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Bright Things

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Walls of neatly stacked stone glimmering in the warm glow of the candelabras.

Girlish giggles as kind older ladies tended to her hair.

The shimmer in the daylight of the King’s and Queen’s jeweled crowns, the shine mesmerizing.

Women of the court dazzling the ballroom with their graceful steps and swirling gowns.

“I want her to have some time at home, Topanga. She’s been living on these grounds ever since she was a little girl. With all of these plans, I don’t want her to feel trapped here forever.”

A golden haired child bumping into her as their family went shopping in the square for fabrics and paper.

Clumsily slouching in her seat when keeping good posture seemed unbearable anymore.

“Honey, there’s something your mother and I would like to discuss with you. How would you like to be a princess?”

A young boy with bangs taking her hand and bowing in front of her, a proud puff in his chest.

The sudden gaze of everyone she passed in the hallways, their looks reeking of curiosity.

“You’ll be staying with the rest of our family for a little while.”

“Yes, darling, of course we’ll be visiting you as often as we can.”

“Oh, don’t cry, sweetheart. The time will fly by, you’ll see. Now show me that smile! There you are. Remember, you’re a Matthews, you have to be strong.”

“You have a lot to learn while you’re away, and when you come back you’ll really be a princess, just like you wanted.”

“We love you so much, Riley. So, so much.”

As she stared down at the tops of the trees, silently dancing in the spring wind, she tapped the fingers of one hand on the other hand’s knuckles, the only hint in her otherwise perfect posture that a million memories were shouting at her in her mind.

Maya sat by her side on the velvet chaise, as she always did when Riley got thoughtful, and waited in comfortable silence for the brunette to think of something to say. On her lap rested a thick piece of parchment full of messy scribbles of charcoal that would undoubtedly become something spectacular. Maya’s art always did.

The blonde’s hands were dusted with the black powder, almost as if she had plunged them into the soot by the fireplace. “Cinderella,” the other handmaidens would call her in jest, and she in a playful manner would chase them, her dirty hands reaching for their dresses, laughing once they had run out of her sight.

Riley, in theory, should discourage this behavior. “That is no way for a handmaiden to act, especially one so close to you,” her grandmother said. “What if she forgets to wash her hands and covers your dresses in dust?”

Riley would smile. “Why, then my dress would increase in value. I’d be wearing an original piece of Maya Hart’s artwork,” was her response every time.

Riley blinked, trying to force her mind to stop racing.

“Peaches?”

“Yes, Riles?”

Any other house would have their servants severely punished for speaking so informally. But this wasn’t any other house.

“I’m freaking out.”

“What else is new?”

Riley scrunched her eyebrows and glanced over to her friend, who had still not looked up from her drawing. Had she not heard the distress in her voice?

“Aren’t you freaking out?”

“I do my best not to dread the inevitable.”

“But this isn’t just ‘the inevitable’, Maya. This is Krowen. The capitol, Krowen. As in, over a hundred miles away Krowen.”

Now Maya looked up. “You’ve made the journey before. And besides, you’ve spent way more of your life in Krowen than in Philia. What’s there to freak out about?”

“You know what there is to freak out about.”

The smallness in her voice gave Maya pause.

“Riley, listen to me. You’ve been preparing for this for five years, and you’ve known about it for eight. You’re ready. Everything will be okay.”

Eight years ago. Age ten. When she stopped being “Lady Riley of House Matthews” and became “Lady Riley of House Matthews, future Crown Princess of Krowen.”

The engagement ceremony had been simple enough. She wore a pretty purple dress. They gave each other sparkly rings. They held hands. Their wrists were tied together with a red ribbon. He gave her the sloppiest chin kiss in the history of the universe. The crowd cheered.

It all seemed so simple at ten years old. She’d be a princess, then she’d be Queen. Riley’s little heart had leaped at the idea of how many tiaras she would get to wear in her lifetime. Her eighteen-year-old heart still skipped, just a little, at the thought.

“Besides,” Maya tore her from her memories. “Your parents are back there. And you’ll get to live in a big fancy palace again and be a part of court, with all the balls and the pretty dresses. The center of the kingdom, where everything that’s anything happens. Not gonna lie, Riles, I kinda thought you’d be more excited to go back.”

Riley beamed. “You think I’m not excited about the palace, do you not know me at all?!” Maya giggled at her seriousness. “It gets too quiet in Philia. But the Royal Palace at Krowen? Do you remember how long the hallways were? The three of us would run down them all the time and play hide-and-seek behind the tapestries. And the jewels in the candleholders, Maya, they were so sparkly.”

“Then what’s the problem?” Maya countered.

“The problem…the problem is…”

Maya sighed. “The problem is Farkle, isn’t it?”

Farkle. His Royal Highness Farkle Minkus, Crown Prince of Krowen. Heir to the throne.

When they were little, it had been the three of them against the world: the Prince Farkle, the Lady Riley, and the handmaiden Maya who went everywhere her best friend did. They were inseparable up until their thirteenth year, when Riley and Maya left the capital city of Krowen for the, as Maya put it, “oh-so-important princess training” that had to be done. Riley automatically reached for a locket that no longer hung around her neck response to hearing the strange name again. The piece of jewelry had been a planet, the farthest from the sun, and it opened up to a tiny portrait of the Crown Prince. He had given it to her as a parting gift, insisting she look at it and “hear him laughing in her face from miles away.” She used to wear it almost daily, before she lost it.

“It’s not that Farkle’s a problem, per say.”

But in a way, he was. Because as dear as Farkle had been to her, he was nothing like the Princes in the stories. The handsome, strong, brave men who rescued their princesses from towers and whisked them away to their happily-ever-afters. He was Farkle. Geeky, short, awkward Farkle. Even his carving in her locket had those signature bangs that were too long for him. And as much as she absolutely loved him for everything he was, she didn’t. At least, not the way a Princess is supposed to love her Prince. What should be her grandest fantasies come to life, thrown out the window by an underwhelming match and a dissatisfying marriage.

And this was the thought that terrified her. The thought that after everything, the years of betrothal, the countless etiquette lessons, all the planning that had gone into this marriage, it would fail because she just didn’t think of her husband in that way. And there was too much riding on this arrangement for it to fail.

The history of House Matthews was a unique one, to say the least. It had only truly begun with Riley’s grandfather, a poor merchant who, by some strange miracle, rose in prominence until he oversaw the proceedings of the marketplace itself. After marrying, he had amassed enough wealth to buy titles. It was only on the request of Prince Stuart to his father that House Matthews was officially granted nobility and given Philia, at the time a large but neglected territory whose last standing lords died out a few generations prior. Its people were suffering, being governed only in name by various nobles with their own homelands to worry about, and Prince Stuart argued that a lord who had built up himself from little would be the best choice to rebuild and revive Philia.

Prince at the time had been sharing tutoring sessions with Riley’s father, along with princess-to-be Lady Topanga Lawrence. The engagement between Prince Stuart and Lady Topanga had been long lasting, but it ended when the newly lorded Cory Matthews begged for her hand. With their marriage, House Matthews was solidified as a noble house with a bright future.

Everything looked perfect. The High Lord Eric Matthews held the family seat in Philia after his father stepped down, looking after his younger brother through his studies. Lord Cory and Lady Topanga both secured seats on the King’s Council as the Advisor of Education and the Advisor of Justice, respectively, propelling the House to new levels of wealth and power. Not only were they respected, they were adored.

But that was the problem. The people loved the rags-to-riches story of House Matthews. Their compassion and dedication were seen as superior to House Minkus, who ages ago had been entrusted with the monarchy after a brutal revolution due to their wisdom and intellect, traits that over time became synonymous with “cold” and “distant”. Suddenly, almost every common person was vying for a House Matthews reign, ceasing support of the young King Stuart or demanding he step down. Some thought the High Lord Eric would be best suited to rule, given his age. Others thought Lord Cory and Lady Topanga would make the finest King and Queen the world had seen. A few talked about the powerful Lady Morgan, who could propel the kingdom to greatness. And then there were those who felt the passion and youth in Lord Joshua made him an ideal usurper.

Petitions, riots, protests. What had begun as but a raindrop of an idea grew into a downpour by the time Riley was getting older. And that’s when the idea was born. House Minkus could not step down, but they could give the people the Matthews Queen they’d been begging for. After all, Riley and Farkle were already the closest of companions. What could be a better match?

A match not made at all, was the solemn thought that often crossed her mind. Or perhaps a match would have been fine, were it a match with a more valiant type of prince. But it didn’t matter what she wanted or didn’t want –dreams of passionate romance and true love were the only luxuries noble families couldn’t afford.

Maya stood up, putting her work-in-progress, along with her charcoals, in a chest against the wall. Riley insisted on getting it simply so Maya could have a place for her artwork, since she had no room in her quarters. “Of course Farkle isn’t a problem. But it’s him that’s making you nervous, right?” She took the damp cloth from on top of the dresser and wiped down her hands as she continued with stunning accuracy, “because after all, you can train to be queen all you want, but at the end of the day you’re just getting married, and you don’t want to marry Farkle, but you don’t have any choice in the matter.”

“How do you do that, Peaches?” Riley gazed up at her handmaiden as she walked towards her, gesturing for her Lady to stand up. “Can you read my mind?”

“No,” she smiled, pivoting around the now standing Riley and fixing the pillows on the chaise. “I just know you Riles. And I know that the only thing your wittle heawt wants is to be swept off your feet by prince charming, but the prince charming you got is a nerdy pigeon who couldn’t carry you if he tried and would rather laugh in your face than hold it.” Finishing up with the chaise, Maya turned back to Riley, fixing the strands of hair that had come loose on her way back from breakfast. “It’s been five years. God knows you’ve changed a lot, who’s to say Farkle hasn’t too? From what I hear he’s really tall now. Maybe he’s suave, and romantic, and can carry, like, four horses at once.”

Riley stood still as Maya finished her hair and took a step back.

“But that’s not Farkle.”

“Prince charming, Prince Farkle, you can’t marry both. So just stick with what you got and do what you’ve been preparing to do all this time. Be a princess, then be a queen, and if later you find someone I approve of then do what you like with him. Who can tell you otherwise when Farkle by that time might have gone through three mistresses?”

“He wouldn’t do that.”

“He’d be the first King not to.”

Not the first.”

“Okay, hey, I don’t know history that well, maybe not the first. But definitely one of the few.”

Riley shook her head, gazing back out the window at the orange trees below.

“Why would that even matter to you?” Maya asked. “It’s not like you love him anyways or anything.”

“No, of course not, it’s just…Farkle’s faithful, and honest, and loyal. That’s who he is. He said when we got engaged that he would always respect me as his wife.”

“Hate to break it to you, m’lady, but society doesn’t care about a married man sleeping with someone who isn’t his wife, especially if it’s a Minkus. Besides, you’re not even married yet. It’s not like the engagement period counts. That’s why I said you should use this time away from the public eye to just…experiment a little. Get a little more experienced. Like with Charlie, sure he was a bit over-the-top but he was the perfect opportunity for a little fun. Then you could go back to the idea of your marriage and feel a little more satisfied, at least.”

“I told you a million times, Maya, I’m not doing it. It’s not fair to Farkle. And you can’t talk to me about being satisfied with this arrangement. You had a passionate romance, remember?”

“Yeah, I remember. Remember how it ended?”

Riley was silent for a moment as her friend finished retightening the laces on her dress.

“I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be,” Maya replied, putting on one of those smiles she donned for show. “Josh- Lord Joshua was a fantasy, an escape from reality for a while. But everyone who escapes reality…at some point is forced to return to it.”

“We’ve only been noble for a few decades. We’ve defied every rule of society thus far, who’s to say it’s impossible that he’ll sweep you off your feet and-”

“Your uncle is a lord, Riley.  He has titles, and land, and education, credentials I can’t match. They’re already making arrangements for his betrothal to someone else, someone more qualified to be with him. I’m a handmaiden, a nothing to society. It’s never going to happen.”

“You’re not a nothing to me.”

And there it is, Riley thought. That’s a true Maya Hart smile. “I know, honey. Now let’s get you to the great hall, it’s almost time for the noon meal and then your lessons.”

-

“House Gardner.”

Chances Worth Taking.

“House Smackle.”

Mind over Matter.”

“House Minkus.”

Knowledge is Power.”

Riley’s grandmother beamed at her, having gotten all the House’s sayings correct. She must be really nervous about my leaving tomorrow, if she is testing me on such simple material.

Ah, don’t forget the most important one!” Came a loud, screeching voice from the door into the library. Standing with his chest puffed so intensely it was comical, his pointer finger waving in midair, was her Uncle Eric, the High Lord of House Matthews.

Dream. Try. Do Good.” She replied after a giggle.

“Very good, my niche.”

Eric walked into the room, his black boots clanking against the stone floor. Against the grey walls, the way the red satin of his doublet glimmered in the sunlight made him truly look lordly, despite the grin on his face that seemed too wide to be humanly possible.

Amy rolled her eyes at her son and stood, patting Riley on the shoulder. “I think we’ve reviewed everything we need to for now. I’ll be taking my leave.”

She gave the smallest of head nods towards her son, beaming a smile, before exiting the room, the doors closing behind her. Swishing his cape dramatically behind him, Eric took a seat where his mother had sat beside Riley, examining her with furrowed brows.

“What seems to have my niche in such an unsunny mood this afternoon?”

Riley smiled, shaking her head. “It’s nothing,” she insisted. Her Uncle’s pointed look as he sat next to her made loud and clear that he didn’t believe a word she said.

She sighed, dropping her act. “Uncle Eric, why did you never get married?”

He leaned back against his chair. “Why do you ask, all of a sudden?”

“House Matthews became nobility just around the time you would be old enough to wed. You would have been the most desirable prospect on the market, you would have had any wife you wanted.”

He gave her a breathy laugh, shaking his head. “I think you severely misjudge how many noble families were excited by us joining in. Sure, now we’re so popular the King got you to be his daughter-in-law, but back then there was a lot of speculation on whether or not House Minkus made the right choice. It took a lot of time to get to the level of respect we’re at now.”

“But still, even if that’s true…”

He looked for a moment at her inquisitive expression, pausing as if contemplating whether or not to tell her something. Finally he sighed, leaning his forearms on the table in front of him.

“To tell the truth, I did love this girl. She was noble, and strong, and more beautiful than you can imagine.”

“Why didn’t you marry her?”

The smile he offered her was close-lipped, a somber expression hiding in his eyes.

“She was already married.”

Riley gaped for a moment, letting the information sink in, before settling further back in her seat. Looking down at her lap, she struggled to find a response.

“I…I’m sorry, I didn’t know.”

Eric threw his hands forward carelessly, an expression of it’s fine. “Meh, it’s in the past now. I guess I just never really thought about marrying anyone else. Yeah, it would have helped a great deal, but the reality was that everyone eligible was already promised to someone else, one way or another. A consequence of joining the game late, I’m afraid.”

“Even later? Didn’t you want an heir for Philia? Some kids to raise as your own?”

After another flicker of that familiar sadness passed his brows, his smile became brighter. “I got to help raise you, didn’t I?”

Just then, a servant appeared in the doorway.

“High Lord, there is a message arrived from your brother in Krowen.”

Straightening, he called back, “Ah yes, thank you, I’m coming right away.” Rising to his feet in a single swooping motion, he sauntered across the room, taking the letter from the servant. His animated expression settled into a soft smile as he turned the scroll in his hand, stopping to rest on the wax seal that Riley knew bore the impression of shooting stars. He stood like that in the doorway for a moment before looking back to her.

“I will tell you one thing,” his voice was softer than his usual yell, a clear indication that his words held gravity. “You’re really lucky.”

Riley perked up at this, correcting the poor posture she had gradually sunken into throughout their casual conversation.

“I know it’s hard for you, having all of this pressure on you, and I know you’re scared to go off and get married just like that.” He continued, and Riley thought that like this, framed by wooden double doors and backlit by the light of a window, she could truly see why a goofball like him was known as one of the greatest Lords in the kingdom. “But life can get really long when you don’t have anyone to share it with. So even if you don’t grow to love the Crown Prince, don’t ever stop being his friend. Having people you trust in all the craziness that is court life, that’s what gets you through. People like them, the people who care about you, they’re too important to let go.”

With that, he was gone in a flash of velvet, leaving Riley alone in the library and, for the first time in a long time, softly smiling at the thought of the friend she left behind.

Chapter Text

My Dearest Riley,

Language, however rich and expansive as it may be, cannot begin to describe the warmth it brings my heart to know you will soon be back with us. Your mother and I have done our best to remain strong throughout these years, to remember that your separation from us was what was best for your future and the future of our family. Though we have been able to write to you in this time, it has still been very difficult for us, and many a sleepless night was spent wondering if you were well and missing you terribly. Now, we are restless in anticipation for your return, and completely overjoyed. Your mother teases me that I am too excited. I, of course, reply that I am just excited enough for the circumstances.

We know that these years haven’t been the easiest for you as well. You were ripped from the comfort of our quarters in High Krowen, the only home you had ever known, and sent far away with the task of becoming the most well-trained lady in the kingdom. However, I consider it of utmost importance for the children of House Matthews to have a familiarity with our ancestral homeland in the Philia countryside. One day I will have to send August there as well, as the current successor of my brother’s title. After all, it is only by remembering where we came from that we can hope to succeed in the future. In any case, I am of the personal opinion that you could find no better teachers for your lessons than those stationed on our own grounds. I did appoint them myself, after all.

It has been many years of heartache for all of us, alleviated only by our visits that were too short each time. But I am confident that your time in Philia is exactly what was needed to prepare you to become the Crown Princess and, one day, the Queen. I cannot wait to see what a beautiful, intelligent, talented young woman you have blossomed into. Until then, I pray you have a safe journey and always remember that your family loves you very much.

With all my love,

Father.

Riley swiped at a stray tear that fell down her cheek, a smile on her face. The letter had come along with her father’s letter to her Uncle Eric, which no doubt relayed the specifics of her upcoming journey to High Krowen and thanked him profusely for looking after her all these years. She gingerly folded the parchment, making sure every crease was clean and crisp, and tucked the letter between her blue dress and her chest. Normally she would put it in the cherry wood box that contained the rest of the letters her parents had sent her during her stay in Philia, but it was already being loaded into the carriage.

She couldn’t bring herself to mind. The piece of paper contained her father’s exquisite penmanship, not a single stroke out of place, written with the ink he owned, the quill he held. She quite liked having a small part of her parents close to her heart.

“M’lady.”

Riley turned to see Maya in the doorway. The simple brown travel cloak she wore, complete with her own flair of embroidery, signaled that it was almost time to leave.

“The carriage is just about ready.”

Riley’s heart jumped. She nodded. “I’ll be right down.”

Maya gave her a strange smile and closed the door behind her as she entered the room. “I need to get you ready for travel before you can leave, Riles.” Sure enough, glancing down Riley saw in Maya’s hands a bundle of garments waiting to be worn.

“Oh, I-yes, of course,” she stammered, standing from her seat by the window.

The handmaiden walked toward her and, setting the bundle down on the seat, got to work. Over Riley’s blue satin gown went a black cloak, a sleeveless design that left the draped sleeves of the dress underneath exposed. Thousands of pearl buttons ran from the high-necked collar to the hem of the garment. At least, it seemed like thousands of buttons to Riley as Maya buttoned each one of them. She was sure Maya thought it was tedious too, but she didn’t let on.

Riley then watched as her best friend opened a small wooden box, from which she picked out an exquisite pair of diamond and pearl earrings that dangled from the ear. Then a few rings, some simple metal bands and one with a small pearl on it, which Maya silently put on Riley’s fingers. Finally, she sat Riley down in front of the mirror and worked her hair into a half braid, circling the plait around the back of her head like a crown.

All this was done without a single word exchanged between them – Maya knew better than to overwhelm her friend with chatter when her thoughts were filled with anxiety.

The mirror. Riley kept examining the mirror as Maya twisted the strands of her hair. It was an unremarkable mirror, nothing like the fancy one she used as a child back in High Krowen, which was silver and fashioned to look like vines wrapping around the reflective surface. Riley didn’t even know what this one was even made of, she hadn’t ever bothered to ask. It didn’t even have a design. But how many times had she and Maya done just this, gotten her ready for events and visits to town, either in complete silence or with fits of laughter, right at this very mirror? At this vanity? In this very room?

And she would never see it again.

She always knew this day would come. Always knew her stay in Philia was a temporary arrangement. All she was here to do was study and train and feel connected to the place her grandfather had been born. She had certainly done that. She was raised in this countryside. She knew exactly which trees in the garden grew the prettiest flowers, the most discreet route to take when she wanted to escape to the woods for a moment, where the best view of the sunset was.

High Krowen, the place she was born, the place she technically grew up, felt like unknown territory.

“Done,” Maya declared, breaking Riley from her thoughts. She looked at herself in that mirror she had been examining and knew that, to a stranger, her presentation must make her look very grown-up. Very “ready to be married”. Instead the black of her cloak made her feel like she was in mourning for the life she was about to lose.

Maya bent her head down to Riley’s shoulder and gave her a tight hug.

“You still got me,” she whispered, as always reading Riley’s thoughts with an almost supernatural precision.

Riley smiled weakly and, taking a deep breath and holding onto Maya’s arm, replied, “Yeah, I still got you.”

The blonde straightened at that and waited for Riley to stand. When she did, she looked over Maya’s cloak, worn from countless trips into town.

And she jumped.

“I almost forgot!” She exclaimed, rushing over to the bed.

Maya put her hand on her heart and quietly cursed at Riley’s sudden outbursts.

But Riley pulled out from under the bed a large box and pulled from it a white travel cape, made of a shimmering fabric, lined with lace and yellow ribbon.

There were not a lot of times when Maya Hart didn’t know what to say. This was one of those times.

“Riles-”

“I want absolutely no complaints. As your Lady, I order you to not refuse this because it took a really long time for the seamstresses to make this and it was a custom order so it was very, very expensive.” Riley tried to sound authoritative, but there was no hiding the fact that she was utterly beaming.

Maya still didn’t speak.

“You are my one and only lady-in-waiting, and as I am about to be royal, how you appear reflects directly on my appearance as a noblewoman and-”

“Lady-in-waiting?”

The sunshine smile Riley had been fighting on her face finally won over her. “You didn’t think I was going to let my best friend stay a simple servant her whole life, now did you? Look, I even got you all sorts of thread so you can embroider it how you want and-”

She was cut off by another bone-crushing hug.

“It’s amazing. You’re amazing.”

Riley’s brilliant smile softened as she hugged Maya back. “So are you, Peaches.”

When Maya stepped back she let out a breathy laugh, wiped a stray tear from her eye, and quickly untied her old travel cloak, which now looked like a potato sack compared to the new garment. Riley giggled with glee as she wrapped the white fabric around Maya’s shoulders and tied the yellow ribbons at her neck. With a pin, she carefully set the hood of the cape in place, even if it was a little early to do so – they were still inside and probably a good hour away from leaving.

When everything was set, Maya bit back a smile before impatiently shuffling her feet toward the mirror. And then she saw herself, and squealed in delight, twirling around and watching how the shimmer of the fabric caught in the light. She only stopped when Riley held her hand out to her.

“Thunder?”

Maya smiled and joined her hand with Riley’s.

“Lightning,” was her confident response.

“I haven’t forgotten my promise,” Riley said. “I told you that I’d help you and your mom when I became a princess. This is the first step. Wherever I go, I’m taking you with me”

Maya smiled even harder. “And wherever you go, I’ll follow.” She removed her hand and straightened her posture at that, then gave Riley a deep bow. “It would be an honor to serve you, m’lady. Now we better get going, The Eminent Lady wanted to see you when you were done changing.”

“Oh, alright,” Riley conceded as Maya stepped toward the door.

She meant to follow her at that very moment, to just leave and never look back, but she took one step and couldn’t move beyond that. For one extra moment, she examined the room almost completely stripped clean of her belongings, save for the garment box that Maya’s cloak had come in. Her eyes explored the walls, the vanity, the bed, the ceiling, the chaise by her favorite window where she spent hours. Her room.

“Goodbye,” she whispered, and left it behind, trying to ignore the pang in her heart as she did so.

-

 “You wished to see me, Grandmother?” Riley greeted as she entered the Eminent Lady’s quarters, covered floor to ceiling in emerald green tapestries.

Amy looked up from her conversation with Alan and hurried over once she saw Riley the doorway.  “Come here, let me have a look at you.” Riley immediately straightened her posture, held her hands more firmly in front of her while making them seem gentler. Her grandmother looked her up and down, then walked up to her and pushed a stray group of hairs behind her shoulder.

“There,” she sighed, taking Riley’s face in her hands. “You shine like royalty.”

“Thank you, My Lady.”

Amy held Riley’s face for a moment, beaming. Then she took her hands away, clearing her throat the way she did each time she was about to start more serious conversation.

“Now remember, when you arrive at the palace you are on your best behavior. You will not just be returning to the city, you will be entering the court. Everyone you meet will have their own agenda, and they will all either want something from you or want to take something from you. Choose your words carefully, and be careful who you trust.”

“I will remember your words.”

“As for the prince himself, pleasing him is your top priority. Prince Farkle is intelligent, clever, and knows how to get what he wants. For everything to go smoothly, you’ll need him on your side.”

Riley slackened slightly. “In any case, House Minkus need us more than we need them, correct?”

“They need our name for the support of the people, yes, but don’t underestimate what they paid us for it. Don’t underestimate the wealth and power and position that you bring our family in doing what you are. Our resources dwindle more and more each year, ever since the Winter. That’s why it is of utmost importance that when you have the Prince, you keep him. If this engagement falls apart our family will have a difficult time recovering. I know our position seems stable now, but don’t forget how young we are. Whole dynasties are built and fall in no time at all, let alone mere titles.

“So listen to me very carefully. You respect the Prince. You are faithful to him. Any scandal that befalls you threatens your engagement and by correlation the stability of our family. Everything you do, you do by the book. We cannot afford missteps. This is the most fragile time. Once you are married, you’ll have the opportunity to quickly get pregnant and make yourself irreplaceable. He may have as many mistresses as he pleases, but if you mother the heir of the kingdom nothing can touch you.”

“His Highness would never-”

Don’t interrupt me,” she snapped, then took a deep breath, her voice lower. “I know you’re not foolish enough to think the prince you’re off to marry is the same little boy you left behind in High Krowen. When you were young by all accounts he was an energetic, bold, witless child. Do you know what the rumors say of him now? He’s just as cold, haughty, and proud as his father. You must make him immediately see that you are not one to be underestimated, undervalued. Am I understood?”

Riley gulped, feeling that familiar lump in her throat that caught whenever she was reminded of the colossal weight she bore on her shoulders. This wasn’t the first time her grandmother had stressed the importance of her marriage, but every time she did it seemed Riley was pushed further and further towards the edge of a cliff, the rock thinning out with every step until she was walking on a tightrope made of pebbles and dust. She couldn’t look down, or else she would slip and drown in the rapids below.

But she smiled. That was the trick they taught her – keep your back straight, walk slowly and gracefully, and keep a smile on your face. That way the dust she tread looked as solid as stone. “I understand you.”

A kiss on her forehead. “You’re ready, my dear. I’m so proud.”

Riley didn’t feel ready. Her grandmother’s idea of a pep talk certainly didn’t make her feel ready. Her personal feelings about love or marriage were clearly not a priority to her family, though that was a view she had come to expect at this point. No, all that mattered was her pristine reputation and her engagement and wealth and an heir

She couldn’t help feeling less ready than ever. Part of her wanted to run from the estate, tear off her dress and live as a hermit in the woods where she wouldn’t have to worry about any of this.

You don’t have a choice, a voice in her head whispered.

It sounded like a whimper.

-

“The carriage is leaving in ten minutes’ time!” A loud male voice called down the hallways as several servants were bustling, trying to get all the last-minute arrangements settled before departure. Maya expertly weaved in between them, carrying her one bag with her as she hurried toward the send-off spot.

Stay calm, she inwardly scolded her peers, though she couldn’t help but giggle at their faces, paranoid they were all forgetting something of utmost importance. It wasn’t every day they sent off the future crown princess.

And me, she thought. They’re sending off me as well.

It was almost hilarious, her strutting down this hallway in her fancy new cape as if she were nobility herself. For her entire life, she had been the same as all the people flying past her. It was only because Riley had taken a special liking to her that she was made her personal handmaiden in the first place. And now, her lady-in-waiting. It wasn’t a huge step-up, by any means. Her main job was still to wait on her best friend’s hand and foot. But she knew that this meant more than just being able to wear fancier clothes from now on. It was symbolic headway in the promise Riley had made her when they were younger.

“When I am a princess, I’m going to make sure you and your mom get to live happy, comfortable lives. I’ll let your mom sing at the court, and then you can be a famous painter! And you’ll never never never have to clean anything ever again.”

“That’s not how that works, Riley.”

“Why not? I’ll be related to the King! And there’s nothing the King can’t do, right? So I, Lady Riley of House Matthews, promise that I will make sure Maya and her mom are taken care of.”

It was back when they were ten, when Riley had only just gotten engaged. But Riley never went back on her word, and she never forgot that promise she made.

Maya smiled to herself as she stepped outside, stopping for a moment to run her hands along the lace of the cape. She certainly did look important.

But ahead of her, saying farewell to his niece, was Josh, and a hidden part of her mind sneered at her, not important enough.

She shook her head and quickly composed herself, stepping forward with confidence.

I’m important to Riley, she assured herself. That’s all I need.

Her steps carried her just behind Josh – Lord Joshua, she scolded herself – as he placed a final kiss on Riley’s forehead, saying something about “you better write,” and, “don’t forget about us mere lords when you’re living in a palace.” Riley laughed at his jokes before glancing behind him. Maya could tell the exact moment Riley registered her presence by the way her breath caught and her laughs grew more awkward, forceful.

So of course Josh turned around to look at her.

There was a moment, one fleeting second where their eyes met and everything played in Maya’s head: covertly exchanged notes that were later burned, secret excursions to the forest where no one would find them, laughter and panting and skin and sweat and empty promises whispered in dark rooms.

And then she lowered her eyes and curtsied.

“Lord Joshua,” she greeted, praying that her face was stone and her voice was even. God knew that’s what she was going for.

“Miss Hart,” he said, and she wondered if that’s what he was going for as well or if the lack of emotion in his voice was genuine. “Thank you for accompanying my niece to the Capitol. I trust that you will look after her well.”

She looked back up at him. She knew she shouldn’t, knew it was improper and if anyone was supervising right now she could get severely punished for going against protocol. But she was leaving forever – she didn’t care.

“Of course, Milord.”

He looked slightly uncomfortable by her boldness in meeting his gaze, but nodded all the same.

At least I still have some effect on him.

He gave one last bow to Riley, and a small bow of the head to Maya, and disappeared back into the house.

Part of her wanted to go after him, to pull him into some alcove or hallway and demand a goodbye kiss, however detached it may be, just to acknowledge that they had been something – anything – to each other. But she thought about how pathetic that would seem and held her ground. Better to let him think he meant as little to her and she seemed to mean to him than embarrass herself in their last moments together.

Then she felt a soft hand take hers, and looked up at Riley’s knowing face.

“You still got me.”

Maya squeezed her hand back, pressing her mouth into a line. “I still got you.” She looked around. “Did you say goodbye to everyone?”

Riley nodded. “Uncle Eric was out here just before Josh to give me a big hug and say goodbye. I already said goodbye to my grandparents inside. You?”

“Who else do I have to say goodbye to?” She chuckled. “It’s about time we’re off then, M’lady. Looks like the carriage is all packed.”

Riley’s eyes widened and she whipped around. Sure enough, all the luggage seemed to be in the storage compartment, and no other servants had come out with something new in a while. At the side of the door stood the coachman, waiting for an indication that the two girls were going to get in.

“Yeah,” Riley finally said. “It is.”

The coachman then opened the door of the carriage and bowed, offering out his hand. Maya gave one last squeeze to Riley’s hand before letting the coachman help her up the step and inside.

Riley gave the seat of her house one last glance. At the entrance stood Eric, offering her a reassuring smile. She didn’t know if it helped or just made leaving harder.

She waved one final time and turned around, not looking back until she was seated and the door was closed. Then she watched as her home disappeared in the distance, the carriage bouncing as it drove off.

She let tears fall, but she refused to cry out.

You can’t think of it as home anymore.

Chapter Text

Gold-tasseled tapestries and swirls of ancient paint covered the bedchamber’s rough stone walls. The threads crossed over and under until stories were displayed on each piece: the first astronomer, the victory in the revolution, exploits of the gods. They played off curtains of burgundy velvet that concealed an open balcony overlooking the west side of the grounds, acres of forest. Underfoot laid a number of cool-toned rugs, all of the finest quality the kingdom could afford, and above, an elaborate galaxy painted on the ceiling, partially covered by a chandelier made up of rings of gold.

It was one of the older rooms of the castle - most of the newer ones were covered in wood or plaster. As far as bedchambers went, this was certainly one of the less inviting, and much harder to keep warm in the winter. But Farkle liked it that way.

The prince was reclining in the four-poster bed that sat on a raised stone platform in the corner of the room, staring at a particular violet spot of paint above him, when the oak doors crashed open. He didn’t bother to look up - he knew only one person who would enter his chambers so brash and bold. Well, maybe two.

“I have it on good authority that the fiancée is about halfway through her journey and should be arriving within the next few days,” one of the intruders said, wearing his confident grin like a brilliant necklace.

The other offered an excited smile, though it was somehow still full of softness. “How’s His Royal Highness feeling? Excited to see his future wife after so long?”

The prince took in a deep breath. “I don’t even know how to feel,” he confessed.

Each of his friends furrowed their brows, the first propping his foot up on the edge of the bed, the second leaning against one of the posts, his arm draped over his head.

“What’s wrong?” Asked the gentle one.

“Ooooooooh,” the other mused. “I know what’s up. Someone’s missing-“

“Shut up, Zay,” Farkle interjected. “That’s in the past.”

“Cold feet?” The clueless blonde inquired. “Or, maybe anxious about how she feels about you?”

“Nice try, Lucas. You know I don’t care about that anymore.”

The blonde sighed, his gaze falling to the floor. It wasn’t a subject he liked to bring up to his friend – over the years, he picked up enough pieces here and there from Farkle’s descriptions to know exactly what he meant.

“And you’re sure it has nothing to do with-“ Zay began, before again being abruptly cut off by Lucas’ elbow jamming into his arm. “First of all, rude. Second of all, I mean, I’m just saying I’d be...apprehensive, if that were me.”

“The whole kingdom knows. I’m sure she does too, Zay.” A rueful laugh escaped his lips. “And I’m sure she doesn’t care.”

-

Riley hated carriage travel.

She had only done it once over such a long distance, on her journey from Krowen to Philia. Since then, she had never needed to take such a long trip.

But she still hated it just as much as she did the first time.

A few days in a carriage with nothing to do but read or talk or look out the window silently, like she was at that moment. As much as Riley loved trees, being forced to watch them pass by through the curtain, unable to run to them and feel the sun dappling on her skin through the leaves, seemed more like torture each minute.

Maya, much to Riley’s chagrin, was finding it much easier to pass the time. Thanks to her new cloak, she could keep her hands busy. On the edges of the white fabric, red roses were forming along bright green vines. It was no surprise. Maya had told Riley once that roses were her favorite flower – she liked that they had thorns but were still considered beautiful.

If she hadn’t been given the cloak, odds are she would be sketching anyway. She’d see some beggar woman or farm boy through the window and spend hours perfecting their likeness in graphite. Riley pouted, the slightest hint of jealousy rising in her throat at the thought of her friend’s many talents.

She was pondering which novel she should begin to devour before Maya suddenly spoke: “You’re always doing that, you know.”

Riley straightened. “Doing what?”

“Reaching for that necklace the Prince gave you.”

Riley looked down at her empty hand, where, had the necklace not been lost, a planet would dangle from a silver chain. She hadn’t even noticed she was running the ghost of the cold metal between her fingers.

“Just a habit,” she said.

“I don’t think you ever actually told me when he gave it to you,” Maya mused as she leaned back in her seat opposite Riley, clearly awaiting a story.

Riley shrugged. “The day before I left, I was freaking out to him about the engagement, and he snuck me up to the highest tower after hours and gave it to me. To remember him by, he said.”

She had felt ashamed that she hadn’t thought to give him anything else in return. I better get you something, or you’ll forget about me, she whined to him in complete despair. He just replied that such a thought was nonsense, and it just made him happy to give his future wife a present.

She used to fret all the time about where it could have gone. Less, now.

“Did you get any more letters from him before we left?”

“Just one,” Riley answered, pulling a piece of parchment from her pocket and handing it to her lady-in-waiting.

Lady Riley,

               I have received news that you will be returning soon for our marriage. I wish you safe travels, as the road to High Krowen is a difficult one. The court is bustling in preparation for the wedding, so expect a somewhat hectic atmosphere upon your arrival. I’m sure the Lord and Lady Matthews cannot wait to see you. I’m glad you’ll be reunited with them soon. Until then, we all anxiously await your return.

               Sincerely,

               His Highness, The Crown Prince Farkle Minkus

“Wow,” Maya said as she finished scanning the script.

“What?”

“I just never realized how formal these got over the years. He signed it with his full title.”

“He probably has to,” Riley sighed, taking the paper back. “It’s pretty much to be expected though. Short, to-the-point, completely formal and lacking in any emotion whatsoever. That’s what all his letters have been like for a while, whenever he sends them.”

Maya stilled for a moment. “I’m sure he’s just busy.”

“We’re childhood friends who haven’t seen each other in years, Maya,” Riley countered, plastering that smile on her face that said I’m okay – but not really. “We’re just engaged, that doesn’t mean anything. What, should I expect my fiancée to write to me daily because he misses me too much, filling up three pages with poems and love songs? Should he be jumping for joy at the chance to see me again? It’s an engagement to the Crown Prince, Maya. None of that matters.” She took a deep breath, looking down at her hands and twisting her fingers around each other.

Maya didn’t speak.

Finally, from the ambient noise of wheels on dirt and a light wind, a small whisper.

“I wanted that, Maya.”

The blonde set down her cloak and crossed to sit beside her best friend, pulling her head onto her shoulder. “I know you did, sweetie.”

“I wanted – I just wanted a man to love who would love me. It didn’t have to be a prince. It could have been a poor farmer with dirt on his face, or a baker covered head-to-toe in flour.”

“Do you think Lord Charles could have given that to you?”

Riley pondered for a moment the young noble who had visited from House Gardner last year. He knew exactly who she was, that she was betrothed to the Crown Prince, and pursued her anyway despite the danger.

Grandmother hated him.

It was fun, to laugh with him and take strolls about the garden. Sometimes Riley could pretend he was the Prince Charming in her mind, and she’d fantasize about what their lives could be like together. After all, was certainly dashing, and charismatic, and dreamy.

She thought about how angry her grandmother had been at the whole thing often. It was just an innocent friendship, a flirtation at the most. But in retrospect, her timing couldn’t have been poorer. The Dark Winter had just hit the year before – when the harvests all froze, the snow fell in sheets, and disease spread throughout the already weakened population of Philia. There was no sun for a month due to the nonstop blizzards. Almost all her House’s resources were going into reconstruction and recovery, leaving them both financially strained and potentially vulnerable to siege by one of the many noble houses who felt they didn’t belong.

“You are the future of our house,” Grandmother had said. “We are at our weakest, our only chance of survival for both us and our people is the alliance we’ve so carefully secured. One wrong move on your part, one indecent rumor or scandal upon you and all of us are in ruins. Never entertain some second son’s advances again. Never presume to be so reckless again.”

She never did, even when Maya insisted it would be good for her.

“No,” Riley said after a long while. Charles had been enthusiastic and kind, but no spark ignited between the two of them, despite all his efforts.

“If someone had come, someone you loved who loved you back, would you have run away with them?”

Riley’s soul wanted to scream yes, a million times yes loud enough for the stars to hear her. Her head was filled with fantasies of her and her strong, simple husband in a cottage in the woods, lots of little children stumbling at their feet.

The practical side of her, however, was just as strong, and scolded her yearning heart profusely. How could you even think about it? After everything you’ve been through to be the perfect princess? You have a responsibility to your family, to your House. You’re a Matthews, you have to be brave. You have to make sacrifices.

“I don’t know,” was her only reply.

Chapter Text

The horse’s hooves clunked on and on, a monotonous drumbeat to fill the otherwise empty air as the carriage continued on its never-ending journey. It had been several days of alternating between equally uncomfortable positions and playing countless card games in a futile attempt to make time move just a bit faster that its usual crawl.

Bump.

Riley groaned into her pillow, held tight against the sunlight on her face so she could get any rest in.

“Will it never end?” she whined.

Maya smiled, her head leaning against the window frame.

“It’s about to,” she said.

“What?!” The pillow flew as Riley jolted upright, suddenly on high alert.

Maya continued, unphased: “Look.”

Pulling the curtain back on her side, Riley peered out, half expecting to see the miles of trees that had greeted her the past few days. Instead, the forest was thinning as the greenery was slowly replaced with cottages and carts, and a handful of onlookers just starting to glance at the ornate vehicles that were passing them by. Riley leaned her whole head out into the air, turning to face the direction the carriage was moving.

The small dirt road they had been travelling on had grown wider and become a line of grey cobblestone. Up ahead were more travelers than Riley had seen their entire journey, some with carts, wagons, riding on horseback, some on foot. And ahead of them all was a large open gate, surrounded by the huge walls of Krowen, vines covering most of its stone facing.

The town that sat below the castle at Philia wasn’t a mere village by any means; compared to the Capitol it was smaller, flatter, bedecked with wooden cottages and a modest town center. The steeple of the local church was the highest point, an ancient brass bell watching over the townspeople as they went about their daily business. The loudest it got was during the harvest festivals, when the people would dance in the square and decorate the houses with colorful fabrics. The Winter had taken much of the population, and generations of neglect at the hands of disinterested Lords had left its people without the means to expand. It was only relatively recently, with the ascension of her family, that had started to turn it into an exciting, eternal construction project. Buildings were either being repaired or built anew each day.

But as exciting as all of that activity was, it couldn’t compare to Krowen.

As they passed through the gates, the whole city laid before Riley’s eyes. It spanned miles and miles, almost impossible to comprehend in size. Buildings covered the land as far as the eye could see, and masses of people ambled by the sides of the road. A glance off to the right would reveal a peek of the harbor, and straight ahead, far off in the distance, on a hill across the river, loomed the castle, High Krowen. Somewhat hazy from the mist, its sight still took Riley’s breath away.

She had forgotten the hustle and bustle of the city, the countless roads and the chilled summer air. She had forgotten how loud it was, how alive. She had forgotten all of it.

A woman carrying two sacks on her back looked up for a moment and met Riley’s gaze before her eyes darted down. She must have recognized the stars that were carved into the doorframe, because she exclaimed with a bright gleam in her eyes:

“Lady Riley has returned!”

Curious faces looked up from their daily work as more shouts and whispers overtook the soundscape.

”The Crown Princess-“

”Our Queen, at last she’s-!”

“Welcome home, my-!”

”House Matthews to rule!”

”M’lady-“

”Lady Riley!

Part of Riley wanted to draw the curtain and retreat back inside. Instead, she gave a tentative wave, which earned her a hundred waves back. The people smiled and laughed, a small crowd following all the way across the city, through the square where someone rang the bell that sat atop the central tower, and up to the bridge that led to the castle gate, where  the flustered guards that stood post outside kept the masses from following.

So much, Riley thought. So many people, it’s so much…

She closed the curtain when she felt she could no longer breathe.

Maya took her hand, which Riley only then realized was shaking.

“They love you,” she assured her.

Until I disappoint them, Riley bit back in her head. But then she took a deep breath in, closing her eyes and focusing on the words of her Grandmother, her Uncle, her parents. Failure isn’t an option.

“Yes, they do,” she said, placing a smile on her face.

For now.

Riley had to hold back a cry of relief when she stepped down from the carriage and into the courtyard of the High Krowen. Massaging her aching shoulders, she took it all in. Over the years, the estate in the country had become her home. The place she kept her heart. But standing with her feet in the pale dirt, she remembered why her heart had belonged here before then.

The white stone that made up the magnificent expanse of it seemed to glow under the summer sun, radiating opulence. Like the city itself, the castle that sat at the north edge of Krowen was also larger than Riley remembered, the walls rising higher than any of the buildings in the city below. Towers shot up from that monolith, each one perfectly circular and coming to a point at the top. Memories coursed through her veins, of chases and games played in the spiraling staircases of those towers.

And then there were the sudden memories of the gardens on the other side of the castle – a sea of green speckled with vibrant pinks and blues, ornamented with marble statues and gentle fountains. And beyond that, acres of forests and meadows you could get lost in.

That part of her that still held the little girl she had been, the one who jumped with joy at the idea of being a princess, was glowing. How had she forgotten, over the years, just how beautiful this place was? She let out an exhale that was half a laugh, half a gasp.

The attendants were already unloading the luggage from the carriage, hauling boxes and cases through side entrances, but it was Maya’s deep curtsy in the direction of the main wooden doors that caught Riley’s attention. Curious, she whirled around to see who it was. Probably some miscellaneous nobles, or maybe a High Lord.

But the faces her eyes landed on were much more familiar, and they were beaming.

Years. She hadn’t seen them in years, and they looked exactly the same.

Breaking out into a sprint, for a moment not caring about her lessons or her posture or anything, Riley leaped into her parents’ arms, her widest smile adorning her face. They held her close, with just as much enthusiasm. A tear fell from Riley’s eye as her father whispered in her ear, only blubbering a little.

“Welcome home, sweetheart.”

Home.

She may have forgotten about the splendor of the building, the expanse of the lands, but she never forgot her parents’ voices, their smells, the lines of their hands. It was why the residence in Philia neer felt exactly perfect, no matter how comfortable she became there. And even though she was returning to the place she grew up, that dread she tried so hard to repress kept her from rejoicing.

But in Cory and Topanga Matthew’s arms…

This was home.

She thought Maya must have a similar sentiment as Cory beckoned the blonde over, holding her just as close in the family reunion.

If High Krowen had to have a different name, it should be “The Palace of Many Large Wooden Doors with Intricate Carvings in Them,” less fancy though it may be. Because Riley was standing in front of yet another – it was carved with imaged of crashing waves and figures of history, the first monarchs of House Minkus. This one would take her to the Great Hall, where everyone would be waiting. The King. The Queen. The Prince.

Maya took the liberty of removing Riley’s black cloak, button by button, and handing it to one of the men who had helped unload the carriage. She then brushed the gentle curls of her brown hair behind her shoulders, letting the diamond and pearl earrings shimmer in the candlelight. When Maya retook her place slightly behind Riley’s right shoulder, she smoothed down one last piece of blue satin on Riley’s sleeve.

Breathe. Take a deep breath and shoulders back. Hands joined together at the midsection, but just the fingertips. Back straight. Chin high. You’re the envy of the kingdom. You’re the future princess.

Tilting her head to her parents, who were watching the preparation with pride, Riley signaled that she was ready. Immediately, the adults were arm-in-arm in front of the two teenagers, gesturing to the doormen to announce their arrival. Perfectly in sync and effortlessly regal – Lord Coty and Lady Topanga of House Matthews. Lovers that rewrote the rules of marriage. Intelligent leaders in their own right.

For a moment, it was strikingly clear how people could want them on the throne.

The doors drew open with an ancient creak, serving as a signal to all in the Great Hall that someone important had arrived, and everyone knew who. The King and Queen had been notified the exact moment she arrived. They had already been prepared, having received word that she would arrive today.

Farkle had been prepared as well, in theory. He was given all the same information as his parents. He knew about how many years she’d be gone. He knew how many days until her carriage left her ancestral seat. He knew with mathematical accuracy the approximate window of time she would be arriving, accounting for variables in the horse’s health and speed, the size of the carriage, the amount of luggage, inclement weather…

Even with his closest friends at his side and having steeled himself against her effect, knowing what he knew of her, when the door opened he still felt vastly unprepared. Completely unprepared to see her again.

A sliver of light spread along the floor of the where she stood, growing into a blinding gleam from the widening space between the doors. Riley kept her head up, almost stubbornly so. She would be perfect. She would not let her family down.

Though she had spent little of her youth in the throne room, she was able to recall the high vaulted ceiling, taking up two floors’ space in height. Under Riley’s feet as she stepped forward, red velvet fabric formed an aisle ahead of her, down the long expanse of the room up a small platform, on which two great thrones were set. On either side of her wide walkway, crowds of nobles gathered, watching and whispering amongst each other. Overcome by curiosity, Riley made the mistake of letting her eyes wander, scanning over the faces of the crowd.

Wrong. Something was wrong.

She had been prepared for some mild curiosity, probably a few faces that sneered at her in jealousy or a sense of superiority. But more than a few in their expressions held a kind of amusement, some held pity, some–

Stop looking, she chastised herself as she fixed her eyes again straight forward. Not to the faces of the people who waited at the end of that aisle. Not until she got to the end.

Cory bowed while Topanga curtsied, addressing the royalty before them as they had surely done thousands of times.

“Your Majesties,” Topanga’s confident voice echoed off the stone and tile and wood and filled that huge room, authoritative, “The Honorable Lord Mathews and I are pleased to announce the return of our daughter from Philia.”

Riley could practically feel her parents’ beaming smiles from in front of her.

Her father puffed his chest. “We present our daughter, Lady Riley Matthews.”

As the two stepped aside, extending their arms towards her in gesture, Riley and Maya gave deep curtsies in unison. “Your Majesties,” they both greeted.

Upon rising again, Riley finally looked at the figures before her. Sitting on equally large thrones trimmed with gold and covered in velvet, the King and Queen of Krowen regarded her. King Stuart, with his arms on either armrest and dressed in a blue and silver doublet under a brown, fur-lined cape, smiled down at her. Were it not for his indulgent dress and the crown atop his head, he would seem like an approachable friend. The Queen, on the other hand, wore a long red velvet gown, her swooping neckline trimmed with jewels. Accompanied with her own golden tiara that matched her choker necklace, her version of regal was far more imposing. Untouchable, her confident posture said. Though she still regarded Riley with some warmth in her eyes.

And to his mother’s left, standing on the stairs, hands clasped against his back, was Farkle.

Completely unrecognizable.

The skinny legs that refused to grow long enough to propel his height above her own now supported a frame that had to be at least a head taller than her. The chubby cheeks and rounded face had sharpened into a defined jawline, his shoulders broader but not muscular. His signature mop of hair was shortened into jagged, flying wisps of brown.

Gone were the rainbow-colored outfits he used to don. His unfamiliar body was dressed in all black – black boots, black pants, black doublet that with a white undershirt just peeking through between the sleeves.

I know you’re not foolish enough to think the prince you’re off to marry is the same little boy you left in High Krowen.

A stranger, she thought. She was marrying a stranger.

His eyes on her were too intense and too distant at once, she had to look away.

Standing by his side were two people Riley didn’t recognize from her childhood. The one standing closest to Farkle was shorter than the Prince, his dark skin warmed by the golden glow of the throne room. His chest was covered in a blue doublet, a playful smile on his face that seemed to strip Riley bare. He was studying her, and having fun doing so. Riley wondered for a moment what his station might be, that someone so candid could be standing next to the future King. And at the opposite end of the line was another face Riley hadn’t seen before. On top of what had to be a muscular frame rested a kind face that regarded her with a welcoming smile. Light, gentle eyes surrounded by strong features. Soft-looking blonde hair. Confident, yet kind. Everything she imagined – everything she dreamed – a true Prince would be.

He was beautiful.

“Riley Matthews, Lady of Philia,” the King greeted, pulling her attention away from the stranger to her right, “I understand that you have taken a long journey.”

She smiled. The words, rehearsed over and over again, came easily. “The journey may have been long, Your Majesty, but I am glad to be back at High Krowen. It has been many years.”

The first thing Farkle noticed was how formal she had become. When they were kids, Riley had been famous for acting before she thought. She would chase any mouse she saw, say anything she liked, run wherever and whenever she pleased. It was Farkle who had to keep up with her. Yet now here she was, standing as if an invisible string was holding her taut, speaking as if she had the right words for any occasion. She had barely even looked at him before she apparently decided she’d seen all she needed to see.

How did that happen? Farkle wondered, keeping his silence. How did they teach her to smile without it reaching her eyes?

Riley tried to ignore Farkle’s frown in her periphery, to silence her thoughts that jeered at her, he’s already displeased with me.

“You’ve returned to Court to marry my son, Crown Prince of Philia,” the Queen spoke up, waving a hand toward Farkle. “Are you ready to take on such a task, being the Crown Princess of the kingdom? Being a wife and royal?”

The Queen did have a reputation for being bold – and terrifying.

Riley felt the people surrounding her, waiting to eat up her answer. “Since the betrothal at age ten, I have known what’s expected of me, and have spent my time in Philia preparing for marriage. After listening to the guidance of my tutors and the wisdom of my family, I am ready to marry the Crown Prince. Had I not been ready, I would not have returned.”

Lies, all lies, she thought. But from the satisfied look in the Queen’s eyes and the light murmuring of the crowd behind her, it seemed no one could tell.

“This woman by your side seems familiar,” the King said. Maya bowed her head. “Miss Maya Hart, if I do remember correctly? Your handmaiden?”

“My Lady-in-Waiting, now,” Riley quickly corrected, perhaps a little too hastily. She heard some giggles behind her and quickly added, “Your Majesty.”

King Stuart just smiled brighter. “Forgive me for the mistake. Welcome back, Miss Hart,” he offered.

“Thank you, Your Majesty,” Maya replied.

“Your daughter and her Lady-in-Waiting have both grown into fine young women during their absence, Lord and Lady Matthews. I’m inclined to say you made the right call in sending them to Philia,” Stuart said to Cory and Topanga, who both gave slight bows and words of thanks. “Seeing her now, I am more confident than ever that there is no more suitable bride for my son. Considering that you have returned for your wedding, Lady Riley, I think it only fair we do not delay. We will begin the preparations immediately.”

“You are too generous, Your Majesty,” Riley said.

“Prince Farkle,” the King beckoned.  “Greet your bride-to-be.”

Finally, the brunette stepped down the podium steps onto the floor below, walking until he was in front of Riley and outstretching his hand toward her. She took it, and his fingertips were callused. Probably from scribbling notes and equations.

Farkle bowed, kissing her hand in a formal gesture. “Welcome back, Lady Riley.”

His voice was so deep Riley almost forgot to reply, caught off guard.

“Your Royal Highness,” she replied, giving another curtsy. Still, he didn’t let go of her hand, even when she rose again.

Farkle turned to face his father – awaiting instruction, Riley quickly realized.

“It’s only polite that we reacquaint our guest with the castle. Prince Farkle, would you give her a tour of the grounds?”

“It would be my honor, Father.”

Farkle stepped around until he was on the other side of her,, nudging her to face the other end of the Great Hall with him.

From behind them, the King’s voice boomed. “Ladies and Gentlemen, please join me in congratulating the Prince’s betrothed on her safe return!”

Applause erupted around them and flooded their eardrums as the made their way back towards the large doors, Maya not far behind. Trumpets blared, and Riley gave subtle nods and smiles to by passers, while Farkle seemed completely stoic. Stiff. She assumed he must be trying to send as much of a message as she was.

In reality, he was scolding himself.

Of course she got even more beautiful. That’s no reason to lose composure. You’ve been down this road once before. You know where it leads. She’s not the same – neither are you.

As they walked past the doors, Riley could swear she could pick up some comments from the crowd.

“Well, what do we think?”

“Hm, I give her a week.”

“Poor thing.”

As she and Farkle – her fiancée – turned down the hallway, Riley let loose a breath.

The first test was over, and between the King’s warm welcome and the crowd’s questionable stares, she had no idea if she passed.

 

Chapter Text

It was silent as Farkle and Riley ambled down the castle hallway, their entourage behind them. They had long since dropped their hands and had said little more than “hello” in the entire time they’d been walking. Every now and again, the prince would point out the direction of a tower or the door to a specific room in few words, and she’d respond in fewer. And she wasn’t oblivious to the fact that he barely looked in her general direction.

Now that they were closer, Riley could really take a good look at her fiancée – his profile, at least. She took note of all the impossibilities. For one, she could never have imagined years ago that his jawline would become so sharp. The jagged way his hair was cut revealed small shimmers of blonde when the sun hit it just right through a stained-glass window; she didn’t remember them being there before. His posture was picture-perfect, which was strange considering how much time he used to spend hunched over hatching a wicked scheme. In fact, almost all of his former mischief was gone. Now, his eyes were serious. His eyebrows slightly frowned. His jaw was set. He used to be a ladies man, a shameless flirt and an overconfident genius. Now he looked like the kind of guy who didn’t laugh. The kind of guy who’d sign his letters with his full name and title.

He must have felt her eyes on him, because his head turned to meet her gaze. Riley snapped her head back forward, heat pulsing from her cheeks.

This isn’t good, Riley thought. She’d have to charm him, beguile him. Do as grandmother had instructed and make herself indispensable.

“Your Highness,” she blurted out suddenly, halting mid-step. Farkle turned to look at her, one eyebrow slightly raised.

Your Highness, I almost blush to say it, but you have grown into quite the handsome young man since I’ve seen you last. Do you engage in much exercise? And might I say the monochromatic look suits you quite nicely.

Instead she went with: “You’re taller.”

Maya had only known Zay for a moment, but they exchanged a knowing glance in unison.

“Yes,” Farkle replied, his hands placed perfectly behind his back. “I am.”

“I heard, but I couldn’t picture it back in Philia. It was almost hard to believe.”

His expression was stone. “The ways people can change over time are often hard to believe until we are faced with the truth head on.”

It was stupid to think, but the way he was looking at Riley was almost terrifying to her. Like he was judging her for an unforgivable crime, and that she was supposed to understand exactly what his philosophy was supposed to mean. Her memory wasn’t crystal clear, but she couldn’t recall one moment he’d looked at her with such contempt. Like he knew something she didn’t. She swallowed, remembering everyone’s reaction in the throne room.

His direct eye contact with her was intense, but she dared not look away. That was rule number one: don’t let them think you’re scared. Stand your ground. They want you to look away, which is exactly why you must not.

But she still had no idea how to reply.

“How...wise,” she offered.

Get yourself together, Riley.

Finally regaining her footing, she continued. “Well, you’ve grown into a quite handsome young man. I hope I can say that without embarrassing you.”

He grimaced. “No, you can’t.”

“You used to love compliments.” Her voice was smaller than she’d intended, and it sounded pathetic in her ears.

He didn’t have a response for that.

Off in the distance, a pin dropped on the stone floor. It’s echo was the loudest sound in the hallway for a moment.

Riley was just about to speak up again, say something about the castle or the trip over, but Farkle beat her to it.

“You must be tired from your journey. You’ll find your quarters down that corridor and on your right. You should rest. Then, Lady Riley, Maya,” he concluded curtly with a short bow of the head before marching off, leaving both the girls wide eyed and speechless.

Only the beautiful blonde stayed behind for a moment. Farkle’s other companion followed straight after him after giving brief nod of the head – and what Riley swore was a wink – as farewell.

“I’m sorry about that, he’s normally a lot...well, he’s just, you know, normally more gracious, I suppose,” he tried to explain, his mouth curled into an apologetic smile. “I should be off as well, unless you need any assistance finding your quarters?”

“That’s alright,” Riley said, putting on one of her fake smiles as Farkle disappeared around the corner. “Lord...?”

“Friar,” Lucas beamed, holding out his hand for her to shake. “Lord Lucas Friar of Saxette, officially. But Lucas is fine.”

“Lucas,” she muttered, tasting the name in her mouth. It was sweet on her tongue, like honey, or the powdered sugar on top of a cake.

Wait.

Riley willed herself to behave, despite how badly she wanted to fall at Lucas’ feet. She cleared her throat, straightening. “Lord Lucas. You may call me Riley.”

He kissed her hand, and roses framed his face in a glittering haze.

“Lady Riley, a pleasure to make your acquaintance.”


...


Once everything had been set up in Riley’s room, she collapsed onto the bed, looking up at the wood carvings that hung overhead. There was no particular scene on this one, just fancy swirls and symbols.

Maya plopped down beside her, letting out a sigh.

“So, how’d it go?” She asked lightheartedly.

Riley frowned. “I don’t know. I felt like…I don't know. Something was off.”

Maya glanced over at her friend. “Well, what about seeing Farkle again? He’s really grown, if you know what I mean.”

“So much, though. I’m still not sure if it’s really him, or if this is some sort of ‘how well do you know Farkle’ test that I’m failing. Maybe it’s a body double that’s sent to trick me.”

“It’s not a body double,” Maya giggled, propping herself up on one elbow. “That Lord Friar, though…”

Riley blushed. “What about him?”

“Oh, you know,” Maya sang with a shrug. “He just seems like a very nice young man, that’s all.”

“Oh shhhhh-

“You tell me to be quiet, but who’s blushing?”

Riley threw one of the pillows beside her at her former handmaiden before turning over and burying herself in the rest.


 

Lucas closed the heavy red curtains on the window, blocking the scene of the soon-to-be princess chatting with her Lady on the edge of one of the fountains. The room dimmed, the only light now coming from the fire crackling in the fireplace.

He shook his head. Three days. The Matthews girl had come three days ago, and Farkle hadn’t seen her since his lackluster tour on day one. Instead he was just sitting there, a few feet from Lucas, holding a book in his hand.

The Farkle Lucas knew liked to read, but also liked to make others feel welcome and valued. The Farkle he knew laughed.

The lord sighed, marching over to the chair across from the prince and huffing into the seat. It was enough of a mood change that Farkle glanced up, meeting Lucas’ judgmental stare.

“What?”

Deep breath, Lucas. “Ok, you’re my prince, and I have only the greatest respect and loyalty for you and everything, but you seriously need to stop ignoring your fiancée.”

“I’m not ignoring her,” the prince shot back, a little too quick to be sincere.

“Oh really?”

“Really. I simply haven’t had the time to see her, that’s all.” He pointedly held his book up and looked at his page.

“You’re too busy with your ancient wisdom?”

“Precisely. The ancients have much to say about many things.”

“What things, Farkle? What do they have to say?”

“So much. So many things. You wouldn’t be able to keep up.”

“Farkle, you’ve been reading the same page of that book for an hour.”

Farkle snapped the book shut and threw it, aiming it at his friend’s chest.

Lucas blinked as the novel whizzed past his face and crashed into an unlit candelabra behind him. A quiet moment followed the awkward clashing and clanging of the metal on the floor.

“Well Cicero didn’t deserve that,” Lucas quipped.

A steely silence followed as the two stared at one another before Farkle admitted defeat.

“I don’t know what to say to her,” he admitted, leaning back in his chair.

“Well, what did you talk about before?”

A scoff. “Dinosaurs.”

“Well, maybe she’d like to talk about dinosaurs some more.”

“We were ten, Lucas.”

Ah. “Right.”

“What does it even matter what we talked about then or were like then? I was still honking my face around at people at ten and she…“ He stopped himself, taking a deep breath before brushing it off. “She’s different,” he concluded.

He was being petty, and he knew it. But he couldn’t let go of it. He thought he’d desensitized himself to his whole situation, shrugged it all off and moved on. But thinking about it, especially seeing her again and just how different they’d made her in Philia – it knotted his stomach up. Maybe if there were some glimmer of her former spirit, her Riley-ness, maybe he could bring himself to forget. But now…

“How do you even know that?” Lucas pressed.

Farkle was about to retort, but Lucas stopped him before the prince could repeat what he’d already said a billion times.

“When have you ever accepted someone else’s results without running the experiment yourself, just to make sure no mistakes were made? Hm? When have you ever taken anyone else’s theories as fact unless you were able to replicate their results?”

“You’re using science against me, and that’s low.”

“I’ve learned your language, deal,” Lucas boasted. “You’re going to marry her anyway, you might as well at least get along with her.”

“Even with the science speak,” Farkle shook his head, staring off into space. “I have the evidence I need. Besides, she’s already eyeing you when I’m standing right here. She has no subtlety, that’s one thing that’s the same.”

Those words tasted like bile in Lucas’ throat.

“Woah woah woah, hey, I’m not-“ Lucas stood up, walking toward where the prince reclined. “Farkle, you know I’d never do that to you, right?”

Farkle nodded absentmindedly, still looking outward toward the closed curtain.

"Will you talk to me, please?"

"'Silence is one of the great arts of conversation,'" Farkle replied, quoting the author he was just reading.

"You know, 'it is the peculiar quality of a fool to perceive the faults of others and to forget his own,'" Lucas shot back with a quote of his own.

"'Nothing is more unreliable than the populace, nothing more obscure than human intentions.'"

"'Nothing is so praiseworthy, nothing so clearly shows a great and noble soul, as clemency and readiness to forgive.'"

It was a sad day when Farkle had no response to Lucas in an intellectual debate. Perhaps if he had actually been reading Cicero he would have won. But his mind drew a blank, and he just sat there in response, his eyes downcast.

Lucas pondered for a moment, then leaned down. New tactic.

“Okay, maybe you’re different and she is too.”

Farkle looked up at Lucas, who was smiling like a puppy dog, his eyes all sparkly with hope.

“So go meet her. You might like her.”

Farkle breathed in, his hand rubbing his temples.

That's exactly what he was afraid of.