Dimitri tapped his clean shaven chin as he observed Jade's face. They sat in Jade's rooms at the palace in front of the blazing fireplace. The girl had just about given up caring about what people would say if they observed a lone man entering her rooms.
"Surely, I cannot look that wretched," Jade asked with a wry smile.
"Not quite. You're moping," The Prince's bodyguard answered as he politely sipped on his tea.
"Of course, I am. Ever since we've come back from the country I've been sitting here sipping tea with my new well-wishers while the only person I want to see is barred from meeting me," Jade swallowed the sudden burst of emotion in her voice and hoped she drowned it with the heat of her beverage, "His room remains empty every time I go check. I cannot stand it. Please tell me nothing ails him beyond the obvious?"
"As you know Prince's injuries were exacerbated by his long journey. He also kept hidden a broken rib in all the chaos. The Queen was breathing fire the last I saw her and will not let him off his sick bed despite his protests," The man repeated what he had already told her before. The pair had been separated as soon as they landed in the Palace from the country side, not that they had been allowed to travel in the same carriage in the first place. Jade had been discharged from the infirmary while the Prince had been not.
"How come he was able to sneak off before and travel a great many miles without being caught while now he cannot even escape his sick bed? I cannot believe we're talking about the same man," Jade shook her feathery hairstyle in disbelief. In the depths of her mind the doubt lingered whether the Prince wished to meet her at all.
"His mother has promised to melt down his crown if he moves an inch from his pillow but I digress. You are no longer in danger and obviously he was able to escape before because I let him," Dimtiri's smile was mischievous as he finished his last sip.
Jade glared at her friend. Despite the positive outcome It was the most idiotic thing for a bodyguard to put his charge in danger. Her fear for the Prince's life overran all other instincts.
"I knew he was the catalyst for this dreaded witch business. Without him you might have been taken over as you said as the clock struck midnight and done whatever she wished," The man waved his fingers about carelessly.
"I have submitted my report to Sir Elliot about the witch's plans. You may read it if you want the juicy details," Jade rolled her shoulders in an effort to feel relaxed. She was entertaining the third visitor of the day but the only one she welcomed.
"You're still deferring to Sir hoity toity? You're now significantly above his rank in the Palace. "
"We have a very important goal in common and it is to protect Luke at all costs," Jade pressed her lips and replied gravely.
Dimitri just watched the tenseness of her posture and the agitation in his friend's eyes, "Why don't you have a change of pace. When will your house be refurbished?"
"It's only just started. It could take years if we stick to Mr. Gepetto's exacting standards," The girl sighed. Having no opinion on trims and tea cosies she had given the older gentleman free rein over her house.
"Then why don't you visit the librarian's daughter? I doubt she will turn you away," Dimtiri suggested, kindly.
"Why are you so desperate to be rid of me?" Jade joked hoping she was mistaken.
"Because there are murmurings in the court that the queen wants to arrange a meeting with you," It was now Dimitri's turn to be serious. He watched all the ruddy colour from his friend's cheeks wash away.
"Well, that explains all the courtiers paying their respects," The brown haired girl sighed and put teacup with distaste, "They must want to view my undead corpse before I lose my head."
A week later a very much alive Jade was sat on the traditional heavy thread carpet of the familiar study. Her wool gown was draped over half the carpet space in her carelessness. She was intently making columns in her country estate's registers with her ink pen when there was a knock on the open door. Jade looked up and instead of Emma she found Sir Munroe sat on his moving chair that was being pulled on a three wheel chassis.
Jade fumbled with her belongings and nearly toppled over the ink pot in her eagerness to rise. She gave the head librarian a hasty bow and smoothed down her creased skirt.
"Sir, you should have called me. It wouldn't have been trouble at all to attend to you," The girl's voice wavered as she couldn't remember which pitch to use. She must sound like a braying donkey going hoarse to high to her host.
The librarian just watched her fidget with her ink sodden fingers before giving her a watery smile. It did not calm her nerves.
"I would never be impudent enough to bother my esteemed guest," The sallow man remarked in his soft, weak sounding voice, " I merely wanted to have a talk with you. Please have a seat."
Jade collapsed in the chair rested against the man's desk without question. For such a soft-spoken man there was something in him that compelled complete obedience. She now knew why even the Crown Prince's knees shook at the thought of meeting the head librarian.
"I hope you are enjoying your stay. I must reassure you that we are not the slightest bit inconvenienced by having you reside here if you're having second thoughts. In fact I find it a blessing my daughter has a bosom friend who can keep her company in this dreary house. I worry about her," The sharp eyed man laced his fingers together as if contemplating what to say next. Jade remained silent in anticipation.
"We have been blessed to have so many well-wishers come to our doorstep in the time of need. Do you know of the Crown Prince? He has helped me acquire this chair," Sir Monroe's gave his new vehicle a probing look.
Jade nodded, scattering her brown hair with the vigorous bobbing of her neck, "Yes, I do know of him. We have met."
"Oh, silly me, I forgot," The older man said, not looking the slightest bit forgetful, "You were dropped off at our place with the Prince's bodyguard at your side. Of course, you must know them."
"It's a long winded tale but the Princes helped me out of a tangle, I mean..." Jade trailed off realising how foolish she must look trying to conjure up half truths.
"I understand. Please do not feel forced to explain yourself. My daughter says she is aware of everything and I trust her judgement," The librarian stated.
"You do?" Jade blurted and felt the urge to crumble into a thousand pieces on the floor in embarrassment.
"Yes, I do. I always have but I should have showcased it in a more overt fashion. My motherless child grew up in a blink of an eye and I did not know what to do with her," Sir Munroe sighed with a despondent look, "Please do not underestimate my awareness. The Royal Prince is hardly expected to run around me. It is not part of his duties. I know why he visits."
"He's a chivalrous man, surely you don't expect-" Jade interrupted as her foot went straight to her mouth.
"When one works with people with ranks so lofty one does come to accept their own insignificance. To dream of scaling over ones status in life is impossible. Except now with the current circumstances I must re-evaluate," The man tapped his fingers against the arm rest with a pensive expression, "What do you make of the Crown Prince from the perspective of a woman?"
Jade had a moment where she wondered whether the sharp man knew her former secret but decided it was more important to take his statement at face value. Emma's future happiness depended on it.
"I'll be honest I am more acquainted with Prince Luke then his Royal Highness. The Crown Prince has displayed no real vices to me regarding drink and women except his dismal way with words," Jade explained truthfully.
While mingling among men disguised as one the girl had seen many truths concealed from respectable society. The Prince to his credit hid nothing. His prickly public persona was exactly the same as his private one.
"I'm familiar with that particular failing," Sir Monroe chuckled in a dry sort of a way, "He has never needed to improve himself for all his friends both male and female flock to him regardless of his acerbic words. The crown atop his head is a beacon that calls everyone towards him."
"Father, why are exerting yourself so," Emma popped in through the doorway slightly out of breath, "I hope you have not taken up interrogating Jade. I've told you her matters with the royal family are only to do with her duchy. Her stepmother's in prison and she has no place to go."
"We were having a fruitful discussion, my darling," Sir Munroe looked lighter at the sight of his daughter.
"The Crown Prince has sent a missive he shall be late tonight. He had matters of the state to attend to," Emma breathed softly. She held a hand written note close to her chest.
"I think I should rest. Why don't you girls take him out for a walk in the rose gardens across the road. He will appreciate the excursion," The soft spoken man commanded and both girls nodded meekly as the chair was wheeled out of the room by the occupant.
"A walk in the rose garden? My father is not the sort of man to have me be frank with the nobles," The shorter girl looked bemused.
"Perhaps he's had a change of heart," Jade answered. She decided to keep the previous conversation to herself. To reveal it would fluster Emma even further.
"Oh, I cannot walk out looking like this. I must change into another ensemble at once," Emma stared down at her perfectly creased morning dress. Both the girls departed for their respective rooms.
"I don't believe he shall care about your outfit at all as long as he can see you," Jade jested and Emma's eyes grew round with shock at her friend's daring. She shushed as they went past her father's room and parted from each other. Jade decided the Crown Prince did not deserve an effort from her and donned an overcoat to hide her messy countenance.
Once she had firmly positioned her winter accessories on her self Jade sauntered down he staircase and patiently waited for her friend in the drawing room. When the Prince was announced he was utterly disappointed to see Jade greeting him in the empty room instead.
Similarly Jade was also half hoping she would finally lay eyes on Luke along with the Crown Prince but he did not show up. Prince Luke had sent her a missive asking about her health but he had no come to visit, not that she was expecting an injured man to scale walls for her again.
"I see you're doing well," The Prince remarked after an awkward silence. Jade twiddled her thumbs in boredom.
"I am, your Highness. Sir Munroe has spared no expense in fattening me up," Jade replied breezily.
Edward made a face as if he loathed her turn of phrase but refrained from an odious reply, remaining oddly polite. His dimple surfaced as soon as Emma hurried down the stairs out of breath. She lurched to a halt as she found the guest already there.
The pair would have still been standing there staring at each other a hundred years later if it were not for Jade rushing them out of the exit. Three men in plain clothes followed the trio down the street but none of them paid the guards any attention.
"When we last met we discussed the words of poet Pomfrey. He has published another volume," Emma uttered after mundane exchanges about the weather. Jade had linked her arms with Emma while the Prince walked with an appropriate distance between them. With only Ladies present it was no longer required they maintain a Royal distance between their steps. Jade finally had one thing that gave her an advantage over men as a female.
"He has some great moments but when he panders to the audience with the subject matter I can feel his command over the words falling," Edward critiqued the poet with a thoughtful expression. In his hands he held one of Pomfrey's volumes which gave indication that the man had been reading to Emma during his weekly visits.
"Perhaps he is forced to write by his publishers. All compromise comes with a price," The light haired girl declared.
"He is being paid for his efforts. He should have worked harder," The Crown Prince insisted.
"Free will is essential to the betterment of any act. Compromise just breeds resentment," Emma declared, passionately.
"He does have a contract last I heard so it seems you could be correct that he was forced to put pen to paper," Jade murmured as she picked a thread in her glove. She had read this particular fact in the newspaper while reading to her ailing father.
"I had no idea you were bookish," Edward wondered. He gave Jade a curious look.
"Everyone has their hobbies," The taller girl smiled blandly.
"I thought the only reason you came to the library was to give me company," Emma giggled behind her glove.
"Honestly I haven't read for leisure in a really long while. My main aim was the safety of the Prince and books in the library gave me the opportunity. That reminds me how is Prince Luke?" Jade steered the information to her topic of interest.
"He is on the mend. I suspect he needs another three days before mother deems him well enough to place his feet in leather," Prince Edward replied. His inky dark hair kept falling in his eyes and he kept trying to push them upwards. If Jade squinted he almost looked like Luke and that made the girl feel light-headed. She was going mad.
"Is there no quicker way to meet him?" Jade asked, feeling her spirits lowered. Even Dimtiri had laughed off her requests to break into the infirmary.
"Don't overexert yourself. You will get the opportunity soon. Father has ordered a dinner with you," Edward replied with a sly grin. Jade did not look pleased.
"That's good news, isn't it. They must be ordering a medal in your honour," Emma was oblivious to the undercurrent of tension.
"You can get them if you like. Luke will ensure you receive many trophies if you wish," The Crown Prince stated.
"I don't believe the Prince should have to ask for acknowledgement for her brave acts. The state must act swiftly," Emma was quick to feel offended on behalf of her friend.
"But what shall we tell the world at large. Surely you don't want the kingdom to panic hearing about a bloodthirsty witch. She had taken over one Prince and attempted to attack the other two royal children. It would create a frenzy the likes of which we have never seen," The Crown Prince's tone remained measured.
"So, it seems Jade will never be compensated for her bravery," The shorter girl looked distressed.
"I really don't wish for anything, not even money. But I do think the Crown Prince can give me one thing I desire," Jade tried to keep the atmosphere less hostile. She really did not wish to have her company continue their bickering.
"If you want Luke on a platter I must decline," Edward replied loftily making Emma break out into giggles. Jade burst out laughing as well.
"No, I wish for you to inaugurate a special project of mine. I wish to open a safe haven for troubled women in my deceased cousin's estate. I do not wish for any woman to be out on their own when they wish to escape from their personal prisons," Jade explained.
"The government has excellent schemes for the underprivileged and the indigent. Why should anyone come to your abode instead?" The Prince asked with an edge to his voice. Perhaps he felt offended that his government policies had been deemed incompetent by Jade.
"Sometimes people cannot find the strength within themselves to deal with stern government officials. Perhaps they feel judged or perhaps they worry that their cases might be deemed too light. In my capital office I shall employ mostly women to ensure battered women feel safe and protected," Jade answered after much deliberation.
"Very well. If that's what you think. I shall not dissuade you from a noble deed. May you find success in your endeavours," Edward replied lacking the bite in his voice.
"Thank you, your Highness. I know the value of your time and I understand the honour," Jade's words were sincere.
"Its nice to see both of you civil," Emma interjected with a small smile curling her lips.
Mr Gepetto had rushed to deliver Jade a finely embroidered, red gown soon as the Royal missive had appeared on her doorstep as Edward predicted. The brown haired girl had felt nauseous while opening the seal despite knowing what was in it.
"I shall make a laughing stock of myself," Jade remained closed eyed as she hid the tremble of her hands behind her back.
"Oh, come on. You have observed the depth and breadth of the Royal Palace and the Royal family. You will be a credit to yourself by facing this one last challenge," Emma tried to implore.
"My confidence was before Luke confessed to me. I had nothing to lose," Jade replied with a heavy heart, "What if I'm underdressed or worse... what if they think I'm overdressed."
"Well, I'm certain you shall be neither. Here you go," Emma opened the clasp of her ornate jewellery box with a determined look. She sat on her bed beside her worried friend.
"You shouldn't have..." The taller girl protested weakly. Emma revealed the contents and her words died on her lips.
"My mother's necklace..." Jade whispered faintly. Her long fingers traced over the red stones shimmering in the firelight.
"I have been waiting for this moment for a long time. I could never have used it after you... It would feel so disrespectful. I'm glad I can give back what's truly yours," Emma gave the taller girl a fond smile, "Wear it. Evening approaches soon."
Jade spent the rest of the evening surrounded by two of Emma's maids who were squealing over the prospect of the Royal meeting. They asked Jade all sorts of questions which she answered numbly. She barely remembered being whisked away in the Royal carriage sent to deliver her to the palace safely. Perhaps they anticipated an attempt at an escape which was ludicrous since she had done nothing wrong, absolutely nothing except for falling in love with a Royal Prince.
Jade stepped down from the elaborate carriage and at the private entrance only stood a glorified doorman who stood to greet her. The tall girl peered over the shorter man's red locks but found no signs of Luke.
The doorman proceeded to guide Jade through a multitude of corridors until they reached the king's personal visiting chambers. She was announced by the herald and the double doors opened to let her in.
The high roofed room was vacant. There were none of the usual courtiers milling around the marble columns. On the dais were laid out two thrones that were occupied by the ruling pair. By their side stood the youngest Royal Prince. He wore sombre coloured outer coat and non-descript breeches.
Jade should have followed Royal protocol but she could not deny herself from getting her fill of the Prince. Her smile at the sight of him shone through the whole room. Luke's toothy grin mirrored hers and it was as if the world had melted leaving no one behind but themselves. Even if the king and queen found an absurd excuse to chop her head off at least she could die content.
Jade remembered her manners first and curtseyed gracefully gathering her sweeping gown her palms. Her brown curls bounced with her movement. The eyes could not go down so fixed they were the Prince's form.
"Rise, Duchess Durnn," The King ordered with a magnanimous wave of the hand.
"I have heard much about your adventures," The tall and forbidding man remarked curiously, "The people of Edenshire thank you."
"It is an honour, your highness," Jade tried to keep her tone of voice even. She worried her trembling hands would translate to a shaky voice.
"Let me have a look at you," The stern looking Queen observed Jade's appearance with a critical eye. The girl half expected the woman to bring out a quizzing eyepiece to examine Jade's flaws. Jade squashed her own feeling of dread and climbed up the dais in her precarious glass heels. Before she could find a way to collapse on the Queen's feet Luke gave her his hand and helped her upwards. The older woman took the girl's free hand to pull her near.
"Hmm... That's an unfortunate injury," The Queen frowned as her eyes landed on Jade's cheek. The scar was still visible despite the maid's attempt at powdering it to oblivion. The servant simply did not possess the skills necessary to deal with it.
"I was attacked by a mountain lion, your Highness" Jade answered simply. Luke's arm around her tightened. The man had the gall to continue looking amused.
"She was very brave," Luke nodded sombrely although his voice was dripping in mirth.
"You did an admirable job slaying the formidable beast, your highness," Jade replied, sweetly.
"Very well. Please, guide our guest to the dining room, Luke. Our dinner awaits." The Queen sniffed imperiously. She dismissed Jade and began the formal proceedings of removing the Royal pair to another room. Luke and Jade clambered behind them.
"Do they even know I was in disguise during our trip. They might think it a tad unsuitable for a noblewoman to have taken up fighting wild cats," Jade hissed. They Royal pair walked five steps ahead of them as per tradition. The corridor to the dining room was empty enough that Jade's heels made a deafening sound.
"They know everything. Who do you think sir Elliot reports to," Luke mumbled back.
"Of course they do. I am a lamb led to slaughter," Jade's distress turned to a frown as she noticed the Prince laughing silently and she hissed, "Stop laughing."
"They won't harm you."
"You don't sound very convinced. Never mind I am very angry with you," The tall girl grumbled. She took great pains to ensure her voice did not carry, "You did not meet me even once."
"I had a fever when I came back. Mother was most displeased. She put her foot down once and for all. I was trapped, I tell you," The Prince rushed over his words.
"My damsel in distress. Captured by his own mother," Jade sneered.
"I would never abandon you. Never," Luke's words were earnest, "You must believe me."
Overwrought with emotion he pulled her hand to his lips and gave her a lingering kiss. The pair stood as if frozen in time until a cough disturbed their preoccupation. They turned towards the interruption and found the Royals waiting for them to move.