Lucy's voice was clear and confident, but most of the strength in her step was bravado and the rest was that tiny smidgen of her pride that was left after she faced the grim truth before her.
King Jude turned slightly to face her.
He was a hard man, stern and difficult to please. Lucy had humiliated him by running away from home to avoid marriage to King Sawarr of Brago, a rotund, arrogant middle-aged man who lusted after her like a dog pants for water after a good run.
She was princess of Caelum, the only child her late mother.
Lucy always hated her father for his disposition, for how much he ignored her and how much he put his work before her, but when she stepped outside into the real world after her escape from the affluent area around the capital, she understood.
Her father never told her how terrible things were in Caelum. It wasn't his fault. Seven years before, there was a devastating plague that killed a tenth of the population, including her mother. It left many others wounded or otherwise unable to care for themselves, and in the struggle that followed, a massive drought came and killed the crops.
While she grew up in moderate opulence, Caelum crumbled.
She traveled the countryside, thinking she'd find freedom, and she only found disease, poverty, and desperation that was thick on the people like there was no way out.
King Sawarr offered money, medicine, and open trade, in addition to a financial sponsorship that would have helped the people of her country.
Lucy had stayed briefly with the impoverished family of a fallen soldier who had given his all defending the country. For one, the nation required death, and so he died. For her, the nation required marriage, but she'd run away.
It was when she realized that through her sacrifice she could help millions that she truly started to feel like a princess.
Jude leaned against his desk, looking tired and old. "I didn't think I'd ever see you again."
Lucy hung her head a little. "King, no, Papa…while I was out there, I realized...I realized I can help a lot of people if I just go along with it. I'll marry King Sawarr."
The king crossed his arms and started laughing, but it was the kind of laugh a person emits only when they're amused by how ironic and terrible life actually is. "You spurned the king of Brago. He married Irene of Alvarez. That opportunity is gone. You have to realize, nations use these marriage for mutual strength, but Caelum has no strength left in her. With Sawarr, he was so enamored with you that he looked past that."
Lucy never imagined she'd regret running away, or doing what was best for her. "I apologize."
Jude wasn't really angry. He could understand why a seventeen-year-old girl who didn't even really know herself would run from marriage to an older man. As a father, it put a sour taste in his mouth that as she'd approached adulthood, he gradually prepared her for marriage. He could see in her eyes before she left that she was afraid, that she didn't want to go live in a strange land with a strange man.
"When I was out there, I saw so many people, Papa. Sick, poor, hungry...and one night I started crying for them and I couldn't stop."
His expression softened. "It's in your blood for you to love them, to cry for them, to put them before your own desires."
His daughter fisted her hands at her sides, feeling shame that she'd missed her opportunity to help the millions of people suffering far worse than an unwanted marriage. "Is there anything I can do?"
"Are you certain you're willing to make this kind of sacrifice?"
"I held a little boy while he cried because he didn't have anything to eat," she answered in determination.
Jude took a deep breath. "The king of Fiore wrote me a letter saying he desires for his son to marry. Prince Ivan is the last person in the world I want to give my daughter to, and as a father, I would say no. I don't believe he would treat you well."
"I would rather be a mistreated wife than to be happy and know my happiness cost other people so greatly."
"You know what's required of you?" he asked.
Lucy shook her head.
"What I mean is-do you know what's going to happen after you marry him?"
She blushed a little, but nodded. "Do wifely things. Have a son."
Jude was very literally sicked at the idea of Prince Ivan touching his daughter, but his people were in desperate need and she was desperate to help. "Ivan has a son, so having a baby isn't a requirement. If you give birth to a son, he can be heir to this throne. Their magic line is extremely powerful. You would probably produce incredible offspring."
Everyone in the world knew that Ivan was an absolute creep. Among royals, rumors flew constantly about how crazy he was. Lucy had met him a few times in her life, and the mere mention of his name left her feeling disgusted, but Fiore was the wealthiest country in the entire world. Rich in natural resources, the nation was strategically positioned on five of the seven major trade routes on the continent and served as the primary connection to the continent on the other side of the world.
Marrying into the royal family would put her in a position where she could do so much for the people of Caelum.
Over the next eight weeks, arrangements were made, letters were sent, and Lucy made no arguments, no demands. She wrote in reply to Prince Ivan, and his answer made her queasy.
Jude negotiated a six-month courtship, during which she would live in Fiore at the palace. At the end of that six month period, she would either marry or return home. Ivan was simultaneously courting another woman, which wasn't unheard of, but made everything extra disgusting to her.
It made Lucy sad in a way she couldn't describe that she only really understood her father when she was preparing to leave, probably forever. In those last two months, she found he'd become a confidant and that he really did love her. Her father was simply bound by duty as she was.
The journey to Fiore felt like it took a lifetime, and when she arrived in Crocus, she found the wealth to be astounding. Her senses were overwhelmed with the smells of many different kinds of food cooking at stands owned by street vendors, the sight of tall architectural wonders, and glittering trinkets in shops.
At the palace, she was greeted by her personal security detail, Captains Gray Fullbuster and Natsu Dragneel, who nearly missed their introduction because they were trying to punch one another out on the front steps of the palace.
Along with them was a woman in a maid outfit named Virgo. Lucy immediately recognized her as a celestial spirit as that was her royal family's magic, but she didn't know who her summoner was.
They took Lucy to the lavish private apartment she would stay in during the courtship, and the princess was simply amazed at how beautiful everything was. As a struggling country, even the royal family of Caelum felt the effects, so while Lucy had more than a few beautiful dresses, she was amazed to the point of nearly feeling lost at the walk in closet filled with the finest, most luxurious fashions. They were gifts for accepting the courtship, and once she settled in, Virgo put her through a rigorous beauty ritual with the help of several palace attendance.
Her hair was neatly trimmed, eyebrows plucked, skin scrubbed and moisturized until it looked and felt like flawless, fair silk, and nails were neatly manicured. Lucy picked a sleeveless, cream-colored lace tea dress and carefully applied makeup. She had no mind at all to fight over a man, but if she came all this way to a foreign country and Ivan married the other woman he was considering, all her effort would be for nothing. She wore her tiara, because it signified her home.
Lucy was coming downstairs to meet Ivan for tea the first time that she and Laxus laid eyes upon each other.
Third in line to the throne and rebellious as all hell, the youngest prince was known for being uncouth although very intelligent. His grandfather the king would have preferred a political marriage, but everyone knew he was going to do what he wanted without regard to anyone else.
He'd been content up to that moment with being a respectable military man and a disrespectful prince. But when he saw her, he'd never wanted anything so badly in his life and he didn't even know why.
Lucy's body was perfect; young, curvy, with skin that looked so soft and milky. Her hair was long and blonde and so shiny and gorgeous.
Laxus could have any woman of his choosing, and in that moment, he was sure it would be her.
Lucy was hypnotized by his stare, unable to move as long as he looked at her like that. As a princess whose virginity was highly prized, men around her age had been kept separate from her since she turned about thirteen or so. In a country that was struggling with poverty, plague, and drought, there weren't many like him out and about either.
Laxus was tall, muscular, and had a head of unruly hair. There was a scar over one of his eyes, and she found her heart beat a little faster as she slowly forced herself to continue her way down the steps to where he was standing at the bottom. He was wearing a military dress uniform, but she didn't notice his name at first.
The lightning prince was considering what he'd say to her, and then he saw the tiara atop her head.
"Are you Princess Lucy?" he asked as he held his hand out, and she took it as she made the last two steps.
"That's correct, sir."
Laxus kissed the top of her hand and cursed under his breath. He could have any woman except this one.
"I'm Laxus. Maybe we should just cut to the chase, and I'll start calling you Mommy," he sarcastically said.
"Eh?!" she exclaimed as her manners slipped for a moment.
Laxus laughed. "You're here to court my father. That means you'll be my stepmother. I've always wanted a mother. I'll fill up your schedule with family activities. You can teach me how to ride a bike and about the birds and the bees, cook me pancakes in the mornings and make sure I'm a good boy."
Lucy's cheeks stained red at the insult, and it was an insult, however well-veiled and carefully worded. It was absurd, and she knew it. "H-How old are you?"
"Twenty-five. How old are you? Twelve? Thirteen?"
He shook his head. "My father is sixty years old. What the fuck are you going to do with a sixty year old man? Close your eyes while he flops around on you like a half-dead fish?"
Irreverent, vulgar, and bold, he made his objections known to her.
The blonde blushed more deeply as she considered this second insult.
Her hand hit him with bruising force, and he felt a little jolt of magic in her touch. Unyielding and unashamed, she said, "I will do whatever it takes to help the people of my nation. If you'll excuse me, I have an engagement."
Laxus watched her go, amazed at how quickly he'd shifted from wanting her more than anything in the world to...well, he still wanted her. If anything the slap only convinced him she was interesting and fiery, and he wondered how fate could possibly bring her this close for her to become his stepmother.
The entire affair was distasteful to him, and he suspected his father was trying to remarry so he could eventually have another heir to replace him.
So he decided to crash the tea party and make life a lot less comfortable for everyone.
Meanwhile, Lucy tried to follow the instructions to get to the tea room. After getting lost and eventually found by Virgo, she finally located it and took a seat with King Makarov and Prince Ivan.
Lucy bowed gracefully. "My apologies for my tardiness. I got lost in your beautiful home."
The king chuckled. "Relax, Princess. Behind closed doors, we're a normal family. You don't have to be so formal."
Ivan watched her when she entered, and looked over her, hard and long, from the top of her head to her feet. "You're a lovely young woman. I'm honored for your company, my sweet little princess," he said.
She nodded in understanding and after customary greetings, took a seat beside Ivan.
They made typical niceties, and Lucy couldn't help but be stiff and uncomfortable. She didn't know what to say or do in that situation, and Ivan seemed to accept her nervousness. King Makarov almost seemed to pity her as she sat there with his son.
Ivan poured her a cup of tea, and added tea and sugar to it. "You look sweet, like you like a lot of sugar."
"I prefer to take my without anything extra, actually," she quickly answered.
"You like to take it hot and bitter, my sweet little princess?"
Lucy, shielded from dirty jokes all her life, missed it although Makarov scolded his son for behaving inappropriately.
The double doors flew open and Laxus entered, now missing his officer's jacket. The top few buttons of his white shirt were unbuttoned, and he had a bottle in hand. "Oy, Pops, I'm home from the front."
Ivan gestured toward his son. "This is Laxus. He's my son, and third in line to our crown."
Laxus poured cognac in all the teacups resting on the table, and then filled an empty cup three-fourths with alcohol before topping it off with some tea and six scoops of sugar. "Does it fill you with hope for the glorious future to see I've survived another campaign, Pops?"
Lucy picked up her teacup and sipped at it, unwilling to let the youngest Dreyar disrupt her afternoon further. "This cognac is a little bitter," she commented.
Laxus chuckled. "So you know your booze. When you get married to my father, you can just call that a 'coping skill.'"
"Laxus!" Makarov roared.
The princess evenly added, "I don't mind. I heard Ivan had a child."
Laxus smirked. "Such patience. I bet you'll be a good mommy to my little brothers and sisters."
"Are you feeling well, Prince?" she asked, "It seems you're a bit distressed."
Ivan and Makarov watched the fiery little princess handle the family's problem child with ease.
"What do you recommend, Mommy?" he asked.
Lucy replied, "Perhaps some cookies and milk, and then a nice nap. Perhaps then you won't be so cranky."
Laxus glared at her and decided he might as well go for blood. "Did my father tell you the other woman he's actively courting is Princess Minerva, of your country's mortal enemy, Bosco? If he marries her as soon as my grandfather dies they'll invade Caelum and lay what's left to waste."
Her resolve shattered and she looked up. "Prince Ivan...is that….is that the person?"
Makarov grew his hand to a monstrous size and hit Laxus so hard he flew into the wall. "Go on, Laxus. You're being a pain in the ass. I'll speak to you later."
The patriarch of the family was about as thrilled at the idea of Bosco and Fiore allying and attacking Caelum as Lucy was, which is why he'd arranged for this somewhat uncommon secondary courtship. Makarov really didn't want Ivan to get married or have other children, but the sudden courtship between Minerva and Ivan forced Makarov to try and find an alternative.
Caelum needed help too.
Lucy was a feisty girl, but a good one, and Makarov could see the unwavering determination in her eyes as she went about the business of making herself comfortable with the arrangement at hand. She was smart, well-educated in history, geography, and economics. She had a shrewd sense of politics and was everything a future queen needed to be, from her ability to match Laxus' venom with clever, calm retorts to her understanding of trade deficit legislation, to her kind heart.
She handled both Ivan and Laxus with calculated grace.
After tea, Lucy retired to her apartment, where she had to pick out a different dress for dinner and read up on a magazine of local politics. She considered Minerva, and although they were from the ruling parties of states that stayed on poor terms, they themselves got along well enough that they used to say that someday their countries wouldn't be at odds anymore.
Realizing Bosco was trying to form an alliance with Fiore to crush her home country helped Lucy realize that dream of peace was only a pipe dream. Like Lucy, she was doing what was best for her country, and it made Lucy feel a little sad for her, because she knew Minerva had someone back home who cared about her. He wasn't a royal, but he treated her like a queen.
Lucy's father told her often as she was growing up that a princess had a more terrible burden than a prince, and she'd never understood this until that moment, where she was trying to reconcile who she was with the reality that she and Minerva were competing for the affections of a truly disgusting man for the sake of the citizens of their countries.
Dinner was quiet that night, because Ivan and Laxus were at a military exercise until after the meal. She and Makarov ate and spoke peacefully. Lucy liked him quite a lot even from their brief meetings in the past. She found him to be a good man and a beloved but eccentric monarch.
After dinner, she took a long bath and after dressing in a more casual dress and some ballet flats, she stepped out into the garden. It was late, the moon was full, and Lucy walked quietly about, reaching out to touch the lovely exotic flowers.
She was leaning down to sniff one when she heard a voice.
"That one smells like rotting flesh."
Her head jerked up and she took a step back. Even when she ran away from home, she avoided situations involving men and due to her royal blood, she'd never really been alone with a man before. Lucy wasn't sure why her heart started to beat fast for a man she viewed as being such an immature twit, but he did look good under the moonlight.
Lucy leaned down and sniffed it anyway, as if she didn't believe him, and crinkled her nose. "Ewww…"
"It attracts pollinators. Something about the rotten dead brings the bees around. Kind of like my pops' and younger women right now."
Laxus was sitting on a stone bench, looking up at the stars.
She turned. "I should go."
"Are you afraid I'm going to compromise your honor? We'll get caught alone in the garden and everyone will assume I broke you in for my dear old pops?"
Lucy slapped him again.
He held a hand over his cheek. "Princess, you've hit me twice, called me a child, and drank booze tea during the day. I'm starting to realize you're not one of those spineless little girl types at all."
"I'm sorry if my personality isn't to your liking. Fortunately, I'm not here to impress you."
The prince flashed his devilish grin at her. "It's to my liking. I can't stand weak women. I can only imagine being with a woman without a spine would be like having conjugal relations with a jellyfish - no bones, but stimulating enough I suppose."
"You say the most rough, inappropriate things I've ever heard in my life. Are you sure you're a prince?"
Laxus pointed to his military decorations. "I'm bad little soldier boy with a potty mouth. Also, disruptive, inappropriate, rude...I am a man of many adjectives, all of which are insulting."
"Well, it sounds like you need some time to reflect and think about your life. I'll be retiring for the evening. Goodnight, Prince."
"'Night Princess Mommy."
Laxus spent some time in the garden and then headed to his own room, where he found his grandfather pacing the floor.
"Laxus, keep a clear head and don't do anything stupid. You hear me?"