“King Cayden, you called for me?”
“Duke Hayden, no need to be so formal, come, let’s sit in my study.”
The two men sauntered off to the King’s study, although Hayden seemed more stiff than the young king next to him. They made it to the private room and once the guards were dismissed they both relaxed on the cushioned seats.
“So really Cayden, what is this about?”
“I called you here to give you this.”
Cayden handed Hayden an envelope with an ornate wax seal, the seal of the neighboring country, Bayonnia. The seal had already been broken, causing Hayden to look at the king with a quirked eyebrow.
“Open it and find out.”
“I didn’t come here to play games, Cayden, we aren’t children anymore.”
He rolled his eyes, but there was a fondness evident in his tone. Still, Hayden opened it to read the contents.
“This invitation is addressed to you as King, why are you showing me this? Do you want me to escort you to Bayonnia for protection?”
“Not at all, I want you to go in my stead.”
“You want me to go to this?!”
“Yes, I do. You are a duke now, you should be looking for a wife to share your dukedom with.”
“…That doesn’t even make sense. If I were to marry the princess of Bayonnia, I would have to abandon my dukedom anyway. Not that I ever wanted it in the first place, you practically forced Westfield onto me. Plus, you don’t have a wife either!”
“Hmmmm…all fair points. But still, I want you to find a wife, and I know you don’t like the noble women of Usianawald, so I wanted to give you the opportunity of meeting the noblewomen of Bayonnia.”
“Wouldn’t they feel slighted if you send me in your place? You are a king, I’m just the Duke of Westfield, I wasn’t born into this title, a commoner in the eyes of the people.”
“I wasn’t born into my title either. And, you’re not just a duke, you were the lead knight, the most decorated soldier, the strongest, most competent strategist, and my right hand man throughout the war. You are more than suitable to go in place of a king.”
Cayden flashed him a large smile but Hayden only shook his head in frustration.
“I don’t care for finding a wife, you know this.”
“I do. But still. For me, say you’ll go. They sent this invitation as a symbol of goodwill, knowing we overthrew Ducaine III after all of his transgressions towards the kingdom of Bayonnia. We have to send a representative, and I am not in the least interested in going to a competition to win a princess’ hand.”
“So you’ll make me go instead?”
“Well, you are older.”
“….fine, I’ll go. But don’t expect me to win, I doubt I am any good at wooing princesses.”
“Hah, now I kind of do want to go, just to see you try…thank you Hayden, really.”
“Yeah…you’re welcome Cayden. But you owe me.”
“Oh, I know. I owe you for more than I can ever repay you, and I’ll never forget that.”
In the kingdom of Bayonnia, an heir cannot ascend the throne until they are married to share the burdens of leading a nation as well as secure their means to producing an heir. The current King of Bayonnia’s health is deteriorating, and as a result, Princess Edina has agreed to finally begin her search for a suitable husband to become king alongside her. She was the sole heir to the throne after her cousin, Prince Jonathan, succumbed to the same illness that King Lucas was currently suffering from, five years prior, and the queen, Gabrielle, was too old to produce another heir. After witnessing the abuse her father, King of Usianawald, Ducaine III, inflicted upon her mother, Cecil, who at the time of their marriage was Princess of Bayonnia, Princess Edina had avoided all discussion of ever finding a husband, believing all men of noble status to be pretentious, abusive brutes. But after narrowly escaping the horrors of Usianawald at the peak of the insurrection, thanks to her mother’s help and sacrifice, Edina felt that Bayonnia was her sanctuary and having fallen in love with her kingdom, she will do anything necessary to uphold it. And a few years after returning and nights of convincing herself she was safe, the old Princess Edina began coming out of her shell once more. While she continued to be distrustful of men, she found ways of protecting herself, and testing the waters with a few servants and noblemen around the castle, trying her best to open up. She hoped that one day she would find a man who would prove her wrong, prove to her that there were still gentle noblemen out there, one’s that will treat her as an equal.
Still, as a rescued princess, Edina has been confined to the Bayonnia royal palace since her return, never granted the opportunity of meeting anyone outside the walls, and usually isolated from meeting guests within the walls as well. That made it all the more difficult to choose a partner, as she didn’t not know many herself. For the last 10 years, in both Usianawald and Bayonnia, she focused all of her energy into studying everything necessary to ascend the throne, meeting with countless tutors to ensure that once she ascended, she’d be impressive in every aspect and command respect. That didn’t leave much room to meet with potential suitors, other than the older noblemen who came to discuss matters pertaining to the well-being of the kingdom, who were usually already married. Unsure how else to proceed, Edina eventually conceded to the plan of her royal advisors. The plan was to hold a type of competition that Edina would spectate, the events of the competition would be catered to the types of qualities Edina was looking for. Chivalry, strength, intellect, wit, and most importantly, making sure he isn’t a brute. The invitation was sent to all Dukes and noblemen of her nation, and as a goodwill, it was even sent to the king of Usianawald, King Cayden. When the day finally arrived, she got dressed with the help of her maids and made her way down, not feeling the slightest bit ready to face the candidates that started arriving early that morning.
Hayden’s carriage made it past the palace gates but as he stepped out he saw many noblemen ascending the steps leading to the castle. Already feeling overwhelmed at the thought of having to make small talk, Hayden dismissed his entourage of personal guards and sneaked around the palace soldiers. He found a small opening and followed the path that it led to. It crossed his mind that maybe a nobleman from a neighboring country shouldn’t just walk aimlessly around foreign soil, especially on castle grounds, but he was confident he could take on any guard. Eventually the path led him to a garden, and although he wasn’t one to care much for nature’s beauty, he preferred it to what was waiting for him in the main hall. He had to admit, the garden was quite impressive, he hadn’t seen one in it’s likeness in any of the castles or palaces in Usianawald, and he had visited many during the war. Venturing further down the expansive path he found an ornate table with two matching chairs, and sitting comfortably in one of them was a woman writing in a notebook that rested on the table. First and foremost, Hayden was a warrior with a keen intellect, and upon seeing the women his eyes immediately seized her up.
The first thing he noted was the fact that she was writing in a notebook, one that seemed rather large and well used, showcasing she was a woman of status, as not many commoner women knew how to read and write. Next he took note of her hair, which was braided like a halo around her head, thin wisps escaping, but otherwise perfectly set in place. Most noblewomen wore their hair down, for a women to hold her hair up indicated she was a hard worker, although that contradicted her ability to read and write, again, hardly any maids knew how to. His eyes then settled on her wardrobe, it was definitely not that of a maid’s, neither that of a royal or a guard, it was a sophisticated style, different from one he’s ever seen which made him think it was expensive. She wore a white quarter sleeve tunic, and over it was a light but structured cloak like vest, navy blue with gold embroidery, that cinched and clasped at the waist before flaring out, reaching her ankles at the back of her legs but sloping shorter in the front. The vest hung open on either side of the clasp, revealing that she wore light gray trousers, which was extremely unusual for a woman, the only women who wore trousers were female warriors, soldiers or guards, all of which were rare in this society, and all of whom definitely didn’t wear trousers like these. All in all, despite his intelligence, Hayden had no idea what to make of this women, all he could tell was that she was not to be underestimated.
After the minute’s contemplation, he silently thanked his training for his soft footsteps, deciding he didn’t want to alert the woman to his arrival, and began to turn around, only for a cat to be right in his path. Before Hayden could react, the cat meowed loudly and dashed to the woman, who in turn looked up, her eyes meeting his gaze. Startled, she closed her notebook and stood up immediately.
“What are you doing here?” She spoke with a loud clear voice.
Her confidence caught Hayden off guard, he was convinced that anyone else would have been timid, alarmed at having been snuck up on, but here it felt like she was the one who had the upper hand. When he looked into her eyes, he saw a fire in them, a defiance, a person who was strong willed. Hayden schooled his features into a calm expression, not wanting her to know he felt embarrassed at being caught.
“I came for the competition.” He answered coolly.
“Then you should be in the main hall with the others.”
“I…got lost.” He winced at the lie.
“The main hall is right when you enter the castle after ascending the steps, surely the guards directed you there, it would have been impossible to miss.” She was suspicious, he could tell despite her level voice.
“Ah…yes well, it was a long journey, I must have been tired and confused.” He hated playing dumb, but he’d rather not try to outsmart her when he didn’t know how much information she had, nor what rank she was.
“Who are you?” She questioned.
Hayden didn’t know how he should handle the situation. If he told the truth, it could cause bad blood between the two kingdoms. He wasn’t technically invited to their castle, his king was, would they start a war over such impertinence? He didn’t really want to explain his situation to this person when he had no idea what her status was either. At the same time, if it turned out she was of high status and she found out he had lied to her, that could be even worse. He’d rather find out her status before admitting his, but etiquette said he’d have to answer her question first. He had a split second to decide.
“I am the Duke of Westfield.” He opted for the truth.
“Westfield? That’s not…you’re from the Usianawald Kingdom?”
“Yes, and you are…?” His patience was wearing thin.
It was now her turn to seize him up, but whatever it was she was searching for, it seemed she found it after a minute, as she replied.
“I am the right hand of Princess Edina.”
Not what he was expecting. If what she said was true, Bayonnia sure was a strange country to have this eccentric woman as a right hand for their princess.
“I see, pleasure to meet you, lady…uh, what is your name?”
She didn’t answer, and he didn’t ask her again. He didn’t tell her his name after all, so he can respect not sharing it.
“I suppose you’ll be kissing up to me now, knowing I may have a hand in the decision of the competition?” She quirked an eyebrow. Hayden wasn’t used to seeing so much attitude from one person.
“You don’t have to worry about me, I don’t plan on making it very far in the competition.” He answered.
Suddenly her whole demeanor changed, as if he said something really surprising to her.
“And why not?” Her tone was softer now, if only just a little bit, but at least she was no longer accusatory.
“I don’t want to marry the princess.”
“And why is that?” She asked, amusement hinting in her voice.
“I don’t want….well, let’s just say….” Hayden hesitated, choosing his words carefully, and finally landing on a half truth “you can call me old fashioned, but I want to marry for love.”
“You don’t think you could love the Princess?” She smirked.
“I don’t know, I don’t think I could fall in love with anyone in a week long competition, do you?” He snarked back.
She grew silent, contemplating his words. He could appreciate that, there weren’t many who could stimulate his intellect, usually only strategizing about war could do that, but everything about her intrigued him, and for the first time ever, he found enjoyment in conversation.
“Have you ever been in love?” She asked, much softer now, almost wistful.
“No.” He could hear gentleness in his voice, startling himself. Since when have I ever been gentle, he wondered.
“Hmmm….neither have I. Marrying for love….quite a romantic notion, isn’t it.”
He looked at her, making sure she wasn’t just teasing, but she was unreadable, he couldn’t tell if she was or not, until he saw a little quirk of her lips. A small inside joke, perhaps, but not mocking him.
“…I suppose. I don’t think it’ll ever happen though. I’ve been told my heart is too calloused.”
Where did that come from? Why am I opening up so much to her? Why do I want to? Hayden knew he had to get out of there, and fast, before he’d say something he’d really regret. Like his whole life story.
“So you’re content being alone for the rest of your life?”
“I suppose so. I’ve seen many failed marriages, especially when they’re made only for advantage with no love between the couple. I don’t care for it. I’d rather be alone.”
“…So then why come here? Especially if you’re just going to throw the competition?”
Their eyes met, and he was sure he’s never seen such an inquisitive look. Why is she so interested in my answers? Why do I like it?
“I’m not going to throw the competition. I’m a man of my word, if I enter a competition, I’ll do my best no matter what. I just don’t think I’ll make it very far what with my indifference towards the princess, and even if I do, I’ll likely decline at the end.”
“Fair enough, I can respect that. Although that doesn’t really answer my question. Why would you come to the competition at all?”
“I did it…as a favor to the King of Usianawald.”
No point in hiding it now, he thought.
“I see. The invitation sent to King Cayden was a sign of goodwill, but he sent you instead.”
“Yes, he had other things he needed to attend to.”
“More important than securing the benevolence of a neighboring country?” Her lips quirked, she was toying with him.
“Yes well…he’s not so much interested in getting married.”
“Neither are you, apparently.” She full out smirked and Hayden couldn’t decide whether he wanted to wipe it off her face, or keep it there.
“Yes, but convincing him of that proves…difficult. I hope the kingdom of Bayonnia will not be offended by my presence over my king’s.”
“We are not so petty as to hold a grudge over a simple invitation, but I should hope King Cayden comes for a visit soon, otherwise it may leave an…unpleasant taste in the royal family’s mouth.”
She spoke with presumption, Hayden noted, but her confidence couldn’t all be bluff, she knew what she was saying.
“When I return to Usianawald, I will be sure to express your concerns to King Cayden, but I can assure you now that he only has peaceful intentions towards Bayonnia. He has nothing but respect for your kingdom.”
“Interesting, I’m sure that’s what he said to Ducaine as well.”
She was baiting him, but amidst the fire in her eyes he could see genuine curiosity, she was testing him, wanting to see how he would react. Hayden found that whatever it was she was testing him for, he wanted to pass.
“I don’t recall his majesty ever having a positive word for Ducaine. He doesn’t take well to coldblooded, immoral men.”
“We have that in common then.” She grinned. “Well I look forward to hearing more about this King Cayden, but it doesn’t change the fact that he has been in power for three years and still has yet to visit Bayonnia.”
“He was merely being cautious, under the insurrection Queen Cecil was killed, even if it wasn’t done directly by our hands, he didn’t know whether Bayonnia would be…forgiving.”
“It is unfortunate…but we are just glad that evil man who caused her so much pain and who spit on our land is now dead, and that being by your hands. Anyway, I see you are quite devoted to your king, I’m sure in thanks to him dubbing you Duke of Westfield.”
She knows more than she’s letting on, he thought, a truly dangerous woman, but interesting, nonetheless.
“I never wanted the role. I would have preferred serving him as knight in his castle.” Why am I telling her this?
“Oh? And why is that? First you don’t wish to be king, now you don’t wish to even be duke, don’t all men want power?”
“It’s because of that, I do not. Power is a dangerous thing, I will never seek it out.”
“Well, then I hope power does make its way to you. Those who do not want it tend to wield it better than those who seek it.”
She winked at him and it crossed his mind that he doesn’t think any woman has ever winked at him before. It was definitely not proper.
“I, uh, thank you?” He cringed at his own voice and how it came out uncertain.
“No, I want to thank you, for this charming conversation allowing me to pick the brain of nobleman, not a lot of them would humor me…You’re an honest man, Duke of Westfield. I’m sure the princess can appreciate that. I’m glad you’ll try your best, after all, maybe you’ll surprise yourself with how quickly one can fall in love, and then maybe there will be hope for me. Now I suggest you leave the way you came and actually make it to the main hall, or else I’ll have no choice but to call the guards to escort you.”
She smirked and at that Hayden actually cracked a real, genuine smile, his first in a long time. This woman really was something, and he sincerely hoped they would run into each other again, if only so he could enjoy her company and find amusement once more in her confidence and wit. He gave her a low bow, and without another word turned around to head back to the steps, contemplating their conversation and her last words in particular. “maybe you’ll surprise yourself with how quickly one can fall in love, and then maybe there will be hope for me”
Hayden finally made it to the main hall, sticking close to the walls so as not to garner any unwanted attention to himself. His guards found him and hung around at a slight distance, so as not to crowd him. Even while maintaining a low profile, the guards reported hearing rumors of his arrival, fear spreading among the guests as the savage hero of Usianawald was in the building. Hayden shook it off, not caring either way, just hoping to avoid a blood bath on his account. After a serving of bountiful hor d’oeuvres and small plates for lunch, the head of the Royal Guard announced the arrival of the King and Queen. King Lucas, Princess Edina’s uncle who took her in when her mother sacrificed herself to help the princess escape to her motherland, began his speech keeping it brief, it seems the rumors of his illness were true.
“Thank you all for being here today. As you know, my niece Edina, Princess of Bayonnia, has elected to find a husband. To keep it fair, giving all dukedom’s a fair chance at the throne, she has put in place a competition for her hand in marriage. The nobleman who proves he possesses all the qualities wanting of a king shall be chosen as the next king of Bayonnia.”
There was cheering from the crowd here, which King Lucas used to mask his coughing fit. Once it died down, he continued.
“My niece has always been strong and independent. As such, she will choose the husband herself, as the lone judge. She has chosen all of tasks in this competition, and will judge which candidates make it through, and which are cut. And so that she may focus all of her attention to evaluating the men, her right hand shall run the competition. Please welcome my niece, Princess Edina, and her right hand.”
At the applause, the king stepped back and onto his throne, looking exhausted. The princess and the woman Hayden had met in the garden entered and stepped in front of the throne, not quite covering the king, but successfully pulling the attention to the pair. The princess was dressed lavishly, pink gown with gold trim and pearl embellishments. Her hair was worn down, however her face was covered by a thin veil that blurred her features. This was her first public appearance since becoming the princess of Bayonnia, and the crowd was gossiping left and right about it. The right hand of the princess, which Hayden decided to call her Rey (Right hand of princess Edina…with a y thrown in), if only just in his head since she didn’t give him a name, stepped forward to speak.
“Thank you, your majesty. And thank you all for being here today. I will get straight to the point, our first challenge of the competition will take place tomorrow morning, it will be a trial for one’s strength. You may dress however you’d like, however I would suggest something you can move in comfortably, along with light weight armor. In your downtime, you may wander the grounds as much as you’d like, however respect the guards should they prevent you from entering an area.”
There was a murmur among the crowd, but one look from Rey, and the murmuring was silenced. Hayden was once again struck by Rey’s manner of speaking. There was easily more than 300 people in the room when you count all the noblemen and their entourages, yet she spoke with so much confidence and conviction, more so than the king himself.
“Until then, the first event will be held tonight, you are all welcome to a banquet, before which, you may go to your guest rooms to settle in for the week. Dinner will be served here promptly at 7 o’clock, where you will have an opportunity to speak with the princess herself.”
And with a short bow she turned, linking her arms with the princess and left with the King and Queen following slowly behind. Hayden and his guards made their way to the room assigned to them, and then reclined leisurely. It was easy for him to relax, he didn’t actually care about the results of this competition so he felt no pressure. The only thing nagging him in the back of his mind was Rey, she was the most intriguing person he’s ever met. Usually, people are too intimidated by him, and she should have been too, considering he was a foot taller than her and substantially more built. He could have easily subdued her, but she spoke to him with a fire in her eyes that he has never seen before. It felt as if it awoke a fire within him, his indifference slowly melting away. He ignored the feeling best he could and rested.
Upon entering the main hall for the second time that day, Hayden immediately noticed a crowd towards the front of the room. At first he thought it was a crowd around the food table, but he saw food already placed on the banquet tables, so that couldn’t be right. Unconcerned, he made his way over to a table with just one other person, after dismissing his guards and attendants to their section of the grand room. The noblemen were expected to sit with other noblemen after all, despite Hayden’s wishes to remain with his men. He sat down a few seats away from a hooded figure and began filling his plate with food. Before he could take his first bite, the figure spoke with a somewhat familiar voice.
“You don’t have to sit that far away, you know. I don’t bite.”
The right-hand of the princess looked up at Hayden, allowing the hood of her cloak to slide back a bit, revealing her face and the smirk evident on it. She stood up with her plate in one hand, goblet of wine in the other, and made her way towards him, taking a seat close enough so they could speak without raising their voice, but still far enough for a person or two to sit between them.
“And what if I do?” He smirked back, surprised at how comfortable he felt with her.
“eh, take your best shot, I have thick skin, I can handle it.” She grinned, challenging him with her eyes.
“I don’t doubt that you can.” She laughed at his words and he found the sound charming.
“An interesting thought, maybe I’ll add biting contest to the competition.”
“You’ll add it? I thought it was the princess calling the shots for the competition?”
“Oh, uh, well I help her of course. I give her ideas, discuss the events…you know.” She looked down at her food.
He looked at her suspiciously, he had a feeling she wasn’t telling the whole truth. Maybe the princess wasn’t as independent as others seemed to believe.
“I see. And will she repay the favor?”
“What do you mean?”
What do I mean? Why am I asking this? He thought to himself.
“When it’s your turn to find a husband, will she assist?”
“Oh…uh…I doubt that.”
For the first time the woman started to look unsure, doubtful. It was a big difference from the confident person he had witnessed her as. But it was his turn to ask the questions, and he relished in seeing her on edge after she had him feeling that way every minute of their conversations.
“Why do you doubt that?”
“Oh, well, I’ll admit, I don’t particularly like men. The ones I know tend to be abusive, dismissive or arrogant…you get the picture. My father was that way, he was…well abusive is putting it lightly...”
“…I’m so sorry.”
It was all Hayden could say, but he felt his heart clench at her words. He knew what it was like to have an abusive father, but even then he knew of worse men. Ducaine, the late father of Princess Edina for example. Beating his wife, taking the wives of his dukes and doing even worse to them, and the worst of all horrors, taking little girls…Hayden shuddered, hoping her father wasn’t as awful as Ducaine. He was struck by how strong this woman was, not only to come from a place of abuse but to be able to overcome the struggle and speak of it calmly. She continued the conversation.
“Anyway, with the way I feel about men, it will probably be difficult for me to find a husband, I wouldn’t want to trouble her with it.” Hayden nodded in understanding.
“Hmmm well I can’t say I disagree with you, we are pretty terrible human beings.” She laughed.
“You know, most men would go on the defensive.”
“I won’t, not when I know we deserve it.”
“Maybe, but maybe not all of you.” She smiled a soft smile, and he had to work hard making sure he didn’t stutter.
“Well let me know if you meet any.”
She laughed again at his words.
“I think I already have…You know, for some reason, I truly enjoy teasing you.” She responded honestly.
“Unwise of you, really.” He smirked.
“Why, because you’re the Duke of Westfield? The legend of the war of Usianawald? The butcher of the battlefield?” Hayden was taken aback at her words.
“So you’ve heard?”
“Of course I’ve heard, and yet talking to you I don’t really get that vibe. You don’t strike me as a ruthless murderer so I was hoping it was all rumors…like I said, I don’t normally like men, I almost never trust them, but you…I have a feeling you might change all of that.”
“Change all of that how?”
“I don’t want to be distrustful of men forever, I’m hoping you might be able to help me grow as better person. A person who will give people a chance to prove themselves worthy of my respect.”
“If you’ve truly heard all the rumors about me, then you’re already halfway there. You’ve been talking to me without accusing me of being a bloodthirsty brute.”
“Exactly. You were the first one I decided not to judge. Or rather, the first one I decided to judge for myself.”
She had that look in her eyes again, and though he could see her honesty, he could also see in the quirk of her lips that she was teasing him, but not maliciously. More like, she was sharing a joke with him, and that’s when it struck him, he’s never gotten along this easily with someone before. Feeling overwhelmed, he avoided her gaze, looking down to his food and finally taking that first bite. She followed suit and soon they were eating in a comfortable silence. Wanting to be as considerate as her, Hayden tried for conversation, something he rarely did.
“Why is there a crowd over there?”
“Ah, that’s where Princess Edina is sitting. They’re jumping at the opportunity to speak with her.”
“As her right-hand, shouldn’t you be over there protecting her or something?”
“She can handle herself. I like peaceful meals, I prefer to avoid large crowds of flashy men. Besides, after tomorrow’s challenge, more than half of them will be cut from the pool of candidates, no point in trying to get to know each of them now.”
Hayden nodded, in thought. Her perspective was interesting, truly an efficient mind. He still couldn’t decide what to make of her.
“Hmmmm. You know, this food is spectacular, and as I said I enjoy peaceful meals, and something about you says you prefer the same. Well, probably the fact that you chose to sit as far from me as the bench would allow. Anyway, how about we just sit here in silence and internally judge the arrogant nobles around us?”
Hayden grinned, he was liking this girl more and more. He’d never met a woman so blunt, but so considerate at the same time.
“There’s nothing I’d like more.”
They continued quietly eating their meals, until it was time to retire. Hayden, to his own astonishment, offered to walk her to her room but she politely declined, flashing him a sly grin and responding with a “It’s true that you are opening my eyes and mind, but don’t mistake that for trust just yet.” And with a wink she was gone.