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Exciting Words to Hear

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“That’s a very good question,” Chelsea said, and shifted, that slight restlessness she’d stubbornly retained no matter the age. She held her chin in her palms, and deliberated no longer than was appropriate to produce a satisfactory answer. She’d need not straighten so much to let her heels touch the keys. “But no. Unfortunately, I love someone else. Such is the way of things.”

“Really?” The seated man raised an eyebrow at her. If he’d turned his head just so she would be able to see the smile, but it was obvious in his voice, anyway. “You can come up with something more original than that, Princess.”

Her hands fell to her sides. Air let loose from her cheeks in a manner most unladylike. Johnny laughed. Despite herself, Chelsea simpered. She liked the nickname, even though her prince had stepped up to the throne months ago and the title was due for an upgrade. Not that she’d made much meaningful progress on that front. “There are many reasons, if you must know! I simply chose the one that was most truthful.”

He was playing a song. He was always playing a song. It must be a normal one, she realized, since she felt neither compelled to sleep nor shoot something between the eyes. He’d told her he hadn’t played the piano in years, which was a surprise; when she’d asked why he stopped (you even put your name on it!) he’d just shrugged and refused to elaborate, which in hindsight wasn’t a surprise at all, because even Johnny the Clown had his moments of lucidity where he remembered he was an adult and that all adults were made of secrets—with or without the jester hat. Such was the way of things. She sighed.

It was a nice song, she decided then. A gentle melody she found herself easily lost in. She was visiting and he was being a very nice host and so she didn’t mention that sometimes he would miss a note or three. It was the least she could do.

“Aww, but isn’t Aquaveil a nice place? You do know you have the honor of being the first delegation to officially visit.” He coughed. She had heard about the shenanigans Stahn had to pull to get inland the first time around. “I’m sure Woodrow would understand. He just hasn’t seen the cherry blossoms in season, that’s all. Anyone would be charmed enough by that to stay forever.”

“They are very pretty,” Chelsea conceded. Her home climate didn’t lend much opportunities for flowers to flourish, even though the zelkova did such an admirable job of keeping her company that she hardly yearned for blossoms. Most of the time, anyway. She made a mental note not to tell them about the pink flowers, those dainty petals crumbling between her fingertips as she shook them off her hair. She’d loathe for them to be jealous. “I thought people from Aquaveil hated foreigners. Um, present company excluded? Sorry.”

“Oh, they’re learning,” Johnny dismissed. “And what better way to force them to learn than someone marrying an outsider? That’ll show ‘em, don’t you think? Close-minded gullible saps.”

Chelsea slammed one hand onto the piano—and the first three letters of his name. She sulked. “A political marriage? I thought you were more of a romantic than that! I’m saddened. I hardly know you at all.”

“Oh,” he echoed, sounding wounded, “don’t be so presumptuous! I never said anything of the sort. You really are a very charming girl, you know that?”

“No,” she didn’t say. He missed another note. “You’d tell any girl that thinking she’s too gullible to know any better.” She didn’t say that either. A sunken feeling settled slowly in her stomach. The compliment had come so easily it was hard not to distrust. This, she disliked about him. She always had. It reminded her of the time Woodrow had told her she was such a noble girl, and so admirable, and so he should deign himself to let her protect him… She chewed on his sweet words until she tasted bitter. Then swallowed.

“I don’t know how to use chopsticks,” Chelsea said, and turned so that she faced away from him, so that her feet dangled inches off the floor, legs flush and rigid against the wood finish. The words leaping out of her mouth typewriter-quick, outrunning the pink starting to dust over her cheeks. “I talked to Miss Leianna once and she told me she had to look pretty every day and what if that means I have to put on a… a kimono? I can’t! I’ll wear it backwards and keep tripping over it! Everyone will laugh at me! So you see—”

“Come now, I wouldn’t make you do that. All you’ll need to do is sit on the throne and rule in my place! See, you become queen and my father shuts up about the next successor. We kill two birds with one stone. An awesome deal, right?”

“Did I mention my heart belongs to Woodrow-sama? Yes, I’m sure I did.”

“Yes, yes, many times. I know.” He waved a hand in her general direction, completely unoffended. She bit on her lip. Surely it was all just a joke to him. She shouldn’t have even seriously considered the question. “But Father was driving me crazy. I figured it was worth a try.”

“Johnny, you shouldn’t talk like that about your parents,” she admonished. “They’re probably downstairs right now. They’ll hear you.” Her hands were folded, one on top of the other. And she must’ve looked a little sad just then, because the music stopped, and Johnny stopped babbling, and gave her a look that was almost apologetic. Soothing. Brotherly, even. That ‘sorry-I-haven’t-got-any-candy-today’ kind of face. The one that promised to make it up to her, and she knew it.

Chelsea looked away.

“I’m not being a very good host, am I? I shouldn’t fill your head up with my problems when you’ve got enough of your own already. Speaking of which, isn’t that why you’re on vacation?”

“It’s not a vacation! You invited me,” she said, sharper than she’d intended. He’d called it an official visit—on behalf of Phandaria. She was a delegation, he’d said. He was speaking to her as the ambassador of Aquaveil, he’d said. He’d said many things that in hindsight sounded more like the set-up to a joke, and now she was waiting for the punchline. She should get off the piano. Why was she even on it? Proper ladies didn’t just say yes to strange men making them sit on musical instruments with their name on it. “You made it sound very important.”

“I pulled many strings to get you on that boat,” he said.

She’d gotten predictably lost, predictably seasick and unpredictably thrown up twice overboard. “Just one.”

“Hmm,” Johnny said. “Oh well. You said yes, didn’t you? That’s what matters. Help yourself to the dartboard and the storybooks if you’d like. Or you can go for a walk. Try not to be too offended when people stare.”

Chelsea hopped off the piano. The purple bear-shaped rug greeted her landing with soft reprieve. He had many toys, she noticed; darts and instruments and storybooks and board games and miniature boats sitting on top of shelves, and she thought then that he’d never been a bored child. He’d been a rich one. He was a prince and probably had gotten everything he wanted at her… at that age. The house was probably always full, always noisy. My brothers always picked on me, he’d say. My parents never shut up, he’d say. This is why I hate visiting, he’d sigh, every time Stahn needed to be here for one reason or another, pointedly making an effort to sidestep the mansion, loitering outside like the world’s worst imitation of the sort of exotic birds she’d only seen in books. And he’d probably been telling the truth, too. Of course. Who would lie about their family? Woodrow hardly talked about his, but the portrait he kept in his room said everything she needed to know about the kind of woman he measured her up against. Her toes curled into the rug. Why did she think of that? “Your room’s more of a kid’s room than mine,” she said, and didn’t know what about it made her feel better. Maybe because it was true.

“But of course. You’re twice the adult I am,” he answered, thoroughly convinced. Even though he hadn't been to her room and couldn't have known what it looked like.

“I think I’ll go for that walk,” said Chelsea, quite resolutely, and marched for downstairs.

He didn’t tell her to be careful. “Don’t talk to strangers,” he didn’t say. “Don’t go too far on your own," because the snow drift is worse around this time of year. He didn’t say that either. Of course he didn’t. Why would he? He was right. She wasn’t a kid. She didn’t need the warnings.

“Have fun," Johnny chirped, waving after her, and when he came to fetch her two hours later, frazzled and fruitlessly asking the fishmonger for directions through increasingly alarmed hand gesticulations, she had a feeling, just a nagging familiar suspicion, that he’d seen it all coming. Like it was another one of his jokes.

“Sorry about that," he told the man, who bristled in immediate recognition. She looked up from where his hands clasped her shoulders, and there it was, that smile: implacable and inscrutable. Shining with the impenetrable might of a thousand suns. “Little lady here's a very special visitor; the queen of Phandaria herself!”

“O-Of course!” The man straightened, believing this utterly.

“I was just showing her around. Ambassador duties. Not doing a very good job at it though, as you can see.” Johnny kept talking, even as he swiveled her away from the stall and back onto the road, two steps at a time, her walking stiffly in front of him. “Well, we have to go. Sorry for the trouble. Her husband will never let me hear the end of this, I swear…”

She pried herself away, so they walked two-by-two on the side of the road, leading themselves back to the mansion. Well, Johnny led. She didn't know the way. “I thought I’d lost you,” he laughed. He was bent, clutching his stomach. “That was a close one.”

“You would’ve if you’d been a second late,” she said, and ducked her head to stare at the ground. The gravel crunched unsympathetically underfoot. “Thank you.”

“Don’t sweat it, everyone gets lost sometimes. And you’re in a foreign country to boot. Not a big deal.”

He’d said it so easily that for a second she almost believed it. Of course it was a “big deal”. She’d embarrassed herself. It was the kind of thing she wouldn’t want Woodrow to know, which meant it mattered. Just like she didn’t want him to know that she’d tripped during archery practice the other day, or that she still liked hot chocolate, or that despite her claims to the contrary she didn’t want to get rid of the teddy bear… just like too many things than she could bear admitting. At least, she thought, he hadn’t been there to see it. At least she didn’t have anything to prove to this clown. Chelsea wrung her hands together. That made her feel a little better.

“Lighten up a little. You’re on vacation,” he went on, as though he'd read her mind, then winked down at her, all conspiratorial. “That was fun, wasn’t it? Maybe the next time you visit you’ll be a real queen.”

“I didn’t need you to lie about it for me,” she didn’t say.

“Mm,” she said, and nodded. A real queen...

Johnny whistled. “I had fun too. Now I know exactly what song to write next!”

“Ah.” She froze, momentarily mortified. She was well-acquainted to his many ballads making light of others, but she’d never been the subject of one. “Well… I suppose I owe you one…”

"’If the king loves music, there is little wrong in the land’,” he said suddenly. “A certain somebody said that once. Maybe you should tell your king that, when you get home. He could use a hobby or two.”

Chelsea blinked up. “But wouldn’t that make you a good king, then?”

“Smart girl. I knew you’d say that.” Johnny snorted. “Well, the thing is, a king can’t rule without a queen. At least, that’s how it goes down here in Aquaveil. And you already turned me down, so…”

“I see,” she intoned. It sounded like another bald-faced lie, but in the off-chance it wasn’t, it wasn’t like she knew enough about the culture to tell…

“I just made that up,” he said. “Being the king is a lot of work. That’s why I don’t want to do it. I just want to have fun and write songs forever. There’s my answer. Satisfied?” He smiled again, then patted her on the shoulder. “I’m the best role model ever,” he said to nobody at all.

“That’s just like you, Johnny,” Chelsea replied, and smiled back despite herself. But, no; that wasn't quite right, was it? She'd rolled her eyes—pityingly. He was twice the child she was, after all. “But I’m still not going to marry you.”

“And that just breaks my heart,” he lamented, and later she would fail to recall that he hadn't dropped the smile. “It really does. I might have to write two songs now…”