Christine grabbed a handful of her dress, heavy as it was, and turned to her friend. She could already feel the blisters sprouting from her choice of shoes. Fortunately, she didn't have to walk far, as Meg wasn't too far. Flirting with a prince from another land. She noticed her coming and with the fluttering of her eyelashes, she went her suitor away to get her a drink.
"How many more hours?" Christine asked.
"About one more," Meg answered, "You're tired?"
"Very." She slumped into a chair. "I just don't understand how I'll be able to manage these things when I become queen. Papa does it effortlessly, but I can barely stand four hours of this."
Meg grabbed a glass from a passing waiter and offered it to her friend. Christine took it. Grateful to have a lady-in-waiting so wonderful. She took a sip and ate the scone she offered her. The two watched as everyone danced around them.
"You're father has been doing this for decades now. I'm sure you'll get used to it. Besides, you'll have me." Meg playfully tapped her shoulder. "There is a new dance I wanted to show you." She took her hand. "Come on."
Christine rolled her eyes but stood. Setting the empty cup on the table beside her. Meg instructed her to link arms with her. And began a silly little jig. It was easy to get the hang of. But Christine was laughing so hard she could barely focus.
"Then you kick your legs up. As high as you can without showing anything you wouldn't want the public to see."
She kicked a leg. "Like that?" Christine chuckled. "This has to be the silliest thing you've ever gotten me to do."
"It's a peasant dance, so you won't be seeing it here anytime soon!"
Christine jerked out her leg again. Only this time, the shoe came flying off. Hitting someone right in the back.
She could feel her face getting warm as she lifted a hand, covering her mouth. Her victim turned out, a puzzled expression on his face. He gave his wine to his friend, before leaning down and picking up the shoe. Christine couldn't move.
The gentleman simply walked over to her, shoe in hand. He presented it to her.
"Is this yours, by any chance, Mademoiselle?" he asked.
Swallowing, she nodded.
He gestured to her foot. "May I?"
Christine used Meg as her stand as he slid the shoe back on her foot. She could only nod. Nothing came out of her throat when she opened it.
"The princess says 'thank you'," Meg said, politely.
"Princess?" The gentleman's eyebrows raised as he looked at her. "My apologies, your Royal Highness."
She only nodded, gaping. He gave a short bow and walked away.
Leaving a dumbfounded Christine.
"Christine! Christine!" Meg said, "Wake up, princess."
"I, uh, I . . ." she cleared her throat. "Would it be rude to lock myself in my room for the remainder of the ball? And possibly my life?"
Her friend rolled her eyes. "Oh, please. Nobody saw."
"He certainly did."
Meg rolled her eyes again. "Another dance is starting. Go find yourself a partner. I need to see if my drink is ready yet." She winked.
Christine forced herself to enjoy the remainder of the ball. Trying to forget about the whole shoe incident.
"Your father wants to see you," Meg said, as she ran a brush through her curls.
It wasn't uncommon for her or another maid to tell Christine something of the matter. Though, she usually had breakfast with her father. It was nice to get a warning in advance.
"Any particular reason why?"
"Well, if you ask me, yes." Meg touched her fingertips to her chest. "He didn't say anything, but there was something about him that gave it away."
With that thought in mind, Christine entered the banquet hall. Her father sipped at his morning beverage as he scanned through a letter. She stood her usual seat by his side. She unfolded her napkin and set it in her lap.
"Meg said you wanted to see me?" she began.
Gustave put down his paper, taking off his glasses. He gave a small smile.
"I did, my darling." he cleared his throat - which was never a good sign when he asked to speak with her. She straightened her posture. "You've been involved with our politics for some time. You know of our rivalry with the kingdom of Chaisoweth?" At her nod, he continued. "Well, when I became king, all those years ago. I vowed to end that rivery."
"Oh, Papa!" She grabbed his hand. "That's wonderful."
His eyes twinkled back at her but soon lost their shine. "Yes, well, I spoke to their king, King Phillippe and he agreed to make an arrangement with me." He cleared his throat again. "Well, Christine." He tightened his hold on her hand. "The king has a younger brother. A single brother who is in need of a bride. And he only agreed to a truce if you became that brother's wife."
He only agreed to a truce if you were to become that brother's bride.
The words echoed in her mind. She could read them in front of her. A bride? Her? To a man, she'd never met. Christine would be in an arranged marriage. Yes. That was what it was. An arranged marriage. Her. It made her sick.
"You need me to marry the prince?" she wondered, already knowing the answer.
Gustave nodded. "Christine, this is the biggest thing I've ever asked of you. But I need you, too. For our kingdoms." He squeezed her hand.
She looked back up at her father, biting her lower lip. For her kingdom. For the peace of two kingdoms. It was the only way they could unite. She couldn't say now with all that on the line.
Agreeing to an arranged marriage.
They were to meet over tea that afternoon. Between those times, she told Meg everything. All her friend could do was try to console her. But they both knew nothing could change this.
Meg asked her lady's maid to pick out one of her finest dresses for the occasion. For tea, she would wear a more casual outfit. Not today. Her hair was twisted into braids which sat on her head in a bun, a few curls hung loosely around her face. The maid picked out a pink gown decorated with frills and roses. The look was topped off with a flower holding her hair altogether.
Gustave was also dressed in his finest for the occasion. He offered his arm to Christine as they approached the gardens. She took his elbow and stepped inside. Where a small table was waiting for them. Two men stood beside it.
She met the eyes of one. Light blue eyes encased with friendliness. She knew those eyes.
It was the man at the ball. The same man she had thrown her shoe at.
Temptation waved over her, ordering her to run back. Christine welcomed the thought but had to ignore it. She heard her father introducing her. She gave a bow, hiding her flushing features.
"Princess Christine, I'm honored to make your acquaintance," her promised said, taking her and pressing a kiss to her knuckles.
She merely nodded at him.
"My brother, His Royal Highness, Raoul, Prince of Chaisoweth," Phillipe said, gesturing towards him.
"How do you do, Your Highness?" came Christine's dry voice.
They began their tea. Raoul held out a seat for her. He sat next to her, with the kings on the opposite sides of them. Conversation was hard to make. Gustave and Phillipe directed most of it. The prince added in his own commentary from time to time. He mostly watched Christine. Not in a way that made her uncomfortable. More like studying her. Trying to get to know her from her body language.
"When is the wedding going to be?" he asked at some point.
"A week. The preparations have already started," Phillipe announced.
One week was all she had to prepare herself? A pang of anxiety ran through her. One week until she had to say goodbye to her kingdom. Until she had to say goodbye to her father.
Once tea was finished, Raoul asked her to give him a tour of the gardens. Christine looked to her father, who nodded. She accepted and took his arm.
"That was quite the party last night," Raoul commented, as they walked past a patch of bushes.
The ball. No. Mention anything but that. Christine swallowed.
"Indeed. It was. My father has always been good at throwing them."
"I'm sure he has. I look forward to attending more."
They paused for a moment. Christine pointed out the roses. Raoul approached them, taking in the smell. A few raindrops poured from above. Wetting her dress slightly. They linked arms and began their way back. It began to rain harder. Pouring. She threw her head back and laughed. Raoul joined her.
It was silly. It was stupid. Almost embarrassing. But it distracted both of them.
Laughing all the back to the palace.
The rain came with consequences. Christine woke up with a head cold the next day. Meg spoiled her with things to do and books to read. Meg's mother, Madame Giry, called her, leaving the princess alone. She picked up a quill to begin a letter, but white spots appeared in her vision. The pain in her head spiked as she wrote. Christine set it aside.
"Excuse me, your highness," came a voice. Raoul popped his head in through the door. "I heard you were unwell."
She cleared her throat. "I am. I'm not contagious or anything. It's just a head cold . . . Can I help you?"
"I was only wondering." He looked around the room. Seeming to only now realize that they were alone. In her bedroom. He blushed. "Please excuse me. I didn't-I didn't realize we were . . ."
"Oh, yes, well." She trailed off.
The two were silent. Blushing too hard to say anything. Christine stood and went to Raoul. He insisted she laid back down, but she claimed she was fine.
"I'd like to apologize about the whole shoe incident a few days ago," she said, looking down, "That was so silly. It was stupid, really."
"What shoe incident?" was Raoul's reply.
Christine looked at him, eyebrows crossed. Had he forgotten? Or was it another gentleman she'd slammed her shoe into? But she thought it was him. It had to be him. But she noticed him wink at her.
He knew. He knew but forgot for her sake.
Raoul walked away, whistling to himself.
She looked after him with relief rising in her chest.
Wedding preparations were underway, according to Meg. Christine had little to do with it. Her job was to get to know the prince. Not to help with the wedding. Still, she wanted a say. She sent a list to Meg who gave it to the wedding planner. There were only a few things she wanted. Not too much.
Dinner that night was the usual affair. Except afterward, Raoul led her to the middle of the room. She knew exactly what was going on at the look in his eye. He leaned down on one knee and drew out a box.
"Princess Christine Melina Josephine of Taiderene, will you do me the honor of becoming my bride?"
It was a traditional proposal. No doubt suggested by his traditional brother. She didn't like it. The proposal felt fake and overdramatic. Still, she said,
"Yes. I do."
Their company burst into applause. Raoul rose and slid a diamond ring onto her pale finger. It was beautiful. Christine couldn't deny it. She recognized the stone as one only from their kingdom. They linked arms back to the table.
Christine finished her meal with a dry mouth. She watched Phillipe whisper something to the prince (her fiance she realized), who blushed in response. As the servants carried the dishes away, Raoul asked her to go on a walk with him through the gardens. She accepted, of course. It would be rude not to. They strolled along. With only the lanterns hanging from the trees as their light source. How scandalous of them. They reached a villa where Raoul faced her, taking her hand. Christine could feel herself sweating. Was he going to . . . ? Oh, no. He wouldn't. He was a receptacle prince. But for saving her from the embarrassment of the previous day, he might want something in return. Besides, Raoul was respectable, but she did not know him.
"I just wanted to say, your royal highness, that I had nothing to do with the agreement with our marriage. It was all my brother. You see, he's been wanting me to marry for ages. He thinks himself too old and wants the line to continue," Raoul said. He paused. "That sounds like I don't want to marry you. Which it's not true. Well, you know how it is. I just-"
"It does kind of sound like that," Christine agreed, cocking her head to the side.
"Princess, I really . . ."
Never before had she imagined a prince as charming as Raoul could be so awkward. Seeing him in such a position brought a smile to her face. Not that she enjoyed his misery. Yet he felt human to her now.
"I understand completely," she replied. She gave a short chuckle.
The redness of his cheeks faded away. Raoul scratched the back of his neck. Chuckling to himself.
"I suppose we should head back to the palace now," he said.
"Yes. Yes, we should."
Meg droned on about another potential suitor as a lady's maid and a tailor adjusted Christine's dress. Her wedding dress. She could tell the tailor dug his teeth in deeper to his lower lip the longer Meg talked. She could have laughed out loud.
"I think that's about done, your highness," the tailor said, rising from the floor, "Should I send for your father now?"
"No, I want to surprise him," Christine replied.
He gave her a quizzical look. "Alright then, princess."
A knock came. Raoul pepped inside. Everyone shouted at him. He couldn't see the dress before the wedding. He obeyed their orders and left.
"And we'll do your hair in an updo," the lady's maid was saying.
"Perfect," Christine agreed. Although, she didn't know what she was agreeing to.
They helped her out of her gown. Meg stayed behind, playing with her hair. Christine smiled and closed her eyes. Enjoying the simple activity.
"Are you nervous?" she asked.
"I'm getting married in two days." Christine sighed. "Isn't every bride?"
"You do make a good point. But you hardly know him."
She gave a chuckle. "Thanks for reminding me, Meg."
Meg rolled her eyes.
Allowing Christine to avoid the question.
She finished the book within an hour. It ended the same way it always did and she adored it. She set it on her windowsill and glanced outside. The trees were swaying in the wind. Getting stronger and stronger. The perfect day to fly a kite.
Meg was able to find one and helped her unravel it once outside. She was forced to excuse herself. The housekeeper wanted to see her. She rolled her eyes at that. But Christine didn't mind being alone. It was lonely, but she chased away those feelings. Allowing herself to be free and giggle like a schoolgirl.
"Mind if I join you?"
Raoul came from behind. She smiled and instructed him on what to do. The couple watched their kite. Trying not to let it go against the strong winds.
The final touches on her dress were done out quickly. There was little time before the ceremony was to start. As the lady of honor, Meg was attending to helping the guests. Christine was surrounded by different maids, helping her with her attire. A mirror stood in front of her, but she avoided looking at it.
"Alright, your highness," one maid said, "Just look at yourself. You're beautiful."
She faced the mirror. Taking in her features. The dress, made from seemingly nothing but lace, clung tightly to her waist. Quarter length sleeves hung on her arms, tied at the end with a lace rose. Where they ended, a pair of silk gloves began. The train followed her, flouncy a large crinoline. Her hair was done up in an array of stylish braids, all coming together in a bun at the crown of her head. A maid handed her a bouquet. Completing the look.
"You look absolutely beautiful," came Gustave, "Just like your mother on our wedding day."
Christine only smiled at him. Mouth too dry for words. She took his elbow and followed him to the chapel.
Flowers lined the entryway, but that wasn't what she focused on. She stared straight ahead. At Raoul. He looked back at her. One hand in his pocket. The other in front of a leg, in a claw pose. Christine cocked her head.
They made it to him in a few long strides. Gustave whispered something she didn't catch. She took hands with Raoul.
The ceremony was a blur. They gave their vows. Made promises to each other. Lit candles. Exchanged rings. The priest pronounces them husband and wife. United royalty. Their kingdoms finally at ease with each other.
For their kingdoms. It was for their kingdoms.
There wasn't time for a honeymoon. The thought of one wasn't exactly welcomed in her mind either. Instead, Christine said her goodbyes, and they traveled to her new kingdom. Her new home.
It was a strange thought to her. Changing homes. She always imagined herself living in the palace. Sometimes, her family would go to another one of their homes for a holiday, but they always returned home. She grew up believing she would take over as queen in that palace. It was her childhood home and more than that to her.
Raoul showed her to her new quarters. Phillipe hadn't come with them. Instead, he stayed in order to settle a few things. Christine was thankful they weren't sharing the same room. Though he was her husband, her cheeks turned to shades of pink.
A ball was held in the kingdom. In honor of their unity. As tradition had it, they began it. Taking hands in front of their subjects. Showing off their marriage.
It all began with a simple waltz. Drifting back and forth at a steady pace. Christine held a corner of her skirt in her hand, the other rested on Raoul's shoulder. She took in his smell. Vanilla with a tad of fresh laundry. She didn't realize she had her eyes closed.
"Are you alright, Christine?" he asked.
"Hmm?" Christine reopened her eyes. "Oh, I'm just fine, but thank you."
He gave a short nod before looking towards a window. Night had fallen. Candles had been lit by the servants. Giving the ballroom a new air.
"Let's escape. Just for a moment. I know somewhere we can go," Raoul whispered in her ear.
"Alright . . ."
He took her hand, leading her to the door. Once outside, she took in a deep breath. It smelled like night and dewdrops. Raoul led her to a small pond. Jumping from one stone to another to cross. Christine looked back at him.
He gestured. "Come on."
Under a quizzing look, she bunched up her dress so it wouldn't get wet. She stepped onto the first step. Then finished crossing. Nearly tripping as she made it to the other side. Raoul caught her hand. Their eyes met for a brief second.
Christine let skirts fall back, swaying slightly in the wind. She didn't leave Raoul's hold as they began their journey through the gardens. Almost running.
"Close your eyes," he told her.
"You're not going to have something pop out and terrify me, are you?"
Raoul chuckled. "Not yet, darling."
He led her, only a few more steps, then stopped. Telling her to uncover her eyes. She did with a gasp.
Lanterns surrounded a pavilion. Candles laid across a long, narrow table. Flowers dripped from the trees, framing the picture. A water fountain flowed in the background. Lit up with some sort of light.
"Oh, Raoul," Christine breathed. A hand flew to her chest.
"Beautiful, isn't it?" He led her towards the scene. "My sisters did this. This used to be another old garden, but they fixed it up. They asked me to look after it." He looked back at her. "I just think it's beautiful."
"It is. Truly."
As they stood under the canopy, Christine looked up. Nearly blinded by all the lanterns. Her breath caught in her throat.
"Would you care to dance?" Raoul wondered, hand open. Beaming hard enough to make her heart start pounding harder.
"Away from all the people and stuck-ups who think they're better than me? I'd love to," Christine responded.
The two met, taking hands. Circling the canopy. Looking only at each other. The light hit Raoul in such a way that made him look angelic. The thought made her smile and look away. His eyes remained on her.
Christine's hip collided with a table. Stopping their dance. The pain pounded in her. A hand flew to the area as she sucked in a breath.
"Are you alright? Oh, I'm so sorry," Raoul exclaimed, "That was all my fault. I didn't mean to . . ."
"It's fine. Really. Just give me a moment."
Within a few seconds, the throbbing was gone. Christine rose back to her usual position. Raoul took her hand as if to steady her.
"It's getting a bit chilly," she said.
Raoul nodded. "It is. Do you want to head back to the palace?"
"We probably should. Our guests will wonder where we are."
As they began back to the ballroom, Christine couldn't hide the sinking disappointment in her.
Sleep didn't last very long. In the early hours of the morning, her mother appeared to her in a dream. Bloodied and coughing. Tuberculosis. The disease that killed her. Christine reached out to her mother. But she was gone. Dead. In front of her. Her father came next. Looking as bad as her mother. He fell to his knees. Dead. And Raoul. He appeared alright at first. But his features morphed into someone who was ill. Dead.
Her vision knocked her awake. Christine laid on her pillow still. Damp with sweat. The rest of her was aching, but she climbed out of bed. A door brought her into Raoul's room.
"Christine?" he mumbled voice heavy with exhaustion.
She didn't say anything but took his reaching hand. Feeling it wasn't enough. She held it to her cheek.
"Hold me," Christine whispered.
Raoul didn't ask any questions, as he helped her into bed. Securing his warm arms around her. She rested her head against his chest. Feeling his soft nightshirt. She closed her eyes. Asleep.
As Christine opened her eyes, he adjusted his hold on her. His chin was now sitting on her head. Most of her curls from her braid had escaped. Casting around her in a messy display. Raoul pressed a kiss to her hand. She didn't move. The silk sheets soothed her. Everything in the room was silk. Everything in her room was velvet.
"Good morning," Raoul mumbled, intertwining their fingers.
"'Morning," she whispered back, "Sorry I forced my way into your bed last night. That sounded wrong. I only meant . . ." She trailed off, but he got the idea.
"You can burst into my room and order me to hold you anytime you want." His tone was light and teasing.
"I may take advantage of that more often than I should, your royal highness."
"I would like you to."
The two remained there a moment longer, but when they could hear one of Christine's maids entering her room and calling her name, she got up from the bed. She could only guess what she was going to think. But Raoul told her to use the other door and say she was going for a walk around the palace. Christine gave a teasing smirk and did as advised. The maid didn't ask any more questions.
Breakfast was hard to get down. Gustave had joined them. He was going to stay for the remainder of the week. Yet she couldn't get her mind to focus on that. Instead, it drifted off to the night. When all she wanted after having a nightmare was to be held by Raoul. Out of all things, why?
She found Meg afterward, in her quarters, as she practiced some sort of dance. Meg stopped at seeing her. Welcoming her in with a smile. Christine took a seat. Meg sat on the one next to her. Sinking into the chair.
"I did something really stupid last night," Christine blurted out first.
"Oh, really?" Meg scooted closer. "What was it?"
She sighed. "I had a bad dream and for some reason, all I wanted was to see Raoul. So I went into his room-waking him. And we . . ."
Meg's expression changed. "Oh? I see. So you two-"
"No! No" Christine waved a hand in the air. "Nothing like that happened. I just fell asleep in his bed. Goodness, I would never . . ."
"He is your husband."
Christine rolled her neck and gave her friend a look.
Meg folded her hands in her lap. "Well, if all you wanted was to see him after having a nightmare, well, I'm not so inexperienced, but I could call that love."
Love? What did she mean? Christine scanned through her mind. Not finding anything. Until it dawned on her.
"You think I'm in love with Raoul?"
"What?" Christine sank back, throwing her arms on the armrests. "I can't be in love. Not with him. Not with anyone."
"Think about it, Christine. He's your husband. I know it was all arranged, but I've heard of several couples like this. They were in an arranged marriage, yet they fell in love with each other. Simple. You've been spending so much time together. Sometimes you get this look in your eye when you see him. Full of adoration."
"I do not-"
Meg ignored her. "It's obvious you've grown attached to him. Have feelings for him."
"Just consider it, Christine."
She scanned through the selection of books in front of her. None were the particular one she had come to the library for. She gave a long sigh and turned back. Christine had spent nearly the entire morning looking for that book. She would have to send for her old copy. Perhaps they didn't even make new copies anymore.
"Gentlemen, thank you for joining me today," came a voice from the opposite end of the shelf. Raoul. "I must apologize for having to meet here. You see, the meeting rooms are all getting refurbished as a wedding gift."
"Not at all. Not at all," a man replied.
Christine peeked through two of the books. It was Raoul. Joined by two other men in sharp business attire. Old held a cane, though more as a fashion statement since he was not using it to walk. She straightened herself up. While not in the mood to meet new people, she made her way over to them. Otherwise, it would be rude of her. Raoul noticed her first. Standing upon her entrance. He met her and took her hand, pressing a kiss to her knuckles.
"Good morning, darling," he whispered to her first, before turning back to the other two, "This is my wife, Her Royal Highness, Princess Christine, of Chaisoweth." He sent her a found look. "Christine, the Honorable Richard Firmin, and the Honorable Jean Andre. They're both in parliament."
The three shared quick greetings to each other. Christine didn't notice her hand never left Raoul's.
"I should leave you to your business," she said, "Please pardon my interruption."
"Not at all, my dear. We haven't even gotten started," Andre replied.
She headed towards the door, but heard a strange sound from Raoul, as she neared the door. Like the one, she made after hitting her hip the other night. She turned back.
"Are you alright? I thought I heard something," Christine inquired. She noticed the letter opener in front of Raoul. A drop of red liquid on it. "Let me see your hand."
"Oh, it's alright. I'm fine. Really," Raoul retorted.
She took it gently. Finding a small cut on his palm. Not enormous, but deep enough to make him bleed.
"You're not fine. You're bleeding. Let me get a few things, I'll be right back." Christine turned to the doors again.
"Christine, it's alright. I-"
She looked back at him, placing her hands on her hips. "I'm not just going to let my husband bleed out."
He gave a chuckle. "I'm fine, dear."
"Give me a moment."
Christine dashed into a nearby closet. Stacked with a few supplies. She found a roll of bandages and a rag, which she poured a drop of alcohol on. She returned to find the three men were talking about some sort of rebel group. Before their marriage, she heard of a group of people who were against their kingdoms uniting. Gustave told her not to mind it. Christine rolled her eyes. Raoul greeted her, with a quirked eyebrow. Christine held his hand out, dipping the cloth onto his wound, making him wince. She bandaged it up within seconds.
"If I told you about all the times my father cut his hand with a letter opener, we'd be here all day and night," Christine said, as she finished, "It was always my job to help him."
A jab of longing panged her. She tried not to think about how much she missed her father. How homesick she was. Usually, she was successful. Christine wrote to him every day. Her heart leaped at his letters arriving. She covered her fallen expression with a smile.
Christine set the supplies to the side. "All done."
Raoul set his injured hand in his other. "Thank you."
"It was my pleasure."
Their look lingered. She snapped back to attention and gathered her things before bidding everyone a farewell. Christine returned the items.
Walking away with an air to her step.
He approached her after dinner that night, inquiring if there was anything she needed. She expected herself to decline, politely, of course, but instead burst out,
"There's a book."
Raoul quirked an eyebrow. "Oh, what book?"
"Little Lotte. My father used to read it to me when I was younger. I couldn't find a copy here and I didn't want to send for my old one. I think Papa would like having his own."
"I'll find a copy. I'm sure there's one in Chaisoweth."
Christine rocked on her heels. "I'm not exactly sure, though, that they still make copies."
He took her hand again. Holding it firmer, than before.
"I promise, even if it means I have to move a mountain, I'll find you that book."
He squeezed her hand. Raoul began down the hall again. Christine watched him. Pinching her fingertips. As he turned around the corner, she called out,
"You don't have to do that! Move a mountain . . ."
She mentally slapped herself again. Why did she think that was a good idea? Christine slumped against the wall, hugging herself.
Raoul turned again with a faint smile. "I'll do it if it needs to be done."
The book within a fortnight. A servant came by with the parcel and Christine tore open the brown paper. To the yellow cover of Little Lotte. Raoul had done it. Somehow he found the book for her. Christine held it up to her chest. Smelling its fresh scent. She absolutely adored new books. This one was even more special.
Christine opened the front cover and began reading.
Two balls within a few months seemed excessive. Yet, Christine couldn't find herself caring. It was the first time she was going to see her father in ages. This ball was going to be celebrating the newfound peace between the kingdoms, but it was more to her.
Meg picked out a rose-colored gown with a V neckline that met in a flower. Part of her back was left exposed, she could feel her curls hanging down from their arrangement. The back of her skirt widened out. Trailing behind her. An enormous bow met in the middle. Little decorations fanned out from it. Her bodice was simple, with a few small bows running down the center. Trim ended the skirt in front. When Christine twirled around, the skirt fanned out.
"It's perfect, Meg!" she exclaimed, circling around again, "Where did you even find this?"
"A wedding gift. From me to you," her friend answered, beaming.
Christine stopped, smiling equally as big. "What? Meg. You didn't have to give me anything. Besides, this must-have cost hundreds."
"You're my best friend. Of course, I had to get you something for your wedding. Also, I would have thought my mother taught you better. It's impolite to ask how much a gift cost." She continued in a lower tone. "Your father, however, was happy to help."
Christine caught her in an embrace. Whispering a thank you into her ear.
"It's almost time," Meg said, as they pulled away, "You need your gloves."
Her lady's maid brought the gloves. She slid them on. They were also new, she noticed. Lined with speaks of diamonds. They quickly weaved her tiara into her hair before setting off.
Raoul met her at the staircase. Meg followed closely behind. As they came into view fully, his expression changed. Mouth gaping open slightly. Their eyes met.
"Why are you looking at me like that?" Christine questioned, as they linked arms. Whispers of a smile on her face.
"I'm just . . . speechless." He cleared his throat. "You look beautiful."
She blushed, slightly. "Thank you. Um, it's a new dress."
"Well, it looks lovely on you."
A small chuckle escaped her lips. They descended into the ballroom. Empty for the most part. Except for the decorating crew. In the middle of it all was him. Her father. Glancing around. Looking for her. A watery smile tugged at her lips. She yearned to run up to him and sweep him into an embrace. But she stayed calm.
"Go on," Raoul whispered, "I know how much you want to see him. I'll wait."
Christine flashed him a grateful nod and raced to where her father was standing. As fast as she could in her shoes. She wrapped her arms around him. Holding on tighter to him than she ever had before. Gustave returned the gesture.
"You're back," she choked out.
"I missed you so much."
"Missed you more."
They leaned out of the hug. Gustave pressed a kiss to her forehead and squeezed her hand. Raoul approached them. Slowly, to allow them to have their moment.
"Your highness," he greeted, dropping his head, politely, "I'm so glad you could be here."
"It's my pleasure," Gustave replied.
Phillipe met them there. After a brief greeting, he began to inform the trio of the events later that night. First, a round of drinks. A dinner following shortly afterward. Then dancing and more dancing until the night ended. Speeches would be given between events. Or during. Only depending on the speaker.
Raoul's elder sisters arrived a few minutes later. Like he had done with her, Christine gave them some time to catch up, as she spent some time with her father. Phillipe also introduced his sister's husbands, Duke Frank Bougie and Prince Fernand. Soon, they were rejoined. Marie and Inés fussed over her. Marie's stomach swelled slightly, promising a child. Inés went on about her two sons she'd left back at home. Worrying about them.
"I don't mean to be snoopy, but I was wondering, when are you and Raoul going to have children of your own?" Inés asked, keeping her voice and features kind.
Her question had Christine taken aback. She met eyes with Raoul. A slight blush on their cheeks. The subject had never been brought up and she only thought about it once before. He cleared his throat.
"Probably not long."
It was the answer they had been hoping for. Perfect. Releasing some of the tension within her. The conversation subject changed to the orchestra. Christine tuned it out but was brought back as she heard her name.
"I'm sorry, say that again?" she pondered.
"I was only wondering if you were ready for the number tonight?" Phillipe questioned, with a raised eyebrow.
She looked at Gustave. "I believe so. Give us a moment to rehearse, though."
Phillipe outstretched his arm, inviting them to move into another room. Christine exchanged a look with Raoul. He winked at her.
After a brief practice, the father and daughter agreed they were ready. They rejoined the guests. The tune she was going to sing drifted through her thoughts. It was a song native to Taiderene. Christine had few memories of her mother, but hearing the song from her lips was one of them. She clung to it.
More guests had arrived. Christine met with Raoul again, taking his elbow. His sisters were introduced first, along with their husbands. They followed. Waiting at the end of the staircase for the two kings, who were announced separately.
After their musical number, everyone filed into the main dining room. Christine was sat next to Raoul and across from her father. Phillipe began the meal with a toast to their kingdoms. Promising peace to come upon them. Food was placed in front of her. Then taken at a moment's notice. The cycle repeated until she was full of cakes and fine meats. Toasts her given. More than what she could count.
The dancing began with a bubbly gallopade. Bringing laughter to the ballroom. Pairs formed afterward to begin the waltzing. Raoul met her and took her hands. Spinning her around.
As the dance finished, the two made their way back to the sidelines. Raoul offered to get a drink, which she accepted. Christine found an open chair and sat. Careful not to wrinkle her new dress.
Her father was dancing with a countess. It was strange to see him dancing with other women. Although her mother passed away when she was young, she could only imagine Gustave dancing with her. Sometimes he would ask Madame Giry to dance with him. They were good friends which Christine always liked. But Madame Giry wasn't here and Gustave was dancing with the countess. Bitterness boiled in the pit of her stomach.
Raoul returned, handing her a glass. Christine took a sip of the rich wine. He lingered by her chair.
"Are you enjoying yourself?" he asked.
She looked up at him. "I am. Thank you. Are you?"
Raoul thought for a moment before answering, "I suppose so. I could do without all the toasts and the nobility getting drunk and making fools of themselves."
In the corner of her eye, Christine could see two men with bright red faces shouting at each other. One raised his arm at the other, intending to strike. Before it happened, Raoul raced over to them. Making him stop.
"Excuse me, sirs," he was saying as Christine made her way over, "I'm sure we can talk this out."
"Your highness, we cannot," one man slurred.
He raised his hand again. He was going to hit Raoul. Instinct hit her as she slid in front of him. Shielding him from the man's slap. His hand made contact with her cheek. Barely brushing it.
"Get away from him!" Christine ordered, nearly shouting.
The man looked down at her. Breathing heavily so she could smell how potent it was. Raoul laid a gentle hand on her shoulder. Her hand fell on his. She didn't sway. Even when the man raised his arm again.
Two guards began dragging him away. The other man was also taken. The dancing had stopped. Raoul wrapped his arms around her waist. Whispering in her ear,
"Are you alright? Did he hurt you?"
They turned to each other. Raoul cupped her cheek in his hand, rubbing a gentle finger. He examined her.
"Your cheek is red," he noted.
"It's alright. I'm not hurt," she repeated herself.
"Are you sure? I'll ask Meg to fetch someone."
Christine gave a slow nod. She knew he would send for someone, anyway. His hand never left hers as he talked to Meg. Dancing began again, with an air of awkwardness to it. Raoul helped to rise and drifted to the side of the room. Gustave joined them. Fretting over her. Until Meg came back with a nurse. A brief examination went underway, but Christine was cleared. The nurse suggested to her to ice the area before going to bed that night.
"Do you want to escape again?" Raoul wondered afterward.
"With you? Of course."
Christine borrowed a shawl from Meg, who winked at her after giving it to her. The weather had changed since the last time they ran away from the party, bringing a brisk wind. The two walked side by side. Hand in hand. She didn't know where they were going. Neither did Raoul. But they continued through the gardens. Though most of the plants were nearly dead. During her morning walk, Christine noted the frost which had covered the plants.
Suddenly, Raoul began to laugh.
"What?" Christine said, beaming equally as big.
"You're incredible. You stood up to a drunk man-twice your size-to defend me. That's amazing."
"Well, I couldn't have you with a black eye for the rest of the night," she teased.
"I suppose not. But that doesn't dismiss how much I . . ."
Christine looked at him through her eyelashes. "How much you what?"
"I admire you." Raoul cleared his throat. "So, do you like my sisters?"
The brash change of subject didn't go unnoticed by her. Christine ignored it. Though her chest ached. Instead, she answered his question and listened to his story about when they were younger. Since his mother died after he was born, his sisters were like little mothers to him. Marie, the fashionable one who taught him manners. Inés as the prankster with a rude sense of humor. His father was distant. Phillipe was protective. But they all made up an unusual royal family.
"I must apologize about the question earlier," Raoul said, "Inés was merely wondering about when we were going to have children. You don't have to answer or anything. I know it was rude of her to ask."
"It's alright, Raoul." Christine kicked at a rock. "Your brother must want us to have a son, so he can have an heir."
He rubbed the back of his neck. "Most likely. I don't want you to feel pressured into anything."
She let the conversation end there as crossed a bridge. Yet she was still curious. The two leaned over the railing to look at the pond. There wasn't much to see, as the moonlight was their only way of seeing. Only a few outlines.
"I always wanted a big family," Christine said, "Since I was an only child. My mother died when I was in my toddler years. My father never remarried. I always knew he wouldn't."
"I wanted one, too."
She looked at him. "We'll have a big family then. With four children."
"I was thinking more like six." His eyes sparkled with a smile.
"Alright then. Six children. Maybe even seven, if we feel like it."
They took hands again, turning back. Christine felt suffocated as they reentered the ballroom. Phillipe immediately approached them.
"Where were you?" he barked out, "There's a few people you need to meet. Raoul."
Behind his brother's back, he rolled his eyes. Christine giggled and went to find her father. Gustave also had a few people for her to meet. Including the countess, he had danced with earlier. Countess Marthe Thatcher. Christine tried to keep her mind clear, but she decided she did not like the woman. She couldn't imagine her father liking her haughty behavior mixed with how much she circled her wine glass. It was rather distracting. Marthe asked too many questions about her and Raoul.
"I think it was a rather marvelous idea to have you two get married," Marthe said, "He's a rather charming fellow, isn't he? I would love to be his wife."
Christine cleared her throat. Giving her a few seconds to think up a reply.
"He really is wonderful," she answered.
She glanced over to where he was. Mingling with a group. Wine glass in one hand. He said something that broke everyone around him into laughter. A woman near him laid a hand on his forearms. Jealousy tore through her. Her lips tightened. Whoever that woman was, she needed to get her disgusting hands off her husband.
Christine turned back to the countess, giving a pained smile. "It was a pleasure to meet you, Lady Thatcher. I look forward to seeing you again."
"We'll have to meet up sometime," Marthe replied, "Perhaps luncheon?"
She turned away. Rejoining Raoul and his group. He introduced her to several people. None of their names she remembered. Except for the woman who nearly flirted with him. Lady Honorine. Daughter of a duke. What a stupid name. Honorine carried an heir to her. Thinking she was much better than anyone else. Everything about her was smug. Even her smile.
The party dragged on for a few more hours. After a rather difficult waltz, Christine noticed a group leaving out the side door. She studied them for a moment. A few looked behind them. As if to see if anyone was watching. Strange. But Christine ignored it. The group was likely trying to find an empty room to take their ladies into.
A few more dances passed. She joined in on the last, taking Raoul as her partner again. Afterward, she found herself studying a guard as he went to the side of the room and aimed a gun at a man. Pulling the trigger and shooting a bullet through his head.
The gunshot echoed around the room. Christine looked around the room. Chaos. Everything and everyone was chaos. She could barely see over the heads of people. She reached out. Calling for Raoul.
"I'm here!" his voice shouted.
Their hands met, though she still couldn't see him. Christine yelled out again. They were nearing a door. But it was blocked off by a few armed men. Raising their weapons towards the crowd.
"I have the king!"
Christine stood on the tips of her toes, searching. Sure enough, a rifle was aimed at her father. She held on tighter to Raoul's hand as she tried to make her way past everyone.
More gunshots were fired. Adding to the chaos. Screams tore out. One victim fell on the floor. Right in front of herself.
These were the rebels, she realized. The ones everyone told her not to mind. They were attacking now.
Shouting. All she could hear was shouting. Confused or angry. Or right before they shot a bullet through someone's back. Christine watched as another man, with a gun to Phillipe's back neared her father. She shouted for them. But no one could hear over their own screams.
Raoul neared her, grabbing her elbows, to hold her closer. He whispered something to her.
Too much noise. Too much blood. Too much.
Raoul brought her away from the door. His motions were frantic. Neither of them knew what to do. Their minds were cloudy with fear.
Someone grabbed her hair. Pulling her away from Raoul. The motion caused her to cry out. Raoul looked back at her. Eyes furious. He reached out for her, as she did. The end of a cold pistol sat on her neck now.
Another rebel crept up to Raoul. Seizing him from behind.
"If it isn't our lovely couple who made this whole unity happen," Christine's captor said, spitting in her ear.
He began to drag her away. Christine struggled against him. Her movements were weak from shock. She realized they were being taken to where her father and Phillipe were.
In front of her, Raoul was struggling. Throwing jagged motions. He broke free. Sprinting to where she was dragged. His former captor raised his weapon and fired. Christine screamed. Going unheard.
The bullet pierced his arm.
Pushing him to the group.
With the last amount of strength he had left, Raoul knocked the rebel to his feet. Making his gun slide on the floor. He grasped the man's shirt. Pain evident in his eyes. Mixed with anger. Raoul's grasp tightened.
"You can hurt me all you want," he said, nearly spitting it out, "But you don't touch my wife."
He let him go. The rebel stood and found his weapon again. Stepping away with a sneer.
Christine strangled her out of his grasp. Throwing herself into the group. Holding Raoul to her. He winced as she did. She began to whisper. Mumbling things she didn't understand. She wanted to comfort him. Wanted to help him. But how could she?
"I love you," she told him.
There might not ever be another time to tell him.
"I love you, too."
Her captor's rough arms pulled her upwards. Dragging her away from Raoul. He was dying. She might never see him again.
But as she was brought towards the two monarchs, Christine realized she may never see anyone again.
They pushed her to the floor. Bruising her arms and legs as she fell. She nearly tripped over her skirt as she crawled, pathetically, towards Gustave. He welcomed her into his arms. But Christine couldn't feel his embrace. The image of Raoul. Bleeding. Dying. Haunted her thoughts. More rebels surrounded them, pointing their rifles at the royals.
"Why are you doing this?" Gustave demanded, "It can't be anything we can't work out."
"The union between our kingdoms threw us out of the job. It's because of all of you."
A shiver ran down Christine's spine.
"Where's Raoul," her father whispered.
"Th-they shot him."
Gustave's eyebrows raised with concern. "Is he . . . ?"
She tried to swallow. "I don't know." Her voice cracked.
That was the worst of it all. He could be alive. Christine didn't know how fatal his wound was. Perhaps he was just fine. He was able to yank on the other soiler and threaten him. But the amount of pain he must be in. The amount of agony. She squeezed her eyes closed.
Blood and gunpowder itched her nose. Christine held on tighter to her father. Burying her head in his chest for a moment. But looked back up. At the soldiers. Evil dancing in their expression.
A few spat at her feet. Mocking her. Nothing made her angrier than how they mercilessly shot Raoul.
Christine attempted to check for him. The crowd had dwindled. Her stomach twisted. Realizing what it must mean. But she knew at least a few of them were able to escape. Help had to be on the way. She could see bodies. Smell them. When she looked down, a bloodstain spread about her dress.
Meg. Had she gotten out? Was she safe? Or one of the many victims of the night?
Why were they letting them live? Why not just shoot them?
Nausea boiled within her as she realized. That was exactly their point. Seeing all this. Then to shoot them until they were cold. Christine pushed her tears away. No time. No time for crying.
Someone called out, making the men pause for a moment. Perhaps their leader? She could only guess. Their leader came forth.
It was him. The man the drunk was trying to hit. Standing there with an air of snobbiness upon him.
"You . . ." Christine whispered.
"Yes. Yes. It is me."
He looked down at his gloved hands. Rubbing his thumb against his other fingers. A light sound coming from the action.
"Lord Cormier?" Phillipe said, "What on earth?"
Lord Cormier snapped to attention, sneering down at the king. "This took everything from me. With the kingdoms combining, I wouldn't be any use to you. Lots of us wouldn't be. I know you talked about it. Claiming there would be no need for my place in our government."
"I never said such a thing!"
"Don't lie to me, your majesty."
"But I didn't. I swear-"
"That's no use to you now, is it?"
Phillipe silenced himself. Lord Cormier turned to one of the rebels. He kept a steady grip on his weapon, pointing it at them.
"What of the prince?" Lord Cormier asked.
"Already down, sir."
"What? What?" Phillipe rose from his position. The guns were raised, but the earl cautioned them not to fire. "You killed my brother? You-What? My brother is innocent! He had no part in any of this. Leave him out of it! And his wife. Both are innocent."
"Your brother," Lord Cornier drooled, waving his hand about, "Married the princess. Which united the kingdoms in the first place. Isn't that right?"
That caused Phillipe to hesitate. "I forced him to agree to it. I'm the one at fault."
A low hum came from Lord Cornier's throat. Almost mocking. Phillipe scowled.
Christine glanced around. This was her chance to escape. Perhaps she wouldn't make it far. Perhaps she would get shot down. But everyone was distracted now. There was still a crowd she could disappear into. Gustave squeezed her hand. When she looked up at him, he made a motion. Telling her to go. They both knew this was her only chance.
She crawled between the men. They shouted as they realized she was gone. But by then, she was running into the crowd. Searching for Raoul. A flash of blond hair caught in her vision. Christine ran towards it.
Raoul's breathing was labored. But he was still alive. She wanted to squeal for joy but held her tongue. They still had to escape. At this point, it looked like one was getting out.
"Christine?" he wheezed, "That you?"
She lifted him up, using his good arm. Once up, she swung the arm around her shoulders. The bullet pierced his arm. Not his legs, but walking proved difficult with all the pain he was in. Christine looked around for a way to escape.
"I'm right here," she soothed him.
Her eyes landed on the window. Perfect. No one had tried it. The ballroom was on the first floor. All she needed was something to break the window with.
Raoul wobbled around from her hold, whispering a "trust me". He grabbed a candelabra off the table. Using his unwounded arm, he threw it at the window.
Breaking a hole in the glass.
Christine held on to him as they ran towards it. He went first, despite her protests. Breaking the rest of the window as his back collided with it. He kept his head covered, so it wouldn't get injured. For a brief moment, she hesitated. What about her father? Phillipe? They would be alright, wouldn't they? Yes. they would. If they got help fast.
The two ran as fast as they could. Raoul panted, letting out breaths filled with agony. Christine asked if he was alright. He was. Liar.
She found a place for him to rest, as she went back into the palace. Promising to come back for him. Making him promise to stay there. She already knew he was going to leave. Raoul's features, though pained, had a flare of determination to them. Still, it felt good to make him promise. She could barely think straight.
Had it only been tonight when she and Raoul snuck away from the dance? When they decided to have six children together? Was it only today Meg gifted her the new gown she was wearing?
It all felt like a million years ago.
Christine found a group of guards attempting to heave the doors open. A few others among them. Staff or ordinary people. All working together against a common enemy. She approached the captain.
"What's going on? How can I help?" she asked.
"Princess." The captain turned around. "How did you escape?"
"A hole in the window. With my husband. There may be others trying to get out that way, too. Should I take a group over there?"
He looked her over and shook his head. "Your highness, you're in shock. Where's the prince? I'm sending a nurse to help you."
"No! My father's still in there. I have to save him. I have to get to him. Are Raoul's sisters safe? Their husbands? My lady-in-waiting? I need to help."
"Wiggins! Parsley!" the captain called, ignoring her pleads, "Have Princess Christine show you to the prince and get the both of them to safety. Get a nurse or doctor."
"No. Please. I have to save my father!"
As if his next words were supposed to be comforting he said, "Your sisters-in-law and their husbands were able to get out safely."
Two men mumbled something to her. Christine protested. She needed to help Raoul, but she knew he would get to safety himself. But what of her father? He was still in danger. In fact, they might have killed him since she got away.
Wiggins and Parsley were forced to take her by the embows and nearly drag her away. All the while, listening to her shouts and screams of protest. Christine wanted to fight against them. Yet her energy was drained. Adrenaline wore off. She told herself she was going to help Raoul. He was important, too. Most important.
She directed them to Raoul. He had ripped off the button of his shirt and wrapped it around his wound. Christine threw her arms over him. Trying her best not to hurt him further.
"I'm going to get this taken care of," he said, "Then I'm going back. My family and your father are still in there."
"Not your sisters. They escaped," she responded.
The news caused his shoulders to loosen. Lighting some of the tension. Christine clung to him as they followed the two men to a house a few blocks away. Raoul's free arm never left her waist.
A woman answered the door. Peering down at them with recognition. She ushered them inside. Ordering Christine to set Raoul down at the table. In the other room, was the majority of his family. His sisters' husbands trying to comfort them. A look of horror glazed Frank's eyes as he clung to Marie. They greeted each other. Not without a glance of fear. The woman introduced herself as a midwife. Her husband, a doctor. He entered the room with a bag. After a brief examination, he concluded Raoul would be fine. They only needed to clean the area and warp it. His cuts from the glass weren't as deep. They needed the bleeding to stop. But he was lucky. His stiff clothing had protected him. Earlier Christine had teased him about it.
"Hold my hand, please, Christine," Raoul whispered to her.
She had to kneel but did as he asked. She pressed a kiss to his forehead. "I will be here."
Once he was finished, Raoul commented on Christine's own skills with preparing a wound, causing Christine to break into a smile. The doctor asked to see her. She followed him into another room.
"Are you alright, your highness?" he said.
"I believe so. I wasn't shot or anything."
Blood spilled in her mind. The ballroom dance floor covered in blood. Christine blinked.
"Mind if I take a look?"
She shook her head. On her arm was a piece of glass sticking out. She hadn't noticed it. The doctor was able to get it out with ease. Christine had suffered a few more scrapes and bruises. Nothing too horrible, however.
"Your highness, judging by your shaking and a few mother things, I think you're in shock," the doctor concluded.
Why did everyone keep saying that?
Light-headed. She was so light-headed. How could it stop?
"I think I'm alright. Thank you, doctor. I need to help my father now. He's probably still trapped in there," Christine said.
The doctor sighed. "I wouldn't recommend doing that. It's not good for you."
"I have to save him."
Christine stumbled towards the door. Using the wall to guide her along. She could make out the blurry image of Raoul, now lying on a sofa. Was that the doctor's wife? Were the other two women, Raoul's sisters? Darkness circled her vision. A few black spots showed. Christine began flailing her arms. Trying to meet Raoul's sweet touch.
"Christine? Christine? Are you alright?" came his worried tone.
She thought she answered.
"No, don't get up, your highness! I'll take care of her."
The woman from earlier?
It was all dark.
And she was falling.
Someone soft was holding her hand. Comforting. Christine turned to the side with a slight smile. They pressed a warm kiss to her knuckles. She wanted them to do it again. Whoever they were. It felt nice. Warm and comforting.
"Love, are you awake?"
He was here.
"Open your eyes for me?"
He kissed her hand.
She wanted to see him.
Christine fluttered her eyelids. The brightness in the room, preventing her from opening them further. Once she adjusted, Christine opened them fully. Greeted by the worried expression of Raoul.
"You're here," she croaked out.
Groggy, Christine lifted herself up. She found herself in a bedroom. With cotton blankets on top of her. Her ball gown had been replaced with a simple cream nightgown. Her hair was down. She blinked a few times. Raoul was sitting across from her on a stool.
"You shouldn't be sitting," she said.
He chuckled playfully. "I'm alright, Christine."
"No. You were shot."
Raoul's eyes were teasing. "The doctor said I could sit up. There. Is that enough prove for you?"
Slowly, she nodded. Christine stood. Wobbling ever-so-slightly. Raoul offered a hand to steady her. She took it, gratefully. Her thoughts became clearer.
"Where's my father? Meg?" Christine questioned.
"Meg avoided the whole disaster. She went to visit her mother. Your father made it out. Mostly alright. He just needs some rest. Which he's doing right now. Phillipe . . . They're still working on it." Raoul hesitated. "He was shot. Three times. After we got out."
She examined him. Besides the time they shared a bed, she had never seen him in such simple clothes before. A plain white shirt and a pair of slakes. No tie. No jacket. A bandage was wrapped around his injured arm. Look of sorrow across his face.
"I'm so sorry, Raoul." She swallowed. "I'm sure they can help him." Christine leaned against his arm. "I'll be right here. Always. No matter what happens."
He only nodded at her and kissed the side of her forehead.
Gustave was there to wait with them. Christine roped him into an embrace. After taking a look at him, he was fine. The three of them took seats. Christine in the middle. Holding the hands of the two most important men in her lives. Lending her head against Raoul's shoulder. His head laid on top of hers. Like the night they shared together.
The doctor came out of the room. Solemn expression. Tears fled to her eyes. Balancing on her eyelashes. She knew. They all knew already.
"I'm so sorry, your highness." He spoke to Raoul. "We weren't able to save your brother."
Christine hardly knew the man. Only knew a few things about him. But Raoul did. Phillipe was a second father to him. He was his example. His everything.
Phillipe was gone.
"Raoul . . ." she breathed. Clueless. There was nothing she could say.
"Just let me hold you," he whispered, "That's all I need right now."
He wrapped his arms around her. Tighter than ever. Christine nuzzled her head into his shoulder. Wishing she could take the pain away from him. There was nothing she wouldn't do for him.
But nothing she could do besides be there.
King Phillipe's funeral was held the next week.
Christine didn't know who did all the planning. She suspected it was the servants. His family was trying to come to terms with the loss. It might have been Gustave. He seemed to be the most stable. The closest to him in a way. A very king-like way.
They slept together in the same bed every night. To comfort. Holding each other. Every morning, Christine woke to Raoul playing with her hair. The morning of the funeral, his actions seemed heavier. She held him closer, then. Running kisses up and down his cheeks. Marie told her his love language was touch. It was obvious to her. But she was more than happy to comply.
The funeral ended with a sunny sky. The weather didn't know what day it was, but Christine thought it should've been murky. Cloudy. To honor the fallen king. Now it felt like it was mocking them and their loss.
All of Chaisoweth mourned that day. Then the next. And Then the next. As tradition called for. Phillipe was a traditional man.
Lord Cormier and his group of rebels were arrested. Pleading guilty. The trial was short. Most of them were awarded life sentences. A few rebels had escaped. Once found, they were likely to be executed. Christine didn't like to think about it.
The following week, the coronation was held. Pronouncing Raoul as the new king. Christine as their queen. Their new roles were difficult to adjust to. Raoul never thought he would become king. He always assumed his brother would be there. After Phillipe passed after a long life, their son would be the next monarch. In his mind, in his heart, he was still the prince. Hoping that would be enough. The heavy crown didn't feel quite right on her head.
After the coronation and all the festivities that followed, the couple laid in bed. Christine with her head on her husband's chest. Fingers intertwined with his. Her other hand laid still near her cheek. Raoul kissed the crown of her head. His free hand shifting through her curls.
"Are you still awake?" Christine wondered, interrupting the silence.
Raoul made a noise to prove it.
"Raoul." She inhaled. "You know the night when all of this . . . happened?"
A few of the citizens referred to the night as The Departure. Referring to the traitors departing from the safe rule. Or Phillipe departing from life. Honoring all those who were killed that night. Christine didn't know how to feel about it. Mostly she was numb. Between the family, however, they never referred to the tragedy by a name. No one quite knew what happened then. None of the witnesses could form the right words to describe it.
"I know," Raoul said, softly.
"I know this is a stupid question, but did you mean it?"
He shifted, slightly. Christine rose, leaning on an elbow, facing him.
"Mean what exactly?"
A mumble escaped her throat, but she cleared her voice. "When you said that you loved me, too?"
Even in the dark, Christine could see him beaming. Raoul lifted a hand to stroke her cheek. She sank deeper into his hold. Waiting for his answer.
"I love you more than anything, Christine," he whispered.
He loved her. Her heart leaped. He loved her. He really did love her in return. A breathless laugh escaped her instead of any words. She only looked at him. Grinning like a madwoman. Her other hand met the one cupping her cheek.
Raoul nodded. But that was all she needed to see.
"I love you."
It came out through Christine's lips an octave louder than a whisper.
Raoul chuckled. Almost relieved it seemed like.
"Can I kiss you?" he wondered.
She beamed. "I'd love you too."
Their noses bumped into each other's as their faces met. As their lips touched, pure joy spread inside Christine. She could feel his hands running through her hair. Hers went to the back of his head. Pulling him closer in. She loved him. It was all she could feel. Her love for him. Christine ached for more. Raoul held her closer. Their lips moved away. Only their forehead touched. She sucked in a breath.
"Wow," Raoul mumbled.
Her voice caught in her throat. "Can we do it again?"
Instead of answering, their lips itched together again. Resulting in another kiss.
Christine loved him.
Raoul loved her.
"I've never been kissed before," she said, afterward, "But I believe, you are an incredible kisser."
A low hum came from his throat. She looked down at his smiling expression. Simply enjoying the way the corner of his eyes wrinkled as he smiled. Christine traced a finger along his jawline.
She wished she could tell him how much she loved him. No words could form.
"I love you," Raoul repeated. The words never lost their meaning.
"I love you, too."
Their lips met again.