The day that Lord Denia Pine arrived from the neighboring allied country of Drangea was the day that Camellia realized she was seeing Princess Siana truly in her element. He was a handsome man—tall with broad shoulders and dark skin with darker, wavy hair. Piercing brown, almost black eyes that looked like tea or earth and sparkled when he smiled, his cheeks hollowing out with dimples.
He arrived with fanfare. He had a few soldiers who were led to the barracks at Cera’s command, an attendant who was led to a separate room by Lily, and wide-open arms with which he hugged Via.
“I apologize for not visiting during the banquet for your return, Lady Via!” he said, his voice loud and extravagant. “I was horribly busy with a party of my own!”
Via assured him it was “quite alright,” returning the hug and offering a smile. Denia then moved to bow deeply to Siana, taking her hand and pressing his forehead to it as if he were worshiping her.
“Your Highness,” he began—his voice still overflowing with emotion, but now with a reverence that made it quiver— “a joy, as always, to see you in good health.”
Siana’s face didn’t even falter. She smiled, and when Denia looked up at her, she curtsied and bowed her own head out of respect rather than obligation. “Lord Denia Pine,” she returned, “you as well. I hear your father has you working hard these days trying to expand into the Gladiolus Kingdom.”
A dark blush spread across his face as he nodded fervently. “You heard right, as always, Your Highness!” he nearly shouted. As he talked, his loud voice became more and more unsure. “We want to expand and offer aid to Gladiolus with our education projects, but… we’ve been met with some resistance due to our alliance with the Nastur Kingdom.”
Via scoffed, waving a hand and ridding herself of the subject.
“B-but!” he began again, looking upwards at the princess again. “My father told me that you’d been kidnapped by rebels! I was so relieved to hear that you’d been returned safe and sound.”
“Ah, yes,” Siana confirmed softly. She tugged at her hand gently until Denia released it and stood upright again. “Fortunately, our soldiers were nearby and able to rescue me.”
“I find it so admirable that you, The Princess Royal, are not afraid to get your hands dirty for your people, even at risk of your own health,” Denia said. His eyes were still sparkling, perhaps this time with tears instead of joy and kindness.
Camellia snatched a glance to her side. Siana didn’t move, didn’t skip a beat, just held her smile. “It is the duty of the rulers to help their people in whatever way they can, Lord Denia,” she said, voice the same cadence and gentleness it always was as she spoke to allies and dignitaries. “May I lead you to the conservatory? We have prepared a small meal so we can catch up. Miss Hyssop is there as well. You two got along, as I remember.”
“Ah!” he exclaimed. “Yes! Miss Hyssop—a darling woman. Gentle water magic, wasn’t it?”
Siana laughed. “Always such good memory,” she said, her eyes crescents as she took his arm. She led him and Via to the conservatory—a glassed-in sunroom filled with Siana’s favorite flowers and books and crafts for entertaining. It was warm as the sunshine poured in, but breezy with the windows open. They could hear water and wind from outside and smell the heavy scent of the flowers mixing with the tea and sweets the chefs had prepared for the castle’s guest.
Camellia took her station at the side of the door as Siana took her seat by the others, every hair in place, every gesture practiced to perfection. Via curled into herself in a chair of her own, opposite Denia. Her lips curled into a Cheshire smile.
“Are you sure it’s okay to allow Lady Camellia to listen in on conversations with our close allies?” she asked, tilting her head pointedly.
Denia looked between Via and Camellia, who was tensed at the doorway.
But Siana took a sip of her tea before setting the cup down on the saucer. Siana cocked her head to mimic Via’s, but her smile was sweeter, a more genuine look of innocence. “I would trust Lady Camellia with my life,” she said. “Lord Denia—I don’t believe I introduced you two. This is Lady Camellia. In fact, she is a refugee of Gladiolus. I’m sure she would have some insight for you and your father.”
“Your Highness—” Via began, but Siana quickly raised a hand.
Then Siana smiled. The same innocent smile from before. “I wasn’t finished speaking, Via. Have you forgotten that I am the Princess Royal of the court you serve while you were away?”
Denia looked between the two of them, but his eyes settled on the princess.
Siana continued, “It’s thanks to Lady Camellia that Nastur won the war and both countries can begin to rebuild. I do hope you’ll treat her kindly during your stay, Lord Denia. She is an important asset to my people and to me personally.”
Denia nodded, swallowing hard. He understood the demonstration she’d done on Via and the subtle threat in Siana’s words: do not harm or upset her knight, or he would pay.
Camellia eased, breathing deeply as Siana sat back and redirected the conversation to Miss Hyssop’s family and her younger sister’s betrothed. When they decided to retire to prepare for dinner, Siana sealed herself up in her room. She didn’t even allow Miss Hyssop in to assist her in dressing. Camellia stood outside the door, listening to the quiet on the other side.
The meal came and went without incident. Siana spoke pleasantly with the company. Denia’s advisor was just as enthusiastic and bumbling as his lord was. Siana and Denia recalled moments from their childhood, growing up together as friends and children of allies. The princess laughed at the memories, keeping her back straight, her posture perfect, her dress unwrinkled, her hair impeccable. Once it was time to return to her room, as soon as she was out of sight, her shoulders slumped. Camellia heard her take a deep breath, exhale slowly to herself. The two walked back to the royal quarters in comfortable silence, Denia’s voice echoing down the hall after them.
The next day, Miss Hyssop was helping Siana to prepare for the official reason of Denia Pine’s journey—an audience with His Majesty, the king, and Her Highness, the princess. It was political, after the pleasantries of the day before. Nastur and Drangea were allies, after all. They should be friendly with each other, but Nastur was bigger and much more powerful than Drangea was. Drangea had its strengths, of course—a rich culture with a longer history than Nastur and a strategic vantage point for enemies to the west. Both countries knew where they stood with each other. The meeting wasn’t exactly uncommon, but the excessive formality was. Miss Hyssop was reminding Siana to mind her temper, to remember that Denia was simply a messenger for his father. Siana simply nodded, agreeing, and asked for the jeweled pins for her hair and her morganite ring.
Camellia then escorted her to the throne room where they would have their audience. Siana glided through the room, easing into her seat, beside her father, and Camellia took her position just to the back and left of her. With a brief and graceful nod to her father, the king allowed the doors to be opened.
Denia Pine entered with his usual sunshine demeanor, dimples on full display. He bowed deeply, the rich green of his velvet cloak hanging over his arms as he did.
“Your Majesty, King William Daucus,” he greeted. “And Your Highness, Princess Siana Daucus.”
“Lord Denia,” Camellia returned in place of her father. “Please. No need for such formalities. We have been friends since childhood.”
He straightened his back, looking between the two of them. “Yes, Your Highness, and that is exactly why… why I would insist on such formality for the occasion.”
“And what occasion might that be, my boy?” the king asked.
“I’ve come to visit not just to ask for you to pull back on the Gladioli-Drangea border, as we discussed…” Denia gestured vaguely and then began rubbing his knuckles with his opposite hand.
The king nodded in acknowledgement.
Denia swallowed hard and continued. “But I also came to… to cement and strengthen the Drangea-Nastur relationship… with one of our own…”
Camellia heard Siana’s quiet, sharp intake of breath, but when she looked over at her, the princess was as collected as ever—except for a suitable, controlled look of surprise with raised brows.
“Is that so?” King William clarified.
“I…” Denia smiled sheepishly, a blush coloring his face. “I certainly hope so.”
Denia nodded at King William, who nodded back. Then, Denia turned to look at Siana. “Your Highness, I’ve admired you since we were young, and I… when I heard that you had been abducted, I was so worried I nearly left my own obligations right at that moment. I realize you are above my station… however, the Pine family is quickly gaining ranks in Drangea. My father is acting viscount now. If you were to wait for me, for just a year or two, I’m sure I too would…”
The king looked over at his daughter.
Siana was composed enough to look back and offer a smile, a small laugh.
“A year or two?” the king echoed back. “And you believe you would be worthy of the Princess Royal of the Nastur Kingdom?”
Denia nodded, his hair shaking with his enthusiasm. “I know it! My family has been doing such good in my homeland—my father and I have been regulars with our royal court. I… I know I am not yet worthy. But I will be, soon.”
He said it like a promise, with such reverence that Camellia was scared how much he believed it. But the king reached over and took Siana’s hand in both of his and she barely reacted.
“What do you think, Siana?” he asked.
Camellia felt something heavy in her stomach as she watched the princess smile at Denia.
There wasn’t the slightest bit of hesitation in her voice, in the way she took her hand back from the king. “Lord Denia, you are truly one of my closest friends and your family one of our most trusted allies,” she began. “However, even just… even just a year is a long time for something to happen and change.”
Whatever happiness Denia had fell out of the smile on his face.
“It is something I need to discuss with my father,” Siana continued.
“I… uh, yes,” he agreed, nodding. “Of course, Your Highness. All the time you need.”
“Truly, thank you, Lord Denia.”
It was as clear a dismissal as any, and he was wise enough to know that. He bowed once more and let himself out of the ballroom.
Once the doors were safely closed again, the king turned to his daughter. “Via had assured me that you would have agreed,” he said. “He would surely be a strong ally to have at your side.”
She hummed, all pretense and act dropped now that the company had left. “I have strong allies at my side,” she said. “I assume he proposed at Via’s interference?”
“The court only has your best interest at heart, my dear,” the king said.
“Mine and the kingdom’s, I’m sure.” Siana stood up, arranging her dress as she did. “Is that the only audience required of me today, Your Majesty?”
“The only audience required of you and your allies.” He scoffed on the final word, turning back to look at the front of the room, ever the regal king that he was meant to be. “Should you want to make a decision in the best interest of your people, Siana, your throne and your crown awaits you here.”
Again, the clear dismissal. Camellia felt it sting from where she stood, trying to be invisible behind the throne. But Siana smiled, curtsying to her father before leaving the way she had come—graceful and unbothered. Camellia gave a short nod and followed her out.
They arrived at Siana’s chambers, and Camellia was prepared to wait outside, but Siana called her in. “Miss Hyssop is busy,” she said. “Could you help me with these hairpins?”
So Camellia did. She gently pulled out the bejeweled hairpins and tousled the princess’ soft, luxurious hair as she did. Siana’s eyes fluttered closed, her shoulders sank. The impeccable posture gave way to exhaustion as the weight of the day fell off her.
“I apologize on behalf of my father,” she murmured. “At the moment, you are the only ally I require.”
“There’s no need to apologize, Princess Siana. Your father is right. Keeping me around may not be in the best interest of your people.”
Siana began to brush her hair. “It is,” she said. “It is my interest, and therefore the best interest of my people.”
Camellia sighed, ready to rebut the statement.
But Siana continued. “If you are to stay as my knight, to be cruel when I cannot, then…” She set the brush down and looked at Camellia in the mirror. “Then allow me to defend you and others who feel they cannot speak for themselves. Allow me to at least do something with the power everyone gives me.”
They stared at each other, like Siana was daring her to move, to contradict her. That same power she’d felt the day before—Siana, the Princess Royal, who would eventually be the ruler of the kingdom. Camellia felt stuck in her gaze, caught between her reflection and her real self.
But then Siana stood up and flopped into her bed unceremoniously, without changing out of the dress she’d so painstakingly kept wrinkle free. She snuggled into the blankets until she was cocooned inside them, like she was safe.
“Would you like me to light the room?” Camellia asked.
“No.” Siana sighed into her pillow, her eyes closed. “I want it dark.”