Chapter Two

November 16, 2019

When Aria’s eyes blinked open at the kiss of the morning sun, she stretched out in silk sheets, lying on the gentle cloud of a feather pillow. She reached her arm up and traced the hand-carved, golden hem of the headboard above her, and as she relaxed, she counted the crystals drooping off the chandelier. Pale, neutral colors covered everything in the room, and the light coming in the window by her bed spread over it all like water trickling downhill. Aria inhaled, then sat up.

            The previous night, she’d been given this room to sleep in. It included a full chest of drawers, a walk-in closet, and an en-suite bathroom. In total, it covered the space of the kitchen and dining room in her house. She climbed out of the king-sized bed and pulled the silk, floral patterned robe on over the peach slip that she’d slept in. She ran her hands down the front edge of the robe, and a knock surfaced from the door.

            “Come in,” she called, curling up in one of the armchairs at the foot of the bed. The door opened, and Jan, the butler that she’d met the night before, strode effortlessly into the room.

            “Good morning, Miss Laurito,” he said with that blinding, elegant smile. “I trust you slept well?”

            “Well enough, thank you.” She smiled too, because she couldn’t help it when he had that sparkle in those deep blue eyes.

            “That is good to hear. A continental breakfast is being served outside in the courtyard, if you would care to join the other guests who stayed overnight.”

            “Oh… alright, I guess. I’ll just take a moment to get dressed.” She unfolded herself from the chair and crossed her arms lightly.

            “Of course, Miss Laurito. I shall remove myself now, but if you need any help finding your way, please do not hesitate to ask any of the Manor’s staff.”

            “I will, thank you.”

            He disappeared through the doorway, leaving her alone with a discreet click of the shutting door. She wandered into the massive walk-in closet, running her fingers along dresses of the finest fabric hanging in a half circle. Pastels of every color spread out before her, practically none of which would avoid clashing horrendously with her hair. She reminded herself to think of situations like these next time she changed the color.

            Wandering over to the section of blues and greens, she plucked a baby blue sheath dress from the gamut. She changed clothes and flattened out the micro-creases in the business casual outfit which fit her remarkably, then dared to pull a pair of nude heels from one of the three built-in towers of shoes. About a dozen questions scrolled through her mind of the sheer possibility of this closet being full of outfits that would fit her, but she pushed them aside as she carefully folded the outfit she had worn to bed and left it sitting on the circular ottoman in the center of the closet.

            She grabbed her purse and left her room before finding herself in one of the massive corridors of Dres Van Manor. As with everywhere else in the building, the ceilings towered over her, arching above with superiority, and magnificent windows lit up the entirety of the walls and marble floorings. Long, emerald rugs dotted the floors, and matching curtains adorned every window. She walked with no real direction, imagining how long it would take the unseen slew of servants to clean these hallways every morning before anyone was awake to see them do it.

            Her senses came back to her when the clamor of multiple voices reached her ears. She turned her attention to a line of people flowing down the corridor in front of her and out one of the doors. She followed, allowing them to lead her to her destination, taking every opportunity to use the giant windows to give her an idea of what she was getting into.

            In a matter of moments, she found herself standing among hundreds of other guests from the previous night’s party. She tried not to look like she was staring as she watched them mill about in their suits and business-casual-work-dresses, wondering if they slept that way. On the other hand, she was wearing a similar outfit herself, so she wasn’t in much of a position to pass judgment. They all talked and laughed in the same airy, phony manner that they had the night before, and she turned away. Maybe she should bring her sister with her to the next party, to prove she wasn’t out of her mind by not wanting to be any part of this crowd.

            As she made it to the table and was handed a plate, she heard the laughter stop around her, replaced with a whispered cacophony. She turned around and followed the eyes of the whisperers to His Royal Highness, who had just appeared out of one of the Manor’s doors, dressed far more casually than his guests, in a pair of brown slacks and a cashmere sweater.

            I guess he can get away with that, being the prince.

He strode purposefully into the center of the courtyard, not making eye contact with any of the people watching him. Jan walked briskly behind him.

            Prince Joshua’s journey ended smoothly as he neared the fountain, and he turned himself to face his spectators.

            “I would like to once again thank all of you for attending yesterday’s party, as well as for your continued support of the Lieben family. Please enjoy your breakfast, and do not hesitate to approach any member of the Manor’s staff with any comments or concerns.”

            At the end of his miniscule speech, the excited hum of conversation began again, and the prince started to maneuver through the crowds, stopping every-so-often to talk to a guest. Aria grabbed her full plate and made her way to an empty table, catching Jan’s eye across the courtyard. He smiled and winked, and it made her smile as she set her plate down in the most graceful manner she could manage.

            She sat down and grabbed her fork, then noticed movement in her peripheral. She glanced up and saw the prince headed her way. Surprised, she momentarily stopped chewing, then realized that meeting the future king of her home country with a mouth full of food wouldn’t be very elegant.

            She finished chewing and raised the thick, embroidered napkin to her lips before standing to meet the prince as he arrived at her table.

            “Your Highness,” she said, dipping into a shallow curtsy. “Good morning.”

            “Right,” he said. “I’m sure you slept well.”

            Aria hesitated. The prince lacked the gentle, friendly manner of his butler.

“Yes, of course.”

            He nodded. “So, you’re going home today.”

            “Yes, Your Highness. Unless, of course, there is a reason either yourself or Their Majesties would require me to stay.”

            “No, it’s not that.” He looked away from her, and his face began to scrunch in on itself. She waited a moment for him to continue speaking, but he didn’t.

            “Your Highness?” she prompted. The prince turned his attention back to her face, but remained silent. As she opened her mouth to ask again, a voice she’d become rather familiar with entered the conversation.

            “If I may, Miss Laurito, you live in Friedenburg, correct?”

She made eye contact with Jan, and those all-knowing irises of his sparkled. “Yes, I do.”

            “That is very close to our border with Nerwan.”

            “Yes, it is.”

            “But there are no problems,” Prince Joshua cut back into the conversation.

            “I’m sorry?” she said.

            “You are only 0.804672 kilometers away from the border, yet there are no reports of violence coming over the wall into your town, which is most unusual for a town built directly on top of the borderline.”

            She stared at the prince, at his determined expression. Whatever had been making him unsure was gone.

            “Yes, that’s true, I suppose.”

            “Are you going directly home?”

            Her eyebrows twitched. “No, I plan to go into town for a short while. My nephew has never been to Waldron, and he asked me to bring something back for him.”

            “I see. You should simply bring him next time.”

            “Next time?” she asked instinctively. “I—please forgive my rudeness, Your Highness, but what do you mean?”

            “The next time you come to the Manor, of course. Bring him. I’m sure it will be interesting for a boy of his status to visit Dres Van Manor. And he can explore Waldron all he likes.”

            Aria gaped at the prince. What is going on?

            “It’s settled, then. Jan, make sure to give her the scheduling paperwork.”

            “Yes, Your Highness,” Jan said with a bow. The prince nodded and began his brisk ascent back into the castle. Aria watched him go, still dumbfounded.

            “I—okay, I’m sorry, but what just happened here?” she asked, turning to Jan.

            He laughed. “I do apologize, Miss Laurito, His Highness can be a little brash. But he sincerely meant his invitation for you to visit the Manor on a more regular basis.”

            “Okay, but why?”

            Jan took a moment to answer, staring off in the direction that the prince had left. “His Highness likes to be surrounded by people that he believes will assist him in making Dres Van a better place. It seems that he believes you to be one of those people.”

            Aria gaped at him. All of this had come out of left field and hit her like a delivery truck. She had barely spoken to the prince the night before. She couldn’t imagine how that would lead him to this kind of revelation. Only one thing in all of this did she understand. When she got home, she was giving her sister Hell.

            Jan chuckled again. “Please do consider taking him up on his offer, Miss Laurito. The Manor has a state-of-the-art sports facility. It could prove a good place for you to prepare for your next gold medal.”

            “I…” she started to say, completely unsure how she would finish. Her eyes darted back and forth and she turned her head down. Before she could find anything to say, Jan’s phone set off a notification. He pulled it out of the inner pocket of his jacket and gave it a quick glance before putting it away.

            “I’m terribly sorry, Miss Laurito, but I have to go. His Highness is requesting me.” He began to walk away, then stopped and turned back to her. “Please do not feel any stress over His Highness’s invitation. There will be plenty of time for you to make a decision. Until then, please enjoy your breakfast and have a safe trip home.” He flashed what had become his trademark smile at her, then began to walk away again.

            “Jan,” she called out to stop him. He halted immediately and turned on his heel.

            “Yes, Miss Laurito?”

            “Next time, call me Aria.”

            He smiled again, slowly. “Yes, Miss Laurito.”

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