The castle had a lot of people, but it felt lifeless. The walls were painted soft beige and glimmered with crushed crystals that had been mixed in with the paint. The end result was a brilliant light show when the sun hit the individual pieces. But to the prince, it had no life. The light was just a byproduct of the opulence shown throughout the royal residence.

His footsteps clicked crisply on the lacquered floor, one of the many uncarpeted corridors that ran along the outer wall of the main building. It was yet another way to showcase the crystalline wall, letting the pieces of glass cast their kaleidoscopic light onto the polished wood.

The few servants assigned to maintain these corridors quickly stopped what they were doing and bowed in respect to the heir to the throne. He simply walked past them with an air of indifference. He knew that they were all watching him closely, making sure that he didn't do anything that their king would find disagreeable. He had only a few allies in this cold palace.

The red-haired man who practically followed him everywhere was certainly not one of them.

He stopped sharply in front of a set of decorated wooden doors: the symbol of Hollow Bastion etched into the thick wood, bordered by a frame of leaves and vines that were covered with gold foil. Each time a piece of foil began to peel off, a craftsman would cover the exposed part of the frame with more gold foil. The wastefulness made the prince sick; but then again, everything about the king made him sick.

He straightened the black jacket over his pressed white silk shirt out of habit, frowning at his own inability to cease this self-conscious habit in making himself look presentable to the king time after time. He bit back a growl, swallowing the guttural sound consciously.

Raising his right hand, he rapped the wood sharply with two knuckles and waited for the doors to open and admit him. A muffled "enter" followed by the double doors opening granted him entrance into the king's study, where the older man had been meeting with four of his advisors.

The black-haired king looked toward the door to find his heir entering the room stiffly. He stopped just a few feet from the entranceway and gave a curt bow of respect.

"Excuse us, gentlemen," he said, dismissing his advisors with a wave. The four men bowed simultaneously and took their leave. The prince didn't spare them any glances as they passed by him. The servants closed the doors to give them privacy.

"Your majesty," the prince greeted tersely, his eyes staring directly at the current king of Hollow Bastion.

"I wish you would call me 'father'," the king said with displeasure. "You are going to inherit the throne when I'm gone after all."

"With all due respect, your majesty," the prince emphasized the reference to the king, "you are not my father."

He would have added the part about the fact that he didn't ask for this position, to take the throne in the footsteps of the king who had chosen him to be his heir. But there was no point in voicing his unhappiness, not when it would change absolutely nothing in his life. He was bound to this role and only death would release him from his fate.

"You should be happy that you will be king." The current ruler looked out the gilded windows that admitted light into the chamber. A prosperous city bustled around the castle, filled with people who were none-the-wiser of the higher powers that controlled their kingdom. "The Council has given their blessing to your future. Hollow Bastion will see no conflicts against her borders during your reign."

The prince pressed his lips together, restraining himself from exploding with rage. The antiquated Council was made up of five seemingly immortal beings who saw fit to judge the fates of the kingdoms of this world. Empires were built up only to be wiped out on a whim by the Council, who controlled the world's largest army. Not even all the kingdoms' armies combined could do battle against this "holy" army and hope to win.

"Your majesty called me here," the prince said, choosing not to respond to the information over the blessing. In turn, the king chose not to gauge the teen's feelings over the matter as well, only watching his face as he spoke of the reason for their meeting.

"The Council has decreed that you find a bride by your next birthday," he said. "A ball will be held next full moon for you to find such a woman."

"And if I do not find one?" the teen asked.

"There will be more balls until your next birthday," the black-haired king simply answered.

"And if I do not choose one by my birthday?" the teen dared to ask.

The king looked at him grimly. "Then one will be chosen for you."

He knew that his marriage was just a farce, a continuation of a tradition made pointless when the Council was to dispose of the ruler's spouse after the coronation ceremony. That was how the Council maintained control aside from their military might—keeping the individual monarchs without blood heirs so they can extend their power over more people. While the prince didn't wish for an early death to a stranger, there was nothing he could do short of committing suicide.

"Very well," he said stoically, bowing to end their brief meeting. He then left the room without a departing word.

The king watched with a frown as the yellow-haired teen left the room swiftly. He had hoped that the boy would grow to become a dutiful heir when he found him a decade ago. But it would seem that the boy had only grown resentful of the king's "generosity" the older he got. There was still time to break the boy's spirit, but the Council had been growing impatient with his efforts. Perhaps it was better to let the Council deal with the boy before he took the throne.

"Axel," he called to the servant that had been hiding in the shadows. The fiery-haired man with emerald green irises and teardrop tattoos underneath each eye stepped out from behind a thick drape and bowed to the king. "Watch him carefully," he commanded. "I don't want him to go to the outside world."

"Yes, sire," the servant bowed again and left through one of the many secret passageways in the castle to catch up to the prince.

It was as the yellow-haired teen surmised: his personal servant was no friend. And he was just a puppet to be disposed of once he had outlived his usefulness.

"Fresh bread!" a young voice called to potential buyers as they walked through the bustling marketplace to purchase goods. "Fresh bread for sale!"

"Still have more of that sheepherder's bread, Sora?" an elderly woman asked hopefully as she neared the stall from his blind side.

"Good morning, Myrna!" greeted the vendor with a bright smile. "We have plenty of sheepherder's bread for your husband."

"I'll take two loaves then," the woman said, smiling back at the cheerful teen.

"All right," grinned the bread seller. He quickly wrapped up two fresh loaves of their popular bread in the length of cloth the woman handed him. "That will be thirty gil."

"You really ought to think about raising the prices," Myrna laughed. "I can't imagine how fifteen gil a loaf earns you a profit!"

Sora only smiled. "We're just happy to sell good bread, Myrna." He exchanged the package for the handful of coins she handed him. He quickly counted that the woman gave him the correct amount and placed them into a money bag behind the stall.

"Well here," she said, handing him a five gil coin. "Get some treats for yourself and Kairi. I won't have my favorite bakers be without spending money. Maybe you should buy Kairi something nice, eh?" she added with a wink.

The vendor blushed at his customer's suggestion and accepted the coin graciously. "I dare say that we get spoiled enough by our regulars," he grinned.

"No sense to not show our appreciation for good food," laughed Myrna. "Tell Kairi that her dress is ready, you hear?"

"Will do, Myrna!" Sora waved good-bye.

"I ordered a dress?" a voice came from behind him as his co-worker brought out another tray of fresh bread from the bakery behind them. He turned to find a red-haired girl looking at him with amusement before he accepted the tray that she set in his arms.

"Just the second dress in as many years," he replied nonchalantly. "You're still growing."

"It's a good thing we're of the same build," she teased with a whisper, unable to stifle the giggle when her friend flushed red.

They quickly reorganized the loaves on the shelves behind the main stall, greeting more customers and selling more bread together once the daily baking was over.

The two teens were popular in the market with their persistent optimism, even though they lived in one of the many shanty towns outside the high city walls. They always had smiles on their faces and went out of their ways to cheer up even strangers. It was this undying cheerfulness that made their bakery even more popular beyond the great bread they sold. After all, this unadulterated optimism was scarce in this kingdom ruled by plutocracy, where the poor are forced to live in absolute destitution, even for those of noble birth like Sora and Kairi.

Friends since they were young, Sora and Kairi were virtually inseparable, having lived in neighboring estates until Kairi's parents, the Count and Countess Fleuret, died in a carriage crash on a stormy evening. Shortly after, Sora's own family fell into hard times when his father, Lord Caelum, was branded a traitor in the neighboring kingdom of Balamb Garden. They were forced to leave their ancestral homes and go into exile in Hollow Bastion.

Sora's father never recovered after that and died in shame.

Now, the only person the two teens lived for was Sora's mother, who became ill two years ago after caring for the two on her own for three additional years. Whatever wealth they had left was quickly used up for her medicine; but even then, she did not get better.

And that brought them to where they were today: proprietors of a humble bakery, selling loaves of bread to the people who lived in the capital of Hollow Bastion.

When the sun had just passed its zenith, they had just a few more than twenty loaves left to sell with plenty of time to sell them before the day's end.

"I'm off to buy more flour and eggs," Sora said as he counted out the amount of money he would need to make the purchases. He quickly pocketed the coins and made sure they were secure from potential pickpockets. "You going to be alright by yourself?"

Kairi nodded with a grin. "I'll be fine," she said. "I can get Squall and Riku to help out if necessary."

"I'm off then," he grinned back.

"Don't forget about my dress!" she called after him. Sora only waved back in acknowledgment.

The crowd had thinned somewhat as people retreated indoors for their midday meals. Still, there were plenty of workers milling around, transporting cargos from one end of the marketplace to the other. Just as Kairi was moving the loaves from the shelves onto the main counter, she heard a loud commotion coming from the area to her right, curious when the crowd parted for a richly dressed aristocrat followed by a posse.

The area turned deathly silent as the pink-haired man stopped in front of Kairi's bread stall, looking down at the handmade goods patronizingly.

"Welcome," Kairi greeted with a smile. Though she was uneasy in the silence, she remained smiling, hoping that the snooty man would not cause trouble.

The pink-haired man picked up one of the bakery's prized loaves before dropping it onto the ground. He quickly swept the rest of the bread that had been placed carefully on the counter off.

"My bread!" the teen cried, racing around the stall to salvage what she could, but a jeweled hand grabbed onto her right arm, stopping her from reaching the bread as the aristocrat's lackeys stomped on the fallen loaves.

"Hey!" a brown-haired man and a silver-haired teen stepped forward to try and stop the injustice, but two of the lord's posse unsheathed their weapons and pointed at the unarmed peasants.

"How dare you!" Kairi screeched furiously, slapping the lord who had kept her from her goods. The pink-haired man didn't even flinch, knocking the teen to the ground with a backhand slap of his own.

"Kairi!" the silver-haired teen cried, but he was powerless to help his friend. He watched angrily as Kairi picked herself up onto her knees and the pink-haired man crouched down, one hand gripping her chin to force her to look at him.

"You're very pretty, you know that?" the lord smiled in a suggestive manner. "Why don't you come with me? I'll treat you well." His men chortled at their master's insinuations.

"No thanks," she spat, shaking her chin from his grip. "Creep."

The courage that she once had quickly flitted away as she heard more weapons unsheathed.

"What is going on here?" a new voice came. Soft murmurs surrounded them as people wondered who the newcomer was.

Kairi looked up to find a yellow-haired teen dressed sharply in the colors of Hollow Bastion. His ice blue eyes turned soft as they regarded her. The pink-haired lord who had been harassing her quickly stood up and stepped back, his face pale with surprise at the presence of the blonde.

Yet, Kairi had no idea who the boy was. The only thing she could deduce from his appearance was that he was an aristocrat just like the pink-haired creep, yet he was different from the rich snobs of Hollow Bastion. There was a regal air about him.

"This does not concern you, runt," the man tried to challenge, but the words came out weak.

"It does when you are terrorizing people," the newcomer returned coolly. He leaned down and asked "Are you okay?" with a soft smile on his face, a smile that wasn't exactly warm. Yet, at the same time, she could feel the sincere concern within the teen. It was as though the unnamed stranger had not shown his emotions very much before. He offered a gloved hand to help her up.

"I'm fine, thank you," she replied gratefully, taking the hand and standing back up. She noted that he wasn't much taller than she was. His eyes regarded the bruise on her right cheek with disapproval.

"She's just a peasant," snarled the pink-haired lord who was now agitated by the boy's presence. "Treating her like your equal."

"Be quiet, fool," the boy shot back, glaring at the man behind him from the corner of his eyes. "You had no right to waste her goods." He turned back and bowed to Kairi. "If I can repay the damages-"

"Wait until the king hears about this," the lord threatened.

White light shined in the royal teen's right hand as a silver weapon suddenly appeared dangerously close next the man's neck. The warmth that Kairi thought she saw on the teen's face had instantly evaporated as the stranger stared icily at the now trembling man, who gulped as the teen kept the weapon at his neck.

At the appearance of the weapon, the peasants who had been observing the incident all quickly lowered to their knees, the identity of the stranger confirmed to be that of the prince of Hollow Bastion. Yet, Kairi was much too stunned to realize that her rescuer was actually Prince Roxas d'Tenebrae.

"I could care less if you tell him, Marluxia" the boy said coldly. "But I do not take kindly to words of threat. Be glad that I'm not your king yet or your head would have rolled minutes ago for your lack of respect."

He pulled his weapon away from the man's neck. "Now, get out of here before I take back my generosity."

Lord Marluxia sputtered indignantly at the abrupt dismissal and had almost challenged the boy's authority when the prince almost turned around with the elaborate weapon still in his hands. The pink-haired lord swallowed noticeably and hurried away with his posse of lackeys behind him.

With the creep gone, the prince turned back to Kairi, holding one of her hands and kissing the back of that hand in true gentleman fashion. The red-haired girl blushed at the boy's gesture, still curious at the stranger's identity.

"My apologies for your losses," he said, holding his free hand out towards the red-haired servant who had been silent this entire time. "Axel."

"Your highness," the much taller man took a short step and bowed towards the prince.

"My purse, please." His servant placed a heavy money purse into the boy's outstretched hand.

"Here," the prince smiled, placing the bag into the girl's hand. "I hope this is enough to cover the damages."

No one could mistake just how much money was in the purse. The heaviness of it suggested that there was well over a thousand gil in the small cloth bag, most likely in gold and silver coins compared to the copper and nickel coins that were of the lower denominations. Kairi gaped at the stranger's generosity, unsure if she should open the small drawstring purse to look at the shiny coins that would undoubtedly meet her eyes.

"Th-thank you," she manage to stutter out with a blush. The young prince turned to continue on his way through the town within the city walls when Kairi reached out towards him. "W-wait!" she called. "Who are you?"

The prince turned with a soft smile on his face. "You can call me Roxas."

Disclaimer: Kingdom Hearts and its associated characters and motifs do not belong to me. I only own a copy of the games and this fanfic.

A/N: And yet another fantasy-based fanfic, haha. I guess I'm just more comfortable writing these things. The premise behind this story is drawn from multiple sources, including many "Cinderella" type fanfics that I've read over the years. The entire Council idea is more or less a conglomerate idea based on the Occuria from FFXII and the Guild from Last Exile, and influenced by Kiome-Yasha's "So Much for my Happy Ending".

My main goal with this fanfic is to churn out chapters that aren't too long, which would make regular updating much easier. I'm not certain on how long this story will be just yet, but I have some basic idea where I'm going with this.

In any case, hope you guys enjoyed this start of a new story. Again, questions and comments are more than welcome.