Chapter 1 – Third Time's The Charm. Right?
King Daniel grunted as he punched the bag over and over again. Sweat was beading on his forehead, slowly rolling down towards his eyes and blinding him. He took a small break to wipe his brow before punching again. And again. And again.
Most days, he didn't need to punch the bag because he didn't feel the need to exteriorize his emotions. Most of the time, he bottled them up inside and stowed them away until they could all come out at the same time through the punching. Sometimes it was once a week, other times more than that, or less. But it was funny how it always seemed to be needed after a day spent with his counselors and advisors.
Daniel didn't completely dislike them, but he didn't trust them all. A third of them had been on his father's council, and he was planning on replacing them one after the other. It was a slow process if he didn't want to make it sound like he was changing everything too quickly. There were only a few left; but oh, how these were tough nuts… Hence the punching bag.
A small alarm sounded from his phone on the bench, indicating the end of his punching session. He still had some time to calm down and take a shower before dinner, but the sound always surprised him; the session was always too short. His breathing was hard and labored and he could already tell that his body would be aching in the morning. But he knew it was going to feel good.
The King dropped to the floor and lay down, the punching bag hanging above him from the ceiling. He watched it swing slowly to a stop as his breathing calmed down. The warm sweat on his bare skin was cooling as well and soon, goosebumps rippled over his flesh. When his heart had somewhat slowed down to a normal pace, he ripped the Velcro with his teeth, loosening his right glove. Daniel slipped it off and took the other off as well, flexing his fingers.
He had tried to punch the bag with just wraps around his knuckles in the beginning, but he much rather preferred the gloves: he could hit harder and get everything out more easily.
A second alarm went off: time for the shower. He headed to the luxurious bathroom adjoining the gym and stripped down to nothing before stepping into the hot water. He enjoyed the sting of the burn on his back, draining away all of his sweat as he rubbed his skin with a sponge and some musky-scented soap. He felt the light rash scars from the Plague on his arms and legs and the one-and-a-half-inch long stab scar on his lower abdomen. Usually, he tried not to touch it, but sometimes he did so by accident. He quickly pushed away the memories before they could consume him and finished washing.
When he was done, he dried his short hair with a towel and donned his navy-blue suit – without the tie – before going back upstairs to the small private dining room. His mother, Queen Penelope, was already there, sipping on some pre-dinner rosé.
"Good evening, Mother," he said, coming over and kissing her cheek softly.
"Mmmh, I just love that soap," she said softly, touching his cheek. "Good evening. How was your day?" She let Daniel help her into her seat before he went to sit across from her at their end of the long table. Once upon a time, they would have been three or four around the table. Not anymore.
"Long day," Daniel replied, unfolding his napkin and spreading it on his lap. "I don't know when I'll get rid of you-know-who… it feels like they'll be there forever and that they have their claws in my neck."
His mother smiled softly. "You're stronger than your father: they had his ear – and I do believe that's why he took such a harsh ruling path – but they don't get to you." Her soft brown eyes fell on him and he smiled back. How did she always find the right words?
"Thanks," he said, forking some food into his mouth. "How was your day?"
The queen finished chewing and swallowing before she answered. "You know, still always the same. I had a board meeting for one of the Charities I'm helping fund, and I spent some time painting, this morning."
"Oh?" Daniel said, looking up. "What are you working on?" He always loved his mother's paintings and he even had one of her big ones in his office where he could see it from his desk.
"The last time I went to the beach, I took a picture of the sunrise and I wanted to paint that." She sipped on some wine. "It's harder than I thought it would be, but I'll get there… eventually."
Daniel smiled. "I can't wait to see it."
They continued to eat in companionable silence until the footmen arrived to clear the dishes and bring in the main dish. They made some small talk, genuinely curious about each other's opinion on this or that– to be honest, she was the last person in his family that Daniel still had. So he cherished every moment he had with her.
When dessert arrived, Queen Penelope cleared her throat, and Daniel looked up. But his mother looked away, pushing the chocolate cake around her plate. "Is something wrong?" Daniel asked, worried.
"Hmm?" she looked up. "No, nothing's wrong," she said. "I just–" She took a deep breath and let it out slowly, but she didn't speak.
"What?" Daniel said, putting his fork down. "Mother, talk to me."
Penelope looked at her twenty-eight-year-old son and attempted a smile. "It's been five years, since the Plag– I mean since your last Selection…" she started, not meeting his eyes anymore.
"So?" Daniel didn't want to be reminded of that. "As you said, it was the last."
"Don't you think it would be good to do another one? Daniel–" she quickly said before he could add something. "You need a wife and you need an Heir. There is no one to take the crown after you."
"I know." He finished his cake and frowned. "Mother, if you want me to marry and have an heir, good luck finding anyone who would want that. No country would want to marry their daughter – either princess, noble, or commoner – to me. The Cursed King," he scoffed. "I know what the people say, you know?" He finished his wine. "And they're not wrong."
"Honey, you're not cursed."
"No? Then explain why the first Selection ended in a disaster: I was stabbed, and half the Selected and the guests died at the party. And then why, during the second one, the Plague broke out, killing Father, Johnny, and almost half of the Illéan population?" Daniel was getting angrier by the word even if he didn't want to snap at his mother. These were sensible subjects, and he didn't particularly like to talk about them.
"Danny," the queen said. "I know you're upset–"
"Upset?" he snorted. "Mother, I almost died twice! I had a total of seventy young women – seventy! – who came here to compete for my hand– and for what? Most of them died anyway and–"
"Not all of them," she said.
"No, not all of them," Daniel conceded, thinking of his friend Bree, of Marielle, and some others with who he still had some contact. "But I'm not going through this a third time, only to have some unseen catastrophe drop on me. And this time, I won't be so lucky." He pushed his chair away and stood. "No, I'm not doing that." He started to head out of the door but then backtracked. "But if you want to find me a suitable wife for an alliance, then, by all means, be my guest." He paused. "I'm just not going through a Selection again."
"Third time's the charm?" Penelope said, trying one last attempt to persuade him. But Daniel shook his head. How many times had she told him the story of his birth? His mother had lost two babies before him – one miscarriage and one stillbirth – and he was the third. The third time was always the charm for the queen.
But Daniel didn't want to risk it. Not again. His whole life was a series of risks and he didn't want to add another one to the list.
/ / /
The next morning, after a terrible night where he dreamt about daggers and rashes and explosions, and after a light breakfast – he was never really hungry after those recurring nightmares –, Daniel headed to his office where Marielle Rose, his personal assistant, was waiting for him with a cup of coffee. His two cats, Raven the Majestic and Toothless the Clumsy, were also eating their own little breakfast in their fancy bowls.
"Good morning, Your Majesty," she said, curtsying slightly. It was the only moment in the day where Marielle used his title and curtsied to him. She looked at him and made a face. "You didn't sleep well…" she remarked, and it wasn't a question.
"Nightmares," Daniel replied. He never hid anything from her and when he looked up at her, he smiled. "Did you change something to your hair?" he asked. He absolutely adored her red curly hair, but that morning, there was something different about them. "Did you cut it?"
"No," Marielle said with a smirk. "I just curled them nicely. But thanks for noticing."
Daniel smirked and sipped on his coffee – perfect, like every morning – as he sat down. "So, what do we have today?" he asked, already looking over his papers. He listened as Marielle went over the day's program, but he wasn't really listening. He was looking at his cats who were eating and then his eyes lingered on Marielle's red hair. He wondered what it would feel like to run his hands in her curls. Were they soft? Or were they more on the coarse side? Then his gaze went down to her eyes – damn she had long lashes – and a cute little turned-up nose in the middle of the galaxy of freckles. He continued his path down to her full lips and not for the first time wondered what it would be like to kiss her and–
"Daniel. Daniel!" Marielle said, snapping her fingers in front of his face. "Focus. You're not listening. What did I just say?"
Daniel stared at her blankly, caught in the act. "I have absolutely no idea," he admitted. He rubbed his face, trying to push those thoughts away. "Do you mind backtracking a little?"
Marielle sighed. "How far?"
"From the start?" Daniel said, making a face. "Look, I'm sorry, I just had a really bad night." There was no way he was going to tell her what he had really been thinking about.
So, Marielle started over. But again, Daniel's thoughts came back to her. He looked at her freckles and wondered if he would ever be able to count them. His gaze went to her neck and then a little bit lower… he knew where the Plague rashes were on her skin – mainly her back and shoulders – but he had never touched them; never kissed them–
The king jumped at her voice and he quickly looked away– at his cats, at his mother's painting, at the floor. Anywhere but at her, really. What was wrong with him?
His assistant sat on the couch. "Do you want to talk about it? Clearly, something is on your mind." Her voice had considerably softened, and Daniel looked up at her with a smile. He liked it when she wore a pink and white outfit. Damnit! Stop thinking about her! he chastised himself.
"No, I don't want to talk about it– actually," he said, changing his mind. "Yeah. Maybe we should."
Marielle didn't say anything and just waited. So Daniel grabbed Toothless, the cute and clumsy cat, and sat on the other side of the couch, petting his cat who immediately started to purr. The King needed to find the right words, but nothing seemed to be quite right. So he just blurted out the first thing that came to mind.
"My mother suggested a do a third Selection."
"What?" Marielle said. "But why? Clearly, the first two didn't end well…"
"She said I needed to marry and to produce an heir. But I don't see how this is connected to a Selection."
The redhead sent him one of her looks. "Okay, so one, she does have a point. You need to marry and have kids to secure your crown. And two, those two things are totally related."
Daniel rolled his eyes. "I know." He sighed and focused on petting the cat on his lap, slowly, and in sync with its breathing. Raven, the majestic cat with longer fur, jumped on the couch and also lay down on the king's lap, clearly jealous of not getting any petsies of his own. "I told her to find me a suitable wife among allied countries," Danny mumbled. "I really don't want to go through a selection again. You, better than anyone, would know this."
Mari nodded slowly. "I understand. But you're nearing thirty and you really need to have a child. What's to say that a rebellion won't start again, seeing that the throne is not secured?"
Daniel snorted. "If it's a child I need, then I don't need a wife to go with it."
"You do," Marielle countered. "You don't want a bastard."
Daniel sighed and rested his head against the wall, absentmindedly petting his two cats. They were warm balls of fur on his lap, comforting in a sense. "Then why don't you marry me, then?" He asked. "You were in the second selection..."
Marielle's cheeks burned a bright pink, almost erasing her freckles. "I'm not the only one who you still have contact with from your selections," she pointed out. She looked away, dusting her pristine pink pants that didn't need dusting at all.
"See?" Daniel snorted. "Even the people who know me best don't want to marry me. I'm cursed and nothing is going to change that." He stood from the couch, startling his cats who jumped out of the way, meowing angrily. The king went to stand by the window overlooking the river that flowed gently under the palace. September was just around the corner but summer still seemed to be there strong. The trees hadn't even started to turn yellow...
They were both silent for a few minutes and Daniel didn't even hear her approaching behind him. He felt her hand on his shoulder and tensed just a second before relaxing again. She stayed there, a little behind him, with her hand on him.
"It's not that I don't want to marry you," she said. "I mean- I would have wanted that very much, once upon a time..." She trailed off, letting her words hang in the air between then. "After the selection, I had nowhere else to go and you hired me. I bottled up all my feelings and emotions I had for you and worked as your PA. You know the story."
Daniel nodded and turned his head, looking at her. He took her hand in his – so soft! – and smiled. "Why didn't you ever say anything?" he asked softly.
Mari shrugged. "I never found an occasion to do so, and there was lots of work to do after the Plague. You were barely king, your father had just passed away, and the whole country needed time to heal." She paused. "The country didn't need a royal wedding just then. You didn't need one on top of all of that."
Daniel nodded, understanding her logic. They looked at each other for a few long, tense, silent seconds before Marielle snapped back to reality and walked away. Daniel's hand suddenly felt very cold and he wanted to hold her again. But Mari was organizing papers on his desk, aligning all the pens, and turning the objects just so.
"You should do it," she said, keeping her back to him. "A selection, I mean."
"I already tried that. Twice. It didn't work." He stuffed his fists in his pockets and leaned against the window.
"Maybe this time it will," Marielle said softly.
"But who would even apply?" he asked, sarcasm dripping from his voice. "No one wants me. I'm cursed, and I'm back luck." He paused, waiting for her to say something, but she didn't. She was keeping her back to him, purposefully not looking at him. "Would you apply?" he asked.
"No," Mari said softly after a few agonizing seconds, finally turning around to face him. "I don't want to lose what we have. I don't want to be Queen." She had her backside against the big mahogany desk and Daniel walked closer to her.
"Why not, Mari?" he said, his voice becoming husky. "You already know all the secrets the job entails." He came closer. "You know me better than anyone."
Marielle's breath became quicker but she didn't back down and kept her eyes on his. "If I become queen, you'll have another PA and I'll only ever see you in the evening," she replied. "I'd rather not be Queen and spend the whole day by your side..."
Daniel came closer still, and now there was barely half an inch between them. He tilted her chin with his fingers and leaned in, placing his lips on hers for the first time since the Plague. Even during the last selection, he hadn't had the time to kiss anyone, let alone be intimate with anyone. And not since then either.
Marielle leaned into him, wrapping her arms around his neck, and returning the kiss. He deepened it and plopped her on the desk as he continued kissing her.
A slight knock on the door made them both jump apart and both smoothed down their clothes and hair, their hearts beating fast. She was flushed, but she quickly calmed down before waiting for Daniel's nod for her to open the door. He sat down at his desk, straightened everything on the table, and nodded.
Mari opened the door and the queen mother was there.
"Am I interrupting?" she asked. But when Daniel shook his head, she walked in and sat on the couch. Toothless was still there and he rubbed his little head against her thigh, wanting to be cuddled. "Have you thought about what I told you last night?" the queen said kindly without any preamble.
"I have." He liked the look of surprise in his mother's eyes and the small 'o' her lips made: she hadn't been expecting him to reply with the affirmative.
He quickly looked at Marielle who nodded, encouraging him. "I'll do it," he finally said. "I'll do one last Selection–"
"Great!" the queen said.
"But I have conditions."
His mother nodded. "I'm listening."
Daniel hadn't thought about these 'conditions' yet so he needed to improvise. "First, we're not doing this over my birthday. Too public, too risky. Second, if something goes wrong, we terminate the whole thing." He paused, thinking about what else he wanted and his mother nodded. Mari, on the other side of the room, was taking notes, as usual. "Third, I want the ladies handpicked with a thorough background check. And if – and that's a big if because I doubt anyone would want to or would be free, now – some ex-selected do decide to apply again, they have the priority over any new ladies." He paused again, trying to think about something else he could ask for. "Oh, and one more thing. I want it to be as quiet as possible. No use drawing targets on our backs."
"...meaning?" the queen asked, leaning forward.
"Meaning we keep this as low as possible on the radar. We don't make a public announcement but we send invitations to all single women in the age-range. We have the list of all the survivors after the Plague." He paused. "No magazine interviews and no appearing on the Report. We do that behind closed walls."
The queen looked at Marielle for help, but Mari just shrugged. Penelope was silent for a few minutes, petting Toothless while she thought about his demands. After a moment, she sighed. "I agree to all your conditions, except the last one. Your people have the right to know you're doing a selection and looking for a wife."
Daniel leaned back in his chair and frowned and then ran his fingers over his light stubble – he had forgotten to shave that morning, again. "Fine, I'll make an announcement and we'll do a public calling of the names once they've been chosen. And then one single weekly update with Tom Blake, nothing else."
Queen Penelope nodded. "I think that's good. I'll pick out the girls myself– oh, Mari, you can help me with that if you want." She offered the redhead a kind smile. "You may know my son better than me..."
Marielle blushed. "I'm not sure I'm the right person for that, ma'am," she replied. "But I can have a look when you chose them all if you want."
"I'd like that," the queen said, nodding once. "Excellent! So when do we start?"
Daniel shrugged. "The sooner the better so I can get this over with," he replied. "And I want a word in the hand-picking as well."
Hellooooo! Hi, and welcome!
So, yeah! New story. Crazy, huh?
Anyway, all the info is on my profile (form, rules, Mains, a longer summary, and some minimal info on the Rebellion and the Plague for you to fill in the form – more details about the past will be revealed in the story, so I don't want to get into too much detail right now). Please PM/DM me (here or on Discord) if you want to reserve a spot with a province!
I'm excited to meet your girls and to get this story going! But for now, I'm focusing April Camp Nano on my other story (Sisters) where I'm going to (try to) focus on writing 100k! so you have some time for this form! I don't have a due date yet, the sooner the better, but it'll probably be sometime in May, or something... we'll see!
Thanks for reading all the way through the bottom, for your interest in this story, and for your support! see ya soon!