Hidden 17 days ago Post by Hashih
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Luke didn’t need to hear it – her confession that she had been with men who they may meet that night. He didn’t feel that she needed to know who he had been with in the past. Their arrangement was one out of political convenience. Nothing personal. Nothing emotional. “I’m not jealous,” he corrected hastily, without much conviction, before his words were spun into something it was not. Some days ago, his mother told him off for being too honest for his own sake. It wasn’t as if he was being completely honest with himself though. “I have nothing against you meeting your exes, no matter how many they may be.” Truth be told, he would not be able to concentrate with whatever he was doing if she was to go out alone. “Without a signed document, we made an agreement not to meddle with each other’s personal lives. I honor that promise, and maybe even encourage you to…” He heaved a sigh as he felt her fingers weave the dark golden strands of his hair. “When all of this is over, I promised to return you to your family one way or the other to live out your life in comfort. One of those boys may be the one waiting for you to come home.”

Her apprehension at court may be the same apprehension he felt with common people. Each belonged to a different ecosystem, an outsider forced to live in a different habitat. What he found comfortable and familiar was alien and uneasy to her. The same was true for him. That night, they were living inside her world. Though the entirety of the nation bend at his command, he could not help but feel awkward and unsure about entering the world she grew up in. What was there to see? How different was it from the elegant courts and flashy fashion statements?

“Alright, promise that if we go out tonight, you’ll stay close and I promise not to trouble you if I get drunk.” He forced a smile, then pointed out, “If.” One thing he disliked most about being with common people was being gawked at, photographed, and scrutinized for his perfect manners. Rhiane said it was alright to be human, but the other humans act as if it was not. A royal ought to be perfect, else he had no rightful claim as a ruler. It may be too much to ask, but he hoped that the night would be different.

The Black household treated him as just another common person -- asked him to stay under the sun, to harvest the produce, to tend to the compost pit. It was a tiring, but refreshing day. The night, he hoped, would be the same. Unconscious or not, his instincts told him to find her hand and entwine his fingers around hers. “Your brother will be so mad at me he’ll make me mix the poop pile with my bare hands next time. Let’s be on our way before your family lost their cool.” Luke let her by the hand as they exited the security of her room to meet with the rest of the family.

As was his plan, two cars were dispatched as their ride. Nolan and Tobias firmly objected to let the couple out of their sight in a crowded establishment. They insisted, one after the other, to stand by the door or by the window, somewhere or anywhere where they would not bother the couple. Luke was just as firm. No, the bodyguards would just make everyone uneasy. Tobias kept on stealing glances of the princess elect from the rearview mirror as if waiting for her to jump to their cause anytime. The prince, though, effortlessly negotiated to arm himself instead of having two stiff and obviously armed gentlemen hover over their shoulders. The rest of the ride to Rhiane’s favorite bar was spent tossing arguments back and forth, but as it was, nobody could outdo the arguments of a future king. In the end, Nolan sighed, grumbling about his life choices.

“We’ll be fine. It’s just a couple of drinks.” He kept on adjusting the neckline of the borrowed shirt.

Luke’s bodyguard snorted. “He said the same thing years back and ended up getting stabbed by a drunk pissed off lord.”

“Bleeding and a little bit tipsy, I managed to break that asshole’s nose and arm.” Luke reached for the latch that opened the rear door. He was, of course, proud of his misadventures as a wayward princeling, those that made her mother’s list of why she should disown the boy.

“Tipsy is a grave understatement, my lord,” Nolan mocked a bow. “Do look after our future king, Miss Black. He is no longer at that age when his antics can be construed as cute.”
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Hidden 16 days ago Post by Syrenrei
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"You've nothing to worry about Nolan," Rhiane reassured. "I grew up with two elder brothers. They made sure I would be able to defend myself. If anyone has any doubt what Luke might or might do, they know what I can and will do if they don't mind themselves." She flashed a dazzling smile. There had been an investigation into her past when she was but a mere princess candidate, but no one had been willing to disclose more than was absolutely necessary. The palace, and by extension the public, had not a shred of evidence that she had engaged in the unladylike behavior that was reality. More than once she had thrown a punch and broken a nose, defended another patron in a brawl, or exchanged some particularly vulgar words in a heated argument. Her town had not betrayed her. They loathed the scrutiny of public officials, distrusted outsiders, and sincerely wanted one of their own to be elevated to a higher standing. Perhaps they could not live a dream, but Rhiane could, and so they conveniently forgot tales that would be received in a positive light.

"Be careful," Tobias warned, watching with apprehension as the prince and his betrothed climbed out of the vehicle. He disapproved of this plan even more than the other bodyguard. Despite what his cousin thought, he did not hate him. He wanted Luke to be more than he was, but he didn't want to see him dead, only for the monarchy to adapt or fall so that the common folk could be liberated. The co-mingled concern for his relative and a woman he cared for deeply had him more scared for them than he had felt in years, perhaps ever. Inside this unassuming, quaint, rural municipality, there were still threats to their reputation and livelihood.

"You too," Rhiane said as she bounced out of the vehicle with a wide smile. "I'm sure Anelle will be calling you both when she can't reach Luke about the change in schedule. Good luck!" She swore she heard grumbling as she closed the door behind him.

Piero's bar was an old-fashioned building built sometime shortly after the cataclysmic event that shattered the old world. A sign outside proclaimed the name of the establishment to be The Long Night. Gerard, Sebastian, and Hubert had already gone inside, secured a table, and were surrounded by a group of individuals- but not all. The right side of the room did not seem to care about the Black family or recent news of a royal visit. Some were clearly on dates, one group of bachelors were having a raucous discussion about sports, and there was a woman in a corner sobbing about a recent romantic relationship turned sour while friends consoled her. Singles drank and dined at the wooden bar in the center of the room, reading off their devices, speaking to one another, or watching one of the two flat screens showing broadcast of a sports game and a popular long-running game show.

"I told you it'd be fine," she whispered as she took Luke's hand and started to lead him to a table where they could sit.

As they began to pass Gerard, Sebastian, and Hubert, they could not help but overhear the topic of conversation, which had nothing to do with the heir to the throne, the tour, or the upcoming nuptials. There were congratulations and questions about the upgrades that were finally underway and good-natured jokes about asking the recently rich for loans. Historically the immediate family members of the elect that wed into New Rome's sovereignty would themselves become lords and ladies of minor renown. That neither Hubert nor Gerard asked for as much spoke to their feelings more than any other action they could take. The masses speculated as to their reasoning, thinking them humble, or content with farming, or afraid of the spotlight, but it was because they could not endorse the current state of society. No one seriously would take advantage of the Black family, not here, nor would they accuse them of turning their backs on the less fortunate. This was a place of safety and acceptance.

"Ahhh, I wondered when you might come in here," a man approximately a decade older than the pair said as he approached. He wore black slacks and a button-up white shirt rolled up to the elbows. Unlike the other customers, his hands were not nearly as heavily calloused, and his skin was not deeply tanned. If one was to wager a guess, he was of low birth but did not labor in the sun as so many of his peers did. "Am I allowed to buy you two a drink? You have my condolences," he said with a bow to Luke. It was not a bow of reverence, but a small, teasing gesture, accentuated by the grin on his lips. "A woman with the most pig-headed brother is able to inherit three younger siblings, and a man with three younger siblings is about to have the most difficult brother-in-law imaginable. I don't envy either of you. Every day I thank the stars my wife is an only child."

"I think you thank your stars every day that your wife likes to clean," Rhiane observed aloud. "Luke, this is Terzo, he runs a Bed and Breakfast, but his wife hates alcohol, so he comes here to get his fix."

"Since you left no one's been able to help me in twisting Mario's arm for getting a better price on things," Terzo sighed. "A lot of people have missed you and your negotiating power. It is nice to meet you, Luke," the man greeted, extending his hand. He was not treating the crown prince any differently than any other boyfriend to an acquaintance. Polite, but casual, amiable, but not pushy, he was what Rhiane had promised Luke other people could be if he could find the right ones to give a chance to get to know him.
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Hidden 14 days ago Post by Hashih
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While celebrities who desired to keep their identities unknown bow their heads and hide their faces, Luke stood confidently tall. Even in just a plain v-neck shirt, tailored pants, and sneakers, his blonde head and elegant features were out of place. If he thought that an old-fashioned building with all its loud patrons was not where cameras would catch him in, it did to show on his face. The place glowed in a soft yellow hue from well-kept post-war lamps hanging from the wooden beams overhead. Names of food and concocted drinks were written using bright colored chalks on a chalkboard behind screens showing sports coverage. A line of wooden bar stools filed parallel the counter. The barkeep lifted his head and grinned upon finding the familiar face of a patron. Then his eyes drifted to the man beside Rhiane.

Luke nodded absently as he entwined his fingers around hers. So far so good. No mobile phones pointed at his direction, nobody staring openly at him except for the few moments with the barkeep. Maybe Rhiane was right, it was fine.

They passed the men of the Black household without their notice. It was as if they were people who belonged to the crowd, unremarkable and not at all interesting. Most of the crowd was drawn to the stories of the newly rich men and the renovations that their home was undergoing. A small settlement such as Rhiane’s hometown tend to be knit tighter together. It was therefore not surprising to overhear talks and jokes about the renovation of the estate that Rhiane had pioneered. He would not be surprised if these men and women already heard about how he did manual labor the whole day. But so long as nobody asked, he didn’t care what they knew.

Luke followed his fiancee’s lead to an unoccupied table. But the couple had barely sat down when a man who Luke branded automatically as one of Rhiane’s exes offered to buy them a drink. The prince’s initial reaction was a cold blue sideways glance. As if the man was not worth moving his face for. His eyes went over the feature of the stranger’s face then it returned to watching the match being aired on the monitors. He was perfectly content to ignore the friendly hospitality offered by the stranger until Rhiane introduced her fiance to the married man. The royal locked eyes with the princess elect, not frowning, but questioning her life choices. Of all the people inside the bar, she was the only one who was aware of how uneager the crown prince was in making acquaintances out of commoners. Yet, there she was introducing a stranger who unabashedly called his future king by his nickname. Not even by his first name, but his nickname.

“Manners are taught in kindergarten. Unl--” Upon turning his head to face the stranger, his eyes grazed the face of his betrothed. Luke cleared his throat and straightened his back. He ignored the outstretched hand and instead raised his to call the attention of a waitress.

She was a petite lady in black button-up uniform and dark brown ponytail. Her face paled and just as quickly colored a shade of pink as realization dawned her. She took tentative steps to the table. The impatience on her customer’s level gaze encouraged her to move faster. “Hello, Rhiane. You’ll have the usual?”

“Your menu, please.” Luke demanded. In bars he visited, there was no need to demand for the menu or even call for a server. His presence was enough to trigger the management to mobilize his crew to ensure that the royal was comfortable and happy. The rural, it seemed, was left behind not only in terms of technological advances, but also in customer service.

The waitress, flustered by the quiet command, fished a tablet tucked on her back and presented it to Luke. He pushed the device to the man Rhiane called Terzo. “Tonight is on me. Order whatever you want.” Then to the waitress he said, “I’ll have whatever she will have. I’m curious what the usual is.” He turned to her and finally smiled as if mischievous thoughts ran in his head.
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Hidden 13 days ago Post by Syrenrei
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"You want... the usual as well?" the waitress said, blanching slightly. Piero was taking this visit in stride, but she was much more nervous about serving the heir to the throne something prepared in their tiny kitchen. The girl was a few years younger than Rhiane; old enough to be aware of the vast chasm between their social strata, yet not of sufficient age and experience to be jaded or cynical. She resided somewhere between idyllic fantasies and subdued realistic expectations.

"The usual, but mine without the alcohol tonight. I won't leave Sebastian to be the only one of us sober," Rhiane replied with a wink, deflecting any suspicion about the reason she was declining. At some point she and Luke would need to have a serious discussion about where this physical relationship was taking them. Unfortunately, given how much they argued, nothing short of a perfect day would facilitate a calm, rational conversation about where they stood emotionally and that their future would require them to be parents. Queen Camilla was waging a war against a negative perception of the royal family. If she truly wished to turn the skeptics into believers, and to secure her lineage before the rebellion gained more momentum, she would do everything in her power to convince them to keep any pregnancy that occurred. A potential child would be both a distraction and a cause for celebration. Undoubtedly the monarch would also prefer to expedite the princess elect fulfilling her role to be rid of her that much more quickly as well.

"That is very kind of you, but it's not necessary," Terzo smiled, not wanting Luke to think that, as a wealthy man, he was obligated to pay for the poorer man's meal. By the town's standards, Terzo was a financial success. More months than not he turned a profit. Since Rhiane won the contest there had been a burst of tourism that made his bed and breakfast significantly more popular. Turning towards the waitress, Terzo flashed a grin. "Another pint, would you?"

After the waitress shuffled off Rhiane, pushing her hair behind her shoulders, leaned back in her chair. "Terzo went to school with Gerard, a few years above him I think? After Mom and Edwin passed, he helped me get sorted with some of the local vendors. Don't let him fool you, he can be a stubborn mule when he negotiates, I'm just better at knowing when to push and pull then he is."

Terzo snorted in a half-laugh and shrugged his shoulders. "That might be true, but I've seen you feign being a hapless, innocent damsel to get a better price, and that's a harder sell for someone like me." The words were a critique but he said them lightly, as a praise rather than a scolding, and in the good-natured tone he had used before. Despite Luke's misgivings, this individual was akin to a more distant older brother figure in Rhiane's life rather than a love prospect. Whatever romantic interest they had for one another faded years before the present, as was evidenced by the fact that Terzo was happily wed and did not so much as glance below his female companion's face.

"I'm certain I don't know what you're talking about," Rhiane said in mocking objection. Turning towards her fiance, she put her hand on his arm casually. "Do you want anything to drink? The standard fare here is liquor that the farmers distill themselves. It's quite a bit stronger than anything you're used to, but if you want to try it, I'll order it for you. There is also beer and wine, just not as refined as you'd have in the capitol," she explained generously.

"Rhiane's usual is a huge plate of noodles that I've seen grown men not finish, fair warning," Terzo commented good-naturedly, "and the sauce packs quite a bit of heat. Piero gets fresh peppers daily, some of them from people in this room. She's either eating something so hot or spicy it'll burn off your tongue or layers of sugar so sweet you'll rot your teeth, but not much between those extremes," the older gentleman observed. "Only things she orders here!"

"That's not true," Rhiane protested, "I eat other things," she added, though she didn't volunteer the names of any. The allegation had been too accurate for her to completely deny.
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Hidden 12 days ago Post by Hashih
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Skipping any alcoholic drink in a bar where she and her brothers had been known to, at least once, drank more than they could was suspicious. Terzo was not at all bothered by her omission, but Luke was. Rhiane confided the truth, not the easy diversion she employed with her words, but the hard truth that their carefree trysts may have already resulted in a more permanent consequence. Was he ready to face it? No.

“I must insist.” He badly needed that drink. Besides, he must not allow a less fortunate individual pay for his indulgence for two reasons -- it was not good for his image, and he disliked taking favors from other people especially from somebody he just met. Terzo seemed to be a nice guy. No longing gazes. His body language showed casual ease that had nothing to do with any romantic fantasies directed towards Rhiane. So far so good. She said he was married. Luke was apprehensive at first even with the ring on the other man’s finger, because marriage was a contract and contracts could be breached. But as he listened to the two recount each other’s experiences in negotiations and bargaining, he was somehow convinced that Rhiane and this older guy were no more than just good friends.

Luke’s attention fell on his fiancee’s hand touching his arm and her subsequent question about whether he wanted to have a drink. Of course, he did. “Yes, please. I’ll have whatever liquor the bar offers.” He may have high class taste, but he was not as delicate as she must be imagining him to be. Although it was true that he would rather have a beautifully aged whisky, there was no harm in trying out something new. Moreover, when he was in the military training camp, being picky was not an option. He ate and drank what was served or he slept with an empty stomach. It was that non-exemption to the rules that made a difference in his personality. Because while other noblemen would have opted to spend the night wishing that sleep will come sooner than hunger, he wanted that drink. Honestly, the prince would prefer a more upscale place. Maybe the idea that visiting her favorite places was a chance to get to know Rhiane through her friends and through the establishments she enjoyed was a good motivation.

“She doesn’t use that technique to me,” Luke joined the conversation. “Rhiane just puts her foot down and tells me what she wants. She will not move an inch until she had it her way. It’s like negotiating with a block of stone.” He teased, watching her reaction in a sideways glance. “I wonder which is more unfortunate, that I am going to inherit a difficult brother-in-law or that I am marrying such a pig-headed woman.”

When the waitress returned with Terzo’s pint, Luke ordered one for himself as well. The same local liquor which his fiancee thought was beyond his tolerance. The more she repeated that it was stronger than what he was used to, the more determined he was to prove her wrong. “She can survive on sweets alone. I find her diet disturbingly unhealthy, but as they say – happy wife, happy life.” Luke shrugged. The words slipped out before he realized the mistake. “We’re technically not yet married, but we know it’s where we’re getting at,” he corrected hastily.

Thankfully, the noodles came marching out the kitchen soon enough. Two plates were served on their table. It was, as Terzo described, a huge plate of noodles. The spices wafted in the air, teasing his nostrils. Small red flakes clung to the noodles like glitters but not at all glittery. He shot Rhiane a look of disbelief. This was what the normal amount of food she ate when she still lived at the farm. It was nothing like the volume of food she would eat at the palace. He’d seen her order sandwiches and some pasta, but nothing like a big plate of spicy noodles. He twirled a few strands with his fork and pitched it into his mouth. The heat was tolerable, it settled nicely on the tongue making the flavor of the otherwise bland dish a little more exciting. His head nodded in slight approval as he chewed his food slowly. They may be in an informal establishment, but a prince never forgot his manners. He never did while in public. Rhiane had seen how informal he could be when shielded from the eyes of the public.

As if suddenly remembering that the third member of the table did not order anything to eat, Luke offered, “Have you had dinner? You may order anything you like. Or perhaps order something to bring home to your wife.” He chewed into the second twirl of pasta. The spice was building up in his mouth. Thankfully, the waitress dropped by their table with a tall mug of liquor. Luke instantly grabbed it, swallowed the noodles, and gulped cold alcohol. The bitter taste filled his mouth instantly, followed by the heat and that hard kick as if the liquid was fighting its way out his esophagus. He slammed the mug down the table as he coughed. It was strong alright. Tears formed at the corner of his eyes from the spiciness of his dinner and the spirit of his drink. He frowned at the mug, straightening himself up to regain a bit of dignity. “What kind of poison is this?”
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Hidden 9 days ago Post by Syrenrei
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"It's a good thing she doesn't use that technique on you," Terzo observed, glancing at Rhiane with a bemused expression. "It's unnerving to watch, like a predator stalking their prey. Worst part is there are enough misogynistic idiots around here that you can give them as many warnings you want that she's gonna strike and devour them whole, and they wouldn't even listen." He shook his head sadly as if they were speaking of the dearly departed rather than the unfortunate souls that paid a financial price for underestimating the princess elect. Briefly she had alluded to a lack of equality between the genders when it came to particular trades, such as farming. Not many woman chose to try to match their male counterparts regardless of the opportunities available. Those who did not stay home to tend to domestic duties and raise children would instead be teachers, factory workers, waitresses, or the like. As a result of this rarity, it was easy to imagine how Rhiane might play to their expectations and biases to her advantage.

For her part, the brunette gave an exaggerated roll of her eyes at their accusations, though she knew better than to try to claim they weren't true. She was inordinately stubborn. While it would have been convenient to argue that the prince himself was just as difficult when they came to an impasse, she was in a good enough mood to let it slide. Terzo was a nice enough man, but she didn't want to confide in him the flaws of her beau or paint him in a negative light; it would sour Luke's mood, it could backfire on her spectacularly, and it could create another argument during this period of relative peace.

On the topic of sweets Rhiane did elect to speak up. "It's harder to have treats in this town," she pointed out in her own defense. "With those knuckleheads," she continued with a gesture towards her father, brother, and his partner, "money had to be spent on supplies, equipment repairs, paying off past debts, and the necessities. I didn't exactly have the funds to be eating as much cake as I'd like." And it was true. The noodles were inexpensive comparatively because they functioned as a full meal, whereas cookies, cannolis, candy, and the like had a higher price and could not be justified as something required.

"You ought to take her to the bakery while you're in town," Terzo suggested. "I doubt it measures up to the palace, but it might be the first time she'll have had a chance to buy anything she wants. Assuming they'll let you have that much sugar. Rumor is high ladies are supposed to be on diets," he added candidly.

"We don't have to," Rhiane countered quickly, putting her arm on Luke's again. It wasn't a declaration she didn't want to, but that they didn't have to, her word choice speaking more loudly than the words themselves. More than once she had actively tried to dissuade her fiance from being obligated to bend to her desires. Willful and proud as she was, most of her demands centered on philosophy and strategy rather than trying to reap favors from winning the contest. If anything, she avoided it more than anyone had expected. Rhiane had not demanded designer clothing, better linens, bigger accommodations, or an allowance to make personal purchases. All the gifts acquired on the tour had been for other people rather than herself.

"First lesson in keeping a happy wife," Terzo said as he leaned in conspiratorially, his tone hushed but purposefully loud enough for Rhiane to hear, "they don't always ask for what they really want, even someone like Rhiane. Every birthday and Yule I have to spend what feels like hours helping Hubert find her a present since she would tell him she didn't want anything," he sighed as Rhiane started to twinge pink in embarrassment.

Mercifully the noodles arrived in short order. It had been a long time since the princess elect had eaten so much food. Her days managing the Black family farm had been much more physically taxing due to the amount of chores she had to perform that were labor. It was easier to work up a ravenous appetite when she was shoveling, digging, or hauling, than when she was speaking, shaking hands, or waving. Jokes about the capital aside, she had eaten less since she had entered the contest, both because they had restrictions meant to keep them ridiculously slender, and also because nothing had been as grueling as dragging bales of hay to the bed of a truck and throwing onto the bed. There was something sinful about devouring such a huge plate when she knew that their entourage would be opposed, if not horrified, and she didn't have an excuse of endless hunger.

First Rhiane and Terzo laughed as Luke slammed down his mug, coughed, and questioned them about the poisonous liquor. They were not laughing at him, but at the label he was applying to the local alcohol, one they had heard many times before. "I tried to warn you," Rhiane said as she watched Terzo take a couple generous gulps and chuckle to himself. "It's not for everyone. Like I've said, the days are long and hard, and you build up a tolerance to beer, so we've... learned to brew something stronger," she admitted, "but it is a little bit like poison, I suppose. It's definitely not good for you. I can order you something else. Milk takes off the edge of the peppers," she offered.

"It's just a matter of time before that lot talking to your dad and brother realize you're here," Terzo pointed out to Rhiane as they heard laughter erupt from the nearby crowd as they listened to some tall tale being spun by a middle-aged gentleman. "Do you want me to be the bad guy and send them away? Most of them have been sorely missing your advice, not just with crops, but accounting too. It'd help them a lot if you gave them your input, but if you came here to unwind, I can scare them off," he added, wanting to give them a choice before their time ran out and the tiny mob migrated to their corner of the establishment.
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Hidden 7 days ago Post by Hashih
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Luke smiled despite the humiliation at having two commoners laugh at him. In all fairness, Rhiane did caution against the liquor. It was he who, as usual, disregarded the warning, believing himself to be above the common people in all aspects of life, alcohol tolerance included. Though it was not that the prince was about to back down on his personal mission to prove Rhiane wrong, the first swig just took him by surprise. “Perhaps I shouldn’t have gulped as much on the first try.” The furrowed brows disappeared as he took the mug by its handle to give it another chance. The dark liquid slid down his throat with a little less fight than before, because maybe he did not force a lot.

As he gently placed the mug back on the table, savoring the bitter taste and warmth, his attention turned to Rhiane. He told her before they left her room that he did not want the attention of the whole town. It had been a physically tiring day, the night had no right to be equally tiring. But the way her friend framed the question sounded as if her neighbors had lost somebody to look up to when she left to join the contest and consequently won the crown. He remained silent, not wanting to appear as if he was dictating the woman. Instead, he looked down at the pasta bathed in olive oil, overwhelmed with spices, and started his counter-attack. Food and drink were what he came to the bar for, and it was what he would fight to get.

Needless of a yes or no from the princess elect though, the bartender tilted his head towards the direction of the couple and their uninvited guest. Heads turned, including that of Rhiane’s father and brothers. The men may not have disclosed that the only living female of their household was going to grace them with her presence, but she was right when she said that it was impossible to hide from the crowd once they entered the establishment. Without knowing about the impending crowd about to approach them to at least catch a few words with Rhiane, the crown prince quietly chewed on his food in perfect poise and table etiquette.

Without his bodyguards, nobody stopped the commoners from approaching the table. A tall man in blue jeans and a plain white shirt braved the prince’s wrath first. Luke was busy pushing away some of the red flakes from the strands of pasta when the second uninvited guest leaned against the edge of the table and stared openly at his fiancee. The commoner faked a surprised look. “Rhiane?” His smile was broad and friendly, but not friendly enough to greet the other people joining the princess elect on the table. “I did not think we will see each other again. I mean, not here or anywhere near here.”

Terzo glanced at Rhiane then at Luke. “Mon, they must be tired from traveling all over the kingdom. Why don’t I buy you a drink at the bar and --”

Mon waved him off with a gesture of his hand. “It’s fine, Terzo. Rhiane and I have a lot of catching up to do, don’t we? Have you heard about Clara? She was duped by this creditor and she lost her family’s farm.”

Luke quietly gulped a mouthful of the liquor. It was not so bad after a few sips and gulps. He was getting used to the warmth and bitterness and the occasional fight. What he could never bring himself to get used to was the constant rudeness of the people around Rhiane. On one hand, he disliked how privacy seemed to be scarce in the countryside, but on the other hand, he should be happy that he was treated as if he was nothing but another farmer looking to smoothen the edges. If he was to assert himself, it was surely another subject of their argument, but who cared. He was annoyed.
“We prefer our privacy, thank you.” The prince told the man, whose back was on him. Mon’s grin slowly vanished, but his cockiness remained. He shifted his weight, turning to face the royal. Again, a look of feigned surprise was on his face.

“Oh, your royal highness, I did not see you sitting there.” He mocked a bow.

“Mon, stop terrorizing them,” an unfamiliar voice called out. Luke’s jaw was set. Others had discovered their spot and was drawn by his supposedly date for the night.
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"Mon," Rhiane began, her voice containing that sweetly dangerous edge Luke had heard a few times now. In private the princess elect was unafraid of revealing her wrath when sufficiently provoked. In public she attempted to retain her composure, not just at press events, but also when in the presence of others to whom she was not related. With the masses she was charming, kind, empathetic, and understanding, but with the nobility that tested her patience she was far more cunning and manipulative. Just like the aristocrats of their prior stop, Mon underestimated the danger lurking beneath a pretty smile. "Just because you are compensating for your size is no reason to be rude," she chastised casually.

The eruptions of laughter before did not compare to the roar of the peasants within hearing rang of the shot Rhiane figuratively fired. Virtually no man could endure an insult of their genitalia, but Mon had been painted into a corner. Clearly he could not expose himself in the middle of the restaurant, and if he tried to protest her assessment, he'd have to concede they slept together, which would only lead everyone to more firmly believe her opinion over his, taking the opportunity to ridicule him for what they would almost universally think to lies to save face. The tall man turned red and sputtered, stunned and shocked into temporary silence, while Terzo cast a nervous glance in Luke's direction. Everyone else was enjoying the joke, but to the owner of the only bed and breakfast in town, he suspected that the prince would not enjoy the raunchy humor nor the reminder that his betrothed had a past.

Rhiane knew that her fiance was disapproving at best of her sexual history and exploits. Hypocritically, his conquests had been splashed in the headlines frequently enough they had been unavoidable. Were she to assume that half of his dalliances were lies, she had to take into consideration others were discreet enough to avoid detection, and that left him with just as many or more indiscretions. If she could tolerate one of his ex-lovers being assigned their image manager, boldly flirting with him as if she did not exist, surely Luke could find the fortitude to endure the occasional allusion to her sordid adventures. Unlike her paramour, not once had the brunette ever entertained the notion of having a relationship with her 'partners.'

"If you're done, Terzo was mentioning to me that some of my old friends were looking for advise for their farms," she said with a gesture towards the tiny crowd behind him. Rhiane had always intended to help out if possible, but now she was strategically motivating everyone to keep Mon under control. If he did not behave there was the implication that she would withhold her assistance, giving them all the incentive they needed to 'pick a side' and chastise him for jeopardizing something they sorely needed. Mon himself seemed to realize the position he was in, a potential obstruction, and stepped back with a slightly defeated and sullen expression. The future king and queen did not need to threaten him; any one of the business's patrons would do nearly anything in their power to remain in the latter's good graces.

"You'll really help?" one of them asked as he moved forward. The man in question speaking was younger than them both, barely an adult himself, but just as stocky as the rest. In the rural parts of the country where the common trades were labor, it was easy to age the common folk by how weathered or tanned their face was by the sun and how many callouses were on their hands. For someone like Rhiane, who had the 'fortunate' circumstances to spend a great deal of time indoors tending to domestic and administrative responsibilities, there was less of the telling dark, damaged skin. The stranger's face was cautiously hopeful and innocent, a contrast to his surly companions.

"If you let my date eat in peace and don't bother him," she agreed, reasoning that it was her only hope to keep them from teasing him, prodding him into conversations he'd rather not have, or inciting an argument. Rhiane was powerless to keep them incognito, but she could mitigate how obnoxious they were to Luke. Neither Terzo nor the crown prince could have dispersed the gathering for the rest of the evening without someone being the 'bad guy.' Besides, if she was completely honest with herself she would admit that she liked hearing she was needed or wanted. Two weeks in her role as show pony for the monarchy was not as fulfilling as feeling individually appreciated for her abilities.

"Why did you come here?" an older, dark-haired man asked. "You could eat anywhere you want now that you're rich," he pointed out.

"My dad and brother deserve a treat, and it'd be a travesty to take my husband-to-be to one of the joints in the city when there's such good food and smiling faces here," Rhiane joked. "Everyone deserves to come back home at least once, don't you think? It's a good thing I came too, since you're all shit at running a business!" It was a light jab that made some smile and some laugh, but it wasn't untrue. Most of them were excellent with seeding a field, growing crops, and efficiently harvesting, but making the operation profitable, while avoiding common pitfalls of contracts, was another thing entirely. Very few had a higher education, the resources, or the talent to navigate the nuances of running their businesses as she had.
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Hidden 4 days ago Post by Hashih
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So much for wishing for a quiet night. The crown prince hid his disappointment behind a rather long swig of the strong liquor. It had taken a few sips, but he had pretty much gotten used to the drink. Or at least his throat no longer fought to expel the liquid. He was after that comforting buzz, that sweet spot between being sober and intoxicated. It was what he needed after having willingly entered a non-exclusive bar and which brought him to the present circumstances – being surrounded by people he would rather not meet in his lifetime. There were Terzo and Sebastian who at least was able to hold a decent conversation with him, but statistics dictated that there must be more who were a lot less pleasant company than the two.

He smiled a little at the insult her fiancee effectively shot at the man who called himself Mon. The guy deserved it. But the smile faltered as Luke understood the unsaid words, that the ass of a man must have been one of the exes she talked about earlier. Tall, tanned, ill-mannered. The prince could have asked if her taste in men had always been bad if she had not continued to approve to entertain the questions of her friends and neighbors. Yet what he thought was important was how she conducted their reunion. The cold shoulder and the slur should be enough to discourage others of his kind. “You enjoyed that, didn’t you?” Terzo prodded, smiling at Luke as if the commoner read the expression on the royal’s face perfectly.

“Meeting one of my fiancee’s exes, no. Definitely not.” Luke’s face almost automatically shuttered as he turned to the plate before him which begged for attention. He wondered whether the food was indeed good or that he underestimated the hunger of his stomach. One thing he learned when he willingly submitted himself to slavery at the training camp was that hunger made every food better.

Terzo chuckled. For some reason unknown to the royal, the commoner did not join the crowd who were trying to have a catch-up session with Rhiane. He remained in his sit peacefully sipping on his pint. Luke had finished his without even knowing. “Want more?” When Luke nodded, Terzo was more than pleased to call a waitress and order another round for the two of them. He leaned on his forearm on the table, peering at the royal as he continued attacking his food in silence. “It did not occur to me that his royal highness is such a possessive man.”

The statement was not glorified with a reply, but Luke did pause and stare long enough for the commoner to backpedal though figuratively. “I watch the news, Luke. Between you and Rhiane, it’s she who has the right to be anxious about the past relationships of her future spouse.” The waitress arrived with their liquors. Terzo grabbed his unfinished mug and clinked the glass against Luke’s. “With all due respect,” he added as if as an afterthought.

To be fair, Terzo was correct. Luke let the issue be. Half listening to the discussion being led by his fiancee, he finished the plate of spicy pasta and drank half of his liquor. Terzo would chime in occasionally, but most of the time he was an active listener too. Rhiane’s friends honored their part of the bargain. Though a number of them kept on stealing glances at the future king, none confronted him directly. Therefore, he was able to finish his meal. He had just placed the fork down, reading a message from his staff reminding him of the authorization his air force staff needed, when somebody from farther in the back of the bar called Terzo.

“Aren’t you gonna join in?” A male voice asked.

“Why not join in, Luke?” It was Sebastian. He had migrated, apparently, from the bar seat to the empty seat beside Luke. “It’s a popular game from the old world,” the farmer explained. “The goal of the game is to shoot these little balls into the cups arranged on the table. There will be two teams.” He made one of the plastic balls bounce on the table.

“And every time the opposing team makes a goal, you take a shot. Simple.”

“Yet, a lot of the drunken stories begin with it.”

It sounded familiar. Maybe he saw the game being played in one of the old world movies he watched. Regardless that it sounded simple enough to be fun, he was prepared to decline the invitation. If it had been his people, he could have humored them, but who knew what these farmers had in mind. What if they set it up to humiliate or get something out of him.

Terzo persisted with a grin. “It will be fun. We will agree to put all our devices down here on the table. No cameras. What happens in The Long Night remains in The Long Night.”

Well, it did not take much convincing to make Luke get to his feet. Gerald commented about Luke not cut out for sports. But it was Sebastian leaning over to whisper that there was a password on the drive that got the royal. The prince shot the foreigner a dirty look, emptied the remaining content of his mug, and followed Terzo to the far end of the bar. The people cheered when he did.

“Don’t worry, we’ll take care of him,” Sebastian told Rhiane before following the two men. Gerald was on his heels.

It was Terzo and Luke on the team, a male and female farmer on the opposite team. The game had not been long before Luke learned that Terzo sucked at it. They were drinking glass after glass of the poison before the first goal was secured by Luke. The bar erupted in a roar, even the prince cheered with them. Grinning, he locked gaze with Rhiane and pointed at her as if dedicating the first point of his team to his fiancee. Once he got his rhythm, the game was his, although they were too far into it for him to save it. In the end, Luke’s team lost. Such failure cost them several glasses of alcohol in their bellies and the bill for the liquors consumed for the game. Traditionally, the loser was replaced by a challenger, but that night, the crown prince whose cheeks was already pinkish due to the alcohol, insisted on another round. Terzo begged off the game and his place taken over by Gerald. The second round was theirs therefore they had to remain for the third round.
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Hidden 2 days ago Post by Syrenrei
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Despite the apprehension Luke had about Rhiane spending time speaking with her "exes," the conversation with the small crowd remained friendly, casual, and respectable, except for a few jokes exchanged between the men (and a couple farmer women). For the most part the discussion revolved around the businesses run by, managed by, or employed by the individuals in the bar. The princess elect listened intently and dispensed advice accordingly about accounting, contract negotiations, seed value, crop rotation, various equipment with which she was familiar, retailers, suppliers, government subsidies, and irrigation. Her time in the contest had never really touched on the breadth of knowledge she had acquired since she took over running the Black family farm. Listening to her now, although she did not proclaim to be an expert, she could speak far more intelligently than any of the aristocrats she had met would ever believe. Not only did she have answers for practical questions about agriculture, she could recall the rise and fall of various associated stocks accurately over the past several years.

For their part, Gerald and Hubert were happy to silently eat as Luke and Sebastian did, though they consumed far more alcohol than the prince. A few times a stolen glance at the brunette's farmer would reveal that he was smiling with pride. They were still estranged. The arguments and bickering earlier in the day had proved their issues were not resolved, but it was clear from his expression how much he prized his only daughter. While the nobility scoffed at her low birth and substandard education, he knew how hard she fought to claw her success out of the depths of poverty, with more disadvantages than most. She never had a parent to guide her since her mother passed and he had wallowed in grief, she was met with gender bias, she had very limited resources, yet she had made it. He had been full of intense love and admiration since before New Rome knew who she was.

All the while they were exchanging thoughts, Rhiane was radiant. It was not just the company of her former peers, but how they treated her. No one scoffed at her opinion, no one insulted or belittled her, no one judged her for her clothing or hair, and no one sneered. It was easy to forget as they teased, laughed, and carried on a heated debate about the best type of fertilizer for a home garden that they were just peasants. They shared with each other freely, without malice or jockeying for favor, sharing in one another's triumphs and empathizing over losses. This was what she dreamed of finding inside the palace, but had thus far eluded her.

During the drinking game, the princess elect watched intently, cheering for 'her team.' She gently ribbed Terzo for being awful at throwing the ball- he was genuinely wretched with throwing the ball- and ended up having his wife called to pick him up after he and Luke lost horribly. Though the large man was able to hold his liquor, he had lost his sense of when he was overindulging, and was becoming more unsteady on his feet. As much fun as she had the entrepreneur to talk to, she feared sending him home disgustingly drunk, and by the third game his wife was still trying to coax him out the front door while prattling on about how he needed to watch the last round. He recognized this was a once in a life time opportunity. They did not say it aloud, but everyone present suspected this was the first and last time they'd see Rhiane Black since her engagement.

Gerald slowly warmed to his future brother-in-law through the second round. Sebastian undoubtedly anticipated this in quietly commanding his paramour to step in before anyone else did. Like Luke, Gerald was competitive, but he had more athleticism and Terzo as well as more familiarity with the game he was playing. In his own way he bonded with the prince silently; instead of seeing him as an heir to the throne, he saw him as team mate, and instead of the enemy he was a comrade. The alcohol helped his disposition as well. His brooding had been dispersed by the effects of a full stomach, pints of home-brewed extra-strong beer, friendship, his sister's presence, and the satisfaction of winning. By no means was he ready to be pen-pals with anyone in the castle, but he was markedly less antagonistic than when they had sat down for dinner.

"It's a shame Rhiane isn't playing," one of the audience called out.

"Hey, we want a fighting chance," the male farmer on the opposing team protested.

"You're lucky I'm letting you borrow my fiance for a night," Rhiane said with crossed arms. "You should all know by now I'm not usually this generous. You can have him for one more game, and you can feel free to repay me by asking your wives to bake for me, since I know none of you know how to use an oven, except maybe Phillip." There were guffaws of feigned offense, and the few women that were participating enjoyed the jab at their counterpart's expense.

"You still going to be here tomorrow?" one asked in surprise.

"Why, you worried?" Rhiane countered, teasing, earning more chuckles. She leaned in close to Luke's ear before the third round began and said, "I'm holding you to your obligation for tonight, Prince Alessandro. I'll be very cross if you lose this game and spoil our plans." Planting a quick, overly sensual kiss on his lips, she straightened her posture and returned to a safe distance for the activities to resume. The exes in the crowd did not seethe with jealousy. If anything, they were impressed and amused, nodding their heads in approval for the brief display of affection. Seeing the former resident of their town acting like herself and flirting added much more credence to the romance than any broadcast.
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