Luce and Annabelle scattered down the hall, laughter ensuing. They ran past older courtiers who looked on in overstated shock. The two made their way out of the castle and headed towards the royal gardens.
"I can't believe that I didn't notice your ring! I feel so embarrassed," Luce confessed once they made their way to the flowery arches of the gardens. Annabelle just smiled.
"Don't be embarrassed," she replied, "It's a common mistake."
"How could it be a common mistake?", Luce asked, not entirely sure what Annabelle meant.
"Oh, never mind," she replied hastily, "Do you want to know what he's like?"
"Oh, yes, definitely!" Luce responded, her mind suddenly filled with curiosity. Annabelle grinned widely.
"Well, his name is Arthur Sabierienne, as you know. His father is Richard Sabierienne, the finest and most highly sought after artisan in Forella. Arthur is taking up the family business, but his father wanted him to expand further west. That's why we're here," Annabelle finished. Luce felt her face fall slightly.
"So…if he hadn't needed to expand, you never would have returned to Cetique?" Luce asked quietly. Annabelle stopped in front of a lone marble bench that was backed up against some rose bushes. There was a long silence as Annabelle toyed with one of the bloom's petals. It broke off in her hand.
"You know, Luce, you were my only friend back then. Besides my mother and father, you were all that I had. No one wanted to be friends with a chubby peasant who was only accepted into society because of her parents' duties to the Morovas," Annabelle said, her face darkening at the mention of their name.
"I always felt like an outcast, except when I was with you. Aside from my parents, you were the only one who never intentionally hurt me. I truly believed that our friendship was the strongest bond in the world. But then, you betrayed me," she said, looking up at Luce from the crushed rose petal. Her face was stern, but her eyes were not dark. Even so, Luce blinked back tears and resisted the urge to wrap Annabelle in her arms. She knew that it had always been her fault.
"After that day, I never thought that I would recover. My scars weren't only on the outside," Annabelle continued, turning into the light so that the line across her nose was visible, "I was angry at you for a very long time, Luce. I admit that I did blame you."
Luce felt a stray tear fall, but she quickly wiped it away. This wasn't about her. Annabelle paused for a moment, seemingly contemplating her next words. She ripped the crushed petal to bits, and let them fall to the ground. Finally, she sat gracefully on the marble bench, her face in her hands.
"I'm so sorry, Luce. I never thought anything like that could happen. I mean, I knew it was a possibility, considering how much they all hated me, especially Cecilia. But I never thought that it would happen, or…or that you could let it happen," Annabelle sobbed. Luce couldn't take it anymore. She rushed over to Annabelle and kneeled at her feet, not caring that grass was staining her beautiful gown.
"Annabelle, I know. I know that it was my fault. I'm so sorry. I can't even explain how sorry I am. I thought I would never see you again, and every day it hurt like a thousand knives. I know that I should have protected you and your family, but I was just so scared, and I'm so, so sorry," Luce gushed. Annabelle sniffed and wipe her eyes. She looked down at Luce, her expression softer than before.
"No, Luce. It wasn't your fault. You have an impossible choice, and it wasn't fair. I've replayed that day so many times in my mind, and sometimes in my head, the situation is switched. If it were the only tangible memory I had of my mother, I'm not sure if I would have acted differently. It wasn't your fault, Luce. It never was," Annabelle said softly. Luce felt her breath leave her, as if a huge weight had been lifted off of her chest. She never realized how much she had been holding it all in. She let a stray tear fall before hugging Annabelle with all of her might.
"I'm so glad that you're back," she whispered. Annabelle smiled.
"Me, too," she responded. They stayed like that for a moment before breaking the hug. They both looked at each other, laughing slightly. Luce pulled herself off of the ground and linked her arm through Annabelle's. Together, they continued their walk.