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\ Self-Arranged /
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(1)

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"Alas, my love! You do me wrong!
To cast me out, discourteously!"

The hapless bard plastered on what he thought was a winning smile as he pranced idiotically around the bustling hall for royal favour. Which he really wasn't getting any time soon.

"When I have loved you so long!

"My lovely lady, greensleeves!"

He slyly directed the last line particularly at the Princess Violet, who was wearing a green silk ball gown. She glanced at him briefly before making a noise of disgust and turning back to her conversation with Lord AJ.

Barely stumbling over his royal (and public) put-down, the bard crooned his way over to the regal set of thrones at the head of the hall, upon one of which was sat an incredibly bored looking Princess Regent.

"Ah! Priiiiincess Daisy," he greeted her in a musical tone, "is there anything your ladyship would like me to play for you- er, thee-er, hmm?" Daisy barely lifted her eyes to acknowledge him, and blew listlessly at a curl of golden hair as she stared enviously at her younger sister, wrapped in conversation.

Arranged marriages were such a pain – no young men even bothered to come near you. All these eligible lords, dukes and heirs from the neighbouring country of Pallet had come as part of Queen Delia's entourage, and she could do nothing but watch as two of her younger sisters snapped them all up. Plus it was Mistyi's debutante ball that night…

Great, another shark in the tank…

Daisy sighed and sank lower down the throne. Even if she did have an arranged suitor out there somewhere, how sad it was that all three of her younger sisters had come out into society, and she herself was not married! She wished Lord Brock would get his butt back from whatever random war his country was involved in now. It had been four years since their betrothal, talked about since birth, had become official, and she hadn't seen him since!

Maybe he was dead…

Oh God, now that's depressing. A widow who never even got a wedding or a marriage.

Any further down the chair and she'd be on the floor.

Almost undetected, Princess Lily walked around the side of the hall towards her mother and sister. Undetected, were it not for the extensively petticoat-ed golden gown which sent three courtiers diving out of the way as she tried to run down the aisle.

With a flushed face, and not seeming to notice her mother's disapproving look, Lily threw herself down on her designated seat.

"She's ready," she affirmed, after a moment's silence. The quiet, brunette woman sitting next to Queen Rose clapped her hands together in delight.

"You know you're getting old when your god-daughter debuts!" she smiled. Rose's face twitched.

"Yes, well, Delia, it may be said that you're getting old when all four of your children have debuted." Delia flinched, but the coolness in Rose's voice vanished as she rose from her seat and addressed the hall.

Ash tore a chunk of bread off from the loaf, and lazy shoved half of it into his mouth. He ripped off smaller bits from what was left, and proceeded to flick rolled up pieces of bread at the awful musician, who just wasn't seeming to get the message.

Leaning back on his chair, he stared up at the ornate ceiling, which was painted as a seascape. Since Cerulean bordered the sea and shielded it from Pallet, Ash only got to see it when he was here, and he hadn't been here for a few years now. He used to come all the time when he was younger, but as he grew, so did his list of social activities as the heir to the throne of Pallet. His mother had ruled in his state for the past ten years, and that was how he liked it.

But Ash was seventeen now…

Indolently he flicked the last piece of bread. One more year of freedom. Talk about a ball and chain – his friends complained about becoming tied down to women. He was going to be tied down to every woman in the country of Pallet – plus the men; children; pets; houses; roads; every damn blade of grass.

With no more bread on his plate, he looked around for more entertainment. His god-mother, Queen Rose had been talking about something or other for the past six minutes, and he realised, sweatdropping, that he was the only person in the banquet hall who was not listening intently.

"And so, making her debut in society," Rose finished, her voice trained to be indifferent after the three previous times – Delia on the other hand was sobbing with pride already – "my youngest daughter, the Princess Misty."

The gilded double doors flew open on cue, and after a moment's hesitation, a small figure dressed in blue walked into the light, flanked every side by ladies-in-waiting. Ash caught himself craning his neck to get a look, before abruptly reminding himself that his god-sister was a shapeless tomboy with a violent streak, and instead took the opportunity to snatch some bread off the plate of his neighbour.

As Misty, eyes downcast, neared the thrones, Daisy, Violet and Lily raised to meet her halfway, and the four of them stood, Misty slightly in front of them, before their mother. Rose eyed her youngest daughter, who curtseyed deeply.

"You look lovely," she smiled, and patted the free seat on the other side of her. Misty smiled, and gracefully sat. Her ladies-in-waiting dispersed.

"Thank you mother," she said in a quiet voice. "Your Majesty," she nodded at Delia, "I am pleased to find you well…"

Ash snorted as he watched his mother spoke to Misty. That demure act and bodice gown wasn't fooling anyone.

"Continue," called Queen Rose, for the band to resume playing. Violet and Lily were swept out onto the floor immediately by two very handsome Pallet nobles. Daisy had to settle for her balding and overweight uncle.

"Oh, sweeetie!" called his mother, actually waving at him, sending Ash's ears pink instantaneously. Rolling his eyes, he made his way the short distance to her seat, bowing slightly more for the presence of Rose and Misty, than his own mother.

"Yes, Mama?" he answered without thinking, clenching as he heard Misty try and conceal a giggle.

"Come and talk to me and your god-mother," Delia chided, practically pulling her tall son onto a nearby throne, and heaving it closer for good measure.

Trying not to draw too much attention to herself, Misty gracefully attempted to untangle a lock of her hair that appeared to be caught up in her overly-elaborate earring. She winced as it tugged, but gloated as she managed to free it without anyone seeing—

Drat. He was staring at her. With that maddeningly superior look of his. Even when he was talking to her mother, he still had the gall to stare at somebody else. Misty sniffed and looked out onto the dancefloor. She couldn't believe he still called his mother 'mama' – what was he, three?

Suddenly all thoughts of that annoying prince vanished as her eyes found what she sought on the floor. Amidst the swirl of gowns, she found him leaning up against a pillar. Misty shuddered happily. There he was… all… brooding. There, that was a real man, not like this annoying little boy near her, whose voice kept interrupting her solitude.

Ash faltered as Misty, who had been totally ignoring his presence practically since he sat down, suddenly turned her head and shot a glare of pure venom his way. He blinked in surprise, and when she turned back, he followed her gaze to a particularly arrogant looking man, surrounded by a radius of twittering girls. He rolled his eyes. Ugh. Not Lord Gary of all people, I mean, he didn't particularly like Princess Misty anyway, but Gary was beneath even her. Besides… wasn't he engaged? To one of Misty's cousins?

Misty sighed. She knew he was engaged, to a blood relative none the less… and normally blood would be thicker than water…

But she is a very distant cousin…

As if he sensed he was being watched, Gary glanced up, and somehow, across the long hall, still managed to look Misty penetratingly in the eyes. He smiled, slowly, knowingly.

Misty felt a hot-blush smack her in the face, and hoped to God that she was too far away for him to see it. As she allowed herself a smile back, the ballroom, her mother, the guests, even the annoying little prince vanished – her surroundings totally dissipated into pastel blurs, and she and Lord Gary were the only two people in the world…

She smiled blissfully. It had to be L.O.V.E.

Ash sat, his cheek disfigured from where it was leaning on his palm. His mother and Rose had begun to gossip about the royal family of nearby Indigo, and he was officially bored rigid. He was shaken out of his doze and Misty was shaken from her loving glance by Rose clearing her throat.

"That should be an adequate length of time," she declared, and Misty stared at her, blankly. "Now you must take your first dance," her mother frowned.

"Oh! Sweetie, you must be the first man to dance with her," Delia insisted, like Ash knew she would. Gritting his teeth against the embarrassing silence he expected, as he knew she disliked him as much as he did her, he said nothing, and simply rose, then held his arm out to her. She took it, equally as silent, and he led her off towards the dancing masses.

"That's cute!" Delia smiled, cooing at their backs, "if only things were different…"

"Not at all," Rose said, sharply. "The unions with Indigo are needed, and besides, they both know each other far too well to enter into any marriage!"

Ash waited for the music to change, and smiled with relief when it did. The opening chords told him that it was an old folk dance, with little couple-contact. As their bodies seemed to perform the well-known dance independently, Ash allowed his mind to wander. He had no guilt in doing so for it was perfectly clear that Misty (craning her neck to catch a glimpse of the still brooding and non-participating Lord Gary) seemed not to even remember he was there.

Two more nights --- that's two more banquets here in Cerulean before he and the whole entourage could return home to Pallet. Thankfully none of the remaining banquets would be quite as drawn-out as this debutante ball; Cerulean's Royal Family had always been stuck on tradition more so than any other of the eastern countries.

And it was a pain.

"Pay attention!" Misty hissed as her bungling partner missed a sidestep. She had a great deal of love and respect for Queen Delia, but honestly! What had her son been learning the past seventeen years!? It would be a wonder if he could read in ENGLISH let alone another language, such as Latin or French, like she could.

Feeling pride in herself, Misty smiled, and executed a perfect pirouette on the ending chord of the song. She watched as Ash waited patiently for the next song to begin, and begrudged him the fact that he did have good social manners, and knew to wait a certain number of dances.

She was surely the most graceful and learned of all her sisters, and tonight was her night… Surely it wouldn't be long until there was a hoard of marriage proposals… which she would pick through until she found the one from…him… Again, she shuddered happily. Lord Gary and Lady Misty… or would she keep the title of princess? He wouldn't become a prince though… Shrugging off the minor details, Misty began to name their children.

This second song was slightly slower, involving a lot more couple-contact. Princess Misty had a dreamy look on her face, and every so often, she seemed to shake as she sighed in his arms, and was worrying Ash slightly.

"A-are you okay? Are you tired?" he asked. She blinked and looked up at him, noting that this was one of the first times he had spoken directly to her without being asked for five years, and that his voice was considerably deeper than she remembered. She smiled easily.

"I'm okay, I'm just…happy." She smiled as Ash raised his eyebrows quizzically.

"Oh," was all he said, as he spun her around. Spurred on by the lack of tension, Misty tried to start a conversation.

"Why, aren't you happy, Prince Ash?" she smiled, as the pair started to promenade.

"Sure, I'm happy," he answered awkwardly, clearly uncomfortable with the topic. "Hey, nice dress," he tried, weakly.

"Oh, you like it?" she asked, looking down herself at the folds of cornflower silk that spiralled around her hidden, slender legs.

"Yeah, it's great. You… fit it… well…"

"Um. Thank you very much." As the second song came to an end, the pair found themselves smiling at each other, naturally.

Maybe she's not so bad after all…

Misty's smiled expanded as she saw something over Ash's broad shoulder. Someone tapped the same shoulder, and Ash felt chills run down his spine.

"Do you mind if I take the princess for the next dance?" came a familiar voice, and Ash directed a filthy glare at the shorter form of Lord Gary. Part of him wanted to say no, and usher her back to their mothers where she'd be safe, but from the sparkly look in her eyes, and the explaining he'd have to do, he had no choice.

"Not at all," he said, through gritted teeth, lifting his arm up, which hand was holding hers limply. He transferred her petite hand into the larger one of Gary's, and stalked off the floor towards the tables, accidentally ignoring two of three admiring ladies-in-waiting who had been hanging around trying to be noticed by him.

Sitting down in his chair, he found himself keeping a watchful eye on the dancing couple. Watching the princess laugh, talk and dance much more easily than she had with him, he rolled his eyes.

Stupid little girl. And with that, he put her straight out of his mind.

/~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~\

Ash flicked the water off his fingers irritably, and motioned for the servant girl to leave. She bowed slightly and did so. He guessed that she was a new member of his mother's entourage, and in time he would get to know her, and of course once he was in a better mood he would be a lot more polite…

But the lack of a certain lady-in-waiting still stung.

Crawling between the heavy sheets of the unfamiliar four-post bed, Ash placed his hands behind his head and smiled, conjuring up an image of her in his mind's eye. She was the daughter of a courtier, younger than him, and had become one of his mother's ladies-in-waiting almost a year ago.

Ash raked his hand through his own spiky, black mop, thinking of her long, amethyst hair, always arranged so that it looked tantalisingly ready to come loose at any moment. When Ash had to travel, his mother always sent her as his companion, due to her spirited nature. When he was in a strange castle, she was the one to bring him his washing water, set out his clothes, and help him… get ready for bed…

In fact, thought Ash, frowning as he turned on his side abruptly, the reason Casey hadn't been brought along on this trip was probably due to the fact that many a courtier knew how much Ash enjoyed being undressed by her.

He knew it shouldn't and probably couldn't be done, but he was going to try everything and anything to be able to claim Casey as his bride, and as his Queen.

Doesn't true love conquer all, or something like that?

/~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~\

In an almost trance-like state, Misty stared at her reflection in the mirror as one of her ladies rhythmically brushed out her long, red hair.

"You looked beautiful tonight!" chirruped Duplica as she separated out another handful to brush.

"Thank you," Misty beamed, fiddling with items on her vanity table. Duplica began to quickly twist her hair into a loose plait.

"Lord Gary danced with you for hours!" she teased, in a genuinely pleased tone. Misty squeaked with happiness.

"I know!" she grinned, as Duplica secured the plait with a ribbon.

"Lucky you, you got to dance with the two handsomest men there!" Duplica sighed, replacing the hairbrush on the vanity table as Misty stood up.

"Two? Wh- oh, Duplica, you mean Ash?" she asked incredulously. Duplica blushed, and played with a lock of her hair coyly. "Oh no, Duplica!" Misty made a face. "The three of us played together as children! You know how we…" she grimaced, "disagree…" Duplica smiled.

"That doesn't detract from the fact that he is very pleasing to look at!" she winked, and Misty laughed as she moved towards her bed.

"Goodnight!"

The room fell silent as Duplica left the room. She extinguished the candles before leaving, and the room seemed to slowly slink into darkness. Misty readjusted her head's position on the pillow and sighed again, blissfully.

She had heard of Gary, but never met him until he was brought to the palace as a favourite of her cousin almost a year ago. He had sat opposite her during a quiet, family banquet, and every time his glance had swept over her, Misty felt actual convulsions.

He had treated her like a lady already out in society, much to the chagrin of her mother. Lily had recently had her debutante ball, and Misty had already been feeling left out and lonely whenever there was a social occasion (and there had been several).

Lord Gary had been quiet, yet flattering and polite when he did speak, letting her enraptured cousin recount all of his successes and qualities. As he left, he had kissed Misty's hand, she was convinced, for a great deal longer than he did her sisters'. Now after a year, her girlish crush had matured into something far, far deeper.

She knew she shouldn't and probably couldn't physically steal her cousin's future husband away from her, but she was going to try everything and anything to be able to have Lord Gary as her doting husband.

After all, Misty drowsily thought, as she fell to sleep with a smile on her face - true love conquers all.

/~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~\

After the excitement of the debutante ball the previous night, the contrast of the relatively quiet 'family' banquet was greeted with relief by some guests, and with distain by others. Misty was sick over the fact that Lord Gary had evidentially only come for her ball and not to stay as a guest, as she had not bumped in to him in the castle corridors that morning (even though she had walked down every corridor twice to check).

Ash was tired, psychologically and physically. His mental countdown until he could return home to Pallet and Casey kept ticking away, giving him strength to endure the tedium.

There was a general clearing of throats as both Queens got to their feet, Delia slightly behind Rose, still with a mouthful of chicken. Rose scanned the table for her youngest daughter, and smiled.

"My youngest daughter, Misty, became eligible for marriage yesterday," she began.

"And my son, Ash, has been eligible for two months," Delia added, smiling lovingly at her 'little boy'.

Two sets of jaws hit the table instantaneously. Ash turned his head to look at Misty, who was glaring at him with more venom than he thought even she could muster. Misty felt like her heart had stopped. Surely her mother would never do such a thing as to… surely she would never…

I am not marrying that, Ash thought furiously, as he openly gaped at his mother.

"I am hereby announcing my desire for the Princess to marry-" Rose continued; Misty's grip on her goblet tightened, and a small hairline crack slithered down one side, "-the honourable Prince-" Ash felt slightly nauseous; "-Richard, of the Hiroshi region," Rose finished, and the rapturous applause covered up Ash's exclamation of relief.

Misty sat, stunned. Prince Richie…? She'd heard good things about him, but had never met him… but, she thought, glaring vituperatively at the now jovial looking Ash, I guess that he would be better than marriage to that joke.

But… what would become of her and Lord Gary? Misty whipped out her handkerchief and delicately patted her eyes, unwittingly playing up to her expected role as the overwhelmed and grateful young princess.

"And my son," Delia, when the noise had died down, sending the bile straight back up Ash's throat, "has been accepted by Prince Richard's older sister, Princess Giselle." There was yet more rapturous applause, and Misty smirked at Ash's totally stunned face. Evidentially, he was as fond of the thought of his impending marriage as she was of her own.

Nodding almost mechanically as a few people sat next to her gave her their congratulations, Misty looked past the glowering Violet and Lily to where her mother and godmother were talking and laughing together. She felt numb. Survival instincts were taking over her royal sense of duty, and she almost winded by her desire to do everything and anything she could to stop this marriage.

She stared at her mother and Queen Delia, and then shifted her gaze to Ash, who was glowering childishly into his food, stabbing his meat with his knife and totally ignoring anyone who attempted to wish him congratulations.

Maybe she shouldn't try and manipulate her mother into changing her mind… go against her wishes… but there was… one way…