“Why do I have to meet him? I don’t want to meet him. I don’t want to ever hear of him again, in fact,” Prince Simon grouched. His mother, busy straightening his shirt and trousers, swatted him quiet.
“Do not whine, Simon, it is unbecoming,” she scolded, pulling so hard on the legs of his trousers that they slipped slightly down his ass. “You should be excited to meet your future spouse.”
“Ha.” Prince Simon wheezed; his mother had moved onto tightening the ceremonial sash around his waist. He had obviously tied it wrong the first time around, seeing he had been able to breathe then. “Excited isn’t the word I’d use.”
“But it will be the word you use while Prince James is here,” the Queen fixed him with a glare that pinned him in place more successfully than the actual needles that stuck out from his clothes. “I will not have you hurt this kingdom’s reputation by behaving like a brat.”
“A brat?” a bit of color rose on the Prince’s pale cheeks. “May I remind you that I’m being married, against my will, to some loose bastard I don’t even know? It is not exactly a situation I find delightful!” There was more to be said on the topic, but a pinch of his mother’s nails reminded the Prince of his tone and he clenched his teeth shut, lips flattening into an unhappy line. The Queen rolled her eyes and straightened.
“You will survive. We all do,” the Queen said, then added a thoughtful, “Well, not all.” Satisfied, she nodded to the aged tailor, patted the Prince on the head, and left in a flurry of diamond-dusted skirts.
Properly encouraged, the Prince sighed and turned to face the mirrors. He grudgingly admitted the uniform was rather nice; he did not care much for the golden embroidery that curled over his neck and wrists, but the deep-red of the overcoat went quite well with his pale skin. On an unrelated topic, it would also do a sufficient job of hiding blood-stains.
The tailor chose that moment to stick a needle in a place it did not need sticking. The Prince screeched and almost fell off the podium, vengeful thoughts momentarily forgotten.
How invested the kingdom of Swan was in their Prince's betrothal became rather obvious the minute their caravan came into view of the castle walls. A larger, flashier congregation of nobility and bejeweled livestock had not been seen since the time Queen Katherine, Queen Victoria's younger sister, had visited Mira. Huddled in a dank watchtower, Prince Simon watched fat horses toddle through the castle's gates and hoped this visit will end the same way his aunt's had: with a terrible fight between host and guest, followed by vows of eternal hatred and no further communication on either party's side.
"My lord. You're needed in the Great Hall."
Prince Simon sighed heavily. "Thank you, Edward." Several moments passed. Prince Simon turned away from the window to eye his manservant, who continued to hover at the tower's door. "That will be all."
"My lord, erm, that is..." Edward twisted his fingers in the hem of his shirt - a new shirt, smartly-pressed - and glanced nervously at his prince. "I am to...accompany you, Sire," he finished awkwardly, then cleared his throat for good measure.
Prince Simon narrowed his eyes. "I see." He was on flight watch then, likely on his mother's orders. How embarrassing! More importantly, how inconvenient; how was he to make it out of this God-forsaken wedding with the servants watching his every move?
Grudgingly setting thoughts of escape aside for the moment, Prince Simon stood up. He took the time to dust errant stalks of straw from the seat of his trousers and straighten his robes, then nodded to Edward. "Lead the way."
Edward nodded stiffly. "Yes, Sire." Prince Simon made a note of the sympathetic looks the man threw over his shoulder every other step. Perhaps Edward will not be averse to looking the other way if his prince were to, say, slide a dagger into his betrothed's throat. By accident, of course.
They passed through several hallways on the way to the Great Hall. Most of them were deserted but for a few maids here and there. Prince Simon was less pleased with their reactions, which involved an unnecessary amount of giggling and whispering.
There were three entries to the Great Hall. The guests had arrived through the main doors along a hallway that began at the front gates. Queen Victoria and King John had come in through an overly-ornate door at the other side of the Hall, likely to the sound of trumpets and the fluttering of doves or some such nonsense.
Prince Simon, apparently, was to be smuggled in through the servants' passageway like a common thief.
"So sorry, Sire," Edward stammered as he led the Prince through the crowded kitchens. There were more people in that one room than Simon could recall ever seeing in the entire castle. "We are late, you see, and the Queen was very...vocal about not making a scene, as Her Highness put it..."
Prince Simon narrowly avoided getting ran over by a servant balancing a small mountain of wine glasses. "Yes, fine, whatever," he muttered, scowl firmly in place and likely not to budge for the rest of this evening. Potentially the rest of his life.
Someone pinched his ass.
The Prince let out an undignified yelp and swiveled around. "Who did that!"
About thirty maids, plus Tommy, paused in their various tasks in order to blink innocently at their Prince.
"My Lord?" prompted Marie. Prince Simon tried not to look at her hands too much. Or the sheep carcass the cook was in the process of stuffing with rice. "What's the matter?"
Prince Simon opened his mouth...and then closed it. "Nothing." His ears felt hot. There went the giggling. The Prince glared a nearby maid into silence.
"Sire..." Edward glanced meaningfully toward the back wall, where a door gaped half-open.
"Yes, yes!" Prince Simon stormed past his manservant and through the door, much to Edward's dismay.
"My Lord, please wait! You are to make a quiet entry!"
"I'll make whatever kind of entry I want!" Prince Simon snapped, then promptly sneezed. The passageway was quite dank and dusty, if a bit more spacious than the Prince had expected. He squinted at a fat spider dangling from a nearby pillar, lip curled in disgust.
No matter. Straightening, Prince Simon stomped down the short hallway. Edward hurried after him. His stammered apologies mingled with the music emanating from the Great Hall. The whine of violins set the Prince's teeth on edge.
Prince Simon paused as he reached the passage's end. "Where does this lead?"
"The passage opens behind one of the banners at the back of the Hall, my Lord," panted Edward, clutching his not inconsiderable stomach as he came to a stop beside Prince Simon. Prince Simon thought Edward should probably leave off the sweet tarts.
"Alright." Prince Simon puffed out his chest, preparing to sweep through the tiny doorway in a majestic fashion.
Edward thrust himself forward, successfully barring the way. "Wait, Sire! Let me!" Prince Simon glared. Edward paled but did not budge. The Prince wondered what kind of threats his mother had made to make the man sweat so at the prospect of disobeying her.
"Carry on," he sighed.
"Yes, my Lord! Thank you!" Edward bowed clumsily and pushed through the dark doorway. Light spilled within as the heavy cloth blocking the passageway was lifted. Prince Simon caught a glimpse of brocaded tablecloths and a gaudy dress before Edward let the banner fall back into place.
"Well?" the Prince demanded.
"The guests seem to be congregated at the front of the Hall," Edward said. "My Lord should be able to enter unnoticed."
"Sneak in, you mean." Prince Simon waved Edward's stuttered apology away and took a deep breath. "Let's go." Edward bowed again and swept the cloth aside.
Prince Simon lifted his head high and stepped forward. No matter how upsetting this whole situation was, he was determined to emerge with his dignity.
Perhaps Prince Simon should have been more concerned with the task immediately before him. The servant who attempted to enter the passageway at the same time the Prince tried to exit it certainly should have minded his way, although he could find some excuse in not being able to see over the top of a tray piled high with dirty dishes. In any case, the two collided head-first and made a commotion of the sort that had every person in the near vicinity turning to look.
"So terribly sorry, m'Lord!" quivered the servant.
"Here, Sire, let me have your hand!" begged Edward.
Queen Beatrice threw a barbed, "That is your son?" to Queen Victoria.
Prince Simon, sat amid broken china and scattered cutlery, wondered if it was possible to perish from sheer mortification.
The Prince was eventually pulled to his feet. He regarded the gathered nobility coolly, bowed once, and set off for the nearest servant carrying alcohol. The music resumed to a chorus of sneering laughter.
"Simon," Queen Victoria intoned, materializing between the Prince and a terrified looking servant clutching a bottle of wine.
"Yes, Mother." The Prince tired his best to avoid Queen Victoria's murderous glare and beckoned the servant closer. The man swayed forward, just to draw back with a startled meep! as the Queen snapped the decorative fan she held in one hand shut. The sound echoed fearsomely, the fan itself suddenly seeming more a weapon than an accessory.
"I would like to introduce you to Queen Beatrice," Queen Victoria's smile contained too many teeth to be considered friendly.
Wine and servant beat a hasty retreat, ignoring his Prince's sad stare. Prince Simon sighed and trailed in his mother's wake. The crowd parted around them, powdered women giggling behind fluffy fans while their husbands looked down their (often considerable) noses at the young man passing by. Prince Simon bore it all with a grace beaten into him through years of etiquette lessons, aided by bloody and gruesome thoughts.
"Beatrice, allow me to present our son, Simon de Briar."
Prince Simon bowed stiffly. "Vastly pleased to meet Your Highness."
Queen Beatrice inclined her head. Her delicate features tightened slightly, her gaze growing sharp and cold. Prince Simon tried not to look directly into her eyes. The thought that his sister might have looked like this - cold and cruel and a tiny bit evil - had she survived her childhood made him reassess his opinion regarding dragons.
Then again, growing up heartless certainly beat being eaten alive.
"He will do," Queen Beatrice finally sniffed, adding a sharp, "Not that we have a choice." Prince Simon thought he should probably feel insulted, but found he lacked the will to do so.
Queen Victoria had no such problems. Her polite smile melted into a sneer. Prince Simon felt the temperature in the room drop several degrees. Unwilling to be dragged into a passive-aggressive exchange of insults, Prince Simon floundered for a change of topic.
"My betrothed!" he exclaimed, a tad too loudly. The two Queens broke their telepathic battle to level twin glares at him. "I look forward to... meeting him," the Prince finished. His right hand made an aborted gesture toward his absent sword.
"Yes," Queen Victoria smiled, slow and poisonous. "Where is your son, Beatrice?"
Queen Beatrice drew to her full and inconsiderable height. "James is here," she announced - rather unconvincingly, Prince Simon thought.
"I did not see him come in," pushed Queen Victoria. She had sniffed out a weakness, and was not likely to let go until there was blood.
Queen Beatrice's eyes swept the Hall in what she believed to be a covert gesture. "It is bad luck to see the bride before the wedding," she said.
"A peasant custom," Queen Victoria dismissed. "Furthermore, that only applies the day of the wedding."
"Our customs are different!" Queen Beatrice insisted.
"Your son is not even here, is he!" exclaimed Queen Victoria, sounding equal parts victorious and affronted.
"He is here!" thundered Queen Beatrice. "Perhaps he found this farce too embarrassing to attend, and I would not blame him!"
"He found it embarrassing?" Queen Victoria squealed. "Remind me, whose fault is it that he has no one else to marry?"
The royal-blue dress Queen Beatrice wore seemed to puff up with the woman's anger. Across from her, Queen Victoria hissed, the numerous emeralds decorating her green robes sparkling like scales.
Prince Simon slowly backed away from the two women and the circle of onlookers that had formed around them. When no one stopped him, he backed away some more - right out of the hall. Marie threw a curious, "The party's over already?" after him. Prince Simon waved noncommittally and hightailed it out of the kitchens before Edward - in the process of drinking himself stupid - could notice him.
Prince Simon took the long way around to his rooms. He snuck down dusty hallways, climbed and descended a dozen staircases, all at a pace that had him panting for breath. His legs were shaking by the time he reached his doors. Filled with the exuberance that came with pulling off a successful escape, the Prince giggled madly to himself as he urged the sturdy oak open.
"Gah!" The Prince whirled around, eyes scanning the corridor before focusing on the tiny, mousy woman before him. Recognizing her uniform, the Prince relaxed his stance. Just a maid. He cleared his throat. "Yes?"
"I was wondering if my Lord needed his bed made?" the woman said, eyes bouncing from the floor to the Prince's face and back.
The Prince raised an eyebrow. He was certain Edward had already made his bed. It was a part of his responsibility as the Prince's manservant, after all. "No, thank you," he told the woman and turned to go.
"What about the fireplace? It's dirty, isn't it?" The woman surged forward. Prince Simon flinched, pressing his back against the door. "Or perhaps a bath? Would my Lord not like a bath?" She batted her eyelashes hard enough to set the bangs hanging over her eyes fluttering.
Prince Simon blinked in bewilderment. "No, thank you," he repeated, slower this time. Perhaps she had problems with her hearing?
The woman pouted - pouted! - up at him. Prince Simon narrowed his eyes. "But my Lord..."
"I am rather busy," the Prince interjected, cutting through the woman's warbling. "If you do not mind..." he made a shooing gesture.
"Yes?" the woman breathed and fluttered her lashes some more.
Prince Simon glared. "Go away."
The woman dropped her eyes with a sad, "Oh."
Prince Simon harrumphed and turned to enter his quarters. "So it is true," he heard, just before the door closed behind him.
Struck by a terrible thought, the Prince ripped the door open and stuck his head out, ready to demand an explanation. The maid was already a good distance away, however. The sound of footsteps and echoes of, "Prince Simon?" in the near distance had the Prince slamming his doors shut and then locking them for good measure.
The Prince sighed. Suddenly weary beyond reason, he trudged the short distance between the door and his desk and collapsed in a padded chair. Morose thoughts pulled his expression into a frown even as his eyes glinted in anger. Prince Simon had long given up the fancy that his marriage would be anything but a political move on his parents' - correction; on his mother's - side. Still, this was a bit too much. Add the insult of having his fiancée refuse to meet him, and the nightmare was complete.
"Bastard," Prince Simon concluded.
"Now, now," admonished a deep voice, "we haven't even been properly introduced yet."
Prince Simon jumped, sending the chair tumbling in his haste to turn around. The sight of a tall, darkly-clad man leaning next to an open window had him grinding his teeth. Muscles shifted beneath the man's tunic as he pushed off the wall, green eyes glinting above a smirking mouth. His hair was long, in the style many nobles preferred. Tied back, it fell a bit past the man's wide shoulders.
So this was the errant Prince James. Prince Simon glared up at the man, refusing to feel intimidated.
"What the hell are you doing here?"
Prince James grinned in response, teeth glinting against sun-darkened skin. "I like your spark, Princeling." He raised a dark eyebrow, leaning forward to examine Prince Simon's flushed face. "You are Prince Simon, aren't you?"
Nearly apoplectic with rage, Prince Simon snarled, "Yes, I am. You would have known that, had you come to your own engagement ball!"
Prince James tilted his head, expression smoothing. He was a bit unnerving like this, Prince Simon thought - too cold, somehow. "I believe," the man said, "that there has been a misunderstanding."
"What sort of misunderstanding?" asked Prince Simon. He took a step backward, suddenly wary.
Prince James advanced, matching Prince Simon step for step. "You seem to have me mistaken for someone else."
"You are not Prince James," Prince Simon startled as his back hit the wall, the rest of the question emerging a bit high-pitched, "my betrothed?"
"My name is Saran," the man replied, smile wider and toothier than the one that had twisted his lips before. "I'm an assassin."
Prince Simon ducked. Something slammed into the wall where his head had been, the object ringing dully against stone. There was no time to think, no time at all to lament the lack of weapons and guards. Prince Simon darted to the left a breath before the man's large hand could close around his neck and made a break for the door. When a knife whished by his ear to embed in the thick oak, the Prince changed course and dove for the bed some feet away. He had stashed his sword there yesternight, no longer trusting the "Royal Armory" with its upkeep. Rolling beneath the wooden frame, Prince Simon grasped the hilt of his sword and turned to face his attacker.
"Come on," Saran sighed. He waved the short blade he held in his right hand toward the bed that separated him from his quarry. A matching sword hung in a sheath over his right hip. "Really?"
"I will fight until I draw breath!" Prince Simon hissed. Realizing what the man had insinuated, he colored. "And no, not really!"
"You misunderstand again," Saran said, slowly circling the bed. Prince Simon matched him, eyes on the man's hands. He still missed the moment when Saran drew a dagger, but was at least able to duck out of the way before it could tear into his shoulder. "I do not mean to kill you."
"Could have fooled me," Prince Simon swiveled in time to evade a thrust of the man's sword. The action imbalanced him slightly. He stumbled backward as Saran jumped on the bed and charged forward, awkwardly parrying the larger man's attacks.
"Truly," Saran said between swipes of his glinting blade, "I do not." He fainted a right and struck left. The Prince was able to meet his blow - an impressive feat that nonetheless left his right side wide open. The Prince groaned as the hilt of Saran's second sword collided with his temple, and was silent.
Saran caught the Prince's body when it fell forward, green eyes narrowing over a cheerless smile. "Well, not yet at any rate."
The assassin deposited the Prince's insensate body on the bed. A thin cover and a bit of rope, and Prince Simon was safely disguised as a rather fashionable sack of potatoes. Shouldering the royal burden, Saran swung over the sill of the opened window, grabbed a rope hooked through a stone gargoyle, and proceeded to scale three stories down the castle's wall.
A quiet whistle had a silver-gray horse grazing nearby trotting forward. Saran shrugged the Prince onto the horse and mounted himself. He patted the animal's muscled neck and urged it forward, through the castle's open gates. A young man fishing near the castle's sorry excuse for a moat lifted a hand in greeting as Saran rode overhead. The assassin waved back, cheerful. Truly, Mira's security was abysmal. They deserved to have their royalty stolen from beneath their noses.