“What do we really know about this Stellan boy?” Victoria asked, furrowing her brows. She and her son, Edward, were on the terrace, enjoying their coffee like they did every morning.
“Not much,” Edward admitted. “He seems diplomatic, at least.”
“They all do, son. Until you do them wrong.”
Edward huffed and sipped from his cup. “Well, don’t lecture me. If I would have had it my way, she wouldn’t even be in this stupid competition. She’d be married off to the King in the next kingdom over.”
“If she fails, she will be wed to him.”
“My daughter will not marry a man who is nearly four times her senior, promiscuous, or vapid. King Edvin happens to be all three and more.” The pair looked over to find Catherine, Edward’s wife and Alex’s mother, walking over to them. She had overheard their offensive conversation and couldn’t stand to sit quietly anymore.
“She needs to marry someone of high rank,” Victoria spat back as Catherine sat down. “Suppose Daniel never makes it back from the war. She’ll be your heir!”
“We will not speak of my son in such crude fashion,” Catherine ground out. “He’ll be home any day now.”
“I have faith in him,” Edward said, nodding along. He and his wife gave each other a private smile as they linked hands underneath the table. As much as Edward loved his mother, he made wedding vows to always stick by his wife. The two balanced each other out well – while Edward was stoic and oftentimes cold, Catherine was sunny and pragmatic.
“It’s a shame he won’t be here to meet Stellan. I think they’d get along. Daniel always wanted a brother.”
Victoria scoffed. “Really, Catherine, must you always be so sprightly this early in the morning?”
Catherine rolled her eyes but bit her tongue. She had been raised in a well-to-do house, but she was by no means royally born. Sometimes the practices got to her, and somehow it seemed like Victoria knew exactly what buttons to push.
“Anyways, I’ve invited your brother to come join us for the week, along with his wife and daughter.” Victoria said to Edward.
“What about Margaret?” He asked.
Victoria waved him off. “You know Margie, always flighty. Who knows if she’s coming?”
“But she’s Alex’s aunt,” Catherine interjected. “I’m sure Alex could use as many friendly faces as possible.”
Edward leaned over to Catherine. “Then why is my mother here?”
Catherine barked out a laugh as Victoria glared at her.
This would certainly be an interesting few days.
Alex and Stellan stood in the lobby of Alex’s apartment. She took a deep breath and smoothed out the fine dress she had picked out. While the other girls got to wear pants and casual, flowing tops, Alex was relegated back to her fancy clothing. She knew her grandmother would have a fit if she showed up in anything “pedestrian”. Stellan had taken the hint as well, and as he tightened his tie, his stomach tightened as well.
“Something tells me this won’t be a walk in the park,” He said to Alex.
“It’ll be something like a walk,” Alex shrugged. “Like walking through a park…barefoot…with pine needles digging into your feet. Oh, and branches scratching your face.”
“While being mauled by a bear?” Stellan added.
“You got it!” Alex quipped. They shared a smile before clasping hands.
“Let’s do this.”
As soon as Stellan and Alex exited the elevator, Stellan was shocked into silence. A grand foyer spread out all around them, decorated with bubbling fountains and oversized floral arrangements.
What was more impressive was the second story balcony, where two prim and proper people waited.
“Alexandria! Oh, my dear Alexandria!” Catherine called, smiling brightly. She abandoned all her protocol training to fly down the stairs, skipping every other step. Edward was more dignified. He merely nodded at his daughter and made his way to the staircase. Even so, he could barely hide his excitement over having one of his children back in the house.
“Mother!” Alex said gleefully, wrapping herself in her mother’s embrace. She got a whiff of the perfume her mother had warn for as long as Alex could remember, and immediately teared up. She was officially, irrevocably home.
“All in one piece, I see,” Catherine smiled, petting her daughter’s glossy black hair. Before Alex had left, Catherine bestowed a glittering diamond ring, offering it to Alex with all her love. It had been in Catherine’s family for hundreds of years, and Alex had been too afraid to wear it during the competition. It was only until the night before she left that she slipped it on, and promised to wear it forever – or until she had children.
Edward had collected himself, and made his way into the foyer. Stellan felt his back involuntarily straighten as he tapped a nervous finger on his leg.
“Your Highness,” He said, bowing deeply. Elegance and respect would count here, and though he technically didn’t have to bow to a class below his own, Stellan did so regardless. He was dating Edward’s daughter, and therefore knew that this man was more important than any King. He wanted to start off on a good, polished foot.
Edward returned the bow. “Prince Stellan, it is an honor to host you in our home.”
“The honor is all mine. And please, just call me Stellan.”
Edward nodded while silently examining Stellan. He wasn’t Alex’s type – blonde where she preferred brown, polite where she preferred humorous, and formality where Alex desperately sought playfulness. He might just be a good match for her. Perhaps he could straighten her out a little bit, bring her back to the ground. Edward had no love for Alex’s wanderlust, and thought she ought to spend more time networking with others instead of taking silly photographs.
“Come in,” Edward finally said, turning to his daughter. “Your Aunt and Uncle are here, along with Anne. Your grandmother is here as well.”
Alex frowned slightly. “I bet she’ll have some choice words for me.”
Catherine let out a soft laugh as she lead the couple through the penthouse. Stellan gave Alex’s hand a reassuring squeeze as they made their way into the living room. Or rather, one of the living rooms.
“Alexandria, how wonderful to see you,” Victoria cooed, kissing both of her granddaughter’s cheeks. “The colour on you! You’ve been out in the sun without a hat, haven’t you?” She scolded.
Victoria clucked her tongue as she gave Stellan a once-over. Polite but cool, Victoria extended a hand for Stellan to buss. Stellan matched her in demeanor, smiling nicely but not too nicely.
The rest of them made their introductions, sometimes shaking hands or air kissing.
“This is my Uncle David and Aunt Amelia,” Alexandria said, gesturing to the fair couch. “And their daughter, Anne. Oh! Where’s Auntie Margaret?”
Victoria closed her eyes for a moment, no doubt rolling them behind closed lids. “She’s late, as usu-”
“I’m here!” A sweet voice called. Alex and Stellan turned to find a petite woman scurrying into the room. Her face was flushed red and she was breathing heavily as she came to stand by the couple.
“Auntie Margaret!” Alex exclaimed, wrapping her aunt in a tight hug. Margaret had always been there for Alex, and the young girl had never forgot it. Alex had begun to view Margaret as a second mother of sorts, turning to her for advice when her mother wasn’t available.
“And this must be the handsome prince,” Margaret smiled indulgently.
“Stellan, my lady.”
“Oh, forget that nonsense!” Margaret laughed, pulling him in for a bear hug. “It’s so good to meet you, Stellan. Please, just call me Margaret.”
“Will do, Margaret.”
“Alright, now that everyone’s here, why don’t we have brunch?” Catherine called out.
Everyone nodded and got up before proceeding to the formal dining room. Margaret stepped between Alex and Stellan, looping her arms into theirs. “Come on kids, I want all of the details!”
At the table, Victoria wasted no time beginning the interrogation.
“So Alexandria, what have you both been up to?”
“Oh my goodness, everything!” Alex gushed. “Just last week we went into town and explored the city. There were these amazing ruins, and a huge bonfire! I’ll have to show you the pictures I took.”
Victoria pursed her lips. “Oh, Alexandria and her photos.”
“I think it’s wonderful,” Catherine interjected. “I was afraid you’d be cooped up in the palace, but it sounds like you’ve been able to travel.”
Stellan abandoned his lively conversation with Margaret to join in. “From the very first day we met, I knew Alex loved anything and everything that has to do with travelling and art,” He said, gazing at her in admiration. “The pictures she took were incredible. I don’t know much about photography, but even I know that they’re masterful. And her painting is just as amazing!”
Alex smiled indulgently before turning to her parents. “The worst part was that on the first day, we had a painting competition and I choked! I literally stood there for hours, and I had a completely blank canvas at the end.”
“That wasn’t your fault, though.” Stellan added. “You were really sick. You didn’t even make it to dinner.”
“So he brought me medicine,” Alex finished, smiling at her father. He grinned at the happiness his daughter seemed to exude. She was usually a kind but reserved girl around her family – mostly because of Victoria’s wrath. But like a flower, with the right love, she flourished into a magnificent lady. He knew Alex had all these beautiful qualities inside of her, and silently thanked Stellan for helping her draw them out. While no doubt Alex would have discovered herself on her own in her own time, Stellan was a wonderful support for her to lean on. Edward hid a smile as Alex and Stellan gazed at each other as they continued to recount stories.
“Remember when we went to the coffee shop? You thought the lady was taking too long so you got behind the counter yourself. You got beans all over the floor,” Stellan laughed.
“And I slipped on them! The waiter shooed me out so we could order. We found out we both prefer dessert over dinner!” Alex remarked.
“Oh, you can have an entire dessert bar at your wedding!” Amelia proclaimed. “Wouldn’t that be sweet?”
A hush fell over the table. Alex fiddled with the napkin on her lap, embarrassed beyond belief. Why would her Aunt even bring that up? She must know there are two other girls in the competition, and it was good-mannered to not discuss weddings. Catherine averted her eyes to the plate in front of her, pushing around a strawberry that had been carved into a delicate rose. An awkward air settled on the room as Edward cleared his throat and David tried to mentally scold his wife. The only person that was remotely amused was Anne – she leaned forward in her seat to examine everyone’s faces. It took long enough for the drama to start.
Finally, Stellan shrugged and turned to Amelia. “That sounds like a wonderful idea! Not to mention delicious.” He turned to Alex. “Can we have eclairs?”
Alex chuckled. “Sure. Chocolate or vanilla?”
“Why not both?” He grinned.
And with that, the conversation began to flow again. Victoria looked on admirably, though she would never admit it. Stellan recovered a rather terrible conversation smoothly, just like she would have done. Maybe he wasn’t such a bad guy after all…
After brunch, Alex led Stellan to the back of the penthouse. A small building sat on the edge, in stark contrast to the rest of the apartment.
“Is this your studio?” Stellan asked in awe, looking up at the two story building.
Alex nodded. “My parents built it for me a few years ago as a birthday gift. I wanted it to look clean and modern, and even though it didn’t match the palace theme of the rest of the house, they agreed.” She pointed above to a skywalk on the second floor. “It leads right to my chambers, so I can come and go as I please.”
“That’s impressive,” Stellan said.
Alex smiled as she wrapped an arm around his back. The two walked into the studio and sat on the plush couch. Stellan was immediately shocked into silence. On one wall, dozens of photographs covered the wide windows. They were moments from all their dates gone by – the ruins, the cafe, the bonfire, the random exploring they did…all of it.
Alex looked at Stellan’s slack-jawed face. “Are you freaked out?” She asked worriedly.
Stellan turned to face her and gently kissed her. “Of course not. I’m amazed.”
“Good, because I thought for a split second you’d bolt,” She joked.
“Never!” Stellan said, placing a hand on his heart. “You’re so talented, it amazes me. I think you’ve got more skills in one toe than I’ve got in my entire body.”
Alex chuckled softly. “Want to put that to the test?”
Without another word, Alex led Stellan up to the second floor. A small balcony overlooked San Myshuno, and imposing skyscrapers seemed to stretch endlessly into the horizon. Alex picked up a paintbrush and got down on one knee, facing Stellan.
“Stellan Knight, will you paint with me?”
Stellan laughed as he grabbed Alex’s hands and helped her back up. “Of course, m’lady.”
And so the two got to work, occasionally teasing and prodding each other. Stellan scooped up some red paint on his brush and dabbed Alex’s nose. “Are you okay, Alex? Little bit flustered? Your nose is all red.”
Alex swatted him for his lame joke and painted his cheeks pink. “Blushing for me, Stellan? How sweet!”
Stellan scowled, but couldn’t hold such a serious face when Alex looked at him. He cracked up pulled Alex into his arms, planting his cheek on hers, smearing paint all over her cheek. In retaliation, Alex touched her reddened nose against his chin. The red paint dripped down, making Stellan look like he’d been bleeding.
After some more time, both finished their respective paintings. They had painted the exact same thing, but Alex’s was remarkably better. Still, she hung both side by side in the studio.
“To inspire me,” She explained.
The two went their separate ways to change and mingle. Alex found her aunt Margaret on the second floor lounge, sitting quietly.
“There you are, hon!” She called, patting the seat beside her. “Come sit.”
Alex obliged. She had missed Aunt Margaret, perhaps more than she missed anyone else.
“I hate to be the one to take that smile off your face, but have you told him?”
Alex’s smile faltered. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Margaret raised an eyebrow. “It’s just us here, Alex.”
Alex let out a long sigh. “Fine. I haven’t.”
“Are you going to?”
Tears pricked the young girl’s eyes as she stared at her hands she clasped on her lap. “I know I should, but I can’t seem to find the right time. We’ve been getting along so well lately, and I don’t want to ruin that.”
“If you were in his position, wouldn’t you want to know?”
“Then why the hesitation?”
Alex paused before meeting her aunt’s eyes. Tears spilled down her cheeks, wetting the upholstery on the couch. “Because I’m scared. What if he doesn’t want me anymore?”
“Honey, if he doesn’t want to be with you over something like this, maybe he isn’t the man you think he is.”
Alex nodded solemnly. “I’ll tell him before he goes.”
Before Alex could find Stellan, Victoria called everyone to the main floor. She had set up a band to perform in celebration of Alex’s return home. Despite all her bolstering, she was glad to have her granddaughter home.
“Stellan,” Victoria began. “Have you ever heard of the Hadley Horsemen?”
Stellan nodded. “A little bit. I know they’re a famous band – I’ve had them perform at some balls I’ve hosted.”
Victoria smiled appreciably. “They’re more than a band. They’ve been in the family for years. It’s tradition for the sons and daughters to join, at least for a year or two. Alexandria was in the band during her teenage years along with Anne.”
“Really?” Stellan asked in surprise, turning to Alex. She nodded. “I knew you played the piano and violin, but I can’t picture you in a band.”
“Picture me in a sparkly, over the top gown with a bedazzled violin in my hand.”
Stellan looked at the sky for a minute and smiled. “Got the image! Now I can see you in the band.”
Alex and Anne had been best friends ever since they were children. Both had brothers. therefore lacking sisterly affection, and so they turned to each other for someone to play dress up with and mess with their grandmother’s makeup. They felt more like sisters than cousins at this point, and could communicate with each other simply through facial expressions. Anne met Alex’s eye and scrunched her nose. They both remember being apart of the Hadley Horsemen – it was a miserable time. All classical music and no fun.
Still, they sat through the performance in suffering silence. Stellan cringed as the musician failed to hit the high note at the end of the song. Clearly musicality didn’t run in the family.
Alex leaned over to whisper in Stellan’s ear. “Is this a performance or a torture device?”
When the Horsemen announced that they would be playing their final song, Anne and Alex excused themselves to the bathroom.
“You have to go together?” Edward asked, furrowing his brows.
“Why do girls do that?” David chimed in. The two brothers high-fived before earning a reprimand from their mother.
“It’ll only take a minute!” Anne promised, taking Alex’s hand and scurrying away.
“Remember how we used to sneak out to go to the club?” Anne asked once they had gotten out of earshot.
Alex covered her mouth to stifle a laugh. “How could I forget? We invented the Hadley Hustle.”
“Well, I thought we’d do it again tonight! Except everyone is blocking the foyer – we’d never be able to leave without being seen. So I did the next best thing.”
Alex strutted to the back door and flung it open. Pulsing music came from the courtyard, and Alex gasped at the DJ. He was the hottest thing right now, in all the magazines and on all the billboards around town.
“A mixologist is on their way,” Anne added as she ran to the centre of their private dance floor.
Alex laughed as she kicked off her heels, feeling her feet hit the cool marble. “I feel like a teen again.”
“No harm in having fun!” Anne shouted, fist pumping. Alex was transfixed by the DJ, still in shock that he was actually here. It was a far cry from the stuffy band inside, and Alex couldn’t have been happier.
“WoooOOOOOoooo!” Anne yelled, waving her arms like noodles.
Inside, the concert finally ended. Stellan leaned back in his seat and exhaled a silent sigh of relief. It was true that he’d hired the Hadley Horsemen before, but only because he’d felt bad for them. Usually he asked them to play in the garden, where the winds would carry the sound away so no one could hear them.
“Didn’t you like it?” Margaret asked.
Stellan turned towards the woman and forced a polite smile on his face. “It was music.”
Margaret made a face. “I don’t think that’s really my definition of music.”
“Sound?” Stellan offered.
“Yes, that was sound.”
“Alright, everyone! Off to bed.” Victoria said, shooing everyone away. “The maids need to get in here and do a proper scrub down, and we don’t want to get in their way.”
Everyone murmured their agreement and headed off to bed. Stellan meandered through the halls, looking for Alex so he could say goodnight. The thump of a bass pulsed near the back of the apartment, and Stellan walked over out of curiosity. He looked out the glass door to see Alex and Anne dancing up a storm. He smiled softly before turning to go to the stairs. He wouldn’t interrupt them – they were clearly having fun, and who wants a guy crashing a Girls Night Out?
The next morning, Stellan met Edward on the balcony.
“I’m sorry we haven’t gotten to chat much,” Stellan apologized.
“Oh, it’s no trouble at all. There’s a lot of people to meet and mingle with here.” Edward said.
“That’s for sure.”
After a brief moment of silence, Edward spoke up. “You’ve surprised me, Stellan.”
“Oh? How so?”
“I’m not sure, really. I thought you were the exact opposite of Alex, and that you’d be able to get her head out of the damn clouds. And it’s true, you are different from her. But instead of dragging Alex down, you boost her further into the sky. I was never there for her the way she wanted me to be. I tolerated her travels and her photography, but never encouraged it.”
“I can understand why you felt that way,” Stellan conceded. “It’s not normal hobbies for royalty. I’m sure you expected her to play music, or garden, or learn about politics. It’s just an expectation – my parents felt the same way, and here I am, Alex’s age with none of her worldly experience.”
“I think you’ll balance each other out well. Something tells me that if you marry Alex, you’ll get the travelling experience you seek. But I also think she’ll learn that sometimes the adventure awaits within her own household.”
“That’s awfully poetic of you.”
Edward shrugged before clapping a hand on Stellan’s shoulder. “I’m a romantic at heart, boy. Go find your lady.”
Alex was sitting at a bistro table, spinning her ring around her finger while working out what she’d say to Stellan.
“Hey there, love.” Stellan called, grabbing the seat across from her. “Why the long face?”
Alex inhaled deeply and prepared to finally express her worries.
Alex groaned as Catherine came around the corner.
“Hey there, lovebirds!”
Stellan stood up and pulled out the chair for her mother.
“Look what I’ve got!” She squealed, oblivious to the tension settling between the couple. “The romance festival is in town, and I got you two tickets! Go spend some alone time together.”
And so before Alex could reveal her secret, she found herself wandering the festival hand-in-hand with Stellan.
“I’m so glad I’m out of that itchy suit,” He admitted, rolling his sleeves up to his elbows. “The collar was scratching my neck.”
Alex smiled as he prattled on. “Have you ever had sakura tea?” He asked.
Alex shook her head. “Never. It’s pretty, though. Have you?”
“No, I haven’t,” He answered, sipping from the cup. “Whoa! It’s way better than the spicy food I tried the other day.”
Alex laughed and raised her glass to salute him.
“Ahh, well if it isn’t a beautiful couple!” A strange woman crooned, walking over to them. Her flowing dress caught the rose petals scattered on the ground as she approached Alex and Stellan. “I have a message from your spirit,” She said mischievously.
Stellan and Alex locked eyes for a moment before shrugging.
“What’s the message?” Stellan asked.
“Oh no, no. Not for you, boy. For her,” She said, jutting her chin at Alex.
“Me?” Alex asked in disbelief.
“Oui, darling. I see a man is in your destiny.” She squeezed her eyes shut and tilted her head upwards. “Vibrations show a tall, dark stranger in your best future.”
Stellan and Alex looked at each other again as the old lady walked away. Both of them began laughing hysterically, mimicking the old woman’s possessed voice.
“You cheating on me?” Stellan joked, wrapping an arm around Alex’s shoulders as they walked away.
“Yep!” Alex admitted, playing along. “His name’s Luke.”
Stellan threw his head back and laughed. “No, not you, too! He’s already got a son!”
Alex grew somber. “Well, that’s the thing.”
Stellan noted the seriousness in her voice and turned to face her head-on.
“You know my Aunt Margaret?”
“Of course, she’s wonderful.”
“She’s a pariah in my family,” Alex said softly, toeing a flower petal.
“I sort of gathered that,” Stellan admitted. “Though I could never say why.”
Tears glistened in Alex’s face as she looked up at him. “It’s because she’s infertile. She had a husband. We all thought he was wonderful. They were so in love, and they wanted to have kids right away.” Alex sniffled, and Stellan reached into his pocket to hand her a handkerchief. “But they just couldn’t. So he started abandoning her for days a time, and one time he came back and said he got another woman pregnant. He left Aunt Margaret for her.”
“What a jerk.” Stellan said angrily.
“It caused a huge scandal. My family was in the papers constantly, being painted as villains and tricksters. My grandmother hated the shame her daughter brought upon the family name, and never stopped making snide comments since.”
Stellan stayed quiet, sensing Alex had more to say.
“And I’m afraid…I might be infertile too.”
Stellan sucked in a breath before exhaling.
“Sometimes being barren runs in families. We had an entire day where we discussed it with doctors. So if we get married…” She trailed off, wiping her cheeks with the handkerchief.
“You’re afraid you won’t be able to have children?”
Alex let out a sob. “I might not be able to give you an heir.”
Stellan’s eyes widened before he burst out laughing. Alex looked up suspiciously as Stellan brought her in for a big hug. He rested his chin on her head and rubbed soothing circles on her back. “Oh, Alex. Getting married isn’t about producing an heir. It’s about two people in love – that’s it. That’s all our family would have to be, and to me it would be complete. And if we want a child, there are other means of having one, you know. We can always adopt, or even consider surrogacy.”
Alex choked out a laugh. “You think Ming will carry our baby?”
Alex felt Stellan’s chest rumble as he laughed. “Maybe. Or Shirley?”
The two laughed together as Stellan wiped a tear from Alex’s cheek. “I can’t believe that was worrying you. I only want you, Alex. Forget about all the politics.”
Alex smiled. “Then what do you say we end our last night together by lighting some fireworks?”
“Sounds like a plan.”
And for their final night before Stellan would leave, the two lit fireworks and played around with sparklers, laughing joyfully. Nothing else mattered – it was just Stellan, Alex, and the loud pop of fireworks crackling overhead.