Being a princess was plagued with difficult decisions.
Valerie crossed her arms over her chest, index finger tapping against her rounded chin as she eyed the choices. One would be all fun and games at first, true, but it packed a nasty punch. She'd regret it for a long time afterwords. The second was the much safer choice, the one her mother would no doubt approve of. But what was the fun in picking the safe choice? Everyone knew that picking the more risky of the two offered the greater reward. Fun. Fun was important, wasn't it?
Her dark brows knitted together, and she shifted on her heels. Her mother's approval, while important in the long run, didn't mean much for tonight. She was distracted. She was always distracted during the annual celebration of her coronation.
"Oh, why the hell not?" Val muttered to herself, reaching forward and grabbing the slender glass as opposed to the squat one. She was just about to lift it to her lips when a hand swerved into sight and snatched it away. Her attention was pulled around with it, brown eyes flying wide in consternation. "I was drink -" Mouth snapping shut, she pressed her lips into a thin line.
"You were just about to drink this," General Finn said, lifting it up to his nose to take a long whiff. His nostrils twitched. The alcohol was potent. "In your dreams, princess. D'you have any idea how much trouble the staff would be in if your mum found you smashed?"
Val shrugged, unable to keep the bubbling feeling of disappointment in her chest from reaching her expression. "She wouldn't. I was going to be discreet."
"A discreet drunk. Riiight."
"I was only going to have one!"
"Yeah, one more than you're supposed to have." He set the glass down on the table, watching out of the corner of his eye as her gaze followed the drink longingly. She was jostled forward when his hand nudged just between her shoulder blades. "Come on, away from the booze."
"I'm of age, you know."
Ben Finn was one of her mother's greatest friends. And co-conspirators, Val thought venomously as she crossed her arms again. He laughed, a sharp bark that made a frustrated flush creep up her neck, and gave her back a conciliatory pat. "You're only seventeen, Val. Did your mother lower the legal drinking age when I wasn't looking?"
"No," she huffed in response. Glancing around the ballroom, her sights lingered upon the dancers as she was guided past them. The celebration was huge to-do in Bowerstone. Every scrap of nobility from around Albion gathered there to dance and eat and chat about everything pleasant under the sun. Her mother preferred the parade, but she'd always preferred spending time with the rabble.
Only Hobson stopped them to compliment her dress (evidently he was fond of lilac when paired with her coloring) and ask them where her mother was. "In the gardens," Ben said, his tone slipping momentarily into something very nearly solemn. "You know where."
"That I do," Hobson smiled, tapping his shiny bald head with his index finger as he bowed to Valerie before hobbling off.
When they were alone again, the general led her over to one of the many benches that lined the length of the room. She sat down, her voluminous skirts letting out a sigh not unlike her own, and he followed suit, sitting on the very edge with his hands on his knees.
"You're no fun, Ben. Mother always talks about how much fun you are, but I don't believe her."
Laughing again, Ben shook his head, muttering a quiet, "Kids these days," before glancing at her over his shoulder. "I'll have you know that I'm buckets of fun. I just don't much care for seeing the Queen's daughter grabbing for the potent stuff."
"So entertain me," Val ventured, her thick brows peaking high on her forehead. He remembered the day he met her, fourteen years prior. Her skin was smudged with soot and her dress was threadbare, but none of that mattered compared to the wide smile on her face. It matched the one on Sabrina's. It was obvious from the start that the queen's grin had nothing to do with her recent, bumpy ascent to the throne. That smile was for the three-year-old sitting on her hip. She'd grown since then, which wasn't much of a surprise. Her dresses grew in size, as did her mouth, and by her seventeenth year, you could hardly guess her humble beginnings. "Show me you're not the bump on a log you seem."
"Wow," he breathed, a chuckle threading into his amusement. "Yes, ma'am. And how do you think I'll be able to prove it, huh? What do you want me to do? I don't have much of a talent at juggling anymore. That was years ago." Tapping his fingers on his knees, his head tilted from side to side as he contemplated the possibilities. "I could tell you a story? I've always been good at telling stories."
Val's hands gathered in the mass of lilac skirts that had once been her lap. "Old Uncle Ben's going to tell me a story, then?" she asked, shifting a bit on her rear.
"Oh, come off it. You're just trying to make me feel ancient on purpose now."
The teenager grinned, and he rolled his eyes.
"Yes," he continued with a resigned sigh. A hint of mocking crept into his tone, "'Old Uncle Ben' is going to tell you a story. But before something terrible happens, like my decrepit bones grinding themselves into ash, do you have any requests?"
"Huh." A chill shot down her back when she rested her shoulders against the cool column behind her. "What about mother? I've heard a lot about her before she became queen, but most of it's from people who weren't even there." She paused, reconsidering her words. "People who weren't directly involved, I mean, more preoccupied with keeping themselves safe and inconspicuous."
At the thinly veiled request, Ben couldn't help but smile, a dimple forming in his unshaven cheek. Rubbing at the two day's growth of blonde stubble on his chin, he glanced over his shoulder again, this time going so far as twisting his waist to get a better look at her. "I have a better idea," he began, letting his arm fall across his lap. He'd considered this tale many times in the past few years, but a very strong part of him refused to tell her. She wasn't ready; she was too young to hear all that he had to say. That wasn't the case any longer. "Exactly how much do you know about Sir Walter Beck?"
"I know that he was my mother's mentor," she replied as her fingers worked idly at her dress's lace adornments. "He died when the Darkness threatened Albion."
"Is that all? Really, in seventeen years, that's all you've heard about him?"
Val looked up at him from her hands. "Well, not everything, but that's all mother's told me. I don't really trust hearsay and for good reason." Biting on the inside of her bottom lip, she looked away from Ben to glance around the ballroom again. "I mean, I've heard it said a few times that he was like a father to me for the year I spent in the castle when he was still alive. I don't really remember much about him."
"And the people who told you that also told you that he and your mother were lovers, yeah?" he asked.
He watched her face closely for any sign of reaction. Her brows dipped inward again before her eyes jerked up to his. "They said that, yes, but I assumed it was only a rumor." When Ben didn't immediately assure her that it was, Val's mouth fell open. "It wasn't!"
Ben chuckled and shook his head. "Nope. Not any more than my being the most handsome general the Royal Army's ever seen – oi! Don't look at me like that; it's true. Val, stop laughing."
The princess tried her best to stop her giggling, only succeeding in ending it in a chorus of tiny hiccups. "Keep going, Mr. Finn. I want to know what's not a rumor. Your being the most handsome general Albion's ever seen isn't a rumor, right?"
Blue eyes rolling, Ben shifted on his seat, trying to find a more comfortable position. This would be a long story, he imagined. The revolution stretched over nearly three years, but all that he knew went on for far longer. "I'm going to start my story now, thank you." Hitching up his shoulder in mocked offense, he smoothed his calloused palms over his trousers. "Sir Walter Beck was a very good friend of your grandmother's, the Hero called Lionheart, previously Sparrow. They fought together as she grew older. For a time, he was little more than a soldier in Lionheart's army, but his, uh, soldierly panache soon grabbed her attention and was made a knight."
"Hey, if you don't want me to tell it..."
Val shook her head, her hands flapping for him to continue. She could manage to keep her comments to herself if that was the only way she'd be getting a story, this story in particular. She was a princess, after all, plucked from the Bowerstone orphanage by the queen herself and brought to live in the very lap of luxury. If someone like her couldn't believe in the power of a good story, no one could. "I just want you to get to the interesting parts, is all."
"Avo's ar – uh, hindquarters, will you let me tell the story, or do you want to sit in prickly silence for the rest of the night? Because you're not going anywhere. Not to get yourself drunk and wind up passed out in the treasury. Ah, ah, no, don't give me that face. I heard it straight from Hobson."
Rolling her eyes, she held her hands in her lap once more. "Fine. Go on. Tell your story."
"Once knighted, Sir Walter only grew in her esteem and was finally brought into the castle permanently, as an advisor of sorts of the queen and a mentor for your mother." Laughing to himself, Ben rubbed at the back of his neck. "Didn't give him as much trouble you gave me as a kid, that's for damn sure."
"Yes, well, he probably didn't have a stick up his arse."
"He-ey! Language, princess!"
Val narrowed her eyes at him. "I'm seventeen years old. Stop treating me like a child and get on with the story of my mother's tempestuous love affair with her surly mentor, please."
Her head cocked to the side when she heard him give a snort of laughter. "What is it now?"
"Ben. I've read through enough fiction to know that most, if not all, love affairs are the tempestuous sort."
Giving his cheek a little smack of disbelief, he shook his head. How had he gotten himself into this? He should just stop while he was ahead. "You really don't know your mother very well, do you? When I first met her, she was nearly swimming in this beat up old mercenary outfit – a boy's large, I imagine – and was nearly as tall as she is now with half the muscle. She couldn't have been tempestuous outside of her own imagination if she tried."
"So what's the big fuss? I thought you were waiting to tell me this story because it was too... mature for my young mind to handle."
Ben took a good, long look at her. She was nothing like Sabrina, a testament in itself to her adoption. Her cheeks were full and freckled, and she was much shorter than her mother. Her features were soft where her mother's were pointed, just as she somehow retained the slight twang of Bowerstone Industrial, even after so many years of being tutored. While pretty, it was impossible to not focus on the one thing that separated her from the queen entirely. She was not a Hero. Not by a long shot.
"Val, as much as I wish I could joke about this..." He passed his tongue over his bottom lip, turning his face from hers for a moment before looking back. "You know how I am. I joke about everything. It's how I deal with things. But this? You knowing this would mean a lot to your mother."
He watched as Valerie's face softened. She hadn't expected this sort of sentiment out of Ben, not when there were festivities on. He was always the first to enjoy himself, and the rapid change of pace was jarring at best, leaving her voice little more than a whisper when it left her. "What do you mean by that? If she wanted me to know, she'd have told me herself, wouldn't she?"
"There's a reason why she never attends these big celebrations, you know." He took a breath, releasing it in a sigh. "Why she spends most of the night out in the gardens."
"The statue. There's a statue of Sir Walter in the garden."
"Right." Ben smiled, though this one didn't bear any teeth. It was a solitary twist on an otherwise sad expression. "You know that Walter died the year after she was crowned?" Val nodded. "She saved very nearly everyone. There wasn't a casualty in all of Albion. For a solid year, she worked herself to the bone trying to find ways to save them all, but, in the end, she just couldn't. She couldn't save every single one."
Swallowing thickly, he managed a rumble of a chuckle. "But this isn't all about that," he said, reaching over to give her knee a nonchalant pat. "The beginning of this story may be hearsay, but it was hearsay straight from your dear mum's mouth. And... ah, maybe a little from her journal."
Val gasped. Ben laughed. The sound was light; genuine. "She kept it lying around; it was practically an invitation!"
"So you scrounged up details from my mother's diary to fill in the blanks."
"It's a perfectly reputable –" When she narrowed her eyes at him, he held up both of his hands in a gesture of defeat. "Okay, okay, so maybe I didn't get any real information from the journal, but I did hear a lot from Sabrina." He sighed before straightening his posture. "I can't believe I'm being ordered around by a kid."
Both Ben and Val glared at each other before the princess' serious face cracked into a smile. Nudging him in the arm, she laughed. "Come on, Uncle Ben. Tell me."
"Only if you stop calling me that," the general retorted, lips pursing in indignance.
"General Benjamin Finn, won't you tell me a story about my mother?"
"Gods, that's even worse."
Val let loose a string of devious giggles, though the sound came to a complete and utter halt the moment Ben cleared his throat, a sure sign of the story's beginning. "Your mother was... hm, how should I put it? She was smitten. A teenager at the time of our opening, she was already quite sure that Sir Walter Beck was the only man she could ever love. And as much as everyone who knew of her feelings for her mentor – and this was, quite literally, everyone save Sir Walter himself – told her that it was nothing more than calf love, she knew otherwise."
Ben smiled, if briefly, before continuing. "Your mother's always been a smart woman."