Hidden 1 mo ago 1 mo ago Post by Hashih
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He was bleeding? Luke felt himself frown at her statement and was inclined to question why the farmer was looking at him the way she did if she only stopped a while to listen. Instead, she had tried to crawl into the space between their seats to fetch an emergency kit and returned with a white box from which she picked a white cylindrical bottle. He let her do as she please although he wanted her to know that he was fine. She might not be, though, because Rhiane looked sick and confused. Her right hand trembled while her left arm was a deadweight hanging from her shoulder. If there was anybody who needed patching up, it was his fiancee and not himself. Then again, the woman did not have any regard for her physical well-being, always putting him and other people’s interest before herself. He wondered if she even noticed that her arm was not working properly. Some days ago, he watched her on the brink of death because of poison then eat a mountain of desserts after just a few hours. Perhaps she would just laugh at him if he pointed out that she was the one who needed medical attention, it was just a broken arm and some bruises after all.

But then, the prince followed her gaze only to discover that she was correct. He was indeed bleeding. A wicked looking shard of glass impaled itself into the flesh of his thigh. For the first time, the warm and wet feeling dribbling down his leg made sense. “It’s fine.” He touched the torn fabric of his pants and his finger came back damp with his blood.

The heir’s lifestyle, his restrictions, and his strict security detail had something to do with several attempted assassinations. Although none had succeeded so far, there were a few that almost did. To say that he was used to it was a lie. He would never get used to the pain, to the sight of torn flesh and muscle, and to the experience of being mortally wounded. But it was not something he boasted about, nor did he feel the need for it to be known by the general public, because every time an attempt was done to take his life, a portion of his freedom was taken away by the queen.

The sound of her broken apology that pulled the crown prince away from his thoughts. Instinctively, or maybe because of curiosity, he sought her face. Luke could have thought of a hundred different ways to tell Rhiane off for her lack of regard for her own safety and how it affected the people around her if it was not for the look on her face. Besides, where was the fun in arguing with a person who had already yielded that it was her fault? “It’s fine,” he repeated. “It looks bad, but really it doesn’t hurt.” For all his honesty and bluntness, he would not admit that it was as bad as it looked, that his chest hurt every time he tried to take in deep breaths, and that his head felt like hell. Maybe he did not want to upset her more, or maybe he did not want to deal with an upset woman. Besides, they were equally at fault.

He unbuckled his seatbelt and twisted his body slightly so he was facing her. The small movement brought a sharp pain on his left side that he unconsciously brought his right hand to his midsection as if the touch could support what he suspected were cracked ribs. His shoulder leaned heavily against the backrest as he pulled himself on the seat. The free hand reached for her soft cheek, gently wiping the tears that had traced a line from her eyes to her chin. “And I never wanted to hurt an innocent animal,” he smiled at her, but the sobbing didn’t falter.

The box was left open at her lap and the antiseptic spray remained grasped by her hand. Luke picked a familiar box out of the first aid kit. “This one will work better than the sutures. It will glue the tissue together and it hurts less. Then you will have to allow me to check what might be wrong with your arm,” he told her in an attempt to take her mind off the guilt that was apparently bothering her. Knowing how headstrong Rhiane was, he thought that if he introduced a task for her to perform then she might forget what she was crying about in the first place. But the tears did not stop. She continued to avoid his eyes and was content to watch the tears fall.

Luke wanted to believe that he held no room for softness in his heart, but watching how his proud and ever so stubborn Rhiane yield to fear pulled something in his heart. The prince sighed, but not without wincing. “This is as much as my fault as it is yours. Come here.” Biting back the pain on his chest and the protest from his thigh, he leaned forward to pull the farmer closer to him. The hand that had wiped the tears from her face went around her, stroking her back as she sobbed on his shoulder. He understood trauma. He understood how fear could break a soul. Above all, he understood that he was partially responsible for what happened, and that his action had yet again placed her in as much danger as he placed himself. Luke remained still as long as she needed him to be. His hand continued to stroke her back to console her, whispering to her over and over that it was not her fault entirely. That they were both going to be alright and she need not be afraid.

But then, the SUV should have had deployed one or more of its safety features. The minimum safety requirements of any vehicle were that it should have an airbag, collision detection, and emergency break system which should have prevented the incident altogether. To think that a vehicle that passed none of the mandated features was assigned to the future king was suspicious in itself. He was reminded of the plot that he and his team discovered before they left the capital – one that involved making Rhiane into a martyr for the rebellion. “The break,” he said softly. “Why did you not step on the break?”
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For all the times that Rhiane had withdrawn from his touch, she did not do so now. There was a fleeting resistance when he tried to brush her cheek and pull her closer, though her expression was that of overwhelming guilt rather than the blush that he had grown to expect, as if she felt herself unworthy of his compassion. In her mind the princess elect only let herself cry on his shoulder because she didn't want him to injure himself further trying to dry her tears. The reality, however, was that she wanted to hold onto him. Even a wounded Luke felt safe and reassuring. Too often people believed that words alone could bring comfort to another in distress. Rhiane knew from experience, however, that a more tactile affirmation was exponentially more effective. It was why even familial relationships became strained over long distances with the passage of time. Humanity was meant to interact with one another beyond simple speech.

And Rhiane was more vulnerable because she liked Luke. She could not realize it and would not admit it to herself, much less aloud, but somewhere in the depths of her heart she liked him. It was not because he was prince, or wealthy, or handsome, but because he had proven himself to be so much more than she had imagined. Luke felt a responsibility to the kingdom that she admired, and even if he was callous and occasionally vindictive, he made decisions carefully rather than in the heat of the moment. He went to sleep late so he could understand issues better rather than rely on advisers, argued with her when it would be simpler to lie to her face, and had moments of mischief when she thought she could see glimpses of his father's love, the person that Luke could have been without a crown, the strength of a half-peasant that he wildly underestimated.

It took several long minutes before Rhiane's sobs began to abate with his diligent efforts. Her right hand clung to the same shoulder her face was buried in while her left arm dangled at her side. He could see her move it, shift it slightly with her shoulder or twitch a finger, and there were no bones protruding, but there was something clearly wrong with the limb. When the vehicle had flipped and rolled during the crash she had kept her hands locked on the steering wheel. The placement of her left arm had put it closer to the door, making it entirely possible she struck it unintentionally on impact, or had damaged it when she was tossed by momentum in that direction. Regardless of the cause she was turned in such a way he could not inspect it without causing alarm.

"I... I did step on the brake," she finally answered. "Nothing happened." She lifted her head to wipe away the tears. Her make-up team had applied mascara that had now bled away and stained his shirt, though there was nothing either of them could do about it now. Rhiane rubbed away some of the black smudges under her eyes and, while she was coherent and mostly soothed, she was visibly not convinced that this wasn't all her fault. Her gaze met his only once before drifting away. She sniffled and took a small bandage out of the box to wipe away the blood on his brow that made it so hard to look upon him without being consumed by regret.

"I knew I would die when I became princess elect," she admitted softly, "I knew I'd have an expiration date. I was okay with that, and I still am. I just didn't think that you could be hurt or killed." It was naive but she clearly understood that now. The panic she had over seeing him harmed was genuine. A normal person would have the opposite reaction; valuing their own life above others. It was exceedingly rare for the reverse to be true as it was with Rhiane. Firefighters regularly demonstrated such conviction, but soldiers and law enforcement did not as often as the world believed, and every nation spent large sums of cash to cover up how quickly the brave could become cowardly when their mortality was on the line. Rhiane might have made an exceptional servant of the community had she a touch more impulse for self-preservation.

"We'll need to rip your pant leg," she said with a gesture. Rhiane could do it herself but given that she was only moving one of her two arms she would give Luke a chance to do it himself it he preferred. There was no chance that the farmer would be remotely precise with her tearing of the fabric. It was better to preserve their clothing as much as possible. When the rescue arrived their attire would be the least of anyone's concerns, but until then they had to contend with the chill of a day approaching night, and the possibility that the cool temperature of the mountains would make them increasingly uncomfortable.

"I don't understand," Rhiane said as she rolled over the spray of the anesthetic in her palm and stared down at it. "I don't understand why all of a sudden they want to kill you." Her voice was so quiet it was barely audible with the calls of nearby birds in trees.

Luke had not revealed to Rhiane that she had been the intended target of the poison. No one had. She was as ignorant as the common peasant to the fact any attempts were being made on her life at all. This had been a strategic decision but made her oblivious to the machinations of the rebellion. For years the queen had obscured the successes of the revolution, of their violence against the heir and throne, of the losses that they had suffered. Queen Camilla and Crown Prince Luke were not to show any weakness. Because of this, however, Rhiane could not appreciate that there were as many casualties as there were, that the reputation she was saving was as poor as it was, and that the stakes were as considerable as they were. Rhiane was approaching her marriage as a PR stunt just as the numerous ones before it; no one had informed her that the stakes were higher than the last generation.
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Hidden 1 mo ago Post by Hashih
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Nolan had been squinting his eyes on the winding road ahead of them, raising his mobile device and using its camera to zoom into the distant road hoping to find a moving vehicle much like the one they were on but to no avail. The speed of the vehicle they were on and the bumpy terrain made it difficult to positively distinguish the image taken. He grabbed at the overhead handrail to steady himself even though he was already strapped to the seat. Tobias, the designated driver, did his best to catch up with vehicle 014, which the prince and princess elect had taken to themselves. But again, it was to no avail.

“Nolan shouldn’t have given him the keys, right Tobias?” The voice of a second passenger spoke from the back seat, echoing the sentiment of Nolan’s conscience.

It was common knowledge among his personal guards that the crown prince loved speed, therefore Nolan was not surprised when the former asked to be given the keys and drive the SUV on his own. The idea sounded harmless when Luke proposed it, but when the SUV roared into life and sped past the other vehicles, he very much regretted indulging the prince. Especially after it seemed to disappear from their view entirely. Tobias was a good driver, but the prince could be reckless, and in his recklessness could have accelerated to a speed that neither of the three gentlemen would consider as safe.

“It’s his royal highness we are talking about, Gino. I dare you to say no to him.” Nolan countered.

Gino shrugged and lounged back where he sat. He checked the device on his wrist, similar to what Luke had always worn. “No, thank you. That royal pain in the ass – I’d rather not.” The two of them chuckled, probably reminiscing a moment in time when they had said no to the crown prince and never heard the end of it. Luke was headstrong and the problem with him was that he always had something to say when the odds was against him. If negotiations failed though, there was always the trick of pulling ranks over them. “No distress signal received. Stop worrying so much.” Gino added, a knowing grin stretching his thin lips. “He might just be taking his time with his future wife. You know, take a short detour and then --” Gino made noises like the sound of kissing, wrapping his arms around himself then making more noises. It made Nolan grunt in distaste, but a sharp curve came about and Tobias neglected the breaks. He kept his foot on the gas and navigated the curve, expertly throwing his passengers off-guard.




It strengthened Luke’s suspicion that there was a malicious act done to the vehicle that was assigned to him. If the brakes were working fine, then the case might be pointing at the manufacturer’s negligence. That the brakes failed to stop the SUV opened the possibility that it was intended to harm its intended passengers, namely himself and Rhiane. Whoever was the target, it damn nearly succeeded.

“There was a time in history when the kings and queens, emperors and empresses, were believed to be divine beings. Someone who were either descendants of gods or appointed by a god to oversee the land. But I am just as human as you are. I get hurt, I bleed, I die.” Although a bit surprised by her touch and the mascara that had bled into her cheeks, he had stilled himself as she proceeded to dab his face with a bandage and watched as she discarded the bloodied piece of fabric. Tentatively, he touched the side of his face and then his brow right where it hurt. The pad of his finger was wet with his blood when he pulled it away from the cut. A laceration could explain why he was feeling dazed and on the edge of unconsciousness earlier, although it was a good thing that it didn’t feel as if it was something more serious than a simple cut.

When she mentioned about his pant leg and started sanitizing her hands using the antiseptic spray, Luke stared back at her defiantly. She was looking at her hands, one of which was evidently having difficulty in moving. He would move to help her fix the injury on his thigh or raise his concern about his left arm, but her innocent musing stopped him. “They never stopped from wanting to kill me. Being the son of my mother comes with a price,” he admitted aloud for the first time, but neglected to state his hunch that he was just the cherry on top that time and that the target might not be him. There was no point in alarming her especially when she had just calmed down. He would tell her and advise her to be more careful sometime in the future, but that moment was not the right time.

Luke slowly bent over, reaching for a latch under the seat. When he found it, he used his other leg to push the passenger seat back so he can stretch his injured leg. The leg room was not enough as he was a tall gentleman, but it helped. “The public doesn’t know much about my personal life and how many times I survived incidents much like this one, because we choose not to broadcast it. Vulnerability is seen as a weakness and a weak ruler is not fit to sit on the throne.” Such was a harsh truth that Rhiane needed to learn. The rebellion, the ambitious noblemen, the foreign powers – all these had at one time dreamed of ending the dynasty by cutting off the succession and bringing forward a new leader that would bend to their will. The queen and his heir would not have it. If not for the dynasty, then for Callista, who would surely not be left alive should the malicious plot succeed.

“If anybody asks, I am driving this SUV and not you, okay? We’ll have to switch places later before the rescue arrives.” The queen would not take lightly the fact that the farmer, regardless of her elevated status, had endangered her son’s life. Rhiane was correct in assuming that she had an expiration date, but such was not dependent on how soon she could produce an heir for Luke, but by how pleased the queen was with her. Therefore, Luke would be determined to take the blame. He was already perceived as a reckless son by his mother anyway.

Without waiting for her to respond, he used both hands to rip the material of his pants apart, enough to expose the laceration and the sharp object still embedded on his flesh. Then, gritting his teeth because it was even more painful to take a deep breath, he wrenched the glass free leaving a two-inch open cut. The depth of the injury was significant enough to inspire blood to pool to the surface. Beads of sweat formed at his brow despite the chill. “Cally is nauseated by the sight and scent of blood. It’s what stopped her from pursuing a career in medicine,” Luke commented as if to distract himself from the sudden bout of dizziness. He borrowed the spray from her and used it on and around the laceration. It was not enough to clear the area of his blood that kept welling out to the surface. “What about you? What was it that you wanted to be when you grew up?” He pulled a bandage from the emergency kit and applied pressure on the cut. With his other hand, he unboxed what looked like a syringe without its needle. It was what he told her to use instead of trying to stitch his skin shut. However, if she’d pick up the needle, injured and all, Luke would most likely want to flee the vehicle.
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"I know you can get hurt," Rhiane replied defensively, though the hard edge she usually had when they argued was gone. "I just... didn't think that you would," she added a little more quietly. There was no reason for a farmer, a faceless servant struggling to not fall prey to destitution, would dwell too long on the health of their royalty. Before she entered the contest he was far beyond her reach. If Luke wasn't plastered on the news, or Queen Camilla broadcasted speaking about changes in policy or law, it was easy to forget about the monarchy. Peasants did not have an impact. The rebellion still struggled to prove to potential members that their revolution could change the country- it was one of the many reasons they were driven to such drastic measures as murdering the nobility and razing their holdings.

"It's different to see it," the farmer admitted as she watched him recline and heard him speak about the strength of the throne. On this topic they had differing ideologies. While she understood the need to not appear weak, as it had been drilled into her even before she was crowed winner of the tournament that made Luke her fiancee, she thought that the crown's approach was flawed. The more they tried to fashion a vision of perfection and the less they were beloved by the population. Everyone wanted to feel that they were understood, that they had things in common, that their rulers hadn't shed the last vestiges of humanity. It was easier to hate Queen Camilla when she refused to show a hint of a flaw. Loathe as she was to admit it, Luke's tarnished image could earn him more admirers if he embraced it, and played to it by showing a 'blemish' of his choosing.

"Why would you take the blame for me?" Rhiane was confused if not a bit sullen. "Besides, you shouldn't move more than necessary," she continued with a gesture towards his leg as he ripped the fabric. "It's fine," she added, more to convince herself than him, though the stains trails of tears had left on her cheek would argue otherwise. "I'll accept the consequences. They could find someone to replace me," the princess elect theorized aloud, "someone who will listen to you better and not argue about talking to farmers."

Rhiane was willing to fall on her sword, though she didn't appreciate the repercussions it would have beyond her own death. No matter how they explained to the public she would still be perceived as a martyr, her name shouted in the streets, her 'murder' a galvanizing event for the coup. Whatever unlucky woman was chosen as her successor- if there was one- was unlikely to be as adept at manipulating others with effortless charisma, was unlikely to be able to stand her ground against Luke's kilometer-wide stubborn streak, as practical about the expectations upon her, as willingly to suffer in silence and smile immediately thereafter. Rhiane had the misconception she was replaceable professionally and personally. Luke had no attachment and she was ignorant of how exceptional her test results were, how it had been far from a tie, and how there were fields in which she so solidly defeated the competition it was impossible to released the actual evaluations.

"I can take over," she told him firmly, pushing his hand away as she took the syringe in her right. To get as close as possible she moved herself over the separation between their seats, placing the rest of the emergency kit on the center counsel, and crouched as best she was able in the space between the dashboard and his legs. With great difficulty she made certain her left arm did not graze the injured thigh that she was about to set work upon. It was cramped, uncomfortable, and Rhiane was certain that she looked ridiculous, but she'd have better control if she wasn't reaching as far.

"Remove the bandage on the count of three. One, two three," she ordered. As soon as he did so she carefully and quickly applied the liquid in the gash. The sight of blood did not bother her in the slightest. She was still pale and not quite herself, but she was so hyper focused on her task that for a moment he disappeared, the car disappeared, the agony shooting through her left shoulder disappeared, and she was as sure and steady as a military medic. Once she was satisfied with her handiwork- which took less than two seconds- she rubbed on the localized anesthetic to numb him to the continuing pain. Ideally she would have applied this first but it was impossible with how heavily he had been bleeding.

"We should use this on your forehead too," she said thoughtfully. "Sebastian told you I loved art, and it's true, but I liked a lot of things when I was in school," Rhiane said with a wistful laugh. "Probably hard to imagine me as the best student in class, isn't it? I wanted to be things I was bad at, even, like a singer. I used to try to hold little concerts for my family and Edwin would smile at me but Gerald couldn't hide that my high notes made him cringe." She leaned over him further, dabbing at his brow as she tried to distract them both with her rambling answer. "But even before Mom fell ill we all figured out we'd probably all be farmers. Our teachers tried to be encouraging but... it just wasn't possible for us to be accountants, or lawyers, or doctors, or engineers."

Rhiane was smart enough she could have gone to university, but Luke might not have considered the strangle-hold poverty had on her and her peers. It did not matter if they had the intelligence or the aptitude; numerous factors worked against them. If their tuition was covered then they could not afford the books, the commute, the daily supplies. If they were just wealthy enough that college could be budgeted, their parents desperately needed them on the fields when harvest came. Their education was poorer and it was harder for even brilliant minds to score well on standardized tests. Collusion existed to keep the middle and higher class children as incoming freshman rather than those of undesirable laborers.

"I'm only going to say this once because you're being nice to me," she said as she took a fresh bandage to clean his brow. "But I like to imagine who you'd be if you weren't a prince. Sometimes it feels like the crown wears you instead of you wearing the crown," Rhiane elaborated casually, "I think everyone likes the Luke that is himself first, and prince second. Stupid, isn't it? " she said with a smile to herself. But it was almost certainly the closest anyone had come to telling Luke that they liked him without title, power, or prestige. Lords and ladies of the court liked Luke because he was the prince, and women flocked to him hoping to attach to his face and wealth, but Rhiane's feelings pierced these attachments. It explained why he hadn't been able to convince her to kiss him; none of his accoutrements appealed to the odd commoner, only the more intangible aspects of his person.
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“I can manage.” He fought for the control of the medical equipment, because he really could manage to fix himself. A mandatory training at the Royal Airforce included emergency response and more importantly, first aid. It was a course where recruits as well as commanding officers were taught about the emergency kit, its contents, and how to use each. Every year was the same, except for the section that discussed the latest development in the medical field. As such, he believed himself capable with what to do and how best to treat the laceration. The problem was that he was putting pressure on the injury using his right hand, while struggling with unboxing the syringe using his left hand. “Fine,” the prince grumbled under his breath.

As she strained her body to reach her target from the driver’s seat, Luke wished that he was ambidextrous. If he was, he would not have allowed her to administer the treatment that he knew he could do by himself. Out of pride, perhaps and not out of pity. Or the other way around. Because while Rhiane earned no laceration or deep cuts from the accident, it was apparent that she was hurting. A person who was just fine would not find it difficult to crouch, lean, o sit on the console to reach the bleeding mess that was his thigh. That Rhiane had shown struggle and unnatural motion as she carefully looked for the best position told him that she was in more pain than she let out.

He listened to her instructions and followed her lead. Afterwards, he watched her act on instinct without fear or hesitation. The precision which she applied the solution was commendable. She might be a farmer, but she had the steadiness of a surgeon. If she wanted, perhaps she could follow that career and he would support her if only to make herself busy after the buzz about the coming royal wedding was over.

The lips that always had a spiteful comment ready was at a loss for words. He knew that he could have done it himself and that he didn’t need her, but as he felt Rhiane’s gentle touch as she was applying the topical anesthetic, there was a weird and unwelcome feeling about something he could not tell. Maybe it was because even though he had everything he could ever need in life, Luke was so used to being on his own, in not depending on anybody, or not trusting even his bodyguards. Then there was this nameless farmer girl who refused the riches he offered but argued freely with him rather than concur that his ideas are brilliant. A girl who had stared death in the face only to rise-up and eat the unhealthiest heap of sugary treats he had ever seen all his life. A peasant who had nothing to gain from enduring her own discomfort and pain if only to make sure that his injuries were given first aid.

Luke was smiling unknowingly when she told him that the cut on his forehead should be treated the same way. With a nod, he leaned back and closed his eyes, listening to her voice as she narrated the bittersweet reality of her life. “Why did you stop?” He could not understand. The Ministry of Higher Education was established to uphold the rights of the citizens to free education. As such, people of Rhiane’s economic standing should have gotten to a university for free. “Why was it not possible for you to be an accountant or a lawyer or a doctor or an engineer? Did you even take the exam? Year on year, the royal treasury allocates a budget for free education, especially to those who are deserving.” He cracked an eye open. “You are an intelligent woman who could have been a good lawyer, because your arguments know no end.”

But then if she was a lawyer, would the queen choose her as his betrothed? Would she be leaning her face so close to his own, dabbing fresh bandage around the cut on his forehead, careful not to allow infection to worsen it? Perhaps if she had been a lawyer then she would have seen him in a different light, argued against ideas on an intellectual level if only to satiate her thirst for a good debate, and neither jumped off a cliff nor drove like the devil.

Luke pulled himself up so she was forced to retreat to the driver’s seat with the bloodied gauze on one hand. He plucked what looked like an adhesive strip bandage to him then peeled the adhesive off the paper. “What is likable about this Luke?” he asked as he carefully twisted the remains of the rearview mirror so that he could see part of his face. Brushing back brown hair from his forehead, he applied the adhesive bandage on the cut. “If I was not born a prince, then I would still join the military. I once dreamt of being an air force pilot because I wanted to fly and see the world. The palace had very strict rules and I was not allowed to see the city outside its walls whenever I wanted to. There had to be an occasion, a reason to leave the palace, but whenever I was allowed outside there was under the condition that I had to follow the rules.”

It was his turn to play the doctor. Luke reached for the arm that hang limp from her shoulder. “Come closer,” he commanded, because it hurt to twist his body further, but he needed to see if there was any bluish discoloration on her skin that might indicate a broken bone or an odd angle that shouldn’t have been there. He started to carefully roll up her sleeve. “My father told me that I could be a pilot,” the prince continued in an attempt to distract the woman. “That I could be anything I put his mind into, because I am special. But as I grew up, as I understood my place in this world, I realized that my dream of living a normal life of a free man outside the palace will not happen. I am my mother’s son.” He looked at her in the eye. The words that followed need not be told. She was smart enough to understand what he was arriving at, that he was nothing if he was not the crown prince.

An awkward pause followed as they stared at each other, trying to read each other’s mind. They were worlds apart – him and her. She worked the land while he ruled it. There should have been oceans of differences between them, but when one looked closer, Luke and Rhiane were more alike than they would admit.

“Does it hurt if I --” he carefully raised her arm a little, breaking the silence. Then he touched her shoulder, feeling the bones for any abnormality.
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Rhiane was surprised that Luke didn't fully realize all the barriers there were for the poor to get out of the vicious cycle of poverty. She didn't expect him to fully appreciate the struggle, given his wealth and privilege, any more than she could fully understand the hardships he might have endured as an heir to the throne; still, his questions indicated an unexpected gap in knowledge. Unless he was toying with her, he truly had no notion why a woman like herself had not at least ascended to the lower middle class if not higher. She couldn't claim there hadn't been any opportunity whatsoever. There had been a couple marriage inquiries in the months immediately preceding her entry into the royal contest that would have elevated her slightly if she sacrificed her farm to her future husband. It was embarrassing to admit this to Luke. No one wanted to boast their best prospects were a couple men looking to wed in order to usurp their property.

A familiar flush rose to her cheeks at his compliment to her intelligence. It was hard to hide how flattered she was when she was inches from his face though she tried; she didn't want him to have the sudden epiphany that his compliments made her inwardly swoon like a schoolgirl. Not many people praised Rhiane since she had come to the capitol, and Luke had been one of her most emphatic critics. To hear an object of her fledgling affection manage to say something nice almost fed her a false hope. "It took both Mom and Dad to manage the farm," she said after struggling for a moment to find words. Her face was still a rosy pink. "Gerald was going to take over for Dad and Edwin was going to take over for Mom, so they wanted me to sit for the exam. But then Mom died, then Edwin, and I knew if I left then Dad and Gerald wouldn't be able to manage on their own."

She shrugged as if recalling this did not bother her, but she was not as unaffected as she pretended. "It's not enough to be smart. You need teachers that can help you pass, and the best educators want to work in the cities where they can mentor students that will become tomorrow's leaders. If your teachers aren't as experienced or helpful you have to study on your own, if you can find time when you're not having to help out at home, or hire a tutor, which most can't afford if they can find them. Everyone knows admissions favors who would make better alumni- lords and ladies, sons of corporate executives, daughters of actresses. And then even if you can manage to beat all those odds you have to figure out how you'll manage to move, to commute, to budget food and supplies," Rhiane said shaking her head. "Some people make it, and I guess I could have, but I couldn't leave Dad and Gerald behind like that. At least this way I know they'll be taken care of," she added with a more forced smile.

It was all foolish pondering to her now. She had forever tied herself to the bias for, and prejudice against, the title of Princess Elect. In the unlikely event that she was dismissed, the position she held would not be so quickly forgotten regardless of the effort involved by the aristocracy. Rhiane would be seen as the woman that was almost queen to the common folk or, if Luke did take her as his wife, the queen of low birth. No longer could she be a farmer, an accountant, a lawyer, or a doctor without every move she made scrutinized and politicized. As far as she was concerned being a royal fiancee was her career.

"Yes, I am sure that being a pilot in the military would help you avoid strict rules," Rhiane couldn't help but mutter dryly as he applied the bandage. He was a bird caught in a cage, though she didn't think the armed forces were her idea of freedom. A commercial pilot had less glorious work but wouldn't have commanding officers barking orders and screaming obscenities when they caught a whiff of insubordination, real or imagined. She wouldn't have lasted long in the military personally. Rhiane was athletic enough to have done relatively well but she would have found it impossible not to lose her temper under such rigid conditions- ones she considered infinitely worse than her current situation.

There was a prolonged pause as Rhiane hesitated to come closer to him. Her rampant distrust of the medical field (despite her proficiency with its application) was well documented. Bribery, ultimatums, and coercion were typically applied to get her to oblige even the most inane of requests. She stared at him nervously, anxious about letting anyone inspect the battered limb, but finally reluctantly moved back to being half on the center console so that he was not forced to reach. It was the most trust she had shown anyone when unwell and was a monumental leap of faith. Because he was being gentle and congenial she was willing to let him assess the damage though it made her extremely uneasy. Rhiane would have much rather irrationally ignored the pain and tried to convince herself it did not exist.

She winced as he rolled up her sleeve and discovered multiple dark bruises from the middle of her forearm to a few inches below her shoulder, with the largest over her elbows. There were no protruding bones, no sharp curves that ought not to have been there, but a casual inspection indicated that she had fractured her arm. The rolling of the car may have slammed her joint into the door, twisted it a way it ought not to, or been crushed between her body and the steering wheel. It was impossible to tell without an X-Ray confirmation. "Wait- " she panicked as he raised her arm. He felt her jerk slightly under his grasp as she bit down so hard on her lip to avoid crying out in pain she made it bleed. Rhiane found the pain excruciating but she didn't want to appear weak or helpless, not in front of anyone, least of all him.

"It's just.. a little tender," she lied. From the way she spoke it sounded as if she was not trying to deceive him but rather persuade herself. "I'm fine," she protested as she withdrew her arm and very carefully let it drop to her side. From the grimace she made it was evident Rhiane was in agony unless she managed to keep the appendage perfectly still. "You're your mother's son, but you're your father's son too," she added in a subdued tone, trying to distract herself from the injury and simultaneously not offend her companion. "I don't think your father was wrong. You are special because you can decide what kind of king you want to be- you can rule like your mom, or you can travel more, and pilot your own aircraft, and make jokes about movies I've never seen before, and be more of what you want. If anyone could..."

She stopped herself, realizing she was saying too much, presuming too much, and sounding like a lovesick puppy giving some horrible combination of a pep talk and a confession. Clearing her throat she gazed out the window. It had begun to rain and it would not be long before the droplets made their way through the overhanging branches, onto the broken windshield, and into their vehicle. This ought to have dissuaded her from doing something as foolish as offering to venture outside, but that's exactly what she did. It was preferable to remaining in the car for the imminent rejection, roll of eyes, or argument about how she was a naive peasant that didn't know anything about how to govern. "You can't walk, so I'll climb up the ridge back to the road. Maybe I can wave someone down to come help," she reasoned aloud as she turned to move towards the largely intact driver's door.
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“Liar,” he scowled, but without real conviction. “It’s more than just a little tender and you’re certainly not fine.” It must have hurt when she yanked the arm away, because her face failed to hide how it really felt. The bruises that discolored her skin which otherwise resembled that of a smooth caramel could not be fine. It could be a sign that she had fractured a bone or worse. But her attitude was not something that surprised him. In fact, he kind of expected her to belittle the severity of her condition and brush off all of his concerns.

The box of first aid supplies sat alone on the console. There should be a sling or something he could use as a splint. It was difficult to tell without an x-ray reading which part was fractured, but it also was also not helpful to leave it alone. “I don’t want to be king. The Air Force is just fine and the rules are tolerable. Besides, there’s a vast difference in flying just an aircraft compared to flying a fighter jet.” He avoided her gaze and instead took the emergency kit and placed it on his lap. In addition to the antiseptic spray and bandages, there were painkillers and a drug that he identified as a sedative. He took one of each and placed it in his chest pocket. A neatly folded piece of cloth at the bottom of the box was perhaps the sling he was looking for.

Up above them and beyond the canopy of leaves, lightning streaked the sky followed by the rumbling roar of thunder. Luke followed her gaze out the window. The woods had dimmed significantly, and the crisp autumn air had somehow shifted. Nature and its nuances were not his cup of tea, but he had experienced enough thunderstorm in his life to sense that there was something different in the air when the sky was about to pour its wrath onto the earth. He opened his mouth to explain what he had planned to do with her arm, but she beat him into speaking first.

Luke frowned at her bold declaration. A simple and direct ‘NO’ lingered at the tip of his tongue, ready to fire away, but then he was reminded of how she reacted to such a word – how defiant she would most likely be if he said the word out loud and then summarize the reasons why she should not embark on a trekking trip at the side of a mountain on a day when it appeared as if a thunderstorm would ensue. He let his hand find hers, stopping her before she found the latch on the door. “It’s about to rain.” Or maybe it already was raining. “And you’re hurt. You’re not supposed to move that arm, but it can’t be helped once you try to climb the slope. The soil is damp, slippery, even muddy.” She would need both her hands to navigate the woods and find the road, something that she was not capable of that afternoon. It was not that he worried that she would hurt herself further, it was that he did not want to be looking for her out in the rain if she went missing.

He raised his left hand, the same that was holding her good hand. His communication band peeked from the cuffs of his sleeve. “Freya,” he called out. Waited. But there was no response, except for a droplet that hit his cheek. Luke let go of his fiancee’s hand then shook his wrist. Sometimes the AI did experience lag in between commands. So, he repeated the name, but again he was answered by silence. Frowning, the prince pushed the sleeve of his left arm up to his elbow and inspected the device. Sometime ago, he had reminded himself that he needed to charge the thing, but then he got busy and Sophia dropped by, so he basically forgot. Even the back-up supply was already used up.

“Rescue is on its way,” Luke lied confidently. “No need to wave for help.” As if on cue, raindrops shot through the canopy above like thousands of tiny missiles assaulting the SUV. Fortunately for them, the roof of the vehicle was intact, however the windshield was not. Splatters from the outside and the rain from above trespassed the passenger’s and driver’s seat. At the rate that rain was falling, they would both be drenched in no time. The backseat was intact though, and the door beside Rhiane seemed to work fine unlike the passenger door which was sealed shut by a dead tree trunk. Although even without it, Luke doubted if it could still be opened after the battering it received. They could both exit through the driver’s door or crawl from the center console. Both options were challenging for him, but he thought it might be easier if they exit through the door.

“Let’s move to the back. It should be more comfortable back there. Then please let me do something about that arm. Nothing invasive.” He held up the piece of cloth and bandages. “Just something to help you keep it still.”
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Had Luke not been clever enough to reach for her hand and clasp it in his he may not have prevented her from throwing open the door and departing on her ill-conceived quest. It wasn't that she necessarily disagreed with his logic. Rhiane was aware, despite her protests to the contrary, her arm was sufficiently disabled that scaling rough terrain would be an almost insurmountable challenge in ideal weather. She didn't know how to cope with the intense emotional the collision had evoked: the overwhelming shame, the horror as they were flung through the air, and the anxiety that came with being so open and candid with someone for who she was trying desperately to remain unattached. If pressed she could count on a few fingers the time she had run from anything, and yet this had managed to manifest all of her nightmares in the span of less than ten minutes.

As he released her hand to shake the bracelet embedded with his assistant AI she turned her attention back out the window. Her mind drifted freely from the confines of their vehicle. The princess elect wondered if she would ever see what sort of king Luke would eventually make. Queen Camilla was in no rush to abdicate the throne to her reluctant son and was, as well as anyone could discern, still in good health. There was no frailty of body or mind that the rebellion had spotted to incorporate into their propaganda. It was entirely possible she'd wait until Rhiane was no longer a part of the equation before she'd allow succession to happen. Just because she followed the tradition of choosing a bride for her heir did not mean she would be willing to see that peasant rise above the title of princess. It was the best way to ensure that she, as the interloper, never seized more power than absolutely necessary. Rhiane found herself more disappointed she wouldn't see the stubborn, cocky, wishful pilot ascend than she would have thought.

Rhiane was jerked back to reality when Luke proclaimed rescue was on its way. She was slightly suspicious, as she hadn't heard any other voices while she was lost in reverie, but she admittedly hadn't been paying much attention. Rain had begun to fall in more earnest. It splattered off the hood as other droplets began to fall from the edges of broken glass. Rhiane wasn't particularly panicked about it just yet; she didn't have any open wound so getting wet wouldn't worsen her condition unless she sat it in for a prolonged period of time. Even then she was unlikely to catch a cold until night fell and the temperature dropped.

"The back?" she echoed. After several seconds of consideration she shook her head in a subdued refusal. "I'll open the doors for you so you can get in the back, but you'll be more comfortable if you lay down back there. I'll just be in the way." It was a baffling stance for her to voice until one took into account how she little she considered herself in equations with others. Rhiane would much prefer to 'suffer in silence' as he called it if it spared the person(s) she cared about an ounce of displeasure. Just as he was undoubtedly about to launch his argument she leaned to the side and opened the driver's side door with her good hand. It groaned in protest, sticking at first, but she had enough upper body strength to force the damaged hinges. Even before Luke moved she was opening the back door to expedite his trip.

It had not yet begun to pour but Rhiane's hair and shoulders rapidly becoming damp. "You rest better by yourself," she pointed out, referring to his preference to having his own space in their suite, and how their sleeping arrangement kept them on opposite sides of the bed in the past if forced to share. Though she did not say it aloud, this was her acknowledgment of the perception he didn't particularly want to be touching and in close proximity to the farmer if it could be helped. "And since this is all my fault..." she called out as the drizzle intensified to a more rapid rainfall that pelted leaves, branches, and underbrush. Luke wasn't trying to punish her for her mistake, but that didn't mean that she didn't feel a need to punish herself.

But it was not beyond Luke's capabilities to out-maneuver her. She had shown reluctance to pull away when he held her hand; some of this was because she didn't want him to hurt himself further trying to keep hold, and some of this was because she was bashfully attached to the implied affection when he wasn't going out of his way to remind her he thought of her as a contract. Were he to take her hand and try to lead her into the back seat she would follow, if only because she was so tortured about the possibility she could cause him further pain.

Given her lack of response to the sling, he could presume she was less than thrilled at the prospect of any treatment being administered- and was hoping that if she ignored his request it might just fade away.
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The crown prince that the kingdom learned to both love and hate was not usually described as a kind man. He was a very passionate debater, an intelligent speaker, a shrewd businessman, a dedicated soldier, and a certified player. Those who had the pleasure of working with him would have described him as a stubborn opinionated elitist. But very few would actually say that he was a nice man. Luke could attest to that, because in truth, it was very tiring to be nice to people. It was very tiring to be nice to a person who seemed to challenge his resolve by displaying, either purposefully or naturally, the trait that he so despised in a person.

His brows furrowed into a frown and he was about to ask her whether she would feel better if he treated her like the peasant that she was instead of trying to take her as his equal when she leaned away from him and forced the door open. Raindrops spattered all around the mountain, sparing not the wrecked SUV. It tapped on the remains of the broken windshield and trespassed the vehicle through the gaps. He watched her pull herself out then opened the backdoor for him. Like one of his servants, he thought.

Shaking his head, he started the painful maneuver from the passenger seat to the next. She might notice that his left hand cradled his midsection while he labored to move from one seat to the other. Much as he would have wanted to hurry into the backseat and save her from being drenched by standing in the open, the prince paused for a second at the driver’s seat to catch his breath and pull the latch underneath the passenger’s seat so that it was as close to the dashboard as possible.

By the time he had made it outside, the droplets that drummed his shoulders were more pronounced. He used the body of the vehicle as his crutch and limped his way to the backseat. Good thing it had leather covers, else the two of them would be miserably wet and cold. But as he allowed himself to crash inside, Luke clutched the side of his shirt where he feared might have sustained fractured bones. He struggled with gravity as he grunted and pulled himself into a sitting position behind the seat that he previously occupied, his legs stretched out as far as it could. It was so Rhiane could join him if she so decided. However, it was not as if he was about to give her a choice.

Luke leaned his head against the slivered glass pane with his eyes tightly shut and his jaw clenched. He angled his body so that he was partially facing her. His right hand clutched his side as his chest rose and fell in quick but shallow breaths. “I -- can’t breathe.” Changing the angle, the prince allowed his back to fall flat against the backrest. He was not asking for help, but was offering the opportunity for her to do an act of kindness.

Acting was not so difficult when half the work had been completed for him by the very unfortunate circumstance that they were in. It was true that his side hurt, and it was true that the injury had made it difficult to laugh or take a deep breath. All he needed to do was add a little more emotion, just a few more creases in between his brows and strain in his voice. It was true that he had no talent in acting, but some things came naturally when the need arise. He could not count on her to stay inside the vehicle and wait for rescue. When she got tired of waiting, she might insist on braving the thunderstorm, forcing her legs to carry her as far as the implants would allow, and hoping that she would reach the road and that somebody would pass by to help them. Unfortunately for her, Luke would not allow it.

It was for his own good, he thought, that she should stay near and not do more harm to herself. Because if she did get hurt while outside, then he would be forced to look for her while he was struggling with pain himself.
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Rhiane's resolve and commitment to punishing herself crumpled when, after Luke slowly and painfully made his way into the back seat, he clutched his side and declared he couldn't breathe. She had already been watching him with concern as he struggled to shift across the center console, to manipulate the passenger seat forward, and to stand without assistance when he had exited and re-entered the vehicle. Sitting side by side earlier she had wrongfully assumed that he had been reluctant to move because of the gash on his leg. Now that she observed him more closely her guilt only intensified. Luke refused to acknowledge it aloud, but he was much more injured than she was. While she did have some compromised mobility, he was clearly in suffering more than she could possibly be with her singular acute ailment, and being just as stubborn about letting it show. Rhiane hadn't dared offer her help. Not only would he have rejected it, she didn't deserve his reassurance and consideration a second time, not after her negligence had careened them towards this situation.

As terrible as she felt, however, she was a creature of compassion. Luke had witnessed or heard about this multiple times. Rhiane was careful to put on her best face forward and not show her vulnerability with anyone except her fiance, but she had already become well-known in the castle for her empathy. The aristocracy did not expect much from her and yet she had given every noble she met a compliment. She was polite with her attendants more than was necessary or encouraged, treating them with overflowing warmth, kindness, and congeniality, failing to heed any warnings or advice about the breach of protocol. Every little mundane task earned an affirmation of gratitude. The first day of their trip abroad she had gifted a hat to a very flustered and confused assistant that had been admiring the accessory. She had famously had eaten a meal with her staff. Anyone who doubted her earnest benevolence on broadcast was real had been shocked to discover its sincerity in person.

Ostensibly it was this overwhelming compassion that had made her such a suitable match for Luke. It was a trait that objective evaluation found the public thought the royal family was lacking- both in personality and action- and that would be the virtue most beneficial to improving their image. Someone like Rhiane would also be more willing to make sacrifices for her future husband and king than if she was more selfish, cold, or calculated. This might not matter terribly much to Luke, but it did matter to his mother, who valued the princess elect only in what she could do for her son.

Ordinarily she was not easily fooled nor was she a proverbial doormat. The best example of this was her estrangement with her father and brother Gerald. Queen Camilla monitored correspondence, or its lack thereof, between Rhiane and the outside world. Rhiane had alluded to an estrangement with her family in private, but the IT team had been quietly surprised at the lack of contact. Neither party had written, called, or even attempted. Rhiane had taken one call from Sebastian and made one to him, a brief call to let him know presents were en route, but otherwise there had been silence. Despite all her smiles at the engagement ball she was not ignorant to the insults behind her back, the criticism, or the uphill battle she'd have in forging a small whisper of a friendship. She could read people and establish boundaries.

Here and now with Luke, however, her weaknesses had been exploited. She was slightly panicked at Luke's health. She was overwrought with shame. She was frustratingly flustered when he had shown some tenderness. If there was ever a time she was not suspicious about ulterior motives it had been that moment when he expressed distress.

In the span of a few minutes her upper torso was drenched. She closed the driver's side door, which again groaned its protest, before clamboring in next to Luke and awkwardly shutting the back seat door. Her hair was dripping wet but her clothes were in varying stages of damp or dry. The blouse she was wearing was immodestly clinging to her arms, shoulders, and back, with shadows of her undergarment showing through, but her trousers had been mostly spared between her waist and knees. It was an almost comical comparison to Luke who had been mostly spared- he had not been foolishly standing in the rainfall for nearly as long as she had while she was waiting on him to navigate his relocation.

"What can I do?" she asked as she drew closer but refrained from touching. He could see a flash of hesitance, though it was hard to wager what caused the pause- fear for his condition or the persistent fear of what could be construed as an affectionate gesture. "Is there anywhere you think you're bleeding?" she asked, trying not to be hysterical over the possibility there was a punctured lung or an abrasion she had missed. Gingerly she reached for the hem of his shirt, as if to lift it where he was favoring, if only to determine the cause, though a red flush had started to creep up on her visage once more.
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Luke was amazed at how well his impromptu production turned out to be. That it melted Rhiane’s resolve to either trek back up to the highway or leave the backseat for Luke to occupy alone, said multitudes about his hidden acting skills. Although he rather not count it as acting, because more than half of it was real. The mid part of his ribcage would shoot a sharp pain whenever he breathed deeply, twisted his torso, or made large movements using his arms. Maneuvering his body out of the SUV and struggling to get back in strained the damaged bones as well as the muscles surrounding it. All he did was exaggerate it a little for her. Yet he acknowledged that the ruse worked not only because of his surprisingly convincing act, but also because of the soft-hearted woman whose hand lingered not a centimeter from his skin.

What the maidservants and the crew said about Rhiane was true, that she was a person overflowing with kindness, that she would not leave a person who was in need to fight his battles alone. When he learned how she had invited her maidservants to have lunch with her in Luke’s residence, the prince was peeved. The maidservants were not meant to share the same table with a member of the noble houses. They were the privileged few lowborn people who had passed a strict screening process which qualified them for a job in the palace. Regardless, he thought it was absurd that she would eat with those people. Just as it was absurd to try and look after him when her condition was as bad as his. That morning, he was the benefactor of Rhiane’s gentle heart, he appreciated that she chose to stay. Not many would do the same, and most would perhaps find their own comfort before considering to help the one in need.

Therefore, Luke remained still as her knuckle accidentally grazed the skin of his abdomen while she carefully lifted his shirt to inspect the damage. Not a single word left his lips even as thr chilly air assaulted his skin. Rhiane would have noted that his breathing was shallow. The discoloration of his skin at the left side of his body was due to multiple bruises sustained not an hour ago, but there was no open cut or lesion of any kind. The bruises, though, stood out against the smooth fair skin of the royal. A concealer could hide the bruises, but it would not take the pain away.

If she would try to touch the area though, he would bite back the wince or cry of pain, but he could not hide the agony from his fiancee. “Painkiller, please,” was his strained utterance. She could find the pills inside the emergency kit, although there was also a two-in-one pill which combined a sedative and a painkiller. He hoped that she would retrieve that one, because while he was exaggerating the experience, it really was painful and difficult to move around and breathe.

He kept his eyes shut and his arms limp at his side. Although, ever so often he would crack an eye to see what she was doing or if she had not yet ran away. Fortunately, she had not. As for Luke, he did not plan to move a muscle on his body for these transactions. It was part of his plan for her. So, he waited.
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Rhiane had already been anxious about what she would see underneath his expensive designer shirt, but she had notably paled when she saw the dark splattering of bruises that had blossomed along his rib cage. For a second she looked and felt as if she might cry a second time. She might have made a fine nurse. The princess elect had a robust sense of empathy, knew how to talk to people from all walks of life, established a rapport easily with everyone except the most hostile of individuals, was intelligent, and not at all squeamish. With Luke as her patient, however, she couldn't keep up a veil of professional distance and courtesy. She knew the vehicular accident was her fault, that it had caused these injuries, and that she was the proximate cause of harm to someone she secretly held dear.

Carefully she reached out and pressed her cool, damp palm against the mottled skin. Her touch was gentle but she could tell it drew a great deal of pain. Rhiane could not feed any protrusions under the flesh but there was certainly something amiss. Were she to press down with her fingers she could do a more thorough evaluation, but she didn't have the fortitude to torture her fiance like that. She quickly withdrew and let the fabric fall back over his side to conceal the evidence of her poor judgment from view.

"I'm sorry," she whispered again before reaching for the medical kit. Rhiane rooted around for a minute or so before pulling out the two bottles he had discovered earlier. Unfortunately, they presented her with a problem. The caps had safety mechanisms that required that they be both squeezed and turned clockwise to open. Ordinarily this would not be a challenge. Because Rhiane only had one arm, and therefore hand, she was willing to use, however, this gave her a long pause.

Ultimately she was unwilling to ask Luke for help or admit her deficiency. On a normal day her pride was robust enough that she wouldn't want to volunteer information that a container was outside her capabilities to open. Today her shame at indirectly hurting Luke and her refusal to admit to the extent of her arm's impairment held her tongue. What sort of person would she be if the complained to someone struggling to ask for a drug to reduce his suffering that she couldn't open a bottle? Rhiane fumbled with both bottles, trying to open one and then the other, with no success.

With a cry stifled in her throat she rolled her left shoulder forward, displacing her arm into her lap, and wrapped her fingers on that accompanying hand around the bottle. Rhiane bit down on her tongue to force herself not to alert him to the agony this caused. Now that the bottle was stabilized she was able to use her right hand to squeeze and twist the cap as required, popping it off, and jerking her left arm slightly. She curled her toes, suppressing a yelp, before reaching into the opaque plastic phial and recovering a single pill.

"Here," she said as she offered the pill. It was the sedative because, as Luke undoubtedly predicted, she had not forgotten that he hadn't slept. Rhiane had chastised him earlier and tried to convince him to take a nap at the very least given how little he rested during the nights. The sedative provided an opportunity for her to compel him to oblige her. Although he might take issue with her judgment, or how insistent she was, she had the best of intentions. Once he was carted off to the world of dreams she would almost certainly commence with her earlier plan to find the road. She had not given up on either her plan to both punish herself and perform an act of contrition, even as it thundered ominously overhead and the rain outside became a deluge that obscured their ability to see more than a meter beyond the windows.
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Luke was surprised to feel the coldness of her palm against the warmth of his skin. She was out in the rain longer than him because of the innate obstinacy that made it difficult for her to believe that he was not blaming her for what happened. The breaks were off, the airbags failed to deploy themselves, all the other mandatory safety features of a vehicle were absent. If it was not a sabotage, then he did not know what it was.

Not long ago, Luke and his team discovered a plot that aimed to use Rhiane Black against the crown not as the rebellion’s spy, but as its martyr. The poisoning was one such attempt at taking her life, that incident with the faulty vehicle could be another. Unfortunately, the special task force commissioned to perform the investigation was no closer to solving it than the day they started. Perhaps the rebellion had become more careful since that day at Evolab. For Luke, the threat was still very real and although he was certain that his mother would find a new princess elect for him to wed, he was not about to let his enemies win. He was going to keep Rhiane alive.

“I’m driving the SUV. How is this your fault?” The prince would have snapped back at her apology had he not been in the middle of – as Sophia would call it – being in character. He had to deceive her if only to make her stay by his side. The two of them were unarmed and injured. It was not safe for her to venture out into the woods on her own, nor was he comfortable to allow her to sit alone at the front of the vehicle where snipers could easily isolate her as target. The backseat was less exposed both to any outside observer and the rain. He was not sure how he could be able to protect her with the present status of his health, but perhaps because of his damnable pride, he would do whatever it was that his injured self could.

Although any movement did hurt, it was not as bad as he was letting her believe. The damage might just be a hairline fracture on one or more bones, nothing as serious as a punctured blood vessel or a lung. He would recover just fine and would be able to continue to fulfill his day-to-day responsibilities. They just had to get out of the predicament that trapped the two of them inside the SUV in the middle of the woods during a thunderstorm. There was a way to send a distress signal even if his communication band had shut down. He was initially against using it as it would alert even the palace, but it didn't look as if there was another way. Perhaps when he was done executing his plan, he would call for help.

It was only when she offered the pill that he slowly opened his eyes. The sound of raindrops drumming against the vehicle gave him an idea how angry the heavens was, but seeing the seemingly gray wall of unrelenting rainfall was both comforting and disheartening. Comforting because no assassin would be scouting to finish the job at that rate; disheartening because any hope for rescue was most likely not going to happen within the hour. And finally, he had firmly made a decision that Rhiane was not going to venture on her own.

“Thank you.” He picked the oval white pill from the palm of her hand. There were two types of pills inside the emergency kit. Earlier, he took one of each – a small round pill and a slightly larger oval. One was a painkiller while the other was a sedative-painkiller combo. Rhiane gave him the latter. That she wanted him to fall asleep told him that she had not yet given up on her plan to ask for help while the storm was raging outside.

Without giving a hint that he suspected her trickery, he popped the pill into his mouth, but really he carefully bit it just to hold the medication in place. Surprise was his friend. Luke took a deep breath as his left arm went around her, carefully tucking her broken arm between his body and hers, while his hand found her back. He supported her as he twisted his body so that his weight forced her to her back and his uninjured knee and left arm were propped against the seat bearing most of his weight. The moment her lips slightly parted in surprise was his only chance. He sought those soft feminine lips. Then let go of the pill, deepening the kiss with slightly increased pressure but not an ounce of urgency. “Swallow it,” were the words he whispered against her lips after the act had left him breathless. He pushed himself away from her face enough to look her in the eyes. His wavy brown hair was slightly damp over his forehead. Its shade accentuated the brightness of the blue in his eyes made slightly dim by the widening of his pupils. “I won’t stop unless you swallow the pill.” As if to show her how serious he was, Luke leaned in again to kiss her tenderly that time. He tested her reaction to his advances. Was she blushing? Would she push him away? Would she finally kiss him back? Damn the pain screaming form his ribs. He would just take the painkiller he tucked in his breast pocket once he was done.

At one point he wondered if he was doing it out of his sense of duty to keep her safe or if he secretly enjoyed those rare moments with her.
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Over the last week it had been easy for Rhiane to convince herself that Luke was completely disinterested in her physically. There had been the engagement ball when he had expressed a desire to keep their relationship perfunctory, expressed his intense dissatisfaction with the arrangement, and then promptly abandoned her. Despite the best efforts of the palace to conceal the scandal from her, she had not been able to miss the sensationalist news proclaiming that the actress Sophia had drawn him away. It was her first taste of rejection. Again and again he had made it clear that his tastes for women were elevated above peasants. Rhiane knew her invitation to Evolab had almost certainly been to make his paramour jealous rather than to display a change of heart for their partnership. Luke had flirted once and teased her, but that was only idle playing, and she had believed he would have never let it go beyond seeing her reactions before dismissing her. At best she was a toy to alleviate his boredom.

To say that Luke had the element of surprise was a vast understatement. Her hardened belief that Luke was not-so-secretly disgusted at her being left her stunned as he manipulated her to her back. She was was so shocked at her fiance's actions she had been unable to process the pain in her arm much less his intentions before he closed his lips over hers. The pill easily fell into her mouth and rested on her tongue. Just as suddenly as he initiated the kiss he had released her and whispered his demand she swallow it. Rhiane stared back at him uncomprehending. What he was trying to accomplish eluded her as she simply looked at him breathless, flushed a brilliant shade of red, awestruck and flustered beyond any inch of eloquence.

Twice he had kissed her. The first had been in the pizza parlor and the second had been just now, in their battered SUV, with the rain rhythmically cascading over the roof before running down the windows in grey waterfalls. Both times she had been equally surprised by his gesture. Both times she had been visibly uncertain what to do and froze in the moment. The third time, however, was the proverbial charm. Instead of simply passively accepting she reciprocated without thinking of the consequences. Whatever plan she had to resist and disobey his order was temporarily forgotten as she reflexively swallowed the pill. Her throat easily pulled the medication into her stomach where it began to dissolve.

Rhiane knew in the back of her mind she was making a mistake as she pressed her lips back against his. There was an intangible spark, something she had tried to disbelieve the existence of, something that made her heartbeat quicken despite the sedative that was beginning to quickly work its magic. It was a rush completely unlike what she had experienced with the men of her past. All of them had been easy to leave the moment they had achieved mutual satisfaction. Perhaps it was because they did not bother to get to know another she had managed to avoid romance so long it was a foreign entity. Regardless of the reason, it was evident that Rhiane was not so detached as she feigned, that she had managed to have feelings contrary to her philosophy, that the distance between them was a barrier to the fluttering beneath her breast.

She liked Luke. She didn't like him because he was a prince, because they were betrothed, because he possessed material worth many girls would swoon over, or even because he was more handsome than any other man with which she was acquainted. She would have liked him if he was a simple merchant, a fisherman, a worker on a vineyard, or an accountant whose career lacked any semblance of prestige or excitement. What Rhiane liked was what arguably no predecessor the playboy embraced before did: his obstinate, argumentative nature. He had been the source of seemingly endless frustration but she enjoyed their verbal combat on some level, how they pushed each other to reconsider perspectives, how they challenged one another to not safely tread water mentally. His intelligence, even when she felt it was misapplied, was admirable, his sense of responsibility and willingness to endure it stupefying, and his calm courage captivating.

With her shameful secret exposed she was seized by a fleeting sensation of panic before it was washed away by a creeping drowsiness. The eager sincerity with which she had met his third kiss had started to slacken and abate. Rhiane was fighting the siren call of sleep as her breathing began to slow and she struggled to not let it make her conscious thoughts fuzzy. No amount of willpower would overcome this obstacle. The chemical concoction compromised her ability to keep herself composed and awake to combat the reality of Luke's discovery. She couldn't claim he was mistaken, deny her participation, or try to mitigate the damage this would inevitably do to their understanding of each other. If anything, this haze would only cause her to be excessively forthcoming in the sparse minutes they had before her valiant efforts were conquered by the sedative.
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Every single question, every ounce of logical reasoning, flew out the window only to be drowned by the torrential rain. It happened before the chemicals in brain had time to process the whats and whys of his prejudice against the common people, most of all his fiancee. He may have teased her time and again with the use of intimate gestures, but it was only because she had consistently shown displeasure towards such affection. So much so that her face would turn red and her usually persuasive lips would find difficulty in catching the next word. To say that it amused him to toy with her was not untrue.

But what would happen when she finally put her foot down and take him up on his challenge? When she suddenly stood up to him to prove that she was braver than an awkward schoolgirl confessing her love for the first time? When she was ready to make it known to him that she had no weakness that he could use against her?

The rain prattled on, and so did the hammering in his chest. Luke’s confidence quickly withered into uncertainty as the crown prince was caught off-guard in a position where he neither desired nor loathed. And as logic fled him, he was left in the middle, grasping for reason and answers to the whys that lingered inside his head. Why? Why? Why? But all he knew was that the pressure of her lips against his brought shivers down his spine, took away the pain, and muddled his head. He had no answers to the whys, but the prince did answer to her demands.

Luke could not tell how much time had passed, whether it be a second, a minute, or an hour. He was enchanted by the unsolicited affection from the woman who openly rejected every intimate advances that he had made so far. But as he felt her conviction waver, he reluctantly pulled away. Her eyes were soft and sleepy as they tried to focus on him. His were darker perhaps than the first time he laid her on her back and fed her the pill. She looked beautiful even with mascara smudged on her cheeks and her hair undone by the rain. He could tell that she was defying the pull of sleep, daring the sandman to sprinkle his magic sand onto her eyes. It was one thing he admired about her – she was a fighter. Rhiane was stubborn, argumentative, and he could not count in his hands the times that she had driven him mad because of her misplaced courage, selflessness, and wit. Yet despite that, Luke could not understand why he thought about her when she was not around him. He remembered her when he was watching the sun rise from the clouds and thought that she would enjoy it if she drove the 4x4 up the mountain.

What just happened?

He pushed himself up as far away to her face as his hand on her back would allow him. Rhiane was not Sophie. To be honest, he had toyed with the idea of using Rhiane to plug the hole that the actress left behind, but… “It wasn’t so hard, was it?”

With his right hand tucked between the cushion and her back, he carefully helped her sit up and lean against the backrest. Lying on her back was awkward as her torso was in an odd angle with her waist. But then, he noticed how the material of her shirt clung to her skin. In the middle of his acting, he had neglected to notice how uncomfortable she must be in that shirt that was drenched in rain. Luke slumped on the seat beside her. He plucked the painkiller from his pocket and then popped it in his mouth, avoiding her eyes.

There was no way he could take the wet clothes off without hurting her, but perhaps he could help shield her from the cold winds. The prince lifted his shirt over his head and then offered it to her. “Wear this over your shirt. It isn’t as soaked as yours.”

But he did not wait for her confirmation. He could see how hard she was fighting against sleep and understood that in the space between sleep and wakefulness, it was often difficult to make a clear judgment. The prince just volunteered to put his shirt on her. Carefully, he pulled it over her head then let it drape on her shoulders and then down to the seat. Her arms were not forced into the armholes, nevertheless the shirt was a layer of protection from the cold. He was larger than her, so it shouldn’t be restricting enough to hurt her arm.

“What just happened?” Luke asked quietly, unable to contain his curiosity. He avoided her eyes as smoothing the material of his shirt, making sure that it covered her arms and hid her hands. “You broke your own rule.”
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"You... you.." she murmured as her eyes began to flit close before she found the fortitude to inhale sharply and force them back open. It was a half-hearted and half-realized accusation that she knew he had made her swallow a pill that made it so incredibly difficult for her to stay awake. Despite any buried anger she had over him imposing his will, which would undoubtedly surface later, she didn't resist him as he helped navigate her back upright. Compromised as she was, she intuitively trusted Luke. He was stubborn, rude, and condescending, but not once had he done anything to harm her. If anything, he had proven himself to be more concerned about her physical health than she was on a whole.

As he paused to take the pain medication she started to drift inwardly. Rhiane's mind was trapped in a place between dreams and reality, floating in a pleasant hazy reverie, idle musings and thoughts stealing her attention. Her gaze was distant and unfocused until her sloth-like senses caught movement out of the corner of her eye. She stared unabashedly as the prince pulled off his shirt and offered it to her. Until this moment she had been overly cautious and controlled in avoiding looking at him in such a way. Luke was handsome but she had not wanted to appeared like one his giggling, vapid, smitten fans that openly oogled him. The last couple days had been an increasingly struggle not to steal a look here or there when he rolled up his sleeves, shrugged on a coat, or fidgeted with his clothes. Now that she drowsy composure and inhibitions were cast off, she gawked, drinking in the sight of his torso without an ounce of comprehension this spoke to things she was trying to keep hidden.

Belatedly she glanced down as he draped the garment over her shoulders and arms. She had just begin about to protest, to say something about how she wasn't uncomfortable, how she didn't need two shirts, but then he spoke. Rhiane blinked slowly twice and gave a soft sigh. The far reaches of her psyche screamed that answering his question would be catastrophic to any future attempts to salvage and explain away the kiss they shared. Actions spoke louder than words, but she had at least a chance to persuade him he had been mistaken, that the drugs had induced her affections. Rhiane didn't hear the warnings. It would soon be crystal clear she was not a woman without romantic yearning.

"I've wanted to kiss you," she confessed in a gentle voice that had an ethereal quality. There was no doubt the sedative was increasingly affecting her. Rhiane had always been candid with him but not quite so forthcoming as she was now. "I didn't want you to find out I like you, so I couldn't kiss you," she exhaled, curling her fingers on her good hand as they clasped the dry fabric of his shirt. "You'd laugh at me," she remarked casually as her eyelids drooped.

Her anxiety about his reaction was not completely irrational. Luke had professed he was his mother's son and he was not wrong. The passive expectation of the nobility, and those peasants shrewd enough to understand the currents of higher society's politics, would be that Luke would tolerate Rhiane at best. He wouldn't willingly kiss her, hold her, or sleep with her more than was absolutely necessary. He had not only failed to convince her he was different, he had agreed when she pointed out his arrogant contempt for her station, and unknowingly rejected her opportunities to reciprocate his advances. Rhiane was not foolish enough to assume he'd like her even platonically. Aristocrats laughed at her behind her back, just as they had done for the breeding spouses before her. Perhaps Luke did not once consider it, but given how quickly Queen Camilla discarded of his father, she almost certainly laughed at the man if he was earnestly in love with her.

"It's fine," she whispered. Her head dipped to the side her as her neck abdicated responsibility for keeping it raised. Long dark strands partially obscured her features as they flowed over cheek. Rhiane's coherence was slipping farther but she had not finished fighting slumber. She was nothing if not stubborn. "Just... just need time to... figure out how to stop. Maybe Tobias..." Her words frustratingly faded away upon mention of his cousin's name.

What she had meant to explain was that she planned to use Tobias as a crutch to determine how to make her relationship with Luke more intimate yet in a proper, platonic manner. The princess elect's halted sentence, however, insinuated something much more distressing to her fiance. Without any further context, and with the knowledge Luke possessed that Tobias was fixated on the darling of the masses, it suggested that his competition had a strong foothold in Rhiane's heart. This was not at all true, but Rhiane was soundly asleep and unable to provide clarification, her head finally resting snugly on Luke's shoulder as she was consumed deep rest.
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A single raindrop touched his cheek, and it didn’t matter from which crack it entered from. Luke barely even noticed its existence as he listened to the soft voice confessing words he believed she would otherwise have kept to herself if not for the drug. It was an information he would not have wanted to learn about, because by knowing he was obliged to respond. And he was about to say something – for he had been raised, educated, and trained to think on his feet – but the chemicals in her body rescued both him and her from an answer that would have been half-meant and possibly regrettable in the future.

“Go to sleep, princess. It’s just the drug,” he reassured himself more than her. Would she even remember what she told him when she woke up? Rhiane couldn’t have fought against chemistry even if her brain had the most outstanding resolve to go against his demands. Against her will, her body was ushered into the comforting lullaby of unconsciousness, slowly shutting down her ability to think rationally as her pulse slowed down and her breathing calmed. He wondered if her brain realized that she was speaking to Luke and not some creation of her brain that spoke and appeared to be him. Nevertheless, it was an earnest confession from a woman he ought to not even consider worthy of his attention.

Gently, he pushed the dark locks away from her face and tucked it behind an ear. Rhiane was a pawn of his mother, somebody she believed she could use to salvage the image that she and her predecessor had raised for themselves and the nobility. She was not a person to Queen Camilla. The farmer was a piece in her game that was of the smallest value, somebody she could afford to lose despite the positive reception of the general public. Luke might have amused himself in the meeting of his and Rhiane’s minds, but the queen would rather keep her son from playing with her toy.

As if the thought about his mother suddenly reminded him of the thing he needed to do, the prince unclasped the device on his wrist. He had thought of managing the situation without alerting the palace, but with a looming threat and his fiancee’s condition, he was left with no choice but to explain everything to his mother while assuring her that he was alright. Sticking the device into tight space between the passenger seat’s headrest and backrest, he broke it in two by applying force parallel to the backrest. It would raise a distress signal to the prince’s bodyguards and the palace security. The feature was secretly installed in the heir’s device as an added emergency measure should the device shut down or a malicious party tried to cut off the traceability of the heir by destroying the device. Receiving such a signal would trigger a special extraction protocol, which placed the military and the police in high alert status. Though in reality, it was just his mother overreacting.

He did not lie when he told her that help was coming.




“Control Tower this is Rook. Vehicle sighted. Wait out.” The tires of the 4x4 dug into the muddy ground as Tobias carefully piloted the vehicle down the steep slope. The crown prince’s signal was a matter of the kingdom’s security that would not be less important than either a thunderstorm, a landslide, or their lives. His team was immediately dispatched against all odds to locate the missing royal. Tobias had driven like a blind mad man, navigating dangerous curves with pure luck and a little bit of driving even when the downpour made road visibility an issue. Safety on the road was not an issue when the crown prince was worth more than all their lives combined. Besides nobody wanted to be summoned by the queen for allowing such an incident to happen under their noses.

When the two arrived at the site though, the thunderstorm had thankfully abated. Both men immediately unbuckled themselves and flew out the vehicle. Nolan wrenched vehicle 014’s rear door open. But what he found was empty seats and an open emergency kit.




He must have fallen asleep. Luke slept very lightly even when he was tired, but it could be that the painkiller he took not only signaled his brain to stop recognizing the pain but also dull his senses. Even before his consciousness resurfaced, he felt that he was moving. The realization jolted him awake. Where was Rhiane? He pushed himself up before his eyes even had the chance to focus.

“Don’t get up.” A hand touched his shoulder then gently urged him to lie back down. His eyes shot to the face that owned the voice. It was a woman in scrub suit with her hair pulled up in a ponytail. Did she now know who she was talking to? Who she so casually touched? But even if he asked, her attention was not to him at that moment. He was apparently lying on a gurney led by 2 nurses, heading somewhere.

“Where is this place?” He demanded. Based on the smell and the attire of the woman, he was in a medical facility of sorts. The problem was that, the room they entered was a cramped space with about four spaces for beds parallel to each other separated by slightly stained, worn-out curtains. The aggressive smell of bodily fluids and antiseptic greeted him, grabbing his attention more than the walls which were not white and the tiles on the floor which were cracked, and a couple of flickering lights. The gurney was led to a spot perpendicular to the wall, then the curtains were drawn shut. “Is anybody from among you not deaf?”

From the corner of his eye was a male nurse holding a syringe. “This is Loncia, your royal highness. One of our own found you and brought you here.” The female nurse gasped. Of course, his face would be recognizable, but perhaps the common people were not used seeing him in a less than perfect condition – sharply dressed with his hair brushed to one side and his face sporting a carefully calculated expression. The male eyed his blushing colleague. “This will sting for just a bit,” was the only warning he got before the nurse buried the syringe into the vein on his left hand and pumped whatever chemical it contained into his body.

Luke tried to get up again. He did not trust any of these people or any of the medication they were giving him. He twisted his body and swung his legs to the side of the bed in an attempt to get away, but then the world seemed to spin and his vision blurred. “Rhiane?” He managed to blurt out before the strength left his muscles and he felt himself slump on the bed.
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The doctor was sitting in a chair approximately two feet away from the left side of Luke's bed with a book in his lap. The room was dimly lit and empty save for the crown prince, his fiancee, and the single physician, who was relaxing with a novel as he waited for his patient to awake. Four of the beds were unoccupied, including the two to Luke's right, and Rhiane lay sound asleep in the one directly opposite his. A single IV was the only equipment attached to her person. Undoubtedly she had been sedated much as he had been but the effects of the medication had yet to abate.

"We thought lowering the lights would help encourage your body to rest," the doctor mused aloud once he saw movement out of the corner of his eyes. He fell quiet a minute more before pulling a bookmark out of his coat pocket and marking the page. When he closed the book he finally looked directly at his charge and gave him his undivided attention. "Miss Black is fine," he added before there was a repeat performance of the heir to the throne swinging his legs over the side of the bed in a misguided attempt to aid his betrothed. "She declined treatment for her arm and ethically since her life is not in danger we could not compel her to heed our advice. Once she recalled the collision she became increasingly distressed and we administered pain medication and something to help her sleep before she caused actual harm to herself."

Reading between the lines Luke could wager a guess that Rhiane was more than merely uncooperative. She was not antagonistic, but she viewed medical professionals with a thinly veiled distrust and mild hostility, and coupled with her emotions over the accident it was no small miracle they had kept her from leaping out of her bed and bolting away. The local clinic could not exercise any authority over the princess elect either; Luke had been unconscious and Queen Camilla far removed from the situation. Rhiane was the only person that could make decisions for herself. Irrational judgment had prevailed, leaving the doctor with no options except to induce slumber and hope someone later could talk sense into the woman.

"Your retinue is on its way but delayed by a resurgence in the storm," he said with a motion to the window. The curtains were drawn shut for privacy but he could hear a torrent of rain hitting the roof above and pouring down the glass. Thunder rumbled in the distance but this had not been the primary concern of his entourage. Every five to ten seconds there was an audible gust that rattled the exterior fixtures of the building menacingly. Nolan and Tobias would not be pleased at this turn of events but since they knew that the couple were alive and not in imminent danger, as well as being relatively cared for, it was best to not risk having a second or third SUV run off the road in ominous conditions. Not even the reigning monarch and all her technology could completely overcome the threat of Mother Nature.

"We've put a brace on you," he noted, referring to a firm molded plastic cushioned with foam that was pressed against his side. It restricted movement purposefully. "You cracked a few ribs which why we recommend you laying on your back when possible to avoid putting weight or pressure on them. We've also cleaned the cut on your thigh and applied a fresh bandage. Unfortunately that is the best we can do for you with the resources available here. I had to send one of my nurses home and the other is attending an expecting mother, so I will remain here with you until your transportation arrives."

There were several idiosyncrasies about the rural clinic. The doctor who was addressing Prince Luke enunciated his words with a soft clip that was unheard of with the lower classes. Given his comfort with the prince, the way he spoke, and his general manners he was not born a peasant like Rhiane- either he was middle-class or lower upper-class to have the apparent refinement. Additionally the clinic, which at a glance was in a state of disrepair, was exceedingly clean. Every instrument within sight was carefully arranged and shining in the soft illumination. The linens, while cheap, faded, and some threadbare, were clean and devoid of any grime. Broken and cracked tiles had been recently scrubbed and were almost as immaculate as when a maid swept through his quarters. This might be a place inhabited and used by the poor but it was not dusty or filthy. Familiar as a sight like this was for the former farmer, it was likely a first for Luke.

"Is there anything I can get you?" The doctor checked his watch. It was a simple device, an antique by the capital's standards, but functional. "I can wake Miss Black if you choose, but she should be awake within the next ten minutes otherwise."
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There was not a time when Luke enjoyed the feeling of consciousness clawing its way into the peaceful trance his mind was in. Yet just like every morning when the sun was just about to grace the western world with its presence, reality dragged him back into the real word where he was supposed to hold an audience with the peasants if his intended would keep her side of the agreement. If she would have the courage to kiss him in public.

Slowly, drowsy eyes focused on the worn-out floor-to-ceiling curtain. It was supposed to be light blue, but the combination of bad lighting and several trips to the laundry room made it an odd shade of gray. His eyes followed the fabric up to the white square panels and the dimmed lighting fixture that made up the ceiling above the bed. Where was he again? Thunder pealed in the background a few seconds after the room pulsed with borrowed light. Somebody’s voice caught his attention.

Luke turned his face to where the voice of a man came from. He did not recognize the face of the person sitting near his bed, but the person’s attire blended in quite well with the scent that emanated from that place. The doctor’s accent did not, though.

“I will apply, for the benefit of the sick, all measures which are required, avoiding those twin traps of overtreatment and therapeutic nihilism.” It was quoted from the Hippocratic Oath that his sister would practice reciting to him when they were younger and she still wanted to become a doctor. The statement implied that Luke expected the doctor to treat the princess elect no matter what she said or did, because it was obvious that she was not fine. “Did you not commit into your heart and soul the same oath, doctor? Or perhaps it was just another sentence from your textbooks which you have committed to memory in order to pass an exam.”

Callista once said that it was not a good idea to piss off nurses and doctors when he was sick simply because these people were authorized to stab him with a needle and make it as uncomfortable as it could get. She might have a point and maybe it was plainly not wise to show hostility to the person who did his best to treat him. Then again, the doctor could have already treated Rhiane while she was asleep. Such disregard for the welfare of his patient must be the reason why he had to be far away from home to be able to practice his profession. Luke had lived most of his life in the capital to recognize the accent. The doctor might have an office in Loncia, but the prince guessed that the doctor was born and raised in New Florence.

“Let her sleep,” Luke commanded. “I need you to do what is necessary to treat her now while she is asleep. Forget about ethics, take this as an order from your crown prince.”




“Jupiter is still missing,” said the message. It passed from one device to another using a private communication line. The alert status had unconsciously raised not only the activities of the royal guards, but also that of the unknown party that they had been striving to get their hands on.

“Somebody reported that Jupiter and Ganymede are in a medical facility in Loncia,” another message replied. The senders were protected by neutral codes and it were even restricted to upload a display photo. However, no matter how careful they were, the Forensic IT team would at least have something to work on.

“Copy. Finish the job.”
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"I appreciate you are concerned for Miss Black, your highness," the doctor said slowly without moving from his chair. Across the room Luke could more clearly see his fiancee. She was still dressed in the same clothes from earlier in the day but was thoughtfully covered with both freshly laundered bleached white sheets and a thick handmade blanket knitted in a dark yarn. The IV made it necessary for her arms to be outside the warm coverings, but she would have been dry and comfortable even if she had been awake. When they had been rescued from the wreckage of the SUV her long hair had been loose, wet, and tangled, but someone- presumably a nurse- had brushed and expertly braided the thick tresses over her right shoulder in a style peasant and nobility alike could appreciate. Regardless of their inability to persuade the princess elect into accepting their recommendations for treatment, the clinic's staff had not neglected her.

"Miss Black's arm is fractured," the man explained. "There are two options available. The first is to put her arm in a sling. This was offered to her already, but she was emphatic she would not use it, that she would immediately take her arm out of it, and it'd be put to better use on someone who needs it. Ultimately if she follows through with that threat she could exacerbate the injury." It was the most polite way of saying that Rhiane could could be stubborn and irrational enough to harm herself more than she was already. The doctor wanted to help the former farmer, but he would not do anything to jeopardize her health. He had taken the oath but he also had a conscience; if he knew that his actions would compel her to take drastic measures that would make her worse off than when she began, he would be failing her as a physician.

"Alternatively, we could put her in a plaster cast, but we wouldn't have time to do so before she wakes from the sedative. It would be harder for her to remove and would provide better stabilization for the bone, but it also would be more of a challenge to replace later, especially if she remains... uncooperative." What the doctor didn't explicitly state and Luke would know was that a plaster cast was cheap, easily applied, and effective, but it wasn't as efficient as what was readily available in the capital. Medical advancements in the last hundred years alone had perfected numerous types of both braces and casts manufactured from a combination of synthetic materials that were less obtrusive, had superior mobility, and didn't require a bag put over them to bathe properly. No one in the castle had ever had a plaster cast- not even the servants.

The royal infirmary didn't have the limitations of this rural medical center. As crown prince it was undoubtedly a foreign experience to be told treatment options were not available. Any and all medication that Queen Camilla and her family could ever want or need were stocked or could be immediately delivered. Money was no obstacle so she was able to employ the mostly highly trained experts, afford all the newest innovations, and make purchases that weren't available to the lords and ladies of her court much less the general populace. The commoners wallowing in poverty did not have the same resources. Nurses and doctors didn't want to live in a hovel in a village on the border. Pharmaceutical companies could manipulate bureaucracy and have their products labeled as 'elective' so the prices could be inflated, pumping up their profits, but barring laborers from being able to realistically procure them. Shipments with the best supplies were routed first to major cities were the affluent resided.

"Distrust of doctors is not that uncommon," the man remarked quietly. "I have had several patients with her mindset, though none that I recall that have refused a sling because they think someone else would be more deserving. I was hopeful that you might be able to talk to her and keep her calm enough we can convince her to eat at least. She asked for you repeatedly," he added, waiting to see the prince's response. He was not a fool. Everyone had seen the same broadcasts and had their suspicions about the veracity about the allegations of love between the engaged pair. It was possible their relationship was not strong enough he could quiet her with hysterical- or he might simply not care to try.
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