LAURA TAYLORFantasy and Romance Writer
Second Time Lucky
“It’s so exciting!” Anika said to Nomi, her business partner, as the pair of them approached the palace gate. “A noble wedding! I can’t wait to find out who’s getting married. Ooh, do you think it’s Prince Amagarda’s sister? That would be a gorgeous wedding! Think of the dress! And the train, and the hairstyles!”
“That’s something I really missed when we did King Ryu’s wedding,” Nomi confided in her. “Just two tuxes. No bride, no wedding dress, no fancy hair-do. They didn’t even have any bridesmaids we could get creative with. And no mother-of-the-groom on either side of the wedding! How were we supposed to work with that?”
“My word, though, those two did look handsome,” Anika said. “Prince Amagarda has the most spectacular ass in the whole of Galandeen!” She tittered a laugh, then hastily got herself under control as they came within earshot of the guard at the gate. They both donned warm, professional smiles, knowing how important proper protocol was while they were within the palace walls. That, after all, was why they kept being invited back to plan the weddings of nobles.
“Anika and Nomi, from Paradise Weddings,” Anika introduced them. “We have an invitation for three o’clock today.” They both already had their ID cards out, and presented them without being asked. After all, this was hardly their first visit to the palace.
The guard checked the cards, along with the guest register for the day, then nodded. “Lee will take you through to the guest lounge,” he said.
A young man stepped forward, one of the palace butlers, greeting them with a bow. “Please, follow me,” he invited.
They followed the familiar route up the steps and through the main entrance to the foyer, formidable oak doors standing open in invitation. Inside, security doors led through into a wide hall, and they strode along, past paintings of former kings, cherub-faced children and the occasional portrait of a horse – clearly, some of the monarchs of years gone by had held particularly fond feelings for their animal companions.
Finally, the butler opened a door on the left, standing back to allow the ladies to enter.
Anika paused for a split second before she entered the room, schooling her features into a calm, dignified expression, and bracing herself for all manner of odd requests and tense discussions to come. While the bride and groom in noble weddings were often delightful people, happy to take suggestions and accommodate unexpected events, their families were often far less reasonable, demanding colour patterns that clashed, dress designs that were physically impossible, and often paying little to no regard for the wishes of the couple who were actually getting married.
But even so, the creative freedom Anika and Nomi were afforded as a result of the impressive budgets of these weddings made the entire experience a thrill without comparison.
But despite her mental preparation, attempting to expect the unexpected, Anika found herself quite suddenly stopping in her tracks as she walked into the room and found herself face to face with none other than King Ryu.
“Your Majesty!” she said, working hard to recover from her surprise. “It’s an honour to see you again.” Finally remembering her manners, she bowed respectfully. Beside her, Nomi did the same. It had been more than five years since the last time they’d seen the king, when she and Nomi had completed the planning of the royal wedding. “I hadn’t realised that you were the one who had invited us here.” The invitation hadn’t actually mentioned any names. It had just requested their presence to attend a preliminary event-planning meeting. It hadn’t even specified that it was a wedding, though those accounted for more than eighty per cent of the events their business arranged.
“Please, come in,” the king said, standing up and gesturing to a sofa. “Sit down. Would you like some tea?”
Tea in the palace was always divine, a sweet, floral variety that Anika had failed to find anywhere else. “That would be delightful,” she agreed. A maid hastily served them both, then left the room, closing the door behind herself.
Prince Amagarda was seated beside the king, and Anika took discreet glances at him as she sipped her tea, waiting for the king to tell her why they’d been summoned here. The prince was looking stern-faced, as always. Throughout the entire planning process for his own wedding, Anika couldn’t recall a single time she’d seen the man smile.
But there was also a third man in the room, and that piqued Anika’s curiosity. It was an obvious assumption that it was this other man who was getting married, but she couldn’t quite work out why he’d need the king’s involvement. Or who he would be marrying. A subtle glance around the room failed to reveal any additional people waiting in the wings.
The man was tall, with brown hair and a paler colouring than most Galandanish people, and it would have been a fair assumption to think he was half Arctesian. Stylish, black-rimmed glasses sat perched on his nose, and he had a refined air about him – most definitely nobility.
“Thank you for coming,” the King said eventually. “To be honest, I’m not entirely sure where to begin.”
Anika smiled at him. After their previous dealings with the king, they knew him to be a reasonable and patient man, with a wry sense of humour. “I’m going to go out on a limb here, and guess that you’d like us to plan a wedding?” Anika suggested, a playful lilt in her voice.
“Indeed I would,” the king said, while the other two men shifted uncomfortably in their seats. “Yes. That is why you’re here.”
“And may I ask whose wedding this is going to be?”
“In a moment,” the king said. “The thing is, this is going to be a rather unique wedding, and it’s going to require a very refined hand. Which is why we’ve called on you. I have every reason to believe you’re up for the challenge. I was extremely impressed with your results for my wedding. Our wedding,” he amended, glancing at Prince Amagarda. Then, his eyes drifted across to the third man in the room, whom still had not been introduced. “That is to say, our first wedding.”
“Your first wedding, Your Majesty?” Anika asked meekly. “I’m not sure I understand.” She took a longer look at Prince Amagarda. Their marriage wasn’t in trouble, was it? But what else could it be? The only reason the king would be having a second wedding was if his first marriage was ending. But there was no hint at all on Prince Amagarda’s face of what the situation might actually be. Was he heartbroken and trying to hide it? Was he angry and bitter, and just trying to put on a civilised front for a few more weeks? Was he entirely indifferent to the whole thing? His implacable façade was well known among journalist and media commentators, and theories abounded that he’d never actually loved King Ryu, and had simply been forced into the marriage by royal protocol. But whatever the situation was, it was bold beyond belief that the king would be waving his new partner underneath the nose of his old one. That was, of course, if the third man was the king’s intended new husband.
Thankfully, the king spoke again, cutting off Anika’s frantic thoughts. “What I’m about to tell you is not yet public knowledge,” he told her and Nomi seriously. “I assume that you’re able to keep said information confidential until told otherwise?”
“Of course, Your Majesty,” Nomi agreed immediately. Over the years, they’d been required to keep all manner of secrets, from wedding dress designs, to ceremony locations, and in some cases, they’d even concealed the very existence of a wedding from unwelcome members of powerful families. As far as they were concerned, keeping their mouths shut was just another part of the job. But even so, Anika had the feeling that this particular secret was going to be larger than most.
“When Kentario and I announced our intention to be married,” the king began, “there was a certain amount of speculation. Some people didn’t believe we were truly soulmates. Old rumours surfaced again about the idea that I might not actually be an alpha.” Such rumours had circulated for years, Anika recalled, springing to life around the time the young prince had turned sixteen. He was too short to be an alpha, everyone kept saying, too slight of build, to meek and courteous, with none of the natural alpha aggression. Surely he was really an omega that the royal family had attempted to pass off as an alpha, in order to maintain their grip on power? It had taken not only a formal announcement from the High Priestess, but also a stern lecture from her to assure the public that not only was King Ryu an alpha, but that Prince Kentario was most definitely his soulmate. The priestess had gone so far as to call upon the Goddess Selene to strike her dead, right there in the temple, should she be lying on either count. The entire country had held their collective breathes, well aware that the Goddess had, at various times in the past, struck people dead for daring to insult her. Thankfully, the moment had passed, and the rumours had, for the most part, fallen silent.
“And there is also the lingering question,” the king went on, “about how one is to produce an heir to the throne, in a marriage between two alphas.”
“Indeed,” Anika hedged, not knowing what else to say. That part of the conundrum, at least, was still valid.
“So in light of all of that,” King Ryu said, “I’m not anticipating that my next public announcement is going to go even remotely smoothly. But let’s start at the beginning, shall we? Ladies, may I introduce Valentin Izarius.” He gestured to the third man in the room, who smiled and nodded politely. “Valentin is the nephew of one of our most highly esteemed diplomats. He owns his own business, over in Green Bay, and he is an accomplished artist. He is an alpha.” There was an uncomfortable pause. “He is also mine and Kentario’s soulmate.”
Anika was aware of the frown of bafflement on her face, and was also aware that it was not generally considered polite to look at the king that way. “My apologies, Your Majesty, but I’m afraid I don’t understand.”
It was Valentin who spoke up, in a soft, genteel voice that carried a lilting, upper-class accent. “It seems that His Majesty and His Highness do not merely have one soulmate each, but two. As I, also, have two soulmates. We realise how unusual this is, however there have been a few notable examples throughout history of similar situations.”
Anika reflected that Valentin must be extremely comfortable, both in his role in the palace, and in the company of the other two men, to presume to speak for the king. But the king himself offered no reprimand, nor displayed the slightest hint that Valentin had been out of line.
“So you’re asking us to plan a wedding for the three of you, “ Anika asked, falling back on professionalism and protocol, when she found herself fumbling for anything else to say.
“It a nutshell, yes,” the king agreed, “but there are a few additional complications as compared to last time around. What we’re looking for is a wedding which draws just enough attention to itself to honour Valentin’s new role in our family, but without creating a spectacle, given the fact that this is a highly unusual arrangement. I don’t want people saying that Valentin’s wedding was simplistic or ‘cheaper’ than my wedding to Kentario, but at the same time, too much pomp and ceremony will simply make the public think we’re overcompensating. Kentario and myself are accustomed to the media storm that comes with these sorts of events, but I don’t wish for Valentin to have to endure that sort of speculation, on what should be a profoundly happy day.”
“I absolutely agree,” Anika said, smiling at Nomi as her partner pulled out a notebook. While Anika was the ‘public front’ of their business, more comfortable with wooing customers and soothing frazzled nerves, Nomi was the organisational nerve-centre, possessing an almost neurotic attention to detail, and with the rare skill of being able to remember every single detail that required attention.
“Let’s start with the location,” Nomi said. “Are you going to hold the ceremony at the temple again?”
“Yes. The High Priestess has agreed to make a statement affirming the validity of our soul marks, and having it anywhere else would raise questions about whether this was actually the Goddess’s will or not.”
“And how soon would you like the wedding to be?”
“Summer,” the king told them. “Early summer, before it gets too hot. That gives you a good three months to plan everything. Is that long enough?”
Nomi smiled. “If pressed, Your Majesty, we could plan a passable celebration in three weeks. Three months will give us plenty of time.”
“We can’t have white tuxedoes,” the king said, as Nomi continued to jot down notes. “We already did white at our last wedding, and given that Kentario and I have been married for five years already, it doesn’t seem quite…”
“Not quite appropriate,” Anika agreed. “What about lavender?”
She waited, holding her breath, as all three men suddenly stared at her like she’d grown a second head.
“I think lavender would be rather perfect, actually,” Valentin said, looking at the king for affirmation.
“See, this is why we hire you,” the king said to Anika. “You’re brilliant. Lavender. Kentario? What do you think?”
“So long as it’s blue-lavender, and not pink-lavender, that’s fine.”
The decision was delivered in a cold, deadpan voice, and Anika cringed internally. They’d had much the same response with their various suggestions the first time around, and while the king had assured them both that Prince Amagarda was more than happy with the arrangements, it had been difficult to believe it wasn’t merely a white lie to appease them both.
But once again, Valentin suddenly spoke up, casting a wry look Kentario’s way. “Could you at least try to look happy about the fact that we’re getting married?” he asked bluntly. “I realise you’re not thrilled about all the public attention, but you do get to spend the entire day staring at me and Ryu in tuxedoes. Surely that’s got to be some sort of consolation, doesn’t it?”
Anika’s jaw actually dropped, shock flooding her at the way this bold upstart presumed to speak to a prince.
Kentario looked as shocked as she felt, and beside her, she heard Nomi let out a startled squeak.
But King Ryu had an entirely different response, and his reaction was almost as shocking as Valentin’s words had been. He first of all pressed his lips tightly together. Then he hastily looked at the floor. The measures of self-control weren’t enough, however, and a snort of laughter escaped.
“Valentin,” he chided gently. “We have company.”
Valentin arched an elegant eyebrow. “Well, if they’re going to be planning our entire wedding, they’d better get used to it. I’m not having him spend the next three months looking like he’s been sucking on a lemon.”
For the first time since they’d entered the room, Prince Amagarda’s stern expression broke, and Anika was treated to what she was sure was a rare glimpse into the man beneath all the royal protocol. “Just wait until I start teaching you how to fight,” Prince Amagarda said, with a sardonic smirk. “Then we’ll see just how happy you’re looking.”
Valentin opened his mouth to reply, but the king beat him to it. And his sharp reprimand made Anika wonder just what had been about to come out of the newcomer’s mouth.
“Valentin. We have company.”
“Shall we move on?” Valentin said smoothly, as if nothing had ever been amiss. “Perhaps we should talk about what colour the flowers will be?”