CHAPTER FIVE

BEFORE/DAY 1846, PART I


"I refuse to believe Mum wore anything other than Indianwear willingly."

The king shrugged. "There were dress codes in France; everyone followed them."

"But look at these jeans," Bella exclaimed, holding up bright, lavender denim in one hand. Her other hand continued to scour through the box in front of her, dutifully labelled 'Old Clothes'. "There's no way this was part of a dress code."

"She wore that on our second date," her father explained. A smile began to rise, as did bubbling laughter. "I remember she had been particularly mad at me, too. It was quite the sight to see, paired with that bright green shirt of hers—but, back then, bright color combinations were the 'in.'"

Bella's eyes widened. "Please, I need to find that top." She returned to digging through the old box with renewed vigour.

Clara, on the other hand, had a different inquiry. "Why was she mad?"

"Well, Clar, you know it's bad to lie, right?" She nodded. "I'm making a disclaimer that I didn't technically lie."

His eldest daughter snorted. "Painting the picture real well, Pops."

He leaned back onto his heels—his knees only softly protesting—exasperated. "Can you tell my life story better?"

The sixteen-year-old regarded him carefully, then shrugged. "Probably."

"Then go ahead." He waved towards her young sister, sitting on the floor across from him. She was surrounded by her poofy pink skirt, which had been an absolute hastle for Mallory to make; though eleven, the princess was already determined on setting fashion trends.

"She's too young to understand—"

"Am not! I'm mature for my age." She crossed her arms.

Bella prepared her rebuttal, which likely would have edged on the line of scathing, but Alexander intervened. "That's right, ma petite croissant," he said to Clara. "You are very responsible. But—" his eyes flew to the heir "—perhaps waiting some time would be best. Then you'll be sure to remember, too."

The girl squinted, her nose scrunching up in resemblance to the matriarch of the family. Her eyes passed to Bella, still digging through faraway memories from a faraway land. Her pin straight hair, which had certainly been inherited from their father's side of the family, fell around her in a curtain, shutting her away from their conversation. She settled her gaze back to the king, his blue eyes imploring.

"Fine," she said, preceded by a heavy sigh. "But how long do I have to wait?"

"Five years," Bella said, without looking up.

"How about ten," Alexander offered instead.

"Ten years?" Clara's mouth fell open. "I'll be so old," she whined.

"Oh, relax, you'll only be twenty-one."

"That doesn't even sound like a real age."

"Well I'll be twenty-six, and probably a grandmother."

"Both of you are still very young," their father interrupted. Then, to Bella, he said, "And I really hope you're not a grandmother by then."

"No," she agreed dreamily, "I'll be on a beach, childless."

Clara twisted to face her. "Can I come?"

She thought for a moment, deliberating with a pout and eyes to the sky. "Yeah, okay," she conceded. "But no boys allowed."


TEN(ISH) YEARS LATER


Clara wasn't enthusiastic about waking up at four in the morning, but if she wanted to catch the 5:35am sunrise, she'd have to suffer. Not even Mallory was awake at such an ungodly hour, nor was Gia—shocking, considered she rarely seemed to sleep. However, the princess relished the bit of solitude she was given, soaking in the silence as she slipped on athletic leggings and an old, lime shirt of her mother's.

Of course, the aforementioned woman was already alert and ready for the day, lounging in the personal living room for the royals. She dawned a coral sari that struck out against their weathering brown couch. Small cracks ran through the faux leather, but it was one of the only bits of normalcy they had in their large, daunting palace. No one had the heart to discard it, lest risking loss of the memories that tagged along.

"Ma," Clara whispered into the dim, pre-dawn lighting. "Why are you up?"

"Why else?" Divya responded at normal volume, "To watch the news."

Her daughter crept closer, mindful of the silence they swam in. "Dad buys the Indian newspapers for you, there's nothing on the TV you haven't read about. And besides." She held up her lavender device. "We have everything on our phones."

"Yes, I know." She waved away her suggestions, and patted the empty space next to her, beckoning. "But it's never quite the same. I had to run to the corner store to watch the broadcast every evening, then run back to tell my nani and mother what happened. I dreaded it then, but now I miss that routine."

Clara sighed, flopping beside her. "You're treating this like extreme, thirty-year jetlag."

"One never completely adjusts away from their motherland."

"I guess not." She leaned back, letting her head rest against the back of the couch. The white ceiling was overcast in shades of blue and black from the remnants of night that flooded through the windows. The colors reminded her of a time when she had projected constellations and crescent moons onto her bedroom walls, her childhood self only able to fall asleep to the music of Debussy and Beethoven.

"Why are you awake so early? Did you even go to sleep?"

"Yes, Mother." She sighed again. "I wanted to see the sunrise, then go for a walk."

Divya clucked her tongue. "You used to do that with Bella."

"I know," she said, "it's why I want to do this. I've been feeling nostalgic, ever since the Selection started."

"Hmm, that's certainly clear with your shirt." She pulled it lightly, her tone teasing. "I recall having something just like that."

"Bella has your jeans," she blurted. "The lavender ones, you wore on your date with Dad. She loved them so much she took it with her."

"So that's why you—" The Queen cut herself off, immediately rethinking what she was going to say. Instead, she replied, "I see."

Silence passed, not even saved by wandering footsteps or other early signs of life: they sat in their isolative bubble. Eventually, once again speaking in a whisper, Clara asked, "Did you really not know he was the king?"

Now it was her mother's turn for an excessive sigh; she'd had this conversation quite frequently over the course of many years. "I had never seen a picture of him as an adult, and when we first met he only introduced himself as Xander, that sly fox." She tried her best to stifle her chuckle, but it still spilled forward. "I didn't really care about his status by the time I found out—I was already in love."

Externally, Clara pretended to lightly gag. Internally, she had a dozen heart eyes. "Then why were you—his words—so 'outrageously furious.'"

"I didn't like being tricked, and I still don't," she said sternly. "I was a young immigrant trying to maneuver through a predominantly white, male field. If I was made a fool of in any way, my reputation was easily harmed; I couldn't risk being the tail end of a practical joke." Her voice was crisp and clear, but her drifting eyes were soft. "But you know, when I—quite literally—ran straight into him, I thought I was about to be fired. I didn't even let him open his mouth, I simply assumed he was a Frenchman and held a position much higher than mine. I suppose I did turn out to be partially correct."

Clara hummed. "I used to wonder if one day I'd run straight into my future husband, but a Selection doesn't allow for that kind of spontaneity."

Divya tapped her leg affectionately. "All will come in time." Clara dipped her head to look at her mother, and the older woman's eyes immediately softened. Her hand drifted to her daughter's cheek, resting gently. "Do you know how precious you are to me and your father? You were a gift when you came into the world."

"I know," she said softly, too afraid to speak louder and hear a break in her voice.

"If your sister hadn't left, you wouldn't have been forced to do this."

"Ma, it's okay." She straightened herself upwards, trying her best to aim for consolation. "I really like my job, and I'm enjoying the Selection so far. Please, don't feel bad. It's not your fault."

"I know," she said, though her thoughts were clearly focused elsewhere. Her eyes were beginning to become dangerously red and watery.

Clara cleared her throat, and abruptly stood up, then gestured to the muted TV. "I think your news is starting."

The familiar emblem of India's national cable network flashed across the screen, and Divya's mood lifted, just barely. The volume turned on just as a whoosh of a moving graphic was in its end. Immediately, the news anchors spoke in fast, crisp Hindi, far too speedy for the princess to understand.

"Have fun," her mother said. "Please be back for breakfast. I don't want to have to entertain your boys."

She smiled fleetingly, not that anyone could see. Clara hesitated for a moment before completely walking out the room, making sure to leave the doors open; her mother didn't like feeling closed up in spaces.

It was around 5:30, now, so the guards completed a rotation and some staff began to prepare for the day. She managed to slip out a side door with little notice, just as the sky began to lighten—endless midnight blues tinged with the beginnings of morning twilight. It wouldn't take long for it all to become a pale blue, simple as it was comforting. However, before the rest of the world began to wake, she took comfort in the chirping birds and gentle rustle of branches being exclusive to her ears. Under her sneakers, the forest's path of dirt and miscellaneous debrief mixed together and crushed softly with each step.

There was complete solitude for at least ten minutes. The sky was clear overhead, and though the path was lined with towering trees, the branches didn't overcast. It was a simple trek upwards, to stand atop of a hill and catch a glance of the palace in the morning light. Had she chosen to stay on level ground and go through the deep forest surrounding the back of the palace, she'd likely spend most of her time tripping over roots in dense, packed darkness.

Clara was turning a corner when she saw another person sprinting towards her. Her reflects were too delayed, and before either of them could move out of destruction's path, they crashed into each other. The impact pushed her to the ground, partially knocking the breath out of her. Soreness immediately flashed down her ribs, and she wondered if a bruise would appear

"Your Highness," the man gasped. "I am so sorry."

It took a moment for his voice and face to register. Her realization was accompanied by heaps of embarrassment. She cleared her throat. "Sir Mayfield, good morning. It's no worries."

He continued to fall over himself with apologies while he helped her stand up, not letting himself take a breath until he was ensured she was entirely unharmed.

"So," she began, conversationally, "what has you awakened so early in the morning?"

"Oh, uh." He scratched the back of his neck. "Early morning run, but also jetlag, I guess."

She hummed, then recalled his origins. "You're from Waverly, correct?" He nodded. "What part of the province?"

"Brooklyn," he said. "Just a bridge away from Manhattan."

"The city is unparalleled."

"Yeah," he said. He looked down and kicked a small pebble by his shoe. "You a runner?"

"Not at all," she said with a wry smile. "No one in my family could run a block without wiping out, to be honest."

"But you're a dancer, right?"

"Well, yes, but sprinting and turns aren't exactly cohesive."

He hummed, craning his neck to look at the forestry around them. He kept his hands clasped behind his back. Another fact about him dawned upon her.

"Do you still play football?"

His head snapped back to her, his eyes more alert than before. "Yes, recreationally," he said tentatively. "Not professionally, though. That was mostly in high school."

"So you had a lot of early morning practices, hence…" She waved her hand in the general air.

"Routine gives me comfort," he said. "And you don't have to be so formal with me, by the way. I can tell it's exhausting."

Clara balked. "Pardon?"

August bent over to retie his shoes, but gave her a passing, sideways glance. "I'm an English major with a specialization in journalism—I can tell when someone's putting on the ritz." He straightened himself upwards. "You can keep it easy with… most of us."

"Oh," she replied, soft as an echo. "Well, that's good to know, Sir Mayfield. Do you have any more comments or suggestions?"

His eyes widened. "I'm sorry, Your—you. I didn't mean to step over a boundary, I just thought that you were acting formal to make a good impression when half of us wouldn't care if you pushed us out a window and didn't apologize." He said everything as one long, rushed sentence. His face grew redder by the second.

Clara chuckled, a smile momentarily splitting her face. "I promise I won't push any of you out a window; but if I did, I would definitely apologize."

"Good to know." He nodded crisply. "Well, I'm going to head back." He gestured with his thumb to the general direction of the palace. "Have a good morning."

"You as well, August," she said. He nearly snapped his neck looking back again. "Or was that too formal?"

"N-no. No, not at all." He seemed like he was about to say more, but then shut his mouth and dashed away, soon disappearing amongst the rich, green trees.

Clara continued her walk up the trail, taking a bit of comfort in the burn that pulled down her calves. The last stretch to the top of the hill took a bit of wind out of her, which was a clear sign she needed to get out more often. Still, she pushed through the uncomfortable weight on her chest and made it to the clearing. The last few steps were monumentous.

Just as she remembered, the panoramic view of the palace and garden was unparalleled. The sky had fully lightened to a soft blue, now; everything was cast with bright, white sunlight that reflected across the outer surface of the palace walls. The sight before her reminded Clara of a phone filter, which overlaid everything with dazzling glitter. However, she knew it would be impossible to capture the beauty she saw through her eyes with any camera lens.

She sat down and submerged her hands into the lush green grass, slightly damp from morning dew. Maybe it was her own delusional imagination sprinkled with a bit of lustful hope, but the air seemed so much crisper atop of the hill. The stuffy, humid atmosphere was becoming dangerously normalized within the densely populated areas of the palace grounds.

Soon, twenty minutes passed by in a stealthy fashion; she forced herself to stand up and brush little bits of nature off her leggings and shirt. Already, the gardens were awakened with small herds of gardeners and other outdoor workers taking on their appropriate positions and tasks for the day. It served as a reminder for the pile of papers waiting for review on her desk. Procrastination was not a dear friend.

The birds' songs continued as she trekked home, as did little drops of water, falling from the sky and hitting her skin like miniscule, wet spikes.


"Clara, are you listening?"

The princess startled. She shook her head lightly as she tried to refocus on her aunt, who was looking at her with her hands on her hip and a slightly disapproving stare. "Yes."

Kaltrina sighed. "No, you clearly weren't, so I'll repeat: who would you like to have your first date with?"

She mulled for a moment, mentally flipping through faces and names. Eventually, she settled on someone she wanted to learn much more about. "Rafael Maquez."

The selection coordinator didn't bother to hide her disbelief. "Really, the Paloma boy?"

"What's wrong with Paloma?"

"Oh, nothing, nothing." Kal waved away her concern, but rather poorly. "It's just an… interesting province."

"Asher was there not even a month ago," she pointed out.

"My point exactly."

Clara thought about her response for a solid minute, trying to decode whatever the hell her aunt was trying to imply. Her mind came up short, though, and she moved past that peculiar interaction. "Well, I'm sticking with my choice. He seems like a disaster, but in an amusing way."

"Delightful," Kal drawled. "He'll be informed of the plan right away."

"Great. Wait—" Kaltrina turned around. "Should I go to his room, or meet him at the venue?"

"Well, if he truly is a disaster, I think it'd be best if you picked him up."

Clara slumped back in her chair. Her aunt's laughter rang in her ears, even as she stepped into the hall.


This felt like actual hot trash, but 'tis okay! There's some quality content coming up soon :). What did you think of August, and what do you think of the upcoming date? Are there any boys you've seen (from last chapter or the Pinterest board) that you want to know more about? My PMs on FF and Discord are always open for any suggestions!

See you soon!