No one had actually explicitly asked her, but as the special day drew nearer, she knew that everyone – her adopted people, her adopted family, and her adopted Court – was waiting to see what the young princess would do in honor of her husband, His Royal Highness’s 20th birthday – the young princess included.
Mere months before the spectacular, she had been informed by Her Majesty, the Queen Consort, that she would be the one supervising and planning all and any celebrations for that day and that she must not disappoint in her capacity as his wife, lest she ruin the monarchy’s right to the throne. So, for the past few months, the young wife had fretted as she faced the incredible amount of work that was demanded of her. Thankfully her husband wasn’t the crown prince, so the celebrations had to be neither particularly long or elaborate, but there were still standards to uphold so as to show off the royal family’s strength and wealth, and she found herself gradually losing sleep over her newfound duty. So increasingly worried did she become that she was soon bedridden again – news that her husband was extremely displeased to receive.
“It’s only a birthday.” Seated on their bed – they had agreed that she would sleep in his bed at least until the winter passed – he reached for her hand. “I’ve had 19 before and 19 more after. You mustn’t burden yourself with so much pointless work. You’ve already made yourself sick. What will happen if you keep treating your body so ill? You don’t always have to obey Her Majesty, the Queen Consort.”
Coughing, she shivered, and he brought her blanket closer. Smiling in gratitude, she patted his hands. “It’s the first task I’ve been given. I’d like to do well for my mother’s sake. And for our sake as well.”
There were still those who resented her, she knew. They were scattered here and there, but they were still there, some amongst the nobility, some amongst the common man, and as more time passed and she began to settle more into her role as a princess of this land and as his wife, she grew more and more uncomfortable with her people’s hatred. She understood that it was nearly impossible to be loved by all, but to be hated for no other reason than because she was considered a foreigner upset her. They could hate her for all she cared so long as she had done something worthy of such treatment. But not now. Not for this.
Her husband grimaced, and she saw how worried he was as he sighed. Squeezing his hand, she smiled at him as he dolefully looked at her before sighing a second time.
“Then you must at least promise me that you won’t worry yourself sick again. Or at least tell me if something is wrong before it becomes uncontrollable. I hate when this happens. I can’t bring myself to focus on anything.”
“I promise,” she said softly. “But it’s really not my fault that you can’t focus.”
He cracked a smile at her poke, but he had yet to let the issue go. That enough was evident, for once she had regained her health, His Royal Highness had taken it upon himself to take her far and away from the stress of planning daily. Their walks would now last triple than they usually had, or they would sometimes bring the buggy out and go for a private drive in the woods of the royal grounds. Eventually, he would hand her the reins once they were deep enough in the forest not to stir up any scandal for inappropriate, unladylike behavior – after, of course, he had taught her how to drive. That had always served well in relieving any anxiety she might have been feeling at the moment. Not to mention how amusing it was to see her husband hold onto his hat as he clutched onto something for dear life – usually her arm.
And so, the months marched on by and the planning went smoothly save for one last little detail: the matter of her present. Admittedly she had been pushing it off as she had had to oversee the menu for that day of non-stop feasting and snacking, as well as the ball and the politics of, and not to mention what she would mandate for the peasants’ celebration (fireworks, feasts, and dancing – just on a less extravagant scale), but finally, she had but two weeks left to decide.
She tried her best not to panic. Even if she wasn’t quite sure what was an appropriate gift would be – it wasn’t easy like jewels or some sort that a man would usually give his wife – or had some idea of the things he liked but couldn’t see why it would be special in any way, she had tried to keep her promise and not let it get to her too much. All the same, she found herself wide awake deep into most nights as her husband lay fast asleep beside her. Sometimes it got so bad she would get out of bed and call for a pot of chocolate. It wasn’t until her husband woke up five times to a gleaming pot in the morning that he finally told her that he could cancel the entire extravaganza if she so desired.
It had somewhat hurt her feelings that he would so much as consider such a solution – not that she didn’t understand that he had meant it out of the goodness of his heart and because he wanted to help her – but she had already put so much work and effort into this… Even if she wasn’t quite sure if Her Majesty would agree to all that she had planned, or the aristocrats, or the subjects, or even her husband, she had still put in a great deal of time and energy into the planning and preparation for that one day, and quite frankly, she would rather spend the days leading up to the big day in the company of the Queen Consort than demand that all of the plans be cancelled.
She just needed to figure out what to get him was all. But what could she possibly give him that was unique in such a short amount of time? What could she possibly do for him?
It wasn’t until one late afternoon when she was having tea with her sister-in-law that she realized her answer.
“Will there be cuisine from your country? I’ve heard that it can be quite sumptuous – richer than anything that we usually dine on here.”
“Her Majesty requested that the day was wholly loyal.”
The princess pouted. “Oh, well that’s such a pity. You see, my brother has quite the sweet tooth. I’m sure he would have liked to sample some of your desserts.”
Sweet tooth? Ah… Now that she did mention it, he always did seem to eat foods more on the sugary side. Perhaps it was because he was just so thin that it had slipped her mind, but yes… He did like sweets, didn’t he? Perhaps he would like the ones from her native country then. God knew how many they had.
So the princess had set out to provide these sweet treats. Deciding on the croquembouche – a personal favorite reminiscent of her childhood and home – she set about her final task, determined to present to him not only a dessert that would agree with his palate and guilty pleasure but present to him a dessert baked by her own hand. No servant would be making the pastries. She herself would; what else could be more unique than that?
In all honesty, she had never really baked before, but it didn’t seem too difficult. And truly, it wasn’t. Of course, she had had to practice on several occasions, and the royal cook had had to personally aid her, but as the days passed and she spent more time in the kitchens, her baking improved until she saw a glimmer of hope for realizing her dream. The only major issue had been that of the Queen Consort; upon receiving the news of her plans, she had been furious. Sending a lady-in-waiting to collect her, Her Majesty had silently seethed until they had been sequestered in the privacy of her apartments before reprimanding her and lecturing her, demanding to know why she had so blatantly disobeyed her directive. But of course, what else could she expect? With her people’s unprincipled, immoral ways, what else could be expected from the princess of said unscruples?
The princess had kept quiet all throughout the two-hour long lecture, but once she had been released, she returned not to the kitchen, not to her own apartments, but to one of the enormous drawing rooms where her husband sat in the company of various other dignitaries and ambassadors. Not even bothering to send in one of her hands, she politely knocked on the door before entering and giving a short curtsy. She tried to smile and put on a show, but she still must have looked as terrible as she felt – or he could at least sense that something was wrong – as he had excused himself quickly before joining her outside, where he had walked her to their quarters.
Once he had closed the doors behind them, she had stood in the parlor, stiff and tense, before turning back and saying, “…You said to come to you if there was anything…”
She closed her eyes as he slowly bent down to envelope her in his sympathy. Wrapping her arms around him, she buried her face in his chest; she would have liked the feeling more if she didn’t feel so upset. It was a wonderful feeling unlike any other being embraced by him. There was just something about the sensation that immediately comforted her in a way that no words ever could.
“My greatest apologies.”
“…I ought to let you return to them. I shouldn’t have interrupted you.”
“This is more important,” he replied. “And that was also extremely boring. I was hoping to be saved, though I wish it had been by something more pleasant. But it still can be. Would you like to go for a walk in the gardens?”
“But what of the diplomats?”
“I asked to meet another time to finish our conversation. It might not seem important, but I would very much like to know the name of the lake that the Ambassador of Egypt likes to fish in. Apparently there’s a unique ampleness of tilapia where he goes, and it has always been one of my greatest dreams to trap a tilapia.”
She couldn’t help but smile at the thought of the Ambassador of Egypt, in all his silks, sitting on a riverbank as he waited all day for a tilapia nibble.
“What say you of the walk? Does that appeal to you?”
She shook her head. She was exhausted; for the past week or so, she had been forcing her body to do all sorts of things she had never done before. Baking required much more physical exertion than appeared; all she really wanted to do was sleep now that the excitement of the day had waned.
“Will you read to me instead? I think I’d like to retire to bed.”
“What of supper?”
Strangely enough she wasn’t feeling particularly hungry either even if it had been several hours since she had last eaten. It must have shown on her face because he asked her if she would at least have a collation. “You mustn’t forego meals.”
She had relented, and they had had tea together in the privacy of their apartments, which she had enjoyed thoroughly. Even if she hadn’t quite been able to forget the words of the Queen Consort, she was glad she had taken him up on his suggestion; he had eventually asked her what was bothering her, which she had reluctantly answered. Visibly upset, he had been extremely indignant.
“You mustn’t heed her. I think you’re quite wonderful for all that you do.”
“I believe I’ll have to find an alternative, however.” She sighed. “I’ve agitated Her Majesty twice already. I don’t know if it would be so worth a third.”
“If she says anything more, then you can tell her that I am in full support of whatever decisions you make. She’s the one who invested the power in you, was it not?”
So she had carried on with her original gift, carefully learning and improving until it was finally the day of her husband’s birthday. Dressed in a rich gown specifically commissioned for the special occasion, she had lowered herself into the depths of the kitchen early in the morning and set about baking. Surprisingly, all had been going well until the Queen Consort’s favorite, the Duchess of Canterbury, had arrived with the message that “Her Majesty, the Queen, has mandated that all recipes of foreign origin to be immediately disposed of as they do not agree with the preordained prescription.”
The princess watched, horrified, as two men from behind the Duchess reached for the platter of pastries and moved towards the roaring fire. Her eyes wide, she felt herself on the verge of tears as she could only watch as the Queen’s will was carried out before her. What could she do? She had already disobeyed her twice now – two too many times at that. If she dared step out of line again, who knew what the Queen would do to her next?
As she stood by, she tried her best not to cry. She wouldn’t allow the Duchess that satisfaction. Nor would she lower herself to such disgrace; crying in front of the servants! What kind of a princess wept so openly in front of complete strangers? Still, it was a struggle not to. Watching them brown from their perfect gold to a dark, dark brown to a hard black, she thought of all the hours she had spent down here in the kitchen, learning and baking, and baking, and then baking some more if only to get it perfect.
She looked up when there was sudden silence throughout the rooms. The servants had stopped rushing about in preparation for the day of feasting and had all knelt to the ground. Even the Duchess of Canterbury had lowered herself in all her pompous pride. Confused, she turned to see her grandfather and husband standing at the bottom of the stairwell.
“I came on this glorious day to see if I could steal a taste of the brilliant and thoughtful gift that my granddaughter prepared for her husband, but what do I find here instead? Treacherous treason, no doubt?”
“Your Majesty, if I may be so insolent to speak, Her Majesty, the Queen Consort, asked that I, her humble servant-”
“Yes, you’re quite insolent to speak without being addressed,” interrupted the King. “Was it not the proper etiquette to wait until spoken to in order of rank? That is correct, is it not, my child?”
The young woman looked up to find that the King was speaking to her. Lowering her eyes, she quietly replied affirmatively.
“Then since it seems you have enjoyed the role of playing messenger, Duchess, you may tell my wife – the Consort of this nation – who holds no real power that my granddaughter, a member of this family, may serve to her husband whatever she pleases and that should she attempt to interfere in the happiness of these two children, I will ensure that she will have much more to worry about than mere foreign pastries. You may take your leave.”
The Duchess, face white with anger, stiffly curtsied before storming out of the kitchens. Once her shadow had cleared the room, the King clapped his hands. “Best to be getting on with the cooking. I hear the menu for today is quite delicious due to a wonderful planner.”
The gears slowly starting to turn again, the cooks resumed their frantic pace. The King smiled before patting his grandson on the shoulder and whispering something into his ear. Smiling kindly at her, he blinked slowly as if to tell her that she was safe before turning and hobbling out of the kitchen, leaving the two alone.
“The guests are waiting to be presented to you,” she said. Her voice was nearly lost over the din, and he stepped closer.
“I’m aware, but I’m afraid I have much more pressing matters at hand down here.” He reached for one of the few pastries that had survived. “I’ve been hearing about the scandal that these have caused for the past few weeks. They ought to be heavenly if Her Majesty fussed over them with such tremendous effort as she did.”
She nervously watched him as he took a bite and chewed. Wringing her hands together, she stared, not so much as daring to blink in case she missed some shadow of disgust crossing his face. But none appeared as he finished the first one and then the second and then the third, fourth, and fifth puff. In fact, he didn’t say anything at all as he ate all of them save for one.
“I must admit, I’m quite jealous that you were able to grow up with a wealth of this dessert. It’s the most delicious–”
So thrilled was she that the moment the word “delicious” left his lips, she reached and lightly kissed him. Not on the cheek as he had once or twice before, but on the lips and tasted the caramel of the croquembouche, surprising them both and inspiring a state of speechlessness. The princess stared, shocked by her own forwardness. Her husband only cleared his throat as the tips of his ears slowly turned red.
“Um… Well. Would you like the last one?”
When she had swallowed the small bite she had taken, she frowned. “It’s terrible.”
“Really? I thought them quite good.”
“Perhaps your kindness made them much sweeter and softer than they actually are.”
“I truly did think they were delicious,” he insisted. “All the more so because you made them for me. I don’t know how I can thank you for all of this. Not just for your wonderful gift, but for this entire day. I don’t see how it could have been what it is without you.”
Unable to meet his eyes – how eloquent and well-spoken her husband was – she ducked her head as she told him that he didn’t have to be so excessive in his compliments. But he could tell it pleased her anyway, and he smiled at her, happy to see that all trace of her tears had vanished.
“May I have the honor of your companionship for the remainder of the festivities?”
And as she took his arm, he couldn’t help but smile. It had been a somewhat poor start to the day – she had nearly cried after all, and that had broken his heart – but it had gotten better immediately after. He had even kissed her for God’s sake. That had been absolutely fantastic; Heaven knew how long he’d been wanting to do that.
What a beautiful birthday it was turning out to be. He could scarcely wait to see what else his lovely wife had prepared for him and what other smiles he would see from her today.