If one thing could be said in favor of the ball thrown for Princess Abigail's birthday, it would be the music. The erudite royal, golden apple of her father's eye, was known far and wide for the extravagant enjoyment of her court musicians. Her father's gold was known for attracting both the best and worst in humanity, and the orchestra was no exception.
Regina, heir apparent to the Shadowlands - and numerous other titles besides - stood in attendance as the official emissary of the Shadowlands. Far be it from her mother to deign to step foot in such a crudely attired kingdom, born of naught more than vulgar money. A Queen did not deign to stoop to such levels, or so Cora had drilled into her daughter.
A heavy sigh emerged from Abigail and she leaned into Regina, studiously ignoring the dancers before them.
"If one more jackanape walks up and tries to convince me to 'partner with his kingdom' in a 'meeting of the minds', I'm going to convince them to shake hands with my father."
Regina couldn't help the smirk that quirked at the side of her mouth, but suppressed it quickly. "Now, dear, if you did that, you'd single handledly raise their kingdom's fortunes fourfold." She eyed the sweat stained paunch of the Duke of the Southern Isles. "Or more."
Abigail snorted an unladylike laugh, and waved off the next to be presented to her. "They could but dream of being so lucky."
"PRINCESS EMMA OF THE WHITE KINGDOM." The booming announcement, preceded as all the others by the slam of the official steward's staff against the flagstones, interrupted the festivities abruptly. The fabled 'lost princess' had disappeared some years previously. Though found in short order, her sojourn away from her family had done much to heighten the security within the White Kingdom - to the point where this ball marked the first emissary from the White Kingdom of proper royal blood in living memory.
Regina watched in quiet attentiveness as the Princess strode into the room. Sharp eyes took in the room, a casual and lopsided smile covering her features. Though attired in the height of fashion, it was not common for princesses to elect for waistcoats and trousers over the customary ball gowns. Regina allowed a frisson of intrigue at the confident sway of the lost princess' hips. Sensible and comfortable in her attire, it was obvious to all within the room that Emma stood before them not as a confused and sheltered child, but as a powerfully confident young woman.
Casually and with great humor, Emma continued forward, the gathered nobles and dignitaries parting before her with soft titters and side long glances. She stopped as she stood before Abigail, one leg placed before the other as she bowed low.
Her voice was pitched just loud enough to carry through the room.
"The White Kingdom sends our regards on the anniversary of your birth." Abigail dipped her head and Emma rose to her full height. "I have brought with me gifts from our craftsmen in your honor. Precious stones from our mines, suitable to be partnered with the fine gold of your lands." Emma nodded to the near silent shadow behind her, who opened a wooden case to display a glittering selection of gems, one for each of Abigail's years. A new eruption of murmurs traversed the room. The stones from the White Kingdom were highly prized, as they were in limited supply since the severe limiting of trade in Emma's fifth year. The stoic woman who held the box remained impassive as all around craned their necks to view the stones. At the nod of Abigail's head, the box was handed off to one of her handmaidens. The gift was not unexpected. It had been heralded by the new treaty betwixt the kingdoms, handed over to her father earlier in the day by the silent companion to the princess.
"We thank the White Kingdom for this gift and invite the Princess Emma to be seated with us."
A quirk of the lips was the only indicator of Emma's response to the invitation. She strode up to the dais, servants scrambling to place a suitable chair in place for her at Abigail's side, betwixt the two already seated princesses. Regina noted the passing of the silent shadow to the outskirts of the room. The woman was of noble birth, blatantly obvious to Regina, though her mannerisms were just foreign enough that she knew the silent shadow must be of the hinterlands beyond the high peaks of the Giant's Causeway, or the rich kingdoms nestled amongst the verdant jungles to the south.
"Thank you for this kindness, Your Highness."
Abigail smiled and leaned in. "Just wait until later." Emma raised a brow in lazy query. "We'll be retiring to a private room to play cards."
A soft chuckle indicated how familiar Emma was with such a ruse. Courtly life was full of numerous tricks such as private card rooms to allow royals and nobles to intermingle, away from prying ears and gossiping gazes. The posturing and frippery could be wearing at times, and such diversions allowed for the veneer of civility to continue. "Should Your Highness be amenable, I would request the inclusion of my companion as our fourth."
"Rather quiet, isn't she?" Emma turned her gaze on the third of their group, her eyes open and curious at the husky voice that sounded at her shoulder.
"She is indeed." Emma watched Regina quietly, her attentions focused on her fellow royal.
"Princess Regina, Princess Emma." Abigail's stage whispered introduction caused a brief chuckle to emerge from Emma and she grinned, settling into the painfully upholstered gilt chair.
"'Tis a pleasure to meet the heir to the Summerlands."
Regina dipped her head slightly. "And quite a marvel to see the heir to the White Kingdom amongst the rabble."
Emma's low chuckle sounded once more. Abigail, Emma and Regina sat on the dais, making small talk as they waited for the appropriate amount of time to pass before escaping from prying ears.
At Abigail's nod, Emma made a subtle gesture with her right hand. Her silent shadow from earlier appeared from the throng, standing patiently at the foot of the stairs until summoned close enough for Emma to be heard. A few words Regina was unable to identify - definitely from the hinterlands, then - and Emma's companion nodded, her expression remaining unreadable to the Shadowlands heir.
In short order, they sat around a card table in a private room, the game before them irrelevant as more than a diversion from their conversation.
Emma spoke of traveling the world, desiring the very antipodes beneath her feet. Her silent companion - Mulan by name - contributed some quiet comments regarding the beauty of the hinterlands throughout the seasons. Regina spoke of the prosperity of the Summerlands. Abigail laughed, her hand waving over the surface of the table.
"So tell me, wandering princess. What happened?"
Emma's brow quirked as she gave a wry smile. "Why did I go missing between the ages of three and five?" At Abigail's nod, Emma released a steady breath. "Honestly, I don't know how it started. All I can provide is theory."
"I'm sure your theory will be plenty." Emma shot an amused smile at Regina for her words.
"As best as we've been able to piece together, security was lax enough to allow a thieving duo to ambush my nursemaid while she was alone with me. Thinking I was a peasant child -" Regina's soft bark of laughter quirked Emma's lip " - they sought not the ransom due, but to make a fast profit by selling me to the highest bidder."
Regina and Abigail's mirrored gasps raised Emma's hand in a dismissal of their darkest thoughts. "Thankfully, the highest bidder was their next stop, a farmer who needed an extra warm body to work his farm. Two years later, a guard who had known me was guesting overnight. There wasn't much difference between my appearance when I went missing and when I was found - according to tales I've heard, I always enjoyed exploring regardless of whatever dress my mother attired me in, so the guard was used to finding me dirty and bedraggled, though the cows were a decided change. My parents were informed, and I was returned." She smiled and looked into the darkness of the room beyond their table. "It was a pleasant enough sojourn, I suppose. I truly learned the meaning of a hard day's work on the farm, and remain close with the family."
Emma rested a hand on the table at the end of her tale, and Regina placed one of her own over it. Verdant green eyes rose to meet her curious gaze. "It has been said that you do not take the family name."
The hand beneath Regina's turned, the roughened palm curling around the softer digits of the Shadowlands princess. "It is." Her thumb traced an idle line across the back of Regina's hand. "My surname is that of the family that adopted me. Every harvest season, I have spent on the farm. Though I carry my family surname as one of my titles, the name by which I am known in the kingdom is Emma Swan."
Abigail's soft tinkle of laughter washed over them, and Regina removed her hand. "It is a good thing your mother doesn't know that, Regina."
Regina shook her head, planting her hands in her lap and making a show of reviewing her cards for the next play. Emma glanced back and forth between them and raised an eyebrow in query.
Mulan was not so inclined to stay her tongue. "Why is this a good thing?"
"Let's just say that Queen Cora keeps a keen eye on any and all of Regina's companions. Anyone beneath her station, whether by breeding or comportment, is summarily...dismissed."
Emma shook her head. "Sounds like a real piece of work."
Abigail laughed more firmly. "Sounds like you've already met her."
"Och, lass, wha' mae ye thin' tha?"
Regina's head snapped around and she stared openly at Emma, the foreign accented words sounding natural coming from the roughly hewn princess. Emma grinned, unrepentant.
The soft words and banter continued, their card game continued as a perfunctory ruse. Through it, Regina's fingers rubbed together, her skin still feeling the soft touch of Emma's callused hand holding her own.
Much later, Emma took her leave of the ball, thanking her host for the use of a suite for her and her companion. Once they were alone, Mulan rounded on her.
"You like her."
Emma groaned and began the removal of her tunic. "Can we not get into this now?"
"You do. You like her. You want to make the beast with two backs with her, then go up to her mother and tell her that Regina was defiled by a peasant."
"I hate you."
"Ha!" Mulan unbuckled her sword belt, laying it across the low slung couch she had commandeered as her own. "I'm surprised you made it out of there without kissing her."
Emma paused in unfastening her wrist laces and pointed at her companion. "You shut your mouth. I never teased you this badly when you were hung up on Aurora."
Mulan gaped at Emma for a solid moment before grabbing a pillow and tossing it at the princess. "You bloody liar! You wouldn't let me hear the end of it! This is positively tame compared to what you did to me!"
Emma smirked, her tunic pulling over her head covering it. The words that emerged from the rich cloth, muffled though they were, carried her message clearly. "Lies and slander."
Mulan's strangled pejorative was Emma's only warning before the next pillow smacked her directly in the stomach.
It was midsummer before Emma saw Regina again. The time between their meetings had been spent wisely by both - Emma had successfully tilted her first joust, and Regina had quelled a mutiny within her naval force. Each had similarly sussed out knowledge regarding the other to the best of their ability. Emma was certain that there was more to Regina than she had initially surmised. A few nights out with the guard force proved her instinct right - it was common knowledge amongst the border guard forces that Regina had lost the first blush of young love to her mother's machinations. The young man had fallen into Cora's ill graces and been conscripted for the guard, then pressed into servitude amongst the worst of it. In short order, his death had been announced amongst the other names lost to the raider incursions.
On Regina's part, she had dispatched a single trusted man to determine the truth of Emma's story from within the confines of the White Kingdom. Graham had returned with softly spoken second hand tales of the people's princess, a princess pressed into a life of a peasant that took to it as a duck to water. Those of the land loved their princess, who eschewed the courtly life for farming's harshest period, returning each year to live among them. He had located the farm Emma had spoken of, and found it large and well patrolled by the White guard.
Regina had smirked at that. Though not ill disposed to Snow White and her Charming husband, the insistence on the show of security rather than actual security reminded her of the crueler things that her mother had spoken of the Queen, ascended to the throne when scarcely more than a child herself.
Their next meeting came during the Midsummer celebration in the realm of King George. For all his faults - not the least of which was the appalling disownment of his son upon the marriage to Snow White - George could not be faulted for his adherence to tradition. Every Midsummer's Eve, he threw a fine masquerade, held to celebrate the wonder of the land and his people's worth. If it also happened to allow him to forge alliances and shun his son's choice in partners, all the better.
As in their first meeting, when Regina spied Emma, she saw the people's princess attired in a finely cut suit. Knowing now her passion for activity, the choice of practicality over fashionable whims made imminent sense to the Shadowlands princess, and she smiled a secret smile at the sight. As this was a masquerade, a fine mask lay over Emma's features, obscuring her twinkling green eyes from all but the closest. The deep burgundy of Regina's dress matched that of the dyed flowers on her mask and she stood silently watching as Emma spotted her. From the distance between them, she could see the breath catch in Emma's throat before the princess straightened and strode purposefully across the dance floor.
"Fancy running into you here."
Emma held out a hand, a soft smile curving her lips. "May I have this dance?"
In response, Regina rested her gloved hand in Emma's and allowed herself to be led to the dance floor. The joined the throng as the music slowed in a rallentando. At George's nod, the music swept into a highly recognizable thrum, causing Regina and Emma to share a look. With a smirk, Emma offered her other hand, arms positioned to begin their dance. Regina answered her smirk with one of her own, her hands sliding over the fine fabric of Emma's jacket as they began la volta.
The steps around the room were thrillingly paced, and when Emma grasped Regina's waist to lift her in la volta's required three-quarter turn, Regina could not help the gasp that emerged. She gazed down into the eyes of her partner, her heart beating furiously fast within her chest at the sensation of her partner lifting her bodily into the air. Sparkling mirth twinkled up at her from the ummistakable green of Emma's eyes. A warmth suffused her cheeks as her toes touched the ground again, and they continued through the dance, the lively pace enough to prevent them from speaking. As the music drew to a close, their hearts beat furiously within their chests and they watched one another closely. The final notes died.
Emma smiled and bent low in a bow, lifting Regina's hand to her mouth. A soft kiss was pressed to the palm. "Until we meet again."
With a twist, she disappeared into the crowd before Regina could formulate a response. Somehow, Emma had maneuvered them to deposit Regina at nearly the exact place she had left. Her heart still thundering in her chest, she turned and caught Abigail's eye.
The single raised eyebrow told her all that her friend did not verbalize.
"Oh, halt your tongue." Regine glared at Abigail in conjunction with her statement. Abigail just laughed.
The announcement of Queen Cora's death was followed shortly by the dual announcement of King Henry's abdication and the ascension of Crown Princess Regina to the throne as was her birth right. Deep in the heart of the White Kingdom, Emma smiled.
Her mother, on the other hand, was practically apoplectic at the news. Though she'd never determined what was actually between her mother and Regina's mother, Emma knew that the bad blood ran strong and deep. She didn't really care to explore the reasoning behind the hatred. Given her druthers, she druther just swell on Regina's smile, or the remembered feel of Regina within her arms. The affection she felt was quick, to be sure, but no quicker than the story of her parents. Met, wedded and bedded within the span of two weeks - much to King George's dismay. He had been seeking to forge an alliance with Midas, though heaven only knew how he had planned to do so - Abigail had passed barely five years at the time.
In contrast, Emma had spent perhaps a full day of company with the Queen of the Summerlands, and had resisted proposing an alliance. Or a dalliance, whichever the Queen would accept. It was difficult to determine which would be more like to come to pass, what with their families and kingdoms in tense truce.
All was not birdsong within the White Kingdom. The northern border was beginning to show signs of increased banditry if the recent reports were anything to be trusted. The eastern border, ringed with mountains, allowed scant few places for bandits to effectively hide, though some found a way. Never truly enough to effect change. The loose alliance of mountain tribes tended to keep the mountain paths clearer than any single ruler could.
The southern and western borders, with the Summerlands and the open sea, respectively, had remained steady trade routes, removing much of the pressure from the overland routes. In her role as heir presumptive, protector of the White Kingdom, Emma was tasked with reviewing the border defenses. She frowned as she read over a missive from her mother, in the official hand. The proposed guard buildup would make it considerably harder for her to engage in any form of positive dialog with the Summerlands and their captivating ruler, never mind that the buildup would effectively break at least three treaties which maintained the peace and stability of the region.
A short while later, Emma went to visit with the Queen of the White Kingdom. A soft knock at the door had her welcomed into her mother's sitting room.
"Hello, sweetheart." Snow smoothed down the hair at the back of Emma's head, smiling at the sight of her little girl fully grown before her. A lopsided grin, so like that of her beloved husband, greeted her.
"Hi, mom." Emma raised the missive in her hand. "I need an audience."
Snow's surprise was quickly dismissed and she nodded. The doors had been closed behind the entrance of the princess, and would shut out most of the prying ears. "Of course. What have you to say?"
Emma bowed her head and formed her words carefully. "If we were to build a stronger force to the south, it will be seen as an act of aggression in defiance of the treaty we have in place. This would upset the balance of power in the region away from us, and toward the Summerlands. Whomever strikes first will be viewed in the wrong. Therefore, I humbly suggest the kingdom reconsider the course of action, instead allowing for a new training center to be placed in the southern region. This will allow for an increased presence as desired, but as it is for the training of new guardforce, it will not be taken as an act of aggression. As part of this, we may also build an additional garrison for the region as part of the school. The southern portion of the kingdom has few enough locations for guesting that they are sorely overtaxed. Removing the requirement for guesting by providing barracks will remove much of the load from the populace and allow us to maintain a stronger, more agile presence."
Emma paused, watching her mother from her periphery. Hopefully she had phrased this correctly. If she hadn't, this promised to be difficult.
Snow appeared lost in deep thought, her brow furrowed. She looked up from the floor and looked over the daughter before her. "You have grown much in the last year, daughter."
Emma raised her head, a rueful smile gracing her lips. "I have been taught well."
"It shows." Snow moved to the window, her arms hugging around her waist. "You are correct. We cannot risk upsetting the balance of the region. As it is, it's a matter of time before Regina does something. Blood always tells." Emma quickly hid the disbelief on her face at her mother's quiet musings as the petite woman turned toward her. "Your suggestions are approved. As soon as they are written, I will sign them as official."
Emma raised the second piece of paper in her hand, her outlined verbal plan already written in her clear hand.
"You're as bad as your father. Always convinced I'll give in." Snow shook her head, smiling as she accepted the paper. A quick read through indicated that her daughter's plan was laid out exactly as it had been said. With a flourish, it was signed, witnessed, then sealed with the official seal. "You have your father's foresight."
Emma bowed. "And your tactics."
Snow smirked and tweaked her daughter's ear. "Don't sass back to me, missy. Where will the new garrison be?"
Emma yelped and rubbed her ear. "South of Corftley. I figure a half click away gives enough of a hump to prevent most trouble, but close enough to protect. It's our biggest southern city as it is. We should have had a garrison there long ago."
Snow smiled. "Excellent thinking."
Emma returned the smile as her mind ran through the vague musings that led to her advocacy for a stronger presence to the south. "I'll be leaving in the morning to head down and review the lands. Should take about a week. I'll be taking Mulan." To not take any guard would immediately set a full squad upon her heels, Emma knew. By choosing Mulan, she knew that her mother's protectiveness would be sated, whilst allowing Emma freedom to wander as needed.
Snow rested a hand on Emma's arm. "Be careful."
Emma smiled and rested a hand over her mother's. "I always am."
Snow shook her head and squeezed Emma's muscled forearm. The long hours training with her father and the guard showed in the easy carriage of her weaponry, and Snow felt a subtle pride in her daughter's embracing of her role as protector of the realm. Hopefully whatever plans Regina had for their kingdom would soon come to pass and they might live in peace. "How long do you think it will take to build?"
Emma rubbed her chin. Building this training center and garrison would effectively circumvent all of her mother's desires to invade the Summerlands, allowing for a more peaceful goal. As heir, Emma truly did not wish to receive a land filled with strife and hardship. Doing everything possible for her people would ameliorate those ends, and cut off any of Snow's larger ideas of aggression toward the Summerlands. In fact, the best way for her to circumvent Snow's desire for war would be engage an alliance of her own with the Summerlands, or more specifically, Regina.
It was, after all, what had prevented King George from invading, after his plans for an alliance with Midas had been undermined.
The idea swirling in her mind, Emma began to outline the portions of her plans appropriate for her mother's ears. "We should be able to get the initial campus set up within a few months. An initial training course will take sixteen weeks, with additional training, depending on specializations, of up to an additional year and a half. Typically, we should see a guard fully ready for deployment after a year."
"You'll be overhauling the Northern Training Center's program as well, I take it?"
"The training needs to be revisited. We haven't had an overhaul since before the first Ogre War, and our current tactics do not match against the type of bandits we're currently seeing. Open field battle is a far sight different from guerrilla tactics."
Snow dipped her head. "True. Do as you see fit. I'll expect regular updates. And Emma?" She waited for her daughter to meet her eye directly. "I expect you home for dinner at least every fortnight."
It was almost exactly eighteen months following the official founding of the Southern Training Center that the first graduating class took up their swords. The training programs for the two main training centers - Northern and Southern - had been fully redesigned by Emma, with the input from the best in the kingdom. Mulan's input, specifically, had been invaluable.
Emma released a slow breath and shook her head. The scouting patrols were lax. She'd have to address that, after she completed her errand. She never should have made it this far without a challenge. A silent hand signal was received by the soft cooing of a native bird. Mulan would handle the issue without further input required from Emma.
She dropped down from the tree to the side of the receiving grounds and strode to the platform from which she would watch the graduation ceremony. Her thoughts slipped quicksilver through her mind, covering what remained to be done.
It was the day before the full moon.
Time for her monthly furlough.
The first full moon that saw Emma so close to the Summerlands had two events she considered worth noting. The first was that a couple of ships had reported piracy on the open waters. Though not uncommon to see, especially in times of economic instability in surrounding kingdoms, the general stability of the region made the attack memorable. The second was the private conversation she'd been able to have with Regina.
The White Kingdom had been invited to the official coronation ceremony for Queen Regina. All the surrounding royals and trade partners had been invited - most sent nobility with gifts, a few sent minor royals low in the ascension. The closest partners sent higher blood, such as Abigail and her fiancee, a recently ennobled former soldier most notable for his thorough devotion to Abigail. Their engagement had only been made possible by the combined strengthening of the trade with the White Kingdom and the Shadowlands, which had itself been helped by the friendship between the women most often involved in trade negotiations.
Emma had been invited to the coronation, as had the entire White lineage. Per her mother, none would go above a minor, malleable and simpering noble, ambitious in little beyond his own self preservation within the White court. Emma chafed at the restriction - Regina would be resplendent in her coronation gown, the pomp and ceremony enough to keep all rapt. Their few encounters over the year since they'd met was more than enough to drive Emma to distraction.
It was for proof of that knowledge that Emma took her first furlough, the day of the coronation. She'd been right. Regina was positively radiant as she swore her blood oath to preserve the kingdom as her own, the people as her kin, and their enemies as the truest of foes, regardless of form. Her voice carried through the large cathedral, her rich tones invoking the required oaths.
Afterward, Emma sat against an apple tree in the gardens of the castle. The larger gardens, accessible to the public, were to one side of the estate. The smaller private garden bore a different sort of charm, one that captured Emma's attention. The guard patrol would be by in forty three minutes. The larger garden saw far more frequent patrols - another reason for her desire to remain against the tree she'd located and claimed as her seat. She released a sigh and took in the scent of the garden, the buzz of birds and bees among the rustling of leaves bringing to mind the sweet smile of the woman she hoped to see.
"And here I thought your mother would prevent you from ever setting foot in my lands." The dulcet tone of amusement and snark startled Emma and she scrambled to her feet.
She stammered. "Re- Your- Uh- Hi?"
Regina, newly crowned monarch of the Summerlands, laughed, the sound blending with the myriad songs of nature that surrounded them. In the distance, the ringing of metal weapons on metal armor clanged discordantly.
"Hello, Emma. Here to take back information on my defenses to your dear, idiot mother?" The smile was tight around Regina's eyes and mouth. Emma's head tilted as she thought through what she knew.
"We're setting up a guard training and barracks in Corftley."
Regina snorted and waved a hand. A breeze skittered through the leaves of the apple tree. "So I've been informed."
Emma shrugged, one shoulder raising nonchalantly. "The kingdom has need for a properly trained guard force."
Regina shook her head, one hand curling around a ripe, plump apple. "As do all." With a snap of the slim branch that held it, the apple came loose in her hand.
"My mother will not live forever."
"We would be so lucky." The Queen of the Summerlands inspected the apple in her hand with a critical eye, her thumb rubbing over the smooth skin.
"I'd rather a peaceful alliance with you."
Regina's sharp gaze cut over to the plain speaking princess, her dark eyes narrowing in thought at the proposal. "Oh?"
"You've no reason to trust me. In truth, we barely know each other. Do me but the opportunity to know your mind and kingdom as I present mine to you." Emma stepped forward, a slight smile on her features. "Please."
Regina raised an eyebrow before dropping her gaze speculatively to the apple in her hand. After a long moment, she extended it to Emma. Work roughened fingers wrapped around Regina's, gently accepting the fruit. "Every full moon. Meet me here as it rises."
Emma ducked her head, acknowledging the invitation, and left.
Their visits over the next eighteen months touched on numerous aspects - history of their kingdoms, future plans, ideas on commerce and defense. The first few months remained mildly stilted, as could well be expected. It was difficult, after all, to lay the groundwork for the alliance they proposed, in secret. In one visit, they discussed their mutual affection for classical poets, reciting their most beloved passages from memory. In another, each had described their prized childhood memories. Surprisingly - or not - many of Emma's fondest memories came from her time at the farm, connecting with her people directly rather than remaining fully separate from them. As they continued to meet and discuss for the rise of the moon, it became increasingly obvious to each of them how the alliance they proposed would be best accomplished. It had been obvious to them from the start, how this alliance would be achieved, but their increasing closeness underscored how ludicrous another means of achieving their ends would be. The biggest difference between their arrangement and that of others was that, for their meetings neath the luminous moon, no chaperon was present.
Of all the risks they took in meeting, the danger to their reputations was the one which weighed heavily upon them both.
It took six visits - half a year - for it to be obvious between them that they shared a different secret. Soft showers of purple sparks raining from Regina's fingertips was the first Emma saw. An answering blue plume was the first Regina saw of the latent thrum of energy within the errant princess.
Eyes had connected across the garden and they stared in mute shock for a long moment before Emma burst into startled laughter.
"Not the way I'd planned on raising the subject."
Regina's eyebrow raised and she continued her entrance into the garden. "So you planned on telling me?"
"In as much as you planned on telling me."
Regina dipped her head. The stresses of running a kingdom weighed heavily on her shoulders. Emma waited for the Queen to sit before leaning against her side.
"The bandits from the North are increasing their attacks." Emma began quietly. "My mother insists it's fine."
Regina hummed low in derision. Much of the true stupidity of the White Kingdom had been hidden from her prior to her ascension and subsequent bonding with the heir. Her mother had done much to insulate her from the reality of just how fragile the White Kingdom power structure was. The only reason it remained in any way strong was the blonde seated next to her. The worst of that was that Snow White knew it.
Emma continued. "She also dismisses the increasing piracy on our shipping."
Regina glanced over at her guest. "I've assigned maritime sharpshooters to each of my merchant vessels."
Emma tore a single blade of grass, examining it minutely between her fingers. Softly, she spoke, her attention ostensibly on the vegetation. "I know."
Much was held in those words. Emma's insistence on increasing maritime defense. Her long railing arguments before the Council over the disproportionate distribution of forces to the South. Her pleas for increased protections for the Northern portion of the kingdom.
Regina leaned back, her expression shuttered. "What more can we do?"
Emma's soft laughter was the only answer.
Emma's attention snapped back to the present as the now graduated guards let out a roar of excitement and cheer, their swords slapping against their bucklers in salute. Emma Swan, heir apparent to the White Kingdom, looked out over her subjects and loyal guardsmen, and despaired. The attacks from the North had not abated. The attacks on their maritime trade were at an all time high. Famine threatened within months.
And her mother had officially requested that the heir to the White Kingdom make an appearance at Court, forthwith.
The rush of air that emerged from the corner of the room was distinctive. Regina clenched a hand around the back of her chair, staring hard at the mirror on her vanity.
"When I said you were welcome to visit, I did not mean my bedchamber."
The roughly attired princess blushed at the jibe and shook her head. "I realize it's an imposition. I didn't know where best to find you." She pushed her hair behind her ear, gesturing vaguely. "As it is, I had to leave in a hurry." A subtle flush colored her cheeks. "They're going to be wondering why I'm taking so long to dress."
Regina cast her gaze down toward the flagstones to her right, the visiting princess' movements appearing in the edge of her vision. "Be that as it may-"
"My mother wishes to prostitute me to a pirate captain who is apparently known by the name of Hook."
Regina turned more fully, taking in the rough homespun garments and the loosely flowing hair of the woman before her. She'd not seen Emma in her farm clothing before. "She proposes selling you to that filth?" Blasted clothing. It had distracted her sufficiently that her intended ire came out weakly.
Emma shook her head, her hands cutting through the air with jerky movements. "No. He's the blackguard that been hitting our sea lanes. In another three months, the people will starve. No one can get in by sea. The overland routes-"
"Aye. One out of every four is lost. Only one of the last ten shipments by sea came in, and that's because the captain used your colors for convenience."
Regina leaned against her vanity, frowning at the princess. "Your mother was never very good at diplomacy. She leapt straight into slavery, then?"
Emma laughed shortly, her hand dashing through her hair. "Hook showed up in a port and demanded my parents show up. He demanded me. My mother demanded it be in marriage."
"Not as kind as what I said." Emma gave a rueful smile. "I need your help." She stepped forward. "Otherwise our plans are moot."
Regina stared at the flagstones for a long moment. The missive delivered by a crow earlier in the day had been couched in base terms, sent directly from Snow as a last threat prior to severing their detente. Knowing Snow's scruples, there would be a single way to solve both of their issues - the alliance they had already planned on formalizing upon Emma's ascension.
Regina raised her gaze to meet Emma's directly. "Have you no suitor to fight for you?"
Emma laughed softly. "You know you're the closest I've had in a long time."
Regina smirked. "I will help you on one condition."
Emma tilted her head, her eyebrow raised as her lip quirked into an answering smirk. "Let me guess. Marry you?"
"Why, princess, however did you guess?"
The day of the wedding bloomed over the White Kingdom with a crack of thunder, the sky pouring down it's judgment. In the Shadowlands, however, the day rose calmly, the mist of morning burning away and left the pleasant scent of midsummer. In her chamber, Emma dressed with deliberateness, smoothing the lines of the attire chosen to represent her desired alliance. The wedding was to be accomplished quickly. Emma had made a brief incursion back into the White Kingdom for her witnesses. Mulan and Aurora stood with her. Mulan had merely raised an eyebrow at the request to bear witness before agreeing in a quietly smug voice.
Emma had resisted the urge to punch her.
They returned with the assistance of Emma's magic. The two who bore witness remained some of the few who knew of the runaway princess' true abilities.
Emma smiled. The plan would require finesse to come off properly. She'd floated an idea by Regina, a way of ensuring that they could have an unassailable witness to bear the tidings to Snow. At the suggestion, Regina had merely smiled and agreed before pressing her palm gently against Emma's cheek. The memory of the touch sent a flustered flush to her face.
Emma smoothed her hands down over the formal white. The gown was simple, yet elegant, accentuating her height and coloring with the striking red of her lips. The healthy tan of her skin was positively radiant against the luminous white. Brilliant blue accentuated the lines of the dress, whorling about her form in a visual representation of the magic that lurked beneath the surface.
By mutual agreement, they'd decided to enter together, to represent the true alliance they'd been working toward before their hands had been forced. Emma swallowed, the flutter of her stomach as unexpected as it was distracting. She raised her gaze.
Across from her stood Regina, in a similar white. The cut of the dress complemented the sway of her hips, the skirt slashed open in the front to reveal the tight leather pants that encased her thighs before disappearing into high boots. The vision of white before her was offset by the dusky olive of her fiance's skin, the darkness of her hair offset even more by the brilliance of the white. Around her shoulders and waist, deep purple swirled among the white, the visual representation of the magic that dwelled within her.
They had agreed on the matching, to drive home the idea of their secret rendezvous in defiance of their parents. Already bards and minstrels were set to be prepped on the tale of the Queen and the Lost Princess, daughters of enemies brought together by fate. Through the devotion of the people, and the sheer poetic nature of their tale, they sought to force Snow's hand. Much would be made of the similarity between Snow and Charming's elopement and that of their daughter - in part, it was what had driven Emma to propose the idea. The rest remained a secret locked away behind the smokescreen of what was best for their people.
Emma's lip quirked in a brief, nervous smile. Regina inhaled steadily and released it, then nodded. They stepped forward, then entered the cathedral.
During the coronation, the room had been filled, nobles, royalty, commoners, merchants, all packed in to witness for their Queen. This time, aside from their witnesses, no other stood before them. As they reached the altar, they turned toward one another.
Regina quirked an eyebrow. Emma smirked. They clasped hands against forearms and dipped their heads.
A low building plume of blue and purple smoke filled the area of the prepared altar, slowly dissipating to reveal the fluttering form of the Blue Fairy. Before she could speak, Emma's voice rang out steadily.
"Tell me true, if prefaced in the proper wording, you and yours may grant my heart's desire?"
The rapid fire fluttering appeared to almost halt before picking up again in a flurry. A quiet and high pitched "Yes." rang through the cathedral.
"Hear me and know this witness to be my heart's desire: I wish to be wed to Queen Regina of the Summerlands, she who stands here with me, that we may then live our lives in harmony and peace." The fluttering of the fairy now appeared as a cloud of them, the tiny form flitting around so furiously that it became apparent to the witnesses that she was trapped within an invisible circle. "What say the fairies to this heart's wish from Emma Swan, princess and scion of the White Kingdom?"
The fairy released a wail the likes of which made the assembled witnesses wince. Within the wail were words of denial, then denial of the denial, and finally, the words that the women knew must come. "This heart's wish from Emma Swan, scion of the house of White, is heard...and granted."
Over their heads, a burst of brilliant light erupted. When it lifted, the assembled witnesses saw the women's wrists being bound by a loose rope of brilliant blue and rich purple light, entwining around their wrists and forearms as they clasped one another.
"As you have wished, so is it recorded." Though soft, the voice rang through the cathedral, a dichotomous whisper and clanging shout that rang beyond their ears and into their heads. A clap of thunder resounded and all light and sound not naturally in the room immediately dissipated.
Emma and Regina remained with their hands clasped at the altar, the tiny figure of the fairy continuing to flit about. The women raised their heads and looked at one another. Emma tilted her head curiously. Regina dipped her chin in acknowledgment.
Softly, gently, Emma leaned forward and pressed a kiss to Regina's lips.
The fairy slammed against the invisible walls that kept her in.
Emma and Regina turned back to the fairy. The assembled witnesses could hear her smile in her words. "I know you will, but even if you were planning not to, a messenger is already at my mother's side, telling her of what has occurred. You should probably return and tell her what you've done." Emma leaned forward, the low menacing purr in her voice a caution to those who heard it. "An alliance has been made, and none may tear it asunder."
The fairy disappeared in a plume of blue and purple and the women turned to their witnesses with sheepish smiles.
Emma loosened the laces at her wrists, the dress falling away from her bosom as Regina's slender fingers worked at releasing her from the dress. Regardless of the magic that now bound them officially as wed, certain formalities were required.
Such as a wedding night.
"When you said you enjoyed an occasional theatrical display, I did not think it would be our wedding." Slightly chilled fingers brushed against Emma's spine, sending a shiver of sensation across her nerves.
"Forgive me if I think making sure that my mother does not doubt us is of the utmost priority." A nip at her shoulder indicated that the tease in her voice had been communicated effectively.
"Despite what many think, I do not force others to be around me. Do you truly wish to do this, tonight?" Emma allowed her dress to fall to her feet as she considered her wife's words, and the underlying message of them.
She turned, the chill tang of the air brushing against her nipples, forcing them to erect points. Regina's gaze smoldered as she took in the sight of her bride attired in scant few undergarments. "I stand here because I wish to stand here, of my own mind and free will. I would have thought the blue annoyance's agreement to wed us would bear witness to this enough for you."
Regina smiled, her hand extended. "I do not want there to be any doubts. Alliances forged as ours do not happen often."
Emma pulled the svelte figure of her wife into her arms, her hands splaying over leather clad hips. "Mmm. Not for a couple generations at least. The tales are told in hushed tones and backrooms of sordid taverns, of the houses split by enmity, forced to reconcile by their children."
A soft laugh sounded as Emma's nimble fingers undid the white leather laces of Regina's trousers. "And farther back still a couple such as we."
"True. Our lands and legends are rife with heteronormativity."
"Mmm." Regina's response was distracted by the press of lips against her collarbone, soft kisses brushing against her skin allowed to steal her words. In short order, the fine leather trousers were loose upon the floor, and she kicked them aside to land next her high boots. "We'll need witness for this."
Emma murmured against her skin. "Our kingdoms will bear witness."
Further protest was forgotten as lips met in gentle kisses, intensifying as heated desire rose betwixt them. Outside, across the skies of the White Kingdom and the Shadowlands, lights danced before the stars, a sinuous twisting display that told all and sundry that the marriage of their ruling houses was consummated.
Within their chamber, Emma and Regina paid the display no heed. Gentle brushing touches of fingers against cooling skin carried them languidly into a few hours of sleep.
It took approximately twelve hours after the ceremony for an emissary to arrive from the White Kingdom. A missive in clipped tones demanded the return of the heir to the White Kingdom for explanation.
Emma sighed as she read it.
"Dinner with the in laws already?" Regina's arm slid across Emma's shoulders, bringing a smile to the troubled woman's lips. Heads turned and Emma pressed a quick kiss to one side of her wife's mouth.
"Should you wish to, I've no objection. However, I think they're going to try to insist that marrying you has ruined the kingdom, when it's obvious that our only way to continue to maintain a presence in the region is by our marriage." Emma slid her hand over Regina's, squeezing in quiet reassurance. "Have you given thought to our heir since we last spoke of it?"
"Mmm." Regina stood and walked to the window, looking through the wide aperture to the verdant lands below. "Has your family from the farm one of an age that would be suitable?"
Emma chuckled lowly and stood, stretching. "Indeed. We'll have to recompense for the loss, both of me and our adopted heir."
"That presents no issue." She turned her head. "Do you agree, then? Adopting a child to be our heir?"
Emma slid her arms around Regina's waist, nuzzling against her wife's shoulder. "Yes. And it would give them an excuse to get off the farm every once in a while." Regina turned in Emma's arms, her hands pressing against the loose tunic that covered bare skin.
"You're sure about all this? You have risked everything to be with me."
Emma slid a finger beneath Regina's chin and tilted her head up, allowing their eyes to meet. "You enraptured me from the start, your wit, your humor, your beauty. I requested this of you. I'm the one who asked. What I risk by being with you is lesser than that I would risk by not." She gave a lopsided smile. "So, do you wish to come with me to pick our heir?"
Within the hour, they appeared at the farm, their attire simple to allow them to pass unquestioned. In the many years which Emma had made her trek to and from the farm, the change of scent from the lake to the farm was always striking. There was something about the sudden shift from fresh, clean water to rank, musty manure that always made her sneeze. In the distance, a single plow horse was making its trek across the field, turning the earth in preparation for further work. Emma smiled at the sight.
In short order, the two royals were welcomed into the household, and Regina was able to see the environs in which her wife was raised. Much had spoken of it during their time together. Rough hewn but clean, the house was lived in, its various knick knacks arranged tidily. A passel of children of varying ages embraced Emma, as did a stout woman of indeterminate middle years.
"Cor, child, 'tis not the harvest yet! Or mayhaps yer here to explain the tidings what were tol' to all and sundry 'bout them lights the other night." A stern glare had Emma chuckling sheepishly and rubbing her head.
"Madda, I got married." Emma reached out a hand and grasped Regina about the waist, pulling her close. "This is Regina."
The stout woman, Madda, eyed Regina from head to foot measuringly before shaking a wooden spoon in her face. "Don't you be thinking that yer royal highness gets away with stealing my girl."
Emma laughed, her shoulders shaking as she leaned against Regina. "Madda, stop, you'll frighten her." The assembled children laughed and tittered, all but one quiet boy at the rear of the group. He watched the proceedings with wide, dark eyes, curiously absorbing everything before them.
"Henry. I found him in the wreckage of a camp bandits had destroyed. He'd been hidden beneath the washing." Emma's murmured explanation against Regina's ear did not go unnoticed.
A large hand clapped down on Emma's shoulder. "Save yer sweet nothin's fer later. What brings ya here, lass?"
Emma turned her head and smiled at her adoptive father. "Well, I was ordered to make an appearance at Court, so I thought I'd bring my wife by to meet the family."
Jacob shook his head and rolled his eyes. "Still gotta smart mouth on ye."
"Naturally, I learned it from you."
A soft tug at her dress had Regina looking down. A shy girl with messy red curls was pulling at her. "Yes, little one?"
"You've got really pretty hair." The small one ducked her head and giggled. The rest of the children called out, some of the older ones proclaiming that Emma had chosen well.
Jacob let out a whistle. The children stopped and looked to him. "G'wan out. I wanna meet me new daughter in law without yer yappin'." The assembled passel drained into a separate room, arguing over whether to do chores yet. He shook his head and gestured to the table. "Please, lady, sit."
"Thank you." Regina sat, a cup of steaming tea placed before her as soon as she'd sat down. Emma received one as well, blowing across the top of it to cool it.
"Welcome to me farm, ma'am. We tried to do right by this one, though gods know she tested us."
"Hush, dear, they only speak truth."
Madda leaned over the table and pointed at Emma with her spoon. "Ye never let this one go, ye hear? She'll do good for ye."
Regina laughed softly. "Emma has spoken highly of you." She smiled at the pouting woman. "I can definitely see why." Regina sipped at her tea. "With the changes coming, we don't know that she'll be able to make it out here as regularly as she has in years previous."
Jacob shook his head, gesturing at the mute woman sipping her tea. "Never was one to listen. Kept tellin' her nae to come back year after year. We've plenty of help." He continued shaking his head. "Stubborn as a mule, this one, once she gets an idea in her head."
"Coming here has done more to train me to rule this kingdom than any single class I've ever taken."
Jacob huffed and crossed his arms over his chest. "Stubborn."
Regina nudged at Emma. They had agreed that Emma would be the one to raise the subject of adopting one of the children. Emma cleared her throat. "How's Henry been?"
"Quiet. The boy misses ye." Madda glared at Emma. "Tol' ye to take him."
Regina leveled a stern look on Emma, who withered under the dual glares. "Yes, you did. I wasn't ready yet. But..." Emma slid her hand into Regina's. "I am now."
Jacob tilted his head. "He'll make a fine heir. Whip smart, that boy."
Madda leaned toward the doorway and shouted for the boy they spoke of. He appeared in the doorway with haste, his messy brown hair falling over his forehead. "How'd ye feel about going to live with Emma like ye've been askin'?"
The boy looked back and forth between the adults gathered around the table before nodding shyly.
After the agreement was reached, teary goodbyes were made and Regina insisted on pressing a large pouch into Madda's hand, they took their leave. The young boy proved to be highly curious and watchful in the short time they spent together prior to needing to leave for their dinner engagement. Thankfully for them, he bore a fondness for Mulan and Aurora and gladly entertained himself with them.
Scarcely an hour later, they returned, the door to their chamber almost ripped from its hinges as Regina stormed into the room.
"Of all the brazen, craven, cowardly - GRAHAM!" Regina paced across the opulent rug of the chamber, her ire making her cheeks flush. Emma slid into the chair, her hands resting on her stomach. Regina turned on her with a glare. "Why are you not mad?"
Emma smiled, looking up at her wife. "Oh, I'm absolutely livid. Thinking I'd denounce you as my wife just because they parade a dirty pirate in front of me is the height of idiocy. I don't even know what they could possibly have been thinking. But you?" Emma's smile widened into a grin. "The second he made advances, you leapt to my defense."
Regina glanced at Graham, standing at the door. "Have a formal declaration of war written up." Regina turned back to Emma, pointing furiously at her. "If that one handed filth thinks he can insult my wife and get away with it-" She cut herself off and turned back to Graham. "Send Hook my declaration of war. Have a bounty on his head. Do whatever you need to. Dismissed!" The door shut quietly behind Graham as he took his Queen's orders.
Emma stood and waited for Regina to turn back to her. When she did, Emma raised a hand and gently caressed the flush cheek before her. "Thank you. You have done more for me in our brief marriage than I could have ever dreamed." She pulled the queen into her arms.
With a sigh, Regina relaxed, resting her head against Emma's shoulder as she allowed the tension and anger to drain away. "The bards are singing about our marriage for love across the kingdoms. The people celebrate in the streets." Her fingers played with some of the loose locks of blonde. "We should just be able to jump to the happy ending already."
Emma laughed softly. "I don't know about a happy ending, but I do know how to handle stress. Come on."
This time, no lights wended any further than behind their closed eyes as they came together.
An awkward detente between the Shadowlands and the White Kingdom had been reached. The insult against Emma required answer, and the declaration against Hook by Regina was enough to force Snow White's hand into a public acceptance of the alliance. The continuing spread of their love tale made its way across the kingdoms. In the palace, Snow pondered deeply, remembering a time not that long ago when Emma's happiness would have been enough.
Though young, the marriage between Emma and Regina grew in the same manner as their original courtship had. They settled rapidly into a comfortable dynamic, allowing Henry to adjust to new classes and teachings, in addition to having parents devoted just to him. Some of their savored moments were those spent, the three of them together, enjoying company after a meal. He adjusted with scarce nightmares, always soothed from them by either of his mothers. A time or two he mentioned missing the other children in cautious language, prompting them to plan regular visits to the farm each season. Emma and Regina also spent much of their time discussing matters of state and future plans. The most pressing was whether this stalemate between Emma and her parents would tear the kingdoms apart, or whether they could forge the alliance as Emma wished it to be. As it stood, Emma retained her position as protector of the White Kingdom. Her meetings with her mother were considerably more tense than they had been, though it was easing slowly. Attacks on the shipping lines had intensified heavily for a couple weeks before tapering briefly. Then, suddenly, they stopped almost entirely.
It came as little surprise when it was announced, almost exactly three months after the ill fated dinner, that a self proclaimed captain sought audience. Graham's description of the man did not match that of Hook, despite the man having one hand. They agreed to receive him.
"You have sought an audience with us. Speak your business." Regina's voice carried well through the receiving chamber, the flagstones allowing her words to ring out well. The man who stood before them came attired in a finely cut red coat, his feathered cap ostentatiously removed for a proper, if old fashioned, bow before them.
"My name is Jas Hook, gentleman at large. The whelp which has been troubling your commerce shall do so no more, your majesties."
Emma raised an eyebrow at this. Regina examined the nails of one hand in a studied display of boredom. "Do tell."
"Smee." Behind him, a scrabbling man pulled a cloth bag free, pulling the rough spun fabric down enough to display a head immediately recognized by the women. Emma noted the additional hook tucked into the man's belt.
"You have done us a service." Emma gestured lazily at the head. "Why?"
The man's weathered face cracked into a smile, his highly groomed mustache moving with the expression. "He was sullying my good name with his uncouth ways and bad form."
A glance at Mulan and Graham to either side of the guards saw them each nod once. They'd been the ones mainly tasked with investigating as much as possible about the nuisance to the kingdom and at their confirmation, Emma and Regina were content to accept the man's story.
"Very well. Remove the head and place it as a warning." Regina gestured to two of the guard who stepped forward to do her bidding. "Take this as a token of our appreciation."
A bag was dropped at his feet, the clink of coins within enough to indicate that he was free to go.
"And Captain?" The man turned his attention back to the women, his attendant gathering the bag containing their bounty. "Never trouble us again."
"As you please, Your Majesty."
After the proclamation across the kingdoms of the dead Hook as an impostor, a missive arrived to them from the White Kingdom. Emma opened it and read the simple words with teary eyes.
"What does it say?" Regina rested her fingers at the small of her wife's back, concern coloring her features. "Emma?"
"She says she's sorry. She doesn't understand why I had to do it this way, but she'll try and support us." Emma looked up at Regina, smiling. "We've done it. We've won."
Regina leaned in and kissed the crying woman, smiling. "That makes you cry? We can be happy now." She laughed and grasped Regina's hand, pressing it flat against her stomach, meeting her gaze with a steady, meaningful look.
"We've been happy for a while, what matters is that we don't fight against others for our happiness." A grimace passed over Emma's face and she reached for some water. After a few long sips, Regina reached for her, rubbing her back gently.
"Still not feeling well?"
Emma shook her head. "Its nothing. I'll see a healer in the morning."
"Please take care of yourself."
Emma stopped and looked at her wife, a decision lurking in her gaze. "I am." Emma set the missive aside and turned her full attention on her wife, sliding her arms around Regina and holding her close. "Do you think Henry is happy?"
"Mmm. He talks of missing the others more frequently. But its more like he just misses having siblings." Emma chuckled. Regina paused and counted in her mind. She cleared her throat. "Emma...you've brought me more happiness in the time we've spent together than I could have ever dreamed. And now, with Henry, we have a family. You..." Regina cleared her throat once more.
Emma chuckled. "I love you too, you big softy." Regina waited a moment, her fingers tracing soft patterns on Emma's stomach. Emma stiffened beneath her. "Regina..."
Regina pressed a soft kiss to the smooth skin of Emma's stomach, then raised her gaze to meet the shocked ones of her wife. "Emma."
"No one will ever believe this."
"Believe what? Say it." She knew. They each knew that the other knew.
"Regina, I'm pregnant." The soft whisper sounded loudly in the room. A combination of elation and fear crossed Emma's features. Regina reached up and kissed her gently.
"Yes. You are." Regina chuckled dryly. "You haven't had your menses in over two months." Emma looked down at her stomach. "And considering what ceremony we used to get married, and the phrasing you used for it..."
Emma flushed deeply. "You knew?"
"It's kind of obvious when you call getting married to me your heart's desire to the blue idiot."
Emma groaned. "You could have told me."
Regina hummed and traced her fingertips over Emma's stomach. In the coming months, much would change. Their family would grow, and with this child, the kingdom would be doubly secure. "Henry is going to make an excellent big brother."
"Yes." Emma threaded her fingers through her wife's hair. It had not been all that long ago that she'd been adrift, wondering what her life's purpose would be. All it took was almost causing a war and forcing a new treaty, named for what the lands would be called when they ascended the throne of their combined kingdom.
A soft chuckle sounded from her. At Regina's questioning hum, Emma cleared her throat.
"Two houses, both alike in enmity..."
"Shut up, Emma."