"Betrothed?" James spluttered, glancing incredulously between his parents. "What do you mean, betrothed?"
"Oh, come now, James," his father chastised. "Don't play dumb with us."
James gritted his teeth; he really should have known this day was coming, ever since little skirmishes had been breaking out along the border of their lands. Their little kingdom of Gallifrey shared a border with the duchy of Powell. For centuries, the two lands had gotten along peacefully, mostly due to the fact that in those days, there had been no settlements that stretched anywhere near the borders.
But as time passed and their countries grew, more land was needed for homes and businesses, until one day the people of Gallifrey and the people of Powell met in the middle. A battle broke out along the border, for each side tried to claim ownership of the previously unexplored territory.
For years, as each side was locked in many bloody battles for rights to the land, officials from both sides of the kingdom met and tried to interpret the territory maps of old that would lay the fighting to rest. However, neither side could come to an agreement; the territory lines were not as well defined as they had hoped, and thus the fighting raged on.
Officials from both sides of the border waited with bated breath day in and day out, awaiting news that the other side would begin waging war to encroach upon the other's territory. Battles were won and lost and the transient border shifted with every passing day.
A marketplace was what currently spanned the border, and most of the vendors and merchants in the market cared not one way or another where the border fell, as long as they still had customers to do business with. It was the radical and prideful locals who lived around the borderland marketplace that took issue with "the other side" encroaching on land that they deemed belonged to their own country.
Guards from both sides were placed in the marketplace, and while it helped, it did not solve the problem. It was a short-term solution until a more permanent resolution could be had.
Despite the mutual pleas for peace coming from both Gallifrey and Powell, the animosity between the border dwelling citizens was rooted too deeply.
James had grown up listening to these tales, and he dreaded the day when he would inherit the problems his parents presently dealt with. But one day, several months ago, his parents had returned from their visit with Pete and Jackie Tyler—the Duke and Duchess of Powell—looking rather pleased and excited. They'd told him nothing except that plans were in the works that would hopefully end any and all feuds between the citizens of their lands.
He paid no mind to the plans being made, for he assumed that his parents and the Duke and Duchess of Powell would have it all figured out by the time he came to power. Little did he know that their plans directly involved him, which brought him back to the news they had just bestowed upon him.
"But I can't get married!" he said, scraping his fingers through his hair.
"Why ever not?" his mother asked, frowning. "You're certainly of age. You're twenty-four—the same age your father was when we were married."
James barely managed to contain his eyeroll; his parents seemed to enjoy bringing up his relationship status—or lack thereof—these last few years as he resolutely remained a bachelor.
"Because!" he exclaimed, floundering for a more concrete refusal. "Just… because. I've never even met this girl, and now you want me to marry her?"
"I assure you, she's a rather pretty girl," his father said. "She does take after the Duchess of Powell a bit much for my liking—very fierce and tenacious. But I hope that strength will give her the ability to handle the strain of looking after land as vast as ours will become."
"Exactly! Our land will be far too big for our rule," James pointed out. "How will we ever keep track of the goings-on on the outskirts of the kingdom?"
"We were hoping that representatives of both countries would remain on duty, loyal to the combined kingdom the lands would become," his father answered. "Nothing would change, James, except that two lands would be one."
"And what do the townsfolk have to say about this?" James demanded. "The Powell people aren't going to want to change loyalties to a Gallifreyan ruler. And the Gallifrey people aren't going to want to change loyalties to a Powellan ruler."
"That's where your betrothal comes in," his father answered patiently. "There is no denying that our kingdom loves you, James. And from what we have gathered on our journeys to Powell, their citizens adore the young Lady Tyler. We are hoping that fondness will follow the two of you into marriage, and thus into the days when the power shifts to you."
"And if it doesn't?" James asked, scowling. "That is a lot of speculation and wishing. Oh, but of course you don't care, because you aren't the one about to be married to a perfect stranger!"
"James, that is enough," his father snapped, standing. "This may be the best chance we have at a peaceful union of our two lands. We and the Duke and Duchess of Powell are quickly losing what little control we had of the citizens along the border. There have been riots and fighting and killing just for scraps of land! How much longer until that spreads its way into the heart of our kingdom? I will not sacrifice the safety and wellbeing of our people just because you're being selfish."
"Oh, I'm being selfish?" James roared.
"Yes, you are! Do you think I want this for you, James? But when I took my oath in front of this kingdom, I swore to protect them and serve them, no matter the cost. This is happening, James, whether you want it to or not."
James ground his teeth together. This couldn't be the only path to peace.
"When is this betrothal to take place?" he asked stiffly, clenching his hands into fists.
"When the young Lady Tyler comes of age at the end of April," his father answered. "That gives you just over three months to get used to the idea. I can introduce you to Lady Tyler if you'd like."
"No, thanks," James growled. "May I be excused, Your Majesty?"
His father blinked. James never used his formal title unless they were in public.
"Yes, you may," his father said softly.
James leveled his parents with another glare before turning on his heel and stalking out of the study. He ignored the odd looks he was getting from the palace staff as he passed them, and he didn't respond to the numerous calls of his name.
"Hello, Prince James."
James grunted in greeting at the stable manager.
"What can I do for you?"
"Nothing," James said shortly, stalking up to his horse. "I'm going out."
"May I ask where?"
"Just out." He grabbed his riding gear and readied his mare. "Should the King and Queen ask, tell them I'll be back in time for dinner."
With that, James mounted his horse and rode off into the blazing late morning sun.
He was not going to be married to Lady Tyler, no matter what his parents said, and he had three months to figure out an alternative plan to placate the people.
"Betrothed?" Rose spluttered, glancing incredulously between her parents. "What do you mean, betrothed?"
"It means to be married—"
"I know what it means, Mum," Rose hissed, glaring at her mother.
Really, she should have known this day was coming. The tension between their duchy and the neighboring kingdom had been growing for years. She should have realized a plot was brewing when, several months ago, her parents and the King and Queen of Gallifrey kept meeting in secret. After their final private council, her mother and father returned much more at ease than she could ever remember seeing them. However, she had comforted herself that they all had figured out a solution, and she would not be inheriting the mess the duchy was currently in.
Never once, in all of her musings of the possible solution her parents and the King and Queen of Gallifrey had come to, did she imagine this.
"The Crown Prince of Gallifrey is a great match," her father said soothingly, apparently sensing her rising temper.
"So!" Rose yelled. "I'm seventeen. I don't want to be married, especially to a bloke I've never met!"
"We can arrange a meeting," Jackie said matter-of-factly.
"I don't want to bloody meet him," Rose grumbled under her breath. "I'm not bloody marrying him."
"Oi, language," Jackie reprimanded sharply. "You are a Lady, and shall speak as such."
"Oh, because you use the cleanest language in all of Powell," Rose retorted, raising an eyebrow challengingly.
"Stop being so selfish, Rose," Jackie snapped.
"Selfish?! Excuse me, but I'm the one whose future and freedom is being given away here without my permission or consent! Is that really the only solution to this problem? To sell away your own daughter."
"We're not selling you away," Pete said gently, lifting his hands in a placating gesture.
"Bloody well looks like it," Rose spat scathingly. "You couldn't think of a proper solution to stop the fighting so you're putting it on my shoulders. Excellent leadership, Your Grace. Really great."
"Do not speak to your father like that!" Jackie snarled.
A tense minute passed with both blonde women glaring at each other, before Jackie let out a huff and crossed her arms.
"Well, this is happening," she said with a note of finality in her tone. "Right after you come of age. That leaves you three months to smarten your attitude."
Rose glared at her mother and curtsied stiffly before turning on her heel and storming out of their manor.
She was fuming that her parents had the audacity to use her as they were planning. Using her and the unfortunate Prince of Gallifrey to get out of the mess their two lands were in. It was a coward's way out.
Still, the proposed marriage wasn't happening for another three months. Hopefully the state of the duchy and the neighboring kingdom would have calmed by then and her parents and the King and Queen of Gallifrey wouldn't be as desperate for a solution. Hopefully, in that time, Rose could convince them of a different way to deal with the problems they were facing.
Because she refused to be married to the Prince of Gallifrey. She'd heard stories about him, about his arrogance and egotism. She didn't want to marry a man like that. And she didn't want to force the people of the duchy to be loyal to the Gallifreyan family, as their betrothal would do.
Convinced that this entire plan would backfire, Rose hoped she could convince her parents of this, and that a new solution could be met. If she could just postpone the wedding, she would finally be of age and be permitted to learn every single detail of the state of the duchy, and not just the tidbits she'd gleaned from the local gossip and listening in on her parents' hushed conversations.
She had to make them see reason. She had to make them see that they were headed towards the downfall of what fragile peace existed on the borderlands. Surely once they understood what was at stake, they would call off this ridiculous plan and they could all come to a less radical solution.
Rose barely was watching where she was going, but her feet had somehow led her to the stables. It was deserted, save for the local boy who enjoyed coming in to look at the horses.
"Good morning, my Lady Rose," the boy stuttered upon seeing her.
"Good morning, Jacob," Rose replied, trying to keep her frustration out of her voice. She didn't need to take her anger out on the small child. "I'm about to take my horse out for a ride. Care to help me ready her?"
The boy's eyes lit up in excitement, and he ran up to her and followed her as she opened the stable door containing her mare. Overseeing all of Jacob's actions, she allowed him to coax the horse out of her pen and he gathered all of Rose's riding gear for her.
"It's a good day for a ride, my Lady," Jacob said, glancing beyond the stable doors and at the noontime sun.
"It is indeed," she replied, mounting her horse. "Should the Duke and Duchess ask for me, tell them I've gone for a quick ride?"
"Of course, my Lady."
Jacob bent into a deep bow, and Rose tossed him a grin as she squeezed her knees around her mare. She trotted out of the stables and into the nearby woods, where Rose took a well-worn path and let the crisp winter air clear her lungs and her mind, and she left all thoughts of princes and betrothals behind.