The cliché of a far away kingdom has been way overdone. After stating that, there was a kingdom not so far away just a really long time ago. The rulers were kind, Queen Lela was the most respected Lady in the continent and her husband, King Jerrold, was the most loyal man anyone could ask for. Having owned the land first, decisions went through the Queen first despite the fact that she had an older sister, Felicity. Instead, she had married another powerful King and the family did not merge the kingdoms on the account of not knowing the other land natives as well.

Queen Lela was not only respected but she also had kindness beyond anyone's comprehension. Her generosity was looked up to and the people of the kingdom were happy with their luck. Their joy was only increased by the fact that the Queen gave birth to a healthy prince, an heir. A beautiful baby boy with warm, tan skin that only ignited his bright blue eyes paired with his black hair. The villagers were happy to know that Prince James would be raised by the kind and noble Queen to take over the duties of ruling the land.

Around five years later, Queen Lela had extended her generosity in a way that the villagers didn't know about. While reviewing the kingdom in disguise one day, Queen Lela had walked upon a small broken down shack just outside the town. The only things inside were a small mat as a makeshift bed, and a tiny malnourished girl. Her face was streaked with tears and as the Queen stepped into the shack, the girl scooted back into the corner, clearly afraid of something that had happened in the past.

Instead of scaring her further, the queen calmly knelt down, placed an apple a few feet away and patiently waited. Ever so slowly, the girl emerged from the corner and took a hesitant bite.

Using a soothing voice, the queen spoke, "You don't have to stay here. I can help you. Come with me." The lady held out her hand and patiently waited once more. A small delicate hand became encased by a warmer, softer one. The two walked back to the palace.

Once in the kitchen, the queen once again kneeled down. "I'm sorry that I can't make you a princess, no one would let me, but I can make you an employee of the castle. I'll make sure you always have food and a nice place to stay in exchange for a little bit of hard work."

A grin broke out for the first time on the child's face and two quiet words were barely heard, "Thank you."

The queen never forgot her promise, and soon the girl, whose name they discovered to be Clara, became a valued servant of the castle. She stayed in a cozy room in the servants' quarters and everyone was happier to have a little help with odd jobs. The maids had someone to set the table and wash dishes while they dealt with cleaning the castle. The cooks had someone to bring out dishes while they kept preparing supper and meals. The gardeners had someone to bring them water and tools. The royal family especially enjoyed her as the child, even in her youth, was willing to rise early, start warming the room by lighting the hearth and bring breakfast.

The Little Prince James was grateful for the warmth, but he didn't really notice the girl, if she was even in the room. Steadily, as she grew to the age of ten, the girl took on small cleaning jobs as well. She would clean the main entrance and dining room with surprising vigor. She was happy. The Prince wasn't only influenced by his kind mother however, he was also occasionally brought up by his Aunt who was happy to bring her two nine year old twin boys (read brats) along. Caleb and Jackson. Boys who always got what they wanted and were never punished for anything. They teased young James endlessly and when no one was looking, they would do little acts to make life harder for Clara. They would step in mud before entering the great hall. They would leave dishes in random places. On the occasions when they would stay the night, they would place strings in random places for her to trip over and then remove them before anyone saw. Prince James would never let them get away with their mischief. He would tell Queen Lela and she would lecture the boys. Sadly, she couldn't do much more than that, but she tried. Clara put up with their actions regardless and kept it to herself.

In the dining room, there was a beautiful stained glass window. A depiction of a rose garden at sunset graced the wall lit by the sun outside. One day at the age of 12, James wandered into the dining room with a toy ball. For the first time, he noticed a small girl his age cleaning the floor. She was on her hands and knees using a bucket and a rag.

Walking up to her curiously, he watched her scrub the floor. She was focused and hardworking which surprised the young boy. He recognized her from around the castle, but he'd never really bothered to care until he found her on his own. She had black hair tucked into a loose messy braid. Her figure was hunched over but lean muscles stood out on her shoulders and back. Her dress was dirty and loose but what was interesting about it was the way she wore it. She had tucked half of the skirt into her apron strings on her waist. Before anything else happened or anything else could be observed, James was shoved aside and his two annoying cousins walked across the clean floor with muddy boots. James watched Caleb kick the bucket over while Jackson ripped the rag out of the girl's hands. Shockingly, she didn't do anything. She didn't even look up. Her eyes stayed fixed on the spot she'd been scrubbing. While James didn't know this girl, he absolutely hated the two and she didn't deserve what they were doing to her.

"Hey! What's your problem?" James shouted.

Jackson slowly stood up and threw the rag aside. "What do you care? She's a stupid servant."

James was at a loss for words. Why did he care? She was innocent. She had done nothing yet she was being treated like dirt. Despite his thoughts, he didn't answer.

Caleb was overcome with an evil look and James yelped as the boy put him in a choke hold. "Come on. I know you don't care that much about her. Don't stoop so low as to care for the people who dust your shelves."

James frowned in confusion as he struggled.

"Throw your ball through the window." Caleb insisted.

"What? Why?" James choked out.

Caleb only tightened his hold, "Show yourself how much the help matters."

James tried to resist but as he felt the air leave his lungs, he gave in. The shatter of the window echoed through the hall as Caleb let James fall to the ground before the young prince could stand up.

"WHAT is going on in here!?" James cringed but stood up at the sound of his Aunt barging into the room. She always filled a room with her noise whether she was talking or just eating some soup.

"Mom! THe servant took James's ball and threw it through the window!" Jackson lied easily.

James's eyes widened at the fib. The large and loud lady used her height and stood over the prince. She might've been a visitor but she still held authority over almost everyone at the castle aside from the king and queen. She terrified the boy and he did the only thing that seemed right at the time: he nodded and agreed with Jackson's statement.

Aunt Felicity's fury only intensified as her gaze was turned towards the little girl. The lady grasped the girl's arm and began to tug her towards the door.

"We were so gracious as to let you work here and you decide to be this cruel to us? How dare you!?" James mindlessly followed as his Aunt Felicity ranted and accused the girl. They didn't stop until they were outside and by the barn. Aunt Felicity threw the girl forward onto the ground and then turned back to James.

"Watch her like a hawk!" she hissed.

James nodded and turned his gaze to the girl as the large woman stomped off into the barn. The girl still hadn't said anything but now, as she sat on the ground hugging her arm to her chest, he could finally see her eyes. They were startlingly green like pale leaves. Fear filled her eyes. The more he looked at her, the more guilt fell on his shoulders. He made to step forward but the girl scooted back just as fast. He didn't know what to do. All he could think about was what this girl was about to face.

Aunt Felicity came storming back out with the blacksmith in tow. In his hands was a white hot poker with some kind of block on the end.

"Hold out your dominant hand!" she ordered the girl.

The small girl held out her right hand. James's eyes widened and he no longer could just stand there. He sprinted off to find his mother. Thank goodness she was in the first place he checked. The Queen watched his fearful face approach the gardens and stood up immediately.

"Auntie's gonna brand a servant!" was all he could get out.

She didn't say anything but grabbed his hand and raced towards the barn. James felt tears leak out of his eyes as he heard a scream erupt from the structure. By the time they got to the scene, the girl was curled in a ball with her hand pulled to her chest.

"Now, go get back to work, you worthless bastard!" Aunt Felicity bellowed.

The curl stood up without using her hands and was already beginning to hold in her sobs. Her chest trembled with the effort.

Queen Lela was stunned into silence as her eyes followed the girl back to the palace.

James's guilt finally overflowed. "It was me! I threw the ball through the window. Caleb and Jackson made me!"

Aunt Felicity simply arched an eyebrow while Queen Lela gasped. "You branded her because of a window!?"

Aunt Felicity shrugged. "She didn't resist or protest and it was the stained glass window in the dining room. Isn't it expensive?"

James watched his mother shake her head in disgust, "Please leave and let me punish my own servants."

"As you wish," was all the lady said as she rolled her eyes and walked towards the palace like the others.

Queen Lela kneeled in front of her son. "Why didn't you say anything sooner?!"

James could only duck his head. "I was scared, and before I knew it we were at the barn."

The queen shook her head one last time and pulled her son towards the castle. "Come on, we need to go help Clara."


"The girl who you just let take the blame for you."

"Oh . . ."

The two ventured back to the dining room and they found Caleb and Jackson forcing the girl to clean the floor with her injured hand. Tears were streaming down her face but not a sound escaped her lips.

"Get your things boys. You won't be coming back as long as I'm alive." the Queen said proudly.

The two dropped the girl like a boring toy and went grumbling back to their rooms to pack. Then James watched his mother tear a piece of her gorgeous dress and she calmly knelt before the girl. "I'm sorry. I'm so very sorry. Let me help."

James turned towards the girl and held in a gasp as he heard her mumble her words quietly, "I wasn't really sure what to do. She burned both sides to stand for Insolence and Irresponsibleness."

The boy turned his eyes to the wound and winced. An "I" was seared into the skin on the palm and back of her hand. The Queen openly glared at him for the first time and James took it as a clue, "I'm sorry, I was just super scared. I should've said something."

"I'm sorry for the window." The girl uttered.

The Queen shook her head, "I've always hated that window. It was a present from my sister who has never treated me well, besides it's not you who should be sorry."

At that comment, James cringed again. "Mother, I'm sorry, I'll make it up to you."

"Oh I have no doubt you will." she said, "From now on until I say so, you will be cleaning this room too."

James opened his mouth, about to protest but he shut it just as quickly. He deserved it. There was no reason that he did not take the blame. So, instead, he nodded his head and went to his room.

The next time James saw the girl, she was in the dining hall cleaning alongside him. The only instructions he was given by his mother were to clean the room diligently, which wasn't very descriptive, so he just began to place plates on the table in what he assumed was the correct placement. The girl was already in the room standing on a ladder, she was dusting the chandelier.

He couldn't help it, but he glanced at the damage he had caused to her. The hand was wrapped in bandages and they looked clean but the fingers were swollen and red. She still held it close to her opposite shoulder as she used her other hand to dust. Her dress was the same but her hair was down this time, draping down across her back only held away from her face by a scrap of fabric.

The power of his gaze must have drawn her attention as she turned to look at him. James couldn't look away but her eyes turned back to her work just as fast. She stood on her toes to reach a far section of the hanging light fixture.

The ladder shook but the girl didn't seem to notice. James's eyes widened in fear as the feet began to slide against the floor. Putting all thoughts aside, he dropped the plate he was holding and ran forward as her body began to tilt and fall. He braced himself as she began to fall. James tried to catch her but instead ended up just cushioning her fall.

Both sat up staring at each other. James looked into her eyes which were a startling green and found the absence of fear this time. Instead, surprise bloomed in her irises.

"Thanks?" she seemed to ask.

James couldn't think of what to say, "Uh, don't worry about it . . . I owe you anyway."

A hint of a smile pulled at the corner of her lips and she looked at where he had been setting the table. Shards of broken china scattered across the floor. She stood up and walked over to a small bookshelf in the corner. She pulled the shelf towards the room and it swung open revealing a cabinet of spare dishes.

The girl pulled out a replacement and placed it on the floor as she swept up the shards of the plate into her apron. James kept setting down plates in order to feel productive. She poured the pieces over a pile of trash she had formed in the corner of the room and handed the plate to James to set it in the last place.

"Thanks . . ." he began.

"Clara," she replied, "and it's only because I owe you." calling back to his previous statement.

". . . and I'm sorry for . . . everything."

"What could you have done anyway?" James shrugged but they returned back to work with small smiles on their faces.

Throughout the next few months, James had found that he was most comfortable with Clara. She was super calm and collected while also being a fast worker. Her hand was healing and now the "I's" were faint pink scars. They joked as they worked, and James never really thought about this girl before, but now she appeared everywhere. He watched her serve the royal family dinner, light the fires in the hearth when the clock struck the early morning hours, not to mention the fact that she constantly cleaned all over the castle.

After three months of cleaning the dining room, James's mother let him run free. However, after one day of not needing to scrub the floors of the dining hall, James felt lost. He was bored. He of course had lessons but the rest of his free time was spent in total boredom.

After a week of total boredom, the boy found himself seeking out the girl. Clara was always around somewhere. It was when he found her in the garden that he decided to bring a book. He walked up to the garden bed and the girl kneeling in the middle of it all gave him a small smile and nod in greeting, then she continued her work. Watching her pull weeds and pick ripe fruit and vegetables, James pulled out his book and began to read out loud.

Clara showed no surprise but she smiled as she continued to place potatoes into a basket. She didn't ask for him to speak louder or softer, but she also didn't ask him to leave. James peaked at her hand. The burn was healed but a white scar raised the skin so an "I" was still visible on either side. It didn't seem to bother her anymore which gave James a relief of guilt. She didn't seem to be marred by the injury, so all seemed forgiven. He sat there all morning enjoying the sun while his new friend worked.

Around noon, Clara picked up her things and began walking to the kitchen leaving James to scramble after her.

"Hey! Where are you going?" he said hastily, putting his bookJames in place and stumbling to his feet.

"Well, someone has to help cook the midday meal, which might I add, you are going to be late for." Clara spoke boldly.

James turned pale, he'd forgotten about that. As he ran off, the girl chuckled and curtsied. "Good luck, your highness."

From then on, James filled his mornings with reading to Clara. He even filled his afternoons, if he had no lessons. Clara seemed to like the company and she was a much better companion than his horse. She laughed at all of the right parts in stories, and even brought him water or sustenance in between her chores.

Every so often, on the occasion that he didn't want to read, Clara would talk with him. About anything. She created surprisingly good conversation considering she had been so quiet in the beginning. She always listened to any complaints he had about lessons. When he accidentally spilled dirt from the garden in the kitchen, she would laugh and grab a dustpan. When he got tired of her calling him "your highness," she would call him James, just as he wished when no one was around. When he became annoyed by her curtsying to him and having to bow back, she took a bow and made him curtsy. They never stopped after that. Whenever they met, Clara would curtsy and then bow, in reply, James would bow and then curtsy.

The friendship that was formed brought Clara out of her shell. She would joke more, laugh freely, and every morning, Clara would bring James his breakfast with not only a curtsy but a bow as well.

At the age of 13, James became overcome with an illness. His cousins decided to dump a pail of water on him while they were outside . . . in the dead of winter. Pale and hot to the touch with fever, Clara found him as she brought him breakfast the next day. James couldn't even sit up. The room was spinning and his throat felt like it was home to an angry wasps nest: scratchy and sore. Clara took only a few steps into the room before she sensed something was wrong and hastily set his breakfast aside on a table. Before anything else, she placed a cool cloth on his forehead and held his hand as she whispered in his ear, "Think of something nice and I'll make sure you'll be all better before you know it."

True to her word, Clara had found the palace doctor, his mother, and some warm broth to help him heal. The fever was stronger than most. The young prince spent four days in bed before his fever even broke. Four days in a delirious stupor.

He woke to see Clara sponging his forehead with a cool cloth as she let a small smile emerge at the sight of his blue eyes open once again. The boy allowed for the corners of his lips to upturn in response.

"Thank you." the boy croaked out.

With a gentle kiss on his forehead, Clara replied, "It's only because I owe you," before going off to find his mother and speak of the good news.

The annoying cousins didn't stay away forever, but James was better prepared to face them after that. As for Clara, he would lead the boys away from wherever she was working. Luckily, they never stayed for too long, a few days at the most.

Time passed and years went by. James turned 15 and was ordered to add dance lessons to his learning. His instructor was a man with perfection in mind. Before even taking the floor, James had to study the origins of everything he learned. Whoever cared for the origins of a waltz was an idiot.

When the time came for any actual dancing to begin, James's teacher stood expectantly waiting for the boy with a nervous and confused Clara standing next to him.

Without even waiting for James to ask questions, the man stated, "The gentleman's job is to lead the dance so I thought it best for you to have a clueless partner. This was the closest I could get and she looks like an ideal height of the average lady. We can choose another if you wish."

James's eyes looked into Clara's. She kept her head down as always but her expression revealed hurt and confusion. The man had called her clueless but also the same height as the average lady, he could understand the reasons for her face.

So, instead of letting the instructor do anything, James gently took her hand and led her to the middle of the room. He offered a small smile and whispered, "Just follow my lead, it'll be easy."

"He almost yanked me off the ladder I was using to dust the library shelves, this better be easy," she whispered back. James disguised a laugh as a cough.

"Alright, take your positions," the oblivious instructor called out.

James mouthed for Clara to curtsy. She elegantly lifted her skirt, but as she stood straight once again, she allowed for her head to nod forward as an almost imperceptible bow. James's face split into a barely concealed grin as he stepped forward and took her hands and placed one on his shoulder while still clutching the other. His free hand found her waist and James took a deep breath waiting for the music to start. They were closer than they had ever been. Had Clara always smelled like fresh cotton? She had different shades of green in her eyes, getting darker and darker as they got close to her pupils. He'd never noticed that before.

The start of the music startled him back to reality as he began to lead her around the room. He was right, it was easy. Clara followed his steps like she had been taking the same lessons. By the time the song had ended, James found himself wishing for another dance, one with a longer song.

To his delight, the instructor had the same idea, only, he also wanted to add some new moves into the steps. James was to lift Clara and spin her around before continuing the music. The boy found himself excited to try. Clara stayed as stoic as ever, but James saw a hint of joy in her eyes.

This time, it was even better. James let his muscle memory kick in as he took the time instead to look at Clara. She kept her eyes on his and he found himself admiring the freckles that adorned her nose and cheeks. Wondering if her hair just looks this shiny when she braids it or if it always looked like that. Did her eyes always have such long eyelashes? They brushed her cheeks ever so elegantly.

When the time came for the lift, James found himself sweeping her up with almost no effort and spinning around with ease. The dance ended with the instructor clapping.

"Beautiful! I think you are ready to attend dinner parties with your parents, young sire." the man concluded.

James didn't hear him. All he saw was Clara smiling at him. The teacher didn't wait for a response and left the room without even saying goodbye.

"Congratulations" Clara said, breaking the spell. She curtsied and gave an elegant bow. James only remembered waving before she walked back to the library to finish her chores.

The sun had started to set as James made his way to the tallest tower. He loved watching the horizon as the sky turned a peachy orange. He couldn't help but smile as his mind began to wander thinking of a kind and beautiful servant.

It would seem that James wasn't the only one who had noticed the fair servant. He would often find his awful cousins laughing and scheming just around the corner from Clara as she was cleaning. Instead of simply distracting them, James would send them on wild goose chases in a fit of anger and jealousy. He once even sent them through the village to the dump because he claimed that he saw their favorite dog take one of their mother's dresses there. He smiled to himself at the thought. They had smelled like rotten meat and sewage for days.

Despite his effort, he wasn't always successful. Jackson and Caleb found her on the odd occasion. Clara wasn't as submissive as she used to be, however. Just as she was carrying laundry to change the linens in all of the bedrooms, they came upon her and tried to corner her. In response, she "accidentally" dropped her basket on Jackson's foot while also "accidentally" kicking Caleb's shin. James had arrived just in time to witness the latter and he had to bite his lip to stop laughing as he once again led them elsewhere.

Of course, the worst things had to come to the best people. The kingdom went into despair as the Queen became ill when James turned 17. She was found the same way James was: by Clara. The King, away on a hunting trip, was not beside her.

Her Majesty was overwhelmed by a fever and cough. The first days seemed promising of improvement, but it was all for not. Unlike James's fever, the Queen's condition only worsened despite days of close care by the palace doctor and Clara. She couldn't sleep as she was constantly awoken by coughing fits. Her skin remained hot and her fever never broke.

The Prince was a constant companion by her side. He held her hand through it all. Day and night he kept her hands wrapped in his. Because of his proximity, he was witness to her last words.

On her last day, the coughing stopped, but the Queen remained pale with her eyes unfocused. "My son," James leaned forward in his seat as Clara continued to wipe her forehead with a cool cloth. "Remember, those who love you will show you the way. Those who you love, will be happy to know such a wonderful person. Marry someone who you trust." With those last words, James felt her hand go limp and he looked up to Clara who had tears falling down her face. He could only rest his head back onto the sheets as he let his own tears fall.

Lady Felicity wasted no time in taking advantage of the Queen's death. Once the King had returned, she courted him herself. The man took a while to be overwhelmed by her charms. Queen Lela had been five times the woman Felicity was. But, alas, he conceded that the gain of her land would've been another advantage to the kingdom in a time of weakness.

And so the evil cousins became stepbrothers to James. Aunt Felicity became the new Queen.

James might as well have asked for the devil himself. His only escapes were when he sat with Clara doing chores. The stepbrothers never went to the library and the garden was much too boring for them. Clara became his safe place.

But now, he didn't want to read. Now, all he could think of was his mother. Clara didn't ask for him to read or do chores, which he was thankful for. She simply always offered an open chair for him to sit nearby as she dusted or polished.

For weeks, all he could do was stare off in the trees or the garden. Finally, one day, he broke. Tears began to course down his face as sobs wracked his body. He couldn't breath. All he could see was her face. Then, how it turned pale and her breath was gone from her chest.

He felt warm arms encircle him. He continued to cry but into the shoulder of his savior. "She's the reason I'm here, you know." James looked up for the first time. "Yeah, my parents were killed in a fire. Your mom found me on the streets. I had nowhere to go and I hadn't eaten in days. She let me come to the palace and work. I might be the second hand for every single person in the palace but I have a place to live, and meals. Even a friend," she smiled.

James gave a watery smile. "She always had a heart bigger than anyone could imagine."

"She reminds me of stars. Her light is forever shining down on us, even when she's gone." Clara smiled back.

James couldn't help it but laugh, "She will forever leave a lasting impact on all of us."

Clara began to take her arms from around him, but he grabbed her wrists and hugged her closer. "Thank you."

"I don't owe you, but you deserved to let it go. It's not good to stay in mourning."

James looked back at the girl and felt relief for the first time, but it wasn't the first time that he was thankful for her presence.

James had never really taken his mother's words to heart more than when he went apricot picking in the orchard with Clara. For the first time in ages, his father had let him do an errant outside the castle walls. He had been begging for an escape, when Clara, the angel she is, stepped up and offered that the orchards needed harvesting.

Clara saddled up two horses as James grabbed a couple of baskets and ladders. They set off into the orchards happily on an adventure. Upon their arrival, Clara slid off her mare with surprising agility. James had picked the apricots with her before, but it had been years ago. She had always had to go alone as he usually had some kind of lesson. Luckily, they only had about ten trees, but for her it must've been a lot of work.

She picketed her horse and set to picking the fruit which they had come for. James had known that she was efficient but she never seemed to stop working.

"Are you going to help or did you just want to get out of the castle?" Clara said stunning him from his thoughts.

James shook his head as if to get rid of his distracting thoughts. "Yes, sorry, got lost in thought."

Clara laughed. "As always."

James slid down from his horse, grabbed a ladder and began to pick another tree. "Not all of us are happy to focus all on work all the time."

"Who says that I do?" Clara said, smirking at him, "I daydream, I just know how to keep my hands moving."

"Why is that anyway?"


"Why have I never seen you not working?" he inquired.

Clara seemed stunned by that question, "I've never really thought that I had another purpose. I'm not worthy of doing much else."

James took a step down from his ladder in confusion, "What gave you that idea?"

Clara gave him a glare, "I've worked at this castle since I was barely four. I only know how to read because your mother taught me the basics in her spare time. I have a lot of basic skills, but that's all they are: basic. I know nothing of politics or anything beyond basic arithmetic. I have nothing to offer the world."

At that, James nodded but gave a thoughtful answer, "I wouldn't say that. I've never seen someone able to handle the onslaught of work that you do. You know exactly what to say at any point in time, and you have kindness beyond measure."

Clara smiled and he could tell that she was hiding a blush as she tucked a stray piece of ebony hair behind her ear that had fallen loose from her braid. "Thanks, but I don't think that there's anything else I can do with those skills."

James was at a loss of words for that. "I mean . . ."

Clara chuckled. "Just pick the fruit. We need to be back by dinner. With you, we might be able to do this in one day."

And so they worked. By the afternoon, the two had picked all but the last tree. It was when James had decided to climb up into the top branches in order to pick the last few apricots. Meanwhile, Clara remained on the ground gathering the fruit that he dropped.

He was reaching for one that was just beyond his reach when he heard Clara whisper. "Promise me you'll keep quiet!"

"What?" he responded and looked down.

"Just promise me!" she said, gazing into his eyes, fear filling his own.

"Okay but-"

"Can I help you gentlemen?" Clara interrupted his whisper with a shout towards a group of approaching men. They held weapons and all maintained viscous looks in their eyes.

"Where is the prince?" They responded without greeting.

"I'm sorry? What on Earth for?" Clara questioned uneasily.

"Just tell us where he is!" One shouted as he marched forward and shoved her against the tree. "A beautiful maiden like yourself doesn't wander out by herself." James felt his hand begin to tighten its hold around the branch he was clinging to.

"He's not here," Clara lied as she sidestepped the man.

"I don't believe you." Another said stepping forward and grabbing her arm harshly.

"I don't know!" she said forcefully, as she yanked her arm out of his grasp.

"Tell us the truth!" One more stepped forward and pinned her arms behind her.

"I am," she lied again.

"Liar!" The first shouted while striking her face. James bit his lip so hard that he could taste blood in his mouth.

Clara only let her cheek turn for a moment before turning it back to face the man. "I have no new information to offer you."

That statement did not make the men happy. The leader smirked, "Maybe we can coax it out another way."

Clara didn't even flinch when he pulled out a whip. The other men scrambled over each other to hold her down. One gripped her shoulder so hard that her dress ripped, exposing her collar bones and one shoulder blade. The leader broke into an all out evil grin and ran his hand over the exposed skin. James could feel the bite of the bark as it sank into his skin from clutching the tree.

"Such a pity, we'll have to destroy such beautiful skin." he remarked. As his hand strayed up her neck to her face, Clara spit into his. "But I won't lose any sleep over it." he said grimacing as he wiped the saliva off his nose.

He took the whip and he got to work, striking Clara several times. Blood began to run over her shoulders and collar as long and deep cuts were carved into her skin. Through it all, Clara didn't let a sound escape her mouth. She stared straight through all of the men like they were nothing.

Their leader quickly realized this too. After a while, he became fed up. He kept trying to ask Clara the same questions, but she never offered an answer. With one last strike, the leader stopped. "Come on boys, we'll find a better source."

They let Clara drop like a sack of potatoes onto her back. As they ventured beyond the hearing range, James couldn't take it anymore. He half climbed, half fell down the tree. He knelt down next to Clara. Her eyes were still filled with fire but her hands were trembling as he looked over all of her injuries. He shrugged off his overcoat that he had donned in order to fight off the autumn chill and placed it over as much of her wound as possible. Before he could do anything else, Clara grabbed his hand and looked into his eyes.

"Go get the guards." she seemed to order.


"Go! We can't let them escape!" she urged.

James's jaw clenched in anger but he stood up and sprinted to his horse.

James must've forced his horse to sprint the entire way back to the castle. He summoned as many guards as possible and made to mount his steed again, but someone grabbed his foot.

The king gave him a leveled gaze and James took a deep breath as he set himself back down on the ground. "Son, you can't go back, you might be killed by those men!"

James shook his head in anxiety, "I can't leave Clara there! They whipped her half to death and you expect me to just leave her? One of the tasks of being king is to care about every subject. You can't stop me!" James remounted his horse and kicked his horse into another sprint.

Once they had arrived at the orchard, James quickly dismounted and shouted out to the guards to find the men. Then, he quickly located the tree in which he had climbed before. Beneath its branches, Clara lay with her eyes closed on her side. James found himself on his knees speechless. Her shoulder, back, and collar bone were all covered in blood. Her skin was marred by deep and jagged cuts. He had sat there and done nothing while they did this to her. Just like when they were younger.

James found himself absentmindedly reaching out for her hand. He held it loosely, tracing over the "I" with his other hand. Her pulse was still there but she didn't move or wake up. No. His mother wasn't here to bandage the wound this time, so he did. He quickly gathered her in his arms and set her on his horse. James sat in the saddle behind her and set off towards the castle.

It wasn't until he had carried her into her kitchen that he realized that he had no idea where she slept. She was always awake by the time he needed her. Luckily, the cook pointed him in the direction of the servant's quarters. Her bed was in the corner. James was astonished with how little she had. There was a small lumpy mattress and at the foot a small bag was placed within which a few clothes were stored. He shook his head. She deserved more than this.

He placed Clara on the bed as gently as possible and ran to the palace doctor. As the man looked over her, James hovered nearby offering help when needed and holding her hand when help wasn't needed. At one point, the doctor had to remove her dress in order to wrap the bandages around her torso. James took that opportunity to go find more suitable clothes for her. It was the least he could do.

By the end, Clara was redressed and properly bandaged. She had needed stitches for several cuts. The doctor told him that he was free to go as she would probably sleep for a few hours. James planted himself firmly in a chair next to her and waited.

When she awoke, James felt her squeeze his hand before she opened her eyes.

James smiled, "Oh thank God."

The corners of her lips lifted up, "Thank you for keeping your promise."

James's smile vanished, "Like the coward I am."

Clara's eyes stared straight into his eyes as she answered, "No, like someone who knows when to act. They could've killed you."

James looked away still ashamed, "I could've done more."

Clara squeezed his hand again, "Hey, you did. The guards are after them and you brought the palace doctor all the way down here for little old me? That's pretty proactive."

James closed his eyes and smiled. "How do I always end up owing you?"

"Well, it's also known as a friendship, but call whatever keeps us being civil with each other what you want."

The two continued to be friends. Maybe even closer than ever. Clara's wounds healed but not without a large amount of scarring. It appeared as if a tree had tried to grow under her skin by the way each line branched out individually. James sometimes found himself staring at the scar that peaked out of the edges of her collar, but he never said anything. Clara would simply persist in saying that it wasn't his fault.

This morning, he was reading once again while Clara dusted the shelves of the library.

"For never was a story of more woe

Than this of Juliet and her Romeo" James finished as he closed the book.

Clara humphed as she finished dusting off the shelf and moving onto another. "Well, as romantic as it was, I feel that story was a bit more tragic than it had to be."

"But that's the point!" James defended.

"I suppose, but playing the devil's advocate, even as a writer, isn't always a good thing."

"Well, at least it doesn't end like every other romance. The man and woman always fall in love in the end, marry, and live happily ever after."

"Isn't that what happened here?" Clara asked innocently.

"Well, one would argue that they died happily ever after."

"So, you wouldn't kill yourself in order to be with someone you love?" Clara waggled her duster at James.

"Would you?"

"It depends if they loved me too. Imagine sacrificing your life, only for it to be in vain."

"It's your choice, I suppose." James said avoiding the question.

Clara laughed climbing down her ladder. "Well, maybe you'll meet someone who will help you answer that question."

James had no idea what to say to that.

A week before his 20th birthday, James was eating dinner with his family. Aunt Felicity seemed to be staring at him through the entire dinner. Of course, Caleb and Jackson were eating like slobs. Clara was as obedient as ever as she continued to bring their meals in. She always placed his plate in front of him with a subtle bow of her head.

All of the sudden, the king stood up as if a long lecture was about to proceed. "James, we need to discuss a matter with you." James glanced up and out of the corner of his eye, he could see Caleb and Jackson smirking like he was in trouble. "You need to marry soon. I'm not getting any younger and I want to meet my grandchildren."

He wasn't against finding a bride, but he wanted to in his own time. It was clear that his father was expecting a wedding very soon. James opened his mouth to speak but he never got the chance.

Aunt Felicity began to speak, "This isn't to be discussed, you are to find a bride by your twenty-first birthday, or we will find one for you."

The King obviously felt a little uncomfortable with her assertiveness, "We were going to surprise you with a ball on your birthday next week. That way, you have the chance to meet some young ladies. I'm sorry to force this on you, but you need to have a wife before I die. The land needs another heir after you."

James couldn't help but frown. He couldn't deny that he did want to marry, but not someone he was forced to meet. He wanted to follow his mother's wishes and find someone who he loved and trusted, but he didn't want to be rushed into it. James heard the clank of a glass and looked up to see Clara refilling his water goblet. She looked into his eyes and with just one look she seemed to reassure him that everything would be alright.

The ball ended up being as boring as he thought it would be. He was forced to stand in a corner while countless princesses came up to him and curtsied each hoping that he would either dance with them or propose to them on the spot . . . or both. After two hours of boredom, he shuffled out a nearby door and into the gardens. He could still hear the music echoing into the night but it was void of people. They were probably too scared to get their shoes dirty.

As he walked around, he neared a fountain and sitting on the edge was Clara. James could feel his whole body relax at the sight. She was the only person who could completely calm him down. As a waltz began to play, James felt an idea form in his head. Clara hadn't seen him yet.

With as much dramatic flair as he could afford, James bowed and then curtsied, "May I have this dance?"

Clara looked startled but quickly smiled and curtsied, then she bowed and kissed his hand, "But of course," she responded.

They joined hands and began to dance. James had a flashback to when he was first learning how to dance. Clara was just as graceful now as she was back then. He couldn't help but think about how her lips had felt touching his hand. When he lifted her up into the air, she laughed and the sound echoed in his ears even after she was done. They danced closer and closer. By the end, their chests were brushing each other and he could feel her breath on his face. She smelled like fresh cotton and flowers. Instinctively he began to lean down. Clara's beautiful green eyes widened in surprise but she didn't move away. It wasn't until a much more lively song spread through the garden that she seemed to realize what position they were in.

To James's disappointment, she cleared her throat and backed away. "I can't, I'm sorry. You're supposed to be inside. Go find yourself a girl who's worth sacrificing your life for." Clara curtsied, and made to leave but then she came back and bowed. "Your mother gave some good advice to follow."

As she ran into the shadows, James couldn't have agreed more. However, he didn't think that he needed to go find her. She had been around him his entire life. There was no one who he trusted more or loved more for that matter. Now, if only he knew how to tell her and his father.

Once again a few months before his twenty-first birthday, James found himself in the library laying on the couch as Clara dusted the shelves.

"Ugh, I can't take it anymore, please make it stop." he complained.

Clara brushed the duster over his face making him sneeze. "I can't stop your parents from trying to find you a bride. Only you can."

"But it would be great if you could." he said jokingly.

"Oh please. Countless girls are throwing themselves at you. What a tragedy." She laughed as she grabbed the ladder to dust the top shelves.

"Have you seen the book I was reading?" James replied changing the subject.

"Yeah, it's at the top of this shelf. I'll grab it."

James sat up smiling at Clara. She was the only person who he could be himself around. He looked down at his hands trying to hide the blush that he could feel turning his cheeks red. He looked up to find Clara's ladder wobbling. He stood up to go and steady it but he was too late. He could only watch in horror as the ladder went crashing to the ground, taking Clara with it.

James ran to her side. Clara turned over, groaning. "Ow." she simply said.

"Where does it hurt?" James asked frantically.

He helped Clara sit up and she winced as she moved her leg, "I think I hurt my knee."

"Oh thank God," James said.

"Uh thanks?" she said.

"Heh, no I'm just glad that's it." he said.

Clara looked ready to smile but then her eyes locked onto the shelf they were next to. She shoved James hard and he landed flat on his back.

He sat up just in time to see the shelf fall flat on top of Clara.

"Clara!" James shouted.

He looked up to see his stepmother standing over the shelf.

"Felicity?!" a voice behind him shouted. The King stood shocked at the sight of his second wife having just committed an attempted murder. "Guards!"

Men flooded the area and she was quickly shackled and dragged away.

"No!" the lady shouted. "I am not going to jail after everything I've been through. I did not kill my sister for nothing!"

James heard that last statement and his rage only grew. "Then, you deserve jail you horrible bitch!"

The boy shoved the lady against the wall as soldiers came into the room and restrained her. She was shackled and dragged away. Little comfort was provided as her shrieks filled the hallway.

Then, he marched over to the shelf shouting for help. As the men lifted the shelf, James pulled Clara out from under the shelf. She wasn't moving but she seemed to be uninjured apart from a large scrape near her temple and her knee. He scooped her into her arms and this time, turned his back to the servant's quarters.

Instead, James brought her to a guest room for any nobles that they hosted. She was worth far more than those people anyway. The doctor followed and as he gently set her onto the soft sheets, the man began to take stock of her injuries. The doctor quickly took out a small cloth and dabbed at her temple. There wasn't much blood, but it looked painful. James stood off to the side feeling helpless. That is, until he spied a pair of shadows under the door.

James didn't dare to cause a scene, especially with Clara so nearby, so he made his steps very loud as he walked towards the door.

"Do you need any supplies?" he asked the doctor as an excuse to leave.

"Yes, a few scraps of cloth as well as long sticks. Try to find some that are very straight that are about half an inch thick."

James nodded stiffly and exited the room. Just beyond the door were his two step-brothers. Caleb seemed the wiser of the two, shrinking back as if he knew he was in the wrong. Jackson on the other hand, made himself look intimidating and deserving of meddling in other people's business.

At that James felt his anger stew to the point where he was fuming from the inside out. After restraining himself from being aggressive for so long, in honor of his mother, to be the bigger person, James felt his entire form let go. Since the day he had been forced to break his mother's window, he had grown taller than the two. He had practiced sword fighting and hand-to-hand combat. He was lean, but muscle was still visible on his appendages. Now, they were put to use.

In one swift movement, James kicked the boy in the shin, then slammed that same leg's knee into Jackson's nose as he bent over. The snap of his nose breaking gave James infinite amounts of satisfaction. From there, James used his forearm to pin the boy against the wall by his neck. Jackson struggled against his hold but his dominating strength from their youth was unmatched.

"You disgust me." James simply put as he pushed harder. "You're not worthy to kiss the soles of her shoes."

Caleb either suffered a sudden lapse in judgement or his sudden burst of intelligence wore off from earlier, because it was now that he tried to intervene. Bad decision. James didn't even need to let go of Jackson. His other arm shot out and his hand smacked the other boy's chin making his head recoil. Caleb's eyes rolled up as he fell to the ground, unconscious.

James's eyes turned back to Jackson with fury flashing behind his irises. Jackson, in turn, shrank in on himself in fear. "You deserve so much worse." James muttered, but it was clear that Jackson understood him. Unlike Jackson however, James knew that he had no need to make the man suffer right now. There would be time for that later.

"GUARDS!" James bellowed in the face of the cringing boy. "I need you to take these boys down to the dungeons with their mother. I know that they are conspiring with her."

James's body sang in relief as he watched the two get dragged away. Then, he went to get the supplies for the doctor. When he entered back into the room, James decided to bring supplies for washing Clara as well. She shouldn't have to wake up in her same, old sooty self. The doctor finished working on her, tying the last strip of cloth around her leg and the sticks. Her knee was now immobile so it would be able to heal. James had looked away when her skirts had been raised, but now, when he needed to make sure she was clean, he found himself alone.

He had softly raised her torso to undo the laces to her dress. Once loose enough, the collar fell and his hands gently pulled at the fabric to reveal her shoulders and upper chest. Underneath was her corset but her collar bones were on display. James paused at the sight. Bright pink scars littered the skin. He traced a few of the deeper lines with his fingers and he realized how much she had done for him. Tears pooled in his eyes and her form blurred.

He backed away. He couldn't do this. He didn't deserve to do this. With those thoughts, James covered her in a blanket before going to find the Queen's lady's maids to clean her instead.

When James re-entered the room, he stopped in his tracks. Clara was in a clean, cream-colored dressing gown. Her face was clear of dirt and debris. Her hair was down, for once, out of her usual braid. The ebony color was even more pronounced by the shine that came off of it. Her eyes were still closed and a small bandage seemed to act as a headband around her temple.

He sat down in a chair and grabbed her hand. He grasped it tightly in his hands as he laid his head down on the sheets, continuing to gaze at her face. She really was as beautiful as she was kind.

Looking at her, James found himself recounting everything he had been through with Clara. Through it all, she had endured the brunt of his actions. She was the one who took the blame for the broken window. The "I" was still displayed prominently on her hand. She had let the rebels beat her up rather than simply telling them where he was. The scars still peaked out from the sleeves of her dress. Her leg was currently splinted because he had been in the wrong place at the wrong time.

James brought her hand to his lips and kissed it. Now, there wasn't anything he wouldn't do for her. He couldn't live without her. He couldn't help but hear his father's voice in the back of his mind: you need to have a wife before I die. The land needs another heir after you. So offensive those words had seemed before, but now they just appeared as another reason for Clara to become a part of the household.

His head fell to the sheets again and James closed his eyes, thinking of everything he planned to give to Clara once she woke up.

About an hour into his sleep, the squeezing sensation on his hand, woke James up. His eyes fluttered open to see Clara's eyes staring back at him.

"Sorry," she said, "I tried to move my leg and it cramped."

James lurched up with an ear splitting grin taking over his face. Clara smiled back. "You're awake!"

The girl's chest shook with silent laughter. "Yes. Now, why is it in one of the nobleman's rooms?"

James clutched her hand tighter. "You're not a servant anymore. You never deserved to be. You never will need to be again." A wrinkle formed between her eyes as she frowned in confusion. James leaned over and kissed the wrinkle away. "After saving royalty's lives several times, you don't think that I wouldn't repay you? I owe you way more than I can ever give you."

Clara opened her mouth and looked to the side as if hesitating on how to respond. "I don't need a status change. The royal family is my purpose even if they don't need me."

James shook his head and stood only to sit back down on the bed instead. "I have great need of you. There is never going to be a prettier princess to steal my heart. I can't even imagine my life without you." Clara gasped as he continued. "You have become the best part of my life and everyone you meet is blessed with your kindness. I love you. Please, marry me."

As he made the speech, Clara became more and more befuddled. Her mouth kept opening before she simply shut it again. In the last two sentences, she made an effort to sit up. Wincing and with James's help, she was in a sitting position and with that she embraced him. James clutched her close to him as she whispered in his ear, "I'm not worthy. I hold no status. I love you too, but there is nothing I can offer you."

James squeezed her tighter at the end of her sentence. "I'm not worthy of you. It doesn't matter that you have no status. What matters is who I love and if they love me in return. Please."

Clara leaned back but only a few inches. Their faces were barely a centimeter apart and once their lips brushed for the first time, James knew what her answer was. They both leaned in closer and lost themselves in one another. He couldn't help but fill his thoughts with how soft her lips were. How sweet she smelled. How he could feel her warmth spreading through him.

They only separated when a knock sounded on the door. James clutched Clara closer to him before reluctantly standing up and opening the door. His father stood regally outside with a curious expression on his face.

"May I thank her?" the king said.

James turned to look at the girl laying on the bed. "Yes."


"Then, no." James corrected.

Taken aback, the king took a step back. "She's not going to be hurt."

"I know. I don't care."

The old man slumped in defeat. "Alright,"

The King sat in the chair while James opted for the bed. "Thank you, my dear, for your gracious actions."

"It was nothing, your majesty." Clara blushed. "I must warn you, the Lady had been trying to poison your tea for weeks. It was only I who was standing in her way."

"Why didn't you tell me?"

"I had no proof and no one trusts someone of my status. Sire, I didn't want to give you cause for paranoia."

The old man tilted his head in understanding. "My dear, I trust no one more than the people in this room." he said, reassuringly.

James smiled. "I couldn't agree more. Speaking of trust, Father, I trust you to accept my choice of her to be my future wife."

The man's face flashed through a few emotions before settling on a soft smile, "Finally, you've chosen. True love, no less, is lighting up your eyes right now."

James blushed but looked happily at Clara. "She is all I've ever wanted." he confessed.

"Then so it shall be. Your wedding will be on your birthday, Son." with that last announcement, the man patted the boy twice on the shoulder before exiting.

James turned back to Clara and smiled. She sat up, and he leaned down. In the middle, their lips met once again.

James would be lying if he said he knew what he was bringing Clara into. She was completely unknown to the world. The king had hired several tutors for the young girl and she was thrown into learning proper etiquette, arithmetic, and politics. At first, he had also brought in a dancing tutor as well, but when James was brought in to be her partner, they only needed to practice a few waltzes before the man was dismissed. She was already a natural.

Now, as he waited for the girl to emerge from her languages session, he felt nerves erupting from inside him. She was probably overwhelmed. James had taken to waiting in the kitchen. It was the place where they had often spent long afternoons before their . . . engagement? Was that what he had done? He had asked her to marry him, but it had been a week and he hadn't given her a ring. How idiotic had he been to have forgotten to give her a ring?

But that only created another set of problems. What sort of ring would he give her? Because of her scar, James had definitely memorized the shape of her hands. They were long and slender with long delicate fingers. He smiled as he remembered how a few larger freckles were scattered across the back of her hands. He remembered his mother's ring which was a gold band with tiny diamonds scattered all around it. Then, he remembered his Aunt's ring: a white gold band capped with a very large diamond. Neither seemed to fit the shape of Clara's hand.

James dragged a hand through his dark hair and looked out the small window in the kitchen. He thought of Clara and how much she made him smile. The way her beautiful green eyes seemed to know everything he had to say without a word. The way she hated for her hair to get in her way so she always tied it back in a braid or something similar. The way her willowy figure disguised how lean and strong she was, like the branches of a tree.

"That's it!" he said to himself as he sat up proudly.

"What's it?" someone said behind him.

James quickly jerked around to see Clara hobbling up to him. Her splint was covered by the skirt of her dress but she was still experiencing the effects of her broken kneecap. She would for the next few months. A little flair of anger filled his mind but it went away just as quickly as James looked into her eyes.

"Nothing, I just had an idea." he sought to change the subject in order to surprise her with the ring. "You're not supposed to be walking yet! The doctor said that you can't bear weight for at least two weeks!"

Clara huffed and gently sat herself onto a nearby stool. "I feel like a watched animal in a menagerie. I'm not going to do anything too crazy."

"Sure," James said walking over to her and wrapping his arms around her shoulders.

"Don't think you got away with changing the subject."

"Uh," James frantically searched for an excuse in his mind. "I . . . was just thinking of how I can help father deal with the heavy snow storms this year."

"Really?" Clara raised her eyebrows. James looked to the left in order to avoid her gaze only for Clara to burst out laughing. "I couldn't care less about your secret little idea, I just wanted to see you squirm."

James chuckled. "Good, because I really don't know how to help the kingdom survive our harsh winters."

Clara peered out the window and gazed at the nearby trees as their leaves were starting to change for fall. "Well, maybe, they shouldn't be entrusted to empty the streets themselves. I know that we have a large budget for repairs for the winter, what if we took a little money from that to pay any people looking for jobs to clear the snow. The majority of the damage comes from the weight of many layers of snow, not from the initial storms. I also found that some salts melt snow. We could hand some out for citizens to place on their roofs in order to prevent so much damage to their homes."

James hadn't been expecting an actual answer, now he just stared at how clever Clara actually was. She had a good brain, she only needed to be given the proper knowledge. "Oh, that is a great idea! I'll have to tell father."

Clara nodded and made to get up only for James to gently push her back down by her shoulders. He gave her a pointed look. Clara sighed and slumped her shoulders. James stepped forward and leaned down to touch his forehead to hers.

"Just a couple more weeks." he whispered before pecking her lips.

"I know," Clara sighed. James smiled once again and edged his arms under her body in order to pick her up and carry her back to her room. There they spent the afternoon laughing and talking.

Afterwards, James ran to the jewelers before dinner to have her ring made.

As far as James was concerned, the wedding couldn't come fast enough. Clara was still surprising him every day. He was losing count of the secrets he kept discovering. That was a lie. He had them numbered. Like secret #2: she could sing. A stroll past the ballroom had resulted in him skidding to a stop. Clara had been singing a soft melody while reading a book in the corner. His knees had gone weak and he couldn't even remember his name. He'd spent that afternoon next to her and reading over her shoulder. Well, halfway anyway, he kept losing himself in the melody of her voice.

Or secret #7: she was stronger than most of the men in the castle. After her knee had healed, Clara was often found still helping out around the castle. James had been walking past the black smiths and was surprised to find Clara helping out the very same man that had scarred her hand when she was young. Without much strain at all, she was helping move tools around. James had started sweating just by lifting that large mallet. Clara had lifted it with one hand.

Secret #12: she had a knack for languages. It took him years to learn Spanish and he still had the worst accent in the world. Clara was making short sentences by the end of the first lesson, and now she was having full conversations with the instructor.

In all honesty, he had counted 42 so far, but he was starting to combine some into categories. Clara was overwhelming his mind. When the ring was finally made, James found himself struggling with how and when to offer it to Clara. It was beautiful. Instead of a large diamond being set into the center of a gold band, the ring was made of several thin white gold bands intertwined. The ring had no diamonds. The ring was delicate yet strong, just like the girl, well, woman, Clara was.

In the end, he gave it to her in the spot where it all started: the dining room. The shattering of a window, pieced together the most important relationship of James' life.

Our story ends the opposite way it began: happily, in good fortune. James watched Clara enter the church in a glorious white gown. It was simple yet somehow exaggerated her beauty to no end. It held a silk, flowy skirt with three quarter sleeves made of lace. For once, Clara wore her hair down out of its usual braid. Instead it flowed down her shoulders in a river of curls. Sealing their vows with a kiss, the two began their marriage with a waltz.

The two lived their lives in harmony. While Clara never accepted the title of Queen, she was more helpful than any queen before her. She occasionally had more advice to offer than James, with which their kingdom prospered. They gave birth to three children who each maintained their parents' kindness and generosity.

Every night, the two thanked their lucky stars for each other. Ending their days just how they met, "It's only because I owe you" except there was no debt, only love.