Actions

Work Header

To Marry for Love

Chapter Text

“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.

 

“What’s this?”

“An invitation.”

“To what?”

“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.”

“And?”

“…You pass.”

 

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.

 

“Fair enough.”

“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.

 

 

Chapter Text

The next morning, all of the noblemen were led to a field just outside the palace. The field had a large border around it, and then sub divisions within it. There was a high stage, and in front of it were rows upon rows of weapons on the side, as well as extra body armor, accounting for different items and sizes. Once gathered, Hayden counted about 80 noblemen around him, varying in height, weight, age and muscle mass. He immediately took note of those who may be the biggest physical threat to him. Rey made it to the front of the group and commanded everyone’s attention with a simple raise of her hand. She was wearing a similar outfit to the one she wore the day before, but in a different color scheme, just how many of those expensive outfits does she own? The princess stood next to her, wearing a different dress but that same veil covering her face. Just like the day before, Rey spoke on behalf of the princess.

“Good morning, and welcome to the first day of the Bayonnia Coronation Competition. The first challenge will be a sword fighting competition. I use the word ‘sword fighting’ loosely, we have a weapons armory stationed here, you may choose any of the weapons displayed there, but only one weapon per player. The rules are simple, you may not fatally wound your opponent, nor seriously maim them. You must stay within the confines of your arena. You win when you render your opponent powerless, whether that is when you force their surrender, or when they themselves choose to yield. A victor will be chosen if the bout lasts longer than 30 minutes. There are 80 candidates as of this morning, we have already matched you with your first opponent. The winners with move on to the next round of 40 people, then 20, then 10, and finally 5. The remaining 20 automatically move on to the next challenge, fighting to find the top 10 and top 5 is merely for pride. You have 30 minutes to prepare. Good luck.”

Rey and the princess took a seat, choosing to spectate from the stage.

“Hmm the men sure look riled up this morning.”
“Yes, how pretentious.”
“You only think they’re pretentious because you think you’re better than them. Wouldn’t that make you pretentious?”

Rey gave her a look, not believing she could say something like that, but she just laughed.

“I’m just kidding.” The princess laughed, swatting Rey’s arm to get the pout off her face.
“Anyway, anyone stick out to you yet? You were crowded at last night’s banquet.” Rey changed the subject.
“Hmmm not really, it was all the same conversation about how they were the best sword fighter in their territory, or how they raised and rode the fastest horses, or how they can offer me jewels. Quite boring chit chat, really.” Both women rolled their eyes.
“Yeah, as if they could offer faster horses or better jewels than a monarch.”
“Ha, right…What about you? I saw you sitting alone but once I looked back you were suddenly next to a man, what was that about?”
“…the Duke of Westfield.”
“Is there anything worth noting there?”
“…maybe. He’s…thought-provoking. I’ve never spoken to a nobleman like him. He’s certainly intimidating, he has an impressive build, broad shoulders, by all means could crush men’s heads like grapes. But when he spoke to me, he spoke to me as an equal, as if he knew not to underestimate me. He spoke with honesty and integrity, but not overly so. He has pride, but he isn’t arrogant. It was…refreshing, being in his presence.”
“Wow, I’ve never heard you speak so highly of someone. Usually your words are dripping with disdain, but this sounds like genuine praise.”
“I don’t know if I’d call it praise, I’ve only spoken with him twice, and both times were brief. I’m just saying…watch out for that one.”

Rey nodded her head in his direction, it was easy for the princess to see as he was standing off to the side.

“Hmmm I certainly shall. I haven’t spoken to him as you have, but I’ll give you this, he’s definitely the most attractive.”

***

Hayden made it through the first two rounds of sword fighting duels quite easily, besting them in less than five minutes, which provided him much time to rest and recover even though he didn’t really need it. Now only 20 men were left, so he knew he had already qualified for the next round, these next rounds were simply for vanity. He hoped they would be more of a challenge, since he was not allowed to seriously maim his opponents, he had to hold back, and that just wasn’t his style. Only problem was, if the top 20 already knew they made it to the next round, would they throw the next rounds themselves to conserve energy? That would be boring. Despite his musings, he ran into a different problem he didn’t even think of.

An attendant led Hayden to a royal knight and a nobleman who was competing in the tournament. The knight was speaking.

“Sir Ronald of Green Valley, your next opponent will be the Duke of Westfield from the Usianawald Kingdom.”
“I forfeit this match.” Sir Ronald answered immediately.
“Excuse me?” Hayden was outraged, he couldn’t believe how spineless the men of Bayonnia could be.
“I do not wish to go up against the Duke of Westfield.”
“On what grounds? You think you can forfeit just because you made it into the top 20? Where is your pride?” Hayden knew he shouldn’t really care, but it was frustrating, he had been looking forward to a good match and this is the third time that day he was robbed.
“I have heard of you, the commoner knight who rose to become a duke through his savagery and cruelty. That is all Usianawald is known for, and you embody it. I will not grace you with a match, you probably only won the past ones through treachery.”

Just how far does gossip travel? Hayden thought.

“Very well, I accept your forfeit, and your blatant lack of respect. But mark my words, insult me again and I promise you will find out just how true those rumors may be.”

Hayden’s expression grew dark at his words, and he turned on his heel and headed back to his entourage in outrage. Once he reached them he immediately started ranting at his right hand man, McFadden.

“My lord, pay him no mind. There has always been bad blood between Usianawald and Bayonnia. It was supposed to be mended by Ducaine’s marriage to Cecil, but after all that happened Bayonnia’s grudge only grew.”
“So you’re defending them?!”
“Not at all my lord-“

Before McFadden could finish, Rey came up to them and interrupted.

“I would like to formally apologize for the words of Sir Ronald. I can have him disqualified from the competition, or even stripped of his knighthood, if you’d like. He clearly showed a lack of propriety befitting a nobleman of Bayonnia.”

Hayden’s nerves immediately eased. How did she do that? Just melt away my frustrations.

“Thank you for your concern, but no need to be hasty. Sorry for causing you worry enough to step down from your stage view.”
“No need, there has been more than one quarrel among opponents, I had to step in to mediate others.”
“Hmmm a right hand of the Princess who isn’t afraid of breaking up a skirmish between battle ready men? You are quite remarkable.”

McFadden’s eyebrows shot up, he had never heard his master speak that way, and definitely not to a woman. Hayden saw McFadden’s expression, and remembering himself began to blush.

“Thank you, Duke of Westfield, but I’m not has fragile as I may look. Now then, you have won your 3rd match, regrettably by default, although between you and me, you would have won anyway. Sir Ronald is not that imposing, his strength lies only in his agility, but he lacks real skill. And I saw your previous matches, your moves are very impressive, you have both agility, strength and skill, it’s invigorating watching you.”

At this Rey blushed, and Hayden realized it was the first time he saw that expression on her face. Instantly he knew he wanted to see it more, especially knowing he was the cause of it. He loved seeing her confident, but he loved this part of her too. Loved? When have I ever used such a word? He shook himself, refusing to fall to such flattery.

“Thank you, you’re very astute, I’d be interested in-“

Before he could finish, an attendant came to grab Rey as another issue came up.

“Pardon me, but duty calls.”

As she walked away, Kian stepped up to McFadden and Hayden.

“Who was that? I didn’t get a clear view of her face.”
“That was the right hand of the princess, though she looks familiar.” McFadden supplied.
“Hmm, I didn’t get a clear view of her face, today or yesterday. Interesting that she is running the show, and not the princess herself. I had heard rumors that the princess is very hands on, extremely outspoken, always taking care of things herself, wanting a say in all major decisions.”
“Where did you hear that from?” Hayden was curious, he didn’t realize Kian was well versed in foreign gossip.
“…Oh, here and there.”
“Right, I had forgotten you were the chosen knight for the princess back when she was a princess of Usianawald.”
“Yes, but the insurrection occurred before I could complete the training. The truth is, it’s hard procuring an accurate account, the princess is kept very well hidden, rarely do people see her, and if they do it’s usually behind that veil.”
“Still” McFadden intervened “that right hand woman is interesting.”

Hayden didn’t respond, which opened him up to ridicule.

“Now what was that about?” Mark, another soldier in his entourage, walked up to them waggling his eyebrows.
“What was what about?” Hayden asked.
“Don’t act coy, you were flirting with her, and she was flirting back!”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“No, I agree with Mark. What do you think of her?” Kian asked.
“I-I don’t know. She’s intriguing.”

The three men gave him a look and Hayden let out an exasperated groan.

“Alright I admire her. She’s complex, she speaks her mind, she completely disregards etiquette but at the same time she has tact and she’s very considerate. She’s able to analyze situations and make tough decisions, she leads confidently and speaks with authority, much better than just a right hand of a princess should. She’s incredible. I’ve only just met her but I’m opening up to her in ways I never have before.”
“Did you tell her exactly who you are?” McFadden looked alarmed.
“No, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it somehow slipped out. I don’t know, it’s weird, talking to her…it’s like I want to be a better person. Isn’t that strange?”

The men looked at their master with shock, they’ve never heard him talk like that before, but they couldn’t be more thrilled for him.

“Looks like our lord has a crush.” Kian teased.
“A crush? I’d say he’s in love!” Mark exclaimed.
“Okay enough. Polish my armor and sharpen my sword. Let’s hope my next opponent is a tough one, I don’t want to hold back anymore.”

***

It was time for Hayden’s 4th match, the candidates left were down to 10 and he was up against the Duke of the Southern Mountains, Duke Conrad. Hayden felt the familiar hum of energy throughout his body, Duke Conrad looked like a worthy challenger, he had a huge build, bigger than Hayden’s, and in his hands he wielded a giant hammer, the head of the hammer was almost as large as Hayden’s torso. Yes, a fine foe.

The match began, Hayden and Conrad bowed to each other, as customary, and they assumed their battle stances. Once the flag was dropped they sprung into action, Conrad coming through with his hammer which Hayden dodged, first to the right, then to the left. Conrad was good, but Hayden’s agility was superior, now let’s see if our strength is matched. At the next swing, Hayden parried with his sword, it was tough, but he held firm. Once they broke away, Conrad spoke.

“You are the first rival I’ve had who was able to take the full strike of my hammer.”
“Get used to disappointment.”
“It’s not a disappointment at all, I shall enjoy going full force.”
“Likewise.”

They continued their dance of swords and hammers, strike, dodge, strike, parry, strike, dodge again. They took turns going on the offense and defense, Hayden taking defensive stances more often than not. He’ll eventually tire after waving that giant hammer around. His advantage in the first rounds was that he ended it quickly, but I have more stamina than those guys, let’s see when his runs out. That was Hayden’s trail of thought, and when Conrad rested his hammer on the ground for the briefest of moments. It was about 20 minutes in, Conrad’s stamina held out longer than Hayden thought it would, but Hayden barely felt any fatigue, Hayden took his shot and with a high kick the hammer when skittering out of Conrad’s hands. Hayden grinned, after disarming his foe, he would force his hand. It was an enjoyable bout, he was satisfied. But without realizing it Conrad shot a rock at his sword, Hayden hadn’t even seen him pick one up, and it was large. Off balance from using the force in his leg for his high kick, he didn’t have time to readjust his grip on the hilt of his sword and it went flying out of his hands. Now they were both disarmed.

“tsk tsk tsk Duke of Westfield. I don’t know how they do it in Usianawald, but in the Southern Mountains, the rocks are our best weapons.”

Conrad began throwing boulders at Hayden, which he dodged. Hayden took a look around him and realized his error, Conrad wasn’t strictly using the hammer as a weapon against Hayden, he had been using it to uproot large rocks buried in the field. Hayden should have realized, he’s a Duke of the Southern Mountains after all, he must have gotten his large build from lifting rocks all day. No use dwelling on it now. Hayden had to think of something, he couldn’t dodge the rocks forever, and when he tried to reach out for his fallen sword, a rock would come sailing towards him. He had to think quick. Hayden looked up, looking for inspiration. His field for the match was the closest to the stage, and as he looked up his eyes met Rey’s, she was watching him, as she said she had been. Looking up at her on stage, he got an idea. High ground.

He looked for the largest boulder, more of a collection of boulders really, in the opposite direction of his sword, but just close enough, and upon finding it, broke out into a sprint, dodging the latest rock being thrown at his head. Conrad was not ready for the change in tactic, having to move from his spot to get a good angle on Hayden, but he couldn’t predict his movements, why would he move in the opposite direction of his sword? Conrad picked up another large boulder and then moved to follow him, but Hayden was faster whether Conrad was holding up a large rock or not. By the time Conrad was able to get in range of him, he was already on top of the largest boulder gathering in the arena and the rock Conrad was carrying was much to heavy for him to launch to such high a height. Hayden used his height to jump, flipping in the air, and then landing closer to his weapon of choice. He sprinted the shorter distance to pick up the sword, swiped at the ground shooting dust up into the air to give himself cover, as Conrad abandoned his rock in order to maneuver better. In a moment, Hayden was at Conrad’s side, sword pointed dangerously close to his neck.

“Yield to me.”
“…I yield.”
“MATCH! This match goes to the Duke of Westfield!” the royal guard announced.

The small arena erupted in cheers, with many people failing to make the qualifying rounds, the spectators with each round grew. This match lasted longer than all the others, so practically everyone’s eyes were on them. Hayden, never one to revel in glory, raised a hand half-heartedly to acknowledge the applause. Hayden looked at Conrad and saw his arm extended, he was a true gentleman. Hayden met him in the middle and they shook hands with a few words of respect to the other. He looked up and locked eyes with Rey, she gave him a wide grin, pride in her face, and although he wasn’t entirely sure why she would be proud, it filled his chest with warmth all the same.

***

It was down to the final five and it was decided that rather than continuing tournament style, since there was an odd number of finalists, they would do a free for all. It was getting late in the day, but the men were granted an hour of rest before the final match. Hayden rested with his guards, McFadden, Kian, Mark and Chris as they continued to tease him about Rey.

“I’m just saying, I saw that look you two shared.” Mark nudged Hayden, which Hayden returned with a death stare.
“Aren’t you supposed to be focusing on wooing the princess?” Chris reminded everyone.
“I’m not supposed to be wooing anyone. I’m here to represent Usianawald and the goodwill of King Cayden, and for no other reason.”

A new voice chimed in.

“Well isn’t that a surprise, an Usianawaldian, only here for their own political gain.”

Hayden looked up at the unfamiliar voice and saw two of the other finalists, the Duke of the Northern Hills and the Duke of West Borough. They had strong builds, though the Duke of the Northern Hills was shorter than Hayden by at least a foot.

“Duke Marcos, Duke Percival.”

Was all Hayden said in greeting, not wanting to contribute any satisfaction by giving into their taunting. He rose from his seat making sure to flaunt his height.

“The cruel slayer of women and children, Duke Hayden himself. Your barbaric ferocity precedes you.” Duke Percival of West Borough drawled.
“Although, Usianawald is only known for their barbarism and viciousness, so don’t take it personally.” Duke Marcos of the Northern Hills mocked.

Hayden put his hands in his pockets, forming an aloof stance. Keeping his cool was easy when he knew he didn’t have to prove anything to these guys, but there was only so much jeering he can take from Bayonnians before he caved.

“You know, most rumors are false, but they originate from some truth. The myth that all Usianawaldians are fierce and vicious is untrue, but the myth started with me, and soon enough you’ll see just how brutal I can be.”

The two dukes flinched at Hayden’s glare, as well as the glares form the rest of his men, it was enough to pierce through their bravado as they walked away, grumbling under their breaths.

“Oof I cannot wait to see you whoop their asses.” Mark commented.
“I can assure you, the pleasure will be all mine.” Hayden said darkly.

***

The battle began and predictably, Duke Marcos and Duke Percival teamed up, first aiming for one of the other finalists while Hayden aimed for the other. The duel was harder than the first two he did that day, but not harder than Duke Conrad. The only issue was the fatigue that was starting to settle in after three battles in one day, but he’d fought in harder odds, he could push through.

By the time he was able to force his opponent’s hand, the two dukes finished off the other, and suddenly it was two against one. All three were equipped with swords, but Hayden was at a disadvantage, the best strategy would be to separate the two, but he still wasn’t sure how, he knew he would have to face them both head on while he cooked up a plan. They came at him from different angles, but they were no match for his speed and accuracy when he quickly evaded them, parrying their strikes with ease. Dodge, parry, parry, strike, dodge. Hayden kept up with their moves but they eventually backed him into a corner and it became harder keeping up with their two weapons to his one. That is, until he remembered something he used to do in battle. Quickly he untied his sheath from his belt with the hand that wasn’t wielding his sword and while his sword was trained on Percival he used the sheath to parry the attack from Marcos. It wasn’t cheating, he reasoned, a sheath is just an extension of the sword as a weapon. Now dual wielding, we was able to gain his momentum back and got out of the corner. The dance continued with Hayden gaining the upper hand, it was disgraceful in the eyes of the two dukes, how could he be keeping up with them with just a sword and a sheath?

Despite them having the advantage of numbers, their combined skills were no match for his. They quickly came to realize this, and in their frustration they decided to play dirty with Duke Marcos pulling out a whip hidden from view in his belt and obscured by his cape. Marcos began wielding his whip, pulling the sheath from his left hand, and due to his weakened grip in a non-dominant hand, it went flying. Hayden thought quick, if they were going to play dirty, then so would he. At the next attack he dodged with a tumble under Percival’s right swinging arm and reached a hand out to tug on the duke’s cape. Quickly he pulled fiercely, taking Percival down to the ground and wrapping him up in the cape, clasping it to the hook keeping his sheath in place. He didn’t have time to make sure his wrap job was secure as Marcos came charging towards him, whip raised towards the sky. Knowing his armor was resilient, he brought his forearm up to take the force of the whip, once it wrapped he pulled and the handle flew out of Marcos’ hand and into Hayden’s. Now one on one since Percival was still down, Hayden raced towards Marcos, quickly disarming his remaining sword and with Hayden’s sword firmly on Marcos’ throat, but not forceful enough to pierce skin, Marcos surrendered. With Marcos walking shamefully out of the arena, Hayden turned to Percival who had gotten out of his trap, preparing himself to face Hayden alone. Hayden charged, but Percival stuck his sword in the ground, bringing it up sharply to get dust in Hayden’s eyes, blinding him temporarily.

“I see you watched my match with Duke Conrad” Hayden baited him, he knew there was no way Percival could have come up with that himself. It was also Hayden’s ploy to get Percival to reveal his location.

Hayden thought Percival would take this opportunity to charge him, after all he was practically a blind mouse in the claws of a feral cat, but Percival, ever the coward, was too scared to give away his position. Hayden waited, his ears so attuned to battle, they were able to drown out the sounds of the cheering crowd and listen patiently for any indication of Percival’s whereabouts. A single step was all it took, Hayden picked up on it and had the whip sailing, once it caught, Hayden pulled, hard. In the direction of the thud, Hayden pointed his sword.

“YIELD TO ME!” Hayden yelled, adrenaline pumping, eyes still screwed shut.
“…I Yield.”
“LOUDER!”
“I YIELD!”
“MATCH! This match goes to the Duke of Westfield!”

The cheers were even louder, but Hayden kneeled with his hands in his eyes making a note to himself to apologize to Conrad just in case he got dust in his eyes too. Although Hayden was more of a gentleman, he dispersed the dust into the air, not directly into his eyes. Unable to move in fear of looking like a bumbling fool, Hayden kneeled in place, hoping McFadden would come to his aid and quickly.

“Here, I have water.” Not McFadden, definitely not.

Hayden reached his hands out towards the feminine voice and felt water being poured into it. He rubbed his face with the water and flushed his eyes, after a few more handfuls he could see clearly again, and looked up into her eyes. He was sure he looked wild, riddled with sweat from the battle, eyes swollen and red from irritation, dirt everywhere, but she smiled at him sweetly with a towel outstretched in her hand. This is the perfect sight. Her face is the only one worth waking up to in the morning.

***

“You’ve been doing everything else, shouldn’t you banquet with him?”
“You’re the princess, it’s his reward. A conversation with me is hardly a reward.”
“This could backfire you know, I don’t understand why-“
“Excuse me”

Hayden walked into the tea room that Rey and the princess were currently occupying, and greeted them with a low bow.

“Your highness, I was escorted here, did you wish to speak with me?” Hayden asked.
“Yes, hello Duke of Westfield. Excellent sword fighting at today’s challenge.”

It was Hayden’s first time hearing the princess speak, her voice was light, although a bit high pitched. He personally preferred the easy going vocal tone of Rey’s voice.

“No praise necessary, your highness.”
“We were just discussing the terms of your reward, you will banquet with the princess tonight, without any accompaniment.” Rey interjected.
“Oh dear, without other company, but I’m incredibly shy you see…couldn’t you join us?” The princess fluttered her eyelashes at Rey, a useless tactic.

Hayden was confused by the princess’s behavior, this was hardly in line with the rumors about her. Shy? Kian said she was outspoken, what was she playing at?

“Please stay.” The princess continued to plead.
“I would be delighted to once again dine in your company, my lady.” Hayden looked at her earnestly, hoping she would succumb to his request over the princess’. He could already feel his patience wearing thin in the princess’ presence, he’s much rather have Rey there as well.
“…very well. The head table is ready to receive us, let’s go.”

The trio walked through the door that connected the tea room to the great hall, and as they made their way to the head table, Rey gestured towards the attendants, urging them to add another chair and another place setting. Luckily the table was slightly curved, so each person had a clear view of the others, with the princess at the center. As they began eating, an awkward silence hung around them.

“So, how long had you been sword fighting?” The princess began, trying her best.
“Since I was young.”
“I thought you were a commoner at birth?” At the princess’s question, Rey coughed and nudged her, it was rude to bring up someone’s social standings.
“I was…fortunate enough to have a willing tutor.”
“I see.”

More silence.

“The princess here is also well versed in sword fighting.” The princess whirled her head around to look at Rey.
“Really? Under Ducaine’s orders?” Hayden asked surprised, but rather than the princess answering, Rey answered for her.
“No, despite his orders actually. Princess Edina was the sole heir to the Usianawaldian throne, but being a woman, Ducaine despised her. She began her lessons young so that she could always protect herself during his drunken fits.”
“Very impressive. Who did you study?” The princess gave Rey a panicked look.
“Gerard Thibault d’Anvers, Capo Ferro, but her tutors varied their styles. There was a lot of Camillo Agrippa’s influence in her studies as well.”
“I see, should we have a bout some time, perhaps?”
“That wouldn’t be the best idea-“ Rey tried interjecting again but Hayden cut her off.
“Apologies, but the question was for the princess.”

Rey met his eyes and saw the amusement in them, he could see right through her.

“Of course, I was merely giving the princess a chance to chew her food before swallowing. Some may prefer to eat in peace, after all.” Rey glared back at him, but the princess intervened.
“Thank you, I’m fine. Yes, perhaps if you win the competition, there may be time for us to have a bout.”
“Excellent.” Hayden smiled, though it didn’t reach his eyes.
“So you came here on behalf of King Cayden. I hope there is no bad blood between us, I escaped Usianawald not in an act of defiance to the new king, but in fear of Ducaine. We saw the opportunity and took it. It is no secret how abusive he was, we are thankful that King Cayden is putting your kingdom back on track.”

Yes, Rey thought, stick to the script.

“Yes, he understands completely of course. I am sorry he couldn’t be here for this competition, he is unwed after all, and you would make a fine partner for him. Perhaps we can still mend the relationship between kingdoms.”
“That relationship doesn’t need mending with another Usianawaldian King taking a Bayonnian princess as his bride, a duke would be just fine.” Rey quirked an eyebrow at the underlying meaning behind the princess’ words, wanting to face palm but willing to keep her hands on her silverware.
“Hmm perhaps” Hayden responded, visibly uncomfortable, and wishing it was just him and Rey again.

The rest of the conversation Rey kept her tongue in check, though she loved the verbal sparring she would share with the duke, she didn’t want to show any impertinence in front of the princess. The dinner was eaten quickly, and feigning exhaustion, Hayden made his graceful exit. Once they were alone, the princess turned to Rey.

“I can see the appeal.”
“your highness” Rey grit out.
“Hey, I gave you the chance, you didn’t take it. Now then, prepare my bath.”

If looks could kill, the princess would be a heap on the floor.

***

“How was dinner with the princess?” Kian asked, some of the other guards had already retired to their beds.
“…interesting.”
“Interesting how? Interesting good? Bad? Ugly?”
“Well, her right hand joined us, and she…it was almost like she was answering all of the questions on the princess’ behalf.”
“Eh, you know royalty, too lazy to answer anything for themselves.”
“Hey, not King Cayden.”
“Yes, of course not your precious king.”

Hayden threw a pillow at Kian, chuckling all the same.

“But you said it yourself, the princess was supposed to be outspoken, yet she was completely dismissive of everything. I thought she’d be more passionate, more opinionated, more...”
“More like her thought-provoking right hand?”
“…yeah.”
“Hmmm well good night my lord.”
“mmhmm, good night.”

Chapter Text

Getting out of bed was always hard for Hayden, especially when he fought in four sword fighting matches the day before, still he forced himself up and put on plain training gear. Given the circumstances, he made it a point to keep up with his calisthenics and cardio, keeping his body fit for whatever the competition might throw at him. He left everything in the guest room he was staying in, save for a small dagger he strapped to his belt, a full sword would limit his movements while running, but to travel weaponless in foreign soil was just reckless. The sun was rising, he could see it through the wide palace windows as he walked to a castle entrance, the one leading to the field they had their matches in, once he reached the edge of the field, his feet took flight. He didn’t take any particular path at first, until he saw a brick road leading out and he decided to follow it. After about two miles, he was about to start heading back, but he saw a stable and went to check it out for any clean water. Once he entered, he realized it wasn’t deserted.

 

“Fancy seeing you here, Duke of Westfield.”

 

Hayden was shocked but delighted to see Rey. Even having only met her two days ago, this was the most intimate, in terms of conversation, he’s ever been with a woman, and he desperately needed her to stop calling him the Duke of Westfield as if they were so far apart.

 

“Please, call me Hayden.”

 

Rey quirked her eyebrow.

 

“Alright, fancy seeing you here, Duke Hayden.”

“No, just Hayden.”

“…I don’t know if that would be proper-“

“There’s no one here, it’s not during a competitive event, just…just call me Hayden.”

“Alright, just Hayden. Doesn’t change the fact that I won’t tell you my name.”

“I didn’t think it would, lady nameless.” He smiled.

“Ha, good one. Listen, names have power.” Rey defended.

 

Hayden eyed Rey as she laughed, looking exceptional in the morning light, practically glowing, great, I probably look like a half drowned rat with all this sweat. He noted she wasn’t wearing the same type of outfit with vest cloak and trousers that he had seen her in the past 2 days, instead she was dressed like a simple commoner woman in a cotton blue dress, white apron and brown cloak. What surprised him more was how she was readying a saddle.

 

“Where are you off to this morning?”

“Oh, wouldn’t you like to know.”

“Hmmm first no name, now no destination, playing mysterious, are we?”

“Ha, sure, I’m the mysterious one.”

“Are you accusing me of being mysterious?” Hayden said playfully, not remembering the last time he ever sounded playful.

“Maybe.”

“Really, where are you going?”

“Why don’t you come with me and find out?” She smirked at him, it was a taunt, but she was earnest, he could go if he wanted to.

 

“But the competition…”

“We’ll be back way before the next event.”

“I’m in training gear…”

“It’s perfect for where we’re going. Here” she handed him a cloak that hung next to her “this is an extra we have laying around in case we get cold when riding. Put that on and you’ll blend right in. Well, except for your height.”

“…Alright.”

 

Hayden pulled on the cloak and made to reach for the horse, but Rey beat him to it, hopping on and reaching out a hand, again her behavior was so odd in Hayden’s eyes, but he decided he liked it that way. He reached out his hand, indulging her, when a flash of gold caught his eye. On the pommel of the saddle was the golden crest of the Bayonnian royal family. Once Hayden got on, straddling the horse behind Rey until their bodies were flush against each other, he asked her about it.

 

“There’s a golden crest on the saddle, does this horse belongs to the royal family?”

“Ah….yes. It belongs to the princess, I ride her every morning as the princess is too busy to take her out.”

 

And before Hayden could comment, Rey spurred the horse forward, dashing out into the field Hayden just ran through. He realized they were headed around the back, to the servant’s kitchen entrance. Rey jumped off the horse and hastened to the open door, calling out.

 

“INGRID! Oh, Persephone, have you seen Ingrid?”

“She’s out helping Reynold pick up supplies, but she left these for you. And this is from me.” Persephone held out three large baskets, as well as one much smaller one, which, upon seeing Hayden, she quickly slipped a few more items in there, but he couldn’t see what. Hayden dismounted, rushing to help Rey with them.

“Fantastic, thank you Seph.”

“Anytime my dear! It’s wonderful what you do.”

“Oh stop, I’ll see you around!”

 

Hayden took the baskets from Rey’s arms, despite her protests that she could handle it, and together they secured them to the horse. He took a peek inside and saw breads, cheeses, meats, potatoes…all cooked, and that’s when he realized they looked just like the banquet food from the other night.

 

“Is this…?”

“Yes, leftovers from the banquet. Whenever we have large gatherings and after the servants eat their fill or pack away some for their families, if there are still a lot of leftover food I ask the maids to pack them up for me.”

“What do you do with them?”

“You’ll see.”

 

Predicting Rey’s actions, Hayden beat her to the top of the horse first, and held out his hand just like she did earlier, and he relished in her blush. With his strength, she barely had to use a muscle to get up on the saddle. Once she was adjusted they took off, this time towards town. They made it to the castle town, and although Hayden thought they would slow down to get off, Rey raced through the streets, still empty due to the early morning. They passed through yet another town before finally slowing down to a village, not too small but definitely smaller than the ones they went through. Rey beckoned to the horse, stopping just before a church. Rey got down, and Hayden followed suit, helping her unload one of the baskets from the horse. She knocked on the church doors until an elderly priest came out to greet her with a friendly and familiar hug. They exchanged words, although Hayden couldn’t hear, but after a few moments  Rey started down the church steps and rejoined Hayden. She set the horse trotting through the village, as Hayden sat dumbfounded, it took him a while to find his voice.

 

“You, the right hand of the princess, personally deliver food to churches?”

“Not just churches, next we’re going to a small medical clinic, and then to an orphanage.”

“What?!”

“Yeah, the church distributes food to the poor and homeless, the clinic gives food to patients who can’t afford medicine, and the orphanage of course gives it to the children in their care.”

“Wow. Do you always ride all the way out here?”

“No, I vary the villages I visit and the institutions I give to, trying to make it fair. I usually distribute farther from the castle, where the villages are more needy.”

“You…you’re incredible, do you know that?”

 

Rey blushed, not answering, as she directed their horse to the next town.

 

***

 

They made it to the medical clinic, and then to the orphanage after that, and with each visit, Hayden’s heart grew heavier and heavier. I used to think all people who were rich or had power were good for nothing but their greed, but here Rey once again opens my eyes. If every palace or castle had someone like her, the world would be a better place. How does she do it?

 

After they unloaded the third basket at the orphanage, Hayden asked Rey what the fourth basket was for.

 

“Oh, that’s for us, a basket of pastries for breakfast. Persephone must have packed extra when she saw you on the horse with me.”

 

Some of the children of the orphanage were already awake, eyeing the large basket Rey was dropping off with longing, but they wouldn’t have any until lunch time. Hayden looked into the smaller basket for their breakfast and counted six pastries, that would mean three for himself and three for Rey. His stomach rumbled, reminding him of his morning workout and how it begged for calories to replace those he had burned, but when he looked at Rey and saw the kindness in her face, it made it easier to ignore the growling. He took out the three pastries and gave it to the kids watching them. Seeing their faces light up made him happier than he thought it would, his eyes started tearing up, and that’s when he knew he had to get out of there. He left the entryway of the orphanage and headed to where their horse was stationed. A few moments later and Rey was at his side, not mentioning what happened inside.

 

“Come on, I know a place we can go.”

 

They rode back to the castle in comfortable silence, wind whipping past their ears, and brought the horse back to her stable. Rey then led him to a bench he didn’t notice when he ran by earlier along the brick path. They chatted idly, joking a bit here and there on their way to the bench, and it made Hayden feel warm, realizing how at ease he felt with her. Once they were situated on the bench, Rey held out one of her pastries for him, she wouldn’t hear a word of his objection, and so he ate it gratefully. She finished her pastry faster than him, and instead of reaching for the third, she began to speak.

 

“Thank you for joining me today, it’s nice, delivering the food with company. Did you enjoy it?”

“It was an experience unlike any other…thank you. You said you wanted to get to know me because you thought I could help you grow into a better person, but the truth is, that’s what you’ve done for me. So, thank you.” Rey giggled.

“You said that already, but you’re welcome. I’m glad you feel that way.”

 

There were a few moments of silence, Rey offered the last pastry to Hayden but his pride wouldn’t allow it. After some bickering, Rey broke the pastry in half, insisting he take one (“If you don’t take it, I’m feeding it to the horse, and trust me, she already eats her fill.”). He accepted, and once they finished their chewing Rey changed the subject.

 

“So, have the past few days changed your mind?”

“What do you mean?”

“Do you think you could fall in love in a week?”

“…I don’t know…But that’s not really…I haven’t been completely honest with you.”

“Oh?”

“I mean, I wasn’t lying, I think marriage is serious and that there should be love between the two, and I did honestly think it would be impossible for me to fall in love.”

“You did think? So you don’t think it’s impossible anymore?”

“…No, I don’t. I now think it is very much possible for me to fall in love, but that’s not the point. What I said about not wanting to marry the princess, it was a half truth.”

“So what’s the whole truth?”

“I didn’t want to marry the princess because…I didn’t want to become king.”

 

Rey was stunned, that was definitely not was she was expecting.

 

“You really are surprising, Hayden. Most men join the competition for their shot at becoming king, but you hope you don’t win for that very reason. Why wouldn’t you want to be king?”

“It’s a long story.”

“We’ve got time, the next challenge doesn’t start for a couple hours still.”

“Well, it’s not just that, I shouldn’t…”

“Hey, here, on this bench, while most of the world is still asleep, it’s just you and me. Whatever you tell me stays here and here alone.”

 

Hayden saw the sincerity in her eyes, and felt the ache in his chest. Can I really tell her the truth? The truth that only Cayden and McFadden know, the truth that I forbade them from ever speaking. It had been so long, he kept his past buried deep down, but now that he was facing the prospect of letting it all out, he didn’t realize how much he wanted to. So he did.

 

“My father, he always wanted to be king, but when he realized the opportunity wouldn’t come during his lifetime, he did everything he could to make me king, but the means to make that happen…he was an immoral coward, sacrificing whatever it took, including his own family. We were all just tools to him, he didn’t care about me or my brother, he even threw away my mother, his wife, to that monster Ducaine.”

“I can’t even imagine, I’m so sorry.” Rey put her hand on his arm, and to his surprise it helped ease some of the pain of reliving his darkest memories.

“I promised myself I would never become like him, and I promised him that I would never become king of Usianawald.”

“I didn’t know your father, but from what I’ve learned about you, you’re nothing like what you’ve just described. And you know, I firmly believe that the best kings are the ones who never wanted to be. They don’t seek power, they aren’t hungry for control or greedy for riches. They just want the best for their people, like how you wanted the best for those children. I think you would make a great king, I can see it in your eyes when you speak, the passion coming from your voice, you have the essence of a king.”

 

Hayden sat in silence, replaying her words in his mind, feeling them make their way into his heart and set him free. I am not my father. I will never be my father. I can be whoever I want to be.

 

“I don’t deserve your words, but thank you. But I still don’t think kingship is for me. The path to any throne will inevitably be covered in blood, but a bloody murder should not sit on the throne. That’s why I chose to be that sword for Cayden, I took on the bloodshed to keep his hands clean so we can finally have someone untainted, someone worthy of being king ascend the throne.”

“Hmmmm…I have to disagree with you there. I mean, definitely some truth to those words, don’t get me wrong, but I wouldn’t say every throne has a bloody path leading to it. You could just marry Princess Edina, and ta-da you’re king, no bloodshed necessary.” Hayden’s head was spinning, he never thought of it that way.

“…You got me there.”

“So, why King Cayden? Not that I don’t think he’s a good choice, he’s better than most, but of everyone, why give him your support?”

“Well, uh…because I know he’s smart, educated, cares for his people, he’s charismatic and can confidently lead a kingdom…he’s an excellent judge of character, surrounds himself with good people to help him lead…”

“Right, and you know all this because he’s your brother.”

 

Silence.

 

“Uh….” Hayden didn’t know where to go, no use trying to lie.

“It’s fine, I know.”

“How? When my father died, we dissolved the house McGregor, forfeited our rights to the McGregor land, and anyone who had remembered us perished have now in the war, all of Ducaine’s loyal noble people were beheaded.”

“Sorry to disappoint you. But, uh, the princess knew and she told me everything.”

“But how did she know?”

“She had a run in with King Cayden when he was a kid, it wasn’t pretty. Like I said, I didn’t know your dad, but it’s not hard imagining he’d use his own family as tools, he let my father, Ducaine, use Cayden as hunting dog bait. The princess convinced Ducaine to call it off, saving Cayden’s life. Afterwards, Cayden wrote her a letter of gratitude, he described her as being a good heir to the throne, as having the light, the essence of a king, something he only ever saw in one other person, his brother, Hayden McGregor.”

 

At the sound of that name, Hayden shivered. He let go of that name long ago, not wanting to share anything with his father. But he was also amazed that Cayden spoke so highly of him, even at such a young age.

 

“But how did you know that was me? For years we lived in secret, when Cayden rose to power no one knew who we were, I was just his knight, we didn’t tell anyone we were brothers.”

“Well, after that the princess followed any news of Cayden or the McGregor’s, interested in the two son’s as she thought they were the biggest threat to her throne.”

“We never intended to harm her.”

“It’s fine, water under the bridge now. She heard of your father’s death, and subsequent releasing of land rights. She always wondered what happened to Hayden and Cayden of house McGregor, imagine her surprise when it was at your very hands that Ducaine fell. Don’t worry, she was relieved more than anything, she knew better than anyone that Ducaine was the worst king in history. Anyway, the rumors that spread were that the new king was the only son of an old noble house, but like you said, no one knew the details of house McGregor, anyone who did was long dead at that point. But we knew, so when they spoke about Cayden’s right hand knight, his sword, the princess realized it could only be referring to his brother, so we paid attention when you were granted dukedom of Westfield. I recognized you instantly when we met, I may have doubted if I went solely on your title, but it was just as they described, your eyes have a light in them.”

“Why didn’t you tell me right away?”

“Didn’t want to freak you out with how much I knew about you.”

“…fair enough.”

“Anyway, my point is, Cayden makes a fine king, in fact, he’s exactly what Usianawald needs right now. But I think you’d make an even greater king. Granted, you might not be right for Usianawald, but you’re perfect for Bayonnia. King Lucas’ illness has weakened the people’s faith in our monarchy. We need a strong leader, someone powerful, but not power seeking. Someone like you.”

“Thank you for your high praise but I just…I just don’t agree.”

“Hayden, sorry, I didn’t mean to-“

“It’s fine, let’s drop it. We should head back anyway.”

 

The two started back for the castle, and Rey couldn’t help but feel she crossed a line. Still, she had no regrets, he needed to hear it, if only so he would stop holding himself back. Hayden on the other hand appreciated their talk, but he was so unaccustomed to talking about such things, it was overwhelming and he needed a break, not negatively, but more like staring at a beautiful view, it’s breathtaking, but sometimes you need to force yourself to look away, bring it back to reality. Still, he couldn’t believe he found someone who understands him, maybe even more than his own right hand, or his brother. He needed her to know how much all their time together has meant to him, so before they went their separate ways to get ready for the next trial, he took her hand.

 

“I know I’ve said it a bunch of time already, but thank you for today. I mean that.” And he bent to kiss her hand, then before embarrassment could take him, he abruptly turned and walked down the hallway, leaving a blushing Rey in his wake.

 

***

 

The remaining 20 candidates of the competition gathered once again in the field, this time it was arranged into one large arena with stands on the sides. The noblemen who didn’t make the qualifying rounds were seated in benches set up as an audience for the next challenge. Again, there was a stage set up and while the princess took her seat, Rey stepped to the front, now dressed in her usual garb of quarter-sleeve shirt, vest cloak and stylish trousers, announcing the next phase of the competition.

 

“Good day gentlemen, and congratulations on making it to the second round of this competition. You fought valiantly in the qualifying rounds, but it doesn’t end there. This next trial shall once again test your strength and strategy, but even more so than the last. The name of the game is Calvary Clash! You will split into five groups of four, the five top victors from yesterday’s tournament will be the team captains. Of the four group members, the team captain will be the ‘rider’ and the other three teammates will be the ‘horses’, one in front, two in rear. Team captains will have one crown on their head, each crown is worth a certain point value depending on where that team captain placed on the final match yesterday. You have 30 minutes to try and steal each other’s crowns, at the end of those 30 minutes, the top 3 teams with the most points move on to the next challenge which will be revealed tomorrow. Important rules: if you lose your crown, you are not out, you can continue chasing others for their crowns. If the rider falls and touches the ground, that team loses all the crowns they have, those crowns are then placed in the middle of the arena and may not be touched for 5 minutes, at the end of those 5 minutes, it is a free for all, any team may take it. Just like yesterday, no serious maiming to other opponents, and any intent to injury will be punished. We will break for lunch, use the next two hours to choose your teams and strategize. The point values are posted here.”

 

Rey revealed a board on an easel, and immediately turned away to join the princess for lunch as the men swarmed to look at the point values.

 

Duke Bennet of North Valley                                                  200 Points

Sir Leonard of the Grey Plains                                                400 Points

Duke Marcos of the Northern Hills                                       800 Points

Duke Percival of West Borough                                             1,600 Points

Duke Hayden of Westfield                                                      10,000 Points

 

Hayden felt 19 pairs of eyes on him. He could practically hear the logic in their minds, in a game like this, all teams would be aiming for those 10,000 points on his crown. It would be more difficult keeping that crown for 30 minutes than it would be to steal it, the odds were against him. Now who the hell would want to be on his team? This is more troublesome than it’s worth, but still, Hayden never backs down from a challenge. He put his mind to work.

 

***

 

“Duke Conrad”

 

Hayden’s first choice for a horse in his calvary team was Conrad. He was one of the few men larger than Hayden, and Hayden already had a mutual respect with him, he thought his chances were good.

 

“Ah, Duke Hayden.”

“I saw you speaking with Duke Marcos, thinking of joining his team?”

“That prick? As if I’d want his arse on my shoulders.”

“And how would you feel about my arse on your shoulders?” Conrad gave him a look, so Hayden backtracked.

“Okay, bad choice of words, but seriously, I’d like you on my team. Something about our match yesterday gave me an idea, and I need you to carry it out. And to carry me, let’s face it, not many men here could handle being my lead horse.”

 

Hayden then went into his explanation, and although Conrad was interested, he wasn’t convinced.

 

“Who else are you planning on asking? We need someone who would be able to keep up.”

“I’ve heard of one man who’s strength is his agility. He may not have skill, but that wouldn’t be necessary so long as he can keep up and uphold our left flank.”

“Who?”

“Sir Ronald of Green Valley.”

“Him?! I thought he forfeited to you on absurd grounds.”

“Yes, he did, but look, he’s alone over there, no one wants him due to his lack of skill and his cowardice. We don’t exactly have much choice, everyone else would rather be on a team aiming to steal the 10,000 point crown.”

“…you’re team captain, do as you wish. I’ll support you.”

“Thank you Conrad.”

 

Hayden when to speak with Sir Ronald, who initially declined, but on realizing his scarce options, begrudgingly accepted.

 

“I’m only using you for a win, nothing more, brute.”

“Yeah, yeah, I don’t care.”

 

Hayden, Conrad and Ronald circled up and started discussing strategy with Hayden leading, but they still needed a fourth, that is until someone walked up to them.

 

“Room for one more?”

“Possibly. What is your name?”

“I am Duke James of Glass Lake. I would like to join your team.”

“Any motives?”

“You seem like a winning team, and I like to win. Plus Marcos and Percival are pricks, and Bennet and Leonard aren’t the brightest bunch.”

“Good enough for me.”

 

And with that, Hayden had a team. They quickly ate their lunch before heavily discussing strategy for the remaining time they had.

 

***

 

“Riders! Mount your teams of horses! The battle will begin in 5! 4! 3! 2! 1!”

 

Each team began racing towards Hayden, hands outstretched for his crown, but his horses sprung to action. They were able to dodge most attacks, but they couldn’t run forever, so they changed tactics just they how they planned in their strategy.

 

“Get it Marcos!” Duke Marcos had his arm outstretched, getting close to Hayden, who looked to his right and saw Duke Bennet’s team there.

“Now Conrad!”

 

Conrad tossed Hayden into the air, just like he did with the giant boulders from their match, and Hayden angled himself towards Bennet. Bennet was caught off guard and couldn’t react fast enough to prevent Hayden from taking his crown. As soon as Hayden got hold of the crown, he jumped off, praying Conrad would catch him, and he did. His team cheered.

 

“Well done, but the job’s not over.”

 

Hayden now took his crown off his head, the crowns were simple, made of leather and with large points written on the front. He flipped it inside out, and followed suit with the other one from Bennet before placing them back on his head, it wouldn’t help preventing the other teams from stealing his crown, but at least it would cause more confusion and increase his chances of keeping the 10,000 point crown until the end. The game continued with close calls, everyone was after anyone with a crown, but the prized jewel was still being hunted.

 

“On our right” James warned as Sir Leonard gained closer.

“They won’t catch up, veer right towards Marcos.”

 

Hayden was right, although he wasn’t the lightest, and Conrad wasn’t the fastest, Conrad still had experience lifting and carrying obscenely heavy objects. The team’s agility was better than most, as they were not used to shouldering the extra weight. Once they got closer enough to Marcos, Hayden stretched out his arm, and with James’ positioning, he was able to grab Marcos’ crown. He now had 11,000 points, and turned the new crown inside out, slipping it onto his head.

 

“Look out! Sir Leonard on our back!” Ronald yelled but it was too late, they swiped up one of his crowns.

“Please tell me they took the 200.”

 

Hayden checked his remaining crowns, 1,000 total.

 

“Our 10,000 is gone.”

“We can get it back” Conrad said with confidence.

“Not right now, we’ll save that one for the end. Quick on our left.”

 

The next 10 minutes were frenzied, Bennet took his revenge, swiping the 200 point crown from them, which was then stolen by Leonard. Marcos stole the 10,000 from Leonard, which was then taken by Percival until Leonard got it back. Hayden took a shot at Leonard, who also turned his crowns inside out after seeing the strategy from Hayden. When he pulled the crown away, he realized he only took the 400 Leonard had to begin with. More crown exchanges, and then Percival took both Hayden’s 400 and 800 crowns, with Marcos stealing the 400 from him.

 

“Not good, not good.” Ronald muttered.

“Shut up!” Conrad yelled.

 

Hayden kept his cool, keeping count in his head. It was never good to lose your calm on the battlefield, this is no different. There’s 2 minutes left, now everyone is putting their crowns inside out, but if I calculated correctly, and judging by their reactions on seeing the points, I’m guessing the score is like this:

 

Duke Bennet of North Valley                                                  0 Points

Sir Leonard of the Grey Plains                                                10,000 + 200 = 10,200 Points

Duke Marcos of the Northern Hills                                       400 Points

Duke Percival of West Borough                                             1,600 + 800 = 2,400 Points

Duke Hayden of Westfield                                                      0 Points

 

At this point we won’t qualify in the top three. We have to steal from either Percival or Leonard. If we steal from Percival, we automatically lock in at either 2nd or 3rd place, but if we steal from Leonard we have a 50/50 shot at 1st. I don’t want to lose, if we lose, I go back to Usianawald and I can’t, not yet, not when there’s still so much I want… Hayden was choosing between glory and logic, but one glance at Rey and his mind was made up. He ordered his horses to aim at Percival, but Marcos was faster and beat him to it, their combined three crowns kept changing hands, Hayden wasn’t sure which ones were which, and the two were still brawling, he had to make up his mind.

 

“Move forward, run past Percival and Marcos and aim for Leonard!”

 

They ran, once reaching Leonard, Hayden easily blocked his attack. They fought for a second before Hayden saw his opening and took a crown, holding on for dear life. His team ran farther off before asking him to check the crown.

 

“Which one did you grab?!”

 

Hayden looked down at the crown in his hands and saw a large 200 written on it. Just then the announcement was made that time was up. Hayden dismounted from his seat upon the 3 men’s shoulders and looked at them dejectedly.

 

“I’m sorry, it’s only the 200, we didn’t make it.”

 

James stepped forward, revealing something in his hands.

 

“I wouldn’t say that, I sniped this from Percival and Marcos’ little brawl on the way to Leonard.”

 

He held out a crown with 1,600 points written and once the team got over their shock, they rejoiced louder than the first place winners. Rey went around, collecting the crowns and noting the final scores. She threw a wink at Hayden when she took the crown from his hands and his heart stopped for a moment. She’s going to be the death of me. She made it back on stage to officially announce the winners.

 

“In third place, Duke Percival of West Borough with 800 points, in second place, Duke Hayden of Westfield with 1,800 points, and in first place, with a reward of joining Princess Edina for tonight’s banquet,  Sir Leonard of the Grey Plains with 10,000 points! So sorry Duke Bennet, Duke Marcos, you and your teams have been eliminated from the competition.”

 

After cheers and shouts of celebration, the contenders and the audience dispersed, with Hayden going to join his subordinates.

 

“My Lord, I’ve never seen you work so hard for something you care so little about.” Mark teased.

“Excuse me?” Hayden raised an eyebrow, but even his friends’ teasing couldn’t sour his mood.

“You have no intention of marrying the princess, yet you aim to win a competition set for her hand.”

“I’m a man of honor, if I’m in a competition I fight to win, no matter the reward.”

“I’d say a man of strategy more than honor. And you realized if you’re out of the competition, then miss right hand of the princess is out of your sight.” Kian added.

“Why don’t you just tell her you fancy her over the princess? Ask for her hand instead?” Chris said with a smirk, he rarely spoke out of turn, but couldn’t resist.

“Keep that up Chris, and I’ll write a letter to Ria about your feelings for her! Or better yet, I’ll send one to Ritrel, he’ll clobber you before you get a chance with his sister.” Chris paled before blushing at being caught.

“Calm down my lord.” McFadden intervened “We just have your best interest at heart.”

“Yeah, that’s what Cayden said before carting me off here.” Hayden huffed.

“And he was right wasn’t he? If he didn’t, you wouldn’t have had an opportunity to meet the woman who changed your life, the woman who finally unlocked your emotions, the ones you’ve kept bottled up for years.” Mc Fadden continued.

“Alright that’s enough, let’s just focus on getting ready for banquet, I’m famished.”

 

***

 

The noblemen retired to their rooms, some for rest, some to pack up their bags to head back to their dukedoms. By the time they assembled for banquet, there were only 90 people, the 12 noblemen who made it to the next round, some noblemen who decided to stay to spectate the competition, and the guards and attendants who came to escort the noblemen. As Hayden walked in he scanned the room for a familiar face but he couldn’t find Rey, that is until he heard a pair of footsteps halt behind him, and her voice saying “Looking for someone?”

 

Hayden was an aloof guy, but after his conversations with her, being aloof lost its appeal. It was much more fun being direct with what you want, especially if the result is worth it, and it was.

 

“You.” Rey blushed and Hayden smiled, glad he got the reaction he was looking for.

“Well then, what are we waiting for?”

 

Rey looped her arm through his and led them to a smaller deserted table. Again, not proper for a lady to grab a duke’s arm when he didn’t offer it, but he didn’t mind, and he felt that she knew he wouldn’t mind. Or rather, she knew he wanted her to. Which led him to wonder, does she do this with other men too?

 

“How do you do that?” Hayden couldn’t contain himself

“Do what?”

“Just…disregard…etiquette?”

“Does it bother you?” Rey asked, she looked almost nervous, the first time Hayden ever saw her so.

“Honestly, no. It’s refreshing, seeing someone of high status do what they want, regardless of any consequences.”

“Consequences? What sort of consequence would I receive by forcing you to escort me?” She smirked.

“Well, some nobles may think it’s distasteful, you could fall out of favor with some, the princess could disclaim you, I could attack you-“ She interrupted him with a snort.

“You could attack me?”

“I mean, I wouldn’t, but if you did it to other men, I can’t speak for them.”

“First of all, I wouldn’t do it with other men, you’re special” she threw him a wink “second, I can take care of myself, don’t you worry.”

 

Hayden was silent for a moment.

 

“Why me?”

“What do you mean?”

“Why am I special? Why did you choose me to get over your fear of men?”

“…because, from the moment I met you, you spoke to me as an equal, as if you knew not to underestimate me. Even when all you really knew was that I was a woman, and probably a commoner working at the palace. You spoke with honesty and integrity. You have pride, but aren’t arrogant. It was…refreshing, being in your presence that day in the garden. You have kindness and humility in you, our trip to the outer villages proved that. How you gave up your shot at the throne for Cayden…you’re special.”

 

Just like that morning, her words took his breath away. For someone to think that about him, to consider him more than just a commoner knight turned duke, more than just the butcher of Usianawald, the blood thirsty hero of the war…and the craziest part was that she knew all of that about him. She knew of his power, but still chose to look past it.

 

“You’re unlike anyone I’ve ever met.” Hayden said reverently. She may not conform to etiquette, but that didn’t matter when she proves over and over again that she deserves more respect than all the nobles of Usianawald and Bayonnia combined.

 

“I’d say the same about you. Everyone always tries to kiss up to the princess, and me by default. What’s worse is that they sugarcoat things, thinking we aren’t ‘sophisticated enough’ to understand their ‘complex’ ideas, when the truth is we understand their ideas better than they do. We build on them, make them more efficient, more effective, but instead the council gets all the credit. It’s so frustrating. That’s why we could use a king like you, to treat everyone fairly, give everyone a chance.” Rey finished.

 

“You really think I would be that great of a king? Your description sounds more like Cayden-“

“Don’t start on that. As if my conversations with you weren’t enough, your actions on and off that field today prove how brilliant a king you would make. I know those strategies were yours, I saw how you analyzed Duke Conrad’s fighting style and used it to your advantage. You needed someone with agility and you sought Sir Ronald even after he disrespected you, but you put your goal in front of your pride just like how a king would put the needs of his people before himself. Or the strategy with the crowns, how the other teams realized your genius and followed suit. You’re a leader, Hayden, a fantastic leader and I know you said you promised never to be king of Usianawald, but you have to stop denying that you would be a magnificent one.”

 

Again Hayden’s heart swelled with her praise, but with it so did his frustration.

 

“You say that I would be a great king, that I should stop denying it, but what about you?”

“What about me?”

“You’re passionate, you care about the people of this kingdom, you know them by name, by face, and they know you too by your kindness and compassion. You’re outspoken in all the best ways, complex, you speak your mind and your mind is brilliant! You completely disregard etiquette but at the same time you have immeasurable tact and wisdom. You have sound judgement, analyzing situations and making well thought decisions, leading confidently and speaking with authority. I don’t know why you serve the princess, who seems like she’s never had an original thought of her own. You would be a better leader for this country than her.”

“Are you insinuating I betray my master, my monarch, to seek the throne for myself? I would never be so disloyal as to even think-“

“Are you not are insinuating that I should do the same to Cayden, not only my monarch but my brother whom I love more than I love myself?”

“I did not say that you would be a better king than him, just that you would be great-“

“They are part and parcel! By saying I would be great is to have me compare myself to him. You don’t know what we've been through, but the last thing I would ever do is compare ourselves the way our parents compared us.”

“You’re right, I’m sorry, I only know you by the actions I’ve witnessed and-“

“The actions you’ve witnessed over the course of three days! Hardly enough time to get to know anyone.”

 

Rey opened her mouth for a rebuttal, but thought better and closed it. After a moment of thinking she finally said “You’re right. After all, if you can’t fall in love in a week, how can you possible claim to know someone in just three day’s time. I apologize for any…frustrations or inconveniences I may have caused you. Have a good night.”

 

She spoke with an eerie calmness, and once she was finished speaking she stood up and walked away from him and her half-eaten dinner. When Hayden looked down at the state of her barely touched wine he felt wretched. She only wanted me to look at myself in a better light, pointing out positive qualities I’ve blinded myself to. I’ve been drowning in self-hatred for so long, I couldn’t even remember what it was like to receive true, positive admiration. I’m a self-sabotaging bastard. Hayden started walking back to the room when his soldiers found him.

 

“I thought you would have been walking back later than us. Where’d miss nameless-right-hand-of-the-princess go?” Kian said.

“I don’t want to talk about it.”

“Oh that means you should absolutely talk about it.” Mark couldn’t contain his laugh.

“Yeah man, what happened?” Chris cut in.

“Any chance I had with her? Probably ruined it.”

 

They guys breathed a sigh of sympathy. They asked for more details but Hayden wouldn’t say until they got to their room, in case any stray ears were around. Once they arrived and closed the door, Hayden went into his abridged explanation of what happened.

 

“Yeah, definitely not good, but totally salvageable.” Kian advised.

“You really think so?”

“Absolutely! Just say you’re sorry things got so out of hand.”

“Yes, if she’s as great as you say she would understand and probably apologize herself.” Mark added.

“The important thing is that you seek her out first, go to her as soon as you can, don’t let bitter feelings fester.” Chris said wisely.

“hmmm, I know just the place.” Hayden responded, already forming a plan in his head.

Chapter Text

Morning came and Hayden got up before dawn, needing to make sure he didn’t miss his chance, and his efforts paid off. Not ten minutes after he arrived at the stables, Rey showed up as well, again dressed as a commoner.

“Good Morning, my lady.”
“Good Morning Duke of Westfield.”

Hayden cringed internally at her use of formality, recognizing that she was still bothered about their conversation from last night.

“What are you doing here?” She asked.
“I came, hoping I may accompany you again today. That, and uh, to apologize for my behavior last night.”
“I see.” Hayden could see a hint of a smile in her expression.
“Yes, so, uh, I apologize. I did not intend to imply that you should make any sort of betrayal, I’m sure you are as devoted to your monarch as I am to mine. I just…I’m not very good at accepting any sort of praise, and it feels that is all you give me. I’m also bad at giving praise, so my attempt at reciprocating it…backfired. To put it lightly, so, uh…”

Rey’s smile grew with each word of Hayden’s apology until she let out a giggle, and then a full out laugh.

“Please tell me that your laughing means you forgive me?”
“Oh dear, I’m sorry to laugh, especially when it’s obvious that you’re trying so hard. Have you ever apologized before? I’ve never seen you so uncertain, so unsure of yourself.”

At that even Hayden had to laugh.

“Yes, I accept your apology, though it is hardly necessary. You were right, I shouldn’t have pushed you. You said I was outspoken like it was a good thing, but last night was an example of how it can also lead to stubbornness, which is not very prudent. So I’m sorry as well. Anyway, let’s mount this horse and get to the kitchens, we have people in need to feed.”

She flashed him a bright, happy smile and all his worries melted away. They continued about their morning, meeting Ingrid at the kitchens to pick up left over food from last night’s banquet and then they took off towards more villages, different from the ones they visited yesterday. They rode at a slower pace to make conversation easier, and they talked about anything and everything, getting to know each other better. Hayden marveled at how easy it was, he felt like he could truly be himself with her, a version of himself he liked much better than any other. He used to think it would be impossible for him to fall in love, let alone in a week, and here she proved him wrong in just 4 days. Once all the baskets were distributed, they made it back to the castle and ate breakfast on the bench, continuing their conversation all the while.

“You and King Cayden did that?!” Rey said laughing.
“Oh yeah, don’t get me wrong, we did not prank my father often in fear of retribution, but it was his birthday and my father acted as if he didn’t even know he had a second son, he deserved it. But yeah, the ink in his tea turned his teeth black for a week!” Rey laughed harder and Hayden joined her.
“Wow…what did your mother say?”
“She said I was very clever for thinking of such a prank…but her praise didn’t mean much. She treated Cayden much the same, pretending he didn’t exist since he was only her stepson. She didn’t do anything to hide her favoritism towards me, I hated it. She would always compare us, saying I was better, smarter…that’s why I hate comparisons between us. He grew up to be just as smart, just as strong as me, and he did it with a heavy burden on his shoulders. That’s why I support him, I want to make sure he never encounters any obstacles alone.”

Rey put her hand on Hayden’s, a comforting gesture. He could feel her warmth seeping into his skin in the morning chill. Rey looked out into the morning sky before speaking.

“King Cayden has done a great job leading Usianawald, I have no qualms over him living a long life on the throne. I know I’ve said it before, but after last night…I just want to make sure you know that I mean that.”
“I do, thank you.”
“I understand why you wouldn’t want the crown. Making sure you get the last word on your father, wanting to support your brother, not wanting a murderer on the throne…but what if you could have all of those things and still be king?”
“What do you mean?”
“If you didn’t have to choose between those and the throne, would you take it?”
“…I’ve spent all these years thinking it was an impossibility, kind of hard considering it as one. Or even fathoming the circumstances in how that can happen.”
“Well, what if, and we’re talking hypotheticals, but what if you fell in love with the princess and married her. You told your father you would never become king of Usianawald, and you wouldn’t, you would become king of Bayonnia. As King of Bayonnia, you could still support your brother by forming a strong alliance between the two kingdoms. And even though you may have shed blood in the past, the blood shed wasn’t for the sake of the Bayonnian throne, you acquired it through just means.”

Hayden was taken aback, she brought up excellent points, but it seemed too good to be true.

“I…never thought of it that way. Never thought of it as an option.”
“Well, what do you think of it?”
“…I don’t know. I mean, it’s kind of moot, right? Since I know I won’t fall in love with the princess.”
“Oh? How do you know that for certain? Besides, I said it was hypothetical. Come on, tell me what you think.”

Hayden eyed her, if he was going to answer her seriously, he needed to make sure she would take it seriously, no teasing or mocking. But she stared right back at him with the most earnest expression on her face, as if his answer held more meaning than he realized. It made him want to answer honestly, even if it went against what he always thought he knew.

“I think…I think I would like to rule as a king, and I think Bayonnia is an excellent country for that. I know that ruling a kingdom isn’t easy, but I enjoy challenges, I enjoy looking at a situation and trying to find the most efficient and effective strategy for it. I haven’t been here very long, but if these morning charity runs are anything to go by, I could definitely fall in love with the people…but, I don’t think it’s for me. I’ve never held that much power before, I’d be too afraid of becoming someone power hungry, like my father.”
“It’s precisely because you’re aware of that, that I know that would never happen. Like I said, the best kings are the ones who never wanted the power in the first place, they only wanted what was best for their people.”
“That may be true, but what’s also important is who you have beside you. I may not think it’s for me now, but if I think, if I had the right queen next to me…I wouldn’t hesitate to take up the throne.”

Rey beamed at his words, and he gave an embarrassed smile back, I’m talking like a romantic, what’s wrong with me, although he found he didn’t quite mind, what he said was true after all.

“Anyway, enough hypotheticals, we should get ready for the next challenge.”

***

Once again, the trial was taking place where all the other trials took place, in the large field. This time, the princess was not sitting on the stage, instead she was off to the side, sitting as a spectator next to a royal guard. Rey was on stage, announcing the details of the next phase in the competition.

“Welcome to the 3rd challenge of the competition! We started with 80 men, and are now down to 12. In the past two trials we have tested your strength and strategy against your fellow opponents, and you have proven yourselves. However, now is the last test of strength, this time you will be measuring your strength as it may compare to the toughest warriors Bayonnia has to offer! As King, you will have to be stronger than any foe you encounter, even if it’s your own knight.”

At this announcement, four knights came to join Rey on stage, one was very large, even larger than Duke Conrad, the others were also large however their muscle was leaner, for agility. They each wielded a different weapon, sword, spear, bow and arrow, and a mace.

“Here are the strongest, fastest and smartest warriors Bayonnia has to offer. For this match, you may choose your own opponent, anyone on this stage, but choose wisely. You will be judged on your choice, as well as your ability to best the opponent. Same rules that applied to the previous matches apply here, except matches will be limited to 20 minutes. We will proceed in a randomized order that has already been selected on the board below. Good luck!”

The 12 noblemen crowded the board so Hayden hung back until he could get a clear view, seeing that his match would be 10th. He went to the stands to spectate with his subordinates, taking mental notes of each warrior that entered the field, trying to decide which one he wanted to fight. For each match, the nobleman would decide who their opponent would be, the opponent would get off the stage, fight in the match, and regardless of the results the warrior returned to the stage. During the match, the warriors spectated from the stage, along with Rey…along with Rey. Hayden thought carefully about Rey’s words when she was announcing the challenge ‘you may choose your own opponent, anyone on this stage, but choose wisely’ – anyone on this stage. The princess isn’t on the stage, that choice was deliberate, Rey is one of the options!

As soon as the epiphany formed in his head, his number was being called by Rey herself. Time was running out, Hayden had to make a decision. Would it seem disrespectful for him to choose a woman as an opponent? What if he accidentally injured her? Would she be angry that he chose her? No, she can handle herself, she said so last night. Besides, she said I was special because I treated her as an equal. That’s it, I’m doing this. He reached his decision just as he reached the arena, walking through the gate, not stopping until he was in front of the stage.

“Duke Hayden of Westfield, choose your opponent, and choose wisely.” Rey said with a smirk, she was taunting him. That made him feel even better about his decision.
“You.”
“Excuse me?” Rey’s smirk grew.
“Well I’d call you by your name but you refuse to tell me it, lady nameless. I choose you as my opponent for this match.” Hayden said confidently, but Rey’s smirk turned maniacal.
“Wrong choice.”

A murmur went through the crowd as she made her way off the stage and to the armor and weapons tables. Taking off her usual vest cloak, she exchanged it for small, light weight feminine armor that Hayden hadn’t noticed when he was perusing the table. She gestured to a royal guard who came forward with a sword outstretched in his hand, Hayden again noticed the golden seal of the royal family on the hilt. Just like the horse. Does she use the princess’ sword so it doesn’t get rusty? Not long after he made his choice, she was in front of him looking fit for battle.

“Don’t worry, I’ll take it easy on you.” Hayden assured her playfully.
“I wouldn’t suggest that, after all, I won’t be going easy on you.”

And once the match started Hayden could tell she wasn’t joking. As soon as it was called, she went on the offensive, taking a deep lunge and narrowly missing his torso, catching him off guard.

“Looks like it wasn’t just the princess who studied Capo Ferro.” Hayden remarked.
“Who do you think she practiced with?” Rey responded before moving to attack again.

They continued like this, taking turns on offense and defence, attack, parry, lunge, dodge, feint, attack, counterattack, parry…it was like a dance where they had to anticipate the other’s moves. In between attacks they would speak, usually to goad the other, and always in a flirtatious manner. It was easily the most entertaining match to watch for the audience, after all it was the butcher of Usianawald up against a woman, the right hand of the princess. It was getting close to the 20 minute marker and the attacks were getting more and more intense.

“Come on Hayden, end it. I know you can.”
“Really? How do you know I’m not at my limit.”

Lunge, dodge, attack, parry….

“Wouldn’t it be embarrassing to lose to a woman?” Rey provoked.
“And why would that be embarrassing? You’ve proven you’re a more than a worthy opponent.”

Rey was taken aback, and using that single moment of hesitation Hayden thrust forward with so much force that even with Rey catching it on her sword, it knocked her weapon to the ground. The strength of his attack caused her to lose her balance leading her to tripping over as well. She looked up at Hayden, and despite the pain in her buttocks she flashed him a huge smile.

“I yield.”

Hayden smiled back, outstretched his hand which she accepted gratefully, and helped her up. It was an excellent match, grabbing everyone’s attention, including the next 2 noblemen, number 11 being Percival. He walked towards the arena while speaking to a personal guard, and Hayden caught on to what he was saying.

“My lord, is that wise? It took Duke Hayden the full 20 minutes to beat her.”
“Because he was going easy on her of course! I’ll beat her in 10, no, 5 minutes! I really must thank Hayden for finding that loophole!”
“Sire I don’t think he saw it as a-“
“Nonsense, she’s a woman, no one could ever see her as a real threat, especially not a brute from Usianawald.”

Hayden shook his head and tuned out the rest of the conversation as he quickly found his seat among the spectators, he couldn’t wait to see Percival get his ass handed to him by his badass woman.

It took less than 5 minutes for Rey to beat Percival, and even less than that for the 12th candidate who chose her again, thinking she’d be tired from having fought in 2 matches prior. The 3rd trial was over and now only 5 candidates remained, Duke Hayden, Duke Conrad, Duke James, Sir Leonard and Sir Frederick, a man who was on Duke Percival’s cavalry team the day prior. Soon enough it was time for the banquet and the 5 victors were once again rewarded with dinner with the princess. Hayden was uninterested and had McFadden tell the head table that he wasn’t feeling well. Instead he looked for Rey but when he couldn’t find her anywhere in the dining hall he took food to go and started roaming the castle while chewing on a bread roll. It took 30 minutes, but Hayden finally found her in the garden where they first met, sitting on a bench by a fountain. There were lanterns glowing all around, illuminating her hair in the dark.

“Fancy seeing you here.” Hayden greeted her.
“Hayden, I thought you were having dinner with the princess.”
“Eh, I wanted better company.”

Rey smiled and gestured to the seat next to her on the bench, beckoning him to sit with her.

“Are you hungry?” He held out his napkin with rolls, cheeses and meats on it.
“Hmmm I snuck some food from the kitchen earlier…but I can’t deny myself bread.” She giggled as she took a roll and a slice of sausage to nibble on. Hayden took a closer look around.
“I was never one for nature’s beauty, but I have to admit, this garden is even more beautiful at night.” He commented.
“Hmmm, yes, this patch in particular. These flowers have such vivid colors and the lanterns’ light reflect them so strikingly. It’s exquisite.”

Hayden looked at Rey while she admired the flowers.

“Yes, it is.”

They finished eating their food, recounting the events of the day and talking well into the night. The three consecutive matches tired Rey out, she ended up dozing on Hayden’s shoulder, which he didn’t mind, but after 15 minutes he slowly woke her up and insisted on walking her to her room.

“Do you trust me enough now to walk you to your room?”
“Hmmm yes, as if I’d go without my pillow.”

They walked the whole way with her head on his shoulder, their arms clasped together. Her room was in the east tower, he noted. Her door looked ornate, almost more ornate than the princess’ which was across the hall, and when he went inside to tuck her into bed he thought it seemed way more lavish than a princess’ right hand’s room had any right to be. But then Rey was mumbling something and the thought left his head. Once she was tucked in and he was sure she was asleep he gave her forehead a light kiss and quietly left the room.

***

After spending that time in the garden with Rey, Hayden found he wasn’t really in the mood for sleep so he continued roaming the hallways and eventually made his way outside again. He was walking to the field when he spotted a familiar figure who also seemed to be an insomniac tonight, Duke James. Before Hayden could avoid it, James spotted him and started walking towards him.

“Good evening Duke Hayden.”
“You as well Duke James.”
“Clever thinking, realizing that the princess’ right hand was an option, although it may have back fired. Your match lasted the longest, you were well matched, but I’m sure you could have easily beaten one of the other knights.”
“Well I can’t help it, she loves to antagonize me and I wanted to repay the favor. You fought well, you defeated your opponent the quickest, even though your sword had a shorter reach than his spear.”
“Hmm I have experience with it, that’s all. They said this was the last test of strength, but there’s 5 people left, what do you think the other trials are going to be?” James pondered.
“Well, considering it’s the princess’ right hand calling all the shots, I’d guess whatever the next trial is, it’ll test our kindness and compassion. We’ve already proven we’re strong enough to be king, that we can lead others, but there’s more to a king than just that.”
“You seem to know her pretty well, I see you at banquet together often.”

Hayden shrugged, playing off his insinuation, not wanting to bring their relationship into the light.

“She’s interesting. You don’t meet many women like her.”
“Indeed, although the princess may grow envious of the attention you lavish on her as opposed to the princess herself.”

Hayden sensed deeper meaning in James words, maybe he think’s I’m kissing up to Rey just to get to the princess.

“That doesn’t matter so much to me, I’m not really aiming for the princess.”
“Then why are you here?” Hayden was growing irritated, it was fine when Rey would ask questions like that, but otherwise he didn’t like people prying.
“To show Bayonnians that Usianawaldians would make better kings of their country than them.” Hayden said cheekily.
“You Usianawaldians are all the same, thinking you’re better than everyone else.”
“Oh really? How many other Usianawaldians do you know?” Hayden said, his anger growing even though he knows he started it.
“There’s Ducaine-“
“Don’t you dare compare me to that pig headed bastard!!”
“Oh right, you didn’t like him did you, that’s why you beheaded him in your trail of blood-“
“Do you have a problem with me?”
“Well I didn’t until you insulted our kingdom and our monarchy!” James was getting more and more heated.
“You insulted your monarchy all on your own by insulting Usianawald! Is not your princess, and sole heir to the throne, the offspring of Ducaine himself? Every Bayonnian I’ve met has looked down on Usianawaldians, all except the princess’ right hand, but when you look down on my kingdom, you look down on your princess as well.”

Before James could rebuttal, they heard a scream. Looking towards the castle gates they saw a handful of servants rushing out, with more and more people following them. Hayden and James leapt to action, running towards the gates to find an informant on what was happening inside.

“FIRE! THERE’S A FIRE!”

Hayden immediately began looking around for familiar faces, his guards, his woman, but he finds none. He turns to James and at the same time they speak “We have to go in there!” They needed no other explanation and fought the crowd towards the castle entrance, on their way they ran into both of their guards.

“My lord!” McFadden yelled, relief apparent in his eyes.

He was supporting a servant woman who seemed to have a disability and had trouble walking. Hayden looked around McFadden and saw his remaining three guards, each supporting or carrying either children or people who needed help getting out of the castle. Next to them were James’ men doing the same. We’re all the same, honorable men in times of need. I’ll need to apologize to him later Hayden thought begrudgingly.

“Have you seen the princess?” James asked the group of men.
“No, nor have I seen her right hand.” Chris spoke looking directly at Hayden.

Hayden looked up towards the east tower where he just dropped off Rey and could see smoke coming out of a window. The tower was fairly isolated, there was a chance they wouldn’t know about the fire until it was too late. Kian followed his line of sight and understood.

“Be careful your grace.”
“What? My Lord! No!” McFadden tried to object, but couldn’t prevent it while still helping the woman.
“James, there’s an entrance through a garden around the castle, it might be the quickest route considering this crowd.” Hayden said as he clasped James’ shoulder.

James nodded and followed him and he tore off in the direction of the garden pathway. As they passed through Hayden wildly looked around for anything that could help them and during his search he saw a large coil of rope. He had to think fast, the rope could be useful, but it could also slow us down. Suddenly they heard a crack of wood burning and Hayden quickly grabbed the rope and followed after James, this is no time to hesitate, if it slows me down too much, I’ll just drop it on my way. They made it inside the castle and raced towards the east tower, tying their handkerchiefs around their noses and mouths as the fumes became harder to bear. Halfway there they encountered Conrad who was carrying someone.

“Conrad!”
“Hayden! James! I have the princess!” In his arms was the princess, barely conscious.
“Did you see anyone else?” James asked.
“No, some servants came but I had it handled. The guards were all ordered to fight the flames.”
“What about her right hand? Did you see her?” Hayden asked trying to keep his racing heart calm.
“No.”
“Damn it, her room was across the hall from the Princess, and she was asleep. James, you help Conrad, secure the princess’ safety! I’m going to look for her right hand!”

Before he could hear any objections, Hayden dashed off, taking to the stairs leading up to the tower, grateful he walked her to her room that same night. How different this same route felt then and now. He took the stairs two at a time, going as fast as he could but by the time he reached the 4th flight of seven, the weight of the rope was draining him, as he no longer had James helping him carry the large coil. Making another split decision he dropped it off at the 4th floor landing and kept running. With every step he took the heat grew, begging him to shed his jacket but he persevered, knowing that the jacket was his best defense against the blistering heat. He finally reached her floor, he almost missed it as this particular tower had nine floors but hers was only on the 7th. Fortunately her door was not too far, but unfortunately Hayden could clearly see why no one has seen her, there was a fallen pillar blocking part of her door. He approached the door, the pillar was ablaze on one side and the flames were slowly making its way to the center, he had to act fast. He pounded on the door, praying she was awake, and began yelling.

“ARE YOU THERE?”
“Hayden? Is that you!! HAYDEN! Help me!! My door is jammed!” She sounded frantic.
“I know, there’s a pillar here blocking it, it’s catching fire!”
“Oh god, Hayden. It might already be too late, you should get to safety.”
“I’m not leaving you here! It’s going to be okay. Do you have any windows in your room?” Hayden asked, keeping his head steady.
“Windows? Yes, but I can’t possibly jump, we’re 100 feet in the air!”
“No, don’t jump! I have access to a long rope-“
“How would that help me? I can’t get to the rope.”
“What’s in the room above you?” They had to talk faster, the fire was getting closer.
“It’s a study!”
“Okay, I’m going to go to the study with my rope and get to your room from the window, make sure it’s open!”
“Okay! Be careful!!”
“I will, hang in there!”

Hayden sprinted back to the staircase, down to the 4th floor landing, and then up to the 8th floor, the new wave of adrenaline kicking in making the rope feel weightless. Once he got to the study he looked for something to tie the rope to, finding a large column to the side. Once one end of the rope was secure, he rolled the rest of the coil down the side of the tower, praying it would reach the ground, it was hard to check as it disappeared into the dark. He got out of the window and began to rappel down the side of the tower on the single rope, stopping once he reached her open window. He jumped through and she threw herself into his arms.

“HAYDEN! Thank you!” Hayden gripped her tightly before forcing himself to let go, they weren’t safe yet.
“Let’s go.”

They hastened to the window, him going first so that should she fall, he could catch her. They made their descent slowly, being careful not to slip and fall, but the smoke coming out of the two open windows grew. They were at level with the second floor when the integrity of the rope began to wane, they could see the rope had caught fire at the top, it was only a matter of moments when it would drop them. As soon as Hayden felt the taut rope give, he sprung to action, letting go of the rope to grab her, he wrapped her body in his to brace her from the inevitable fall. Once his body hit the ground, he rolled in an attempt to lessen the impact. It took a few moments for them to collect themselves from that near death experience, but even when they came to their senses, neither let go of the other person’s body, needing that comfort, that reassurance that they made it.

“Are you alright?” He asked her, his eyes boring into hers.
“You’re asking me? You took the fall, can you move?”
“I-I think so.” He tried to move his back and groaned.
“Oh god, I should get a doctor.” She tried extracting herself from his arms but he held her close.
“Don’t, let’s…let’s just stay like this, for a little longer.”

They closed their eyes and lying sideways they held each other quietly for what felt like days. Rey looked up at him, admiring his face from what she could see of the soft moonlight and the glow of the burning castle.

“Thank you for coming to save me.”
“I-I was losing my mind. I asked everyone, but no one saw you. I’ve never been so worried in my life.”
“I-I-I…”

There was so much Rey wanted to say, but everything was overwhelming she couldn’t find the words, so she did the only thing she could to show her emotions. She kissed him, and once he recovered from his shock he kissed her back with more fervor, deepening the kiss. Their bodies wrapped together, as if they couldn’t get closer to each other, and they stayed that way for what felt like hours, only coming up for air when their smoke weakened lungs needed to breathe. And then they kissed, again and again, they only stopped when they heard voices and footsteps approaching them. They got up to look for information as people ran back and forth, trying their best to put out the fire. Hayden’s guards found them, as well as Conrad, James and the princess, all relieved that they were safe. They were then carted off to a medical tent where doctors were checking over victims that were not so lucky. Exhausted, they ended up falling asleep on two cots next to each other, hands clasped between them. But when Hayden woke up, Rey was gone.

Chapter Text

Hayden got up from his cot in the large medical tent and went in search of his subordinates. It didn’t take long for him to find them, they camped outside the tent, faithfully watching over their lord.

 

“McFadden, report.”

“Sir! The fire was mostly isolated to the east wing, it was a team effort by everyone to stop the spread of the fire. Anyone staying in the east wing were relocated to the west. Luckily all of the guests for the competition were staying in the south wing, so our accommodations are untouched, although there is some damage due to smoke. Most of the Monarch’s valuables are in a fire proof safe in the north wing, or in their other castle at the Waldorf. There were no casualties.”

“Thank you. Now, why wasn’t anyone in charge of making sure the princess and her right hand were safe and accounted for!?”

“…”

“Well?!”

“We don’t know sir.”

“Well find out who is responsible for this oversight!”

“Will do, my lord.”

“Now, I will take my leave.”

“Where are you going sir? If I may ask.” Mark questioned, and Hayden didn’t bother lying, him and his guards were like brothers after all.

“To find her.”

 

They didn’t need to ask who he was talking about. He took off towards the stables, but once he arrived he saw that she wasn’t there. Idiot, we just suffered from a traumatic experience, of course she wouldn’t want to go on any errands this morning, no matter how compassionate of a heart she had. Dejected, he made his way back towards the castle when he saw Kian coming his way.

 

“Your grace, King Cayden is here to see you.”

“Cayden? Where?”

“He’s in the garden.”

 

Hayden made his way to the garden, worried over Cayden’s sudden appearance. Was Usianawald in trouble? Was someone trying to invade their kingdom? When he reached the garden he saw Cayden leisurely sipping tea and admiring the flowers. He spotted Hayden and a relieved smile spread across his face as he strode forward to embrace him.

 

“Hayden, I’m so glad you are alright. I came as soon as I heard about the fire.”

“Cayden, you didn’t need to, I’m fine.”

“Yeah well you try to keep your cool once you receive a message saying the castle your brother is at caught fire!”

“Shhh” Hayden looked around to see if anyone was around “come on, there’s a tea room we can speak in.”

 

Hayden led them to the tea room he had once occupied with Rey and Princess Edina.

 

“So, how’s it going? You know, other than the fire.” Cayden asked Hayden, waggling his eyebrows.

“Well, I made it to the 4th round.” Cayden brightened at his news.

“Fantastic! And how are you liking the princess? She’s quite amazing.”

“Yeah first of all, you never told me you’ve met her and that you even wrote her a letter when she was the princess of Usianawald. I feel like that’s kind of important information.”

“Ahhh sorry, I totally forgot to mention it. She told you about it?”

“Yeah, not really, her right hand told me about it.”
“Her right hand? Hmmm they must be close then.” Cayden looked thoughtful.

“And that’s the second thing. I’m not super fond of the princess herself.”

“Really? I would have thought if anyone was your type it would have been her. Compassionate, courageous, candid.” Hayden sighed at Cayden’s words.

“Well she must have changed in the years since you met her, because those don’t sound like her at all. In fact, they describe her right hand more.” Hayden blushed at the end.

“Oh? Sounds like quite the impressive woman. Oh my goodness Hayden are you blushing? Wait, you fancy her!” Cayden practically squealed with joy at the idea of his ever stoic brother having a crush on someone.

“Alright, alright, yes. We got to know each other over the past few days and honestly, I feel like she’s changed my life. I’m looking at things from a whole new perspective now, she makes me think differently, act differently. Made me realize things about myself I never had before. She’s amazing Cayden.” Hayden gushed.

 

He was happy to finally be able to confide in someone. His guards were like brothers, but they could never beat the relationship he had with his real brother.

 

“Hayden, I’m so happy for you. You know I just want you to be happy, and I know you don’t have to marry a princess for that. If she’s the one you want to spend the rest of your life with, I’ll support you.”

“I…thank you Cayden. I used to think I could never fall in love, let alone in a week, but now I’ve fallen in less than five days! I never thought I would get married, but now, there’s nothing I’d want more than to marry the woman who made me grow into a better person in less than a week.”

“I never thought I’d hear you waxing poetic, Hayden, but it’s a welcome change. I must meet her! But first, I did promise the royal guards that I would meet with the princess as well. They agreed to letting me see you first since the princess has been running around taking care of important issues as a result of the fire.”

“Really? Maybe Rey is with her then.”

“Rey? Is that her name?”

“Well, no. I actually…don’t know her name.”

“You’re ready to marry a girl and you don’t even know her name!?” Cayden didn’t know whether to laugh or to scold him.

“Hey! Names aren’t so important. You and I know that.”

“Well does she know your previous name was Hayden McGregor?”

“…yes.”

“Hayden!”

“So what does it matter? Her name will not change her, will not change how I feel about her. I love her, and I will do anything, take on any role, if it means I can be with her.” Hayden was never so sure about something in his life, it was fate that brought them together.

“Well alright then. If she’s as amazing as you say, which I’m sure she is since you aren’t one to exaggerate, then you have my full support. I’ll deal with Princess Edina.” Cayden grinned.

 

Just then, a royal guard came into the tea room, bowing low upon seeing Cayden.

 

“Your majesty, King Cayden. Princess Edina is ready to see you, I will take you to her, she is waiting in another tea room.”

“Thank you. Hayden, I’ll see you before I go, bring your future bride when we do meet.” He flashed him a wink before exiting the room.

 

***

 

Not knowing when Cayden would finish his talks with the princess, Hayden scoured the whole castle in search for Rey, but couldn’t find her. He was sure he checked every nook and cranny, except those that the royal guards did not allow him, although they assured him no ‘right hand of the princess’ resided behind the closed doors. After nearly two hours, Hayden’s search proved fruitless, he couldn’t find Rey anywhere, maybe she did go into the towns to distribute food, and she just left really early. In his reverie, he didn’t notice the princess until she was right in front of him.

 

“Duke Hayden” she greeted with a small bow.

“Your highness, Princess Edina.” He responded, with a bow of his own “I thought you were with King Cayden.”

“Oh! Yes, well we uh…oh um, we finished, a while ago, I guess. Oh! But I never mentioned, thank you for rescuing my right hand! I was so worried about her when I woke up in Duke Conrad’s arms.” Edina quickly changed the subject.

“It was nothing. Actually, do you happen to know where she is?”

“Oh, um, she’s been taking care of some things that popped up as a result of the fire.”

“Hmmm, I thought as much, but no royal guard had seen her. Alright well thank you, I’ll go find King Cayden then.

“Ah, yes. Enjoy, Duke Hayden.”

“Thank you, your highness.”

 

Hayden started down the hallway in the direction he came from and headed directly to the tea room Cayden was supposed to be in. Once he arrived, he found the door open and Cayden leaving.

 

“King Cayden.” Hayden greeted him with a bow, keeping up appearances since there were servants in the hallway. “Were you coming for me?”

“Yes, Princess Edina literally just left. I don’t see what you mean, she was a delight, wonderfully candid with me.”

 

Hayden was befuddled, that didn’t sound right, and what did he mean she literally just left?

 

“How long ago did he leave? I ran into her in the hallway downstairs, coming from the opposite direction of this room.”

“When I say she literally just left, I mean she literally just left. She must have rounded the corner of the hallway as soon as you reached it. I got up just a minute after she did.”

“But that doesn’t make any sense, I just saw her…”

 

Hayden felt something nag in his head, but it was too cloudy, too many things weren’t connecting.

 

“Who knows, maybe she knows a secret passage we don’t. Anyway, I should be going now, I would have loved to stay for the end of the competition, I heard so many great things about your performance, but alas, Usianawald awaits.”

“You didn’t get to meet her yet.” Hayden was now even more confused, Cayden wasn’t the type to let something like this go, he’d be adamant about meeting the girl Hayden fell in love with.

“Oh, well, that’s fine, I just hope I’ll meet her before your wedding day.”

“Wait but-“

“Walk me to the entrance, my carriage is already ready.”

 

Hayden huffed at being dismissed, but he couldn’t exactly argue with his king in front of outsiders, and so he conceded.

 

“Safe travels, brother.” Hayden whispered the last word as he bowed low.

“You stay safe as well. And good luck to both you and your future bride.” He winked again, and Hayden swore if he winked one more time he’d punch him right in the eye.

 

***

 

He tried to find Rey again, before and after lunch, but gave up to get ready for the next trial, which would be the first time he saw her that day…except it wasn’t. For the first time in the past four days, the princess announced the trial on her own, and Rey was nowhere to be found.

 

“Good day to you all, and to Duke Hayden, Duke Conrad, Duke James, Sir Leonard and Sir Frederick especially. Congratulations on making it thus far, you prove to have the strength of a king, the ability to lead like one, and the strategy to keep our nation going. However that is not all that is necessary to be a king, you must also have compassion, and, of course, the ability to get along with your queen. For the 4th challenge you will each have a private, one on one meeting with your potential future bride, me. You must be able to show me your compassion, and why you outshine the others. At the end of the meetings, I will choose the top two men I thought were most fit to become king. Again, the order was chosen at random, please see the board below. Whenever the first candidate is ready, an attendant will show you to my personal tea room. Don’t leave me waiting long gentlemen.”

 

Once she left, the men gathered around the board and Hayden found that he was last, which was fine with him, he needed time to think about what he would say to the princess. He sought counsel from his guards, but they were less than helpful.

 

“Hah, one on one time with the princess? But you aren’t great at conversation!” Kian laughed.

“You’re the most anti-social person I’ve ever known.” Mark continued.

“Well, he has changed since meeting Lady Nameless, maybe he’ll be fine.” Chris gave him the benefit of the doubt which Hayden was grateful for.

“Except for the fact that Lady Nameless was the one who would initiate each conversation and keep it alive. If its just Hayden and the princess he’s doomed.” Kian reminded him.

“So what should I do?” Hayden asked, gritting his teeth at their total lack of sympathy or respect.

“Tell her the truth.” McFadden finally spoke up.

“What, that I’m in love with her right hand? That even though I joined this competition and became a finalist, I don’t actually want to marry the princess?” Hayden asked incredulously.

“Not in those words, but yes, along those lines.” All 4 men started speaking at once, giving their two cents in about what Hayden should do, but it was giving him a headache.

“Silence. I’ll just wing it, how hard can it be?” the men all looked at each other before face palming.

“Oh it can be hard, it can be very hard.”

 

***

 

Hayden’s date was going great, except it wasn’t. The guards were right, it was hard, and the date started with awkward silences between each strangled attempt at small talk.

 

“Alright, well, I guess let’s just get to it then, why do you want to be king?” Princess Edina started, cutting the crap small talk.

“To be honest, I don’t have any intention of becoming king.”

“…I’m sorry, what?”

“I don’t have any intention of becoming king, your majesty.”

“…um, well sorry to inform you, but if you win the competition and we get married, you don’t really have a choice.”

 

Hayden couldn’t tell how Edina was feeling as she still had the veil over her face. Maybe Mark was right, maybe Hayden was anti-social, he found it difficult understanding what other people were feeling, especially if he couldn’t see their expressions.

 

“If I win the competition, would I get to choose whom it is that I marry?”

“…I suppose, are you implying you wouldn’t choose me, the next monarch?”

“With all due respect, your majesty, but that is correct.”

“And why would you pass up an opportunity like that? Who would you wish to marry instead?”

 

Hayden expected her to be angry, which would have worried him if he had not spoken with Cayden that morning who promised his full support. But surprisingly, she didn’t sound angry at all, as if she had expected this.

 

“The woman who sits at your right hand.”

“Really? You would choose a commoner over a princess?”

“I was a commoner myself.”

“Liar. We both know you were of noble birth, though you threw it away. I guess it shouldn’t be surprising that you would throw this away as well.”

 

He wanted to feel anger at her words, they sounded condescending, but he found he didn’t really care.

 

“My life was nothing before meeting her, but she helped me find new meaning. I would throw away any title to be with her.”

“You could have been a great leader, you have the light, the essence of a king in your eyes, in the way you speak, in the way you fight. You would give all of that up? All that potential?”

“If that is how I truly am, she will help me find ways to live my life reaching my full potential, whether it be distributing food to the poor and hungry, or leading my own dukedom, I know we can push each other to be better. I know I can do anything with her support, that she would never lead me astray.”

“So you could do anything, be anything with her? And what if that meant being king?”

 

Hayden hesitated, this was just like Rey’s question to him before. If the circumstances aligned, if he could have everything he wanted and become king, would he do it?

 

“If she is the queen by my side, yes.”

“…you’re an interesting man, Duke Hayden of Westfield. Not many would give up the chance at the throne for a woman.”

“She’s one incredible woman.”

 

Not much was said afterwards, the princess only stated that she will reveal who she deems the finalists at banquet tonight before dismissing him. After having admitted his feelings for Rey to both Cayden and Edina that same day, Hayden was intent on telling Rey for himself. He didn’t want her to hear about it from someone else, but what’s more is he just needed her to know as soon as possible. He had been burying his feelings for years, and bit by bit she’s been unearthing them until he could finally admit out loud he was in love. But again, no matter how hard he searched Rey was nowhere to be found. He hoped she would be at banquet, but still she was missing. He was about to ditch when the princess commanded attention to give an announcement. He didn’t care too much considering he was sure he didn’t advance to the next and final round, but McFadden made him stay put with a “That’s enough impertinence from you, you’re lucky the princess hasn’t declared war with Usianawald what with all the lack of respect you’ve been showing her.” Begrudgingly, Hayden stayed to hear her out.

 

“Good evening gentlemen. Thank you so much for being on this journey with me, it has brought me much joy getting to know all of you, and it was difficult narrowing down the five of you to just two, but two stood out to me as having sincere hearts, passionate souls, and brilliant minds. Duke James of Glass Lake, and Duke Hayden of Westfield, you have proven yourselves worthy of becoming king-”

 

The princess continued but Hayden could barely hear her, and it wasn’t just because of the applause. I was chosen? Why was I chosen? I told her I didn’t want to marry her, why would she choose me anyway? He shook himself out of his trance and tuned back into what she was saying.

 

“tomorrow morning shall be your last and final test, we will ask you a question, a single question, and if you answer it correctly, the kingdom as well as the heart of it’s princess, shall be yours. Congratulations, and good luck.”

 

At the end of her speech, men were either congratulating Hayden or shooting him dirty looks, and he wasn’t sure which one he preferred. McFadden forced him to sit and eat, allowing more people to greet their potential future king. After a while he felt nauseas though he was sure if it was from the real praise or the false praise or the sausage he ate. He begged McFadden to let him get out for air, and after seeing the look on his face, McFadden acquiesced. His feet led him down the familiar path to the garden, its always the garden he thought, but it turns out the garden is exactly where he wanted to be when he saw Rey there, sitting on a swinging bench. His nausea turned relief at finally finding her, which then turned into lovesick butterflies once he remembered what happened the last time they were together.

 

“Hey, I’ve been looking for you.”

 

When she turned to face him he could see the exhaustion on her face. Any thought of continuing their previous activity disappeared, replacing itself with concern.

 

“Hey Hayden, sorry, I’ve been taking care of things around the castle today, writing letters to ensure the people of Bayonnia know they are safe and secure. That and assessing the damage from the fire. It’s been…a day.”

“Are you alright? That’s a lot to take on, considering what you just went through, you should take it easy.”

“Well, unfortunately I’m the only one who can take care of it so-“

“You? Why not King Lucas or Queen Gabrielle? Or better yet, Princess Edina?”

“Ah well, I had King Lucas relocated to another castle, the lingering smoke is not good for his already weak lungs. I arranged a carriage, but the carriage couldn’t accommodate the king’s doctor and I insisted on having the doctor escort him for his own safety, so I had to arrange alternate transportation. And then Queen Gabrielle is accompanying him as well. And Princess Edina…had other things to attend to.”

“Right, like talking to Cayden and those marriage interviews. So important.” Hayden rolled his eyes, really, for a princess to shirk her duties and make her right hand take on all the responsibility.

“Ha. Congratulations, by the way. It’s not official yet, but making it to the top two is still an accomplishment. Plus, James is great and all, but you’re better.”

“Thank you, but you already know I don’t want to win.”

 

Rey stayed silent and Hayden turned to her, admiring her profile. High cheekbones, perfect lips, rounded nose…she was beautiful, and it was the perfect opportunity to finally tell her he loved her.

 

“I need to tell you-“

 

But the sound of footsteps interrupted him.

 

“Excuse me, your grace. Her highness, Princess Edina is requesting the lady’s presence.”

 

Hayden’s heart dropped at the attendant’s words as Rey got up to leave. She turned to him, apologizing for having to leave him, when he took her hand and kissed it.

 

“I’ll see you at the challenge tomorrow morning. Get some rest tonight.”

“Mmmhmmm, Good night, Hayden.”

 

***

 

“This is it, your ticket to becoming king, a king of a nation that borders Usianawald! A chance to rule the world with Cayden! And you’re going to throw it all away?!” Kian asked flabbergasted.

“This shouldn’t be a surprise, you know how he feels about the woman.” Chris countered.

“Yeah, which was fine because who would have thought the lord would actually pass the personality test. But now he has and he’s this close!!” Mark put his fingers close together, practically touching.

“My lord, just, think about this, talk it through with us, and if at the end you’re still sure of your decision, you will have our support.” McFadden reasoned.

 

Kian and Mark tried to protest but McFadden silenced them, bringing full attention to Hayden.

 

“I never thought I’d fall in love, but now I have and it has changed me. I can’t live on just ignoring that, especially not to a princess who scarcely deserves the crown. The nation should be led by her right hand! I don’t see how there can be any rumors about how outspoken the princess is unless it was her right hand doing all the talking for her, doing all the leg work. It was her right hand who had all the compassion for her country, for her castle, for her king. She was exhausted and she showed much more care for all of those things than the princess ever did. Plus! They say the princess is hands on in her lifestyle, that she makes all decisions for herself, that she’s independent, but her right hand does everything for her! Choosing the trials, judging the men, she’s the one practically choosing the princess’s fiancé! Her right hand is so much more independent, and speaks with authority, as if the kingdom is hers to command, as if…”

 

Hayden grew quiet, letting his tirade fade. He looked up at his guards, at their expectant faces, and felt the epiphany that has been forming in his head for the past few days finally spring from his mind. All his motivations switched and only one thought occupied his mind.

 

“I have to win that competition.”

Chapter Text

The 5th and final challenge took place in the main hall with many spectators, some who came to the castle for the first time that very day. Hayden wore his best clothes, though James’ certainly outshone him in lavishness, I should have borrowed something from Cayden. The two finalists were standing in the front of the hall, right before an ornate podium, as everyone waited with baited breath. The princess wore a dress, bright blue and certainly attention grabbing, but compared to her other gowns, a bit less ostentatious. The real showstopper was Rey, who ditched her usual attire of vest cloak and trousers and instead donned a stunning red gown with gold embroidery around the bottom that faded seamlessly into the solid red top part of the dress. Her hair was down, another first, although loosely pinned back, looking elegant. Hayden was sure now more than ever. Rey stepped forward to the podium and began her announcements as she had for the first three challenges.

 

“Good Morning. Today we celebrate both the future union of two souls as well as the future leaders of our great nation! Duke Hayden of Westfield, Usianawald, and Duke James of Glass Lake, you have proved yourselves worthy of the throne through your bravery, intelligence, passion, and all traits best suited for a leader. We have one last challenge for you, a challenge that will separate for us the difference between a leader, and a king. I will ask you one question and you must answer it correctly, in return we will give you one chance to ask a question, any question at all, really, so long as it is not the same question I will ask you. You may use this one chance to gather information that can help you answer the question. We have done a coin toss, Duke James, you are first.”

 

James stepped forward and bowed before looking anxiously up at Rey, indicating he was ready for her question.

 

“Here is my question. What is my name?”

 

James took a small step back, physically showing his shock at the question, while Hayden smiled cheekily, laughing to himself. He expected James to throw a fit, say something along the lines of ‘that is your question? That is the question that you will use to devise whether or not I am worthy of being king?’ but to his credit, James remained calm, and for that, Hayden could respect him. The crowd however erupted in confusion and irritation, voicing out the very questions Hayden anticipated from James.

 

“May I have some time to think about my one question? That isn’t my question though!” James looked panicked. He doesn’t know, thought Hayden.

“Yes, you may have time to think about your one question. You may think out loud as well, if that will help you, just say ‘final question’ before asking.”

“I see, thank you.”

 

He began muttering to himself, and Hayden could barely make out what he was saying, but he strained his ears anyway.

 

“What question can I ask to help? Does it start with a vowel? No, that would only tell me whether her name started with one of five letters or one of twenty-one letters. Maybe, first half of the alphabet vs second half? That gives me a 50/50 shot of finding out which 13 letters her name starts with. Is that dumb? Why this question? What is the significance of this question? Is it because as king you should know all the names of your subjects? Or is it that the right hand is so close to her highness, we should be expected to know it? Or is it a lesson in etiquette, that we should always ask a person their name when meeting them? Kings have good etiquette, leaders don’t? No, that’s ridiculous. Urgh, how am I supposed to get her name right in one go? Should I ask if it’s a common name? No, there are tons of common names, and if its rare then how would I know it?-“

 

His ramblings continued for 5 minutes until he went silent, shoulders slumping.

 

“Are you ready?” She asked.

“Yes. Final question, does your name start with a letter in the first half of the alphabet or the second half?” She smiled as James grimaced.

“First half.” James sighed, knowing the answer didn’t help him in the slightest.

“Is it Anna?” Her face looked apologetic.

“I am so sorry, Duke James, but it is not.”

 

James nodded his head, bowed low, and too a step back, allowing Hayden to step front and center.

 

“Duke Hayden, what is my name?” She smiled hopefully at him, giving him courage.

 

“Hmmm, an excellent question, and one that I’ve asked you before, though you refused to answer it. Let’s see, what should my question be. Should I ask why you ride the princess’ horse for her every morning? Or perhaps why do you use a sword with the royal crest on the hilt when that is reserved for the royal family? Maybe I should ask why you know more about the princess’ sword fighting tutors than the princess herself. Or whether it was you or the princess who met with King Cayden when he was here yesterday. After all, its fine to have someone pose as a princess to noblemen, but grounds for war to lie to a monarch. Should I ask if the woman who was introduced to us as the princess, is even a princess at all? Or should I ask why you felt the need to conceal your identity?”

 

Rey grinned as she asked “Is that your final question?”

“No, but before I ask it, I need to say something.”

“You’ve already said many things, Duke Hayden.” She teased playfully, but he ignored it, looking into her eyes seriously.

“I love you. I’m fine if I never become king, but at the same time I would happily assume the throne by your side, but if and only if, you love me too. Because I want to marry you, but only if it’s truly for love.” Tears streamed down her face. “So my final question is, do you love me?”

 

She laughed out loud, out of happiness and joy.

 

“Yes! Yes, I love you Hayden.”

“Well then, Princess Edina of Bayonnia, please allow me the honor of granting me your hand in marriage.”

 

She stepped around the podium and into his arms and he lifted her into the air, excitement racing their hearts. All of the spectators erupted in applause, many yelling, disbelief evident in their voices as they exclaimed! The princess had disguised herself in the competition for her heart! But Edina and Hayden were in their own world, embracing and whispering into each other’s ears.

 

“I’m so glad you figured it out, I always hoped you would.”

“You could have given me more hints!”

“It isn’t called a ‘challenge’ for nothing.”

“I’ll get you back for that one day.”

 

They broke apart, looking each other in the eyes.

 

“Are you ready to be king?”

“As long as you’re beside me, I’m ready for anything.”

 

***

 

Once the couple was ready, people came to greet and congratulate them.

 

“Congratulations! I hope you can forgive me for deceiving you.” Said the woman Hayden formerly believed to be the princess.

“I understand, what is your real name?”

“Aurelia, but you can call me Rey.” Hayden almost choked upon hearing the name.

“Rey is a relative, the niece of Queen Gabrielle. Not exactly my right hand, but she’s been by my side since I’ve returned from Usianawald three years ago” Edina filled in.

“Ahh, nice to meet you Lady Aurelia.” He couldn’t bring himself to call her by the unofficial nickname he gave Edina.

 

They moved through the crowd of people congratulating them, including McFadden, Kian, Chris and Mark all formally meeting Edina. It turns out King Cayden was among the spectators that day, knowing that the woman Hayden was in love with was actually the princess and that she intended to reveal the truth, he stayed the night in secret to witness it. Realizing his brother had held the truth from him, Hayden immediately began scolding.

 

“Why didn’t you tell me?!” Hayden was close to holding him in a headlock.

“It wasn’t my place! She swore me to secrecy!”

“I see where your loyalties lie, and after I’ve been faithful to your service.”

“Oh no, please don’t declare war on me when you become king.”

“No promises…” Then the brothers burst out laughing, all forgiven.

 

***

 

The couple celebrated with the inhabitants of the castle for the rest of the day, sending everyone home once the banquet officially ended. Hayden too had to leave for Westfield to pack the remainder of his things to start his new life in Bayonnia.

 

“I’ll miss you.” Edina said as she walked him to his carriage.

“You don’t need to, I’ll be back before you know it, and when I am, I’ll be here for good.” He gave her cheek a soft kiss, wishing he could give her more but knowing they had an audience.

“Be safe.”

“You too.”

“I love you, Hayden.”

“And I love you, Edina.”

 

 

Chapter Text

“How long does he have doctor?”

“I’m sorry your highness, maybe two weeks, a month at most.”

“I understand, thank you for all of your hard work.”

“Get some rest dear, I’ll watch over him.” Queen Gabrielle, Edina’s aunt, said with a sad smile.

“Thank you, your majesty.”

 

Edina quietly left the king’s chambers and joined her fiancé in the hallway before they began walking to her room, which was next to his.

 

“How is he?”

“His time is coming, the doctor says he has two weeks…I just…he was doing better, he said he was doing better.”

“Not much is known about his illness, him having last this long fighting it was unprecedented. We should cherish the time he has left.”

“You’re right, thank you darling.”

 

Edina gave him a watery smile but no tears leaked from her eyes, she would stay strong, for her kingdom and for her uncle.

 

“I know we wanted to wait longer, but with his condition worsening…maybe we should move our date up.” Hayden said, cursing himself internally for sounding so unromantic.

“You want to move the wedding date earlier?”

“I know you only met your uncle three years ago, but as the only blood relative you have left, I know how important it is for you to have him at your wedding. But also we have to think of Bayonnia, Queen Gabrielle has done a wonderful job of helping lead the nation while her husband is bedridden,  but once he passes, other nations will look upon Bayonnia as weak. You’ll need to ascend the throne quickly, and that is something you can only do after we’re married.”

“You’re right, but we’ve only known each other for six months, we wanted to wait at least a year to get to know each other better, that was your idea.”

“Yes, and I proposed that idea when we had only known each other for a week. But these six months have felt like years, and I just want to be married to you already. Once you know who you want to spend the rest of your life with, you want the rest of your life to start right now. But if you’re still not ready for it, I can understand that.”

 

Edina’s eyes watered even more, damn it I just told myself I wouldn’t cry.

 

“I’m ready, there’s no one else I could possibly have as my life partner.”

“Then let’s send out invitations immediately, we’ll get married in a week, just a small intimate ceremony so your uncle can attend without getting too overwhelmed. We can always celebrate our wedding reception together with the coronation ball.”

“I don’t deserve you.” Edina turned to embrace him.

“You deserve more than the world.”

 

***

 

The ceremony took place as planned with close relatives and even closer friends being the only ones in attendance. It was a beautiful ceremony in the royal cathedral and it incorporated both Bayonnian and Usianawaldian traditions. The couple decided to forego a honeymoon as they wanted to be there in King Lucas’ final moments, and after three days of mourning the coronation planning was set in motion. It was to be held a month from his death, with monarchs of multiple kingdoms expected to be in attendance. The whole thing was a grand affair, the castle was decorated elegantly, the newly crowned king and queen were dressed lavishly, and the celebration itself lasted three days. During the three days, the couple encountered more people than they had ever met in their lives, most bearing gifts and congratulations, but others carrying disdain. They had heard the gossip floating around when people thought they weren’t listening.

 

“An Usianawaldian as our king?”

“The queen is only half Bayonnian herself, and she’s the daughter of that wretched Ducaine III!”

“Whatever heir they produce will only be a quarter Bayonnian!”

“They scarcely know Bayonnia, how do they expect us to follow their rule?”

 

But Lady Gabrielle, who had stepped down as queen, would be there to ease Hayden and Edina’s growing unease.

 

“Try as you might, you can never please everyone. You will always have people there waiting to criticize you, but you can rest easy knowing you’ve done what you can for them.” She would say.

 

Her advice couldn’t erase the new monarchs’ apprehension, but it did ease the discomfort just a bit. Another help was Cayden, who stayed by Hayden’s side almost the entirety of the celebration.

 

“Once you both settle into your new positions, we shall begin negotiating how our two kingdoms may cooperate with each other. I give it a year, and then we shall be a force to be reckoned with, the powerhouse of this continent!”

 

The only one more excited than Hayden and Edina was Cayden who wouldn’t stop talking about the good they could do.

***

 

After the celebrations ceased, and it wasn’t the king and queen but just Hayden and Edina winding down, they cuddle into bed reflecting on their journey.

 

“It’s going to be hard. You heard the people, they don’t think we belong, they think we are outsiders.” Edina said fretfully to Hayden, there was so much pressure on her.

“I’ve seen how much you love Bayonnia, and it won’t take long for the people to see it too. You’re going to be great, we’re going to be great, because we’re a team.”

 

Edina smiled, blew out her candle and cuddled in close to her husband.

 

“Thank you. Good night my king, Hayden of Bayonnia.” She giggled at using his title.

“Good night my queen, Edina of Bayonnia. Thank you for showing me how to love, for allowing me to marry for love. God, I love you.” He kissed her temple.

“I love you too.” And they drifted off to sleep with dreams of a perfectly happy kingdom.