CHAPTER ONE

Day 0/Day 1826


A beam of light shone through the windows and onto Bella's lap, turning her gold ring blinding. The reflection off the band created white spots on the opposing wall, all of them moving and mingling as she shifted her hand. She'd worn the piece of jewelry every day since she was thirteen, yet it had never felt as constricting as it did now. If she could manage to take it off, there would certainly be a circle around her finger of blue, bruised skin.

"Your Highness." A butler stepped forward and bowed. "Your parents are ready for you."

Bella stood up, then smoothed down her pencil skirt. The feel of the cool cotton comforted her clammy palms. She walked to the grand doors of her father's office—exactly six steps—but paused in front of the butler. The man's soft smile didn't waver.

"Thank you, Geoffrey," she said. There was more weight to her words than usual, but whether he noticed or not, he didn't say anything in response. The walk through her father's reception, where his secretary of nearly thirty years typed away on her laptop, was another five steps. Her father was seated behind his desk, while her mother had brought in a chair from her adjoining office and placed it just a bit off to the side. Their heads were bent in concentration as they spoke quietly.

They immediately looked up when she stepped onto the lush, wine-toned carpet.

"Hello," Bella said, wringing one hand with the other. She gave them a fleeting smile.

"Hello," her father said slowly, as if it were a question. "Have a seat."

"No—" her hand flew out. She cleared her throat. "No, I'd rather stand."

"Alright," he said, appearing more than confused. Her mother, draped in the vivid blue fabrics of a sari, watched their interaction with a critical eye, but said nothing.

Bella stepped forward, tucking her pin-straight hair behind her ears and shoulders. There was nothing for her to hold and fiddle with, so she had to make do with the ring. However, the metal had practically become glued to her skin in the heat, and it was painful to turn the band over. Still, it was the only movement that could occupy her for the time being.

"You asked me a question a few weeks ago, and I haven't been able to stop thinking about it," she began, hating how strained her voice sounded. "And I realized that for so long, I've been trying to ignore the answer."

"Could you specify?"

She released a breath through her nose. "You asked me if I was happy. The answer is no."

"Oh." It was the first time her mother had spoken up in the past few minutes. Her face was twisted up.

"I've never been happy," she continued. "All this time, I've hated the responsibilities that have been put on me just because I was born first."

"This is because of the crown," her father clarified, an angry edge threading through his voice.

"It's more than that," she insisted. She pushed her heels into the ground. "I have no drive or passion to be Queen. I'm terrible with public speaking, the Report makes me anxious every week, I can't stand dressing up and making stupid small talk, and everyone in this country hates me!"

"Don't be dramatic," her mother snapped. "They don't hate you."

"I had a 32% approval in the polls last week," Bella said flatly. "They don't want me as Queen; and frankly, I don't want to do it."

Her mother scoffed and rolled her eyes, opening her mouth to respond. Her father quickly put his hand on hers, and there was a silent conversation that passed within their gaze.

"What do you propose, then," her father asked quietly. "Your happiness has—and always will be—our first priority."

Bella sucked in a breath, and then released it slowly. Her voice couldn't waver when she spoke next. "I want to abdicate."

Her mother said an expletive under her breath, turned around, and began muttering to herself in her native tongue. She looked out the office window and to the trees beyond, clearly unable to look at her eldest daughter after her latest decree.

Her father, on the other hand, appeared calm; he was practically unfazed.

"Are you sure, Bels? Is this really what you want?"

"Yes," she promised, stepping closer to his desk. "I don't want to be stuck in this cage for the rest of my life. I want to explore the world, and I want to live my life with privacy."

He sighed. The aging king leaned back in his chair and ran a hand down his face, carefully evaluating options inside his head. He didn't turn away from her, but his eyes drifted to the far corners of his room, lost in thought.

Suddenly, the queen faced her daughter again, her brown eyes sharp and angry. The lines of her face were set in stone, like a statue she had so carefully constructed around herself. "And if you were to… do this…" She swallowed, the disgust obvious. "Who will take your position? There must be an heir, or the bloodline ends with you."

"Clara," she replied, like it was obvious. "She's next in line."

"Your sister has her life planned out," her mother said, a warning in her tone. "She dedicated her life to dance, as you have done for the Crown—or rather, should have."

Bella tried not to let the dig bother her. "I've already spoken with her, and she told me herself she would love to be Queen. She's wanted it since we were kids, and she's the one who has the drive." Her mother rolled her eyes, but she plowed forward. "She's a natural under a spotlight, and the public adores her, which is already more than can be said about me. She has incredible ideas, Mum; she'd bring so much progress to Illéa—"

"But you—"

"Just listen to me!" Bella cried, her voice cracking. "She sat with me for all my lessons, even though she didn't need to. She asked questions to feed her curiosity, and she pays attention to politics and the news: Clara has all the proper training of a Queen, it was just a matter of time before this happened." Her voice went softer, the pain-driven edge falling away. "We were children when we realized the roles should have been reversed. It's always been her. It should be her."

Her mother made no sound or movement. Her face was turning red—unlike anything Bella had seen—and for a moment she wondered if the screaming was truly about to begin. However, her father suddenly moved from his thoughtful position and opened a bottom drawer, pulling out a thin manilla folder and slapping it on top of his desk. He placed a pen on top.

There was nothing said between the three of them. They were still as statues and quieter than a sniper's gun. Finally, after some long-drawn moments, her father gestured towards the file and beckoned her closer.

She opened it to find a letter of abdication, the terms and conditions neatly printed out and awaiting her signature.

"I've known you wanted to do this for a long time," he confessed, in response to her quiet gasp. "You were six when you first told me you didn't want to be Queen, and I knew it wasn't meaningless words from a child. Like you said, it's just been a matter of time."

Bella picked up the paper and read each word carefully, not daring to skim past even a comma. She twirled the pen in her hand, and the ring on her finger slowly began to feel looser and looser.

"Just because you abdicate the throne doesn't mean you're out of the family," he clarified. His eyes met hers over the top of the paper. "You'll become the Duchess of Angeles, and you'll receive whatever financial support you need for the remainder of your life."

She said nothing, but actions always spoke louder than words: she didn't hesitate as she signed her name across the dotted line. She tucked the paper carefully into the folder and placed the pen on top, sliding it towards her father. The ticking clock was the only sound that filled the room for some time.

Finally, she spoke up. "So, just like that? It's over?"

"Well, there will still have to be a formal announcement from you, along with the official handing of the family ring to your sister… but on paper, you're no longer the heir." He smiled softly, the fine lines on his forehead betraying the years that had passed. "So yes; just like that."

There were no words Bella could say to describe her current state of emotions. A million thoughts ran through her, but the most prominent had to have been the feeling of release—it was as if she were finally free, like she could breathe fresh air for the first time in centuries. A butterfly that had emerged from its cocoon and could fly to better days.

"Tell your sister we want to see her," her father said. His eyes were glassy, and yet he was beaming. Bella didn't realize she was crying until she saw him wiping away tears of his own. However, her mother couldn't bring herself to look in general direction, steely eyes glued to the edge of the desk. It was obvious she had a mountain of things to say.

"Mum…" she began, but the queen rotated in her chair, looking to the world beyond the glass window. She gave her daughter no acknowledgement.

Bella bit her lip to prevent herself from saying something she'd regret. Her mother would come to terms with it; she'd have to, one way or the other.

With a final smile directed to her father, she left his office a free woman. The walk to her sister's room felt like mere seconds, yet far too long. Her body was shaking with nerves and energy, everything inside her sparking and jittery. The newly appointed duchess didn't bother knocking, instead swinging the white door open with more effort than she'd put into anything in years.

Clara sat on the edge of her bed, playing with the hairs at the end of her braid. She was dressed in a crisp white shirt, the front tucked into light jeans and held together with a black belt. The sneakers she wore—which clearly showed their age—were tapping gently on her floor, creating a made up melody. It took her a moment to realize her door had opened and someone had stepped inside, and she regarded her sister with deep eyes and lips in a gentle frown.

"It's done," Bella said, throwing her hands to the side. "It's done."

Her sister jumped from the bed, a smile beginning to form. "You did it?"

"I did it," she exclaimed, wrapping Clara in a tight and brief hug. The sixteen-year-old startled, not expecting the rare show of physical affection. "You're going to be Queen."

Clara let out an inderudolous laugh, but was overjoyed all the same. Her smile dropped within an instant when the true realization hit her. "What if I can't do it? God, I'm terrified, Bella."

"You're going to be amazing," she reassured her. "You're meant for this. And here—" she began to twist off the family ring, the gold band putting up eight years worth of a fight instead of easily slipping off her finger.

"No, don't give it to me yet." Clara bit her bottom lip. "Mum would get mad and tell me I'm presumptuous for thinking I'll automatically get the crown."

Bella rolled her eyes. "Who else would?"

She sighed. "I know, but she's going to want me to prove myself."

"And you will," her sister assured. "I believe in you."

"Thank you." She smiled softly. "So, should I go… ?"

"Oh, right." Bella shook her head, having completely forgot the initial reason she came to her room. "Dad wants to talk to you."

Clara nodded assertively, but her older sister could see the hesitance in her gaze. She'd never been good at comforting others, so she hoped her assuring smile and gentle push towards the door was enough.

The princess clenched her fists at her side, grounding herself in the pain that shot up her arm as her fingernails dug into the palms of her hand. She released a breath as she opened her hands, and then she was bounding down the hallway, singularly focused on getting to her father's office without any deterrence.

Geoffrey was waiting at the door. He opened it wide with a knowing smile. He bowed his head in respect as she passed.

Clara wasn't prepared to find her mother with her head on her father's shoulder, openly sobbing. It took only a split second for her to recognize her daughter's presence, and she sprung up and paced away, wiping furiously at her cheeks. It was as if she thought getting physical comfort from her husband was illegal.

"Hi," Clara greeted quietly, stepping further into the room.

Her father gave her a sad smile. "Hi." He cleared his throat, picking up a stack of papers and presenting her with them. "Assuming you already know why you're here, I suppose it would be easiest to get on with the formalities."

Clara nodded and took the seat opposite his desk, picking up a pen and scanning through the documents. From the corner of her eye, she saw her mother settle herself into a chair, smoothing down the fabrics she wore in honor of her home country.

"Do you understand what this means, Clara? No more dance, no more freedom."

"Divya," her father said, a tired sigh escaping his lips.

His wife put her hands in the air. "I want her to understand the reality. Apparently Bella never did."

Clara clenched the pen tightly, keeping the words she wanted to say in the back of her throat. This wasn't the time to start arguments.

"I know," she said, instead. "But I want to do this. I'd be a good queen."

"Of course," her father agreed. "We have no doubt that you'll be exemplary in all ways."

She smiled fleetingly, but put her focus into the papers in front of her. She spent the next few minutes in uncomfortable, weighing silence, writing her signature on the appropriate lines. Their stares bore holes into her, but she couldn't bring herself to look up.

When she'd gone through everything, all the I's dotted and the T's crossed, she shuffled the papers back into a neat pile and presented it to her father. He took less time than she had, only skimming through to ensure she hadn't missed a page. Once satisfied, he stood up and walked to one of his bookshelves. He picked out the book he was looking for, then went to Clara's seat and kneeled down, presenting the book in his hand.

"Put your left hand on the Constitution," he instructed. She did as told, and then raised her other hand, as was customary. "Do you pledge your allegiance and life to the Crown, to follow your chosen duties as Crown Princess of Illéa until coronation or death?"

"Think about this, Clara," her mother said. "If you're going to break this oath like your sister, there are cousins that would be willing to take your place."

Clara didn't look in her mother's direction, or directly respond to her. She straightened her spine, clenched her jaw, and said, "I do."

Clara practically ran to her sister's room, unable to contain her unbridled joy. There was so much to do, so much for her to learn, but she was enthralled for what the future held. It would only be made better by her sister standing beside her; for the first time, she knew Bella would be truly happy.

"Bels, it's official," she called as she opened her sister's door. "I'm going to be Queen!"

There was no response. In fact, her room was jarringly empty; her crisp white sheets were fitted snugly on the bed, and any personal pictures she hung up had been taken down. Her closet doors were open and a mess, as if a hurricane had gone through and ripped half her clothes onto the floor. A chill ran up Clara's arms and down her spine, and she realized minutely it was due to the balcony doors—they were wide open, the linen curtains floating in the summer breeze.

There was a sealed envelope with a bright sticky note on top. She could see the uppercase C of her name written in shining black ink. It was unmistakably Bella's ornate cursive, the one that had been grilled into her since she was a child. Clara had gotten stuck with a strange fusion of printed handwriting with the letters connected together.

I wrote this over the span of a year, the pink post-it read. Don't read it in one sitting.

The envelope was heavy in her hand, and bulky as well. Clara wasted no time in tearing open the edge, not caring that it split down the center of her name. She weaseled out the papers, estimating at least twenty pages of a handwritten letter. The cursive inside was the same as what graced the now torn envelope.

I can't stay here. Title or not, I have to leave if I ever want to feel in control of my life. Please, don't look for me—wherever I happen to go, I'll be much happier in my own privacy.

Clara read those few lines over and over and over, her brain short-circuiting. Just a few moments ago, this had been the happiest day of her life. Now, she didn't know how to feel.

Reality didn't hit her until she was halfway down the second page and the form of a circle caught her eye. It was tucked into the corner of one half of the envelope, the part that read ara on the front. She picked it up and let the band slide out, flinching when the gold band made contact with the surface of the wooden desk. A beam of light shone through the open balcony and directly onto the ring, blinding her.


FIVE YEARS LATER


Clara pushed the end of her pen, relishing in the rhythmic click it let out. If she were in a meeting, they would have eaten her alive for the bad habit, but thankfully privacy was one of the few virtues of her office. A chill swam through the space and she pulled on the sleeves of her sweater—a bright, bold blue turtleneck with one overfold around her neck—thinking of how strange it was for the typically humid summer afternoons.

Her eyes drifted up and landed on the photo at the corner of her desk, and any concentration she had built up was broken.

She dropped the pen and picked up the frame, leaning back in her chair as a finger drifted over the happy faces of herself and her sister when they were children. It had been a candid photo of the two of them with their hands clasped and raised high above their head, as if in victory. Both her parents claimed they had taken the shot when she had expressed how much she loved it.

It had been exactly five years—or rather, 1826 days (including the leap year)—since Bella had left. Five years with no contact and no photos, nothing to prove she was even alive. Five Christmases, and five summer holidays, and ten birthdays between them. Not a single letter, though, or even a missed phone call. Sometimes she had dreams her sister had gotten ahold of her number—because God knows she could never remember it—and texted her.

She set the frame down. Her ring caught in the light streaming through the window, and she was reminded of how tight it felt around her finger. Clara took it off as often as she could while working, but sometimes got too paranoid to even attempt it; if her mother caught her, she'd be furious.

And speaking of her mother, she was marching through the door with her father on her heels. Clara stood up, trying her best to smile and not show how caught off guard they had gotten her. Her father motioned for her to sit down as he sat in the chair across her desk, but the queen remained standing. She threw down a magazine in front of her.

FIVE YEARS GONE: ROYALS SAY DUCHESS OF ANGELES NOW IN SOUTH AMERICA, BUT LOCALS DISAGREE. WHERE'S BELLA?

Even looking at the headline brought her a headache; she detested thinking of what could be inside the glossy pages.

Thankfully, her mother saved her the troubles of reading through it. "This slimey rag is coming up with all sorts of conspiracies. I'll spare you the details, but the worst utterance to come out of here was—" She picked up the tabloid and flipped to a page near the center. "'Perhaps the Duchess was pregnant, all those years ago, and the royal family kicked her out, or put her down.'" Her mother made a sound akin to gagging. "It's filthy."

"Well it could be true," Clara shot back. "Maybe she is pregnant, and you're a grandmother now. I have to say, you don't look the age of your new title."

Her father grinned and snorted, but her mother wasn't having it. "Don't get smart with me," she snapped. "You need to fix this."

"Fix this?" she said incredulously. "I'm not the one who started this and lied to the public."

Her mother ignored the dig. "You need to make a statement on her behalf."

It took a few moments for what she said to click, but when it did, any calm sensibility she possessed flew out the window. "No way. I did that a few times because you were desperate, but I'm not doing it again."

"You do it so well," her mother urged, refusing defeat. "Just one letter, saying she's enjoying privacy in some remote village. Maybe she dyed her hair, and that's why they can't spot her," she suggested.

Clara huffed. "Why don't you do it, if you have such a clear fantasy built in your head."

"You know I can't."

"Then why should I," Clara cried. "Why should I have to clean up the mess you created when you told them she was taking an 'indefinite vacation'," she mocked. "First she was in France, then Russia, and suddenly she was in India? And now she's been in South America for what, two years? I bet you don't even realize it's been five years, today."

"I know," the queen snapped. The roots of her hair were going grey, and in need for a dye job. Though she was five years off of sixty, and aging hair would be a shock to no one, her mother always insisted on touch-ups, claiming it was what she had done since she was thirty.

Would Clara be dyeing her hair in nine years time?

"My entire reign is going to be built on your lie," the princess said, before her mother could intervene again. She braced herself for a thorough yelling, but then her father stood up, holding his hands out in surrender.

"There is something else we could do, without any more statements than necessary being made," he said.

Clara looked up at him in confusion, racking her brain for any hint as to what he could be suggesting. Her mother seemed to understand right away, and her tense stature melted.

"Are you sure, Alexander?"

He gave no verbal response, instead grabbing her hand and squeezing it gently. He carefully took in a breath and released it, ensuring his voice wouldn't waver for what he would suggest next. "You could have a Selection."

A million and one thoughts and actions raced through Clara's brain, all vying to be the one she responded with. "Oh."

Just when she thought her day couldn't get worse.


Hello, and welcome to my SYOC! I'll be accepting around 20 guys. The form is in my bio, along with brief character descriptions for Clara and Bella. If you have any questions, please don't hesitate to contact me!

My only "rule" is that I ask for diversity—not just ethnicity, but also names, occupations, backgrounds, etc! If you're uncertain if I'd be okay with something, please message me before fully fleshing out your character. (Also: when submitting you character, please have the subject line be their full name.)

Happy reading!