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Neverending Midnight

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Chapter One - "Lotus"

 

You fell to your knees in a navy, blue dress that reached your ankle that splayed into the field of fresh grass, fingers falling into it. The courtyard is beautiful in ways that drawings and landscape portraits had failed to capture, with rows and rows of flowers, some you’d never even seen. You weren’t much of a botanist, but there were plenty that couldn’t have been native to Wysteria, and yet they were spread as far as the eye could see. If somebody had told you that you were at the center of the world’s beauty, you could have believed it.

 

“Ah, there you are,” whispering softly to yourself, you caught a delicate flower stem between your middle and first finger. It could be mistaken for a lily if you looked at a distance, instead, it is a landlocked lotus. Crisp and white, and exactly as the storybooks portrayed, as Wysteria Palace is the only place they grow, plenty of fairy stories came about from them – in truth, they are much like every other exotic plant. A gift from a once-visiting prince or minister, a kiss from a land far away.

 

“If nothing else, you’ll remind her of home,” a flower to cure all ills.

 

‘Ah, if only...’

 

The face of your charge would not leave your mind. It isn’t so often that as a governess, you had such a personal connection – after all, but you and Letica had always become close. It felt like a rock had settled in the pit of your stomach when she levelled you with those pitiful sea-blue eyes. Her home had always carried the unfortunate atmosphere of imminent death, it waited in every dark shadow and swelled around her sickly mother’s room. Letica was always the brightest thing in that place, but every day you were with her, the light in her eyes would dim just a little more.

 

The sound of soft footsteps did not break you out of your reverie until a shadow was cast down upon you. You were so deep in your own thoughts that you hadn’t heard the person approach or move to look in time. A panic hit you in a brief flash before you quickly smoothed down your emotions, looking up from the ground to the figure standing over you.

 

“What’re you doing here?” a soft, vaguely accusatory voice put you from relaxed to alert.

 

Your breath catches for a moment – it’s not a knight, so that’s some relief. You’d already spent far too long in the palace gardens and would probably be removed if you were spotted loitering so far away from where the public had been allowed in for the day. The man stood before you is a short, broad-shouldered blond with piercing blue eyes and matching tailored suit with silver lining that screamed of highborn nobility. He is effortlessly handsome, with very few extra pomp to his appearance, it instantly made you remember your own education and teaching – he is a highborn, and whilst you don’t know exactly who, he is dressed as a duke, viscount, baron – Gods, he could even be an earl! He regards you with all the warmth of an fine art ice sculpture, which makes you feel only somewhat self-conscious. Decorum tells you to get up off of the ground immediately and give him a deep curtsy, but your pride has always rivalled it, causing you to rise up slowly, gracefully straightening the creases from your mud-lined dress.

 

“My apologies Your Grace, I’m aware I’ve spent too long here,” you air on the side of safety. His eyes narrow at you, his expression is inscrutable. There’s no point in lying, because ultimately your intentions are utterly pure, and in your mind, defensible at least. “I’m looking for something, and I wouldn’t find it in the company of the ladies in the parlor,” you gestured to the landlocked lotuses with a small, sorrowful smile on your face.

 

The man ignored your apology utterly, though he still seemed to be on guard, he questions you further. His eyes landed on a now, significantly dirtier envelope that bore a broken wax crest of Wysteria Palace, it is unmistakably one of the hundreds of letters issued out to the eligible princess-hopefuls but had been almost discarded.

 

“And what are you looking for?” his voice is somehow colder than even his opening line, and it makes you want to be defensive – it takes everything inside you to keep your head. You didn’t spend years of your life as a governess to snotty nobles and highborns just to keep feeling like you owed them something just for being allowed on their payroll or territory – and you certainly didn’t owe this guy anything. You didn’t even know who he was! You were just being courteous, as per your own lessons you had imparted thoroughly on all of your charges.

 

A lady’s greatest armour is her courtesy, if you master this, you will never feel you’re lesser to anyone but the King himself.

 

Privately, you applied this to everyone, you thought it even of barmaids and courtesans, and you felt yourself hardly above most commoners. You were blessed to even ascend to role of governess, but you would not let yourself be made to feel so out of place after spending the better portions of your days teaching others not to be.

 

Instead, you offer the abrasive man a sculpted smile and turn to the flower beds, trying to set the conversation to your own, slowed pace to reduce how cornered you suddenly felt.

 

“A flower, Your Grace. Specifically, one that only blooms here, and this is the only day I would ever have such access. I’ll admit, it’s a little crass to be here under false pretenses, but I have my reasons,” you add, seeing skepticism rising on his face.

 

“You came all this way for a flower?” his tone is standoffish and almost derogatory, but not quite.

 

His attitude was not warming you to him at all, but you remain carefully composed, feeling the familiar sensation of being tugged into highborn dances of crafted words and mind games. The man is judging you harshly, and perhaps rightfully so considering your state of dress and why you’re there – it all seems so silly on the face of it, but the pale face of your charge, young Letica, flashed before you, and instantly erased all of your self-doubt.

 

“Why else? I couldn’t say it was for your company,” the insult surprised him for a moment, but before he can form words, you follow it up, not letting it hang – exactly as you had taught countless other ladies in waiting. “-because had I known I’d be gifted with it, I would have dressed for the occasion,” you smiled sweetly, though that sweetness did not reach your eyes.

 

The surprise disappears, he’s wary, that much you can tell even through his indomitable, cold attitude.

 

“If this is how you dress for an occasion like the Choosing, I’m afraid I might not be able to tell the difference,” his insult is equally cutting, but you don’t let it hit your pride. You didn’t dress up for this princess ceremony anyway and opted to give him a look of mild shock, not at being insulted, but at his presumption.

 

“With all due respect Your Grace,” that is to say, none “-I did not arrive to the palace like an ornate, walking bauble because I have more pressing personal duties.”

 

An awkward silence fell, and you dared him with your eyes to break it.

 

“And what is so pressing that you need to be in the palace under false pretenses? Perhaps a knight can assist you,” the thinly veiled threat is there, but you ignore it. If he wants to be shitty about it, that would be down to him, just because he’s nobility doesn’t mean he has to be rude, you knew plenty of highborn who were better than that.

 

“As I said, a flower from a storybook,” as the word ‘personal’ did not deter him as it often did most nobles, you let out a small sigh – how do you express your intent out loud without it sounding silly? Sensing there’s more, the abrasive man keeps quiet as you turn back towards the flowers. If he is so intent on intruding on your reflective, personal time, then so be it, he had already threatened to get knights to shoo you back into the parlor if not the exit itself, and the last thing you wanted was to be surrounded by those legions of beautiful Wysterian women in your muddied, conservative navy gown.

 

“I’m a governess, you see,” the man is still inscrutable when you say this, but you press on. “And one of my youngest charges dearly wants something that grows only here, the white landlocked lotus. You and I both know that no such storybook cure-all exists as such, but the flower itself does,” you gesture to them and let out a soft sigh that is more sorrowful than you wanted to show.

 

It is only now that the blond man feels slightly uncomfortable, realizing only now that his curious intrusion had been on a mournful moment, rather than anything nefarious.

 

“What my charge doesn’t know is that most of these hidden beauties restricted here grow freely outside of Wysteria. All of these gifts from some forgotten prince or emperor I’m sure. I believe that the land lotus is from Alder - if my botanist is right and he usually is,” you said, feeling the aggression between yourself and the man lessen to something more comfortable.

 

“Surely any flower would do, a child wouldn’t know the difference, why facilitate such spoiling? I would think that’s counter-productive for a governess,” another jab, this time at your work, but you don’t miss a beat – it’s not an unreasonable assumption, many highborn children can have an air of entitlement and being spoiled. If it gets too bad it can impair their manners and make the lessons a governess has to bestow much harder to teach and have sink in.

 

“Perhaps, if the child was asking for themselves,” you counter him smoothly, face drawing into a burdened frown. You really didn’t like how this man was trying to keep you on-guard, but you supposed that you looked suspicious enough to warrant such treatment. “-but she isn’t, Your Grace.”

 

Your next few words blunt the harshness that was radiating from the highborn, and he had the grace to look mildly shaken even if it was just for a moment.

 

“It is flowers for a grave, from her dying mother’s homeland, and this is the only place in Wysteria they grow. Who am I to deny such an innocent request?”.

 

The man gives you a long look – you are truly inscrutable. On one hand, you are easily able to verbally parry with him in a way not many except for the more seasoned, older noblewomen do. It is a sort of bravery that is seldom in the young because it is usually sharply rebuked and not done without the confidence of age and experience. On the other hand, you’re not anybody he recognized, certainly it was unlikely you were a governess to any duke or archduke that the blond is aware of. Perhaps a lower noble family’s governess, or one for a particularly further western province, still, it isn’t like he can account for everybody, he just finds it hard to figure out what he’s dealing with. Instinctively, he wants to dislike you. Contrary to his cool demeanor, he isn’t fond of dealing with other nobles and their tiresome games, but you’re so utterly perplexing that he isn’t sure what he feels.

 

“Duke Howard,” a familiar, male voice from earlier cuts through the awkward silence and you resist the urge to flinch in surprise. “Thank you for finding our stray dove and keeping her company,” you turn to your side and the lanky, immaculate and utterly bewitching palace chamberlain comes into view. His words seem kind, and he levels you with a honeyed stare – Lord Giles Christophe is a devastatingly handsome man, it must be said. You had thought you had exited the palace parlor of hopeful ladies-in-waiting without arousing suspicion or notice, but it appears you’re mistaken.

 

Neither you, nor this ‘Duke Howard’ could tell how long Giles had been present, or how much he’d witnessed if anything. Neither of you give off a sign of terseness or hostility despite it, both of you the epitome of decorum. Giles smirks a little bit at you, even as he notices your crumpled, muddied palace invite, treacherously discarded on the ground by the dirt-hemmed line of your dress. Somehow, this display of blatant disregard for the supposed purpose of your entry to the palace doesn't discourage the chamberlain, he even stoops to his knees and gracefully picks up the dirtied letter. It would embarrass you somewhat, to have someone of a higher station do something like that for you, but you simply stared, trying to figure him out. The good news was that he hadn't come with a knight to have you forcibly escorted out, and instead held out a white gloved hand for you to take.

 

"Your company has been missed, my Lady. Please, come with me - I promise that you will have plenty of time to view the gardens," his kindness puts you on guard rather than relax you, and the confusion is written all over your face. If Duke Howard notices it, he doesn't comment, and just raises a brow over at Giles, but takes his dismissal into stride.

 

"Of course," his attitude remains cold, and he bows his head in acknowledgement of the conversation ending once you take Giles's hand.  "I will take my leave then," and summarily dismisses himself without so much as a cursory glance in your direction.

 

You follow Giles mostly silently once he walked you back towards the palace's open archway into the interior, taking mind not to track mud in by scraping your flat heel against the concrete pathway that led to the garden entryway. Giles notices, and smiles to himself as he leads you into a carpeted hallway. The walls were adorned with various portraits of Wysterian royalty and friends of the nation in gold-painted portrait frames that had more intricacy than you had ever seen, even having served decently well-off highborn. Perhaps they were just more modest than you were used to, and so the palace was shocking by comparison. 

 

Strangely, the palace feels a lot more quiet than when you'd entered - had the others already left? Is that why you were sought out? How embarrassing, overstaying ones welcome was a definite social faux-pas and to have them go searching for you just to eject you is equally damning. Thinking that you had to get ahead of what this was, so you wouldn't be left with an unfavourable opinion, which was everything in your field of work, you looked up to the back of the chamberlain's head and do your best to make the best of the situation. But what was that about saying you'd have time to see the gardens? Was there some formality you had to go through before leaving?

 

"Lord-Chamberlain, my apologies for pulling you from your duties to retrieve me," you said.

 

Surprisingly, Giles tutted, which made you feel like a scolded child until he responded.

 

"Nonsense my Lady," he wasn't chiding your response, but rather, your concern that you were somehow a burden. "This is my duty," he added with a hint of a smile on his face. He leads you to a room and opens the door to a grandiose bed chamber. There's a double bed with an array of pillows and throws, a translucent canopy, and sets of wooden oak dressers, small end tables and chairs covered in fine silk to protect them. Giles lights a few candles and gestures to a bundle of material laid flat on the bed throws. You almost missed it as it blended in with the other colours, and looked at him in confusion.

 

"It would be remiss of me to let you wander the palace in a worse state than when you arrived," there's a strange amusement in his tone, that hint of a smile blossoming into a fully-fledged mischievous look, as though he was privy to a joke that you were not. You weren't sure what to say about being in a 'worse state' beyond apologising for allowing yourself to get so dirty. It really hadn't been your predominant thought at the time, and you didn't expect to see the chamberlain on your way out once you'd gotten the flowers you had saught out. 

 

"So please, change into these clothes and let me know if they fit alright. I will be right outside," he says.

 

You didn't know the Wysteria Royal to be so kind, then again, you didn't know much about how they handled interpersonal affairs, the highest rank of highborn you had ever dealt with was a duke for a small duchy and even then, only briefly, and now, you supposed you could add Duke Howard to that list. The whole thing is a little off, but even more so would be to refuse or question the emissary of the court, so you just nod, still looking confused, and close the door to Giles's devious smile. Upon the beige throws is a softer shade that looks near translucent until you pick it up. Gingerly, you feel it is a loft softer than the fabrics you typically wore so as not to upstage the ladies you served, the only time you wore such things is when it felt permissible and when they would pass down some of their more worn gowns to you to wear. It was certainly not as detailed as those but the craftsmanship and material spoke volumes of its worth. 

 

You step out of your beaten, muddy shoes and your naked feet touch the carpet - even that is impossibly soft. You pressed the clothing to your body to compare its size to yourself before shedding the navy, shapeless dress so that it fell to your ankles. You pull up a the high-waisted skirt which is much more opaque once on your body. The whole thing feels a little close and clingy in how it brushes your bare skin, as though you aren't wearing anything at all. There's a matching blouse with puffy shoulders and offers no real support to your chest. With a frown you notice it has some draw-string at the front which you find tightens the whole thing and gives it shape. You do your best attempt to tie it into a bow but it isn't the best - still, it's better than letting the strings hang loose. Next is a pair of flat sandal-like shoes since you supposed they didn't know your size. Unsure of what to do with your own clothes, you folded them and put them together so you could take them home to wash them.

 

"Lord-Chamberlain?" you call him in and look down at yourself awkwardly, before squaring your shoulders back and giving him a confused but grateful expression.

 

"My, you look utterly ravishing," he says, with a wide smile that you cannot decipher if genuine or not. You smile at his words, feeling your ears burn, you're not used to such direct compliments, as you are often stared past in favour of the nobles you are attending. It isn't too bad, you do get noticed, but not so overtly, and due to your background, any interest in you is often swiftly dropped or leads to an intensive criticism. You waited for a follow-up - some sort of backhanded insult to the compliment, but none came. The chamberlain instead, continues to smile and steps toward you, reaching forward until you step back.

 

"My Lady, if I may?" you're a little embarrassed but mollified when it turns out he's reaching for the draw-strings at your chest. There is something unmistakably forward and intimate about it, but you don't complain, Giles is nothing if not absolutely professional to you. He undoes the drawstring with his nimble fingers and the whole thing lets loose and becomes shapeless to your chest as though someone had let some air out of a pastry. In moments he's tying it into a much more graceful knot, smiling warmly at you the entire time, looking a little playful as he does.

 

It's entirely suspicious, you think.

 

"Let me know if this is too tight," he pulls them back and the whole thing tightens to your form, he licks his lower lip and glances down to admire his handiwork. It makes your ears burn a little but you keep your thoughts to yourself. He is forward and daring with his actions, it is something you can respect. It is a quality you both appear to share, but you do not lower your guard no matter how sweet the palace chamberlain appears to be. If it is one thing you have learned in all your years, it is that hardly anything is the way that it presents itself on the surface, especially when it comes to all matters noble and highborn.

 

"Thank you, Lord-Chamberlain," you said, stiff and on-guard - noticeably so. "-for your grace and kindness."

 

"Think nothing of it," he says, mischief worming into his tone now "-I could not let the Princess-Elect walk around looking ill cared for,".

 

There's a long stretch of silence when he says that, and you just stare at him - like he's some kind of idiot. It has to be a joke, you think, at your expense, and fold your arms across your chest looking absolutely unamused. It didn't matter if this man was your better in every sense, those kinds of jokes were in bad taste and you always called things like that out, no matter how low your station might be - it is what makes you unique as a governess. You're frowning at him, and try to find the right, polite words to cut him down - it was easier with Duke Howard, he was critical, and made you defensive, but this? This is hard.

 

"Very amusing Lord-Chamberlain, I nonetheless thank you for your hospitality," you bit out, only for Giles's mischievous look to fade.

 

"My apologies, I could have phrased that better. I've nominated you for Princess-Elect, my Lady. I find you to be one of the more capable candidates to grace the palace today," you gave him a flabbergasted look. How could that be? You hadn't even stayed long enough to listen to his opening speech in the parlor regarding the elective process, the letter in his hand that you had, was carelessly slathered in grime and you had displayed no inclination or actual interest in the role itself. To be selected in spite of this, over so many other hopefuls, some of which had precipitated their lives on this particular day, vying and training to be princess - it's almost insulting to the process itself.

 

"Lord-Chamberlain, whilst I am flattered I fail to see why. I did not come here with the intention of truly being selected and with respect, I didn't even stay long enough to even listen to the elective process. How could I possibly be the candidate for Princess-Elect?" your voice rose a note higher, and the suspicion is evident, a far cry from the unreadable coolness and fake sweetness you had presented Duke Howard.

 

"Am I the punchline to a joke? I must say I do not find it amusing," you added.

 

Giles looked flustered at your bluntness for a moment, before his expression softened visibly, and his hands made their way boldly to your shoulders, earning a flinch and you drawing them up defensively to your ears.

 

"Everybody who received an Invite of Eligibility was checked, and yet, out of everybody present today, I find the one who strayed far more capable," his lips quirked, and he leaned in, as though about to tell you a secret, apparently uncaring for how much he was violating your personal space. "You see, my Lady, I ascribe to the proverb, that those best fit to rule are the ones who do not desire the throne. I have gazed into many capable princess-hopefuls tonight and even the most capable of them all are not what I seek for Wysteria," he said coolly.

 

"And how could you possibly make such a grandiose claim from a background check alone? You know the other candidates well, but not I," you rebuffed "-just because there's no one among the many doesn't mean the unknown is your best bet. I did not come here with lofty goals of being a figurehead for the Wysteria Royal, I am simply unprepared," you said firmly, feeling a sense of panic rising in your gut.

 

It isn't a joke. It isn't a joke?!

 

"My Lady, if you will permit me, I would like to invite you to take the role of Princess-Elect," Giles is smoother, deciding to try a different route, he moves one of his hands down your arms until they clasp your palm and he begins to raise and pull it in the direction of his body. 

 

"My reasons are many, and yes, my opinions may be....presumptuous, so please, forgive me, and humour me some. I was also privy to your conversation with Duke Howard, and found you particularly adept in how you handled him. There would be far less to teach you than some of the women that I have considered, and so I ask you to give me the chance to truly see you as the Princess-Elect. If nothing else than to simply see if my judgement remains as well as others trust it to be. I understand this is a big decision, and I appreciate that you did not prepare for it despite answering the call. You have honoured the Invite of Eligibility, and so you have declared yourself Princess-Eligible by Wysterian right,".

 

Giles gave you a pleading look, and despite the questioning nature of his words, you knew that you had no real option of refusing - not without tremendous backlash. A Princess-Elect refusing being chosen on the Choosing Day is simply unheard of, you had no barometer for measuring what the fallout could be, and the last thing you wanted was to be persona non grata. 

 

"All I ask is that you take this honour, and serve your Kingdom, my Lady."

 

The words 'And if I don't?' hung unsaid, your head was spinning - you were of a strong constitution but this was enough to make you feel and look ready to faint. Giles notices, and still holding your hand, guides you to the bed and urges you to sit with his body language, before boldly taking a knee to the floor so that his lanky form could look up at you in a subservient manner. It feels very unfitting and your face burns from how intrinsically wrong it feels to have the palace chamberlain to do such a thing, it almost feels like a proposal.

 

"The words spoken are not binding until you swear it so at your coronation, but no one has ever refused the Call. All that have gone down in history have wanted to be princesses, and not all of them have been the best, perhaps it would take someone who does not desire it, to become something truly great," his honeyed stare is enough to wither you somewhat, your heart beginning to pound. "I truly believe this in my heart,".

 

He's serious, he's really serious.

 

He glanced to the window, and surprisingly, the clouds are darkening, and the early winter night is about to settle, soon the skies will be completely black, and it shocks you - because it means you must have spent hours in that courtyard undisturbed. How long had the palace chamberlain been thinking this over? Had he dismissed all the candidates unsuccessfully and found you to be the last, viable one, a hanger-on, and decided you were fit for the role? What...

 

"I have dismissed every candidate today, I was prepared to do the same for you, I had very little hope, but I got to see you interact - without knowing you were being watched. I got to see your capabilities without extra pomp, without feeling as though I am watching somebody perform with a burning desperation to prove worthy of royalty. I have read the background on you - brief though it is. I know what you are. You are a governess to higher borns than yourself. A bastard child, who has worked extremely hard to earn the position of a near-equal in a society that does not favour bastards,"

 

"And?" you said sharply "-how does listing how ill qualified I am make this a wise choice?"

 

"I feel your perseverance and character has listed exactly why you are qualified," said Giles coolly. 

 

"It is more patience with idiocy than perseverance," you said coldly "-I've met smarter apprentices and peasantry and I have met plenty highborns of simple mind. I never thought to reach for a greater station than what I have, and my mother always said my blood was a waste, a governess has always been what I have worked for, and what I proudly do, it is my life's work. All I had to do was wait to be recognised for my talents. Teaching is my life's work. The role of governess was the loftiest thing a person like me could ever strive to be, and now you're asking me to be the Princess-Elect?"

 

Giles smirked up at you, and brought your hand to his lips, and kissing it, to show a readiness to be subservient to you.

 

"If you would humour me so,"

 

You accepted the call.

 

You have been elected by Wysterian right.

 

You are being asked to serve your kingdom.

 

"Then I suppose I have no choice."