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.
The rest of the summer, as well as the few that followed, proved to considerably more pleasant than all the years before. Jesse and Lukas were finally getting along, and very well at that, and Jesse’s friends, at her request, were far more open to him as well. Aiden, Maya, and Gill retained their emphatic dislike for the foreigners, and nothing Lukas could say could change their minds. Despite their relentless tormenting, the summers grew more bearable for everyone else, even outright enjoyable for Jesse and Lukas.
The next few years passed all too quickly until at last it was summer once again, but this one was unlike all those before it. It was the summer.
Jesse was of age now, she knew. If she and Lukas were to finally become formally engaged, it would be now. For so many years the idea had filled her with dread, but now it was staring her in the face and Jesse found that she didn’t mind so much. She was nervous beyond belief, butterflies fluttering in her stomach whenever she thought of it, but she’d come to accept that she would marry Lukas and she didn’t mind it.
In truth, though she’d never admit it, she wanted to marry him. After years of being at odds with one another, they had grown surprisingly close, and Jesse could proudly say she knew things about him that even his closest friends didn’t, like his hobby of writing, or the cat he’d managed to hide in his room for an entire summer. Maybe she didn’t get to choose who she’d walk beside for the rest of her life, but that didn’t mean she couldn’t be happy, especially when for so long the best she hoped for was tolerant indifference from her future spouse.
As she stood at the railing of the ship, the harbor growing closer by the minute, Jesse was an odd mix of happy, excited, and terrified all at once. But thinking of how close she was now, a smile found its way to her lips. The happiness, it seemed, was winning out.
Lukas on the other hand was dreading Jesse’s arrival, which was drawing ever near. Soren had told him in no uncertain terms that he was supposed to propose to Jesse when she arrived, and oh how he wanted to. He wasn’t sure exactly when or how it had happened, but at some point during their many summers together, she had done much more than grow on him as a friend. He could say with the utmost clarity that he loved Jesse. He loved her and he wanted to marry her...which is why he couldn’t.
For nearly all their lives they’d been pushed together by their parents with the expectation that they would someday get married, something they’d both emphatically fought from the beginning. But now they’d grown so close and Lukas cared for Jesse more than he could ever hope to put into words. He wanted to be her husband, more than anything.
Still, Jesse had never given him any indication of feelings beyond friendship and as much as it saddened him because of his own feelings, it saddened him even more so because of hers. On several occasions she’d confided in him that she often wished she could marry for love instead of marrying someone because they were a good choice for her kingdom. He knew all too well the sacrifices she was already going to have to make as heir to throne, so if their parents wouldn’t give her this choice, then Lukas would.
The “informal gathering” as Lukas’s father called it seemed like an eternity away and yet it was approaching all too quickly at the same time. Soren had invited nobles and diplomats from all over both nations for what was officially a show of goodwill between allies and unofficially his and Jesse’s engagement party. He didn’t exactly like having such a large audience for what came next, but the more people who witnessed it the better it would be for Jesse, or at least that’s what he reasoned with himself. After all, no one could blame her for her decision if they witnessed him make a fool of himself with their own eyes, right?
Lukas knew what he had to do, and he’d run over it in his head a thousand times, but that didn’t make it any easier. Whether she’d ever know it or not, he was doing this for her sake, he reminded himself. For her, this single thought replayed in his mind as he steeled himself, picked up his pen and began to write.
It was only a few short hours later when the ball was in full swing with nearly everyone, save the unofficial guest of honor, in attendance. Lukas found himself pacing a small section along the edge of the ballroom anxiously awaiting her arrival. “Maybe you lucked out and Her Highness won’t show up after all. No one can expect you to propose to lousy princess who doesn’t even show her face.” Aiden sneered from his place next to him.
“She’ll be here. Besides, I think she has a little choice in the matter as I do.” He replied, biting back a sign and a few choice words for his friend who was still so keen to hate Jesse and anyone she was associated with. “And believe it or not I actually want to see her, Aiden.” Was the reply he finally settled on.
Aiden opened his mouth to respond again, most likely something else snide and nasty, but as if he had summoned her, Jesse and her mother descending the grand staircase into the ballroom, announced by the herald. Before Aiden had a chance to continue whatever he’d been about to say, Lukas’s feet propelled him forward without thinking, meeting them at the bottom of the steps.
Lukas could barely tear his eyes away from her as he bowed to them both. Jesse was regal and beautiful as ever, and her expression gave nothing away even as he took her hand in his and pressed a kiss just above the knuckles, just like the future queen should, he supposed. Did she hate this, he wondered? All the eyes watching them, expecting so much from them, from her? He tried not to dwell on it too much.
As he pulled away, the musicians chose that moment to begin to play, a beautiful, soaring piece. “May I have this dance, Princess?” He asked before he could convince himself otherwise. It was selfish, he knew, to ask her to dance now, but he decided that if he was about to go a lifetime without her, he could at least afford himself just one moment of selfishness to hold on to.
He was thankful when she smiled at him and nodded. “It would be my pleasure.” Lukas’s heart skipped a beat as he realized how genuine the smile was. It was not her polite, practiced smile he’d seen so many times when she was being careful and political, but the smile he’d come to know over the last few years; the real smile, the one that would shine through when she was outside, taking in nature, or in the presence of her friends just enjoying their company. Lukas loved that smile.
For once Lukas was grateful for the hours upon hours of lessons on dancing he’d been forced to endure during his childhood, or else he was sure he’d be tripping over his own feet in that moment. His eyes met hers as they spun around the floor and he found himself smiling at her. “Fancy meeting you here.” She joked, her laugh coming off shaky and a little nervous.
“Funny, I was expecting the scrappy little girl who threw punches the first day we met, have you seen her?” Lukas peered over both of her shoulders in jest, as if he were searching for someone else.
“Ha ha, Lukas, so very funny.” She replied with a roll of her eyes, but there was mirth in her reply and in her face. “Just be glad it wasn’t you I tried to punch.”
“Oh, believe me, I am.” He responded, laughing at the memory of seeing one of his best friends receive was Lukas had to concede had been a well-deserved hit.
“Are you sure, because I still pack a pretty mean punch.” She teased. “Reggie could tell you, I’m stronger than I look.”
“I have no doubts about that, trust me.” And then the music stopped, and people were staring and muttering, and Lukas did the only thing he could think of, the thing he’d been mentally preparing himself for for longer than he cared to admit.
“Arrange the marriage!” He announced with more bravado than he was sure he’d ever possess. It wasn’t the most tactful way to execute his plan, but it would have to do. It certainly did the job of gaining attention, the whole room seeming to find them with their eyes, murmuring excitedly at the abrupt announcement.
“Wait!” Jesse looked startled now, and he couldn’t blame her. He hadn’t actually asked her yet and that was the point, but she didn’t know that.
“What? You’re all I’ve ever wanted, you’re beautiful.” And she was clever, and quirky, and just a little bit crazy in all the right ways. But he couldn’t tell her that part. Just play the shallow fool, Lukas. It shouldn’t be hard when you feel like a fool.
“Thank you, but what else?” She was looking at him expectantly now, and he wished he could answer honestly instead of how he knew he would.
“Yes Lukas, what else?” Soren prodded his son with an accompanying look that warned him to choose his response carefully. And Lukas did, but it was not what anyone present wanted him to say.
“What else is there?” He forced the words out as quickly as he dared, doing his best to project his words, his awful words he wished he didn’t have to say and pretend he actually meant, loud enough so the surrounding gentry could hear them.
A look of shock and hurt bloomed on her face and Lukas felt his heart twist as she pulled her hands from his in what felt like slow motion. The murmurs that seemed to surround them now felt almost deafening. Well then, mission accomplished, he supposed. It was for the best, he told himself. It had to be for the best, because otherwise Lukas had broken his own heart for nothing.
Haha it's been like 10 months since I've written anything for this fic but HERE'S CHAPTER 2 I GUESS. And I have chapters 3 and 4 in progress so like, it probably won't take me as long to post again. Probably.
Things were a whirlwind of chaos and packing after that, it seemed. It was mutually agreed after that it was best for all involved if Queen Isa and her party left as soon as possible. So, the group who’d only just arrived and started to settle began repacking and preparing to depart once more. That’s how Lukas found himself weaving in between people in the hallways, mostly servants, looking for one woman in particular.
“What are you doing here?” One woman who’d apparently found him before he found her. Lukas turned to find himself face to face with a less-than-happy Olivia. “If you had any sense, you’d be off licking your wounds somewhere else. Unless you wanted to try and stick your other foot in your mouth? I’d say I think you can’t make things much worse, but that’s just asking for it.”
“I needed to find you.” He paused uncomfortably for a moment, unsure what the best way to proceed with his request was. “I sort of have something to ask of you.”
“Me? You just insulted my best friend in front of hundreds of gossip-loving nobles, and you want my help? You really have gone crazy.” Her arms were crossed in irritation as she looked him up and down. “That or desperate. Tell me what you want, and I’ll decide how much I’m gonna make you suffer for it.”
“Look, I know I have no right to ask you to do this after everything, but please Olivia, give this to her.” Lukas pleaded, holding out the letter, silently praying she would do it. She stared him down, apparently weighing her options before finally giving her answer.
“Fine.” She replied, taking the letter from his grasp. “But if I ever see you again you owe me a huge favor.” She said, not taking her eyes off him as she did.
Lukas sighed in relief, grateful that she was doing it, even if she was still clearly very unhappy about it. “Yes, I do. Thank you, Olivia.”
“Don’t thank me, you owe me a favor for this, remember? And this doesn’t mean that I suddenly like you now.” She turned to leave, the letter safe in her grasp. “And I hope you know I don’t have to make her read it. I’m just delivering it for her to do whatever she wants with.” Lukas sighed as he watched her leave. The interaction had gone about as well as he could’ve hoped for, at least, now he was only left to hope his letter would be read.
For Jesse, leaving couldn’t come fast enough. After Lukas’s outburst of a “proposal”, she wanted nothing more than to be as far away from him and his home as possible. It was a great relief to find herself back in her carriage beside her mother moments away from leaving it all behind for good. Still, the moment was all she could think about, replaying itself over and over again in all its horrifying glory. Her insides twisted with embarrassment, anger, and, what was most felt, hurt. She’d imagined this day many times over many years and yet somehow, this was never the ending she’d imagined for any of them.
Jesse and Isa sat in a somewhat uncomfortable silence as they waited to depart so it was a relief when Olivia appeared at the carriage window, a welcome distraction from the tense atmosphere, as well as her own mind. “I’m not going to make you read it, but this,” Olivia said, holding out the letter, “Is from Prince Charming. He owes me a favor for giving it to you, so if you want that favor to be something humiliating, just say the word.”
Despite the conflicting emotions Jesse was feeling, she couldn’t help the slight smile that formed on her lips. “I’ll keep that in mind.” She replied. “I think we’ll have a long time to think about it before we ever see him again.”
“Thank goodness for that.” Olivia said with a huff. Then she turned to look at something outside of Jesse’s line of sight, before turning back to address her again. “I think that’s my cue to go. We’ll be right behind you though, and we’ll have the whole trip back on the ship to talk about all of this.” Olivia stepped back from the carriage and there was a jolt as they began to move.
Once the traveling party had made on its way, they were a fair way from the castle when Isa finally spoke. “I don’t blame you for your choice, you know.”
Jesse met her mother’s eyes with a curious glance. “You don’t? Even when you’ve been pushing for me to marry him for, I don’t know, my whole life?”
Isa sighed. “I don’t. I did want this to work, truly I did. There’s no denying that it would be a good political match. But more than that I hoped he would be a good partner for you. I know you’d much prefer to choose for love, and I’d love nothing more than to give that to you, but you know as well as I that it simply isn’t an option for us.”
“I know. It’s just so…frustrating to have so little choice in something so huge! I mean, this is someone I’m going to be spending my whole life with.” Her face twisted into something akin to frustration, a familiar response to the topic at hand.
“I know, that’s why I can’t begrudge you your refusal. We will figure something else out, but at the very least I will not let you enter a marriage that would make you miserable.” Isa reached out and grabbed Jesse’s hand, giving it a gently squeeze. “Even if your marriage has to be a political one, I can at least make sure it’s a happy one.”
“Thank you, mother. For what it’s worth, I was okay with this plan, in the end. At least up until tonight happened. I don’t understand it, he was so…different tonight. Maybe…maybe this was just him showing his true colors.” The frustration left Jesse’s face, replaced instead with the hurt and sadness that had been warring within her thinking she had been so wrong about Lukas after all.
If Isa intended to reply with her own thoughts on the evening’s events, she never got to. The carriage came to a stop suddenly, jolting both its occupants. It was Reginald who approached the window a moment later. “Forgive me Your Majesty, Your Highness, but there’s something, or someone, blocking the way, we’re dealing with it now but there might be a slight-“ He was cut off by a flash of bright, unnatural light, followed by an inhuman screech and yells from what could only be assumed to be the guards.
An angry look crossed Isa’s face, and a mix of other emotions Jesse couldn’t quite identify as she reached beneath her seat to draw her twin swords. She looked as Jesse once more and spoke a single command before rushing from the carriage, ready to take up arms. “Stay here.”
“Wait, what are-“ She reached out for her too late as the queen disappeared into the brewing storm, unknowingly the last image Jesse would have of her mother.
Lukas was definitely not brooding. Not at all. He was just…ceaselessly pacing from one end of the room to the other and looking very, very angsty. Okay, so maybe he was brooding a little bit. “I hear you screwed up big time, Lukas.” Petra spoke from behind him, sounding suspiciously like she was laughing at him.
Lukas rolled his eyes as he huffed in frustration. “Gee, thanks, Petra.” He wasn’t really sure when exactly she’d shown up, but he was guessing she’d wasted no time calling attention to the mess he’d decided to make.
“’What else is there’, huh? That’s certainly one way to answer that I guess. And a great way to offend your potential fiancé so bad she’ll want to leave, and who could blame her, really?” Petra said nonchalantly, but her eyes met his with such intensity, so accusatory, Lukas was cursing instantly. Of course Petra would see through it. “I gotta say, it seems a little out of character for you, you’re normally so charming.” She said, the sarcasm dripping from her voice. “So, you gonna tell me why made an ass of yourself on purpose, or am I gonna have to guess?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” He replied coolly, though Lukas had a feeling it was a lost cause. Petra was smart, always had been. Right now he was inclined to say too smart. Couldn’t she just let him be miserable in peace?
“So we’re gonna play that game then, huh? Alright then, tell me if I’m wrong here: You spent years at odds with this girl, hating each other’s guts and somewhere in all that mess you start to have feelings, real, positive feelings for her. So you decide you’re gonna be the hero and give her an out for this engagement by acting like a total ass. Except you didn’t tell her your plan so now she thinks you actually are a total ass. Did I get anything wrong?”
“It’s better this way.” His answer was soft, nearly inaudible. It wasn’t a direct answer, but he couldn’t bring himself to give one, not now. He hadn’t thought he’d be that transparent, but apparently, he was, at least to Petra.
“Is it? Did you try, I don’t know, actually talking to Jesse about the whole thing? Did you ever consider that maybe she might actually want to marry you?” Petra looked as exasperated as she sounded, and it was enough to make him pause; did she know something he didn’t?
Lukas didn’t get the chance to question it further as a commotion outside the room interrupted their conversation. He and Petra exchanged a brief glance and wordlessly agreed as they both took of towards the source of the noise. The entrance hall was a short sprint from where they began and the site that greeted them was a startling one. Reginald, the captain of Queen Isa’s guard, was being propped up by a several of Soren’s own men, who were surely the only thing keeping him upright as he bled from a number of concerning wounds on his person.
“What happened to you?” Petra asked, her face serious as she shifted into soldier mode, all business. “Where’s the rest of your people?”
It was clearly taking a great deal of effort for him to speak, but he managed to meet Petra’s eyes and respond. “A beast…it attacked the convoy. Most of my men…badly hurt, or worse. The Queen needs help but I couldn’t carry her. You have to help her.”
The news filled Lukas with dread; an attack of any kind wasn’t good, but this was far past that. So many men dead, the Queen gravely injured. And he’d said nothing of Jesse, and that alone was enough to spark Lukas into action. “Where are you going?” Petra called after him as he made his way out the door with a single-minded purpose.
“To help!” He called back to her, not stopping in his exit.
“Not without me, you’re not.” She said, matching his stride. He gave her a grateful nod as they rushed towards the scene. Getting there seemed to take too long and not long enough all at once. Lukas could only stare in horror at the sight that met him there; the royal carriage was on its side, the door torn cleanly off its hinges. Worse than that was the carnage that accompanied it. Reginald had apparently been very lucky; members of the Queen’s guard were lying lifeless around the scene.
Searching for any sign of Jesse or her mother seemed futile until he finally caught a glimpse of the Queen’s familiar yellow dress. Lukas hastily dropped to his knees beside her when he reached her. “Just hold on Your Majesty, we’re here to help.” But as he got a better look at her he knew there was no help he could give. They’d never get her anywhere in time to save her; if they tried to move her at all it would only make things worse.
Isa grasped at Lukas, gripping his arm as she looked intensely into his face. Her eyes seemed to pierce him with startling clarity for a dying woman. “Animal-The Great Animal…Find it and find her.” Then her grasp slackened, her hand falling to her side.
Fear like Lukas had never felt before gripped his heart. He pulled himself up off the ground, shifting Isa gently. He was only half aware of his own actions as he tore off further into the woods. He had a vague awareness of screaming Jesse’s name, but it was a futile effort; She was gone.
The days following the attack were a blur for everyone involved. Countless search parties were sent out to search for any sign of Jesse, with each day that passed all but a few lost more hope than the last of finding her at all, let alone alive. It was after several weeks of fruitless searching that the parties gave up hope altogether and the preparations for the foreigners to return to their home country so they could bury their queen and mourn her missing heir.
There were a few who refused to give up on Jesse though, who still sought answers to her disappearance. Lukas was the most adamant that there was more to what happened. He’d barely slept, having been among the search parties for several days straight, refusing to stop until his father and other concerned parties managed to convince him to stay put. Even that did little good. Instead of searching the forests, Lukas set to searching the library, turning through book after book for even the smallest hint about what the Great Animal might be.
That was where Lukas found himself the day before the remaining members of Isa’s court were set to leave, scanning the pages of what felt like the thousandth book. They may have abandoned their princess for dead, but he wouldn’t.
“Still searching I see.” Lukas barely kept from jumping in surprise as he whirled around from the book in his hands to see Ivor, one of Isa’s advisers who’d been close with both her and Jesse, standing near him, watching with interest.
Lukas sighed, running a hand through his hair, half frustrated and half exhausted. “I can’t just give up on her. I won’t, especially not when the Queen used her dying words to give me a clue as to what happened to her. I’m going to find out what this Great Animal is, even if no one else believes it exists.”
“I agree with you.” Ivor said simply.
Lukas opened his mouth, prepared to defend his dedication to scouring the library in search of answers for the umpteenth time, only to snap it shut in surprise when he realized what Ivor had said. “You what?” Lukas was used to resistance, not support on the matter.
“I said I agree with you. It’s strange that everyone in that party was accounted for, dead or alive, expect for Jesse.” Ivor’s expression turned dark as he continued. “You were likely too young to even remember hearing about it, I’m sure, but when Jesse was still very small, a sorcerer was plotting to overthrow Isa. He was apprehended before he could carry out his plan and the Queen banished him, but that didn’t stop him from threatening her and everything she held dear. Whatever this Great Animal is that attacked the Queen’s traveling party and took the Princess, it may be tied to him. I cannot say for certain though.”
“I will send you anything I can find on this Great Animal, but for now I must return to my own country and lay the Queen to rest.” His expression softened, sad and tinged with regret that Lukas felt as well. “Not to mention I’ll have to deal with the vultures.”
Lukas’s eyebrows quirked in confusion. “The vultures?” He wasn’t entirely certain as to what Ivor was referring to, but he had an inkling that it was political and tedious.
“The next-in-line and his cronies. I’ll have to convince the council that the Princess may still be alive before putting anyone else on the throne. I can buy her some time, but eventually they will grow restless and it will be harder to keep them from declaring her dead. Otherwise if Jesse is restored to us alive, she may have to contend with Hadrian for her kingdom.”
The name was one that gave Lukas a nagging feeling like he knew it, or should, but couldn’t quite place it. “Who’s Hadrian?” He asked after a moment of failing to remember.
“Hadrian is next in line for the throne behind Jesse. If you haven’t had the pleasure of meeting him, I can assure you that you don’t want to. Putting that man in power would be a disaster.” Ivor shook his head slightly. “It’s something I intend to avoid at all costs.”
He gave Lukas a slight nod, turning now towards the door. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I believe we’ll be leaving soon. I wish you the best of luck in your search, for her sake and ours.” Ivor paused on his way out of the library. “And Lukas?” He turned to face Ivor one more time. “You’ll be no good to her if you run yourself into the ground, whether you’re trying to help her or not.”
Lukas only nodded in response. He would heed Ivor’s advice or at least he would try. But later; the sooner he found the answers he needed to sooner Jesse would be safe again. And she would be if Lukas had to search for her the rest of his life.
For Jesse, every moment since the attack was spent in agonizing clarity. That first night was burned into her mind, the crazed animal tearing through people, through her mother like they were nothing and it had dragged her off kicking and screaming, the first sign that things were not as they seemed.
She wasn’t sure where the thing had taken her or how far it was from anything she knew, and she suspected magic was involved. The Thing as she’d taken to calling it in her head, a horrible amalgamation of every predator she could imagine, eventually brought her to a lake, one overshadowed by crumbling castle. It could almost be considered beautiful if it weren’t for the circumstances. As soon as they arrived it threw her to the ground, hard.
As soon as she hit the dirt, hard beneath her, there was a blinding flash of light, accompanied by more pain than her impact with the ground could ever have given her. Jesse cried out in pain, but the sound that escaped her mouth was a strange and foreign one. It was then when she became aware of her own body again and everything felt inexplicably wrong.
She had no time to contemplate why though as a set of hands that seemed far too large grabbed her and all at once she was thrust into the cool, moonlit waters of the lake, accompanied by another bright light and strange sensation. Now she stood ankle deep in the water facing an unfamiliar man with bright red hair and a smarmy grin that made Jesse want to punch him in the face.
“Who are you?” She demanded as she pulled herself to her full, albeit still small, height. She had no idea who he was or what he wanted but she wasn’t going to give it to him, not without a hell of a fight.
The stranger tutted at her like she was a naughty child. “Is that any way to talk to a new friend? Really, that’s all I want from you, Jesse: your friendship!”
‘Right,’ Jesse thought, ‘because nothing says friendship like tearing apart my family and my people and kidnapping her’. She squared her shoulders and looked him in the eye with all the defiance she could muster. “You’re no friend, whoever you are!”
“Oh I should introduce myself, how rude of me! My name is Romeo and all I ask of you, dear Jesse, is your hand in marriage.” Jesse visibly recoiled before she could stop herself. Marry him? Of all the demands she’d expected, this wasn’t one of them.
“You attacked my people and kidnapped me, and you expect me to marry you? You’re insane!” She pushed past him, her anger mingling with disgust now as she made to set off into the woods. She may have no idea where she was, but anywhere was better than with this man.
“Oh no Jesse, I’m not insane, I’m really very smart. You see, you could keep walking into the woods, and I won’t even stop you! But once the moonlight leaves that lake,” he said, gesturing backwards with a flourish, “You’re going to turn into a swan! And the only way to turn your little self back into a human is to be on that very specific lake when the moonlight hits it again the next night. And it will be like that every single night! But if you’re unhappy with that, I’d be more than happy to undo the magic, just as soon as you agree to be my bride.”
Jesse considered what he’d said for perhaps half a second before she answered. “You can keep me here for the rest of my life, but I will never marry you. I would sooner die.”
“You’re stubborn now but I promise you, you will come around to my way of thinking eventually. You’ll get tired of being a bird, just you wait, and I’m the only one who can stop it. Unless of course you have someone who’ll swoop in and declare a vow of everlasting love for you. Maybe that little prince who proposed to you will come save you! Oh wait, he only cared about your beauty. Such a shame.” He taunted with a sneer. Jesse had thought his face couldn’t get any more smug, but as he brought up Lukas and the disastrous proposal that felt like a lifetime ago now, it grew tenfold.
He didn’t wait for a response, turning to leave, choosing instead to let her stew on all the unpleasantness he’d left her with. “Think about my offer, Jesse. I’ll be back tomorrow night, and I so hope you’ll have changed your mind then.”
It had gone much the same every night since then: Romeo would come, sometimes accompanied by his adoring shadow in the form of a woman named Stella and ask for her hand and she would give the same adamant refusal before he’d leave her in solitude with her remaining hours of humanity.
It was another such night after Romeo had left her, all sneers and taunts and promises that she’d change her mind eventually that Jesse found herself heatedly pacing, trying to think of some way out of her situation. She had little at her disposal, and she could only make it so far each night before the moon disappeared and she was resigned to her feathery fate once again. She was starting to listen more and more to that thought that kept creeping its way more and more frequently into her mind, that maybe she had no way out of this, not on her own at least.
Jesse sat herself down unceremoniously on the steps leading into the water with a sigh. After a few frustrated moments of mental debate she reached into her pocket and pulled out a familiar envelope, still sealed but looking more well-loved by the day. She still hadn’t been able to bring herself to read it despite the frequency for which she pulled it out each night. Jesse wasn’t really sure why she’d been waiting so long to read it; after all, what could it say that could really change things now anyway? And yet it felt like such a finality. Finally, with an angry huff Jesse tore open the letter. The longer she waited, the harder it would be to read it. It was probably something ridiculous anyway, she reasoned with herself, or something she didn’t already know from Prince Charming as Olivia had called him that day. So she unfolded the letter and began to read.
As I write this, I am about to do the hardest thing I think I’ve ever considered: hurting you. If I could think of any other way to set you free from our parents’ wishes, I need you to know that I would do it in a heartbeat. As strange as it must seem with all of the hurt I’ve undoubtedly caused you by the time you read this, everything I’ve done I did because I wanted you to be happy.
Given the choice I would choose you a thousand times over. But I couldn’t live with knowing that you never got a choice, and that’s why I had to give you one. If I made a fool of myself and gave you way out, then you could have that choice. I know that you’ll still be expected to get married someday, but at least this way you can decide for yourself who you want standing by your side. You can choose love, even if that love isn’t me.
She could only stare in shock. Jesse could scarcely believe that he’d done such a stupidly kind and selfless thing in a misguided attempt to make her happy. She hadn’t been quite sure before quite how she felt about him, but now she could say it with absolute clarity. Jesse was determined now to find her way back to him and tell him what an idiot he was.
And then she’d tell him that she loved him.