Special thanks to Derryn, MarggiS, and 1supergirl4 for reviewing the last chapter. I do hope this satisfies any of your expectations and hopes for the climactic end. It may seem a bit rushed, and maybe I'll fix that someday. Expect a brief epilogue.

Chapter 25: The Unsigned Contract

For some reason, I felt purely joyful when I opened my eyes the next day. I stretched leisurely and wiggled my toes. The hotel we were staying at was naturally of the best quality and the bed was almost as soft as the one at home. However, this was not the reason for my happiness. Although nothing had appeared to happen yesterday, I still felt giddy at my conversation with Fred. I had decided that he truly wanted start with a clean slate. No doubt we would address the past at some point. Tonight there would be another ball and I would see him again. Surely things would be better then.

For now, the whole day was mine and I knew exactly what I wanted to do with my time.

"Maid, I haven't…gotten…" Loretta stumbled over her words as she realized she was addressing her sister and not a servant. She pulled her chin in slightly as she took in my attire. "Ruth, what in the world are you doing dressed so…plainly? Goodness, that dress has a tear! And…is that a grease mark on your elbow? Ruth! Where are your stockings? Your slippers? Your…"

"Oh hush, Loretta," I told her. "Can't you see I'm disguising myself? It wouldn't do to go traversing around the city in my jewels and gowns."

"Traversing…you aren't taking the carriage?"

I finished tying the ribbon in my hair and turned towards the door. I gave my naïve sister a quick pat on the cheek and a charming smile. "No, dear. I'll see you this evening."

She was still gaping when I closed the door.

The air was crisp and filled with the dusty smell of horses and spices. I followed the main road and watched the people as they passed. Many were worn and impatient as they waited for jams to dwindle away and pedestrians to move quickly. In fact, I learned a few words that I had not known in Luzcando. Others were much more interesting to watch. They greeted each other with compliments and taunts. Women stopped with their baskets to huddle in clusters with found friends to gossip. Children darted dangerously between wagons and horses, and escaped wagging fingers. The men were steady and persistent in their work as they loaded, sold, built, and did whatever else peasant men did.

When I finally reached the market place, I first bought a basket. My plan was to spend a whole purse full of money on Durantian trinkets and souvenirs. I would show Loretta and Esther what wonderful things could come from a common market. Then I would have an excuse to go about like this at home. I knew eventually they would demand I take a body guard. In fact…I glanced behind me, half expecting one of our own body guards to be secretly sneaking about behind me, on Loretta's request. I didn't see anyone suspicious.

Well, as Crown Princess, I suppose I couldn't argue if there was one.

"Lady Ruth?"

I turned back from my speculating to see Maria, my fellow dancer standing before me. She too was dressed simply, but more neatly and cleanly. She looked like a well to do daughter of a merchant.

"Hello, Lady Maria, fancy us both being here." I noticed her basket. "Are you shopping as well?"

"The girls wanted strawberries, and I knew where to get them. My uncle lives here, so I know my way around. And you? I did not realize you…shopped."

I knew what she meant. Civilized ladies did not shop. They had servants for that. "I was bored," I replied. "I've never been here and wanted a look around. Since you know your way around, may I join you?"

She smiled, a lovely shy smile. "Very well."

As we stepped into a casual stroll, I commented, "Now, I assume that this means there is a mutual agreement that neither of us are to inform Madam Catalina of our unladylike actions."

She giggled. "Oh, you have my word. I shan't want to see her slip into a swoon."

"Yes, for as soon as she has revived she will say we should have been watching carefully so as to know how to faint properly."

We enjoyed a laugh, for our descriptions were actually quite accurate of our good dancing mistress.

The next two hours were delightful. We saved Maria's strawberries for last so they would be fresh. She took me to her favorite merchants and I bought something from each one. Soon my basket was filled with crystals, music boxes, shell necklaces, and waterproof jewelry boxes. What I would do with a waterproof jewelry box I had no idea. Perhaps Esther could use it against the advances of her drooling adorable daughter.

The sun beat down and when I reached to take a couple of newly baked and bought rolls from a baker for lunch, I realized how sweaty I was. Maria didn't appear to be glistening at all and she was polite enough not to notice the wetness on my own forehead. She only suggested we sit in some shade as we ate and chatted. We found a kind horse trader who let us sit on his grain boxes. He even shooed away the horses that sniffed at our lunch.

Maria finished quickly and admired the horses.

"I've always liked these creatures," she commented.

"Why?" I wondered honestly.

"Have you ever seen them in a field, running? A whole herd of them racing for pure pleasure?"

I shook my head. I'd probably seen them in fields, but never more than a glance.

She sighed. "I have. My Papa owns many. It is their gracefulness that made me wish to dance."

"You are an excellent dancer," I commented.

"Thank you. You are, too, and learn very quickly.

I silently noted how her flushed cheeks only added to her beauty. Maria had always been very lovely, but I suddenly realized that it was even more pronounced as she gazed wistfully at the horses, her head tilted to one side and her hip resting on the post. There was a smudge of dirt on her forehead and her hands were sticky with honey and little curly wisps fluttered in her face, but it only enhanced her splendor.

"Lady Maria," I declared. "I must say that I am surprised that no one as announced you to be the most beautiful maid in all the land."

She blushed and laughed. "Oh, no! Only my Papa would say such a thing. I do not associate with men other than my brothers. I prefer dancing…and horses."

"If you attended more balls and such, your Papa would not be the only one saying so."

"I would not dare take that title from our Crown Princess. Princess Ruthia deserves it."

"And what if she is to be married soon?" I kept my tone light and casual, but personally wished this to be true.

She laughed again. "Then Lady Gloria is mounting in fame and beauty. I heard so at the ball last night."

I laughed outright. "Lady Gloria? She is spreading lies. Have you seen her?"

"Well…I think so. She was wearing scarlet, was she not?"

"Yes. She is far too conceited to be the most beautiful."

Maria was silent. I suddenly realized that she might be thinking the exact same thing about me, the Haughty Princess Ruthia of Luzcando. I flushed. How could I counter that?

At last she spoke. "I have not thought about it much until recently. The other girls were saying that the Haughty Princess is no longer so haughty. They say they have seen her in court and they have relatives at the castle. They say she is much kinder than before and more patient. I decided then that her beauty had always been there, but she deserves the most beautiful title much more because she has changed and become so much more. If Luzcando's princess can do this, perhaps, this Lady Gloria will become more as well?"

"Perhaps," I said coldly, still thinking of her evaluation of me. "You are far more hopeful than I."

Before either of us could continue the conversation a voice, clearly meant for us, whispered aloud, "Pst, your ladyship!"

I froze. Maria too glanced nervously around.

"Your high….my lady Ruth… Salvadora."

I found the source of the insistent hissing. A man leading a horse was peeking from behind a strip between two tents. He was dressed grandly and with the sigma of Luzcando. Ah, so Loretta had sent a guard after me. I recognized him as one of our many attendants. I hurried over to him, Maria in tow.

"What are you doing here?" I asked, clearly annoyed. I did not wish everyone to know who I was.

"Forgive me, your….ladyship. Pri…Lady Loretta sent me. You have received a message and your sister insisted that I find you. She said it was very urgent. She did say you were under disguise, but I found you anyway." He seemed very proud of this fact.

"Congratulations," I sighed, hopefully not everyone could see through my disguise. "Hand it over."

"Perhaps it is from an admirer," smiled Maria as the messenger fumbled in his coat.

"Doubtful," I laughed, Loretta would not have bothered me with a petty admirer. I clasped the envelope and turned it over, nearly gasping.

It was from Fred.

I tore the letter open, and there were two papers. One was clean and fresh, but I never got a chance to look at it because the other one kept my attention riveted. It was dustier than when I last saw it, and quite crumpled, since it had not been stored in a file for a while. Although I had only seen it once and never fully read it, I recognized it instantly.

It was the marriage contract drawn up so long ago between Fred and me when I thought he had been a fool of a beggar. Yes, there was my father's oath, and Fred's full name, and father's signature and…the line beneath remained blank. The place where Fred should have sprawled his name was completely void of ink. The paper began to tremble.

A thousand thoughts burst in my head. Why had he played so nicely last night only to throw this in my face? Why now? Wouldn't he have enjoyed it more if I opened this in the middle of a watching crowd? Or was he that cruel? Did he have another purpose? Did he never love me?

This last one was the question that had haunted me for the past two months or so. I was not any closer with this scrap of paper in my hand. Suddenly my teeth gritted down and the contract crumpled in my tightening fist. That old prideful flare burned in my cheeks and eyes. If he wanted to humiliate me I would fight back. If he loved me, I would demand to know. No more games, no more side stepping. I had to know the truth.

"Take me to the castle."

"Your highness?"

"Lady Ruth, are you all right," Maria was obviously concerned. "Are you…not a lady? I mean…are you more than a lady?"

I did not have time to concern myself with gentle explanations. I handed her my basket. "Forgive me, Maria. I am Princess Ruthia, and I am in a hurry. I have enjoyed myself immensely. Good luck with your strawberries, and I do mean what I said before…about you being more beautiful than Lady Gloria."

I turned abruptly to the messenger and marched toward the horse. "Get up there and help me up. You are going to take me to the castle right now."

He didn't object, only had a perpetual perturbed and confused look on his face as he hoisted me onto the horse and climbed up afterward. I was too angry and focused to notice Maria's shocked expression, the height of the horse or the town speeding by. When we reached the castle my messenger tried to get inside.

"This is the Crown Princess Ruthia of Luzcando."

"Who, your horse?" The guard snickered.

I slid impatiently from the ground by myself. "Don't waste my time with your bored protocol," I snapped at him. "Your duty is to let me in at once, so don't you dare dilly dally."

He was startled at my tone and authority, but raked me with his eyes with obvious confusion. My attire was not that of a royal princess. He began to fumble but his mate, an older and much wiser man interfered.

"That's her. Don't know what she's up to, but I'd recognize her face anywhere."

They opened the gate and I heard them still speaking as I marched past.

"How do you know?" wondered the insolent one.

"Seen plenty of King Adam's portraits of her from when he…uh…was interested in her. Saw them when he tossed them out after…"

I was stopped again when I tried to enter the actual building. What was with these stupid guards everywhere? Were the Durantians expecting an attack during their precious king's wedding? Of all the nonsensical….this guard was harder to convince than the ones at the gate.

"Look, muffin head," I snarled.

"Look at yourself," retorted the guard.

Before I could snap out a reply, a voice interjected that changed everything. "Princess Ruthia?"

We both turned to see a young girl dressed grandly in pink with sandy ringlets. It took a moment to realize that it was Princess Lily, Fred's sister. She skipped up to me and threw her arms around me.

"It is you! Oh, I thought I would have to wait until tonight to see you. I missed my chance yesterday because some dandy spilt wine on my dress and spoilt it. I saw you though. You were completely dazzling! By the time I had changed the ball was nearly over. I saw you again, but you were talking to Nathaniel and mother said I couldn't interrupt. I tried telling her I never got to talk to you and Nathaniel had got to spend…"

"Princess Lily," I had to interrupt or the girl would continue for an eternity. I tried to remember my manners, if only for a moment. "You have arrived at a most opportune time. Would you please inform your insufferable guard to allow me inside your home?"

"Oh, certainly! Martin open those doors would you? Don't you know this is Princess Ruthia?"

"Yes, of course, your highness." Martin bowed with a flourish and opened the doors. He refused to look up, perhaps because he did not wish to see my triumphant disdainful glance as we passed into the interior.

Princess Lily began to chatter again, "I just happened to be walking about the court yard looking for my lady in waiting. I've got a curl that just unraveled and wanted her to fix it. She wasn't in my room so I assumed she was flirting with her boyfriend, Devon, again. He's a guard, well sometimes. He's actually Nathaniel's friend. I think he's more of a spy. Anyway, I thought it very unsuitable for me, a princess, to go chasing after her, my lady-in-waiting that is, but all the other servants are busy because the garden party is taking up their time."

"The garden party?"

"Oh, yes! Adam and Katelyn couldn't meet with everyone last night, so they invited a few close friends to the garden party this afternoon. Mostly family members and very old friends are in attendance. I was just there when I discovered my loose curl. Nathaniel pointed it out to me when I was talking to Jason, my cousin. He can be such a tease! Not Jason, but Nathaniel…"

"He is at the garden party now?"

"Why yes, after all he is Adam's brother and that's a pretty close family member." She took a breath to giggle. "He didn't really want to go because he absolutely loathes parties, but of course mother made him because it's his duty. I don't see why he dislikes them so much, they are so very beautiful and he always has someone to talk to and all the ladies love him."

"Princess Lily," I wondered what it would take to shut her up. My anger and frustration were beginning to grow with her hindrance. However, I managed to keep my voice and tone steady, "You have been a tremendous help. Now, would you assist me in one more thing?"

"Oh, certainly!"

"Good. Please instruct me on how to reach this garden party."

"Oh, I can take you! But I haven't taken care of my curl…" she thought for a moment. The sudden motion and sound of footsteps caught her attention. She waved her hand eagerly to someone behind me. "Oh perfect!" she exclaimed. "Lawrence can escort you!"

I whirled around. Indeed, Fred's valet, and Gwen's sweetheart was standing before me, looking perfectly healthy and confused.

"Lawrence!" I couldn't help but cry out.

"Princess Ruthia," he acknowledged with a curt nod of his head.

I knew just what to do. "Are you still in love with Gwen?"

"Very much," he responded without hesitation and his eyes snapped with determination and attention.

"Then for the sake of that love please take me to Fred."

"Do it, Lawrence. I've got to go find Louisa. Or Devon, he would know where…" her voice trailed off as she began wandering away, still talking and still in search for her maid.

"Right this way, your highness." Lawrence actually bowed slightly before he moved down a hall with his hands behind his back and his head erect. I caught up to him immediately, rather annoyed with his behavior.

"You really don't have to act like I'm a prissy, Lawrence. What would Gwen think?"

"You are still royalty, your majesty."

I had to remind myself that this young man still referred to Fred as "sir," perhaps that's just the way he was. Still, I had to try. "I'm glad to see you are completely well. It was disturbing to see Gwen so sad."

"Thank-you. She commented that you were a good distraction and a helpful friend. Thank you for doing so, for her sake."

By all the heavens, this man was annoying. My fury at Fred remained at a boiling point with the help of his stubborn valet. I wanted to demand if he knew about the whole plan or if this unsigned contract was the next step to a plot to further my humiliation. However, Lawrence halted abruptly at a door just then and addressed me.

"The garden party lies just beyond these doors. Allow me to say that I am very pleased that you have arrived, Princess Ruthia, Gwen would be, too." Without any further explanation, he pushed the door open for me with a bow and a barely audible, "Good luck."

The warm late August sun filled a lovely garden scene I barely had time to catch. There was a young orchard to the right that provided shade, and no fruit. However, the majority of the people were in the courtyard which was surrounded by rows of flowers and vines that climbed the wall. Tables were set, and a few musicians occupied a corner with their music. It was rather quiet, only murmuring chats and the tinkling of glass and laughter. As my eyes scanned the area for Fred, I quickly guess about thirty people were in attendance.

There he was, standing at the edge of the orchard staring rather blankly before him as, of course, Lady Gloria stood next to him, this time adorned in yellow. There was no suit, no cloak, and no gold, only a green vest over a simple starched shirt. In a rush, I suddenly remembered when we were at Farmer Ben-Jamen's cherry orchard and that girl had begun to flirt with him, the one who made her hideous yellow dress. Then I had been annoyed with him, too. We had danced that night, we had talked. However, I had still been far from the truth.

Not this time.

Regrouping every bit of anger and pain and frustration I could summon, I squared my shoulders and marched right up to him, the unsigned contract still clenched in my fist. He did not see me until I was nearly upon him, the contract unrolled and dangling before me.

"Fred," I stated.

He was so taken aback he actually took a step backward, bumping into his yellow partner.

"Ruthia!" He was visibly surprised, but I couldn't tell what else was in his tone. In the distant there was a rise in the murmurings, as well as audible gasps, but I could hardly notice.

"Would you step out of your nature for a moment, and be kind for once so as to tell me what the meaning of this is?"

I tossed the contract onto the table and folded my arms. There. He would have to answer.

He only had to glance at it to know what it was. "I release you from the contract and conditions we had. You are free to do with it as you wish. Burn it. Drown it. Eat it. You decide."

There was an odd way his lips twitched, as though he were trying not to smile. His smoky grey blue eyes held mine as I tried desperately to decipher his meaning. It was a straight response, but did not contain the answers I wanted.

"Maid, you overstep your bounds by entering so unannounced and intrudingly."

My gaze shifted in wrathful disbelief to the scarlet, now yellow, snake who had placed herself at Fred's side. She was glaring at me keenly with all the superiority of a noble. Her chin subtly moved upward as our eyes clashed.

"Excuse me?" I nearly sputtered. Was she suggesting that I was a simple servant?

"Are you deaf as well?" she spat. "You do not belong here! Commoners are not allowed here, so you better leave before I complain and call the guards."

"I am no commoner," I retorted. "You know this. I am—"

"You are filthy and dressed despicably. You have no signs of royalty about you and your peasant insolence should be punished," she countered coldly. "You stink as well. Don't pollute this noble company with your disgusting presence."

I stared at her, suddenly aware that her words were true. No doubt I stunk of horse and sweat. I had a layer of dirt on me and my clothes were more common than even a servant's. My disguise was working too well. But even with it, she would know me. They all…

I was suddenly keenly aware that an intense silence had descended upon the garden party. My gaze swept around me, taking in the gaping nobles. Several ducked their heads in embarrassment when I met their eyes. Others glared in similar contempt. I knew that they either believed the snake's words or were shamefully mortified at the idea that I, Crown Princess Ruthia Eva Lynet of Luzcando had just burst into the garden party so repulsively attired.

Even King Thrushbeard and his bride were sitting silently, staring. They both avoided my gaze and Katelyn blushed. Queen Margret stood at her eldest son's side. I could see her eyes were upset as though she wanted to interject. However, something stopped her and she only stood, stony and silent.

My cheeks flamed with anger and equal humiliation. Obviously, Fred had baited the hook and I had been caught. No doubt this was just another part of the plot. He never loved me. I spun away, wanting desperately to get out of that moment, leave the stares and wide eyes and gossiping whispers.

However, Fred grabbed my wrist and pulled me back, stepping purposefully away from Lady Gloria. His eyes never left mine, and I didn't even try to calm my galloping heart.

"Princess Ruthia," he addressed me, and his tone remained neutral and quiet, though I'm sure every straining ear could hear him. "I only sent the contract because I did not wish to bind you against your wishes. It was my way of starting again, clear of any hindrances." His grin crept up. "I suppose you didn't read the letter that came with it?"

I shook my head, dumbly. "You know I can't start all over," I whispered, barely trusting my voice just then.

"I have not been a gentleman," he replied, his voice rising a bit for the audience. "Princess, I apologize for treating you so uncouthly. I should have courted you properly, without evil intentions and without chicken feed."

I nearly laughed out right because I'm sure the crowd had no idea what he was talking about.

"You will never have to beg or bribe for a bit of cloth, or act as a pottery merchant. I promise never to place you in living conditions below your standard and to always treat you with the respect you so obviously deserve. Would you do me the honor of extending your forgiveness?"

In that moment his hand slipped from my wrist and held my palm instead, gently pulling me closer. He leaned forward and in a private murmur added simply, "I'm sorry, Ruthia."

It was hardly fair. How was I supposed to get mad at him with his hand gripping mine and those stunning eyes gazing at me so intently and imploringly? I gulped. My own breathless response was quiet as well, but I'm sure they could detect my nod.

"Very well, but only if you forgive me…and if you sign that contract."

This time his grin spread wide and genuine.

"That's easier done than said," he quipped.

He proved it, too, by sweeping me up into a glorious kiss before the gaping crowd, the beaming Queen and the stuttering Lady Gloria.

"Nathaniel!" she all but screeched when we pulled apart. "You can't—"

"Stop talking, Lady Gloria," Fred said, turning rather irritably upon her, his arm still wrapped comfortably around me. "Can't you see I'm enjoying the intoxicating presence of the most beautiful damsel in land? I have only endured you for your father's sake. However, you have overstepped the bounds of decency and friendships; so I say take your intolerable presence elsewhere."

"How dare you?!" she gasped.

"I dare anything," he responded. "In fact I dare say that dress looks hideous on you."

Fred kissed me again, so I don't know where she scuttled off to. I heard clapping in the distance, and for a moment I thought it was terribly indecent of me to be kissing Fred in the middle of his brother's garden party. But…it was only a moment.

This time Queen Margret approached us, but there was no reprimand. "Does this mean I get to plan another wedding?" she asked, elegantly excited (only she could pull it off). "I have always wanted to do a fall wedding. Green and gold perhaps?"

We glanced at each other and Fred read my eyes.

"No, mother," he replied. "You'll have to wait for Lily. I'm just going to sign that contract and we'll be on our way." He looked back at me. I was tugging him away, towards the door, we were nearly there. We had so much to talk about, so much to do. The garden party could not contain us.

"I promise, I'll sign it," He reassured me with a kiss.

Was it possible that he had become impressively better in the last ten seconds?

"You better."

"Nathaniel!" Adam was waving to us happily. "Go ahead! I signed it for you!"

I nearly laughed as Fred grinned appreciatively. He clutched my hand and we darted for the door.

So, then, we were officially married. If anyone would look at that battered paper, they would assume a marriage document had been drawn up by two monarchs, my father and King Thrushbeard, for two unwilling subjects.

It couldn't be farther from the truth.