Happily Never After

Annabelle Hearst is just another person in the Headow kingdom, ruled by the Tomlinson family. Pressured by his father the king, Prince Louis is searching for a bride, a wife to make him a heir. He stumbles into Annabelle, one of the few who doesn't venerate the royal family. Can he convince her to come to the live the royal life with him willingly, or will he have to force her into it?

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15. The Reckoning

It's unreal to realise that barely a month ago, I was still in school, studying in hopes of obtaining a job that could help me earn enough money to support my family. Never would I have imagined that I'd be the princess of Headow, yet alone married to Prince Louis whom I used to despise.  Everything had been thrown in my way so hastily: I barely had the time to realise what was going on. First thing I'm taken to the castle, then I'm marrying the Prince and saying goodbye to my family and next thing I know, I need to help with the preparations for The Reckoning, a tradition I'd completely overlooked whilst I struggled to get a grasp on what my life was becoming.

The Reckoning was a common tradition in Headow, as it has happened on every year for the last centuries on the eldest prince's birthday. It consisted of bribing several of Headow's most hard-working townspeople with a generous sum of money and making them compete against each other for a noble title. Many different things are competed, from merchandise to talents. The judges of this event were the actual nobles; they had to single out three common peasants who they deemed could be worthy of their title, and three others who they believed didn't even have the right to step inside the castle walls unless they were slaves.

A single person was to be chosen by the royal figures in both groups. And then there'd be a new noble, and a new slave. The slave would have to suffer through a year of serving the king and would see anything he owned taken away and given to the new noble. Forever.

During all my 19 years, I'd never dared to participate in The Reckoning, and neither did anyone of my entourage. Risking slavery was not worth the meagre chance of being a noble, even with the participation prize. And being used as entertainment for the more fortunate wasn't exactly a thrilling idea.

But even now, as I'm considered one of the most fortunate, the idea is no more thrilling than it was.

Less than an hour from now, the guests would start arriving for my husband's birthday celebration, gathering in the Great Hall and in the Dining Room. I hadn't seen Louis all day due to the numerous meetings and political discussions he'd been whisked into. And to say I was apprehensive about tonight's events would be an understatement. Lady Charlotte, the woman Louis'd assigned to be my teacher regarding etiquette, had attempted to teach me breathing techniques earlier this morning to appear calm on the outside even if I wasn't on the inside. And so far, it wasn't going very well.

“Deep and controlled breaths,” I mumble to myself as Perrie finishes lacing up my ruby red satin dress in the boudoir. “Easier said than done when your choice could change someone's life for the worst,” I continue to myself, glaring at the dolled up girl staring back at me in the mirror. The golden diadem doesn't seem to fit on her head. Perrie says nothing, smoothing the bottom of my dress and arranging the bottom. I breathe in and out deeply, attempting to change my frown into a smile. It's so obvious it's fake. I groan, rubbing my temples. “I won't be able to do this. I can't even do one thing right on Louis' birthday,” I huff in discouragement.

“Why don't you go talk to him Miss?” Perrie suggests quietly.

“What?” I frown, turning to look at my maid.

“He always has your best intentions at heart so tell him how this celebration makes you feel. That way, he might react less negatively if you happen to make an accidental wrong move. He might help you instead of getting frustrated.”

“You're right,” I acknowledge. “It's better to warn him than to take him by surprise with a misplaced comment at dinner,” I trail on. “Do you think he has returned from his meetings?” I ask.

“The only way to know would be for you to return to your chambers,” she reasons, stepping away from me. “If he's done, he should be changing right about now.”

I nod, glancing one last time at the princess in the mirror before lifting the bottom of my dress and carefully stepping off the small bench.

“Thank you Perrie,” I say gratefully, approaching my maid. “For all of this,” I continue, motioning my whole appearance.

“It's just my job Miss,” she smiles, bowing slightly in front of me. I shake my head.

“You don't have to bow Perrie. Or call me Miss,” I shake my head, sighing.

“But I like it,” she responds. “I don't mind bowing in front of you. A good princess deserves respect.”

“How can I possibly be a good princess? I've been an actual princess for barely a day,” I reply, confused.

“You don't realize it, but you've done so much already.” She lets the sentence hang before pushing me softly towards the door. “Now go talk to your husband,” she advises, a small smile decorating her features.

“I'll see you later?” I enquire as we exit the boudoir.

“Maybe. I'm helping in the kitchens tonight: there's so much food that needs to be made,” she explains, straightening her ragged dress as we reach a staircase. I acquiesce.

“Goodbye then,” I end, waving at her once before turning around to head to Louis' and I's chambers. Picking up the sides of my dress, I leisurely walk up the stairs and to our quarters.

I find Zayn by the door of our room.

“Is Louis in there?” I ask him. He nods. I move to enter but he stops me.

“Princess I wanted to apologize,” he ushers out quickly, his hand holding on my arm. “For lashing out on you the other night,” he elaborates. “It was out of place and I'm very sorry,” the dark boy continues solemnly.

“You don't have to be sorry Zayn,” I reply, shaking my head. “You told me on the very first day that the king wasn't exactly kind with his son and I paid no attention to your warning. I'm the one who should be apologizing,” I reply. “You were just caring for your friend.”

He nods stiffly.

“Thank you for understanding, but I still don't think I had the right to make such a condescending remark. I apologize and it won't happen again,” he repeats.

“Well I accept your apology as long as you accept mine.”

“I also accept your apology then.”

“Good,” I smile as he releases my arm and lets me enter the bedroom, resuming his stiff position by the door. “Louis?” I ask, stepping inside the dimly lighted room. 

“Oh good Annabelle!” Louis smiles, coming out of his walk-through closet to greet me. “I was just about to head down to see you. I was wondering what color your gown was so I could match my tie with it,” he continues, giving me a once over. “Red it is,” he concludes, heading back into the closet to fetch a matching tie.

“Louis we need to talk,” I begin.

“What about?”

“Well first off, happy birthday,” I say.

“Thank you, princess.”

“Was your day pleasant?”

“I've had better days,” he responds. “Like the day you married me,” he admits. “What about your day?”

“Nerve-wracking,” I exhale. He turns to look at me, confused.

“How so?” he frowns.

“This is what I wanted to talk to you about,” I say. “I'm nervous about The Reckoning tonight,” I confess. “It has been haunting me all day.”

“Why? You're not the one who has to perform in front of the nobles. You simply have to vote for two merchants at the end.”

“That's exactly what worries me. Louis how do you expect me to condemn the second merchant to slavery like that?” I ask. “What if the people hate me because they think I don't see them as people with families they need to take care of?”

Louis smiles sadly and shakes his head.

“Annabelle no one will hate you for it, it's a tradition─-”

“I will hate myself,” I counter. “I won't be able to live with this guilt. I've got enough guilt drowning me just by residing in the castle here with you while my family struggles to get food on the table,” I huff. “And besides, nobody should have the right to decide one's fate out of amusement. Especially not the nobles, most of who owe their titles to nothing but their bloodlines.”

“The nobles enjoy this tradition. We can't simply take it away from them: they are the reason we have access to so much,” he sighs, struggling with the knot of his tie.

I walk over to him, my fingers replacing his on the fabric. His hands drop by his sides, his eyes meeting mine momentarily before I focus on the knot.

“I just wish I didn't have to take part in the whole ordeal,” I speak quietly, finishing up the knot in a matter of seconds. His hands grab mine carefully, his fingers intertwining with mine.

“I know,” he exhales, his shoulders sagging slightly. His face changes. “I have an idea. I'll pick the same person as my father alright? Therefore your vote won't be considered,” he reasons. “Would that make you feel better?”

I nod and he squeezes my fingers.

“Good. And you'll be pleased to learn that we're departing right after the party for the honeymoon. You'll be free of royal duties for a couple of days,” he continues, kissing my fingers before heading back into his closet. “You won't have to stress about anything before our return.”

“What about you?” I frown. “You won't be free of your princely duties?”

“Unfortunately no. I might have one or two important political meetings I'll have to attend for the king,” he sighs, shaking his head.

“But it’s your honeymoon!”

“And have responsibilities as the next one in line for the throne,” he replies simply. “Don’t worry though, if I’m not being bored by these meetings, I’ll be in your company.”

“And where will we be going exactly?” I enquire.

“You’ll just have to wait and see,” he responds, a small smile crawling on his lips. “But let me assure you that we’ll be completely alone,” he adds in my ear, his hand slipping on my waist.

I get goosebumps, fear mingling unhealthily with excitement inside me at the thought of being completely alone with Louis. I rapidly rub them off my skin, sighing deeply.

“Most of the time anyways. I have to bring Zayn along,” he chuckles.

“Zayn is coming?”

“Just to survey our surroundings. Don't fret: he'll only be scouting around the area unless I ask him otherwise,” he ends, straightening his cuffs. “So. Ready to go?” he ends, holding his arm out for me to take.

I inhale deeply.

“Ready,” I nod, hooking my arm around his and grabbing it.

 

*****

As soon as the commencement of The Reckoning had been declared, guests had quickly rushed inside the castle doors for some warmth and food. I'd calmed down considerably as the night started, letting Louis taking control of the interaction with others.  Locked on his arm, I'd strolled around the different merchants' stands, getting glimpses at what they presented to the nobles. There was something for every taste: brilliantly crafted furniture, mouth-watering pastries, gorgeous hand-made jewelry and so on.

I couldn't possibly imagine how the nobles could single out three citizens out of such a diverse group of talented people, nor could I wrap my mind on the thought of them picking three others they deemed unworthy of the castle.

The decision doesn't seem to be too hard on their minds though as their choices are announced right before supper, not nearly enough time after the beginning of the Reckoning. Every living soul in the castle leans in to listen as they share their choices. They decide on a blacksmith, a jeweller and a farmer known for his abnormally large crops as possible nobles and claim a baker, an aged street musician and a shoemaker unworthy of getting a taste of nobility.

No sooner said than done, the six selected are given seats next to the royals for supper, giving them the chance to attempt to convince the royals that they should or shouldn't be picked before they make the final decision. They are placed right in between the king, Louis and I and the prince of Stoneshire and his wife Élodie

I find myself seated next to Louis and the street musician as servants begin distributing food to the couple hundred people in the Dining Room. The shoemaker and the backer are seated beside the musician, and the three of them are facing the blacksmith, the jeweller and the farmer. The three who have a shot at nobility are rambling at the king and my husband, while the three others poke around at the mountain of food on their plate. The atmosphere isn't pleasant.

I notice that the shoemaker is crying, a silent tear gilding on his cheek before he wipes it off with his sleeve.

Soon enough, the whole room is buzzing with conversations, sipping on wine and eating. I catch a glimpse at a group of nobles exchanging coins, mumbling and pointing in our direction.

“Do the nobles gamble?” I ask Louis discretely.

He nods, taking another piece of his meat.

“The Reckoning is solely for the nobles' entertainment Annabelle. Gambling on our pick is apparently amusing,” he exhales, shaking his head in disbelief.

Out of the blue, the king gently taps the side of his glass with his knife three times, the sound resonating throughout the whole room and calling out for attention.

Once the noise finally has died down and all eyes are on him, the king stands and begins to speak.

“Welcome to all of you to the 350th annual Reckoning! It’s been a wonderful evening so far and we hope tonight will go just as smoothly. Now, since it’s the 350th anniversary, I’ve consulted with the nobles and we’ve decided to change the proceedings this year,” he begins, cutting right to the chase.

There’s a chatter of confusion but the king silences it with a sharp glare.

“Don’t worry, it’s nothing too dissimilar,” he reassures dryly before continuing on a slightly warmer tone. “Now, as you all know, Princess Annabelle's Exhibition was a flamboyant success,” he starts off, lifting his glass towards me with what appears to be a kind smile. “Let's all give her a round of applause for that.”

I stiffen, not liking where the king's speech was heading. What is he up to now? Louis' hand squeezes mine under the table in attempt to reassure me. A polite clapping resonates through the great room, just as dread spreads through me. The king resumes as the clapping dies down.

“As you all know, being royalty and exercising God's will isn't always an easy task.”

I clench my teeth.

“Therefore tonight, with great pride, I give the Princess her first true royal responsibility.” He pauses, letting his statement sink in. “Exceptionally, she will be the only one to decide who'll ultimately end up to be my slave.”

My breathing hitches and my heart skips a beat as another round of applauses echoes throughout the Dining Room.

“I believe, now that she has been accepted by the people of Headow, that she should be able to select who wasn't worthy of walking through the castle doors. By doing so, all of you will be able to witness how apt she will be when it comes to handling fragile relationships with the other kingdoms as well as taking hard decisions that can alter one's life. Long live Princess Annabelle,” he ends, holding his glass up in the air while smiling at me.

“Long live Princess Annabelle!” the people echo, also lifting their glass in my direction before drinking.

I feel like throwing up. I turn to my husband, desperate.

“Lou─”

“I know Annabelle,” he replies quietly. His knuckles are white around his fork. “I know. Just keep calm alright? This is what he wants. He wants you to shatter,” he whispers under his breath.

Inhaling shakily, I turn to look at the three men sat beside me, only to find them staring at me with hopeful, pleading eyes.

“Princess Annabelle, I can't afford to lose everything! My wife is pregnant and due in less than a month!” the baker begs. “If you spare me, I'll be able to spare one or two loaves of bread for your family every week!” he persists.

“You know my family?” I utter.

“They’re my second neighbors your Highness. I manage to give them scraps of food ever once in a while,” he nods, his eyes never meeting mine.

“I-I-I―”

“My daughter,” the shoemaker starts, “she’s ill. I didn’t want to participate in The Reckoning but I needed the participation money to hire a doctor to help her…Please princess, she’s only four years old. I need to go back to her side and care for her,” he pleads, the tears cascading down his cheeks. “My son is only twelve: he can’t possibly take care of himself and his younger sister!”

My lower lip trembles, my control on the verge of shattering.

The musician opens his mouth but nothing comes out. He smiles sadly and shakes his head, rubbing his throat. It’s then I realise he’s mute.

I start shaking.

“I can’t―dear God Lou―”

Louis’ hand touches mine under the table once more.

“Everything will be alright,” he says in my ear, intertwining his fingers with mine. “Everything will be fine.”

But feeling the gaze of the three condemned men on my back, I have difficulty believing him.

All too soon, the dessert is over and the plates are being whisked away from us without me getting a chance to taste anything. I feel nauseous as the servants pick up what’s left of the feast before the king, my husband and I are walked at the front of the massive room, standing on a small stage so everyone can see us. The buzzing of voices fill my ears as the citizens of Headow talk excitedly about the events to come in the next couple of minutes. I feel dizzy as I take a look at the six men bowing in front of us. I swear I can hear the shoemaker weep at my feet.

I grasp onto Louis arm to keep my balance.

“Now now!” the king booms, calling out for everyone’s attention. “Settle down everyone!”

Silence spreads through the room like wildfire, no one daring to disobey the king.

“Now I know we’d usually start with naming a new noble, but I don’t do well with suspense and I know princess Annabelle is just itching to share her choice,” the king states. “Let’s end the suspense right away shall we? Get Stefan out!” he calls out.

There’s a series of cheers followed by guards pulling out a weak man in ragged clothes out of God knows where. He’s dragged through the room, then dropped him in front of the six bowing citizens as he was no more than a sack of rotten vegetables.

The man, bruised and beaten, wheezes on the ground, clearly having difficulty to breathe. The king walks in front of him.

“Stefan Trammel, you are now free to return to your family. Thank you for your year of service, but you are no longer welcome in the castle walls. Ever,” he states, nudging him with his boot.

Stefan trembles and coughs on the ground, unable to pull himself back to his feet. He appears to be overworked.

“Guards help him out,” the king orders, turning his back to the poor man.

My fists are clenched tightly and I bite my lip until it bleeds as powerlessly, I watch Stefan Trammel get hauled out of the room.

Once he’s out and the people have stopped murmuring, the king turns to me.

“Princess, it’s your turn now to decide who shall replace Stefan this year,” he ends, motioning three of the six men gathered in front of me.

My hands are trembling. How can I choose? I’m on the verge of tears. They haven't done anything but share their talents with us and that’s how they’re rewarded? I turn to Louis, pleading him with my eyes.

Suddenly, the sound of a gunshot fills the air. Chaos ensues.

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