Summary: It’s the day of the art festival, with both tragedies and fond memories.
Notes: I used some of the original PB dialogue and bedazzled it a bit.
CW: references to terrorist attacks
New to the series? Catch up here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8, Part 9, Part 10, Part 11, Part 12, Part 13, Part 14, Part 15, Part 16, Part 17, Part 18, Part 19, Part 20, Part 21, Part 22, Part 23, Part 24, Part 25, Part 26, Part 27, Part 28, Part 29, Part 30, Part 31, Part 32, Part 33, Part 34, Part 35, Part 36, Part 37, Part 38, Part 39, Part 40, Part 41, Part 42, Part 43, Part 44, Part 45, Part 46
The following morning, Bastien kissed Alice goodbye on his way out the door for a meeting with the security team and, after she finished getting ready, Alice headed downstairs in search of Hana. Instead, she found Hakim talking to a pale and very panicked Francesco.
“Calm down, Francesco,” Hakim said soothingly. “Breathe.”
“Is everything okay?” Alice asked as she hurried down the last few stairs. “Should I call a doctor?”
“Non, grazie, bella,” Francesco said. “I’ll be alright. But…Hakim…”
“Just tell us what happened,” Hakim said, looking more and more nervous by the second. Francesco took a shaky breath and ran a hand through his hair.
“I went for a walk to the gallery, to make sure everything was ready for today, but…there’s been a terrible disaster,” Francesco said, his face pained.
“Is everything alright?” Liam asked. “I heard voices from the hall…”
“The gallery,” Francesco said. “The whole floor has been completely flooded—and it was no accident.”
“You think it was sabotage?” Hakim asked in disbelief. “But who would do something like that?”
“Liam, you don’t think the attackers…” Alice said slowly, turning to look at him.
“I don’t know,” he said. “This does seem like the sort of event they’d target, but their actions have been more drastic in the past. However, if they saw this event as a rallying point for the people, that might be all the motivation they’d need to ruin the party.” He pulled out his phone. “Excuse me, I’ll call Bastien and have the Royal Guard secure the area at once.”
As Liam stepped away, Francesco turned back to Hakim. “In the meantime, we must cancel the festival. The artwork wasn’t damaged, but the flooding is extensive and will be impossible to repair in time.”
Hakim sighed. “I hate to say it, but you’re right. “If we went through with it, everyone would know about the sabotage and Cordonia would look weak and divided.” He turned and began to pace across the rug. “There are representatives from over a dozen different countries here. I promised them a chance to showcase their work, but I suppose I’ll have to let them down.”
“There has to be another solution,” Alice said.
“Unfortunately, I can’t see one,” Francesco said. “The flooding is so extensive…”
“Just…don’t cancel anything yet,” Alice said. “I’ll be right back.”
She hurried out of the room, pulling her phone from her pocket.
“Hey, aren’t you supposed to be getting ready for some big art thing today?” Frankie asked when she answered the phone.
“Yes, but everything is falling apart,” Alice said. “There was another attack.”
“From that terrorist group? Are you okay?” Frankie asked, immediately concerned.
“I’m freaking out. Someone flooded the gallery and they’re going to cancel the festival and this is my one shot to get Kiara’s parents to come to Liam and Olivia’s wedding so Cordonia will still look united and—“
“Alice fucking Ayers, are you physically okay?” Frankie demanded.
“Yes, I’m fine.”
“Is Bastien okay?”
“Yes, no one was hurt.”
“How much of the artwork was damaged?”
“So then why the fuck are you panicking right now?”
“Because they’re going to cancel the festival, and Cordonia will look weak from another attack and—“
“Why don’t you just chill the fuck out and pretend the water is part of the festival experience?”
“Wait, what?” Alice asked.
“As long as it’s freshwater and not a backed up sewer, it’ll be fine. You said there was recently a flood in Penelope’s duchy, right? Just give everyone galoshes and tell them it’s an interactive piece designed to bring awareness to Cordonians in need or some shit. They’ll love it.”
Alice froze, completely dumbstruck. “How did I not think of that?”
“Because you’re pushing yourself too hard and can’t think clearly. Are you sleeping any better?”
“It’s not like I’m waking up a lot—Bas swears I sleep like the dead—but I feel like I need a full day or a week of nothing but sleep. It’s like I can’t catch up.”
“Well, that’s called a coma, so please don’t do that,” Frankie said. “Okay, here’s what you are going to do. You’re going to get off the phone with me. Then you’re going to take a deep breath. Then you’re going to go in there and tell them about the galoshes idea and take all the credit for the idea. In doing so, you’ll convince that Italian guy that’s in love with you to let Cordonia into the super fancy art club, which in turn will convince Hakim to go to Liam and Olivia’s wedding. Then you are going to go to bed early and get some fucking rest because I am not flying to the other side of the goddamn world just so you can nap the whole time I’m there.”
“Speaking of you visiting…I hope your plane tickets are refundable because once Liam found out you were coming, he insisted on sending one of his private planes for you and Seth.”
“SHUT. THE FUCK. UP.”
“Thanks for the help, Frankie.”
“Do not implode before I get there, I’m going to be pissed if you dissolve into a puddle and I don’t get to ride on a private jet.”
“I love you, too.”
Alice hung up the phone and took a deep breath, as instructed. Then she headed back into the room where Francesco and Hakim were still talking dejectedly about the festival, rejoined by Liam with the addition of Maxwell.
“We don’t have to cancel,” Alice announced.
“Alice, I love your enthusiasm, but it’s like I said, the flooding is too extensive,” Francesco said.
“That’s why we’re going to make the flood into an art installation,” Alice said. “We’ll say it’s an interactive piece to raise awareness for the flooding in Portavira. If they think it’s for a good cause, they won’t mind the unusual nature of the gallery and it might actually inspire people to help those who are still in need due to the flood.”
“You are a genius!” Maxwell exclaimed as he ran over and hugged her. “I can spread the word on social media! Immersive new installation, blah blah blah, one-time-only event!”
“Exactly,” Alice said with a grin. “The more exclusive it sounds, the better.”
“We just need a trend-worthy hashtag,” Maxwell said as he drifted away into thought. “#WaterUnderthBridge? No…#TotalEclipseoftheArt? #ArtAttack?” Everyone else stared at him. “I’ll keep working on it.”
“Wait a minute, how are people going to walk through this?” Francesco asked. “I can’t imagine anyone wants to wade through water and ruin their shoes just for the sake of an art installation.”
“Easy, we’ll find some galoshes for everyone,” Alice said. “Depending on how many we find, we can send people through in smaller groups; it’ll add to the exclusivity of the event. We’ll just say it’s all part of the experience, which their king and his fiancee will be attending,” she added, glancing over at Liam, who was smiling broadly.
“It’s an unusual plan…ma in tutta onesta, your enthusiasm is infectious,” Francesco said, a smile beginning to form as he looked at Alice.
“Alice, I have to ask…why are you doing all this to help? You have no stake in this gallery the way Francesco and I do,” Hakim said.
“Because it’s the right thing to do,” Alice said. “Plus, as a very wise person once told me, finding a way to continue to live your life after enduring an attack is the only way to keep from being defined by the anger of other people.”
Hakim regarded her for a moment before he nodded approvingly. “I believe that same wise person said that exact thing to my daughter yesterday. Okay, let’s do it. Perhaps we can salvage this mess after all.”
A few hours later, Hana finally located Alice in a hallway.
“There you are! I’ve been looking everywhere for you,” Hana said.
“Sorry, I’ve been helping get everything in the gallery ready for the festival,” Alice said.
“I heard about your idea, I think it’s brilliant!” Hana said.
“Thanks, but in all honesty, it’s Frankie’s idea,” Alice said. “I called her in a panic after I heard about the flood and she came up with it and told me to take credit for it with Francesco and Hakim.”
“She’s fantastic,” Hana said. “She’s coming to Valtoria, right?”
“Yeah, I can’t wait. But you said you were looking for me?”
“Yes, right,” Hana said. “It’s almost time for the festival and you have to get dressed.”
Alice looked down at her waterlogged jeans. “I’m guessing this isn’t quite the right look.”
“No, but I have the perfect thing for you.”
Hana led Alice to her room and pulled out a garment bag, unzipping it to reveal an artistically color blocked dress of blue, and yellow.
“Ta da!” Hana said proudly.
“Wow, this is so cool!” Alice exclaimed.
“Oh, I’m so glad you like it, I was worried you wouldn’t because it’s not black,” Hana said, visibly relieved. “I was inspired by some modern art paintings and I thought that might impress Joelle.”
“First of all, I wear colors other than black all the time,” Alice said. Hana opened her mouth to say something but Alice powered forward before she could speak. “Yes, it’s not always by choice, but I still do it. And second of all…you were inspired? Did you make this?”
“I had help,” Hana said modestly. “I sketched up the design last night and when I ran into town this morning to find a fabric store, one of the seamstresses helped me execute it.”
Alice just stared at her. “You made me a dress. In one day.”
“I designed it last night, so not really.”
“You’re ridiculous and I’m already obsessed with this dress. Thank you, Hana, I can’t tell you how much it means to me that you did this.”
“It’s nothing,” Hana said, but she couldn’t hide the smile on her face. “Here, try it on.”
Alice quickly pulled off her wet clothes and stepped into the dress, which fit perfectly.
“Yay!” Hana said, clapping her hands together. “Okay, now take it off and go shower before you put it back on.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Alice said with a salute.
Later, Alice and Bastien arrived at the gallery to find the space already filled with nobles, tourists, and local citizens. Each attendee wore a pair of rain boots as they waded through the five inches of water that still remained on the floor of the gallery. Alice and Bastien traded their shoes for their own pairs of boots and headed over to join Liam and the rest of their friends.
“The dress looks even better than before!” Hana said happily when she saw Alice.
“It helps when I’ve showered and I’m not a sweaty mess from being a member of the custodial crew,” Alice said with a grin.
“You’d look gorgeous anyway,” Bastien said. “Hana, I still can’t believe what an incredible dressmaker you are.”
“You made that?” Drake asked, impressed.
“Hana is basically a Disney princess,” Maxwell said.
“I’m…very impressed, actually,” Olivia said. “Remind me later to talk to you about customizing some gowns.”
“Exactly how many knives do you want to be able to hide in a single dress?” Hana asked knowingly.
“How many is a few?”
“Liv, I think it’s time,” Liam said as he touched her elbow.
“Oh, of course,” Olivia said before looking back at Hana. “We’ll talk.”
“How many knives do you think she’s planning on hiding?” Drake asked.
“I think it’s like when you go to a really fancy store and don’t see any price tags,” Alice said. “If you have to ask, the number is too high for you.”
Liam raised his hand to get the crowd’s attention and one by one, the onlookers fell silent.
“Good afternoon, everyone,” Liam said as he smiled genially at the room. “Duchess Olivia and I would like to extend our thanks to our hosts as well as all of you for coming to partake of the finest art Cordonia and her friends have to offer. By now, I’m sure you’ve all noticed the largest installation.” He lifted up one rain-booted foot and set it down with a gentle splash. A few visitors chuckled and Liam glanced encouragingly at Olivia.
“This interactive exhibit, named ‘Portavira’, was created an artist who asked to remain anonymous,” Olivia said. There were a few intrigued murmurs from the crowd and Alice spotted Francesco among them, watching the guests’ reactions intently. “We hope you’ll spend some time thinking about it throughout your stay. And above all else, please enjoy the show.”
The crowd began to clap enthusiastically, Francesco included, and the guests began to disperse to view the paintings.
“This seems to be going pretty well,” Alice said hopefully.
“More than just pretty well,” Bastien said as he put his arm around her waist. “I think it’s safe to say you saved the day.”
“Frankie did,” Alice corrected him.
“Yes, but even though you were panicking, you had the presence of mind to call her and find a solution,” Bastien pointed out. “Everyone else was ready to give up.”
“What now?” Maxwell asked.
“I guess we just…relax? Enjoy the art?” Alice asked. “It feels weird to just stand still for a minute after going a hundred miles an hour all day.”
“Yes, go do that,” Bastien said, urging her forward. “I’ll catch up with you.”
Maxwell held out his arm and led Alice to study a colorful modern painting on the other side of the gallery. As soon as he was sure Alice was out of earshot, Bastien turned to Alice.
“Did you get a chance to talk to Olivia?”
“Yes, and she’s in,” Hana said. “Between the costume gala and our trip to Lythikos, her time will be limited, but we should still be able to make it happen.”
“And the other thing?”
“Don’t worry, I’ve got it under control.”
“Am I missing something or is it just a bunch of shapes?” Drake asked as he walked over to join Maxwell and Alice with Liam in tow.
“That’s part of its charm,” Liam said. “It’s bold, hard to categorize…it takes real courage to create a piece like that.”
“Forget who made it or why. This stuff’s about using your imagination!” Maxwell said. “It’s like cloud watching. Is that a dude’s arm or a plane wing? You decide!”
“I’m with Liam,” Alice said. “I’m more interested in the creativity behind it.”
“To each their own, I guess,” Drake said.
“I have to respect whoever made it,” Alice said as she continued to examine the painting. “As simple as modern paintings might look, the abstract styles the hardest to master.”
“Alice, have you been holding out on us? Are you actually a secret painter?” Liam asked.
“Hardly,” Alice said. “But while I was working on my degree, I studied a lot of the masters of these styles and it’s fascinating the amount of work that goes into them. For example, take Jackson Pollock.”
“The splatter guy?” Drake asked.
“Yes, but he’s so much more of that. His painting style was aggressive and innovative and allowed for his work to be examined from all angles, instead of just one. He drew a lot of inspiration from indigenous cultures and he once described his abstraction as an attempt to evoke the rhythmic energy of nature.”
“Huh. That actually kind of makes sense,” Drake said. Alice gasped and dramatically grabbed for her imaginary pearls.
“Did I just get Drake Walker to appreciate…fancy art?” Alice asked.
“Okay, this doesn’t need to be a thing,” Drake said. “You’re making me regret I said anything.”
“Next thing you know, he’ll admit to loving tiny food at parties full of nobles,” Liam teased.
“You guys are the worst,” Drake said.
“Aw, I’m sorry, I don’t mean to give you a hard time,” Alice said as she put an arm around Drake to hug him.
“Yes, you do,” Drake said.
“Alright, fine, I do, but it’s only because we love you,” Alice said.
“Are you picking on Drake again?” Bastien asked as he and Hana joined the group.
“No,” Alice said at the same time Drake replied.
“Yes,” Drake said.
“You know, I always liked splatter paintings,” Maxwell said thoughtfully. “It would’ve been nice to have some around when we were kids. We had a lot of big oil paintings all over the house instead, but our parents had to move them all to the study after the Great Ketchup Incident of ’96.”
“What did you do?” Hana asked as Bertrand walked over to them.
“Well, when I was a kid, I was messing around in the dining room and…let’s just say some Rembrandts are a little bit redder than they were supposed to be.”
“I always wondered why our parents became so protective of those paintings,” Bertrand said.
“Hey! Where have you been? You were here when we arrived yesterday, but I haven’t seen you since,” Alice said. “There hasn’t been one snarky comment about my wardrobe in almost twenty-four hours; I’m in danger of going rogue here.”
“No, you’re not,” Hana said.
“See? Hana’s got it handled,” Bertrand said. “And I’ve been busy handling Beaumont affairs.”
“Anything you need help with?”
“No, but thank you,” Bertrand said. “Maxwell has been helping me.”
“You actually let him help you?” Alice asked, surprised.
“Yup!” Maxwell said proudly.
“Wow…I’m impressed,” Alice said.
“It took a lot of convincing,” Maxwell admitted.
“By convincing, he means a few drinks,” Bertrand said. “But Maxwell made a tolerable case for himself. Based on his actions during the previous tours, I assessed that he could manage something small…with some oversight.”
“If you micromanage him, you know that defeats the entire purpose of having him help you,” Alice said.
“I’m not micromanaging him!” Bertrand protested. Alice glanced at Maxwell who put his hand out and gently rocked it back and forth.
“We’re getting there,” Maxwell said. “I’m ready to do what it takes for House Beaumont and Cordonia.”
“Well, I’m happy to help if you need it,” Alice said.
“Hey, Gray, there’s another painting over there I wanted to show you,” Bastien said as he put his arm around her waist to guide her away. “Excuse us.” He led her away to the far side of the gallery and stopped in front of a random painting.
“Why this one?” Alice asked as she examined the pastoral landscape.
“It doesn’t matter, I just needed to borrow you,” Bastien said. “Gray, what happened to trying to take it easy?”
“What? Because I offered to help Bertrand?” Alice asked. “Come on, you know he won’t take the help, but I had to offer. How could I not after everything he’s done for me?”
“I know, but still,” he said, his voice softening. “I’m worried about you. You keep saying how tired you are, but you keep taking on more. You didn’t have to help clean up in the gallery today—you could’ve just handed that off to the staff and rested until the festival started. Don’t get me wrong, I love that you are so willing to jump in and get your hands dirty, but I’m worried you’re going to get too burnt out.”
“I know, but I did that today for Liam and Olivia,” Alice said. “If Hakim sees how willing I am to put myself out there, that might help sway him to join Kiara and Zeke at the wedding, which ultimately benefits all of us in Cordonia. Also, I still feel weird at the idea of asking a staff to do things.”
Bastien smiled at her and tightened his arm around her waist. “You know that there is a full staff waiting in Valtoria, right? Their job is literally to make your life easier and take care of stuff for you.”
“For us,” Alice corrected. “I don’t know, I guess it’s still weird to think of myself as a duchess and what that all entails.”
“Hey, you’re not doing this alone,” Bastien said. “I mean, I’ve never been a duke before, but I have lived in Cordonia for my whole life and I’ve been in the palace for over twenty years. We’ll figure it all out together.” He picked up her left hand and pressed a soft kiss to the pen ring on her finger. “No matter what, it’s you and me.”
“How do you always know exactly what to say?” Alice asked, smiling at him.
“I just want to take care of you,” Bastien said. “Which includes reminding you to slow down and not take on so much all the time.”
“Fine, I will, I promise,” Alice said. “As soon as I can, I’ll go back to our room and go to bed. I mean, I was hoping I wouldn’t have to go to bed alone…but if you insist…”
Bastien grinned at her. “I could probably find a way to help you relax as long as you’re not too tired.”
“I’m always tired lately, but I also always have extra energy just for you,” Alice said as she stood up on her tiptoes in her rain boots to kiss him softly.
“So…I hate sharing you and/or encouraging you to do anything other than relax right now, but I noticed Joelle just walked in,” Bastien said, nodding over Alice’s shoulder towards the duchess. “If you can win her over, you have a better chance of getting Hakim.”
“Alright, I’m on it,” Alice said. “Wish me luck?”
“You don’t need it, but good luck.”
Alice smiled at him and squeezed his hand before she turned and headed for Joelle, who noticed her immediately.
“Bienvenue, Duchess Alice!” Joelle said, smiling at her. “What a show this has turned out to be, no? A devastating act of sabotage, the desperate, last-minute repairs, and the triumph of a successful opening despite the odds! I must admit, the whole business has lent an air of intrigue to our humble gallery.”
“I’m glad the water didn’t keep anyone away from the art,” Alice said.
“One should never let a little physical inconvenience get in the way of a sublime experience,” Joelle said. “And I understand that you helped alleviate that physical inconvenience.”
“Oh, it was nothing,” Alice said modestly. “I’m just glad I thought of something before the whole event was cancelled.”
“I wasn’t talking about just the idea of the water installation, brilliant as I think that is,” Joelle said. “I heard you were in here helping to physically prepare the space as well. Not many nobles would do that.”
“I guess I’m a bit of an unusual noble,” Alice said. “Plus, I couldn’t bear the thought of the gallery not opening and everyone missing all of this fabulous work.”
“Speaking of the art…” Joelle said as she looked Alice up and down. “Your gown is absolutely stunning.”
“Thank you so much,” Alice said, unable to keep herself from smiling. “Lady Hana made it for me.”
“Really?” Joelle asked, impressed. “I’m going to need to talk to her about designing something for me, although I imagine she’s probably in very high demand.”
“She might have some availability, but I’m sure her dance card is going to fill up quickly so I’d talk to her sooner rather than later,” Alice said.
“I’ll certainly do that,” Joelle said.
“So, are you just admiring the work?” Alice asked. “Or are you thinking of some new pieces to take home?”
“If I may confess to a little artistic vanity…I’m actually watching the crowd,” Joelle said. “People’s reactions to the work are for more genuine when they don’t know it was made by the lady of the house.” She paused. “Do you happen to remember what I was painting yesterday?”
“I do,” Alice said as she pointed to the still life of the apple on the wall nearest them. “I managed to catch a glimpse.”
“C’est vrai! Well spotted, Duchess Alice,” Joelle said. “I remember you said you have a degree in art history, so I’m interested in your critical eye—what does the painting say to you when you look at it?”
Alice regarded the painting for a moment, examine the brush strokes as she thought back to only two days earlier when she’d seen the orchards of Applewood burnt to the ground. She thought back to the video she’d watched with Bastien, watching the charred apple crumble into ash in the terrorist’s hand. Then she thought of lying in bed with Bastien at Applewood, falling asleep to the sound of him reading to her.
“It reminds me to appreciate the little things,” Alice finally said. “Things like this apple don’t last forever, but there’s still beauty in them. And what are we other than a collection of small things, small moments that make us who we are?”
“That’s beautifully put, Alice,” Joelle said, nodding. “It’s like you read my very thoughts. That’s the very sentiment I had in mind while I labored over the canvas.”
“You picked an important subject,” Alice said.
“Some people consider still lives to be passe. Why bother with such a simple scene? But after the recent tragedy at the royal orchard…I wanted to commemorate what we’ve lost. Remind people what we are fighting for.”
“That’s very noble of you,” Alice said.
“Well, I am a noble,” Joelle joked, laughing. “But I suppose that depends on your perspective. Some believe that true art requires meaning, while for others, it’s essential that a work excites the senses.”
“I think both are true,” Alice said. “Art can inspire the viewer, but if it doesn’t then it can still inspire the viewer to consider why it doesn’t inspire them. The same is true for beauty in art—it can be beautiful just for the sake of beautiful, or it could slide to the other end of the scale and challenge a perception of beauty, or flout it entirely. At the end of the day, I think art isn’t just about any one thing outside of the essential experience of being human.”
“Alice, I am thoroughly impressed by you,” Joelle said. “I couldn’t have said it better myself. It’s such a delight to find someone else who understands the artistic soul.”
“Thank you,” Alice said. “I’m glad Cordonia has people like you and Hakim thinking about its future and the aspects that are worth fighting for.”
“I must say…that was always a point of contention between our family and the king father,” Joelle admitted. “Hakim and I don’t just want Cordonia to remain stable and peaceful. Those are blessings, naturellement, but our kingdom can do so much more than survive. I’m curious whether King Liam will lead Cordonia in a different direction…” She paused, giving Alice a long, appraising look. “But if he appointed someone as insightful as you as a duchess, he must have good intentions.”
“King Liam and I are both trying to do our best by Cordonia in our respective roles,” Alice assured her.
“If you weren’t, you wouldn’t be here,” Joelle said. “Now, I think I’ve avoided my other guests for long enough. I’ll see you around…and do enjoy the rest of the festival.”
“Thank you, I hope you do as well.”
Joelle nodded to her and headed into the crowd and as soon as Alice was alone, she was immediately joined by Olivia.
“So? How’d it go?” Olivia asked.
“Really well,” Alice said. “I didn’t get a firm confirmation from her about the wedding yet, but we had a nice talk and I think I’ll be able to seal the deal before we leave.”
“Oh, thank god,” Olivia said. “Look, I know Liam has already talked to you, but…I wanted to let you know that I appreciate your help on this tour. I’m extremely proud to be a Nevrakis, but my family does have a certain…reputation, which can make it a little difficult to be a people person.”
“You know, you’re a lot nicer than you think you are,” Alice said.
“Take it back.”
Olivia sighed. “Thank you.”
“That wasn’t too bad, was it?”
“It was excruciating. Come on, let’s go eat tiny food and watch Drake complain about it.”
After Alice and Olivia collected the rest of their group, they headed outside and changed into their regular shoes before heading into the busy row of food stalls, the air filled with a mingling of savory, spicy, and sweet aromas.
“Oh my god, we actually get to eat real food?” Drake asked in amazement.
“Ugh, there goes my entertainment,” Olivia muttered.
“Everything smells so good!” Maxwell exclaimed. “Talk about a feast for the senses. I’m smelling smells I didn’t know existed before!”
“I’ll take one of everything,” Alice said.
“Really?” Bastien asked hopefully.
“Okay, fine, not literally, but I definitely want to eat until I’m on the verge of puking,” Alice said.
“I’m definitely going to try one of everything,” Maxwell said. “Gastrointestinal consequences be damned!”
A sudden high-pitched squeal startled all of them and they turned to see Hana rushing toward a nearby booth.
“It’s ash-e reshteh!” Hana exclaimed. “I haven’t had this since I went to Iran for Persian New Year with my parents. We have to have some!” She ordered a bowl from the server and grabbed a handful of spoons, passing them out to everyone. “Try it!”
Everyone, including Olivia, dutifully took a spoonful of soup. Alice’s mouth was awash with parsley and dill as it complimented the hearty beans and onions.
“Okay, now I get the squealing,” Alice said. “That’s incredible.”
“I agree,” Liam said. “This is almost as good as the ash-e reshteh I had at the Iranian ambassador’s estate.”
“Drake? You’re the pickiest eater, what do you think?” Hana asked.
“Hey, I’m only picky about tiny food!” Drake protested. Olivia elbowed Alice in the ribs. “I just think it’s ridiculous when some so-called five-star chef tries to bill a single quail egg as a main course.”
“You get that from your dad,” Bastien said. “Jackson always managed to sweet talk the kitchen into giving us something more substantial than whatever everyone else had to eat.”
“At least you had the option of ducking out,” Liam said. “I had to eat about twenty of those quail eggs just to stop my stomach from growling.”
“See?” Hana asked. “This is what I absolutely adore about food. There’s something so uniquely human about sharing the stuff that gives us life.” She noticed Olivia rolling her eyes and smiled. “No, really. Take ash-e reshteh at Persian New Year. It ties people together across generations through shared cultural traditions.”
“Eh, food should be for personal enjoyment. It shouldn’t matter who you’re with or what else you’re doing,” Drake said.
“Really?” Bastien asked, raising an amused eyebrow at him. “You didn’t love the fish dinners you had with your dad while you were camping more than some of the world class fish dinners you’ve had at the palace?”
“…okay, maybe you have a point,” Drake admitted.
“I think that’s a really nice way of looking at it, Hana,” Alice said.
“It’s not the worst concept,” Olivia said. Liam smiled at her and took her hand.
“High praise coming from Olivia,” Hana said with a laugh.
“Hana, I think you make an excellent point,” Liam said. “And not just about that being high praise from Olivia,” he teased, nudging his unamused fiancee. “That connection over food is why so much diplomacy happens over meals. Sharing food is sharing trust.”
“Speaking of sharing food…what are we eating next?” Maxwell asked.
“Follow me,” Liam said as he started walking down the row of vendors. Everyone fell into step behind him, with Alice and Bastien bringing up the rear.
“So, what’s your favorite meal you’ve ever had?” Alice asked.
“I was thinking about that…and I’d have to say the one I had back at your old job in New York,” Bastien said.
“What? Why?” Alice asked. “The food there really wasn’t that good.”
“No, but it was the night that I met you.”
“Oh, come on, you don’t want to pick one of the meals you had with Jackson? Or one you had growing up?”
Bastien shook his head. “My parents were nice enough people, but we weren’t really a bond-at-the-table kind of family. They worked a lot and more often than not, I had a book with me at the table so I was usually in my own world. The Walkers were always more of a family to me than anyone else…until you. The night I met you was the night I feel like my life finally became about more than just work…what about you, what’s your favorite meal?”
“I can’t follow that!” Alice exclaimed. “You already took the perfect answer.”
Bastien laughed and put his arm around her. “Come on, I want to know.”
Alice thought for a moment. “I think I’d have to say it was the one I had the morning after my dad died. Which I know sounds weird,” she added quickly. “But even though I’d known for a while that my dad had cancer and that he was getting close to the end, it didn’t make his death hurt any less. I was staying at his house in Colorado and after he died, I left the hospital that day and went back to an empty house and just…sat there. I couldn’t really do anything else but finally, in the middle of the night, I texted Frankie and told her what happened. Then I turned my phone off because I didn’t want to talk to anyone. Eventually, I fell asleep, and when I woke up, I could hear someone in the house. I thought maybe someone had broken in and I got one of my dad’s golf clubs from his closet and snuck into the kitchen…and nearly whacked Frankie in the head. After I got done screaming at her for scaring the shit out of me, she finished making me breakfast. I couldn’t really eat much of it—which was actually a good thing because she’s a garbage cook—but just the fact that she’d gotten my text and immediately hopped on a red eye to come see me…I don’t know. By flying out and making me breakfast, she made me feel like I still had a family.”
“She also flew to Cordonia.”
Alice nodded. “She has no qualms about putting a plane ticket on her credit card if she thinks someone needs her.”
Bastien smiled, sadness touching the edges of his expression. “That’s what Jackson was like. He never hesitated to help someone, no matter the toll it took on him.”
“I wish I could’ve met him.”
“Me, too. He would’ve liked you.”
By the time they rejoined the group, everyone was already taking bites of another dish. Liam held out forks to Alice and Bastien, who obligingly sampled it as well.
“What are we eating?” Alice asked as she took a mouthful, a vibrant medley of spices bursting across her tongue.
“It’s chicken tagine, one of my favorite dishes from my international travels,” Liam explained.
“Oh my god, the chicken is so tender,” Alice said.
“And then the spices sucker punch you,” Olivia said. “I love it.”
“It’s like a spice party in my mouth!” Maxwell said.
“I never would have though to use lemons and olives in the same recipe, but it’s amazing,” Hana said.
“When I was a kid, my family took a diplomatic trip to Morocco, and this was served. Leo loved it, but I hated it. So, of course, Leo used to tell everyone that it’s my favorite dish, since it’s rude for a guest to turn down food offered by a host,” Liam said, smiling at the memory.
“That sounds like Leo’s M.O.,” Bastien said.
“Heh, I remember that,” Drake said. “And of course people were always bending over backwards to do whatever they thought the crown prince and his brother wanted.”
“The joke was on Leo though,” Liam said. “After eating the dish enough times, I grew to love it.”
“That sounds like a prank war,” Alice said. “Was there a prank war?”
“I might’ve retaliated a bit…” Liam said evasively.
“That’s putting it mildly,” Bastien said. “I seem to remember some fireworks being set off in the boutique…”
“Wait, I heard about that!” Maxwell exclaimed.
“That’s not even the worst of it,” Liam said. “The prank war ended after my brother accidentally locked a visiting earl’s son in a closet, thinking he was me. Luckily, we didn’t cause an international incident…”
“I remember that kid,” Olivia said. “He was a little weasel; Leo did us all a favor by shoving him a closet.”
“His father didn’t think so,” Liam said with a grin.
“And this all started because of chicken tagine?” Hana asked.
“If you had an older brother, you wouldn’t find it hard to believe,” Maxwell said.
“Did Bertrand lock you in a closet?” Alice asked.
“No, but he framed me for something that got my access to the palace armory permanently revoked,” Maxwell said.
“That was Bertrand?” Drake asked incredulously.
“I had no idea!” Liam exclaimed.
“I did, and you were not that innocent,” Bastien said to Maxwell. “And, for the record, the only reason Bertrand’s access was reinstated is because he’s the current duke of Ramsford. But even now, he still doesn’t have full access—he has to be supervised at all times.”
“Do I have full access?” Alice asked.
“Yes,” Liam said.
“Can I be the one that supervises Bertrand?” she asked.
“No,” Bastien said. “Even though you’re not technically related, you’re still kind of a Beaumont and someone from outside that house has to supervise him.”
“Sorry,” Maxwell said with an apologetic shrug.
“Hey, what are we eating next?” Drake asked.
“You pick,” Hana said.
“Easy,” Drake said, pointing at the next booth. “It’s gotta be the feijoada.”
Alice walked a little closer to see something that looked like chili simmering in a massive pot.
“Now this is food,” Drake continued. “You just can’t go wrong with beans and meat, especially when the meat is slow-cooked to perfection.”
Drake ordered some for everyone and the server doled out portions of the stew, garnishing each one with orange slices. Drake passed the bowls around Alice took a large bite. The rich textures and saltiness of several varieties of pork and beef played over her tongue.
“It’s like an entire barnyard in one bite,” Alice said.
“I can’t tell if that means you like it or not,” Drake said.
“It’s really good,” Alice assured him.
“I thought it was going to be spicy, but this is even better,” Hana said.
“By far the Drakiest dish that ever Draked,” Maxwell said.
“Did you just turn him into an adjective and a verb in the same sentence?” Alice asked.
“He did, and he’s absolutely right,” Liam said. “This is definitely a Drake food.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Drake asked.
“Much like the stew, you are both hearty and salty,” Bastien said, making Olivia laugh.
“Ha ha, very funny,” Drake said. “Is making fun of me ever going to get old?”
“We’re not making fun of you,” Alice said. “We’re just…lovingly teasing you.”
“I fail to see the difference between the two,” Drake said.
“That’s because you don’t have an older brother,” Maxwell said. “You know, after all that food, I think I’m finally stuffed.”
“But we only hit three booths,” Alice said. “Whatever happened to conquering all of them?”
“I think I’m forced to accept my limitations,” Maxwell said.
“Yeah, I think I’ve had my fill for now,” Liam agreed. “But there’s some live music playing down there,” he said, pointing. “We could go hang out down there.”
Maxwell and Hana took off ahead of the group and the rest of them followed until they reached the center of the festival where a live band was playing.
“Dancing? Again?” Drake asked. “I thought we were here to get away from stuff like this.”
“Come on, Drake, it’s not like it’s the Cordonian Waltz,” Liam said.
“And no one said you have to dance,” Olivia said.
“It’s okay, I’ll hang out with you,” Alice said. “I’m a little worn out from everything.”
“Do you need to go lie down?” Bastien asked.
“No, I’m fine, I just want to sit for a little bit,” she said, spotting three chairs off to the side. “Come on.”
“Well, I’m not missing this opportunity,” Liam said as he held out his hand to Olivia. “May I have this dance?”
“You can have all of them,” Olivia said, smiling as she put her hand in his and let him lead her out to the dance floor. Alice sat down in the center chair, Bastien on one side and Drake on the other.
“He seems really happy with her,” Drake said, nodding at Liam and Olivia.
“He does,” Alice agreed. “And he’s the one person she never threatens to stab, so I’d say the feeling is mutual.”
“She likes you,” Drake pointed out.
“She still threatens to stab me.”
Alice watched them dance for a while before she let her eyes wander over the crowd. Eventually, she noticed Kiara and Penelope standing off to one side, the latter with two leashes in hand as Merlin and Morgana sniffed happily at a nearby trashcan, fluffy tails wagging.
“I should probably go say hi to them,” Alice said as she hauled herself to her feet. “Will you guys be okay until I get back?”
“Yeah,” Bastien said as he took her left hand in his and gave it a squeeze. “I need to talk to Drake about something anyway,” he said, subtly tapping the ink ring on her finger.
Alice smiled at him and gave his hand another squeeze. “I’ll be back soon.”
She left the chairs and headed over to Kiara and Penelope and as she drew closer, she could hear the latter say, “Oh, Kiara, this is such a wonderful festival! I’m so glad I could bring Merlin and Morgana and properly enjoy it.”
“Me, too, Penelope,” Kiara said warmly.
“Hey, guys,” Alice said she joined them, leaning down to pat the dogs’ heads when they momentarily abandoned the trash can to sniff her shoes.
“Hi, Alice,” Kiara said. “How are you enjoying the festival?”
“It’s really great,” Alice said. “However, I’ve definitely eaten too much food. Totally worth it though.”
“All that dancing worked up my appetite,” Maxwell said as he jogged over to join them, putting an arm around Alice’s shoulders. “Ready for round two?”
“You’ve only been dancing for five minutes, how could you have possibly worked up an appetite already?” Alice asked, amused. He shrugged.
“Hey, what are the chances they have cronuts here?” Maxwell asked.
“A what?” Kiara asked, confused.
“Low,” Alice said. “Sorry.”
“Oh well, I’ll make do,” Maxwell said before he hurried off.
“Does he ever sit still?” Kiara asked.
“Nope,” Alice said with a grin as she watched him disappear into the crowd. “Kiara, are you having a good time today?”
“I am,” Kiara said, sounding a little surprised by her own admission. “I usually have a hard time enjoying events I’m hosting, but this has been a pretty fun afternoon. Thank you for your help earlier, by the way,” she said. “Your idea to turn the flooding into an art installation was a really good one and I know my parents are really relieved they didn’t have to cancel.”
“Yeah, that was really nice of you, Alice,” Penelope said. “I already called my dad and he was really touched that you used it as a way to bring attention to those affected by the flood.”
“I’m just glad I could help,” Alice said.
“Oh!” Penelope said as she spotted something. “Kiara, the festival’s almost over and we still haven’t been to the cotton candy stand.”
“Bien, if we go now, we can still get some,” Kiara said. “Alice, want to join us?”
“You two go ahead,” Alice said. “Unlike Maxwell, I haven’t built up another appetite yet.”
They said their goodbyes and Alice turned to head back to the chairs, surprised to see Bastien sitting alone.
“Where’d Drake go?” Alice asked as she sat down next to Bastien. He put his arm around her and she rested her head on his shoulder.
“After he said yes to being my best man, he started getting a little emotional so he took off before anyone noticed he was human,” Bastien said.
“I’m glad he said yes,” Alice said. “Not that I thought he wouldn’t, but you know what I mean.”
“I do,” Bastien said. “I’d planned on asking him in Lythikos, but since we were talking about food and family today…I don’t know, I guess I didn’t want to wait.” He paused, thinking for a moment. “I wish Jackson could be here though.”
“What about Drake’s mom? Do you still talk to her?”
“No,” Bastien said. “After Jackson died, Bianca took off for Texas and left the kids in Cordonia.”
“What? That’s awful,” Alice said as she sat up and looked at him.
“Yeah,” Bastien agreed. “I always thought she’d come back and I tried to give her some space following Jackson’s death, but I reached out to her a few times over the years and she never responded, so I finally stopped. My guess is that because I’m in the Royal Guard like Jackson was, it was too painful for her to deal with me because I’m still here and he isn’t, but I don’t know for sure.”
“I’m so sorry.”
“It’s okay,” Bastien said. “Selfishly, I’m glad the kids stayed here so I could stay in there lives, Drake especially.”
“Did they see their mom much after she went back to Texas?”
“They’d fly there a few times a year to visit her. Savannah spent a couple of summers there when she was a teenager. I wish they’d had their mom around more though.”
Alice glanced down and realized Bastien was holding her hand, seemingly unaware that he was lightly tracing his thumb over her ring finger.
“Hey,” she said. “For the record, I’m not going anywhere. You’re stuck with me forever.”
He smiled at her and leaned in to kiss her gently. “I know. How lucky am I?”
Later, as the food vendors began to pack up the stalls, Alice finally found Hakim and Francesco.
“Hello, Hakim,” Alice said. “Did you enjoy the festival?”
“Absolutely,” he said with a smile. “The moussaka was almost as good as the one I had in Greece.”
“And so the humble Italian moussaka falls further down your list,” Francesco said with exaggerated disappointment.
“Don’t look too down, old friend. That saltimbocca we had in Rome will never be topped,” Hakim assured him.
“Alice, I will have to take you to try it the next time you are in Rome,” Francesco said. “It’s so good, you’ll never want to leave.”
“Well, with a review like that, how could I say no?” Alice asked.
“Eccellente,” Francesco said. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m sure you two will want to discuss some Cordonian matters together. Arrivederci, bella,” he said, kissing Alice’s hand before leaving her alone with Hakim.
“Duchess Alice, thank you for helping my wife at the art gallery today,” Hakim said.
“It was my pleasure, I really enjoyed our talk,” Alice said.
“That’s one of my favorite things about her,” Hakim said. “She’s such a stunning conversationalist and even after all these years together, I’ve never once been bored with her. You know, when we met in college, the first thing she said to me was that she wanted to change the world.”
“So it was love at first ideals?” Alice asked with a grin.
“Yes, exactly,” Hakim said, chuckling. “She has such an artistic soul, and I love that about her.”
“Not to make an overly clunky segue, but speaking of artistic souls…how did things go with the International Art Association?” Alice asked.
“Don’t worry about it,” Hakim said with a smile. “You stepped in to rescue this festival even when you had no guarantee that doing so would earn my support. To be honest, I still don’t know what Francesco’s decision will be, but you’ve done more than just help my wife’s gallery today. You proved you were willing to give without the promise of anything in return. That’s the kind of leadership Cordonia needs right now, and for that, I believe I should return the gesture.”
“Does that mean we’ll see you at Liam and Olivia’s wedding?” Alice asked hopefully.
“I’m not entirely sure how different Liam will be from his father, but seeing how he placed someone like you in a leadership role, I’m hopeful about what the future might bring. Yes, I will attend their wedding in support of the crown,” Hakim said.
“Thank you so much, Hakim,” Alice said as Joelle walked over to join them, completely absorbed by the plate of food she held. “I know it means a lot to Liam and Olivia to have you there.”
“Darling, have you tried the tom kha gai?” Joelle asked. “It’s heavenly! We must plan a trip to Thailand to taste the local variations.”
“That’s my favorite thing to do when I travel,” Alice said. “I love to eat as much local food as I can.”
“Me, too,” Joelle said. “That and see the local art, of course.”
“I’d love to, but we might have to wait a few trips before we can go to Thailand,” Hakim said. “I was just telling Alice that I will see her at Liam and Olivia’s upcoming wedding.”
“Does that mean Francesco will support our application?” Joelle asked.
“No, my dear,” Hakim said. “Actually, I don’t know yet if he will or not, he hasn’t given me an answer yet. But I’ve decided to go because of the assistance Alice provided today, both to the festival and to you.”
Joelle smiled tenderly at her husband. “You cherish me too much.”
“I know Liam and Olivia would be honored if you’d also join us, Joelle,” Alice said.
“I suppose the Swiss Alps can wait,” Joelle said with a grin. “I do love a beautiful wedding.”
“Knowing Olivia, it will be unforgettable,” Alice said. “The woman is an impeccable event planner.”
“This is very true,” Joelle said. “And I look forward to seeing you again at the wedding.” She paused, studying Alice for a moment. “You know, you’d make a marvelous model. I’d love to paint you sometime.”
“I’ve never modeled before, but I’d be honored to have you paint me. Maybe I can commission you to do a painting for Valtoria.”
“It’d be my pleasure,” Joelle said. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I want to grab a few more samples before the vendors finish packing up.” With that, she left, hurrying to a nearby food stall.
“I believe that’s my cue to depart,” Hakim said. “I look forward to the wedding, Alice.”
He held out his hand to shake Alice’s before trailing after his wife. As soon as he was gone, Kiara walked up to her, cotton candy cone in hand.
“Have my parents finally given their verdict?” Kiara asked. “Father hinted at supporting Liam and Olivia after the gallery, but my mother is…well, not the most easily swayed.”
“As a matter of fact, they have,” Alice said. “They’re both coming to the royal wedding.”
“You’re kidding,” Kiara said, surprised. “That’s wonderful!”
Alice glanced across the path to where Ezekiel and Penelope sat beside a fountain together, talking and eating pastries while the poodles stare optimistically at the food in their hands.
“They seem to be getting along well,” Alice said, nodding towards them.
“I’m glad to see them hit it off,” Kiara said. “Honestly, I can’t believe I didn’t think to introduce them sooner.”
“I have a feeling they’re going to be seeing a lot more of each other from now on,” Alice said. Kiara rolled her eyes, but she was smiling.
“I’m never going to escape the poodle talk.”
“If they keep it up, you might have to put them in…the dog house,” Alice said with a grin.
“Mon dieu, not you, too!” She looked back to Penelope and Ezekiel, who waved her over. Kiara took a deep breath. “Alright, time to go encourage their poodle talk. Merci for attending, Alice. I’ll see you back at court. À bientôt.”
“Keep in mind that this is really preliminary, but…what do you think?” Hana asked as she showed Bastien the pictures on her phone.
“That’s…wow,” Bastien said. “That’s perfect.”
“You think she’ll like it?”
“She’ll love it.”
When Alice arrived back at their room, no sooner had she touched the door handle when the door swung open.
“Aah! Jesus, Dorian, a little warning next time,” Alice said.
“Sorry,” he said, not looking the least bit sorry. “I wanted to catch you before you came in.”
“Why, is the room a disaster? Did you forget to refold a pair of your socks?” Alice teased. He laughed.
“Of course not. But I do have a surprise for you,” he said.
“A good surprise or a bad surprise?”
“Good, I promise,” he said. “Things have been so busy lately and I wanted to take you out to the movies like a regular couple…but I didn’t really want you to have to drag yourself around anymore than necessary, so…” He opened the door with a flourish. “I set up a movie night here.”
“Oh my god,” Alice said as she walked into the room. A large projector had been brought in and placed across from the bed, which was covered with a giant bowl of popcorn and several boxes of candy, along with a tray of cronuts. “I can’t believe you did all this!”
“The kitchen was thoroughly confused by the concept of a cronut at first, but they came through,” Bastien said. “So, what do you think? I know it’s not the same as going out to a regular theater—which we’ll still do sometime—but…do you want to have a movie night with me?”
“Of course I do!” Alice exclaimed. “It’s all the things I love about going to the movies without all the other people. Dorian, this is amazing, I can’t believe you did this.”
“You deserve it,” he said as he wrapped his arms around her.
“I do have one question…”Alice said as she grinned mischievously at him. “Does the movie have a…happy ending?”
Bastien laughed. “If you stay awake for the whole thing, it absolutely does.”
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