure the Princess and her suitor would be adequately protected. She caught a page on the way by and told him to run to the stables so all of their horses would be ready when they made their way down. With that done she returned to the interior of the parlor and nodded once more at the Princess.
She smiled at the guard before turning back to her new little crush and hopping from her seat. “The trails around here are excellent for riding. It’s one of my favorite things to do when I need to get away from the idiocies of court.” The Princess was glowing from all the positive attention she’d received from the Viscount.
The man himself looked quite pale all of a sudden. “So I’ve heard. My father and brother used to talk of the trails they visited when on their stays here, but I’ve never been myself.”
The Princess grabbed the man’s hand. “Come then, my lord, it’s time you saw them for yourself.”
“As my Princess bids.” He gave her a strained smile.
The girl for her part didn’t seem to see the man’s discomfort, but instead shot off down the hall, Regina following at a much more sedate pace. The knight had a feeling that this was going to be an interesting afternoon.
Their horses were already saddled and waiting, held by a few stable boys. The site of their hay covered clothing and ruddy cheeks sent a pang through Regina every time, but she had learned not to show it. She took the reins from the boy holding her horse instead and dismissed him brusquely. Regina swung up on her horse easily, petting the animal’s neck and saying hello. The beast under her wasn’t Rocinante, but he was still a lovely animal who Regina had become very fond.
The Princess quickly slipped off and changed in a side room of the stables into a riding outfit. She kept a couple changes of spare riding clothes there just for occasions like this when she wanted to shoot off into the forest at a moment’s notice.
Regina, for her part sat, patiently waiting. The Viscount, however, seemed to get greener by the second. Regina looked him up and down quickly, assessing his posture. He was much too stiff, sitting completely straight on the horse, reins gripped tightly in his hands. He was lucky that the stable hands had given him one of the gentler horses that the palace had. Any of the fierier mounts and he would’ve already have shot off into the woods without his conscious command or bucked off before they even started. It was extremely clear that the man had rarely, if ever, been on a horse. Oh, this was going to be delicious indeed.
The Princess emerged from the stables smiling brightly, dressing in tan riding pants and a deep green riding coat that set off her eyes. Regina thought the ensemble looked quite fetching on her. She shook her head, that was not a thought to be having at the moment.
The girl swung up on her horse easily and looked over at the Viscount, who had managed to loosen up some when the Princess had emerged from the stables. The man smiled weakly and nodded. With that the girl clicked her tongue and tapped her heels against her horse’s sides and the white mount took off at a trot.
Regina and the other guards hung back. She took the point of their formation with the other two guards behind her, riding easily, armor clanking as they clopped along. Regina idly wondered just which of the trails the Princess was going to take them down. Most of the trails were easy, mostly used for their beautiful scenery more than their difficulty. She supposed that the man would make it through such trails, if only barely, and hardly able to walk afterwards. Regina would pay to see the man walking around bow legged and saddle-sore. Then again she wasn’t going to have to pay for the pleasure, in fact she was getting paid to watch. Sometimes life was lovely in its little victories.
Though, if the Princess took them down one of the more difficult trails the man would be unseated easily. From her few times riding with the Princess she knew that the girl preferred the harder trails. Hardly anyone was ever on them, the visitors to the palace sticking to the more scenic ones. Regina didn’t know what she wanted to see more, a humiliated man on the ground exposed for a fraud, or the man walking around saddle-sore. Probably the first one.
As her horse turned to follow the Princess’s, Regina smiled widely. She knew the exact trail they were heading for now. It was the only one this way and one of the most difficult at that. She was going to get her wish indeed.
Up ahead the Princess chatted with the Viscount easily, the girl hardly paid attention to where she was going, but she barely needed to, her horse knew the way already. The man had relaxed just a little more as the Princess started to talk to him again, taking his mind off the steed below him. But as the trees started to close in on them once they had entered the trail proper some of the tension that had left seemed to seep in again.
The trail was narrow, only allowing two horses at a time through and that was only if you were very comfortable riding within less than two feet of the rider beside you. Branches seemed to be down all over the place from the latest storm. She heard the Princess remark about how the palace gardeners usually attended to this trail last after a storm as it was the least frequented. The horses had no problem picking their way through, though, since none of the branches were very large.
They rode for two hours, hitting the halfway point of the trail and circling back slowly towards the palace. Regina had to hand it to the man, he was determined. A few close calls to slipping off his horse as they went up and down hills was all that he had. She had seen the Princess’s eyes track up and down the man at each and every slip up, though, brow scrunching. Regina was sure there was something else behind her eyes besides just dismay that a nobleman couldn’t ride excellently. Perhaps he had lied to her while they were conversing in the parlor about loving riding while Regina hadn’t been listening. It hadn’t been the first time a man had lied to a pretty woman.
The Viscount could have passed it off as just a bad day until just a little before three fourths of the way up the trail there was a tree across the trail too large for the horses to just walk over. The man halted, hands twitching to pull the reins and turn around to go back the way they came. The Princess for her part lit up at the challenge in her path. She gripped her reins slightly tighter and turned towards the man.
“It seems like we get to have a little bit of real fun today.”
The man’s face scrunched, confused. “What do you mean?”
“Well, there’s nothing better than a jump or two to really make a ride fun.” The Princess smiled.
“You mean to jump over that?” The Viscount’s eyes widened.
“Well, of course, what else would I do?”
“Go back the way we came?”
The Princess rolled her eyes. “That would be idiotic. Besides, if we did that we wouldn’t get home until sunset or later.” She turned towards the tree and stroked her horse’s neck fondly for a few seconds, whispering the plan to the animal who whickered in reply.
“But what?” The Princess turned towards him again.
“Should a lady do such a thing? What if you get hurt?”
Regina saw the ice enter the Princess’s gaze. “Why would being a lady prevent me from making such a jump? The tree is not so large, nor does it have a great many branches that the horse could get caught on. It’s perfectly fine and nothing I haven’t done before.”
“But why would a lady do such a thing? You’re quite delicate.”
The Princess’s chin rose. “I don’t think anyone has quite ever called me delicate, nor should they.”
The Princess’s heels dug into the side of her horse and it took off. A few long, fast strides and the horse was sailing over the tree easily, the Princess flying with it, golden hair flowing behind her. The two of them came down on the other side of the tree gracefully. The Princess turned around and shot the Viscount a loaded look and mock bowed on the back of her horse.
“Perhaps you would like to show me how someone not so delicate can top such a jump, Viscount Weschecer.” The Princess motioned for him to go ahead, backing her horse out of the way easily.
The man swallowed audibly. He stared at the tree for a good long time before turning to the group of guards.
“The Princess shouldn’t be unguarded. Perhaps one of you should go first.”
Regina didn’t hold in the snort that crept up from her lungs. A second later she was sailing over the tree, adrenaline spiking and a smile gracing her face. She landed a second later and rode to the Princess’s side. The girl glanced over at her a slight smile on her face.
“How delicate of you,” the Princess said, deadpan.
Regina laughed quietly. “Yes, I’d say so. This armor also compliments my delicateness. This sword as well. Really, it’s all quite dainty.”
The Princess smiled at her before turning back to watch the Viscount. He was still frozen, watching the tree like it was going to come to life and eat him alive. Minutes passed and she felt the Princess getting restless beside her. Regina felt this was an even better show than unseating himself would be. No matter what, at this point he lost even if he did manage to make the jump.
“Come now, My Lord, ‘tis but a tree. Such a big strong man should be able to clear it no problem if two delicate women can make it,” The Princess called.
A deep breath left the man as he spurred his horse forward. The horse galloped forward, sprang into the air, but the Viscount didn’t quite follow correctly. He titled sideways and fell in slow motion, landing just on the other side of the tree in a woosh of breath while his horse continued on to land easily on the other side, trotting forward a few paces before stopping and turning to look at her former rider and neighing loudly.
The man groaned and sat up stiffly, propping himself on the downed tree. The Princess rode over to him and looked down, expression fierce. The Viscount looked up at her and swallowed hard.
“That was quite a strong landing, my lord. I suppose now your tough ego will have to be taken care of, if not your manly bones. But that’s must be done by someone less delicate than I.” Her hands twitched on the reins as she leaned down just slightly. “Perhaps next time you won’t think women are so delicate. I can be your equal in politics but not physically?” Emma laughed once. “That might hold if you could perform a simple jump. Expert horsemen, yes I can see that.”
Regina could see the move coming, as Emma sat up again. Her hands pulled the reins to the left and her feet swung out just slightly. Regina mimicked the movements just a half a second behind, shooting a glare at the Viscount and motioning for the other two guards to take care of the man before she took off right behind Emma, rocketing towards the palace.
“Perhaps you’ll be able to keep up with my delicate pace!” The Princess shouted over her shoulder.
Regina caught up with the Princess easily, feeling the adrenaline flowing through her as it always did as she galloped across the land, one with the horse below her. They galloped for a long time, almost making all the way back to the palace before the Princess tugged on the reins and slowed her horse to a slow walk. Regina was a half a second behind, stopping her horse until the Princess caught up with her once again.
The horses’ sides heaved under them as they walked slowly down the path. By the time the Princess spoke the horses had caught their breath, slight coating of sweat drying on their fur. She looked over at Regina.
“You aren’t going to berate me for riding off like that?”
Regina laughed once. “Besides the fact that you ran off from me, I have no problem with your little stunt. A leader needs to be strong mentally and physically. You showed that admirably while putting down someone who doubted you and lied to you.” Regina shrugged. “I know you well enough now to know what was coming when that idiot landed hard on his pride, so no real harm done. Next time, signal to me instead of making me read your body language and everything will be perfectly fine.”
The Princess let out a heavy breath. “I think I can manage that.”
“Good.” Regina nodded.
They continued riding slowly for a little while in silence.
“Are they all going to be like this?” The Princess finally asked. “All…pompous, idiotic fops who either think women are stupid or weak or both.”
Regina looked over at the girl, eyes sweeping up and down, taking in her slumped posture and downcast eyes. “I find that there are very few truly good men who think women are people just as they, especially in the higher classes. Some of it is breeding, some of it is their own idiocy, but it leads to the same result.”
“I thought…” The Princess shook her head.
“That he was someone who you could actually tolerate getting married to?”
“He did look rather promising at first, I’ll admit. But first impressions can be wrong on further inspection.”
“Yes, I suppose so.” Another heavy sigh escaped her. “I just wish I didn’t have to be subjected to this, choosing the least offensive person to marry just because our kingdom needs stability and heirs for the throne.” Her hands gripped the reins tighter. “After telling me my whole life that true love is the most powerful magic of all, my parents just expect me to drop all of their teachings and marry the first eligible bachelor in the kingdom because they are the ones who mishandled the treasury and politics of the kingdom. I know it is my duty as princess to do what is best for the kingdom, but I can’t help wanting something for myself. So little is just for me.”
“That’s the nature of the beast.”
“Everyone acts like power makes up for the fact that I can hardly ever be myself. It doesn’t. It only makes it worse.”
“It does. Everyone uses you for that power and it’s so hard to find those who won’t or at least are trying to use your power for the right reasons.” Her eyes met the Princess’s. “Let the person you marry be someone like that, Princess, and perhaps you yourself won’t be happy, but your kingdom will. It won’t be much, but it will be something.”
“I’m trying, but you’ve been there, it’s not exactly been easy.”
Regina nodded. “I know.” She broke eye contact and stared at her horse’s mane. “Just be thankful you have the opportunity to choose. Your parents might be fools who are forcing you to marry, but they are kind fools. They could have paired you with someone…more unsavory than any of the ones you’ve been so far.”
“You’re right, but it’s hard to remember when I’m being treated like the main course of a meal or like spun glass.”
She looked up at the Princess again. “You have no idea what it feels like to be eaten, not yet.” She added quietly a second later, “And never on my watch.”
The Princess cocked her head to the side, but Regina didn’t go on. There was no way that she was going to tell the girl her darkest secrets. Best that she protected the girl from repeating them and leave it at that. No one needed to know how black she had become all those years ago.
They rode the rest of the way back in silence, Regina lost in the past and the Princess looking on, concerned and confused.