The kingdom was in the throes of the Black Death, and now no one could deny it; it was affecting even a few of the wealthy and wise who had boarded themselves up in their country homes. They could
no longer afford to ignore the plague because of one particular person who was suffering from it: their king. He would die, and Prince Johannes would become ruler of the kingdom, and he was
suffering the first symptoms of the sickness already.
And if God didn't choose to miraculously save either of them? Tragically, frighteningly, though Johannes had married before falling ill, his princess was not yet with child. If he were to die, according to the divine and incontrovertible law, his younger brother would have to inherit the kingdom. To do otherwise would signal the end of the monarchy...but to give the younger prince the crown was unthinkable. Whether he accepted the responsibility or ignored it, the land would become a nightmare, the kind of place that frightening folk tales speak of.
Even if there were no other reasons that it was lunacy, the simple fact was that there was another law that the king be married, and the younger prince was single. Usually, this would not be such a difficult hurdle; those wise elders who often decided how the country would actually be run could just find a couple of gorgeous, charming and demure women for him to pick from. But now, in these unique circumstances, they found themselves at a loss.
They all met at Alain's estate, sitting at a distance from each other in the drafty hall, many with cloths over their mouths. "Any woman who would agree to be his queen must have an ulterior motive and is not to be trusted."
"That is not our only problem. We do not even have the luxury to choose just any woman. He is still a prince, after all. But what princess or noblewoman would accept his hand?"
"He did have a woman, years ago."
"Of course," they murmured, "but she was a commoner, and didn't help much anyway, did she?"
Their kingdom was a small but influential one, and they all ached at the sense that they were losing their power in the international sphere, minute by minute. The men also wanted to return to their families or mistresses, and forget the dark times around them. And at least one of the elders, who coughed alone in a corner, would have to be quarantined soon. Imagine their relief when, after only a few days of debate, a young woman showed up at the doorstep who had heard of their plight.
She was beautiful, no doubt, and made several of the elders' hearts beat faster than they had in years. Her hair was dark as the old chestnut furniture in the hall around them, her lips firm and crimson, her eyes a clear blue-gray. The traveling cloak she left on as she entered failed to hide a long, slim, proportioned torso and equally long legs. But there was a certain set expression of seriousness around her mouth, and near-invisible premature lines at her eyes. She wasted no time.
"Gentlemen. I understand that the rapid shifts of power in your land may soon require that the second heir of your throne find himself a wife. I hang my head in shame that my father cannot be here--" she held her head high as she spoke these words, "--but I must make my own arrangements. My name is Claire. I am sovereign queen of the kingdom of Joyeuse, and I formally offer my hand in marriage to the Valley Prince. It is unladylike to discuss finance, but I assure you, my dowry is substantial."
A few of them made half-hearted bows at the mention of her tiny, insignificant kingdom. One of the youngest and ugliest elders polished his glasses with a show at carelessness and said, "I was unaware King Jules had passed on his crown."
Her eyes fell for just a moment. "My father the king...is dead. As is the kingdom. Such as I am aware of it; doubtless some peasants survive in the countryside."
"Do you understand what you are agreeing to, young Highness?"
"I have heard stories. I am not sure how much I believe. But regardless of the...character of the young prince, I know my duty is to support a king in leadership. I thus offer myself."
Eyes met and heads nodded. An unknown queen from a plague-ruined, nonexistent kingdom who doesn't want to die an old maid and doesn't have many demands. She might even be smart enough to hold
the reins if the king goes off the deep end. This appeared to be the ideal solution.
The following day, she was sitting comfortably in the fastest cart the elders could manage to get her to the palace of the younger prince. In her hand, she clasped a note from those of them who knew him, introducing and recommending the young queen. For her part, she was reading silently without watching the gloomy fall scenery pass. At least some of her mind, however, had to be on the foreboding figure she was about to encounter. The elders called him "the younger brother," the respectful name for him in the kingdom was the Valley Prince, and once, long ago, he had been called Lucas-Marcel. The most common nickname for him, though, was simply the Beast.
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