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“It’s your room, you can do anything you want to it.” Luke shrugged. “Except maybe raising livestock in it. ”Encouraging her to pursue her passion, especially something as harmless as arts, was something he thought would work out to his advantage in the long run. Just like every magic spell in every fairy tale that was read to him when he was a child, the enchantment of the engagement between a prince and a farmer would eventually wear off. When that time came, there would be less and less public appearances. He would go about doing his own business and she would most likely do the same. The promises they made to each other during their first dance as a couple would probably be in effect, and it would help Rhiane do well on her part of the bargain if she had something to pour her energy into. “But you’re right. I do not plan to pose for a drawing or a painting. Sitting still and doing nothing for too long is annoying.”

Rhiane seemed like a different person. Well, it could be that this was the real Rhiane and the woman that she was whenever she was with him was the guarded, careful version of herself. He took the empty seat beside her bed and took away the glass cover guarding their dinner. As soon as it was lifted, what was left of the hospital scent was engulfed by the mouthwatering smell of sweets. It almost enticed him to steal a piece or two.

“Nobody will believe me if even if I swore on my father’s name that you just escaped death tonight.” Looking at her, he hardly believed it himself. And what was he doing wasting his time sitting beside her when his guilt brought about by him being responsible for her was all that brought him to that room? Without touching the filet mignon on his plate, he watched in wonder how someone who nearly died of food poisoning could look so content while eating. She ought to have some sort of trauma after everything that happened, but as the doctor said, Rhiane could not remember most of what happened. The good thing was that he wouldn’t need to coax her into eating solid food, but the bad side of it was that she was probably as careless with what she put in her mouth as she was that afternoon. “You should at least slowdown eating. And I suggest that you sample every plate rather than attacking one dessert after the other, so that by the time you are full, you have already tasted everything.”

His dinner looked pathetic compared to the amount of hers, but at least it was healthier. Before he started eating, though, Luke touched a panel on the wall behind him. It functioned as both the control for the monitors used to track the patient’s vital signs, as a communication device to call the doctors or nurses in case of emergency, and more importantly as a remote control to the forty-inch monitor that hang on the wall Rhiane was facing. He was not frequently in these rooms, but he knew how technology worked inside his home. “There is a similar panel at the side of the bed,” he explained to Rhiane. At the side railings, which was placed to protect the occupant from falling over, was a three-by-five-inch monitor that would light up once activated by the patient’s touch. It was placed there strategically to address the issue of lost remote controls and to give the patient quick access to the television.

The monitor turned on to a screen showing program options. Luke navigated it for her until he found a movie he thought she would enjoy. “Titanic,” he announced just as the introduction of the studios that made the movie started to show. “It was the highest grossing film in the world for over a decade. It tells the story of a rich woman and a poor but lucky man meeting on the --” He cut himself. Luke had the tendency to talk and continue talking as if every word he said was interesting to the audience. The audience often indulged their future king, though, which encouraged him to talk further. Talking about movie was different. “I should just let you watch it. Women likes love stories, so I thought you might like this one.” His smile seemed to have a secret meaning when his blue eyes sought her face and he added, “By the end of the three-hour movie, you will know what I meant by ‘paint me like one of your French guys’”

He sat back and stretched his legs before him, remembering to check his messages. The tray of food was between them and the movie was playing as he scrolled through the names until he found several unread messages from Sophia. He needed not to explain himself, he thought. She wanted nothing to do with him and then wanted him back within the same day.
“Sure,” was all he said. How could he say no to a patient who, minutes ago, had scared him and half his family into thinking that maybe the perpetrators did succeed? The royal placed the device beside her on the bed, then excused himself not to give her privacy, but to do something else entirely.

The door slid close behind him just as he heard her telling Sebastian about the IV as if her brother’s partner would take her side on the matter. Luke smirked, because he already won that battle. Rhiane had given her consent for the medication, which she would otherwise fight to death against – quite literally. But to be honest, it was a major relief that she was responding positively to his attempts at manipulation. At least he did not need to put a lot of effort to persuade her that it was for the best that she listened to the doctors. For that, he had the deliciously sweet creations of the kitchen to thank.

His purpose for briefly leaving the room was, well, work. He promised to stay with Rhiane, but he did not promise that his full attention. There were reports waiting to be read and some other reports to be written, but he came to the tower as soon as he could with the intention of just making sure she was well before he left for the night. The crown prince underestimated the empathy and guilt that his conscience was still capable of carrying. It was not his intention to stay, but he ended up cancelling prior commitments and leaving his computer in the car.

Because he was either not willing to leave his fiancee alone for too long or he was feeling lazy to walk up his suite to pick up his computer, Luke found himself leaning against the white marble counter of the nurses’ station.

“Your highness.” Just like everything else in his life, he neither waited nor voiced his intention to ask for help. It arrived in the form of a young medical intern he knew. The woman smiled up at her crown prince, but the expression quickly changed to slight worry. “Is there anything wrong with the patient?”

“No, she’s fine, Lena” he answered. “I didn’t know that you are assigned here. Anyway, I just need to ask somebody to pick-up my computer for me. Call Nolan and tell him I need my computer to be brought here in the Medical Tower.”

“Of course.” She winked then smiled. Luke failed to notice the way she flipped her hair and sway her hips as she walked away. He even failed to thank her for doing him a favor. The prince traced the path he followed on the way to the nurses’ station, and there it was halfway to the room. The multitude of desserts he was sure she would not be able to finish that night not because she was sick, but because it was just impossible to consume that much sweets.

“Is that for the princess?” He asked the attendant who was pushing the silver cart.

“Yes, your highness. Plus, your dinner.”

“Excellent. Let me handle this.” The servant bowed from the waist, gladly letting go of the burden and eager to be back to the kitchen to tell the story of their crown prince’s apparent good mood. Luke, on the other hand, was still amazed at his fiancee’s love for sweets. More than that, he was amazed at her metabolism, because when he saw her in her undergarments, there was no misplaced fat on her shapely figure.

Her full name said in such a tone made him wonder what it was that she had said to Sebastian. Then again, the following sentences explained everything. It was rude to interrupt a conversation that he was not part of, so he kept his thoughts to himself, but it was not to say that he did not have his opinion on the matter of her mental health. He had questions even though he was certain that whatever it was, there was no lasting effect on her mental faculties. Perhaps her flashbacks were because of trauma, something that the doctors can fix.

“If you need your own studio, just ask your maids to convert your old room into one. Nobody uses that space anyway.” He wheeled the desserts in, filling the antiseptic-smelling room with the smell of chocolate, cream, and sugar. “Then draw me like one of your French gir – guys. Wearing this and only this.” A lopsided grin played on his lips as he recited a line from an old movie, while he set the desserts a few paces from Rhiane.

“I honestly did not expect them to make everything you ordered."
If Sebastian did love the princess elect as his own sister, then he should have done everything he could to talk her out of her intent to join the contest. It was what Luke would have done if he was in the same situation as the informant and Cally would express her intention to join such a contest for whatever reason there may be. Poverty was not a disease, it was a temporary status that any person with the right state of mind could get out of. Being crowned princess elect, on the other hand, was worse than cancer, because the latter could be treated while the former was a voluntary submission to death. Therefore, if Sebastian loved Rhiane, then Luke doubted he would have the pleasure of talking to him on the phone.

He wanted to tell the commoner all the reasons why he believed that Sebastian was not being thoroughly truthful, but then again it would neither be helpful nor a productive use of time. Therefore, Luke settled with a straightforward, “These are all rumors to me.” The short statement told the person at the other end of the line of his mistrust for unvalidated information, especially one that came from a stranger’s mouth. Granted that every information was baseless at the beginning, but the source did matter. Sebastian had no credibility to bank on, and Luke was not about to put his trust in his fiancee’s relatives when he did not trust the woman in the first place.

“I have a team who is thoroughly looking into this incident. There are parties, other than the rebellion, who have reasons to want Rhiane dead. I will not place bias on the investigation by assuming that this is the work of the rebels, as you are claiming. Nevertheless, whoever is responsible will not go unpunished.” A conclusion that early in the process would skew the result, which might be proven fatal in the long run when the real perpetrators ran free while the sentenced innocent suffered the consequences. “Unless,” the prince enunciated. “Unless you submit yourself as a witness against the rebellion, or the faction of it that you have access to, and help us resolve this once and for all.”

It was not ideal to work with somebody from the outside, someone who saw the world differently from himself, but in this case maybe he was willing to make an exception. It was not every day that an opportunity to work with a possibly trusted insider would present itself to him. “If you agree to work for me, and the information you give be validated through successful operations from my end, then the crown shall grant you a handsome reward. Plus,” he paused as if thinking his next words through before he let go of the offer. “You can have both your sister and the noble status promised to her and her family. Think about my offer, Sebastian Legrand.”

Luke kept the phone pressed to the side of his face while he exited the empty room and found his way back to the one being occupied by his fiancee. “She is recovering well and may be able to speak with you if she so desires,” he added as the sliding door opened for him.

“Doctor Villani, thank you for sitting with her. I’ll call you should we need further assistance,” the prince dismissed the woman. The medicine might have already taken effect. Though the way that the poison weakened her body was still evident in the princess elect’s eyes, at least her body had stopped throwing up whatever was left in her stomach. The doctor

“Rhiane.” Luke’s voice, whether or not Sebastian noticed, was much softer than when he was talking to the other man. “Your brother’s partner, Sebastian, is on the other line. Would you like to speak to him?”
The note written on the piece of paper identified the commoner as Sebastian Legrand, Gerald Black’s partner. Gerald had to be Rhiane’s brother. It was unusual that her living relatives would ignore the palace’s summons, and yet a person who was not related by blood was willing to risk his freedom and ultimately his life for her. It was noble, but Luke knew better than trusting that the earth was still capable of producing a noble human being. This Sebastian definitely had his own reasons for sticking his neck out for the farmer girl. It could be that out of the remaining Black family, he was the only person smart enough to figure out that if Rhiane died before she and the crown prince got married, none of them would enjoy the benefits of being upgraded to noble status. Therefore, what he was saying could be genuine information from somebody who was a member of the resistance.

Luke was silent even after Sebastian had finished stating his purpose. Assassination attempts were nothing new to the royal family, and their ancestors before them. It was precisely because of these events that very strict security measures were employed in the palace and whenever any of the royalties were out in the world. Luke was no stranger to attempts to his life, though fortunately none had succeeded yet. Rhiane’s case was a near miss that could have been prevented if he had been paying more attention to her needs. But the circumstances had changed, the original schedule composed of the immunization to poisons, lessons on etiquette, dancing, poise, and public speaking were all pushed back in favor for the grand tour aiming to make the crown’s name more pleasant to its people.

“Do you understand that you are confessing your ties to the resistance to a person with the authority to order an arrest?” Rhiane was a smart girl. If she and Sebastian did get along well, then Luke thought the former ought to be smart as well. He probably knew what he was getting into, but perhaps the benefits outweighed the cost.

“Sebastian Legrand,” the crown prince read the name scribbled on the piece of paper for emphasis. “Rhiane did mention that the rebellion has its presence in her home town, and she did claim to know people who are involved. I can offer you amnesty in exchange for further information. Do you have access to the faction of the rebellion which you claim wanted Rhiane dead or are all of these just rumors you hear from your neighbors?”

The involvement of the rebellion was not unlikely and the reasoning was even sound. If anything happened to Rhiane while she was princess elect, it would reflect badly on both himself and his mother. According to Luce, the common people loved the Rhiane Black, because they could relate to her. She was somebody who was born to inherit her parent’s hard life, but then she overcame the curse of poverty and ascended in rank to princess. He could only imagine how much the rebellion would exploit the opportunity should the royal family fail to protect the commoner.

“But you don’t have to worry about her.” His voice softened a little. “She will be safe as long as she is with me. Today was a mistake, but we will be more careful. Would you like to speak to her?”
There was a veil that hid the world of the upper class from the general public. To a commoner, it would seem that those who were born to the rich noble houses were free from all the cares in the world, the perhaps their day-to-day worries were comprised of what to wear, which car or hovercraft to drive, or how to outdo the last best party of the season. Unfortunately to the children of the lords and ladies, it was not so. While they did not have to worry about food to eat or whether or not there would be roof above their heads to sleep in, they did live in a ruthless world where reputation was all that mattered. A misstep could tarnish the family’s good name and turn their good fortune into ashes. It was not a world where weaknesses were not deemed okay. No, Luke’s world did not tolerate anything less than perfect.

It was a lesson he was trying to teach his future bride since the day they had met. Maybe the night would teach her to be subtle with what she likes and dislikes, because her future husband was adept at manipulation.

A smile sly smile slowly lit up his face at her pronouncement of defeat. “I am flattered that you doubted, even for just a second, that I will not perform such a mean act of eating all of your precious desserts.” On the contrary, he would enjoy every bit of second until she regretted her decision and asked for the medicine. Sweets were not his favorite food, but he would be a hypocrite if he told her that he did not indulge in sugar once in a while.

Luke remained standing at one side of the bed with her hand still in his as a nurse, following the instructions of the lead doctor, injected the medication to the tubing. He remembered a time when he was lying on a similar bed and being tended by white-uniformed professionals, but in a much less sophisticated facility. He broke his arm during one of the training sessions in military camp. It was not a big deal, and he was not the first recruit who had the misfortune of having a bad fall, but he was the queen’s son. The queen turned everything into a big deal. His mother cancelled her appointments and stayed by his side, so did his sister. The twins cried the first time they saw their big brother hurt. But it was his mother who held his hand when he was in pain.

Doctor Villani’s voice cut through his thoughts and erased the smile from his face. Curious about the message, although it could be about anything at that point, he took the piece of paper. “Excuse me, Rhiane.” He had to disentangle his hand from her warmth as he unfolded the message.

The prince’s expression did not change, but he withdrew the communication device from his back pocket. The caller identified himself as Sebastian, the partner of Rhiane’s brother. The man claimed to have information that he would wish to share to the crown prince. No other explanation was offered. It could be true, or the man called Sebastian could just be making things up in an effort to turn himself into a valuable asset to Luke. He glanced at the patient lying on the bed, before nodding to Elena’s offer. “I appreciate your offer, doctor.”

The other end of the line rang just as the sliding door closed behind him. The corridor was empty, but he knew better than to speak deliberately inside the medical facility where cameras abound and ears, though not visible, were listening. Should the information this Sebastian was claiming to know was as valuable as the commoner implied, then it was better off not spilled to the grapevine. The room adjacent to Rhiane’s was empty and perfect for his privacy.

“Hello,” a voice at the other end greeted.

“This is Alessandro Castiglione. Talk to me.”
A part of him wanted to stay at the patient’s bedside if only to spite the queen. Then again, the crown prince had an argument to win and a situation to discuss with his mother and stepfather. The relationship he had with his parents might not be the at its best, but the reigning queen and her prince consort were a figure of authority that he could not ignore.

The tall gentleman slung the uniform over his shoulder and turned away without any promise that he will be returning. It could be that his mind was preoccupied with how to re-open the argument about the itinerary of their tour, or that he had no intentions of honoring his words to a commoner. She was “feeling much better” anyway. Besides, they could all rely on Tobias to update them should anything go wrong.

The glass sliding door glided to one side upon sensing the presence of the royal. He was almost at the threshold when one of the apparatus beeped and then the patient was on her side, emptying the contents of her stomach. The princess gasped. Luke turned in time to witness his future wife’s beautiful face contorted in pain. He took a step towards her, but a nurse, in her hurry, brushed against his arm and almost bumped into him. Thinking that he would be more of a burden and less of a help to the situation, he stepped aside to give more room to the medical staff.

“This is not what ‘well enough’ looks like, Elena,” said Queen Camilla. The beeping and the running of the nurses delayed their departure. She stood with a stoic face behind the sliding glass door that was held open only by the presence of his son at the other side. Gone was the pretense of sweet concern that had brought her to the infirmary. She had assumed her position of power, questioning a subject who had promised one thing only to be proven wrong by the consequent events. Disappointment and accusation laced her voice as she regarded the physician, whom she trusted would immediately cure the pawn.

Cally moved to step into the room, but her mother effectively prevented her by grabbing her wrist. “It’s my fault, mum. I gave her the grapes to eat.”

The older woman just shook her head. Her eyes were still on the medical staff tending to the peasant. A few minutes ago, everything seemed to be in order and things were falling according to plan. The logistics were set, the lords were already informed, the itinerary broadcasted. Different media organizations would already have deployed their staff and crew, as coordinated with the palace, to cover the first province that the couple would visit. If either of the two failed to make an appearance, it would surely raise questions and fuel the speculations that the early retreat of the princess elect had nothing to do with wardrobe malfunction, but rather something more urgent. “There is no need for either my son or I to stay,” she started in an even tone. “I am appointing you the authority to do whatever it takes to restore Ms. Black’s good health. The status of her health is not acceptable, Elena. I am following a strict timetable and I need Ms. Black to perform her function well.”

“I agree with the queen that it is unnecessary for either of us to stay behind,” the prince seconded to the physician’s dismay. His eyes were fixed on the woman, who minutes ago was smiling as if she had not stared death in the eye. It was his fault that this was happening. If he had not asked her to leave his room, none of it would have had occurred. “But I am staying, mother. Tobias, you may take the rest of the night off.”

“You will only be a nuisance, my dear,” his mother offered. Her voice was controlled and so was the forced smile on her face. But guilt was more compelling than the queen’s masked disagreement to her son’s insistence to stay.

“Excuse us, Elena.” An argument with the monarch would be both improper and distracting inside the room where a patient was being treated. Therefore, the prince walked up to his mother, letting the glass door close behind him. “Mother, if you want her to be in working condition tomorrow, then do not interfere and let me stay to make sure the doctors are doing their job.”

To the spectators inside the room, if any, it would look like the two royals talking calmly to each other, and they were. At least to an observer, they seemed to be. The even tones and neutral expressions suggested that it was a casual discussion between a mother and his son. To Callista, who had known the two all her life, knew that both were on edge. They had been testing each other’s patience since they saw each other that night. Had they not been in a relatively public place, one of the two would have already raised his/her voice. The back-and-forth rebuttal went on for a few moments more until the princess couldn’t help but interfere. She placed her hand on the queen’s forearm to catch her attention. “Mum, just let Luke stay. He says he will write a report for you, and I know he will make sure that Rhiane will be well enough to leave the capital tomorrow. Did he ever fail you?”

Queen Camilla paused, then a few moments later left with her daughter, while Luke re-entered the room. “Your highness, I appreciate that you have decided to remain with the patient. Now, we will need to administer a medication to help ease Ms. Black’s stomach’s agitation whenever food is introduced, it will also help with her nausea. The patient feels strongly against such treatment, and we can actually safely wait until her immune system calms down, but it may take days.”

“I understand. Let me speak to her.” The nurse and the doctor, after helping the woman lean back on the bed. A couple of cleaning crew had arrived to fix the mess on the floor. Thankfully the sheets were not stained. “Rhiane, do you remember the desserts you ordered?” There was a hint of mischief in his voice even though his face was as solemn as an angel’s. He reached for her hand that was without an IV and closed his fingers around it as if for support. “I will end up eating all of it if you refuse the medication. And you shall be forced to watch while I devour one after the other.”
Luke was eyeing the basket since his sister waltz inside the room with her hands behind her back in a failed attempt to hide her get-well-soon present for the farmer. When he found her sitting on the bench earlier, he was sure that there was no basket. When the Elena exited to inform them of the princess elect’s condition, there was still no basket. Therefore, he had the mildest suspicion that his sister procured the gift to emphasize her point that a prince like him should learn how to properly woo a lady. She was the hopeless romantic of the siblings, and Callista was in the phase of her life when love and the idea of falling in love was still magical.

The princess shot her brother a sly glance as she stepped out of Rhiane’s hug and stepped beside him allowing their mother room to assert herself. “Where did that come from?” Luke whispered. To which, his sibling just shrugged with a smug smile which suggested that he wouldn’t hear the end of it if he pushed her to start talking right at that moment.

“I am pleased to hear you say that, Rhiane Black.” Queen Camilla tilted her head ever so slightly. A pleasant countenance, which she had mastered over the years, beamed at the commoner. There was no doubt that she meant it more than she meant well for the well-being of the woman. “I knew I was right to have voted for you. The strength of your will and the resilience of your body was admirable during the contest. I do believe that you will make a good mother to my grandchildren.”

But Luke was not in agreement, as usual. “Mother, with all due respect, we did agree to delay the schdeuled departure just one more day to give her time to recover.” It was a lengthy conversation that happened while the prince was on his way back to the castle. The argument that won the queen over was that it would make a bigger scandal if the princess elect showed any sign of weakness during the first few days of the tour while the PR team was doing damage control, because it would mean that the crown lied and at the same time forced the poor peasant to cover up for its shortcomings.

“I understand that we had an agreement, Lucius,” she started. “But the agreement was under the presumption that Ms. Black’s condition is much worse. Then again, as you both heard her say, she is feeling much better and is eager to travel.”

“She does not mean what she is saying.” There was a finality in how he said it. Judging from how time and again she belittled her medical situation, and instead placed her own health at peril, it was not surprising that Rhiane made such response while thinking of pleasing the queen. To be fair, it was her job to please the queen, to be her pawn in the charade that the crown staged to distract its people. “She’s a peasant and you her queen. There is no way that she will say no or show any indication that she is incapable of what you are asking of her.”

Queen Camilla turned her back on Rhiane to face her heir. Cally dodged the spotlight by slipping away from where she stood beside her brother and instead took his place on the chair beside the bed. “You will get used to this after a while,” she whispered to Rhiane. “Luke usually opposes our mother. I am not sure if he is doing it for his own amusement.”

“I sense that you have other reasons why you would want to stay one more day in this city, and we shall discuss it after dinner.” The queen’s voice resounded with authority.

“I have lain down my cards. There is nothing more to discuss.”

Silence followed the crown prince’s statement. Cally could only guess the look on their mother’s face as she stared at her eldest. The princess broke a bunch of grapes and passed some to Rhiane.

“Very well, let us be on our way. Your father and brothers are waiting for us.” The princess got to her feet, while Luke crossed his arms over his chest, but before he can voice his objection the queen added, “Lavanchy is outside waiting for my instruction to accompany you, Ms. Black. He will see to it that all your needs and your requests, of course within reasonable bounds, are met. I hope you do not mind that I require my son’s presence at our family dinner.”

Cally apologized for the intrusion and wished Rhiane a speedy recovery before following her mother out the room. Luke, on the other hand, promised that he will be with them shortly and waited until they had left the room before retrieving his jacket wordlessly. "I wish that you will consider your own well-being for once, Rhiane.”
Luke laughed out loud at her rather quick denial of his hypothetical proposal. “What happened to ‘I will always try to do what I truly believe is in your best interest’?” He was referring to something she said when they were having an argument the day before, though it was not something he really expected from her. It was just that he was not as insensitive and apathetic as the media sometimes painted him. When she announced that her family would not come see her, that there was nobody that she would request to be at her bedside, Luke heard the pain in her voice and saw the tears threatening to spill from those green eyes. He kept his mouth shut and avoided prodding emotional territory, especially because he was not equipped to deal with a crying princess.

Therefore, he tried to lighten the mood by teasing her and apparently it worked. Rhiane denied him, yet again, but it worked. Her face lit up as she grinned while imagining the names and faces of the people whose veins she would volunteer as her betrothed’s target practice. The sadness in her eyes retreated, behind the wall of defense she built around herself. Unknown to the princess elect, the person standing in front of her was no stranger to hiding loneliness behind a confident smile. The prince was firm on his belief that a royal and a peasant had nothing in common, but the truth was he and she were more alike than they would both admit. It was not the time to explore those similarities though.

Feeling that he had successfully evaded the task of calming down a potential breakdown, his royal highness made his way back to his seat. The Airforce uniform jacket hang at the back of the chair. “No. Of course not. I would not have eaten anything from Evolab after what I saw happened to you.” He may have undergone procedures as precaution to such assassination attempts, but the thought of something bad in his food was enough to suppress his appetite. Besides, he was too angry to think of anything else other than who was behind the attempt and how best to penalize the responsible party.

Noticing the soft light gazing the edges of his communication band, Luke picked it up and read the message. It was that moment when the door silently slid open again.

“Rhiane, my dear, I trust that you are feeling better.” The queen’s voice was as sweet as the scent she wore when she glided into the room followed by her daughter, who was smiling sheepishly.

The heir stiffened halfway through the message he was typing back at the sound of his mother’s voice. He turned the display off and put the device in his back pocket. Although it was not enough to hide the entirety of the device, at least there was no chance that the queen would catch a glimpse of the messages. “What are you doing here?” He asked, honestly baffled by the sudden appearance of the mother-daughter tandem.

“Visiting the sick, what else?” Unlike her older brother who rushed into the sick room empty-handed, Callista carried a basket of fresh fruits. It was not something she personally picked for the princess elect, but was most likely a result of a request to the royal kitchen. She set her gift down on Rhiane’s bedside table. The princess paused beside her future sister-in-law, who was resting against the pillow, then gently threw herself at the older woman with a well-meant hug. “I hope you get well soon, Rhiane.” The hug was not intended to last longer than necessary. Cally pulled herself away before it got awkward, then smiled at the patient. “I hope you like fruits, because I brought a lot for you.” She turned to her brother then continued, “Luke may steal some of it, because he eats a lot, but don’t let him, okay?”
“I am just making sure that our princess elect is recovering well,” the queen reassured. “I hear from Isaac that her system is responding well to the anti-toxins and that there is no longer any threat to her life. I wanted to see for myself that the reports are true.” When she smiled, it was as if an older version of the princess’ face was smiling at Rhiane. “Otherwise, it will be unfortunate to ask you, Ms. Black, to travel even if you are feeling unwell. Looking at you now, however, I am more at peace with the schedule of your tour that will depart tomorrow.”
She didn’t remember much, but he did. Tobias probably did too. Evolab’s COO, Alec Wescott, would most likely have restless nights after the incident until the culprit was pinpointed. The young executive might have thought that the attendance of the princess elect was equivalent to opportunity knocking at his doorstep. He was attentive enough to usher it in, was confident enough to offer how his organization could turn the vision into reality, but what he failed to foresee was the risk that such an unfortunate episode could happen when there were important people involved. The blame could be passed on to the event and its organizers and one or more of his people could be charged with frustrated murder, treason, among other criminal offenses, which would be less ideal for the brand.

Luke avoided any updates on the matter, though, as it was making him more anxious. Last he heard was that, as instructed, the person who fetched the leftover food and wine was identified placed under surveillance. Samples of the leftovers were also retrieved as evidence and samples for lab analysts to use. In good faith, Evolab volunteered the use of their laboratories, but Luke had long been an unbeliever of good faith. Every act of kindness, no matter how genuine it may seem, was tainted with self-serving purpose that was either driven by greed or self-preservation. To protect the confidentiality of the matter, everything was done by palace staff under the supervision of Elena Villani.

Although there had already been rumors circulating about the sudden disappearance of the former farmer, which was a nightmare for the PR staff and Luce Viscomi, they had prepared a statement to dispel the worries of the general public. The queen clearly had no intentions of allowing the incident to be broadcast for the same reason that Luke explained to the COO earlier – it was a sign of weakness. Besides, it could be interpreted that the crown was unwilling to spend for the immunization of the future mother of her heir, that the princess elect was not treated as an equal of the royals.

When Rhiane asked Tobias to leave the room, he thought that she might truly be feeling well enough to be able to smile like she did. But then again, it might be just the pain killer doing its job. In the short period that he had known her, she had always placed the least priority on her health. Pushing through with the interview after the mild hypothermia the night before and picking stilettos when she had a sore ankle were two of the evidences he could think of that proved his observation. The happy face and devil-may-care disposition might be her way to cover for what she really felt inside. Was she afraid? Was she in pain? Did she pin the blame on him?

Regardless, he undid the buttons of his uniform jacket then shrugged it off completely revealing a button-up white long-sleeved shirt underneath. He also undid the top two buttons of the shirt and proceeded to roll-up the sleeves to his elbows. It was a gesture that said that he was staying, as was promised. It perhaps it answered Sophia’s question.

“I did not want to risk it, in case she did.” The truth was that he had forgotten about the implants. What brought him to the Medical Tower was the pressing sense of responsibility for what happened to the farmer. It was his last-minute request that led her from the safety of his quarters and into the claws of death. There was no need for her to be in that event. It was his selfish plan to make Sophia jealous that had unknowingly endangered Rhiane. If she died because of it, Luke would not be able to live with himself not because the farmer had grown an attachment to the prince, but because he would then be no different from the queen. “I will be staying with you tonight implant or no implant, because you would not be in this situation if not for me. I should have been more careful.” The man paused as he detached his communication device from his wrist so that he could use it as a flat mobile device. “Unless you do not want my presence, then I shall ask for Tobias, your family, or whoever you wish.” His head was bent on the device, typing as he spoke gently to Rhiane.

'Not tonight, love,' he typed as a response. 'There is something I need to address.'

“My bedroom is fine as it is,” Luke responded when asked about its decorations, turning his attention back to her. “I honestly do not like the smell of the hospital as well – bad memories. Everybody must have at least one bad memory that happened in a hospital. The first vaccination, the first blood sample, the first major surgery, the first time a loved one passed, the second, the third. Makes me wonder if doctors are secretly masochists. I hear that they practice vaccination and taking blood samples from each other.” He paused as he watched her browse the menu of the food that she was allowed to eat for dinner. It was doubtful that the staff would allow her to consume more than what was prescribed by her doctors. She was very likely on a strict diet not because of her figure, but to prevent aggravating her internal systems.

Amused of what she would like to have for dinner, he chose not to be the voice of reason and waited for her to make a list. “Your appetite will be the death of you,” Luke remarked joking, but he took a mental note of all her demands, even the level of customization she wanted for her food, then walked to the sliding glass door and poked his head to the hallway. A nurse was immediately there to do his bidding. He recited the patient’s requests as the nurse, who was clearly fighting to maintain a straight face and not insult the future queen, jotted it down on her tablet without any question. Apparently, she too did not have the heart to tell Rhiane that her orders would not all be fulfilled. The prince and the nurse both left it to the medical nutritionist to break the news to the princess elect.

Having been done with the chore, Luke turned on his heels. The door automatically slid close after sensing him walk away from it. “Say, if I happen to realize that I want to be a doctor, will you be willing to be my practice patient?” The cheeky grin on his face would have told her that he was talking about the needle-stabbing and all that.

In his amusement of her mind’s ability to still want food after nearly dying because of said substance, the prince had left the device on her bed, where it buzzed as it received a message. 'Is her condition bad? Is she dead?' was what Sophia’s message said. Cleaning up the mess that was expected to blow up following the hypothetical passing of his fiancée could be a valid reason for him not to be able to leave the castle.
Will she see him tonight?

He wanted to. In fact, in the last minute, not just once did he stop himself from turning on his heels to walk away from the white-coated professionals and the smell of antiseptic. It was the end goal, wasn’t it – to make Sophia Keller realize that she made a mistake, make her understand that she could not beat the crown prince at his own game? That was the very reason why he asked his betrothed to make a surprise appearance despite the doctor’s advise that she should rest for the day. Judging by the way the actress had reacted, she felt threatened and was poised to protect her territory. It was probably how she thought Luke would respond to her pronouncement that while she loved him, she could not bear to be a royal’s mistress. Maybe she wanted him to say that he would do everything to expedite the expiration of the farmer. Instead, pig-headed as the prince was, he paraded the said farmer to a formal event as if to tell the actress that she had no business changing the rules of the game and that he did not negotiate with terrorists.

Nevertheless, it was entirely false to assume that Luke had given up all hopes that his relationship with Sophia would lead to a happily ever after. It was in fact this hope, despite the responsibility to follow tradition, that made him want to turn around and leave that very building even when his selfish, though quite brilliant, idea endangered the life of an innocent human being.

He remembered being in that same place when he was a boy. Callista was just a baby then. It was the same set of automatic smoked glass doors that separated him from the man who, up to that moment, he thought was invincible. He remembered sitting alone on one of the benches lining the walls, praying to whoever would hear his desperate pleas, bargaining even with his life, for one more day with his father.

The doctor who came out of those doors years ago wore a rehearsed expression of sympathy as he shook his head and broke the news to the young prince who could barely see through his tears. Luke was afraid that history would repeat itself that night.

“You always tell me to not worry about things that are out of my hands,” Callista consoled after noticing how far away her brother’s stare was. She leaned her cheek against Luke’s slightly slumped shoulder then patted his knee. “Everything will turn out okay. The doctors will say that she is alright.”

She may not be alright. Cally was spared from the grief of losing a father, only because she was too young to remember the funny faces, strong arms, and warm kisses of the man. Had it been anybody else who tried to reassure him with those kind words, he would have retorted with a bitter remark. Then again, it was his sister, therefore Luke bit his tongue and patted her cheek playfully in response. “Why are you here, Cally?”

The princess shrugged. “Mum panicked. Even Nico was escorted back to the castle against his will. Philip, on the other hand, was already with mother when the news reached her. I assume that she sent for you as well.” It wasn’t a surprise that the queen acted that way. There was a lot of negative things that could be said about Queen Camilla, but it was universally accepted that she loved her children fiercely. “How about you? Wouldn’t you rather be partying with those boring old businessmen?”

Luke opened his mouth to comment about the ‘boring old businessmen’ statement when a female doctor emerged from the door. The prince instantly recognized her as Elena Villani. She was not in one of those protective hazmat suits, which he thought to mean that Rhiane’s condition was not contagious. Still, it was not an indication that everything was alright. He came prepared for the worst. Much as he wouldn’t want to admit it, the farmer’s well-being had an effect on his and his mother’s popularity as leaders. If Rhiane died, or would sustain a permanent physical impairment, then others might come to interpret it as weakness of the ruling house.

The siblings got to their feet and met the doctor, but it was only after her second sentence did Luke released the breath he didn’t notice that he was holding in his chest. Callista sighed audibly. Both listened attentively as the older woman filled them in on the findings about the substance that nearly killed the princess elect in addition to her health status.

“I do have questions, but it can wait. There is a team looking into this incident and I am sure that they will be in touch with you on the identity and composition of the poison soon.”

“Uhh… What he means to say is thank you for taking care of Rhiane, Dr. Villani,” Cally chimed in sweetly. Her brother glanced at her sideways, but failed to make a comment. “He is truly worried. We both are, but now that my future sister’s condition is stable, we would like to see her.”

Elena smiled. The princess’ cheerful energy was contagious, but she had to tell the bad news. “You may see her, but be mindful that the patient needs as much rest as she can get. Therefore, I strongly advise to a one-visitor policy. Besides, Mr. Lavanchy is already in the room with her.”

“Tobias?” There was a time when Luke was glad that there was a Tobias Lavanchy who would fill in his shoes and escort Rhiane when he was busy doing something more productive than babysitting an adult farmer. Then again, it was becoming more and more apparent to him as the hours ticked by, that this man was going the extra mile for his commoner. Nobody did that anymore, not without ulterior motive anyway.

“Yes, your highness. Mr. Lavanchy has been very helpful. The princess elect seems to trust him and listens to him more than she listens to us.”

But Luke was already on his way to the door even as Elena stepped aside while she finished her sentence. Much as she would like to personally see that Rhiane was well, the princess was left with no choice but to hang back and let her brother have his time with his future wife. “You didn’t even bring her flowers with a note that says, ‘get well soon’,” she called after her brother, who ignored it.

Behind the frosted door, he was met by a nurse that led him to where the princess elect was recovering. Tobias was indeed with her. It was is job, but Tobias was a man while Rhiane was an undeniably beautiful woman even for a person who came face to face with death. He nodded once to his second cousin.

“How are you feeling?” An IV stabbed the vein at the back of her left hand. It was connected to a solution above her head that was meant to give her energy as she recovers. He dragged a chair to the side of her bed. “It looks to me that being princess had only since brought you bad luck. First the ankle, then this.” His attempt to engage her in a light conversation still sounded morbid. It reflected the thoughts that had been running in his head since he saw her on the bathroom floor. “Your doctor implied that had it been anybody else, she could have already died at the amount of poison you ingested. From now on, we will be taking extra measures to ensure that there will be no repeat of this event.”

Luke stationed himself at her bedside, propping his arm on the mattress, but careful not to touch her. He felt as though she would break, or maybe his touch would hurt her. “She also said that you are not happy to be here, but I’m happy to be able to speak to you again regardless of where we are at.” There was that smile that was a product of relief, joy, and a bit of sadness. He paused, considering the emotions which he convinced himself to be just chemical reactions in his brain. “I will stay with you tonight, but we both stay here where the doctors can monitor you.”
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