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It was all dots and lines. Hundreds or even thousands of bright dots and lines gleaming in a vast sea of shadow like stars in the night sky, but better. Better because every dot and every line was testimony to the resilience of the human race, a reminder that it had been over a century since the Treaty of Casablanca signaled the end of the sixty-year world war.

The year was 174 PB, or 174 years after the war. Earth was not the same, it will never be the same. The last great war had permanently scarred the planet. Mountains were levelled, bodies of water were reclaimed, and countries were rendered unlivable. Borders of nations were blurred as the strongest of the survivors dared to grab land and resources to keep its people alive. Such was the case of the Kindgom of Rome.

Modern day Italy, Austria, Germany, and France made up what historians called the resurrected Roman Empire. Led by the reigning Queen, Camilla Castiglione, it maintained its superpower status and continued to be the one of the most influential economies in Europe and in the world. Such was a heavy burden that one day the crown price, Queen Camilla’s eldest son, Alessandro Lucius Castiglione, would carry on his shoulders.

But that night, the prince was content to watch New Florence, the capital of the kingdom, through the eyes of his surveillance aircraft. The nightscape had always fascinated him. Those little dots and lines, hovercrafts moving on the concentric circumferential traffic network, was like little working ants falling in line to bring gifts to the queen. At the center of the network was an imposing architecture that rose above all other buildings in the metropolis, it looked like shards of broken glass stuck to the earth – fourteen shards to be exact. Castillo di Firenze, or the Castle of Florence was literally at the heart of the kingdom’s capital. Its network of monumental pointed glass towers was the most impressive architecture in the city.

The surveillance aircraft’s reflection flew past one of the towers, then it traced a spiral path around it until –

“We are fast approaching LSALT. Collision with a hovercraft imminent, your highness,” warned the female flight assistant programmed into the aircraft. It sounded like Serena Boutin, an award-winning actress, which pleased Luke.

The prince’s expression did not falter as he let the aircraft fly lower and lower until he can see hovercrafts coming and leaving the landing pad. There was still a long line of hovercrafts waiting for their turn to deposit their passenger into the biggest event of the year – the Victor’s ball and his engagement party. Every important people in the land together with world leaders would be present. His mother was happy to host such an extravagant party.

Just then, he felt somebody’s arms snaked around his shoulder the same time soft lips touched his cheek and a feminine voice whispered, “I knew I’d find you here.” It did not sound like his flight assistant, but he did recognize the voice.

“Serena, autopilot mode. Bring this baby home,” he commanded, pressed a few buttons on the console, then lifted off his VR headset. The voice of the assistant was vaguely heard as she confirmed the pilot’s order and the time that the aircraft would arrive at the destination. Without the VR headset, he was no longer airborne. The view of New Florence was replaced by a tall woman in tight red gown who squeezed her way into the remote cockpit and was about to straddle his thighs. “Woman, I waited for you for hours,” he emphasized the last word.

The woman just smiled, not even sheepish for making the crown prince wait. Her lips were red as sin and was so inviting. The yellowish glow of the disengaged remote cockpit emphasized the soft planes of her face and made her black eyes look darker. In contrast, Luke’s eyes were blue as the sky on a summer day. His was a face that could stop a man or a woman in his tracks, and it did happen more than once. It was the product of generations of selective breeding. He had a fine bone structure and an almost perfectly symmetrical face, which at that moment was softening as the woman appealed to the prince’s primal masculine instincts by slowly sliding forward with her arms around his neck. The low neckline of her dress revealed much skin, but he barely noticed as his thin lips focused on returning the kiss. His hands knew what to do and where to go, but stopped when he heard the door slide open.

A muffled voice, then there was the clear and crisp voice of the queen. “Alessandro Lucius Castiliogne”

Of course, he had to pull away from what was just beginning to be an urgent and passionate kiss. Actually, the woman pulled away with much haste, even withdrawing from his lap. Wearily, he turned his face towards the direction of the sound.

“Mother asked me to find you,” said a man in black suit. His blue eyes and serious brow was much like Luke’s, but where Luke had light brown wavy hair, the other man had straight blonde hair. He was holding a mobile device with the projection of the queen’s face.

Thanks to the advancement in medicine, the queen did not look like a day older than thirty, although she was already in her fifties. Her head was projected as a 3D image. “Thank you, Nico,” she turned to the bringer of the message before directing her maternal voice to her eldest son. “I will expect you to be at the main ballroom in fifteen minutes. Not a second late, or there will be consequences.”

“I was busy surveying the castle perimeter.”

“That is not what I saw, Lucius. This family does not need another scandal.” Her face vanished in thin air. Nico shrugged and started to walk away. Not minding the woman, who was a nobleman’s daughter named Lena, Luke caught up with his half-brother.

“Better run Luke, or there will be consequences,” he imitated their mother.

Nico was not yet done speaking when Luke heavily slung his arm around the younger prince’s shoulder. “I owe you, Nico.” He stirred them towards the nearest elevator.

“No you don’t. That was nothing, just doing what I was told.”
“No, no. I owe you. For not knocking, for bringing with you the queen’s eyes.” The elevator’s door slid open and the brothers entered.
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Hidden 2 yrs ago Post by Syrenrei
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No contest winner was ever ugly- the kingdom had aesthetic standards for candidates before they were even permitted entry- but by all accounts Rhiane Black was exceptional. Her fellow competitors had been more dainty flowers with alabaster skin, tiny waists, and slim figures that were pretty but were a more fragile definition of femininity. Rhiane Black was, by contrast, held none of these traits in the same way. The woman was taller by a few inches (not enough to threaten the height of a man however), with bronze skin that shimmered in the lights as if she had been shaped by precious metal, an athletic build, a large bosom and wider hips that gifted her an exaggerated hourglass shape, full lips, and long, thick, dark hair that flowed to her waist in a river of luxurious chocolate brown. It was hard for anyone to imagine how someone who was so sultry was ever born and bred on a farm in one of the most rural sectors of their empire.

To help accentuate her beauty, for she was to be paraded around as a prize of the kingdom, they had spared no expense in making certain Rhiane was appropriately adorned. Light make-up had made her dark eyelashes longer and curled, a cat's eye was painted on to extend the length of her eye, and eye shadow was applied to bring out the emerald color of her irises. Dark wine-colored lipstick had been applied for a dramatic flair. But it was her ballgown that made her impossible to be ignored. The top was sheer and formfitting with faux flowers and gemstones covering the bust in arcs towards her shoulders but leaving the space between her breasts uncovered without being scandalous. Silken fabric was snug at the waist and over her thighs, flaring at the knees and leaving a bejeweled sparkling train to trail behind her.

"She's ready," one of the beauticians told the bodyguard outside the room.

The man nodded and turned his head to speak into a microphone that was attached to the side of his mouth discreetly. "This is Lady Victor 1. Ready and awaiting escort," he relayed.

"Acknowledged Lady Victor 1. Awaiting confirmation of escort's location. Please prepare for arrival," a member of the royal guard positioned in the security center responded. Technically it was the prince who was expected to escort his fiancee to the ball but there had been conflicting opinions as to whether or not this would occur. A 'Plan B' had been created in anticipation that the prince shrugged off his duty.

"Dark Horse 3, please report in," another member in the security center called over the broadcast.

"This is Dark Horse 3," a deep masculine voice responded. The bass send reverberations that even the highly sophisticated equipment could not quite compensate for. 'Dark Horse 3' was one of the more handsome members of the guard whose voice alone had made it exceedingly hard to keep female staff members focused on their tasks at hand when in proximity. On most days he was assigned to patrolling the perimeter but today he was the back-up if his highness decided that Rhiane Black was not worth his attentions until absolute necessarily. 'Dark Horse 3' would be the most presentable of all the guards and made the best impression on the female sex.

"Is something wrong?" Rhiane asked her beautician. The man pressed his lips together in clear disapproval she was addressing him and gave no reply. Princess elect or not he knew she was a commoner of lower birth than he was. He was not beholden to answer her questions until such time she assumed a royal mantle. Then, and only then, would she wield the power to command him.

"You can't arrive at the ball yourself," one of the ladies in waiting advised quietly when it was clear no one else would give an answer. She took the platform stiletto heels that had been set aside for Rhiane to wear and slipped them onto the farmer's slightly calloused feet.

"Wouldn't want to make too much of a scene," Rhiane acknowledged as she flashed a charming smile to the lady in waiting. The other flushed a little as she helped the princess elect to her feet. Rhiane took a few steps to make certain she could walk in the shoes that made her nearly six feet tall. They were nothing like the heavy work boots she was accustomed to but she had enough coordination and balance that she did not feel unstable. At the end of the day she would undoubtedly be blistered from the impractical footwear- but becoming royalty was not without its own challenges.
Hidden 2 yrs ago 2 yrs ago Post by Hashih
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Beautiful classical music from notable Italian composers like Vivaldi, Verdi, and Puccini, serenaded the guests at the grand ballroom. It was truly an event worthy of the global stage as it showcased the beautiful post-modern architecture that Castello di Firenze was famous for.

The grand ballroom was a circular dome sitting on top of one of the castle’s highest tower. It boasted an unobstructed view of the night sky and the city of New Florence. For the protection of the guests, the dome was constructed out of of military grade glass that can withstand aerial attacks. The interior of the ballroom was decorated with hues of gray, blue, white, and a touch of gold. The most notable, perhaps, was a massive crystal chandelier hanging from the center of the dome like droplets of rain frozen in time. The light would touch the crystals making it twinkle and burst with multitudes of colors. As if for coherence, the centerpiece of the guests' tables arranged around the dome was adorned with the same, though significantly smaller in scale. The table arrangement was in a semi circle pattern on the left and right hemisphere, leaving the center of the room vacant for the purpose of dancing and socialization. The royal family was expected to occupy the tables on a semi circular mezzanine opposite the main entrance, above the guests' tables and behind a dais that the queen occupied at the moment.

The guests arrived earlier that night through a lift connected to a launchpad several floors beneath the event. Upon exiting the lift, they were greeted with a rare concerto from Vivaldi’s repertoire as their senses took in an exquisite flower garden that bloomed all year round. Security was especially tight that no matter the position of the guest, he or she was subjected to pass through a security scan to have his or her identity verified by the network before the announcer can announce his or her presence, if needed. Once done, the guests were greeted by ushers wearing the colors of the kingdom and helped them find their assigned table. However, for very important guests, they were requested to march along the red carpet to personally greet the royal family.

A waiting room adjacent to the ballroom was where Lucius should be right at that moment.

That was what worried Calista. She overheard the tone of the queen as she was talking to her brother and it seemed that he was still not where he should be. Contrary to popular belief, Luke was not a fan of fancy balls and parties, especially events hosted by their mother. The Victor’s ball was the worst for two reasons – it was broadcasted live all over the world, and it was the venue that announced his farewell to freedom.

This was the opposite for the princess. She loved these events, loved to dress-up, and of course loved to socialize with the nobility and important persons in the kingdom. With the confidence that came with being the second in line to the throne paired with charisma and a bright smile, she was what people would call a social butterfly. But that night, in the absence of her brother, it became her duty to stand at the dais beside her mother and step-father to greet foreign dignitaries as their arrival was announced one by one. The last of which had greeted the royal family about 30 minutes ago. She eagerly watched the stairways made of glass that straddled the main guest entrance. The stairways led to a chrome double door bearing the family’s crest, which was the designated for the grand entrance of the crown prince and the princess elect.

She leaned to her mother’s ear. “Mother, may I be excused to check on Luke?”

Pleasant as the queen may look in a regal navy blue gown, her voice was tight and her smile a bit on the scary side when she turned to her daughter. “Go and find my damnable son, dearest.”

Calista nodded in relief. Her step-father, the tall and striking Prince Damien also gave her permission to leave. Calista wasted no time. She headed to the nearest exit just as the Violin Concerto in A minor was concluded. Cold evening breeze and the delicate scent of flowers greeted her outside the ballroom. She found staff, also dressed for the occasion, and equipment setup by a handful of authorized media to cover the event. As part of the protocol, interviews were not allowed so nobody bothered Calista as she dragged the precious stone-encrusted train of her peach dress.

She was not halfway through the garden when Luke stepped out of the lift together with one of the twins, Nico. “Luke!” Calista practically ran to her brother. Thankfully he was dressed for the occasion, in the ceremonial white tunic adorned with golden buttons, lining, and ceremonial pins on the right side of his chest that indicated his status not only in the monarchy, but also as a pilot of the strike force. His tunic was paired with black trousers and leather shoes. He was truly a sight to behold – a head taller than most, with just the right amount of muscles not too bulky and not at all lanky. Add to this his tanned complexion and the commanding presence that came with being the crown prince. There was no wonder that a sudden hush overtook the garden when he stepped out, but it was the intensity in those eyes and the tight set of his jaw, Cally thought, that did most of the job.

Beside him, Nico, who society would tag as exceptionally handsome, looked like a commoner beside Luke. He was wearing a similar fashion as his brother, but in the color black and with significantly less embellishments. The ceremonial attire which the crown prince and the other princes wore was not too different from what was worn in the past. Perhaps it was an attempt to honor tradition that was in place even before the monarchy was established.

“Cally, get back inside before our dragon of a mother bites both our heads off!” Luke yelled from across the garden, causing hushed giggles from the present media and some members of the nobility. His voice, low and commanding, had always had a melodious tone to it. “Take this princeling with you and never take your eyes off him and his evil twin.” He shoved Nico towards the direction of his sister.

The younger prince, still a head shorter than Luke, also a few inches shorter than Calista wearing heels, flipped the finger at his brother. “He’s just mad because I caught him in the middle of --” Luke cut him off by pinching his cheeks, just like when they were kids. It annoyed both Nico and his twin Philip, but it was very effective. “Ouch! Lucius!”

“Get inside before I lose my cool and let you have it, brother.”

Nico’s brows furrowed, but he could not challenge his older brother’s order. By that time, Cally was standing before him. She reached up and smoothed her brother’s fashionably mussed hair, which she guessed was not the stylist’s idea. His face was clean shaven, making him look younger and more handsome in her opinion despite the tense set of his jaw and lips.“You were flying again, were you?”

“Yes, and it didn’t help this time. But now I have to go, and you should too. Tell mother that her beloved heir is here." The prince paused, as if thinking for the right words. "Against his will, as usual, but present nevertheless.”

Inside the waiting room, the pressure was evident in the air. The event coordinators were about to make a decision that would not please the queen but would at least stop the speculations being made by the media. They were about to send the princess elect out without her prince. In his place was one of the more pleasant looking castle guards. He was dressed in finery but was not meant to upstage any member of the royal family.

Without looking her in the eye, Darkhorse 3 offered his arm to the princess elect. Everything was in place, everybody had the green signal when the security from outside the waiting room demanded, "stand down, Darkhorse 3. Escort is here."

The collective sigh of relief was audible all over the room, from the ladies in waiting to the staff, even the guards themselves. At the same time, Luke entered the waiting room all by himself. There was no urgency in the manner which he moved, just fluid grace and tightly leashed power.

The proxy escort, who still had his arm offered out for Rhiane Black bowed and stepped aside. “I’ll take it from here,” Luke confirmed, then assumed his position beside the princess elect, without paying her much attention.

As soon as the couple was in position, the room burst with activity. The beautician made a final retouch to Rhiane, while another quickly slicked Luke’s hair to a more formal style. Possibly sensing how tensed the woman was, Luke said still without looking at her, “It will be fine. Hold on to my arm, and just focus on your steps. Smile at the cameras, and for heaven’s sake do not trip.”

“This is Lady Victor 1 to command center. Escort is ready.”

The command center replied, “Copy that, Lady Victor 1. Command center to Ground. Prepare for arrival.”

As if on cue, the lights inside the room dimmed and the door slid open. Without a word, he led the princess elect to the den of lions, or more popularly known as his mother’s court.

The orchestra stopped the concerto as the pleasant male voice of the night’s host filled the room. “Presenting, His royal highness, Prince Alessandro Lucius Castiliogne and our Princess elect, Ms. Rhiane Black.” The room erupted with clapping just as the orchestra played a different tune.

He was used to this. True to his advice to Rhiane, Luke smiled for the camera and took careful steps down the grand staircase, all the while hoping that Rhiane would indeed not trip and take him down with her. A red carpet was lain on the staircase leading to the dais where the queen sat proudly. On her right was Prince Damian and their twins, while on her left was Calista wearing her shoulder length curls and bright smile. Gathered around the room were people he had met at least once in his life, some he knew by name, others just a familiar face.

The march to the queen was long, but thankfully uneventful. The closer he came to his mother, the better he could see the subtle hints that told him that despite the amiable expression on her face, she was not at all happy. Regardless, as she would always say, the show must go on.

Luke brought them to the foot of the dais then bowed a deep respectful bow to the queen. He trusted that Rhiane was properly oriented with proper conduct of court. “Your majesty, I present you our Princess elect, my future bride, Ms. Rhiane Black.”

The queen tilted her head in acknowledgement before getting up on her feet.

"Ladies and gentlemen, people of New Florence and of the new Kingdom of Rome," she started. Her face, an older version of Calista's, was projected on a section of the dome that turned into a monitor above the dais. She was a beauty to behold with her dark brown almond-shaped eyes, narrow full lips, and complexion that betrayed her real age. "Tonight we uphold the tradition of our fathers that went before us, to keep the royal bloodline of the House of Castiglione strong for the purpose of the advancement of the kingdom and the protection of our people." She gestured with her hand for Luke and Rhiane to join her as she addressed the kingdom and the world. "I present to you, my beloved kingdom, our princess and future queen, Ms. Rhiane Black, the Lady Victor, and the future of Rome."
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Hidden 2 yrs ago Post by Syrenrei
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"So nice of you to join me," Rhiane had whispered with a raised brow as Luke's hair was coiffed.

There were no illusions that either of them were entering into this arranged marriage for love so she had little in the way of expectations for her fiance. Luke was required to consent to the engagement because there was no other realistic choice, especially if he wanted to succeed his mother to the throne. It was also clear that the Contest participants were (no matter how the empire attempted to explain it in their propaganda) willing to wed for the monetary gain for their family. The farmer-turned-Princess-Elect had her own private motivations as well but none anticipated an actual romance. At the end of the day she would always be a commoner birthed into poverty and he royalty surrounded by gilded beauty. No matter what spin the media would take she knew that by virtue of status he could not, would not, should not see her as anything other than a breeding mare that would garner them a positive public image. She was a lesser not an equal. That, in effect, precluded him from the ability to love her in that way. Knowing that freed her to not hope for things that would not come to pass.

And so her comment was sincere, quite amusement. Rhiane was not emotionally devastated at the prospect of a proxy escort. So long as the queen did not threaten her rewards Luke was free to misbehave as much as he liked. The moment they were jointly disciplined would be when she would micromanage the crown prince that was at her side.

"Just so you know, I've never actually walked in heels like this before. Exciting, isn't it?" This was spoken a split second before they began to walk but her stride was careful and purposeful. Each step was measured and exact. While she had been a farmer all her life she had not won over the trials by a bizarre struck of luck. Speed, strength, hand-eye coordination, and a wide variety of skills had been chosen. Were she the sort of woman who couldn't walk a few hundred yards in uncomfortable strange footwear she would have not been victorious against such strong contenders.

Rhiane flashed charming smiles to the cameras that lined their path to the queen. It was her easy charisma that appealed to the masses, making them feel instantly as if they were her friend, that had truly edged her out over other candidates. During interviews she had spoken with a confidence that was neither false nor arrogant. Despite all her flaws she was likeable. It was something she had to be by necessity when managing the farm because her eldest brother was surly during the best of times and her father alternated between surges of poor temper and being a doormat. Trade arrangements and sales were negotiated helped one hone how to appeal to a wide variety of personalities and backgrounds.

When they paused at the queen she was dutifully quiet. Her dress was prohibitively restrictive so a curtsy was out of the question- she bowed as low as the gown would permit. As they were announced by the reigning monarch she waited for Luke (to whom she was joined by the arm) to move forward before she did so herself. At the cheers and applause she flashed another brilliant smile before bowing her head in respect to both the nobility and the people watching this event from their homes. Today was being broadcast not only within their borders but far outside of them.

Missteps (no pun intended) were still dangerous for Rhiane. It was not technically too late for her to be quietly replaced. Each press event made it more embarrassing for them to do so. As such she fervently hoped it would be possible for her to avoid alcohol. Her tolerance was better than most adult women but there more people in the room than glasses she could nurse without losing precious ambition. Luke might do as duty required and escort her the entire evening but it was possible that he would not. Already she was calculating the best individuals to latch onto if such a circumstance arose and she needed to politely root herself without causing scandal.

"It's a shame, Dark Horse 3," one of the guards remarked. Dark Horse 3's real name was Marcello but it wasn't often that they called each other by their given names. Call signs were exclusively utilized by the security staff, be they royal guards or of a lesser station, as if to remind them how replaceable they were.

"What is?" Dark Horse 3 intoned.

"I wanted to see how they would have explained you walking her up instead of him," the other guard remarked with a gesture of his head. He crossed his arms and they settled into their post on the exterior perimeter of the room. It was much less comfortable than other positions on account of the 'monkey suits' they were required to wear but it was better than the miserable bastards stuck on a boring patrol.

Turning off his earpiece for a moment Marcello started at the Princess Elect with a silent intensity. "It's a shame she's even here," he muttered to himself.
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Hidden 2 yrs ago Post by Hashih
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The camera panned to the faces of the nobility and dignitaries invited to the Victor’s Ball as they applauded the pronouncement of the queen. However, while the cameras were focused elsewhere, a pair of servants approached the royal family. Each carried a silver tray with half-filled wine glasses. One by one, the royalties secure for themselves a wine glass.

“And so,” her royal highness continued, now holding a glass of wine. As she spoke the camera turned its attention back to her. “Please join me in congratulating Ms. Rhiane Black, a woman who despite being of common birth, possessed exceptional beauty, intellect, skills, and grace worthy of the crown.” She paused to glance at Rhiane with a kind smile before she raised her glass. “May she inspire those of us who dream, to dream for the stars. More importantly, may she bear beautiful and healthy princes and princesses.”

The noble guests laughed, raised their glasses and drank their wine in honor of Rhiane Black, the princess-elect, the future queen.

Luke did the same, longing for more of the bittersweet Ibourg Blanc, one of the most expensive alcohol to ever exist in the post-war era, to accompany him throughout the night. Actually, any alcoholic drink would do just fine so long as it got him drunk enough to forget the humiliation. None of the members of high society would speak against the tradition of the selection of the heir’s future spouse, but he could read faint, almost indiscernible hints of disapproval from these people. No one in his right mind would even consider associating themselves with a commoner, unless absolutely necessary. It was even considered scandalous to have an affair with somebody outside the nobility, but now he, the rightful heir to the throne, was about to very publicly marry one.

“Shall we begin the celebration?” Queen Camilla’s voice cut through his train of thoughts. He watched how with a gesture of the queen’s hand, the orchestra started playing a fusion of classical and modern music. The beat was slow and the melody sweet. Luke tensed. “I’ll let my son and his fiancée lead this dance.”

He knew it was coming. Calista nodded at her brother with a smile, probably knowing how the prince would react, though he barely noticed her. Instead, with a smile on his face, Luke turned to their mother. But it was through gritted teeth that he said, “This is too much. Do I really have to?”

“It is your duty, Lucius.” It was Prince Damien who, in a gentle voice, answered for the queen. He moved to the side of the queen, offering his arm. Camilla nodded as if to thank her husband. The couple walked towards the staircase framing the royals’ private balcony. “Go on, the cameras are waiting,” added the older prince.

Without a word, Luke led Rhiane to the center of the dance floor a bit more hasty than normal. He might have dragged her, but he couldn’t care at that moment. All he could think of was how much he wanted the night to end. When they reached the center, he faced her, and maybe for the first time looked her in the eye. The eye contact was brief as Luke was too quick to bow. After the ceremonial bow, he took her hand and twirled her around in time with the beat of the orchestra.

It was precisely because of occasions like the Victor’s Ball that dancing became a mandatory skill that princes and princesses should learn. Luke was good at it, not better than any of his younger brothers, but decent at least. Then he remembered he was not dancing with a princess. “Can you dance? I mean this kind of dance?” Not sure how she would answer, he slowed down and placed one arm around her waist.

Somebody gasped audibly at the gesture.

Nevertheless, he pulled her close so that they don’t have to make big movements but still pretend to be dancing by swaying in time with music. He recalled what she said before they stepped out of the waiting room, that it was the first time that she wore heels. Ms. Rhiane Black did not belong to his world, just like he did not belong to hers. She was a farmer and he was a prince. She was born to till the land, while he was born to rule those who till the land. When he became king, he swore to himself that the stupid breeding ritual would be the first law that he would abolish. None of his descendants should ever suffer the humiliation.

“Listen, Ms. Rhiane Black,” he whispered. By that time, couples were already on the dance floor to join them while more cocktail drinks and food were being served to the guests. “I suppose you understand your role in this charade. You have value for this family until you produce healthy grandchildren for the queen. After she is satisfied, you are dispensable. That may take years, unfortunately. Years that we will be forced to spend together. It will be beneficial to both of us if you will stick to your intended purpose and not mind any of my business as I will not mind yours. It should be a simple enough rule.”
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Hidden 2 yrs ago Post by Syrenrei
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Rhiane pretended not to hear her fiance chastised by the queen and her prince consort into dancing with her. Not only was it the polite thing to do she was quite aware she could do nothing in this scenario. The farmer did not have any sort of leverage over Luke. Until such time she was wed and officially crowned she had very little power even over the servants that littered the edges of the room with platters of hors d'oeuvres or bearing concealed weapons meant to protect the gathered dignitaries. There was no threat she could issue to compel compliance. Likewise there was no reward she could offer that would entice him- she had no illusions about how little he wanted anything to do with her. If copulation weren't implicitly required at some point in time she could have conceivably better tempted him with not touching him rather than indulging any proclivities.

His haste to reach the dance floor very nearly caused her to tumble but, with the grace of an acrobat, she managed to make the almost-stumble flow into another step almost seamlessly. For someone pre-occupied with making certain she did not trip he was not doing either of them any favors to their image. Rhiane covered her temptation to frown with a smile as she thought back to the security now guaranteed to her diminished family. Her father wouldn't have to work himself to the bone trying to make a living while the ghost of his lost love haunted his every move. Finally he would be allowed to rest and remember the good times they had. Gerald, ill-tempered as he might be, would be able to build a life with his partner and perhaps even adopt children. Any such babes would not be allowed near their royal cousins but happiness could be found for the two very well-deserving men at least.

"I can dance, but not quite at your level. There was no sense in teaching all the candidates since we were all but one useless to the crown, don't you agree?" she asked with a sort of sly self-depreciation that would be all too well-received by nobility. Rhiane knew her audience if nothing else. The princess elect was not without pride; she just sought to have a sense of humor about her circumstances.

Luke drew her into him as he slowed their rhythm. For a split second a faint rose spread across her features. As much as the farmer had steeled herself against expectations she struggled to not notice that he was intensely handsome, that his eyes were a brilliant blue to her green, that his cheekbones were high, his jaw square, and his height just tall enough it was horrendously attractive and not off-putting comparative to her own.

"I think you will find, your highness, I am understand my role quite well," she reassured as she reestablished that charming smile that had made her famous. "And I will honor that to the best of my capability, even its finality," Rhiane remarked breezily with a cavalier attitude towards her own death. The princess elect was not full of false bravado; he could see in her gaze how sincerely she was fearless on the particular issue.

"We can do that, minding one another's business, if that's what you really wish to do. I'm rather tit for tat, so if you indulge in certain activities I will take that to mean I can as well." The queen would have dismissed her if she knew that Rhiane was all but acquiescing to Luke having extra-marital affairs if she could do the same. It was improper for a prince and treasonous for a princess elect- something that Rhiane clearly understood from the sparkle in her eyes. Her way of speaking danced on the edge of being explicit and dwelling in innuendo; enough no eavesdropper could be certain what she was suggesting and actually have her condemned.

"Would not want to buck tradition, would we?" It was a challenge. Peasants, merchants, and world leaders all knew that the arranged marriage to a commoner for breeding stock was a farce of a fairy tale. Heads turned the other way when there were fractures demonstrating the royals and their lowborn spouses never truly fell in love the way propaganda led one to believe. To emotionally entangle would be disobedience on a grand scale that most of the boldest would not dare. "Do you know what I see when I look around this room, your highness? People who are separate. People who stand together but are loosely bound and whom have a different fealty than someone such I imagined. Don't you ever... think you deserve more? Ah, the song is over."

Abruptly she disentangled herself from his inviting embrace and dipped her head as a lord, a few years older than the prince, wandered over and asked Rhiane for the next dance. She was a novelty to the elites. This was their one chance to move across the floor with the curiosity that was a princess elect before they were old men watching the next generation. If Rhiane knew they mocked her in private it did not show on her face for she accepted the dance without pause. The farmer knew what she was to them but she was being compensated for this charade so she would play it to the fullest.
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“Welcome to my world,” Luke muttered, bowing to the farmer as the music faded to silence. Strange that a smile lingered on his lips while he thought back to how accurate her observation was. Ms. Black might not only be a pretty face and a beautiful body after all.

Underneath the riches, the fame, and the prestige that came with being a member of the noble families, was the ugly truth that kinship and loyalty had no meaning in the world he was born in. It was a world where love, kindness, compassion were seen as weakness, and power was a currency more precious than gold. In his lifetime, he became witness to betrayals and murders among friends and families. Even his own father had fallen victim to this vicious world.

He watched as she consented a dance with a man older than he, as she turned her back at him and casually walked away – as her dress accentuated her very feminine figure with her every step – then he wondered how long it would take for the court to turn this simple farm girl into one of the snakes at his mother’s court.

Luke calmly walked to the edge of the dance floor, not wanting to be caught by any camera while watching his fiancée dance in the arms of another rich man, Lord Chausson. That would make an awfully degrading headline. But on the bright side, he was free of his charge at last. He plucked a glass of whiskey from a servant’s tray and drank to temporary freedom. Free to choose whose company to be with for the night.

Drinking the contents of the glass in a few gulps, the crown prince walked towards a group of people consisting of three lords and two ladies. One of them saw him approaching and raised his half-empty cocktail to Luke’s direction. “Ah, his highness graces us with his presence,” said Luke’s cousin, and son of her mother’s brother, the Duke of Fremont (a region in modern day central France). “How does it feel to be engaged to a farmer?”

The other three dared to laugh at his misfortune. They must have been talking about him the whole time. “You must feel lucky now, Marcel, that your father is not the king and you are too far off in the line of succession.” Luke shot back.

“Fourth, dear cousin, I’m fourth in line. Not really that far.” The duke’s son shrugged. He was three years older than Luke. “But then if I will be forced to marry a commoner, I may as well abdicate. Knowing you, I’m surprised you haven’t already.”

One of the ladies subtly placed herself between the crown prince and the duke’s son. She looped her free arm around Luke’s and leaned her loosely curled black hair against his shoulder, before butting in, “Well, he can’t let you get closer to the throne, can you now, Luke?” She was a tall woman, though not quite as tall as Rhiane, with glowing complexion that might have been medically enhanced. The features on her heart-shaped face was delicate, made more beautiful with the skillfully placed make-up, and accentuated with dark red lipstick. She was one of the more beautiful members of the upper class and was photographed with Luke by paparazzi more than once. “I know that you came for me,” Sophia Keller teased, watching him from beneath her thick eyelash extensions.

He offered his arm to the lady. “I wouldn’t have walked this way otherwise, knowing that my cousin Marcel is within five-meter radius.”

Marcel snickered. “What will your mother say, cousin Luke, when she finds out that you are with another woman on your engagement night? Or are you two starting to plan how to make it look like an accident?” He gestured his now empty glass to Luke then to Sophia.

The prince tensed, but he managed to keep a tight leash on his temper. “The only funeral I am planning right now is yours, Marcel.” He turned to the other three who were silent the whole time to politely ask to be excused, before he and Sophia joined the crowd on the dance floor.

He wondered where his fiancée was, whether she was still dancing with the lords, and how many feet did she already step on that night. As for him, he and Sophia shared more than one dance, talking and laughing at each other’s stories and jokes, before finally discretely exiting the ballroom and disappearing into the night.
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After a few songs, rotating between youthful men of status who were fascinated by the commoner curiosity, Rhiane had found herself at the edge of the dance floor to refresh with a glass of water and small cracker adorned with a foreign delicacy. Her partners had noticed her distinct lack of classical training in the art of dance. None complained, however, as she knew that nobility thrived on gratuitous praise. The princess elect had lavished them all with compliments tailored to their specific physique, skills, and whatever she gleamed from their brief interactions. Novelty though she might be she was determined to make the best of it. More than once her silver tongue and quick wit had won her a benefit in a trade negotiation. Then she had been dealing with crop and seeds, and now she was selling herself as an individual, but the basic concept was the same; everyone loved to think they were adored. For the elite this was even more true than the plebeians they ruled over.

Slightly off and to the side Sir Jin, a dignitary from a country descended from the powerful nation of China, watched pensively. The queen had invited him not because their strong rapport or economic ties. Like so many of the ambassadors they had been invited to the ball as a show of power. The time of wars had long since passed but there were still squabbles about borders and threats of skirmishes. Queen Camilla kept her allies close but her enemies closer. Being at this opulent celebration was her 'subtle' way of displaying the potency of New Rome.

But Sir Jin could not help but notice that the crown prince, the very man they were to be honoring in his engagement to the former farmer in question, was nowhere to be found. He bided his time for nearly half an hour after the disappearance before he saw his opportunity in Rhiane's retreat from the center of the floor. As she bit into her gourmet treat he feigned walking past before bumping into her hard enough to jerk her off her feet.

"Ah, my apologies!" he exclaimed as he caught her. Nearby a few lords and ladies had turned to gasp at the spectacle. Sir Jin gave a smile as he helped stabilize the princess elect, but not before noting the way his force had twisted at least one of her ankles awkwardly. Rhiane, by the way she stood with all her weight on only one foot, had noticed the throbbing in her limb as well.

"How silly of me," Sir Jin said, raising his voice such that cameras were now turned towards him. "Please forgive me your highness. I am afraid I was not watching where I was going." That he was taking all the blame was purposeful but not for her benefit. By treating the princess elect with respect he appeared that much more charismatic to the peasants watching from their homes. Furthermore, by putting himself at fault it let her keep a sparkling image that would make the 'missing' prince look all the worse by comparison.

"Let us call on Prince Alessandro to help," the gentleman offered as if ignorant of the other's absence.

"That's quite all right," Rhiane tried to reassure. She kept her composure and smile intact but internally she panicked. No royal who had spoken not hours before about keeping separate lives would welcome this intrusion into his night.

"Please do not worry, your highness. It is the duty of your future husband, and the future king of this empire, to assist you, is it not? Does this country not have the same customs?" By now the room could no longer ignore the broadcasted heavy accent. Heads turned as it slowly dawned on all in attendance that Luke was not among them. There was no courier fast enough to retrieve it. Each passing second make it abundantly clear that the royal had abandoned his commoner fiance.

"Where is he?" Sir Jin wondered aloud as he turned to the silent dignitaries gathered around in close proximity. Any excuse Rhiane might have had on Luke's behalf died on her tongue as quickly as it did the other's. To claim he had fallen ill would to make it seem the farmer was in better health than he was. To claim he had tired would be to tarnish the stamina of his lineage. The truth, for the few who knew it, was too scandalous to voice aloud. Not just the queen's court was watching- everyone was watching. This moment was being spread far and wide.

And Sir Jin knew the damage it would do. Rumors of pockets of rebellion had not escaped him. Rhiane's selection had been timely because it smoothed over any uprisings with positive press coverage. Commoners saw themselves in Rhiane's rise; they empathized with her, cheered for her, hoped for her future. Evidence that this was a farce would spark outrage that would fan the flames of discontent. Just as Rhiane needed the money the crown offered, the crown needed the figurehead that was Rhiane to quell the rising voices screaming that the rich did not care about them. Sir Jin was hoping to give Queen Camilla a taste of the disaster her arrogant son could cause.

"Surely the prince has not departed already?" Sir Jin remarked with faux surprise. "Please, it is clear you are injured. Allow me to assist you in your fiance's absence," he coaxed. Before Rhiane could object the man, who was slightly shorter than her in the elevated footwear, had lifted her into his arms in a traditional 'princess carry.'

The room was now buzzing with whispers, exclamations of shock, and all manner of mixed horror and surprise. Sir Jin himself was not fond of lowering himself by treating the princess elect so respectfully. His good name, however, had not been tarnished. Luke's, and his mother's by extension, was now stained- and all because they had not properly guarded their investment in the veritable den of snakes.
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Sir Jin came face to face with Queen Camilla when he turned to the direction of the nearest exit. If she was at all displeased with the turn of events, it did not show on her face. On the contrary, the queen stood proud and tall in front of the ambassador. Her chin was slightly tilted up as if she was looking down at Sir Jin, who was actually the same height as her in heels. Up close, Sir Jin noticed that what seemed like glitters were actually diamonds sewn into the sheer navy blue fabric of the queen’s dress. It traced the outline of the boat neck and extended to the cape attached at the shoulder of the dress, forming what seemed like an array of dazzling stars that followed the queen wherever she went.

“I thank you for your aid, Ambassador Jin.” The room fell silent when she spoke, even the music slowly faded. The cameras automatically pointed to her direction, anticipating a juicy coverage. The queen held he ambassador’s gaze as she addressed him, pinning him in place. The look in her eyes was a warning issued to the foreigner, a reminder that he was in her kingdom, her home, and his actions were duly noted. “It is indeed unfortunate that my son has left the ball early, but I assure you that his absence is not without reason. My darling Luke, if I may refresh your memory, ambassador, is a pilot and a field officer. I believe he is a Major, but that doesn’t matter. He left urgently upon my request on a special assignment that I have no business discussing with you.”

The advantage of being a ruling monarch was that nobody would be bold enough to tell her that what she was saying was ridiculous. Yet, it was the best that she could do to control the damage inflicted by her son’s foolish little rebellion. Luke was not always brash, he was in fact a careful and calculating person. It surprised the queen that he would act as he did, although since her son found out about how the accident that killed his father happened, their relationship had not been so great.

“Marcel,” she glanced sideways at his nephew. No further instructions or requests was needed. Immediately, the duke’s son stepped forward and plucked Rhiane from Sir Jin’s arms. “Would you take our princess elect to the infirmary. Make sure that she is treated well, and do not leave until she can walk just fine on her own.”

“Yes, your majesty.” Marcel bowed his head briefly before leaving with the princess elect. Cameras followed them towards the exit, so did Princess Cally. Before the double doors were opened for them, the orchestra started playing again as if nothing happened.

“I have always wondered what could have gotten in your heads,” Marcel mused. “You and the other contestants. We all know how this is going to end, and for what? The chance, no matter how brief, to belong to the royal family? After tonight, I don’t suppose you feel welcomed at all.”

“That’s not true,” interrupted a feminine voice. The princess went ahead of them to push the button on the lift, then waited for Marcel to step in before she entered herself. “Allow me to apologize for my brother, Ms. Black. May I call you Rhiane instead? You will find that he is a good person once you get to know him, if you will give him a chance to --”

What Calista was about to say was interrupted as the door of the lift slid open and she found two men in pristine white uniforms waiting for them. In between the two medics was a wheel chair. Marcel carefully placed Rhian down on the wheel chair then let one of the medics push the chair. As if afraid to disobey a direct order from the queen, he stayed beside Rhiane. Cally did the same.

The morning after

Luke was inclined to spend the night with Sophia at one of their estates away from Florence, but a message from Calista telling him to urgently head back to Castello di Firenze made him change his mind. Why wouldn’t he after viewing attachment to the message that showed a recording from the live broadcast covering the scene with Sir Jin and Ms. Rhiane Black?

She did trip after all. Such a clumsy peasant girl.

It was bound to happen. Place a farmer girl in high heels and the chance of her stumbling would be almost a hundred percent. Yet he did not think that her clumsiness would cause him so much trouble. His disappearance could have gone unnoticed if it weren’t for her lack of balance. It was not his first time to sneak out of his mother’s parties, but it was the first time that he got caught.

“What are you thinking about?”

Luke was absently toying with a few strands of wavy dark hair of the woman whose head rested on his bare chest. “Nothing much,” he mumbled. Despite having very little rest the night before, he was not at all sleepy. He was still thinking about the incident involving Sir Jin, and how it must have extremely angered his mother. On one hand, it was a win for him to be able to place the queen in a difficult situation, but on the other hand, the queen herself had every power to make his life miserable. The latter seemed inevitable.

The crown prince got out of bed despite Sophia’s coaxing to stay a bit longer. He bathed and dressed in fitted gray long sleeves, black trousers, then threw on a casual black coat. The summons said 8:00am. It was thirty minutes before the appointed time. He could spend a little more time with Sophia, but the more he stayed in his suite, the more restless he got. Therefore, he left early and went straight to the queen’s private office.
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"I would never be so bold as to enter the contest with the belief I'd belong to the royal family if I was victorious," Rhiane stated as she was wheeled into the infirmary by two immaculately dressed medical staff. Her tone was honeyed as someone well-practiced in conversation both mundane and formal. Clearly she was creating a distance with a humble acceptance that even if she was crowned she would not truly be part of the monarch's family. This made it even more strange that someone so self-aware had even volunteered as a candidate; many of the ladies interviewed during the contest had fantasies of being in the castle that were almost painfully idealized. The farmer was pragmatic.

"Please feel free to call me Rhiane if it pleases you, your highness," she said, turning in her chair to look at Princess Callista as she bowed her head. Had the request been to call her by her nickname, the one used at home by friends and family, she might have objected. Truthfully she was a bit surprised that Cally wanted to be so familiar already.

The princess elect could not truly accept the apology; Luke didn't deserve to have his younger sibling trying to comb over his mistakes. And Rhiane knew that he wouldn't regret his decision even if she had been the weak-willed sobbing mess some of the aristocracy had expected. That Luke wanted nothing to do with her was abundantly clear. Trusting somehow buried below the self-absorbed arrogance was a gem was far too much of a leap for her to make. Cally was by all appearances was a good person. This gentle disposition made her have faith in others that may not be warranted.

Fortunately there was no time for a riveting discussion regarding Luke's misbehavior. Once inside the clinic Rhiane was placed on one medical bed and evaluated by a on-call physician whose only client was the royal family. Her ankle, foot, and leg were closely inspected. Simple movement tests were administered with a battery of questions regarding the circumstances. The more answers the farmer gave the more it became clear that the doctor was skeptical not of the injury but of the actions that led into it. He cast a few glances at his assistants intermittently as they jotted down notes on the responses.

"We'll have to put something on it for support," he determined. "Marcel will return to the ball and advise the queen after you have changed and gone to your room."

"But I..," Rhiane began to interject.

The doctor frowned deeply and stood from the stool he had been seated on. Straightening his tie and putting some of his tools in his pocket he gave her a stern look that always preceded a reprimand. "You will rest. Tomorrow you will walk with the brace but not before. I saw the spectacle and if you waltz back out there now it will only create a bigger one." And it would. Accusations would fly that too much strain was put on the beloved peasant to the point she was willfully being made to dance while in agony. An already damaged muscle would be pushed to a brink that would make it harder to ignore with further activities during the week. He was not thinking as just a physician but as a man who realized the ebb and flow of the courts that must be obeyed with his patients.

"John will administer some steroids that will accelerate the healing process," he explained before the blonde man stepped forward and injected her ankle directly with the medication. Rhiane flinched reflexively but stayed still until the needle was withdrawn. While she was distracted the doctor purposefully drew close enough to whisper to Marcel and Cally together, "I watched her on broadcast. I do not think this was an accident. Please relay that to the queen as well."

After the doctor had excused himself a translucent brace was fitted on Rhiane's ankle. Composed of a wide variety of polymers it was difficult to spot, would keep her upright, and be hard to spot- but was quite expensive. Had she not been a farmer it wouldn't have even been offered as a treatment option. Already the princess elect was starting to truly feel the difference between abject poverty and wealth. She was wheeled back to her room by the uniformed bed, undressed by her maids, and set to rest before any more disaster could strike the engagement party than already had.

----

It was with more staff than she ever wanted in her bedchambers again that Rhiane was bathed and dressed the next morning. Strict guidelines had been given to minimize how much weight she put on her ankle so as to maximize the efficacy of the doctor's prescription and brace. At dawn she had risen (a habit that came from living on a farm for all of her life) and had a stool placed in the shower for her use. From that point she kept migrating from one chair to another- to blow dry and style her hair, to compare dresses to her skin tone, to apply make-up, to slip on the strangle plastic and silicone tube that made her stiffened joint bend less easily.

No one spoke to her for the two hours it took to prepare her for the meeting. Unlike some other attendants most of these were of lesser birth. She couldn't quite decided if they thought her station, as princess elect, was too far above them or if her background, as a farmer, was too far below their own heritage. Likely it was a bit of both. There was some irony of being from world, thrust into another, and belonging to none. Rhiane had prepared for the isolation she knew awaited her but it was chilling nonetheless.

Adorned in a simple pin-striped knee-length skirt, a cream colored designer blouse, and fashionable flats that were mindful of both the limitations of her brace and ankle, her escort arrived at her door. Idly she wondered what the guards, maids, butlers, cooks, and other staff gossiped about when her back was turned. Did they wonder at how she had no personal effects in her room? Or that she had not exchanged a single shred of correspondence with either her father or brother since she had been moved to the castle proper? Did they have theories as to why she had entered to begin with since she was not fawning over her prince fiance as other candidates had? Rhiane did not have any confidants in the castle to entrust with her secrets and so they all stayed buried.

Rhiane Black, Lady Victor of the Contest, Princess Elect, Fiance to Prince Alessandro, and mystery to all. There was an appeal to it. Mysteries would let them believe grander things than the truth they sought.

"Your Grace," the female guard by her side said as she knocked on the door. "Princess Elect Rhiane Black awaits your permission to enter," she announced.
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Palace staff and security paused and stepped aside to give way to their future king as he walked with purpose towards the queen’s office. His strides were long and determined and the staff knew why. There was no need for words, because voicing out their thoughts would most definitely cost them their low born lives. Meaningful glances and the slight raising of brows was enough to acknowledge what everybody in the palace knew but could not admit out loud.

Luke arrived in front of the door made of smoked glass. The seal of the queen was embossed in gold and blue on the glass. He never had the need to knock on that door, but that morning, the prince did. Luke knocked before pressing his palm on a black glass panel embedded on the wall beside the door. It slid open without a sound. Behind the door was a rectangular room large enough to house a family of four. Three adjacent walls were painted a glossy white with subtle gray tint depending on the angle at which the light touched it, while the fourth was made of clear floor to ceiling glass. Sunlight entered the room through the glass, showing the thriving metropolis of New Florence. In the middle of the glass window was Queen Camilla’s very organized desk. Behind the desk was the queen, who was frowning at the feed she was either reading or watching. When she heard somebody enter the room, she lifted her head and placed the device down before tapping the screen a few times. “Leave us,” she ordered her royal guards consisting of four very able soldiers.

“Mother,” Luke greeted as the door closed behind the last guard to exit. With the morning light behind the queen, her face was partially masked by shadow, but her eyes were burning through Luke’s soul. She slowly rose to her feet, then gestured her hand over her device and in an instant a rectangular section of the wall adjacent the door came to life. It played the infamous scene from the Victor’s Ball as covered by a local media company. Luke did not take the bait despite the annoying accent of Ambassador Jin filling the room, but instead stared back at his mother. “I saw the coverage,” he admitted.

“You think you had everything figured out, do you?”

The feed changed to reports of renewed momentum of the rebellion in different regions of the kingdom. The latest of which was reported not an hour ago wherein an estate of a baron was attacked, killing the baroness and her four-year old daughter. Both the treasury and armory of the estate was robbed, meaning more gold to fuel the revolution and more firepower to push the cause further.

Luke was silent. There was no point defending himself. Whether or not the attack was triggered by the events that happened at the Victor’s Ball, the queen had already decided that it was his fault. Arguing otherwise would only enflame her anger.

“More and more sympathizers every day. The movement is growing in number and in power, and do you know why?” She stepped around the desk and slowly walked towards Luke. The queen wore a black wrap dress underneath an embroidered orange jacket. “Because they feel that they are victims in the imbalance of wealth and power in the kingdom. You and I, they see us as the enemy. That we were born to the upper class was wrong for them, because while they waste away in the mines, the farms, the streets, you and I live our lives in unimaginable luxury.”

Luke was looking down at his mother while she stood in front of him. “It was not my fault that the clumsy farm girl was not accustomed to wearing heels. None of this would happen if only she -” The queen stopped him from talking with a backhanded slap that rang aloud across the room. Luke was startled. His eyes were bright, blue, and wildly full of questions when he sought his mother’s own. Strands of his wavy hair strayed on his face, touching his cheekbone that was grazed by a ring that the queen wore that morning. The queen’s hard expression, though, did not change.

Just then a knock was heard, and a voice announced the arrival of Ms. Rhiane Black. The queen ignored the announcement. “It is easier to disown you than to cover for all your idiotic actions, Lucius. You don’t even regret any of it do you?”

He shook his head, gritting his teeth, not trusting himself to open his mouth. The guard knocked again, then repeated the request for permission to enter the room. The queen ignored it again, but that time her face softened. She lifted her hand to cup her son’s cheek – her first born and the love of her life. She used the thumb of her hand to wipe the blood seeping out of the cut skin. The skin around the cut was starting to bruise. “My son,” her smile was bittersweet. Her voice was softer as she continued, “I’m not asking you to love the commoner, just wed her. After you do, I will not ask you to spend your life with her, just father a heir or two. After that you can re-marry into nobility.”

“Just like you did,” he failed to stop his tongue. “Just like how you murdered my father.”

The guard knocked a third time. Luke turned around and pressed his palm against the panel to open the door before the guard was done announcing the presence of her future bride.

The queen withdrew to her desk, not at all happy with the direction their conversation headed to. Luke, his face blank, passed Rhiane a cold look before turning away and walking towards a sofa to the left of the queen. “Follow me,” he instructed.

By the time that the couple was seated, the queen had already composed herself in front of her desk. “Good morning, Ms. Black. I trust that you slept well, last night? Marcel reported that the doctor was thorough in his treatment. I called you two, because of what happened last night.”

Luke sat at one end of the sofa with his eyes on the floor, while Rhiane occupied the other end. “It is not at all believable that you are happy to be with each other. Our people will not buy it. So, in order for this rags to riches sham to work, you will tour the kingdom, and you will show the people that you are in love. Think of it as a fairytale story that will be told to the future generations of the kingdom.”

The love story of a poor farmer who found her prince charming – it was the perfect distraction. Rhiane was the bridge that the monarchy needed to make the common people feel that they are closer to the nobility. Luke thought his mother was a genius in manipulating people.

“Just one more thing,” the queen added. “We cannot afford to have a repeat of what happened last night, therefore I have taken some precaution.” She pushed a button on her table and after a few moments somebody knocked at the door, which she granted permission to enter.
A woman dressed in the white uniform of doctors and nurses stepped in the room. She was carrying with her a rectangular plastic container and a gadget that looked like a scanner.

“Eve, join us.” The queen invited the woman. “As I was saying, we will take precaution to prevent a repeat of last night.” Luke straightened. He hoped the precaution was not what he thought it was. “Explain it to them, Eve.”

“Certainly, your majesty.” The woman looked at Rhiane and Luke, one after the other. “Your highness, Ms. Black,” she started, the picked a metal syringe from the container. She held it up for both Rhiane and Luke to see. “This contains nanotechnology bots that will plant itself on your spine and cause you to feel pain when you are more than 10 meters away from each other. The application process is easy and non-invasi--”

“This is not necessary, mother.” Luke interrupted the doctor. It was exactly what he thought his mother would employ, but it was too much. He did not dream of being stuck with a commoner and a stranger.

“It is, dear,” the queen was firm. “You left me with no choice. Just cooperate and don’t make this more difficult for me and for your lady friend who is sleeping in your room right now.”

If there was any resistance left in Luke, it vanished at the queen’s concealed threat. He sat straight like a behaved little school boy as the doctor deployed the tech at the base of his neck with the use of the syringe. The doctor did the same for Rhiane, but Luke didn’t notice if she protested.

“We are done,” said the doctor clapping her hands. “Only her majesty can disable the devices. So if any of you needs to be away, remember that only the queen can grant the permission.”

“Thank you, Eve,” Queen Camilla said, pleased with herself. “Now would you like to give it a try, Luke?”

“Just a warning, the pain intensifies for both of you as either of you go further away from each other.”

He had high tolerance to pain, from his training in the army. Luke would challenge the devices without being told. He got to his feet and glanced at Rhiane, trying to see if she was at all nervous, or if she had any objections against testing it, before hastily walking away. With every step, he anticipated the pain, but nothing prepared him from the jolt that hit him. It ran from his head down to his spine to his extremities. Pain made it difficult to move. It brought him down to his knees. He fought against it and crawled back to safe radius.

Breathing heavily, and sweating, he pushed himself to his feet. It felt like his strength was drained. He wondered how it was for Rhiane.
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Rhiane had never been involved with the rebellion. It was a question every candidate for the contest was asked and was scrutinized intensely to make certain there was no deception. She had more reasons to join their effort than most, something that was alluded to during a grilling psychological assessment, and while she did lie multiple times to different officials she did not lie about the revolution. Quite simply she had been too busy struggling to survive with the farm to be bothered about social causes. There were always more pressing matters; her father being overtaken by his depression, someone falling ill, changes in weather that affected their crops, her brother's volatile temper exploding, supply shortages, pests on the fields, broken machinery were all issues she had shouldered the responsibility for handling. Perhaps if her mother had not died when she had there would have been opportunity to explore a life full of fulfillment beyond crawling from the edge of bankruptcy. The Black Family Farm, when she left it, was thriving because of her efforts and expertise. That in itself was no small miracle. To have had the energy to join the rebellion would have been nearly physically impossible.

While she did not agree with their methodology she was beginning to empathize with their firmly held beliefs.

As she sat down on the opposite end of the sofa from Luke she mused over what she knew of the royalty. The queen was a force to be reckoned with. Rhiane did not care to pass judgment but she respected the authority that the older woman wielded. Queen Camilla was intelligent, quick-witted, composed, assertive, and exerted control absolutely. What surprised her most was how very aware the monarch was of the court of public opinion and the ripple effects everything had on the masses; many of her peers alleged that the crown was as apathetic as they were oblivious to what they did that incited riots. The princess elect could see this was not the case.

Cally had insisted the night prior that Luke was a 'good person' but Rhiane did not yet agree. In fact, she was relatively certain that he exemplified all the accusations of the downtrodden peasantry. She was not foolish enough to object to the queen's plan of a tour but she doubted in its success. Luke was arrogant, ignorant, irreverent, had contempt for commoners, and was unable to put on a show of feigned bliss for a single evening when cameras were watching the room. To put him in the center of everyone's attention would bring out the worst and might provoke further civil unrest. Right now the kingdom had only the theory of what he was; once they had confirmation that their assumptions were reality the powder keg would be lit. Rhiane could already envision the crown prince staring at them dispassionately as the empire burned.

The princess elect remained silent and attentive as the doctor strode in. Luke had tensed at the medical uniform and rectangular box before interrupting outright during an explanation about nanotechnology being injected into their bodies. To be perfectly fair, she was not thrilled at the prospect- but she could hardly control her fiance. There was no appeal she could make to the queen. No alternative solution that sprung to mind. Given the chance it was undeniable that Luke would distance himself from her as if she were a leper and flock to the other elites he preferred the company of. He didn't even pretend to be repentant.

This engagement would be worse than she had considered. What was worse than the prospect of forced proximity, however, was that the mention of a lady sleeping in Luke's room was what made him comply.

Rhiane had no illusions; she knew what she was getting into when she signed the numerous forms required for contest entry. But humiliation burned deep in her chest and was starting to transform into fledgling despair. Her two surviving family members were estranged from her. Her future husband acted as if he hated her, and the idea of her, so thoroughly he could not run away fast enough. She had not one friend or ally in the palace. On her engagement night she had been filmed being abandoned. Luke cared so deeply for his tryst partner, whom he had slept with during their ball, that he was obedient the second she was threatened, but was apathetic to Rhiane's own pain. As someone of low birth everything would be assumed her fault as guilt was assigned by status. It was increasingly hard to find any hope for joy to cling to as she was flung about.

Quietly she set her jaw to keep her emotions from leaking into her features and accepted the injection without complaint. Because she was in such inner turmoil she could not find her voice. Stoicism was her only protection and comfort. Not that speaking would have been productive; the queen humored Luke because he was her son. The farmer did not expect she'd show such consideration for his lowly consort.

Rhiane did not have the presence of mind to stop Luke from testing the implant. Even if she had, the queen did not suggest so much as she commanded. She imagined it would not have made an ounce of difference. Even bracing for impact the agony was excruciating. When she was younger she had broken her arm and her brother had carried her to the closest doctor because she was sobbing incoherently. The assault to her nerves was not quite as debilitating as that time, or some of the other 'minor' mishaps with farm equipment, but it was one hell of a deterrent. To keep from crying out she had to grit her teeth and clench her fists discreetly as a means to withstand the pain. Genetically she ought to be able to tolerate more as a woman (a gift for the sex that had to go through childbirth) than Luke as a man. She hoped that was the truth. It was only just he endure more.

"I trust in your judgment, your grace," she intoned with a bow of her head. She had to be strong. She had to be resilient. She could not break now that she was the victor of the contest. Her worst fears, ones that no one besides herself knew, had been avoided by this path to marriage. She still had options to avoid the tragedy of her nightmares. She would not lose on the first day.

"When are we to depart on our tour, your eminence?" Rhiane inquired with a slightly hoarse indicative of the torment she had felt as Luke had tested their link.
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Luke had reason to believe that there was no special treatment granted during his time as a cadet in the military, except perhaps his early admittance into the training program. He was just an arrogant and conceited sixteen-year-old boy at that time, who was persistent in pestering his mother into writing the appointed Air Force General to grant her son a special favor by waiving the prescribed age requirement. The year he spent away from the castle and his mother’s wings was the only time in his life when he was not treated as the crown prince, but just another member of the upper class whose desire was to join the military. Common people did not mingle with the members of the nobility and the upper class even in the military service.

Nevertheless, he endured months of rigorous mental and physical training that were meant to make him and the other cadets tough fighters and survivors. And yet his knees buckled from the pain induced by an infinitesimally tiny bot, while his bride to be kept her composure and didn’t even make a sound. Absently, while he traced his steps back to the sofa, his right hand touched the base of his neck where the syringe broke the skin.

“Thank you for understanding, Ms. Black,” the queen acknowledged the princess’ expression of support. Rhiane was wise to try to talk her way into Queen Camilla’s good graces. She was wise in her decision, conscious or not, to not antagonize the queen and instead take her side of the argument. Unfortunately, Rhiane would find neither a friend, nor an ally in the queen. Luke thought she would make a good addition to her mother’s army of flatterers, though.

“The effect of the device will instantly recede once you are again within your radius,” the doctor explained just as Luke flopped to his side of the sofa.

“That would be all, Eve,” the queen dismissed the doctor. Without protest, she bowed and thanked her majesty before exiting the room.

Once there were only the three of them in the room, she regarded Rhiane with a bright smile. “I am pleased with your eagerness, Ms. Black. The preparations are on-going, but I am expecting everything to be in order by tomorrow.”

“Until then, will you disable the leash?” Luke gestured to the air between them. It was unlikely, but it was worth the shot. If she said yes, then he could tie lose ends here and there before he left with Rhiane on a tour that would probably take weeks to complete.

The queen slowly shook her head. “I’m sorry, but this is for the best.” She paced to the glass pane and paused to watch her city of tall buildings and gliding hovercrafts. All of these will one day be Luke’s responsibility – the peace and order, economy, justice, and most of all the happiness of the people which was what keeps the dynasty in power. The queen and the mentors she personally selected raised him to be the kind of person who will be able to take on such a burden. With his understanding of global politics, diplomacy, tactics, and economics, technically he was ready to rule, but it appeared that one vital education was missing and that was humility. Or at least how to fake humility. Her son was honest, just like his father. He was never good at pretending to be somebody he was not, because there was no need to do so – he was the crown prince, everybody adored him. Regrettably, he was not the type of person who would freely associate himself with common people. If only he had Calista’s gift of sociability.

“Besides, today’s activities were already lined up for the two of you starting with brunch at The Briks, but your outfits will not blend with the crowd in that neighborhood,” said the queen. “Yes, Luke, The Briks is not your type of restaurant and we do have better food in the palace. The people need to see you two among them, make them believe that you are willing to step down from your pedestal once in a while,” she added hastily when she noticed her son opening his mouth as if to object. “Go change and wear common clothes. Pretend to be in disguise, but not really. The goal is for paparazzi to circulate a few photos of you. Our staff will make ensure that there will be photos in circulation. Go ahead and get going. I’ll see you both tonight.”

Just treat this as a mission, Luke was telling himself over and over again. The goal was to fool the kingdom into believing that he consented the engagement. He turned to leave without a word, because he knew that no word that came from his mouth that day would ever sway his mother.

“You go and change first,” he told Rhiane, jerking his chin to the direction of her room, once they were outside the office.
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Rhiane repressed a grimace at the prospect of brunch at a restaurant with Luke. For the right individual she was certain he could be fine, if not enjoyable, company. As things stood, however, she could not imagine that he would be anything than sulking and irritable as the implant forced them into uncomfortable proximity. At least the queen would have feigned interest and done her part to act in the grand play that was public image. There was no evidence that Luke knew how, much less had an inclination to do so, and it would take both of them to sell the act. If he were like his sister Cally they would converse affably. If he were his cousin Marcel they could possibly have a pleasant distance of shallow congeniality. That he was neither of these people would mean that she would have be twice as convincing, twice as charming, quite as exuberant in hopes that at least she could convey a seemingly genuine romantic interest in her fiance. The farmer's stomach churned slightly.

"Your grace," she bowed as she stood, following after Luke who did not appear to stop to do the same.

Under Queen Camilla's rule there were problems abound. The poor became more destitute, the nobility flourished, epidemics spread like wildfire amongst poverty-stricken regions, and many working people lost everything when economic tides shifted or there was a poor crop season. Rhiane's own mother and brother had died less because of the disease that ravished than their poverty than as a result of an apathetic government that would not subsidize their treatment. But she would not make an enemy of the queen. To invite her scrutiny or wrath could destroy her life beyond all recognition.

One of her neighbors had accused her of betraying her town by entering the contest. The question was poised why she would do so when she did not support a kingdom that so much discord, so much oppression, that there was an active rebellion. Her response had been pragmatic: no revolution could save them today. Even if it was successful it would be years, perhaps decades, before a new stable system of rule was established. Nations on their borders were likely to take advantage of any chaos to absorb regions torn apart by civil war. Rhiane knew that her father and brother would suffer in this scenario rather than flourish; their very lives would be in danger rather than their livelihood. Attaching herself to the crown gave a rare opportunity to provide for them from afar ensuring that, if nothing else, they could flee to another country if the need arose. Becoming princess elect was a guarantee for change.

"If you insist," she remarked to Luke as he commanded her to change first. Rhiane took a few steps before waiting to be certain that he was following close enough that they would not test the parameters of the 'leash' again.

Truth be told she had slept poorly after the ball (no small part due to her ankle) and was not in a mood to tease or toy with Luke. The former farmer needed sleep, food, and to recover from the blows to her pride before she would be prepared for a verbal spar. Rhiane curled and flexed her fingers to rid herself of tension as she made her way down the hall. There were hundreds of different circumstances they would need to navigate linked as they were that would have been a challenge even if they were the best of friends or intimate lovers. Bathing. Changing. Sleeping. Using the toilet. Nothing about the situation was humorous as someone thrust into it.

"Since we'll need to talk during brunch," she began slowly, "and not look cross with one another, I think it would be wise to come up with topics that we should not broach. Everyone has some subjects that they can not help but express negative emotions towards and if we do that while we are being photographed there is likely to be more punishment from the queen. What are absolute 'no go' topics for you?" Rhiane kept her voice purposefully calm, even, and placid as they rounded the corner to her room.

A maid was waiting outside her door and bowed as the crown prince and princess elect arrived. She was clearly expecting the latter but not the former; she had not been briefed on the nanotechnology as she was a 'mere servant' not deemed worthy of such information. Keeping her gaze down so as to not stare at her future king curiously she greeted them both. "Your highness, Miss Black. I'm here to help you dress for your date," she stated with apprehension.
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“You assume so easily that a conversation between a farmer and a prince is likely to happen.” He watched her from the corner of his eyes, not quite turning his face to look at her, as if she was not worthy of his full attention. “Is there even a subject that you and I both find interest in?” It was the undeniable truth that there existed a vast gap between Luke and Rhiane. It occurred not because of their prejudices, but because of the difference in their standing in society. Luke’s knowledge of agriculture was limited to which crop grew on which region and how much it contributed to the kingdom’s domestic produce. He doubted that Rhiane had any interest in state affairs, pre-war technology, aircrafts, or supermodels. Especially not the latter, though she might as well be one. Therefore, what was there to talk about? Besides, Ms. Black represented the very subject that he would rather not discuss.

The servant ushered the pair inside the princess elect’s suite, where they would find a team of five other maid servants and a stylist forming a perfectly straight line while waiting for them. All of which shared the same surprised expression when the crown prince stepped in the room. It took them two full seconds to recover before bowing and greeting their future king properly. It amazed him why the ladies would need that much manpower to help them dress. His sister Cally also had her own private army of maid servants and stylists. He imagined his mother had more.

Luke didn’t as much as acknowledge the servants, but instead went on ahead and claimed a wingback chair in the living area of Rhian’s one-bedroom suite. “Your highness,” the stylist stuttered while the prince detached the communication band from his wrist. It was made of flexible black glass and was about 2.5 inches wide. He rolled it out and traced a pattern on the surface, which immediately turned the surface into a screen. “I apologize, but you are not supposed to be here. Your change of clothes is in your room.”

The prince waved his hand in dismissal. He was distracting himself from the situation by looking up the menu at The Briks. If only the servant knew how much he wanted to be on his own suite, but of course the queen would have wanted the information about the link to be strictly confidential. He wondered if either the prince consort or his sister knew about it. “Have it brought here,” he ordered, not lifting his eyes from the screen. The dull ache on his cheek reminded him of his mother and the power she had over him.

He let himself be absorbed by the information that was overflowing from the internet and try to not watch the maids dress up Rhiane. The brunch was the first chapter of of the damage control being orchestrated by the queen, where he was supposed to act as if he was interested in the farmer girl. Although he openly disagreed with the methods of his mother, he understood the necessity of establishing somebody from the lowest strata of the society to be part of the ruling class. He also understood how angry his mother would be if he messed up the second chance he was giving them.

It shouldn’t be that hard to fake interest if he were either Philip or Nico, who loved to prank their peers by pretending to be the other twin. Even his cousin Marcel would do just fine. But Luke would not be Luke if he was not being honest with himself. The answer he gave Rhiane was not meant to belittle her, it was just how he felt about their situation. Relationships were supposed to start with a common ground, but the crown prince and the former farmer were standing on different grounds.

He lost count of the minutes until somebody knocked on the door and brought in his change of clothes and a serum that he can apply on the cut and bruise on his cheek. Apparently, his designer clothes would be an easy give away. The servant presented him with a plain white shirt, black hooded jacket, army green utility pants, and combat boots. The Brik was a popular restaurant in a busy industrial neighborhood frequented by the middle class. He would not normally pick that restaurant for a date, but he wouldn’t want his 10-meter leash to turn to 5 meters. And of course there was Sophia who was made vulnerable because of her association with him.

Without getting up on his feet, Luke took off his coat and fitted shirt, not minding the other people in the room. He slipped the soft white shirt over his head then kicked off his shoes. Barefooted, he walked up to Rhiane. “I’ll use your bathroom,” he informed her before he did so to change into the cargo pants and also fix his cheek. The shoes and clothes he changed from was picked-up and tidied by one of the servants so that when he came out of the bathroom in the army green pants and white shirt that accentuated the fruits of his combat training, he only needed to worry about wearing the boots.

Just as he was tucking the pants into his boots, somebody knocked on the door. A servant opened it to a woman in her thirties wearing a gray dress with pencil cut skirt that reached just below her knees. Cradled into her chest was what looked like a folder. She stepped with confidence into the room and regarded both the prince and princess elect with visible enthusiasm.

“Good morning your highness, Ms. Black,” she greeted brightly. “I am Luce Viscomi, your appointed image manager. I am in charge of your highness’ schedule for the day. I see that you have both dressed for your brunch date at The Briks.” Luce checked the screen of the folder-thin computer.

His brow raised in amusement at the mention of having an appointed image manager. His mother was pretty serious about making the public believe the fairy tale love story between a peasant and a prince.

“You have brunch scheduled this morning, your highness. As for Ms. Black, you will need to be back in the castle by five in the afternoon for an exclusive interview that will be aired nationwide.” She turned off the screen. “In between the brunch and your interview will be free time. Your highness, our staff prepared one of your older hovercrafts for use. Let me know when you are both ready to leave.”
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Rhiane was struggling. As they entered the royal suite that had been gifted to her upon her victory her mind had already drifted to admittedly morbid contingency plans if she found being a princess elect to insufferable to endure. Everyone had their limits to what they could tolerate until they broke or took action as a matter of self-preservation. On the farm she had learned each and every one when she was saddled with ever responsibility upon her mother and second-eldest brother's death. While her remaining family had the luxury of falling apart it was her duty to make certain they showered, fed them, cleaned up after them, order groceries, hire temporary workers they could not afford to bring in the harvest, seize control of both household and commercial finances, establish rapport with suppliers, brief herself on trade agreements, arrange funerals, answer calls, send notices, and do everything else humanly possible. One day she had found herself sitting on the floor of the bathroom she had shared with Gerald (her eldest brother) and wept until she fell asleep. It was only then, after she had been driven to her brink for weeks, that either of the men in her life came out of their fog to realize what a boon she had been in their time of need. And even then she did not have time to grieve because the world kept turning mercilessly.

Those days were behind her as she was directed down a new path of wholly different responsibilities. The day in the bathroom, however, as she sobbed and heaved so hard she could barely breathe, played vividly in her forethoughts. Not even she was absolutely certain what toll these new burdens would take on her. Every piece of food she ate would be measured and her weight carefully measured to make certain she only gained if pregnant. Clothing would be selected for her and she would be forced to chose from a limited selection of what was appropriate. Any children she bore would be considered property of the crown rather than little darlings for her to raise. Rhiane's death was inevitable and would be chased with a speedy marriage of her future husband to someone of his social class. Within the courts she would be a social pariah. The farmer was not fooled by the glimmering opulence of royal life. This was a test of stamina both mental and physical.

Were it not for her brother and father she would not be here. She would not have gambled on her life were it not necessary to secure their future. The untimely death of the late Mrs. Black taught Rhiane that their dependence on her meant the moment she slipped away and was interned into the earth they would be lost. It was this knowledge that required drastic action. Idly she wondered if Luke or the queen realized how far she would take this unspoken promise she made. Luke, immovable and apathetic as she was, might even balk at the plots that had been created before she set foot in the capital. For their sake more than her own she hoped they did not see what she was capable of.

Maids undressed Rhiane to her undergarments with her instruction. Other ladies might be bashful about being seen in so little but given that Luke had sexual intercourse with another woman on the night of their engagement ball she neither felt modest nor concerned about his reaction. Were he disgusted by her common birth body perhaps it would be another helping of punishment for his misbehavior and appalling conduct. Without the concealment of a dress, blouse, or skirt it was apparent her life had included labor. Rhiane's arms and legs were slender but muscular and her abdomen had a more pronounced indentation than most that could only be won with exercise.

Initially the servants had sought to dress her in fitted jeans but the brace had proved this an impossibility. They tore through her wardrobe to find another pair that flared slightly from the knee downwards to disguise the medical support. Once she had wiggled into the dark wash bottoms she was given a burgundy T-shirt with a discreet V-neck to compliment her skin tone. Queen Camilla's reference to a disguise that was not meant to actually be completely successful repeated in her mind. Just as before she was also given flats but these were plain black and unadorned with any identifying designer symbols or embellishments.

Her hair was being teased into a ponytail as a denim jacket was slipped over her shoulders when Luce Viscomi entered the room. Patiently she listened to the schedule as an elastic band secured her hairstyle before she discreetly waved away the attendants with a smile.

"I need a few minutes if you do not mind, Ms. Viscomi," she said as she flashed a brilliant smile that she used to charm her way into getting what she needed with the least amount of resistance. Rhiane imagined that the crown prince behind her would be exasperated by this apparent favor. Whether he was eager to eat or to have this charade over and done with she neither knew or cared.

"Of course," the image manager stumbling slightly over her agreement. Clearly this was not the answer she was expecting. Even the maids, who had finished preparing the princess elect for the brunch, were startled and confused. Nothing in Rhiane's features betrayed her intentions as she was a portrait of polite congeniality.

"A few minutes alone with Prince Alessandro," she elaborated with gentle insistence. Before they had a chance to dream of objecting the handsome woman had ushered them out of the door even with a slightly lame leg. It was not until the portal to the hallway was closed that she let out a sigh of mixed relief and annoyance.

"I'm sure you think the common people are stupid," Rhiane began now that they were alone, "but I can tell you from experience they are not so easily fooled. Do you really think if we simply sit there and eat without speaking they will believe, especially after last night, that were madly in love? I can assure they will not. They will interpret the silence as a dismissal and further rejection. I have heard the rallying cries of the rebellion in my town, in cities I have traveled to for business, and it is always that the nobility thinks of them no better than animals. If we hand them validation of that theory on a platter not only will it have consequences in the kingdom but the queen will punish us for the failure."

"I do not care what we discuss. We can spend the time talking about your family, your friends, the people I ought to know, or the interests you hold that I may not. I am only asking what topics we ought not to trod on so that we can make the most of the brunch," she paused here. "Love has always been an impossibility in my life," Rhiane professed with such an unwavering conviction it was clear she did not limit Luke to this certainty but the entirety of humanity, "so I am not trying to ask that of you. Just a conversation of your choice for the photographers. And if that is beyond you, then I will plant myself here and suffer the consequences."

If Luke would not take responsibility (which it seemed clear to her he would not) then it was better to be seen as uncooperative by the queen and disciplined. A failure to perform outside these walls when much more on the line. Unlikely as she was to be personally blamed she knew that she would feel a guilt by association and that was not something she could bear. Not with everything else. Not without the support or comfort of someone- anyone- that actually cared about her and could offer encouragement.
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Ms. Viscomi glanced tentatively at Luke who by then had gotten to his feet and was ready to leave the suite. Having heard the princess elect’s request though, he shrugged and watched Rhiane herd the maid servants and Ms. Viscomi out of her rooms. Herding, he thought with an amused brow, a necessary skill for a farmer.

Luke sat back on his wingback chair and gestured for her to take a seat as well after noticing the slight limp, but Rhiane came down on him with a tirade of words that would rival his mother’s. In a few seconds, the princess elect managed to accuse the crown prince, a person who she just met, of being judgmental and apathetic. Luke was very much tempted to walk out of the room and damn the consequences, not because he was angered by the accusations, but because she was imposing her will onto his. It was usually the other way around. He was the crown prince, the future king, and he always get things done his way (except when his mother uses her authority over him).

Mustering all the patience in his blood, Luke unclenched his jaw, sighed and looked her directly in the eyes. “Take a seat before you hurt yourself again,” he said in a sarcastic tone. “I wonder what made you think that you know so much about me enough to conclude how I see the common people. No, I don’t agree that common people are stupid. Delusional, easily manipulated, and ungrateful maybe, but not at all stupid. The people who will believe this farce are stupid.”

It was a common misconception that the royal family lived a life of luxury using their subject’s hard-earned money, while they themselves did not work a day in their lives. On the contrary, he and other crown prince and princesses before him were raised to strict protocols and rigorous education to ensure that the future leader of the country would be fit for the role. He was exposed to the duties of a monarch at the age 18, when the queen started involving him in state affairs. At present, he was involved in defense and foreign policy, among other things. Did the common people think the kingdom thrives on its own? “I know what the protesters are saying and the cause that the rebellion is fighting for. Do you know how, Ms. Black?” He paused gauging the look on her face. “It’s because I am the crown prince. No information is hidden from me, because it’s my duty to know. So stop lecturing me about my kingdom.”

Arranged marriage and fake romance would not fix the problems of the kingdom. It may derail the momentum of the rebellion, but it would not be enough to stop its popularity. After a few months or years Ms. Black would be identified as a part of the nobility no matter her roots. She would be part of the upper class, the tyrant, those who people call cancer to the society. Their fairy tale love story would no longer matter once the common people woke up from the euphoria following the rags to riches tale of Ms. Black and realized that they were as poor and helpless as when Ms. Black was just a farmer. It was among the reasons he was opposed to the marriage and the tradition of the royal family.

“But if you insist on the topics we should not bring up, for me it will be the subject about Ms. Rhiane Black, my betrothed,” he snapped. Luke was trying to be polite by not voicing his thoughts out loud, but she demanded, and he obliged. More and more the idea of a date was feeling like a bad idea. He was such in a bad mood that morning after the brief meeting with his mother, the link that now bound him to Rhiane, and the distinct possibility that his relationship with the actress Sophia Keller would be on the line. The princess elect, on the other hand, was not so happy with him as well. She was not like the other contestants who were fawning over him.

Luke traced a pattern on the screen of his communication band, which turned the surface back to sleep mode, then snapped it on his wrist. He rose to his full height and slung the jacked over his shoulder. Despite of everything he thought or said, the crown prince was positive that he did not want to further limit his freedom to 5 meters. Therefore, he was firm in his decision to take Rhiane out to brunch and start faking their relationship form there until the time the queen was satisfied with the result. He turned his back on her and headed for the door. Looking over his shoulder as he cracked the door open, he said, “If you have nothing more to say, let’s be on our way.”
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There were many things that Luke could have accused the peasants of the kingdom to be, but maybe ungrateful cut deeper than almost anything that could have left his lips. Rhiane knew then that he did not understand the reality of the life of common folk. The princess elect could not sincerely praise the crown for much other than not being openly at war. As a nation they were not overflowing with social programs that would help the destitute crawl out of their poverty. Once born into the lower class almost all were damned because opportunities for upwards mobility were fleeting and rare. Whether Luke knew it or not, being poor killed. Officially her mother and brother had died to a curable disease because they were 'diagnosed too late,' but reality was the town was purposefully ignored due to its lack of affluence, what few physicians responded were to prevent the epidemic from spreading further, and the cure was not subsidized so that only a handful of families could afford it. Not a day went by when she didn't consider the price they paid for not being born to the correct social tier, and yet Luke honestly thought that she and others like her should be grateful.

Quietly, but with a calm confidence that belied some of her anger, she rose and moved towards the door. Before either of them could step out of it, however, she poked out her head only far enough to be seen by an attendant. "My apologies. Would it be possible to have pain relievers fetched for me? I just need a moment more." Despite herself she flashed a brilliant smile to compel the servant to nod vigorously and sprint away.

Rhiane closed the door before finally moving through the room to a wingback chair and taking a seat. Taking a deep breath she composed herself. Neither anger nor despair should be her companion here. Luke had insulted her pride, her intelligence, her very being with every spoken sentence and so she would give him what he asked for but not in the manner in which he wished it- a victory. Armed only with a sharp tongue and wit she sought to have them regain some semblance of dignity and agency which she was sorely lacking at present.

"I am sure you are right," the sultry beauty admitted crossing her legs and leaning back into the cushions. Body language alone spoke of an intent not to leave as she was making herself comfortable. "The public is easily manipulated, and the farce is stupid, so we will stay here. There is no need to be seen as they will adore you regardless of whatever actions you might take and, if that should falter, you must have the capabilities as future king to personally assure that it will not persist. And since nothing is hidden from you, and you know your kingdom perfectly, there is nothing to be gained from being around them. I am quite surprised that you have not arrested the people in my town that I know to have a rebellion allegiance or association."

There were many nuances of the kingdom that she was not knowledgeable about, but it was laughable that Luke thought he omniscient on the topic. Were their lives not intertwined, or she not sincerely attempting to assist him more than she suspected most could or would, she would not have been quite so incensed. "There is nothing to be gained by going so I will remain here," she added resolutely. And there was not. Only punishment awaited on both ends. Her proferred hand been smacked away even when it was extended earnestly and she had been made to feel as if she were only a burden that was despised by every fiber of his being.

But what truly made Rhiane dangerous was that she was a woman with precious little to lose. Without threatening the livelihood of her estranged father and brother, which would be a one use trump card, there was no else. Rhiane had forfeit her life upon entering and winning the contest. Pain did not scare her, there were no friends with strong emotional ties to be cut, there was no freedom she expected that could be snatched away, she cared not for worldly belongings, she had nearly nothing to be held hostage. Even a gaze around the room confirmed she had not taken a single possession from her home town and kept it. No pictures were framed on the walls. Were it not for a closet bursting full of garments her bedchambers would have looked little different from a guest bedroom in another hall of the castle. That she was a 'ghost' was something that her maids had noticed and feared though they did not know her true intentions for such odd behavior.
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Hidden 2 yrs ago Post by Hashih
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Hashih

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For a second he thought that she was starting to grasp her standing in the situation they were in, that she was finally acceding to what he wanted, only to have the crack of hope shut down on his face.

Luke stared at the closed door a moment longer. He wanted so badly to open it again just for the satisfaction of slamming it shut. If he could retrieve the score cards of the candidates who joined the competition, he would identify the foolish judges who gave this woman high scores then charge them with treason. It was treason to require the future king to marry such a woman. Slowly, he tore his attention from the smooth and polished surface and faced the bride chosen for him, who he found was sitting comfortably on his chair with one long leg crossed over the other like a queen. And like one, she stepped her foot down to make her intention to not leave the room clear.

To say that he was frustrated was an understatement. Luke had never before encountered a creature as obstinate as this woman who, after judging his character, had the nerve to insult his capacities. If all peasants were like her, then he would not be surprised why they persisted in the dirt where they were born. They knew no authority and would act as they so pleased, even with their limited knowledge. Then when all was said and done, they would blame the noblemen for their poverty. It was the logic of the lazy and the failure, because it was more convenient to pass the blame than to own it.

It took him around five long strides to get from the door to his chair which Rhiane was occupying. He cornered her where she sat with his body crouched over her and his hands on the backrest at either side of her head. His eyes studied her stubborn, yet undeniably beautiful features, letting the silence stretch as they quietly challenged one another.

“You’re a bold one, aren’t you, Ms. Black?” He was talking slow and in a very low tone as if telling her a secret. “I can have the suspected rebels, or those you say with association to the rebellion, in your hometown arrested without solid evidence, outside of due process, and against their rights as citizens of New Rome. All I need to say is that I got the information from the princess elect, who volunteered information to show her support to the crown and identified who in her hometown associates themselves with the rebels.” He smiled a cruel smile. “It won’t be hard to give that order. Imagine what will happen to the family you left behind when the sympathizers learned about your betrayal. Your poor, helpless family, who are probably the reason why you are here now.”

Rhiane was unlike most of the candidates for the title princess elect who openly professed their love for Prince Alessandro. It was obvious by the way she looked at him and how she defied him that her motivation was not the prince’s love and affection, which slightly offended Luke though he would not admit. Therefore, her intent may be to win the rewards that came with being Luke’s wife, for her family and not for herself.

Luke sat on his heels before Rhiane, thinking that he had somehow discovered something about his future bride. He would probably do the same if he were in her situation, for Cally’s sake. “But I will stop myself from executing that tempting idea.” He shrugged. Traces of anger and stiffness left his features and he sighed possibly accepting temporary defeat. “If you will come have brunch with me this morning and tomorrow morning, and also the morning after that, for as long as she wants us to. Because this.” He reached for the back of her neck and gently touched the spot where he thought the tech was implanted. “This has the capacity to make both our lives miserable. You may doubt me in everything else but trust me when it comes to my mother.” His goal was to convince her to preserve the limited freedom that they had. “Regardless of how correct my assessment of the situation, the queen will enforce her will so it is better for us to obey for now. If you so wish, then I will pretend to enjoy talking to you on topics not concerning this engagement, or the uprisings, or the queen.”
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Hidden 2 yrs ago Post by Syrenrei
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When Luke closed the space to lean over her with a purposefully imposing stance she was not certain what to expect. The outright threat to the safety of her family, however, was something she had not anticipated. Rhiane's eyes darkened as he crossed a line by suggesting danger to the one thing she cherished so dearly she forfeited her life by entering the contest. Many people said they would risk their life for another but rarely had the courage to do so consciously. Reality was that the vast majority of the population had an instinct for self-preservation that overrode any love they held for another. It was the minority that could sacrifice fully who became firefighters, law enforcement, soldiers, or other public servants- and rarely, apparently, hid in the general population as farmers. For those few moments when his words lingered in the air she was a beast pressed into a corner with cubs to protect.

But surprisingly the crown prince moved back and sat on his heels. Anger faded from his visage as he declined to follow through with his socially nuclear option and instead sought to reason with her as a person. Rhiane's eyebrows rose in surprise as he spoke to her with more respect than all his other utterances combined, touched her gently where the implant had been sunk beneath the skin, and relented in his persistent commands. She knew even before she parted her lips that her own countenance had softened in response to Luke's shift in demeanor. The princess elect did not know why his attitude had so abruptly averted to the side but to be treated like a person was not something she could fail to acknowledge.

"My family, even if we are... estranged," she said with a hint of pain in her voice, "are my top priority. I am loyal to them above all else." There was a pause and a small sigh as she uncrossed her legs before continuing. "Part of why I succeeded in my trials was because I used deception when it was necessary; despicable as it was I lied, albeit successfully, to secure my image and carry me to victory. But I intend to be honest with you. And so I was sincere when I said there was an opportunity open to you that may be unique in the courts. Even if you hate to speak of our engagement it ties me to you. And so my second loyalty, even above the queen, even if you despise me, is you. I have no illusions about what she will do if you fall into enough disfavor. After a certain point I will become irrelevant, unneeded, and dismissed. For these reasons I will always try to do what I truly believe is in your best interest. I doubt you will find anyone else in the nobility that has so much investment and no conflicting agendas for fealty."

A soft rap on the door indicated that the servant had arrived with the previously request pain medication. Rhiane rose from the chair and passed Luke to retrieve the two small capsules. Leaving the door ajar she stepped into the bathroom to fetch a glass of water as she swallowed them down. Proud as she was she was worse for wear. The night had been long, her sleep sorely inadequate, the ache of her ankle a reminder of her embarrassment, and her head throbbed in protest for how long had passed since she last ate. The farmer was used to three timely meals in large portions to sustain herself. It was true the palace was not as taxing as fields but were both ignorant and apathetic to the caloric intake she more regularly indulged while not gaining weight.

"And it was neither my clumsiness or an accident," she whispered as she re-entered the bedchambers where Luke was waiting somewhat impatiently. "Since you seem to think that was the case. I had already left the dance floor when it happened. If I was going to trip over those shoes and fall it would have been when I was moving and there was someone else close by also moving their feet in an intricate pattern. That it happened when I was alone, standing still, and I assure you no one was crowding around me eager to have my company, and only after you had left... you must admit that is suspect. So too is how he raised his voice and asked for you rather than escorting me more discreetly to the edge of the room to find assistance. Not only that he loudly took responsibility. I do not know his angle- I leave those politics to you- but Sir Jin acted with a cunning precision that would make the maximum effect on your departure."

"I'm ready to go," she called out loudly to the servant. Sucking in her breath, and with a concerted effort not to show her weariness, she let herself be led out into the hall. With any luck she'd be allowed to take a short nap in their transport to the restaurant.
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