The court held its breath, waiting for King Francis to speak. Prince Michael's return had been highly anticipated by the citizens of Oakshire; though his two older siblings were liked and respected, Michael's cheeky smile and carefree attitude had made him the favourite of the royal children. Less expected was the fiery-haired young woman from the mysterious continent of Slokos, who peeked over Michael's shoulder at the King and Queen on their thrones. The young woman he had just proclaimed his love for, and named his intended bride.
"Do you have any idea how much trouble this will cause?" the King growled at his son. "Have you completely forgotten your vows of betrothal, or is this a deliberate attempt to destroy our Kingdom? Just what the devil are you trying to achieve with this foolish declaration, boy?"
Michael met his father's glare, standing tall in the face of his fury. He knew perfectly well this would cause a lot of upheaval, but he'd had plenty of time to think on the long flight home. A loveless marriage to the spoilt daughter of the Eastern Duke would not repair the relations between East and North Oakshire. If anything, it could make things worse, because sooner or later one of them would stray, get caught, and the whole thing would break down. Arranged marriages among the nobility had been consigned to the history books a century ago, and Lucinda, the fourteen year old brat in question, had never shown much interest in him anyway. He had never felt for anyone else the way he did for the girl behind him, and would not give her up because of his dad's stubborn refusal to deal with his own mess.
He had prepared an entire speech on the plane to explain his reasoning, but when he looked at his mother it all just seemed to vanish from his mind. "I love her," he said, finding Crenkari's hand and holding it tight. "Any relationship I try to have with Lucinda would be empty, and fall apart the moment one of us met someone else. She would have her head turned by some good looks or sweet words, and I would always be thinking of Crenkari."
The Queen's gaze softened imperceptibly. She gave her husband a sideways glance, and he reluctantly dismissed the court. This would be better talked out in private, where wiggling ears and gossiping tongues could be held at bay. Once the room was empty aside from the four of them, she spoke. "I assume you have thought this through, and are not merely acting on some infatuated impulse?"
Though her tone was sharp, Michael could see the flickers of empathy in her eyes. "Of course, Mum. We have both reached this decision after a lot of consideration, based on a deep connection between us."
"You wouldn't be the first Prince to get some maid or common wench pregnant. There are ways we can deal with it, you know," said the King. "You could even keep her around as a mistress, as long as you can be discreet about it. We'll invent some position for her, maybe in the kitchens..."
"I will not have the woman I love treated as a common servant!" Michael interrupted, now directing a burning glare of his own at his father. "Oliver married Nicola by choice, Alicia remains single by choice, even you two married because you fell in love! Why should I be the only one in this family who is forced into a marriage I don't want, to some girl I don't care for, just because you're too pig-headed to admit you did something wrong? If you will not allow Crenkari to marry into the royal family, I will forsake my own place in the line to be with her!"
The empty room rang with silence for several minutes, until Eleanor spoke once more. "You truly love this girl? This isn't some wild fling that will peter out in a few months?"
Michael shook his head. "I wouldn't have brought her here if I didn't, and I doubt she would have come so far from her home and everything she knows if she didn't feel the same for me," he replied.
"Then there's no point standing in your way," the Queen told them.
"Eleanor!" the King spluttered. "Michael has a commitment, he took vows before witnesses that he would marry Lucinda, he cannot walk away from that because of some whore he tumbled on his adventures!"
Michael was about to protest; King or not, father or not, he would not stand for anyone insulting the love of his life. Queen Eleanor beat him to it, however. "Would you rather he marries the spoilt girl, cheats on her in a few years, and causes an even deeper rift between North and East?"
"I would expect my son to have more self control than that," the King replied hotly. "You know that DuRiza has not had any other children. The duchy will pass to his daughter, and she is a flighty, naïve child who would probably trade it for a new dress or shiny bauble given half a chance. We need stability in the East, not more chaos. Michael was supposed to be a steadying influence on the girl."
The Queen laid a hand on her husband's arm. "The Princess is still a child. She has led a very sheltered and indulged life, which has given her no idea of what the real world is like. Until she gains experience and maturity, no husband could hope to temper her impulses," she said gently. "Lucinda will likely be relieved to know she no longer has to marry someone so incompatible with her, and the Duke will just have to live with it. It's not like there aren't enough contenders for the Princess' hand. I believe young Lawrence Foxward has been seen courting her recently, and he seems a sensible boy. Perhaps he can be a steadying influence, more so than our Michael."
King Francis was obviously struggling to find a counter argument. "What of the relations between the North and East? This was meant to be a step towards bringing us closer together," he pointed out.
"You could just apologise to the Duke," Michael snapped.
"Apologise? For what? I have acted fully within my rights, the Duke is being pedantic and bullheaded over a few miles of wasteland." The King fumed in his throne.
Queen Eleanor spoke up. "If that is the case, then why the need to make amends by forcing Michael and Lucinda to marry? If you are right, you do not need to grant the Duke anything. If the Duke is right, there are plenty of other ways to make reparations," she pointed out. As her husband spluttered, trying to think of a retort, she turned back to her son and the young woman. "If you are both certain this is what you want, and will not be turned away from one another, then it seems impractical to attempt to prevent it. Neither of us wishes to lose a son, so we must accept that we are gaining a daughter-in-law. What was your name again, dear?"
"Crenkari, Ma'am," the red haired girl stammered, bobbing an awkward curtsey.
"That's a name?" Eleanor mumbled to herself. "My dear, nobody here will be able to pronounce that. We shall have to give you another... the closest I can think of is Christina. Will that suit?"
Michael squeezed her hand gently. During their flight he had given her a few brief lessons in Oakshire Common, the language of the kingdom, and hoped enough had stuck for her to understand what was going on. She nodded, accepting her new name from the Queen and muttering it under her breath. "If you will permit, I will show her around while rooms are prepared," he said to his mother.
The Queen smiled softly. "Very well. The staff will prepare the red guest quarters, they should be suitable for a future princess." She waved a hand in dismissal, and Michael led his fiancée outside for a tour of the palace. He made a note to himself to get his sister Alicia to have a chat with her, help her settle in a bit. She could probably have a word with old Harper about some proper language lessons too, as the ancient fossil had never liked Michael much and would probably refuse to do him any favours.
That evening, Crenkari sat in her new room gazing out of the window at the city. Christina, she told herself. I must get used to calling myself Christina. The rooms were beautiful, white painted wood furniture with deep red velvet curtains and bedspread, polished floors with soft red rugs. The view over the city was impressive, and she looked forward to seeing it at sunrise tomorrow.
"Surveying your new kingdom?" someone asked behind her. Christina jumped; she had pulled one of the high-backed white leather chairs across to the window from its former position near the bed, and had been so engrossed in her thoughts that she had not noticed the door opening. She turned to see who was speaking, and saw a woman in her mid twenties standing in the doorway. She was quite pretty, with soft black hair tumbling in waves to her shoulders and sparkling blue-grey eyes. She strongly resembled the Queen, except her skin was a shade lighter. "Michael just told me about you. I thought I should welcome my sister-in-law-to-be to the palace. May I come in for a moment?"
Christina fumbled for the words, Michael's language lessons temporarily hiding from her tongue. "Yes, come in," she managed after a moment.
The dark-haired woman smiled and entered, pulling over the other high-backed chair. "I'm Alicia, Michael's sister."
"I am glad to meet you," she said uncertainly. She was still struggling with the language Michael had called Oakshire Common, though in some ways it was similar to ancient dialects of the People's language.
Alicia's smile widened. "It's certainly a surprise to meet you," she replied. "How are you liking Oakshire so far?"
"It is... different," Christina said slowly. She thought about the things she had seen on her journey from the place they had landed to the royal palace; even the growling, metal contraption they had travelled in had been strange to her. Michael had tried to explain how it moved without horses pulling it, but she hadn't quite taken any of it in. She was still trying to work out what she would do when the sun went down, as she had seen no candles or lanterns anywhere.
"So I gathered. I haven't heard everything yet, but Michael says your people have almost no technology at all, outside of some very basic, manual items. This place must be quite unnerving for you," Alicia said gently.
Christina glanced out of the window; the sun had begun to fall lower in the sky, turning from a brilliant bluish white to a vibrant green as it sank towards the buildings. "What happens when it gets dark here? Does everyone go to sleep?" It seemed odd for a society such as this to have its waking hours dictated by the sun.
Alicia smiled. "We put the lights on," she said. She stood, went back to the door and flicked a small switch next to the frame. Bright light instantly shone from a collection of glass orbs that hung from the ceiling, which Christina had assumed were just some sort of decoration. "There's a lamp on your bedside table too, if you wanted a softer light." She pointed to a thing with a fat, round base and a red cone on the top.
Christina went over to take a look; she had not given much thought to the objects in her room, as she had been preoccupied with the wonders outside. As she slid her fingers over the round base, she found a small knob at the top, which she pressed. A muted, pinkish light streamed through the silky red shade, casting a gentle light over the bed.
"If you'd feel more comfortable, we do have candles and things somewhere," Alicia offered. "The electricity does cut out occasionally, so we keep them around just in case. I can ask one of the staff to bring some, if you want."
She shook her head. "Thank you, but I think I will get used to this quickly. It is strange, but not unpleasant," she said, smiling at the older girl.
Alicia grinned. "I'm glad to hear that," she replied. "I'm sure my little brother will take good care of you, but if you want a girly chat any time, come and find me. It's good to have a new face around here." She winked conspiratorially. "I have a feeling the gossip is going to become rather more interesting now."
Christina nodded. "I can imagine. The King seemed to be against the idea of Michael and I being together," she said tentatively.
"Oh, I wouldn't worry too much about that. Dad likes to complain when things don't go his way, but what Mum says usually goes," Alicia said with a dismissive wave. "I think he and the Duke were the only ones taking that ridiculous betrothal seriously, anyway. Lucinda certainly never seemed interested in Michael, although she did seem to like the idea of marrying into the royal family, and I know he isn't fond of her. I mean, they don't hate each other exactly, but they're just completely different people."
"That's a relief," Christina mumbled under her breath. "But, what about this trouble in the East that the King mentioned? There was something about a problem that Michael's marriage was supposed to solve, I think," she asked.
Alicia sighed deeply, falling back into the chair. "That's a long story. It started just over ten years ago, when the elves wanted to run some experiment and needed a large area of unused land for it."
"To the west of Oakshire, there's the Republic of Aglendale, which is the elves' nation. We're allies, or at least we have been for most of the last century, but separate countries," she explained quickly. "Anyway, their lands are pretty densely populated, but there's huge tracts of wasteland in Eastern Oakshire that were perfect for them to use. Dad was thinking of sending them up to the Snowy Wastes in the north, but that area's home to some rare wildlife and people got really agitated about it, so he sent the elves east."
Christina was trying to keep up, and wondered if she ought to take notes. "What kind of experiment were the elves doing?"
Alicia waved a hand, frowning slightly. "Something to do with a new way of generating electricity, I'm not quite sure. Anyway, they started building their thing, which took nearly three years. Daniel DuRiza, the Eastern Duke, was getting more frustrated with them using his lands throughout that time, but didn't really start making too much fuss until they started up the reactor. The elves had obviously miscalculated something, because it exploded and left a two hundred mile radius contaminated by whatever stuff it was they'd been using.
"Luckily there weren't any casualties, but the Duke was livid. I don't think the land itself was the issue, since it was pretty useless for most purposes, but the three different areas of the kingdom – North, South and East – have always been more or less autonomous when it comes to their own lands. Apparently DuRiza didn't even know the elves were going to be using his land until they'd started building on it," Alicia said.
Christina shook her head slightly. "I would have thought... what's the word, when you are polite because you should be?" She knew the word she wanted, but not in Oakshire's tongue.
"I think you mean courtesy," Alicia said helpfully. "And yes, it would have been courteous for Dad to at least communicate with DuRiza before giving the elves the go-ahead. DuRiza sent a letter demanding reparations after the experiment failed, but Dad decided to go all dictatorial and claimed he could do whatever he wanted because he's the King. That made DuRiza even angrier, and people in the East started saying Dad was acting like old King Robert I. He was King about three centuries ago, and there was a civil war because he tried forcing the rest of the nobility into full submission to the Crown; that's a whole other history lesson though, maybe we can go through that another time.
"Anyway, both courts were at loggerheads for nearly two years until someone dug up the outdated idea of an arranged marriage. Lucinda was only nine at the time and all too happy to think she was marrying a Prince. Michael didn't much care either way, but agreed in the hopes it would calm Dad and DuRiza down and get them talking rather than fighting. Of course, that didn't work and both of them just let the stupid grudge fester for five years." She shook her head sadly. "It's a pity things got this far, but none of it's Michael's fault. Or yours," she added kindly.
"I see," Christina said. She had caught most of what the other woman had told her, and understood the gist of it. "Tell me, is there a language tutor who can help me with this tongue? Michael taught me some of the basics on the journey, but if I am to make a life here, I will need to learn properly."
The dark-haired Princess smiled gently. "Of course. I'll talk to old William and get him to make some time in his schedule for you. I doubt there's a language in this world that he can't understand, and he's a very good teacher. He'll have you fluent in no time at all," she said.
"Thank you." Christina nodded gratefully, and turned her attention to the collection of orbs lighting up the ceiling. "Maybe once I understand the language, I can start to understand how these things all work. There are a lot of strange things here," she said, thinking of the fast-moving metal boxes that had whizzed around the streets, and the small wooden box she had seen that had contained the sound of dozens of musicians playing at once. She looked forward to finding out what had made Michael's homeland so different from her own.