Jesse knew that many people thought the life of a royal was something like living in a fairy tale. They expected it to be grand balls and magic and romance. But at seven years old and being shipped away from her home, her friends, and her family to spend an entire summer with a boy she was expected to marry, it was decidedly nothing at all like a fairy tale.
She’d never even met the prince, three years her senior, but somehow she already disliked him. It was his fault after all that she was to be uprooted from her life for the next three years and every summer after that, wasn’t it? At least that’s what she told herself, despite somewhere in the back of her mind knowing that he had just as little choice in the matter as she did.
Jesse’s only solace was Reuben. The little pig on her lap was the only friend allowed to accompany her for the summer, and probably the only reason Isa had managed to drag her this far.
To say Jesse was unhappy with the arrangement was an understatement to say the least and while she said nothing, it was clear to her mother from her expression that Jesse was anything but pleased. Isa let out a tired sigh at the sight. “Has it ever occurred to you that you may actual enjoy your time here, Jesse? It will be much more likely that you do if you don’t decide to hate it before you’re even there.” She punctuated the comment with a pointed look at her daughter, which was only met with the same grumpy expression turned pouting out the carriage window. It was going to be a very long summer, and Isa wasn’t even going to be there for most of it. The queen said a silent prayer that Soren was at least half as patient as he was eccentric.
Ten year old Lukas was in no better spirits about the whole arrangement. Standing outside the palace with his father, he had no idea what to expect. Supposedly he had met Jesse once shortly after she was born, but he barely remembered the encounter, and even if he did have a clear memory, meeting someone as a baby was hardly a good indicator of what her personality would be like now.
Up until now summers had been something to look forward to. There were fewer lessons, more time he could spend with his friends, and the weather was always nice enough to spend outside. Now he’d be spending his summers entertaining a foreign princess who may well end up being the most insufferable person he’d ever met.
Lukas half hoped that they’d change their mind and not come after all, but his hopes were dashed as the long line of horses and carriages came into view. Maybe she won’t be that bad, Lukas told himself, but as the chestnut haired little girl stepped out of the carriage, that hope too was long gone. Princess Jesse looked anything but pleasant with her angry scowl that seemed to be directed in his direction. His own irritation at the situation seemed to double and he adopted a similar expression to match hers.
The two were so absorbed in their impromptu staring match, neither noticed the concerned look shared between their parents. The uncomfortable silence was quickly broken by Soren. “Now Lukas, staring is no way to greet our guests. Remember what we discussed.” He said, urging him forward with a not-quite-gentle pat on the back.
Still scowling, Lukas closed the distance between himself and Jesse and took her hand. “We’re so pleased to have you with us, Princess.” He forced out as coolly as possible before a brief kiss on the back of her hand, abruptly letting go of her as soon as he was finished. Neither of the children looked anywhere near happy about it, both now refusing to even look at each other.
A long summer indeed, Isa thought to herself as they were led inside.
At the point that everyone present thought that things couldn’t be going any worse was the point Lukas’s three young friends decided to make themselves known. Soren couldn’t say he’d ever been fond of the trio of children that his son had chosen to be friends with, but their parents were members of his court and Lukas loved them, so he had no choice but to tolerate them.
At this particular moment tolerating them was the hardest it had ever been for Soren as the hopes for Jesse and Lukas warming up to each other were quickly waning each moment Aiden, Maya, and Gill hung around them. Currently the three of them were sneering at Jesse and the piglet in her arms, Aiden at the front of the group, as Lukas hung back and observed.
“Huh, I always knew you foreigners were weird, but man I didn’t realize what freaks you could be. I mean who carries around a stinky pig? Pigs are for food, idiot.” He said with a cruel laugh.
“Reuben’s my friend, and if you’re smelling anyone around here, it must be you.” She bit back with a pointed look in his direction. Even if she hadn’t already been in such a foul mood, there was no way she was going to stand for someone insulting her friend.
“Oh yeah? Is that the best you’ve got?” Aiden snorted, getting uncomfortably close to her face. Jesse, though young and small, fixed him with an icy glare reminiscent of her mother as she set Reuben down on the ground with a surprising calm. Then in one smooth motion she straightened herself, pulled back her arm, and connected her first with his face.
The other three gaped at the sudden act while Reuben squealed in a way that sounded suspiciously like laughter. “Why you-! You’re gonna regret that!” Aiden barked when he’d recovered enough to respond, raising his fist to reciprocate.
“And what are you doing? Threatening the princess?” Reginald, the captain of Isa’s guards, was looming over them now with his arms crossed and a very angry frown.
“What, I wasn’t-She started it!” Aiden yelled suddenly, pointing an accusatory finger at Jesse. Gill and Maya nodded enthusiastically in support of the wild claim.
“Is that so? Jesse?” Reggie’s eyebrows shot up as he turned to the young girl to hear her defense.
“Me? Why would I ever do something like that? The last thing I’d want to do is make them angry when I have to spend the whole summer here.” Jesse was innocent, at least of instigating the confrontation, but that didn’t mean she wasn’t playing it up for all it was worth. One of the most valuable skills she’d learned in her short life was that she was cute and that it very often worked in her favor.
“That’s what I thought. Young man I’d better not see or hear about you raising your hand to the princess again, or you’ll be answering to a lot of powerful people.” His eyes narrowed threateningly for good measure. “And people who are very good with a sword.” He added, patting the sword on his belt.
As he walked away Jesse gave the 4 other children the most pleasant, and entirely insincere, smile she was capable of, and without another word, she picked up Reuben and followed after him.
Aiden glared at her as she left. The lines had been drawn now, and he was not going to make things easy for her, and there was no way he was going to let his best friend marry some snotty, brat of a princess.
The next summer Jesse came armed with more friends, and human ones this time, though of course Reuben was there too like her previous trip. If Lukas could have his cronies, she’d argued to her mother, she should at least be able to bring some friends of her own along. Isa hadn’t appreciated her referring to them as his cronies, nor any of the other colorful names she’d come up with for them, but she couldn’t deny the request, especially not if it had the chance to warm Jesse up to the idea of the summer visits.
As it turned out, the only thing Lukas’s friends liked more than taunting Jesse was taunting her friends. They’d made it their mission to annoy and harass them all in whatever way they could without getting themselves into trouble.
Lukas was more indifferent to all of them after the initial displeasure at the situation wore off, even polite and outright kind when his friends weren’t around, much to the confusion of Jesse, but she didn’t often dwell on it, too busy trying to avoid his friends.
And the summers continued on, all more of less the same for several years. Each group of friends content to despise each other, waging their own personal war, much to the frustration of both Soren and Isa. To say their plan wasn’t going the way they’d hoped was a vast understatement.
Soren in particular, who was experiencing it all first hand, was growing more impatient, until finally he chose to take matters into his own hands, deciding maybe something a little less subtle might work better.
“Why don’t you take Jesse on a ride around the grounds. I’m sure she’d love to take in some of the scenery.” The king suggested to his son on a sunny day when the two opposing groups were sitting in the garden shooting unpleasant looks at each other across a flower bed and pretending they weren’t.
“Father, she’s been coming here every summer for years. I’m sure she’s seen plenty of the scenery by now.” Lukas said, casting an uncertain glance in Jesse’s direction. Despite their initial introduction and how his friends treated her, he’d long ago decided he had no issues with her, though he was sure she felt the opposite. He had a fairly good feeling that being forced to spend time alone with him was the farthest thing from what she’d want.
“No reason she can’t see it again.” Soren pushed, unwilling to accept his refusal. “Besides I’m sure there are at least some places you could ride to that she hasn’t seen before.”
Lukas sighed, knowing his father wasn’t likely to give up the idea any time soon. “Fine. Princess, would you care to join me?” He asked as politely as he could muster through his frustration.
Jesse only nodded curtly in response, wasting no time in making her way towards the stables. Her friends, as well as Lukas’s made to follow, but Soren once again intervened. “Aiden, why don’t you and the others show our other guests the updates made to the east wing. I’m sure it would be much more interesting for them than a ride, don’t you think?” Everyone present knew that it would be anything but interesting, but it was another request that wasn’t really a request at all.
Glaring daggers at Axel and Olivia, both of whom, along with Reuben, looked none too pleased with the idea themselves, Aiden agreed. “Of course, Your Majesty.” Then a wicked smile spread across his face, deciding this was the perfect opportunity to torment them, and even better without Jesse or Lukas around to curb his attempts. “It would be our pleasure.”
Lukas stopped just as he was passing Soren. “She hates me, you know that don’t you? I’m not sure forcing her to spend even more time with me is really going to help that.” And without waiting for a reply Lukas strode off, hurrying to catch up with Jesse, if not to also avoid a lecture from his father.
They prepared their horses in an uncomfortable silence, and rode for what felt like an eternity in a similar manner. Lukas wasn’t sure how many times he thought about saying something, anything really, just to break the silence, only to change his mind when finally he didn’t have to. “I don’t hate you, you know.” Jesse said suddenly, the break of the tense silence surprising Lukas.
His eyebrows lifted curiously at her comment. “I don’t hate you either?” He wasn’t sure if it was more of a surprise that she had finally spoken to him or what she’d chosen to say.
“I heard what you said to your father earlier.” She offered in explanation for the sudden declaration. “I don’t hate you, I just…I hate not having a choice in all this. They say we have a choice, but I think we both know that isn’t true.”
“Yeah…” Lukas responded with a sigh. It had always been the worst part of the arrangement. For all they were told that they would always have a say in how things ended up, how often their parents shoved them at each other and spoke about their marriage as if it were already decided, it felt like the exact opposite.
“And I don’t like your friends.” She added with a dark expression. “They’re bullies, I don’t know why you keep hanging around with them.” Then her face softened. “You don’t seem anything like them.”
Lukas wanted to be angry at her for insulting his friends, but he found that he couldn’t. “They’re my best friends, you just don’t know them like I do.” He halfheartedly argued, though whether it was more for her sake or his, he honestly wasn’t sure.
Jesse bit her tongue, deciding the snarky reply that almost left her lips wasn’t going to get them anywhere except backtracking in a relationship where there wasn’t much farther back to go. “I want us to be friends.” She said finally.
He felt himself grinning in response. “Yeah, I’d like that too.” If they were forced to be in this mess together, it would be much easier on both of them if they actually got along, let alone actually enjoyed each others’ company.
Jesse beamed at him in return. “Good! Friends, then.” Then her expression shifted in a way he couldn’t quite place. “Well, since we’re friends now, why don’t we have some fun? As friends?”
“What do you mean?” He said, giving her a curious look. Jesse had meant what she’d said before, hadn’t she? And yet he couldn’t feel like she was up to something.
Jesse grinned mischievously at him, and suddenly the shift in tone made sense. “Race you! Go Winnie!” Before Lukas could register what was happening, she was urging her horse on, bolting ahead of him, her laughter echoing in her wake. Lukas could only grin as he urged his own horse after her.
Their situation wasn’t ideal, but maybe, just maybe they could do this after all.