When the palace doors opened, a young girl about my age stood at the entrance of the foyer, waiting primly for me.
I smiled warmly at her. “Hi, I’m-”
But before I could finish, two things happened at once. The first was that the cabbie deposited my bags behind me and asked if I would be paying for the cab myself. The second was that there was a movement to my left, where the grand staircase was, and two people rounded the corner in a heated discussion.
My new lady maid’s soft reply for the cabbie to ask the gate guards for payment, as the Crown would pay for my transport while Apricum, made the two people heading our way down the stairs stop arguing and look up.
I felt a tremor go through my whole body as my legs threatened to give our beneath me.
Prince Luke stared at me, his handsome face morphing from anger over whatever he and his companion had been arguing over, to baffled surprise as he took me in.
Great, I thought angrily to myself. Less than five minutes here and already you broke the only rule you had. Great job, Helga. Really amazing.
Scrambling for what to say, it occurred to me that Luke might not recognise me. It had been eight years since we’d last seen each other, after all, and I had changed since then. So had he. Gone was the boyish, happy face of the boy I once thought my friend. In its’ place was a face that faintly resembled the hard planes of his father; but his eyes - brown and soft, were like his mother’s, and were the only part of this tall, sculpted stranger that even vaguely resembled my childhood friend.
I stood taller and fell into a curtsey. “Your Highness,” I mumbled. Beside me, my lady’s maid turned, gasped at seeing who was approaching and hastily dropped into a curtsey too.
Luke kept walking towards us, his companion - a wraithlike woman, who was staring daggers into the back of the Prince’s head - following behind him.
When he reached us, he waved his hands, indicating that we should stand up, and addressed me. “Hello there,” he said softly. I didn’t dare look him in the eye, especially not this close. Not many people had green eyes in Apricum these days; it had been almost completely confined to the Royal Family, and while I wasn’t sure about the kingdom Emma was from, I didn’t want to take any risks. “I don’t think we’ve met before.”
The blonde woman behind him snorted in what sounded very much like disgust. Luke turned around quickly.
“Why don’t you go wait for me in the car?” he said acidly at the woman. She shrugged and stalked passed us, shooting me a look of mixed pity and contempt as she went.
I fought to contain a frown. Why did she have such a strong reaction to me? I had done nothing wrong - at least, not that she knew of.
“Now then,” Luke said, his voice soft again as he turned back to me. “Why haven’t I seen you around here before? A beauty like yourself, I’m sure I would remember if we’d met.”
My eyes widened as I understood. I guess not being wired to feel lust, the fact that others might feel it for me was something I hardly ever considered; I had been known to use what Freyja jokingly called my ‘insane sex appeal’ to get information out of people about targets, but I had always gone into those situations knowing that I would use their weakness for curvy women against them. Being reminded of this now surprised me, but suddenly the blonde’s derision suddenly made sense. If the Prince did this to all new-comers, she probably expected me to fall into his bed and crawl out in the morning nursing a broken heart.
And then the last part of what he said sunk in, and I smirked. Oh, the irony.
“I’m from a neighbouring kingdom, Your Highness. My name is Lady Emma Johansen. I believe you were expecting me a few weeks back, but there was some trouble with my transportation…”
Thankfully, he didn’t seem too worried about why I had been delayed. Instead, a smile lit up his face, and my maid beside me gasped.
I turned to her, seeing her ogling the Prince and took pity on the girl. “Would you mind taking my things to my room? I’m sure His Highness can point me in the right way,” I told her gently.
Her eyes darted to me and then away gratefully. She grabbed my two bags and all but sprinted up the staircase.
“Well now, that’s how rumours get started, you know,” Luke said to me, a grin on his face.
“I’m sure I don’t know what you mean,” I told him, smiling myself. “But I had to cut her some slack. The poor girl looked like she was about to faint.”
He chuckled. “People seem to react that way a lot around me. Must be how awesome I am.”
I kept my smile in place, but wanted to hit him. Did he know anything about Freyja and Finn? Did he think that was awesome too?
I started moving towards the stairs my maid had fled to, but he blocked my way. “I beg your pardon, Your Highness. It’s been a long trip, and I’m afraid I must take my leave.”
“Of course. But before you do,” he said, stepping closer to me. I immediately dropped my eyes to my shoes. Who knew high heeled boots could ever be so comfortable? There was definitely something to be said for having money, I thought, trying not to look up. He sighed when I wouldn’t meet his gaze and stepped back. “Please have dinner with me tonight.”
I hesitated and decided to play the scared, lowly Lady as an insecure idiot. “Your Highness, I am honoured - truly - but I’m not sure… the King… I wouldn’t know what to wear.”
He grinned at me. “Worry not, my dear. My father is far too busy to join me for dinner.”
“Oh,” I exhaled. “Well in that case, I’d be honoured, Your Highness.”
“Good,” he said, turning to the door. The he paused. “And call me Lucas. All my friends do.”
I nodded. “Yes, Your Hi - Lucas.”
He laughed and turned to leave before I stopped him. I had almost forgotten to ask where my room was. Of course I knew where the guest bedrooms were, but it was Emma Johansen’s first time to the palace; she couldn’t know that kind of information.
He was by the doors when he turned, and cocked his head to the side, waiting for me to speak.
I forced a blush. “How do I get to my room?”
He laughed then, a full-bellied laugh and I felt the air constrict in my lungs. That was such a Luke move, for a moment I longed for my friend with a fierce pain. I blinked the moment away, though, and focused on the arrogant Prince in front of me.
“Follow the stairs up two floors and take a left. I imagine your maid will be waiting for you by your room.”
I nodded in thanks and climbed the stairs, writing until I heard the front doors clang shut behind him, then I started running up them, two at a time.
It was weird being back in the palace after all these years. Walking down hallways I had walked daily, but this time as a stranger. I noticed all the family portraits had been taken down. I rather thought the walls looked horribly bared without them. Then I thought about had happened to them. Had they been kept? Or had the King burned them all? It would be a pain to replace them all - there were hundreds of them and -
I stopped myself. When had I started thinking like a Princess again? When had the portraits, or lack thereof, started being important to me again? Sure, they were my family, but hundreds of them were of people I never even knew. There had been maybe one or two of my family.
My chest constricted at the thought. The family portrait had hung behind the thrones in the throne room. I wondered what was there now. Was it empty like the hallways or had King Vegard replaced it with a portrait of his own family?
I didn’t want to ever find out.
I arranged my face into one of awe and admiration as I rounded the corner to my new bedroom. As predicted, my maid was waiting for me inside the room with the only door. When I walked in, she turned quickly and did a quick curtsey.
“Welcome, my Lady,” she said meekly. I wondered if she’d recovered from her encounter with the Prince yet, but didn’t want to humiliate the girl by asking.
Instead, I smiled at her kindly. “Thank you. Forgive me, I never caught your name.”
Surprise coloured her pretty face. “Oh, my Lady…”
“Please. I insist. I need to be able to call you something, after all,” I told her, giving her a quick wink. I vaguely remembered from before that some of the servants - those that were foreign, most of the times - were weird about giving us their names; as though by telling us, they’d be breaching some kind of etiquette. I wasn’t sure if Emma Johansen was supposed to support these customs, but even if her kingdom that was the custom, it should be quite easy to let other assume she was just a little quirky.
She returned my smile hesitantly. “Yes, my Lady. My name is Lily.”
I felt my heart turn over in my chest at hearing that she and Mama shared a name, but forced my face to stay blank, keeping my smile firmly in place. “It’s a lovely name,” I told her sincerely.
Lily blushed and turned away from me. “Would you like me to leave out some pyjamas for you tonight, or will you be dining out, my Lady?”
I smiled faintly. She didn’t miss a thing. Her sharp eyes and quick mind might come in handy, as long as I was careful so that she never found out who I really was.
“You’re very observant, Lily,” I told her, amused. “Is His Highness always like that?” I asked, sitting down on my bed.
Lily continued to unpack my brand new fancy clothes. “I believe so, my Lady.”
“Please. Call me Emma, even if it’s only while we’re in private - I won’t take offence.” She nodded. “So does he ask every visitor to dine with him?”
Her head snapped up from my open bag, eyes wide. “But my L- Emma,” she corrected herself hastily. “He never dines with women. He…”
I arched a brow. “Does other things with them?”
She nodded, flushing red again. “But never dines with them. No one knows why. This is fantastic news, my La- Emma!”
I smiled. “Perhaps, if I were a different kind of woman.”
I shook my head, flopping backwards onto to soft bed. Gods, it felt good to know I’d be sleeping on a such a soft surface tonight. “I don’t want the crown, Lily. I’m very happy being very low down on the succession to throne in my kingdom; I have no plans to acquire a crown elsewhere.”
I shot a sideways glance at my maid without lifting my head much; Lily’s eyes were wide as she stared at me, mouth hanging open and a dress dangling from her fingers. I smiled.
“Guess that’s going to be a bit of a shock to him, huh?” I laughed.
A huff of air escaped from Lily, and I pushed up to see her grinning, before she turned away quickly, going back to unpacking my stuff.
“So,” I drawled from the bed. “What’s the proper attire to turning the Crown Prince down?”
Lily smiled at me. “I know just the outfit.