Summary: It’s the night of the Lantern Festival (as well as Bastien and Alice’s wedding) at Valtoria!
Notes: When I saw Taylor Swift perform “Lover” live on Saturday Night Live, I was instantly inspired for Bastien and Alice’s wedding. Also, I used some of the original PB dialogue and bedazzled it a bit.
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, Part 47, Part 48, Part 49, Part 50, Part 51
Two days later, Alice slowly inched her way out of sleep and despite Bastien’s strong arms wrapped around her, it took her a moment to remember where she was. She blinked her eyes open, taking in her and Bastien’s currently ostentatious—although hopefully temporary—bed. Alice couldn’t figure out what had woken her until she heard it again—the muffled sound of someone knocking on the front door of their quarters. She moved carefully so as not to wake Bastien and slid out of bed before grabbing a robe and heading for the door. Alice expected to find Gladys on the other side, but all tiredness immediately left her when she saw who it was.
“Hana!” Alice exclaimed, nearly hurling herself at her friend as she wrapped her in a hug. “Oh my god, I wasn’t expecting you to come! Is Rashida okay? How are you?”
“I’m so glad to see you! I’m sorry I’m here so early though,” Hana said. “Did I wake you?”
“No, of course not,” Alice lied. “Here, come in! I’d rather talk about you, what’s been going on?” Alice led her into one of the living rooms and they sat down on the sofa.
“Well, Rashida was released from the hospital yesterday afternoon, but she still has to take it easy. That being said, she was adamant about coming to Valtoria for your inaugural event, so here we are.”
“I’m glad to hear she’s out and doing okay, but you two really didn’t need to come all this way,” Alice said.
“We wanted to, really,” Hana assured her. “But…I know you have a lot going on, but I needed someone to talk to and I didn’t want to burden Rashida with it while she’s still recovering.”
“What’s going on?”
“Well…I got a text from my parents last night,” Hana said. “I was so excited to see your new home, and I sort of invited my parents to the lantern-lighting festival.”
“That’s great, the more the merrier,” Alice said.
“They said yes.”
“Okay…I’m sorry, I’m still not seeing the problem yet.”
“I…haven’t exactly talked to my dad very much since we last saw him,” Hana said. “And now both he and my mom are coming and I’m feeling really nervous about it.”
“That’s understandable, considering everything that happened last time,” Alice said. “But they reached out and they accepted your invitation—that sounds promising, right?”
“Yeah, it is. At least, I’m trying to be optimistic about it,” Hana said.
“Well, no matter what, you have me on your side. And Rashida, who you should probably inform that your parents are coming tonight. But, seriously, I’ve got you. You have a home here with Bastien and me for as long as you want, so you still have family here,” Alice said. “I know it’s not exactly the same thing, but you’re not alone. And if you decide you don’t want them here, I have no problem kicking them out.”
“Thank you,” Hana said, relaxing a little. “I mean, I already know I have your support, I guess I just needed a reminder before my mom gets here.”
Alice leaned over and hugged her. “Anytime.”
They talked for a while longer and after Alice said goodbye to Hana, promising to meet her in the boutique later, she headed into the bedroom and tossed her robe on a nearby chair before crawling back into bed beside Bastien, who stirred when the mattress shifted.
“Was someone at the door?” he asked sleepily.
“Hana. Her parents are apparently coming to the festival.”
“Is she doing okay?”
“I think so, but we’ll see.” Alice snuggled closer to Bastien. “Hey, guess what?”
“We’re getting married tonight!”
Bastien grinned and pulled her closer. “Do we really have to wait until tonight? Can’t we just get Liam in our purple people eater bedroom right now to marry us now?”
“We could,” Alice agreed as she trailed her fingertips up his bare thigh. “But I don’t know if Liam would want to see how I’m about to defile his newest duke.”
Bastien raised his eyebrow at her and smiled. “Oh really?”
Alice leaned in and kissed his neck as her hand teased closer to her target. “Really,” she murmured. “Unless you want me to stop?”
“Oh, god, please don’t,” he said, tilting her face to his so he could kiss her deeply as she wrapped her hand around his hardening cock. He groaned softly as she began to massage him, his fingers digging into the bare skin of her hip. She pulled away from his kiss and began to make her way down his body, tongue running over the hard planes of his chest. “Wait,” Bastien said, catching her.
“Nothing…but you can’t be expected to be the only one to have fun here,” he said, guiding her up until her hips were positioned over his face. She leaned down again, tracing her tongue up the length of his cock before taking him in her mouth. Alice moaned around him as she felt him kiss her lips gently, teasing her apart with his tongue. She forced herself to focus on him as she took her time with him, slowly bobbing her head up and down as she licked him, her hand covering what her mouth could not as she set an even measured pace. As her throat relaxed and she took him deeper into her mouth, she slid her hand from his shaft to his balls, squeezing them gently and eliciting a moan from him.
Bastien tried to hold back his own pleasure as he took his time with her, teasing her gently with his tongue as she grew wetter and wetter until finally she couldn’t keep her hips still anymore. He gripped her hips and began to pick up his pace. She moaned loudly, releasing his cock from her mouth as she continued to pump him with her hand, biting at his thighs as she drew closer and closer to the edge. Bastien smiled to himself as he felt her begin to shake and lose control and held her tightly to him, pinning her against his tongue until she fell apart, her cries filling the bedroom as she dropped her forehead against his hip. He continued until she couldn’t take it anymore and then—and only then—did he release her. Bastien gently guided her off of him until she lay down on the bed before he crawled on top of her, bracing himself above her.
“Tell me what you want,” he said as he leaned down to lick the sweat that was beginning to bead in the hollow of her throat.
“Inside me,” she gasped, still trying to catch her breath. “Please…”
He lined himself up with her entrance before pushing into her slowly, watching the way she closed her eyes in pleasure at the feel of him. Alice curled her hand around the back of his neck and roughly pulled his face to hers for a kiss, licking the taste of herself from his lips as he began to move inside of her. She wrapped her legs around his waist as she urged him deeper.
“Tell me what you want,” he said again.
“Harder,” Alice begged, the end of her word cut off when Bastien nearly pulled all the way out before slamming into her again. “Faster…”
Bastien followed her request, building speed as he thrust in and out of her. Her body undulated beneath his, matching his rhythm as her fingernails scrawled lines across his back. He could feel her getting close, so close…
When she came again and tightened around him, Bastien finally let himself go, pumping into her, his movements erratic and frenzied until he came with her, pulsing inside of her. They finally stilled, breathing heavily as he rested his forehead against hers. He kissed her softly, their bodies connected as the cool air in the bedroom began to settle onto their slick skin.
“We should probably shower and get dressed,” Alice finally said when Bastien carefully rolled to the side.
“We will,” he said as he pulled her close, wrapping his arms around her. “But, this might be the last moment alone we get until tonight, and I want to savor it. Just for a little bit.”
Alice smiled as she nestled into his side. “You didn’t think I was planning on showering alone, did you?”
When Alice arrived at the boutique later, she found Hana waiting for her, but no sooner had the greeting left her lips when the door banged open and Bertrand rushed in, slightly out of breath.
“Jesus, Bertrand, are you okay?” Alice asked.
“Yes, I just…apologies for my tardiness,” Bertrand said as he tried to steady his breathing. “Blasted babysitter needed specific instructions on which spoons to feed Bartie with. His table manners are terrible, so he must be taught through good examp—why are you smiling at me like that?”
Alice glanced over at Hana who was also trying, unsuccessfully, to bite back a smile. “Bertrand, I’m so torn between making fun of you for being late and being so happy at seeing you be such a dad right now.”
Bertrand’s face flushed, but Alice could see the corners of his mouth twitch up slightly. “Yes. Well…manners are important and it’s imperative that these lessons begin early.”
“So you gave the babysitter the full two-hour cutlery lecture?” Alice asked, eyebrow raised.
“Just the condensed thirty-minute version,” Bertrand said, voice tinged with worry. “I hope it was enough.”
“I’m sure proper spoon placement runs in his blood,” Hana assured him.
“Hana, I’m so sorry, I haven’t even properly greeted you,” Bertrand said, turning to her. “How are you? How’s Rashida?”
“We’re both doing well, thank you,” Hana said, smiling warmly at him. “Rashida has to take it easy for a bit, but she’s okay. She asked me to thank you for sending those flowers, by the way, they were lovely and you were so thoughtful to send them.”
“You’re welcome, I’m glad she enjoyed them,” Bertrand said, looking slightly uncomfortable by the compliment. “Anyway, Alice, this is a big night for you. Savannah and I are very much looking forward to attending your first ball at your duchy.”
“By the way, how are things going with Savannah?” Alice asked.
“Actually…they’re going well. Better. We started seeing a counselor and she’s really helping us work through some of our issues. It’s hard, but…good.”
“I’m glad to hear it,” Alice said. Bertrand raised an eyebrow at him. “What? I am!”
“Hey, you two, we should probably focus on finding Alice a dress for tonight,” Hana interrupted.
“Yes, absolutely,” Bertrand said.
“I really wanted to make something for you, Alice, but I wasn’t able to,” Hana said.
“Hana, you don’t have to—“
“Shush. Anyway, I got here a little early and…” Hana trailed off as she headed towards a rack where a labeled garment bag awaited. She picked up the bag and pushed it into Alice’s hands.
“Why are there two hangers?” Alice asked.
“Would you just put it on?” Hana asked exasperatedly, although she was smiling.
“Fine, fine,” Alice said as she walked into the dressing room. She pulled the curtain shut behind her before hanging up the garment bag and unzipping it. The dress in the front glittered with reds and oranges, the sigil of the phoenix delicately embroidered into the detailing on the bodice. “Oh my god, Hana, this is—“ Alice’s words froze in her throat as she moved aside the first dress to see the second. A beautiful wedding dress hung on the hanger, an art deco style garment with delicate lace sleeves and a low back. Alice had never seen anything so incredible before and she couldn’t stop the tears that stung her eyes.
“Everything okay in there?” Bertrand called.
Alice tried to find the words, but nothing came to her. Instead, she pulled aside the dressing room curtain to reveal Hana standing there, an elated grin on her face.
“How…when?” Alice finally managed to ask.
“Bastien asked me if I’d design a dress for you,” Hana said happily. “Do you like it?”
“Hana, it’s…the most incredible thing I’ve ever seen.”
“Does someone want to fill me in on what’s going on?” Bertrand asked slowly.
Alice turned to him, still in shock. “Hana made me a wedding dress.”
“Well, then, let’s see it!”
Alice went back into the dressing room and pulled the curtain closed. She hung the sigil dress on another hook and gently examined the wedding dress, softly running her fingers over the lace. Alice undressed and took the dress off of the hanger as reverently as she could before stepped into it, sliding it over her body. Even without looking in the mirror, Alice could tell it fit perfectly as she zipped it up.
“Alice? Does it fit?” Hana called.
Alice pulled back the curtain and stepped out into the boutique. Bertrand froze when he saw her and Hana quickly bustled towards her, examining the dress from every angle. “I only have a few hours to make adjustments, I need to make sure I didn’t miss anything.”
“Is the fit okay? Because—“
“Hana.” Hana paused and looked up at her. “It’s perfect. Thank you, I really…I don’t know what to say to adequately tell you how much I love it.” Alice looked over at Bertrand. “Bertrand? What do you think?”
“I think…you have never looked more beautiful,” Bertrand said, covertly sniffling.
“Are you crying?” Alice asked.
“Give me a break, I’m in therapy,” Bertrand snapped as he yanked a handkerchief from his pocket and dabbed at his eyes.
“With the way you used to lecture me about my table manners, I never thought I’d see the day when you’d cry happy tears over me doing something right,” Alice teased.
“In my defense, your manners were atrocious,” Bertrand said with a decisive sniff as he tucked the handkerchief back in his pocket.
“Oh, I’m so pleased!” Hana said excitedly as she gave the dress another once over. “Okay, let’s get you changed into the other one for the ball.”
“Are you kidding me? I never want to take this off,” Alice protested. Hana raised an eyebrow at her and Alice sighed. “Fine, give me a minute.”
Alice stepped back into the dressing room and carefully stepped out of the dress and rehung it on the hanger. Before she put on the sigil dress, she retrieved her phone and texted Bastien.
I can’t believe you had Hana make me a wedding dress! Thank you, it’s perfect
Her phone buzzed a few moments later. I’m so glad you like it and I can’t wait to see you in it. I love you.
Alice smiled and texted back a quote from Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence: “Each time you happen to me all over again.”
Bastien wrote back with a line from Hamlet: “Doubt thou the stars are fire; Doubt that the sun doth move; Doubt truth to be a liar; But never doubt I love.”
Alice smiled as she read his text, briefly resting her free hand on her stomach before she put down her phone and turned to the sigil dress. It was beautiful, of course, but everything else seemed to pale in comparison to the one Hana had made for her.
A few hours later, the guests began to arrive for the ball and Alice met Bastien at the entrance to the main hall.
“You look incredible,” Bastien said as he kissed her cheek.
“Trust me, the dress Hana made makes this one looks like a garbage bag,” Alice said. Bastien grinned.
“I don’t doubt it,” he said, offering his arm to her. “Ready?”
Alice and Bastien walked into the hall as Gladys made her announcement to the room.
“Honored guests, it is now my privilege to announce Duchess Alice Ayers and Sir Bastien Lykel of Valtoria!”
A crowd of familiar courtly faces applauded their arrival as Alice and Bastien entered the hall. The couple made their way over to the dais and Bastien helped Alice up the steps to stand beneath a banner emblazoned with the words “Forged in Fire.” As Alice turned to face the crowd, the attendees grew quiet, awaiting her.
“Good afternoon and welcome, everyone, to my first official ball as Duchess of Valtoria,” Alice said, smiling at the smattering of applause. “I’m sure you’re all ready to get on with the party, but before we start, I just wanted to say that this is an honor and I am grateful to King Liam and Duchess Olivia for this opportunity to be here with you today. As long as I am the Duchess of Valtoria, I promise to be the best ruler I can be. I will work with my fellow nobles to ensure Cordonia’s future is as bright as this beautiful kingdom deserves. Thank you all so much for being here, Bastien and I are honored to host you here. Now, please, enjoy yourselves and have a wonderful time.”
The room burst into applause again as servants began to circulate the room with trays of hors d’oeuvres and champagne flutes.
“We should each make the rounds and shake a few hands…I’ll come find you soon?” Bastien said. Alice nodded and he kissed her gently. “Of all the roads I thought my life would take, I’m glad I ended up with you.”
Alice smiled at him. “If you keep talking like that, I’m going to insist we skip the ball entirely in favor of a more intimate party.”
“Later, I promise,” Bastien said as he gently kissed her fingers before reluctantly releasing her hand and making his way through the crowd. Alice stepped down from the dais and was greeted immediately by Olivia.
“You managed not to completely embarrass yourself up there, Jon Snow,” Olivia said approvingly.
“That was almost a compliment.”
“What do you mean ‘almost?’ By the way, where’s Hana? I need to talk to her about something.”
“Did someone ask for me?” Hana asked, joining them.
“Hey, where’s Rashida?” Alice asked. “I didn’t see her when we entered.”
“She said she’s sorry to miss this, but she’s resting for later,” Hana said. “She wasn’t sure she’d be up for two parties, so she said she wanted to pick the more important one.”
“Good, I’m glad she’ll be there later,” Alice said.
“Hana, I need to borrow you,” Olivia said. “Can we talk in the other room?”
“Sure. See you later, Alice,” Hana said as Olivia took her by the elbow and steered her away. Before Alice had a chance to even wave goodbye, she was joined by Kiara.
“Alice! Your new estate is simply beautiful,” Kiara enthused. “And that dress! You put Castelsarreillan’s humble colors to shame.”
“You’re so sweet to say that, thank you, but I really can’t take any of the credit,” Alice said. “Gladys and the rest of the staff here have been incredible and the dress was all Hana’s finding. Hey—I thought you were going home after the Winter Festival?”
“Oui, c’est vrai,” Kiara admitted. “I did think about it…even packed my bags. But you and Olivia changed my mind. Well, you two and the therapist Bastien recommended. Things are still hard sometimes…really hard…but even though I have a lot of work ahead of me, I feel like I’m starting to get my life back.”
“I’m glad to hear it,” Alice said. “I hope you know how much support you have and that we’re all here for you in whatever way we can be.”
“I do. Thank you,” Kiara said. “I have to be honest…when you first arrived in Cordonia, I didn’t think you’d last long. Then with everything that happened, the way you had to fight your way back after what Tariq did to you…I think you’re really brave. And there’s something about you that’s really special. You bring people together and you make things happen. I can tell this place is going to be something special because of your willingness to do whatever it takes to help others.”
“Kiara…thank you,” Alice said, touched. “That means so much to me to hear you say that.”
“Oh my gosh, Alice, would you look at this place?” Penelope exclaimed as she and Ezekiel joined them. “It’s like your very own mansion! Is it true you have a menagerie?”
“The last duchess had a lot of…let’s say unusual hobbies,” Alice said. She glanced around the room and saw Bastien standing with Leo. Bastien caught her eye and winked at her, smiling.
“Well, if you ever need advice on enclosure upgrades that will keep the animals engaged, I’m happy to help,” Ezekiel said as he retrieved two glasses of champagne from a passing waiter and handed one to Penelope, who blushed happily.
“Zeke knows a lot about environmental enrichment for rescue animals,” Penelope said proudly.
“I will definitely take you up on that,” Alice said. “I don’t know the first thing about that and if I’m taking on these animals, I want them to be cared for in the best way possible.”
“You didn’t have pets in New York?”
“My apartment was too tiny for a pet,” Alice said. “Unless you count the plant I forgot to water.”
“Maybe we should all be grateful you have a staff to take care of the plants now,” Kiara said with a smile.
“Excuse me, Khaleesi?”
Alice turned to see Mara standing behind her. “You used my code name!” Alice exclaimed, delighted.
Mara sighed. “Bastien said I had to, at least for today. May I speak with you for a minute?”
“Of course. Excuse me,” Alice said to the others before walking away with Mara. “Is everything okay?”
“Yes, of course, security is solid,” Mara said. “But I did have some news to pass on to you. Between our investigation and Lucretia’s answers under questioning, we believe that Anton Severus’s father was the former leader of the Sons of Earth.”
“The group that objected to Constantine’s international policies?”
“Yes,” Mara said. “I never would’ve believed that the Nevrakis family would make an alliance with the Sons of Earth since they’ve historically been at odds with each other. The secret marriage between Olivia and Anton must’ve sealed a covert agreement between the two. That’s why they’ve had so many resources to throw at attacking us.”
“That makes sense,” Alice said, nodding.
“When Olivia’s parents failed their coup attempt, the Sons of Earth must have made an appealing offer to a decimated Nevrakis faction.”
“So that photo Olivia and I found of Anton where he was dressed up like a king…”
“It was essentially a promise that Anton would be made noble…a king, ruling beside Olivia, under the Nevrakis name.”
“Well, Lucretia is in custody and Olivia’s allegience is to Liam and Cordonia, so Anton can eat shit since he won’t be getting much more help in Lythikos.”
“Agreed. Well, maybe not about the ‘eating shit’ part. Or maybe yes. Especially since King Liam and Olivia were able to dissolve Olivia’s marriage to Anton.”
“So basically Anton has the support of the Sons of Earth, but they’re fully cut off from the Nevrakis resources.”
“Exactly. Additionally, now that we’ve weeded out Anton as a spy, the Sons of Earth no longer have access to the royal family, Olivia, or you. It’s only a matter of time before we track Anton down.”
“Assuming there isn’t another spy in our midst,” Alice pointed out.
“True, although that is highly unlikely at this point, but we are continuing our vigilant surveillance,” Mara assured her as Olivia joined them.
“Could I borrow Alice for a moment?” Olivia asked, already taking Alice by the arm.
“Why do I feel like I’m being taken hostage?” Alice asked as Olivia led her away.
“Don’t joke like that, your personal watchdog is liable to take a joke like that seriously and I don’t feel like having to fight her tonight,” Olivia said steered her to a quiet alcove at the corner of the room.
“Is everything okay, Liv?” Alice asked.
“You know, phoenixes are the definition of indomitable. You’ve chosen your attire well,” Olivia said. “And this decor would put an empress to shame.”
“Why do I feel like there’s a ‘but’ coming?”
“No, no buts,” Olivia said. “Just…good job, Jon Snow.”
“Is that why you took me over here? So no one would hear you compliment me?” Alice asked, raising a wry eyebrow at her.
“You are impossible to be friends with, you know that, right?” Olivia said with an exasperated sigh.
“Hey, I wanted to ask you, how are you holding up with everything?” Alice asked.
“You mean how am I holding up knowing that my parents secretly married me to a man who tried to kill you and Liam? I’m awesome, thanks.”
“Mara said Liam was able to dissolve your marriage to Anton.”
“Yeah, he did, which is a relief,” Olivia said. “I feel like I’m one step closer to shedding that past I never wanted, you know? Everything is moving forward, I’m on track to marry the love of my life, you’re a duchess and you’re with Bastien…I don’t know. It feels good.”
“Yeah,” Alice agreed. “It does.”
“Hey, guys,” Frankie said as she joined them. “Sorry to interrupt, but Maxwell is freaking out and said he needed to see all of us outside right away.”
“Did he set anything on fire?” Alice asked.
“Not that I know of, but he’s been out of my sight for at least two minutes, so who knows?” Frankie said with a shrug.
Outside, Alice, Bastien, Olivia, and Frankie joined the others and Ezekiel, who were already waiting, gathered around Gladys.
“Oh my god, finally!” Maxwell exclaimed when he saw them.
“Oh, I’m sorry, was doing our duty by hosting our first courtly event at our brand new duchy interrupting your plans?” Alice asked, raising an eyebrow at Maxwell as Bastien slipped an arm around her waist.
“Yes! Oh my god, Alice, I’ve been dying to tell you guys about this all day and it’s finally here and oh my god, I’m so excited!” Maxwell said, excitedly hopping from one foot to the other.
“What’s finally here?” Bastien asked cautiously.
“I kinda sorta got you two a duchy-warming/engagement gift, and I think it’s basically the best thing I’ve every done,” Maxwell said.
“If you got us matching dirt bikes, I don’t know if—“ Alice started to say, but Maxwell waved her words away.
“This is way better, I promise,” Maxwell said gleefully. He motioned to Gladys, who Alice finally noticed was holding a large object covered with a blanket. Maxwell pulled off the blanket with a flourish to reveal a carrying crate that held two red panda cubs. “Ta da!”
“Oh…my…god!” Alice exclaimed. “Maxwell, you didn’t!”
“Oh, believe me, I did!” Maxwell said happily. “You love them, right? Oh my god, I can’t even!”
“Those are the cutest and fuzziest things I’ve ever seen and if you notice my suitcase making noise when Seth and I fly back to the states, just ignore it,” Frankie said.
“Maxwell, this is…really above and beyond,” Bastien said, smiling as he leaned in to get a closer look.
“From their size and coloration, I’d guess these specimens of ailurus fulgens are about four months old,” Ezekiel said.
“When Liam told me that Valtoria had a menagerie, inspiration just struck!” Maxwell said. “I know there are animals all over the world who need a safe home, and when I heard about these twin cuties who got rescued from poachers, I just had to adopt them for you guys. The menagerie here already has staff, a habitat, all-you-can-eat bamboo, and I remembered how awesome it was spending time with the giant panda cubs in Shanghai.”
“That’s incredibly sweet of you, Maxwell, thank you,” Alice said. “You know, I haven’t even been to the menagerie yet. Dorian, have you?”
“Years and years ago, but not recently,” Bastien said.
“Are there tigers?” Frankie asked.
“Why?” Alice asked.
“Because I want to know if you’re going to star in a sequel to Tiger King,” she said innocently. Alice heard Olivia chuckle behind her.
“Don’t make me get the sardine oil,” Alice said. “Okay, well, should we go get these two settled into their new home?”
“Yes!” Maxwell exclaimed. “Oh, and by the way, they don’t have names yet. I figured you and Bastien would want to pick out the names for your new fur babies.”
Alice glanced at Bastien and they exchanged smiles and a meaningful gaze. “What do you think?” she asked.
“Well…” Bastien leaned closer, looking at the female cub on the right who was holding her tail between her paws, eyes wide. “This one kind of looks like an Iniya to me.”
“Oh, I agree!” Hana said. “It means ‘sweet,’” she translated for Alice.
“Iniya works for me,” Alice said. “What about this little guy?”
“What’s a name that means ‘puffball?’” Seth asked.
“Pabu,” Hana said. “That’s Tibetan for puffball.”
“What do you think?” Alice asked Bastien. He smiled at her.
“I’m happy with it if you are.”
“Iniya and Pabu,” Alice said. “Jesus Christ, I’ve never seen anything so cute in my life.”
Bastien called for a limo and the group made their way to the menagerie with the cubs in tow. When they arrived at the menagerie, a staff member escorted them down a series of glass-walled walkways with exhibits on either side.
“Holy shit, you have a black panther!” Frankie exclaimed, coming to a stop so suddenly that Seth ran into her.
“We have a what?” Alice said as she peered into the enclosure to see a majestic cat sunning itself. “Liam, how could you not tell me about this when you offered me the duchy?”
“I thought it would be more fun for you to discover it on your own,” Liam said with a grin. “Her name is Cava.”
“Did you know that the black panther isn’t a distinct species?” Ezekiel asked. “It’s a melanistic color variant for leopards and jaguars. This one appears to be a panthera onca specimen. A jaguar, that is.”
“We have a couple snow leopards in Lythikos,” Olivia said.
“And how many people have you fed to them?” Frankie asked.
“Me? None,” Olivia said. “But I can’t speak for the rest of my family.”
“New York is so boring compared to this place,” Frankie said as the group resumed its journey through the menagerie.
“Clearly, you need to visit more often,” Bastien said.
“Or just move here,” Alice said.
“And do what?” Frankie asked. “Be your professional best friend?”
Alice shrugged. “Why not? That’s what Drake does.”
“Hey!” Drake protested from the back of the group.
Eventually, they reached a large, forested enclosure. A menagerie worker followed them into the enclosure and opened the carrier, releasing the cubs before getting to work checking the habitat. The cubs burred and cooed to each other as they began to explore and Pabu wandered over to Bastien, tugging at his pant leg.
“Hey, little buddy,” Bastien said as he bent down and gently picked up the cub, who immediately nestled against him happily. Iniya watched them for a moment with wide, careful eyes.
“They’re not very active, are they?” Drake asked.
“Actually, this species is known for their energy and playfulness,” Ezekiel said. “They might be a little tired or stressed from traveling here.”
“Well, maybe they just need a chance to learn this place can be fun,” Alice said. “Hey, Liam, I saw a basket of toys over there—would you hand me a couple?”
“Sure.” Liam returned with a soccer ball and handed it to Alice, who knelt down in front of Iniya and gently rolled it to her. Her ears perked up as the ball approached and she pounced at it, face-first, headbutting it back to Alice. Not wanting to be left out, Pabu twisted in Bastien’s arms until he set him down. Pabu then dove for the ball, swiping at it and missing it by inches.
“I think we know which one is the coordinated one,” Drake said.
“It’s okay, Pabu,” Seth reassured him. “I’m sure David Beckham has missed a few passes, too.”
“Drake, come on, they’re babies,” Maxwell protested as he knelt down on the ground. “If I’ve learned anything from Bartie, it’s that babies are bad at everything.”
The cubs continued to playfully attack the ball until finally Iniya grew tired of simply catching the ball and instead tackled her brother. As Pabu went rolling away, Iniya tottered over to Maxwell and pulled a piece of candy from his pocket.
“Hey!” Maxwell protested as Iniya scampered away from him and toward Olivia. The cub held out the piece of candy to Olivia, who grinned.
“Okay, this one is officially my favorite,” Olivia said as she accepted the candy from Iniya. “Jon Snow, I need to borrow her.”
“Let’s let them get a little bigger before you start using our panda cubs for personal gain,” Alice said.
“You’re right, we should let her refine her skills a little,” Olivia said.
“And just like that, I know what to get you for your birthday,” Liam said with a grin as he kissed her cheek.
“I just can’t get over how cute they are,” Hana said. “They’re almost nothing like the big black and white ones we saw in Shanghai.”
“Red pandas are actually much closer relatives of raccoons than giant pandas,” Ezekiel said as Pabu returned to Bastien and climbed into his lap. “Thus, the mischief.”
“Aww, like little trash pandas, but with extra panda,” Seth said.
“Trash pandas?” Hana asked, confused.
“It’s a nickname for raccoons,” Alice explained.
“I’m not sure I’d call ‘trash’ anything adorable,” Hana said, still perplexed.
“You know, they might be hungry after their journey,” Ezekiel said. “I’ll be right back, I’ll go speak with their caregivers about their feeding habits.”
“You know we’re going to have to hire him, right?” Alice asked Bastien, who smiled as he gently pet Pabu’s fluffy head.
“I figured as much.”
Alice watched as Iniya made the rounds to each person before finally sitting in front of Frankie, studying her intently.
“Does this mean she likes me?” Frankie asked hopefully.
“Either that or she’s about to eat your face,” Alice said.
Ezekiel returned a few moments later with two baby bottles that he held out to Bastien and Alice. “As I suspected, they’re still being bottle-fed. I assumed you would want to do the honors.”
“Actually, since Bastien’s got Pabu…Frankie, do you want to do it?” Alice offered.
“What? No, you should. They’re yours,” Frankie protested.
“Exactly, which means I can do this whenever I want,” Alice said as she held out the bottle. Frankie took the bottle from Alice and turned back to Iniya, who climbed into her lap.
“Why do I get the feeling she’s going to start trying to adopt the raccoons behind the bar?” Seth asked Alice as he watched Frankie affectionately.
“Because I definitely am if they’re as cute as this little thing,” Frankie said.
The pandas finished their bottles quickly and each settled down, preparing for a nap.
“I think maybe it’s time we let these little guys get some rest,” Bastien said as he gently moved Pabu off his lap and stood up. Frankie did and same and Iniya made her way over to curl up beside her brother.
“True. You guys are kind of ditching your own party,” Olivia said.
“Totally worth it,” Alice said as she took Bastien’s hand in hers.
Back at the estate, they arrived just as Hana’s father and a well-dressed woman Alice assumed to be Hana’s mother were stepping out of a car.
“My word…there’s more to the estate than I expected,” Xinghai said as he looked up at the manor.
“Acres can always be bought, dear. Sophistication must be earned,” the woman said.
“Much like respect,” Frankie muttered to Alice, who poked her warningly.
“Mother! Father! You’re…here,” Hana said, the color draining from her face.
“Hana,” Xinghai said, his eyes briefly meeting hers before looking back to the manor.
“Hello, dear,” Hana’s mother said coolly.
“Mom…I’d like you to meet Duchess Alice Ayers of Valtoria,” Hana said, tugging Alice forward. Hana half-stood behind Alice as if trying to hide from her mother. “Alice, this is my mother, Lorelai.”
“Good afternoon, Your Grace,” Lorelai said with a detached politeness.
“Thank you both for coming,” Alice said.
“Unfortunately, the truth is that we’re not planning to stay long. Our return flight leaves tonight,” Lorelai said.
“That’s…a long trip to make for just a few hours,” Alice said slowly.
“Let me make our intentions clear,” Lorelai said. “Hana will be returning with us.”
“I believe that’s up to Hana,” Alice said. She could practically feel Hana shaking behind her. Lorelai ignored Alice.
“Hana, we’ve let this childish rebellion of yours go on long enough and with what you told your father in Shanghai, it’s clearly gotten out of hand,” Lorelai said. “You’re coming home with us. Tonight.”
“As Duchess Alice said, that’s Hana’s decision,” Olivia said, her voice frosting around the edges as she stepped forward to stand beside Hana.
“This is not up for discussion, Hana,” Lorelai said. Alice looked to Xinghai, who was suddenly very interested in his shoes. “You—“
“No,” Hana interrupted. “I’m staying here. I have a life here, Mother. Friends, a job, a girlfriend I love. I’m not leaving.”
“Your things are already packed,” Xinghai said.
As if on cue, the door to the main hall opened and servants emerged, carrying Hana’s luggage.
“How dare you?” Hana demanded, her voice growing stronger and angrier.
“I’ve got this,” Bastien said quietly to Alice before walking over to talk to the servants. He spoke briefly with them and they turned, heading back into the manor.
“Excuse me!” Lorelai protested angrily. “Exactly who do you think you are?” she asked Bastien when he rejoined them.
“This is my home and you will not come into my house and evict my guest,” Bastien said in a low, even voice. “Hana is welcome to stay here for as long as she likes and she alone will decide when that stay has ended.”
Alice reached back and took Hana’s hand, squeezing it comfortingly as Lorelai rounded on her daughter.
“Hana, you think you’re ready for the real world outside of our protection? You want to know what it’s really like to make your own choices?” Lorelai asked. “Fine. Then stay here. Continue disgracing yourself with your perverted abomination of a relationship with your so-called ‘girlfriend’—”
“My relationship is not a perverted abomination,” Hana said defiantly, standing up a little straighter.
“—and as of this moment…you are no longer my daughter.”
Hana recoiled as if she’d been slapped and Alice tightened her grip on Hana’s hand. Tears sprang to Hana’s eyes, but her voice remained steady as she spoke.
“Then goodbye, Lorelai.”
With that, Hana turned and headed back into the manor. Alice nodded to Frankie, who followed to check on Hana.
“I think it’s best if you leave,” Alice said to Lorelai and Xinghai, the latter of whom was still staring after his daughter.
“But we were invited,” Xinghai said.
“Consider your invitation rescinded,” Bastien said.
“King Liam—“ Xinghai started, but Liam held up a hand to stop him.
“I think we’re done here,” Liam said.
Rage reddened Lorelai’s face, but she and Xinghai climbed back into their car and a few moments later, it pulled away. The rest of them stood there in silence, watching them leave as the sun began to dip below the horizon.
“That was intense,” Seth finally said. “I hope Hana’s okay.”
“Me, too,” Alice said.
“I don’t know about all of you, but I feel like I need a drink after that,” Olivia said.
“Lead the way,” Liam said as he put his arm around her waist.
Bastien and Alice hung back until they were alone, the rest of their friends walking ahead of them into the manor.
“How are you doing, Gray?” he asked as he put an arm around her and they started to slowly follow their friends.
“Good. I feel for Hana, but I know part of her was expecting this. I just hate that she got her hopes up about them coming and then everything turned out like this.”
“I know, me, too,” Bastien said. “But at least Hana knows she’s loved and that she isn’t alone. She has Rashida and you and everyone else here in her corner.”
“True,” Alice said. They walked in silence for a little while until they’d nearly reached the front doors. “Hey, guess what?”
“We just have the lantern lighting and then we can get married.”
Bastien grinned and leaned down to kiss her. “I’ve been waiting my whole life for you, but these last couple of hours are going to take the longest.”
When the sun finally settled beneath the horizon, Alice and Bastien headed down to the lake while friends and acquaintances mingled happily across the grounds and members of the press gathered near the water.
“Holy shit,” Alice said slowly when she looked up to see a hundred glowing lanterns sailing across the sky above Valtoria, illuminating the darkening night. Their lights reflected off the water, making her feel like they were surrounded by stars.
“You might want to come up with something slightly more articulate when you talk to the press,” Bastien said with a smile as he squeezed her hand and Gladys joined them.
“Welcome to your first Cordonian lantern festival, Alice,” Gladys said.
“It’s amazing,” Alice said, her voice reverent. “They’re so beautiful…”
“They represent the hopes and dreams of your people,” Gladys explained. “As duchess, many of them will be for you. I’ve attended this festival for years, and this is the most I’ve seen. Your people are excited to have you.”
“So each lantern is someone’s wish?” Alice asked.
“Traditionally, lanterns represent two things,” Hana said, surprising them as she and Rashida joined them. “A wish, yes, but often the desire to let something go as well.”
“It’s a lovely tradition,” Gladys said. “Alice, if you and Bastien will excuse me, I need to attend to a few things for the ceremony.”
“Of course,” Alice said. As soon as Gladys was out of earshot, she turned to Hana. “How are you? Are you okay?”
“I’m fine,” Hana assured her with a brave smile. “This is a big night for you and the last thing I want is for my drama to distract from that.”
“Really, Alice,” Hana said. Alice saw her squeeze Rashida’s hand out of the corner of her eye. “Thank you and I love you, but tonight is about you and Bastien.”
“Everything looks really beautiful,” Rashida said, defly shifting the subject.
“I can take exactly zero credit for that,” Alice said as she gave Rashida a hug. “That’s all Hana and Gladys and everyone else who worked on this. Welcome back.”
“Thank you, I’m glad I could make it back in time for this,” Rashida said. “Hey, Bastien.”
“It’s good to see you,” Bastien said, giving her a hug as well. “How are you?”
“A little drained, but good,” she said as an enthusiastic voice called out from the crowd.
“Alice!” Penelope called. “Alice, over here!”
Alice excused herself from the group and headed over to join Penelope. “Hey! How are you enjoying the lantern festival so far?”
“Oh, it’s wonderful!” Penelope exclaimed. “I just adore paper lanterns, don’t you? Knowing each one represents someone’s deepest desires…it makes me feel all fuzzy inside.”
“I’ve never seen anything quite like it,” Alice said as she looked back out across the lake.
“I wanted to tell you…thank you again for convincing me to come back,” Penelope said. “To think I might’ve missed something like this!”
“Bastien and I are really glad to have you here,” Alice said.
“Thank you,” Penelope said, looking pleased. “I’m going to go find Zeke, but I’ll see you later, okay?”
“Okay,” Alice said, nodding to her.
“Enjoying the festival?” Olivia asked from behind her, making her jump.
“Jesus, Liv! You scared me!” Alice scolded her, a hand on her own racing heart. “Aside from getting the shit scared out of me, yes, I am. Are you having a good time?”
“Actually, I am,” Olivia said. “Of course, it’s nothing compared to parties I host in Lythikos, but, then again, few things are.”
“Your humility is unparalleled,” Alice said, rolling her eyes.
“It’s one of my many charms,” Olivia said.
“Good evening, Duchess Alice, Duchess Olivia,” Hakim said as he joined them with Kiara in tow, each of them holding lanterns. “It’s a lovely night for this year’s lantern festival, don’t you think?”
“It’s perfect, and I see you both have your lanterns ready to go,” Alice said.
“I’m using mine to leave any…remaining doubts of staying at court behind me,” Kiara said. “But, more importantly, I’m using my wish for speed as I learn Icelandic,” she added with a smile.
“So there is a language you don’t know…yet,” Alice teased her. “How about you, Hakim?”
“Tonight, I’ll be wishing for a speedy resolution to a minor diplomatic hiccup with one of my Swedish counterparts,” Hakim said. “I recently had a meeting with him, but my Swedish greeting had a Danish accent.”
Alice was about to smile when she heard Kiara gasp in horror. “Father! It’s not like you to make such a silly mistake!”
Alice glanced at Olivia, who crossed her eyes at her, nearly making her laugh.
“Cordonia is lucky to have dedicated people like you,” Alice said. Hakim smiled at her.
“It’s nice to have one’s work appreciated, Your Grace. Thank you,” he said. “We’re all very keen to hear what your wishes are during the press event later.”
“Thank you,” Alice said. “Speaking of, I should go get ready…join me, Liv?”
“It’s lovely to see you both,” Alice said to Hakim and Kiara. “Please, enjoy the festival.”
Once they were out of earshot, Alice turned to Olivia. “Fuck, I keep forgetting I have to publicly share my wishes.”
“What are you wishing for?”
“I’m not sure yet…what about you?”
Olivia hesitated. “If I tell you, you can’t laugh at me.”
“I’m not going to laugh at you, Jon Snow.” Olivia gave her a look. “Okay, fine, I probably won’t laugh at you. What are your wishes?”
“I’ve decided I’m going to let go of my parents,” Olivia finally said. “Ever since I found out the truth about them, I’ve been carrying around all of this guilt and fear that because I have their DNA, I’m doomed to turn out like them. I love being a Nevrakis, but I’m also my own person and, as Liam keeps reminding me, I don’t have to be defined by them. I’m letting go of my past so I can choose my own future.”
“I think that’s great, Liv,” Alice said. “What about your other wish?”
“As for the wish for what I want…” Olivia hesitated for a moment, glancing at Alice. “I’m wishing for a happy beginning for Liam and me. For a long time, I never thought this would happen, but now that it is, I’m so excited to get married and start a family with him. I’ve spent my whole life loving him and I can’t wait for the next step.” She looked at Alice. “I know, I know, I’ve gone soft.”
Instead of replying, Alice, pulled Olivia into a hug. Olivia resisted at first, then returned the embrace.
“I want that for you, too,” Alice finally said as she released her. “And, I hate to break it to you, Jon Snow, but you’ve always been soft—you just tried to hide it by being a dick all the time.”
Olivia laughed and tried to surreptitiously dab at her eye to keep from smudging her makeup. “You know nothing, Jon Snow.”
“Sure I don’t,” Alice said with a grin.
Before long, Bastien found Alice in the crowd and they made their way towards the press, who were waiting by the illuminated lake.
“Your Grace! Your Grace, over here!” one reporter called.
“Duchess Alice,” Ana de Luca interrupted. “Tonight, we’ll hear your first wishes as the Duchess of Valtoria, a moment your people have no doubt been looking forward to.”
Bastien nudged her elbow and when Alice turned to look at him, he handed her a beautiful paper lantern that glowed brightly in their hands. Alice smiled at him as she accepted it and turned her attention back to the waiting cameras.
“People of Valtoria, it is my great honor to be here with you tonight,” Alice said. “These have been trying times, but tonight’s festival represents a light that those who wish to harm us can never extinguish. With this lantern, I leave behind fear. People like Anton Severus want us to be afraid. The best thing we can do—that I can do—is refuse. It’s time to stand tall.”
“Hear, hear!” Liam called encouragingly from the front of the crowd, leading off the applause.
“A fine sentiment,” Ana said, nodding. “And your wish?”
She glanced over at Bastien, who smiled at her over the glow of her lantern and for a second, the rest of the festival melted away and all she could see was him. I wish for a million moments with him, just like this one. “I wish for a Cordonia united. No matter where we began, and no matter which region we call home, we’re all Cordonians. It is my deepest desire to see us all stand together as one.”
“Well said, Your Grace,” Ana said as the crowd cheered.
Alice raised her arms and released her lantern to the breeze. She took Bastien’s hand as they watched her lantern float up to join the other wishes of Cordonia that hung in the night sky.
“Thank you, Duchess Alice,” another reporter said. “That was a moment to remember.”
“Can Trend get a photo of you with His Majesty?” Ana asked. “I’d like to tie a national angle to tonight’s event.”
“Of course,” Liam said as he walked over to oblige. “It would be my honor.”
Liam and Alice posed together, smiling and waving as the cameras flashed in front of them.
“How’d I do? Are you and Liv regretting giving me this duchy yet?” Alice asked through her smile.
“Are you kidding? You did so well we might give you a second one,” Liam said. “You know, I’ve always found the lantern festival to be one of my favorite local traditions. It’s fitting that you were the one to inherit it. It symbolizes hope, but also hard work, and you’re not afraid to fight for what you want. I’m honored to be your friend and to be here as your guest.”
Alice felt tears sting the corners of her eyes. “Oh, sure, just make me cry in front of the press,” she joked, trying to keep her emotions at bay. Liam laughed.
“Sorry, not sorry,” he said as the last camera flashed.
“Thanks, these photos look great!” Ana said.
As the reporters drifted away, the rest of their friends joined them, lanterns in hand.
“No one else has made their wishes yet?” Alice asked.
“Actually…I was really inspired by yours,” Hana said. “So I’ve decided to let go of fear. Fear of being myself and of living my life the way I want to. And I’m wishing for the courage to move forward and allow myself to be happy.” Hana released leaned over and gently bumped her hip against Rashida’s. “What are you wishing for?”
Rashida smiled at her. “I’m letting go of some of my workaholic tendencies so I can give myself space for a better work-life balance, and I’m wishing for more time with you. I’m yours, as long as you’ll have me.”
Alice felt the happy tears in her eyes again as she watched Hana lean over to give Rashida a gentle kiss. Stupid hormones making me cry at everything. “Maxwell, what about you?”
“Well, I know I’m going to wish for Bartie to inherit the Beaumont dance genes, but I’m still trying to figure out what to let go…” Maxwell said.
“I’ve got a few suggestions,” Drake said.
“As for my lantern, I feel as though anything I choose leaves a hundred other things unaddressed,” Liam said, frowning. “I don’t suppose I can wish for more wishes?”
“It’s a paper lantern, not a genie,” Olivia said as she wrapped her arm around his waist.
“Besides, according to fairytale law, that’s the only type of wish that isn’t allowed,” Hana added.
“As they say, even kings must bow to some rules,” Liam said with a resigned sigh.
“Drake, you’ve been quiet,” Bastien said. “What are you wishing for?”
“I’d rather keep my thoughts to myself,” Drake said.
“Come on, be a good sport,” Liam protested. “Everyone’s making wishes.”
“Ooh, let me guess!” Maxwell said. “I bet you’re wishing for….” Maxwell gasped. “Oh my god, I know it. You’re wishing for your own baby red pandas, right? I knew I should’ve gotten some for everyone. Okay, I just have to make a few calls, and—“
“No way, I bet it’s something much more rugged,” Hana said. “Like tools.”
“Tools?” Drake asked, raising an eyebrow at her.
“Or a camping gear,” Rashida suggested.
“Perhaps some form of meat-filled food,” Olivia said thoughtfully.
“Do you really want us to keep guessing?” Alice asked.
“Fine. I wish to be left in peace,” Drake said. “How’s that?”
“I think that’s the best we’re going to get out of you,” Frankie said. “Bastien, you’re up—what are you wishing for?”
Just then, the crowd around them began to release dozens more lanterns into the night sky.
“I think it’s time,” Bastien said.
Everyone lifted their lanterns into the sky, watching as they rose higher and higher to join their brethren above the lake. They stood there together, watching the glowing lights, and Bastien put an arm around Alice.
“Ready, Dorian?” she asked.
Alice stood in Hana and Rashida’s room, which Hana had temporarily turned into a bridal suite.
“Hana, you know I could’ve just gotten dressed in my own room, right?” Alice asked as Hana zipped her up and examined the dress again.
“Please, that’s not fun,” Hana said as she stepped back, satisfied with the dress. She gestured to the vanity table. “Sit, I’ll touch up your hair.”
Alice did as she was told and sat while Hana carefully worked her magic on Alice’s hair, taking her loose waves and braiding them up into a loose yet elegant design, pulling the hair to one side to show off the low back of Alice’s dress.
“Yeah?” Hana asked as she added a delicate, glittering clip to Alice’s hair.
“Thank you. For everything. I’m so grateful for your friendship and for everything you’ve done for me since you took over as my press secretary. You are an incredible friend and I don’t think I would’ve survived everything I’ve gone through since coming to Cordonia without you.”
Hana smiled at her over her shoulder in the mirror. “You’re welcome, but it’s really me who should be thanking you. You’ve helped encourage me to be myself and while I’m still figuring that out, I’m still happier and more at peace with myself than I think I’ve ever been.”
“That…might be the nicest thing anyone has ever said to me,” Alice said, blinking back more tears that threatened to fall. “But you’re the one who has done all of that work to find yourself; I was just a cheerleader.”
“Let’s just agree that we’re both awesome,” Hana said with a laugh as she put the last pin in place in Alice’s hair. “Okay, I think you’re done.”
Alice stood up and pulled Hana into a tight hug. “Thank you, Hana.”
Hana returned the embrace. “You’re welcome.”
Hana led Alice through the manor, careful to avoid any staff still attending to the lantern festival, until they arrived outside of the manor’s main library, where Bertrand, Drake, and Frankie were waiting for them.
“Oh my god, Ayers, you look…great,” Drake said lamely, eyes wide as he stared at her.
“You look even better than earlier,” Bertrand said as he hugged her, careful not to wrinkle either of their outfits.
“Thanks, guys…Frankie? Are you…crying?” Alice asked.
“Fuck you, you’re in a wedding dress, of course I’m crying!” Frankie exclaimed, wiping at her eyes while still being careful to not smudge her makeup.
“You can’t say that to a bride on her wedding day!” Bertrand said, shocked.
“Say what?” Frankie asked innocently.
“Yeah, what, Bertrand?” Alice asked, grinning. “What was the exact word you found offensive?”
“You’re both horrible,” Bertrand said as he adjusted his jacket while Hana peeked into the library.
“Everybody ready?” Hana asked.
“Oh god, yes,” Alice said happily.
Hana smiled and slipped into the library, careful to leave the door mostly shut behind her. A few moments later, Alice heard piano music begin from inside the library and Frankie held out her arm to Drake.
“Seriously? Aren’t you supposed to take my arm?” Drake asked.
“Oh, please,” Frankie said. “Come on, let’s go, Walker.”
Drake sighed and hooked his arm through Frankie’s and the two of them entered the library.
“You know, Alice,” Bertrand said. “I know we only have a moment before we go in there, but I want to tell you again how much it means to me that you asked to have me walk you down the aisle. You…I care for you very much and I’m glad you’re a Beaumont, officially or unofficially.”
“I love you, too, Bertrand,” Alice said with a smile as she took his arm.
Bertrand reached ahead to open the library door and Alice’s breath caught when she saw how the room had transformed. The room was illuminated by what looked like hundreds of candles in elegant glass holders, casting an ethereal glow across the books on the shelves. Lord Byron’s vomit piano had been moved into the room where it stood off to one side, Hana seated on the bench, and the rest of the furniture had either been removed or moved to line the walls of the room. Frankie and Drake stood with Liam and Bastien at the other end of the room, the large window forming an altar, while their friends stood nearby: Seth, Rashida, and Olivia, Maxwell, Savannah, and Leo. Bertrand put his hand on Alice’s as he straightened his already impeccable posture as they walked together towards Bastien, whose eyes hadn’t left Alice’s from the moment the door opened.
When they reached the window, Bertrand gave Alice’s hand one more squeeze before he stepped aside, taking his place next to Savannah.
“Fancy meeting you here,” Alice said as Bastien took her hands in his.
“Funny how that happened,” he said with a grin as Liam politely cleared his throat.
“First, I’d like to begin by welcoming everyone and thanking each and every one of you for being here tonight,” Liam said to the group. “I truly can’t think of a better venue than here for an occasion that I know is not only monumental for Alice and Bastien, but for all of us who are lucky to know and love them as individuals; but even more so as a perfect pairing.
“The most remarkable moment in life is when you meet the person who makes you feel complete. The person who makes the world a beautiful and magical place. The person with whom you share a bond so special that it transcends normal relationships and becomes something so pure and so wonderful, that you can’t imagine spending another day of your life without them. For Alice and Bastien, this happened on what seemed like an ordinary night in an ordinary bar in New York City. They have weathered storms together and come out stronger on the other side, and their love for one another has never wavered. I find their love inspiring, and I feel honored to be here today among all of you as a witness of their commitment to a lifetime of love for one another.
“The couples have prepared some words for each other, which I would like to invite them to read now. Alice?”
Alice took a deep breath and squeezed Bastien’s hands. “Bastien, as I sat and tried to write my vows to you, my mind kept going back to the night we met. I thought it was going to be a regular night at the bar, but—“ She paused for a moment, blinking back tears. “But it turned out to be the first night of the rest of my life. You make me smile when I’m sad, you make me feel brave when I’m scared, and you make me feel loved when I’m not able to love myself. I could never hope to repay the love you’ve shown me, but I am going to spend the rest of my life loving you with everything that I am. You are the best person I know and I don’t know what I did to deserve you, but I’d do it a thousand times over every day if it means I get to be with you. Victor Hugo said, ‘To love or have loved, that is enough. Ask nothing further. There is no other pearl to be found in the dark folds of life.’ You are my love and as long as I have you, I have more than enough—I have everything.”
Liam smiled. “Thank you, Alice. Bastien?”
Bastien took a deep, steadying breath as he looked into her eyes. “One of my favorite things about our relationship is the way you and I both turn to books. It’s a language we speak to one another, and I know I’ve often turned to literature to find ways of telling you how much I love you or that I’m thinking of you. So, of course, I turned to those same books when I went to write my vows. I want to tell you that you should be kissed and often, by someone who knows how. I want to tell you how ardently I admire and love you. I want to tell you that whatever our souls are made of, yours and mine are the same.” He paused, smiling at her. “But standing here in the library of our home, surrounded by those we love the most and the books that hold the most beautiful words, I find that above all, I just want to tell you that I love you. It’s a phrase I tell you every day, but its truth only grows stronger. The night we met, you told me that maybe I need more magic in my life, and you were right. You have brought magic and meaning to my life, and I promise to love you completely and truly in every moment of every day.”
“Thank you, Bastien,” Liam said before addressing the room. “Bastien and Alice have already exchanged their own rings, so I won’t make them wait any longer: Bastien, do you take Alice to be your wife, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and health, until death do you part?”
“Alice, do you take Bastien to be your husband, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and health, until death do you part?”
“I do,” she said, smiling at Bastien.
“By the power vested in me by the crown of Cordonia, it is my honor to pronounce you husband and wife,” Liam said, grinning broadly. “Bastien, you may kiss your bride.”
Bastien stepped forward and wrapped his arms around Alice’s waist as he kissed her, her hands cupping his face as the room burst into applause. He kissed her lips, her cheek, and then finally his lips brushed against her ear as he whispered to her.
“I love you, Gray.”
“I love you, Dorian,” she whispered back
“It is my privilege to present to you for the first time, the Duke and Duchess of Valtoria!” Liam announced, the applause growing louder before everyone surged forward to hug and congratulate them.
A little while later, as Alice was mid-conversation with Seth and Rashida as their friends enjoyed the food Hana had commandeered from the festival for their celebration, Olivia called for everyone’s attention.
“Before we turn over the music to Maxwell for some godforsaken reason, I have a surprise,” Olivia said.
“Is it a knife?” Alice asked as Bastien joined her by her side.
“If I tell you, it won’t be as fun when you open your present,” Olivia replied. “No, this is a different kind of surprise. A little while ago, Bastien asked us to prepare something for you. So, without further ado, please join us over here for your first dance as husband and wife.”
Shocked, Alice looked to Bastien who was holding out his hand to her as Hana began to play the first notes on the piano.
“May I have this dance?” he asked. Alice smiled and put her hand in his and allowed him to lead her to the open floor space near the piano.
“Always,” she said as Olivia began to sing.
“We could leave the Christmas lights up ’til January
This is our place, we make the rules
And there’s a dazzling haze, a mysterious way about you, dear
Have I known you twenty seconds or twenty years?”
“You are…completely full of surprises,” Alice said as he led her through the steps, his strong arm around her waist.
“I wanted everything to be perfect for you,” he said.
“Can I go where you go?
Can we always be this close forever and ever?
And ah, take me out, and take me home
You’re my, my, my, my lover
“We could let our friends crash in the living room
This is our place, we make the call
And I’m highly suspicious that everyone who sees you wants you
I’ve loved you three summers now, honey, but I want ’em all”
Bastien gently spun Alice before recapturing her around the waist, bringing her back close to him. “You’ve come a long way from when I first taught you the Cordonian Waltz.”
“Oh, come on, I wasn’t that bad!” Alice protested.
“Can I go where you go?
Can we always be this close forever and ever?
And ah, take me out, and take me home (forever and ever)
You’re my, my, my, my lover”
“I never said you were bad, just that you’d improved,” Bastien said as he kissed her temple. “What I should’ve said was that I feel like we’ve come a long way from when I first taught you the Cordonian Waltz. At the time, it broke my heart that I couldn’t be the one to dance with you in public and that we had to stay hidden in my room. But I was willing to take any moment I could get with you, because being without you was unbearable.”
“Ladies and gentlemen, will you please stand?
With every guitar string scar on my hand
I take this magnetic force of a man to be my lover
My heart’s been borrowed and yours has been blue
All’s well that ends well to end up with you
Swear to be overdramatic and true to my lover
And you’ll save all your dirtiest jokes for me
And at every table, I’ll save you a seat, lover”
“For what it’s worth,” Alice said, “I preferred dancing alone with you in your room to dancing in the middle of a ball. As long as I’m with you, that’s all I need.”
“Can I go where you go?
Can we always be this close forever and ever?
And ah, take me out, and take me home (forever and ever)
You’re my, my, my, my
Oh, you’re my, my, my, my
Darling, you’re my, my, my, my lover”
As the song drew to a close, Bastien gently dipped her backwards and kissed her softly as the others applauded Olivia and Hana’s performance. The speakers began to play as Maxwell queued up a playlist and the rest of their friends joined them on the makeshift dance floor in the library.
“Best wedding ever?” Alice asked Bastien. He grinned at her.
“It’s so good I might have to marry you all over again tomorrow.”
Later, after their small reception had ended, Alice and Bastien stood on the balcony outside of their bedroom as sleep settled over Valtoria. A few lanterns still hung on as they hovered over the lake, floating like errant fireflies in the darkness.
“Hey, I just remembered something,” Alice said as Bastien wrapped his arms around her from behind as they gazed out over the lake. “You never said what your wishes were at the festival.”
“What do I have to wish for when I’m already holding everything I want?” he asked, nuzzling against her hair. She smiled.
“Come on, really—what’d you wish for?”
Bastien was quiet for a long time before he finally spoke. “For my first wish, I decided to let go of feeling like I don’t deserve to be happy. I’ve lost so many people I care about, and for a long time, I told myself it’s because it wasn’t my lot in life to be happy. But you’ve made me see that that isn’t true; I just didn’t know what it was to really be happy until I met you.”
Alice turned her head and kissed him softly. “What about your other wish?”
He held her a little tighter as he put his hand on her stomach, his touch gentle. “My other wish is that our little girl is exactly like you.”
“How are you so sure it’s a girl?”
Bastien smiled at her. “Because the last time I felt this sure about anything was when I fell in love with you.”
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