How to Woo the Prince: a Primer by his Aide
When Prince Frederic told him the news, Artus Cressofort was too proper to splutter. Instead he dropped the books in his arms onto his foot. "Your fiancee is Marguerite Beaudennes?" he asked, biting back a curse.
His prince blinked. "Do you know her? Is she pretty? Does she like horses?"
Lady Marguerite, daughter of Marquis Beaudennes, was indeed pretty. Everyone knew of her sparkling hazel eyes, smooth skin, and wavy hair that glowed amber in the sun. Artus wasn't so sure about the horses, because when they were children she had flaunted her new purebred horse, but she had also broken the prince's toy horse and blamed it on her servant.
"You don't remember her?"
"Oh, of course I do." Frederic picked at a lock of his dark hair. "But maybe you could remind me of the details?""She said your brain was all muscle."
"Did she? So she appreciates how hard I work!" Frederic proudly curled an arm.
Artus's prince was strong and kind, and Artus reminded himself that he had long vowed to be everything else for his liege. "Anyway, that was a long time ago. You weren't more than eight years old."
"I wonder if she's just as nice now? I should probably meet her ahead of the official engagement party. That's two months away, after all."
Yes, how nice could the woman called the Villainess of Reuchateau be? "You will meet her. The king has asked me to arrange meetings between you two so you can become acquainted with each other."
"Oh good, I wouldn't want anyone else to do it."
A brief smile flitted across Artus's face. "I have also been instructed to prepare Lady Marguerite to be a worthy princess."
"Shouldn't that be done by her own people?"
"The king just wants insurance.” The rumors surrounding her had never been stellar, but ever since she had opened her bookstore, adjectives such as uncouth and erratic started floating around. “With your permission, I’ll seek her out starting tomorrow.”
Best Honya was larger than other bookshops, but smaller than Artus had expected from the wealthy marquis's daughter. It fit snugly between the other shops along the main street, and was painted a lively pink. A wooden sign outside said WELCOME on one side, and WILL TRADE A BOOK FOR ANY ROMANCE NOVEL on the other.
Inside was different from any bookstore he'd been in before, with the front area filled with tables and chairs where people young and old sat just reading books. Two children in rumpled clothes sat on a cozy sofa reading a book with an ornate cover. There was no way they could afford such an expensive book. Had they just not been noticed yet?
Shelves of books lined the back, each equipped with a sliding ladder. On top of one ladder was a beautiful girl wearing glasses, her wavy hair tied in a messy ponytail, and her fine skirts scuffed with dirt from edges of tables and shelves. Artus knew it had to be her, but couldn't imagine any noble lady going out in public like that, let alone the famously high-maintenance Marguerite Beaudennes.
The young woman noticed him below, and beamed a large smile so cheery his brain stuttered for a second. "Hello, sir! Are you here to buy a book? Trade a book, maybe? Wait right there!" She clambered down in unseemly haste.
Artus cleared his throat. "...Lady Marguerite?"
She nearly fell off the ladder. "How did you know? I mean, what? Er, who do you mean? I'm Rita."
Was this bookstore meant to be a secret? "... Everyone knows you run it, my lady."
Marguerite, or "Rita", winced. "But I didn't tell anyone about it, and I'm wearing a disguise."
Artus bowed. "Wearing glasses and an unfashionable dress isn't enough to hide your famed beauty."
"You don't like my dress?"
"..." He coughed into his hand again. "The deed for this bookstore is also public, and your bodyguard is standing near the entrance."
"But Philippa's wearing glasses too," Rita muttered. Artus pretended not to hear. "So who are you? I haven't had any nobles come to the store the whole time I've been open, even though you say everyone knows about it."
Nobles probably saw the front of the store filled with commoners and turned around, Artus thought to himself. Out loud he said, "My name is Artus Cressofort. I am Prince Frederic's aide. We most recently met five years ago." It hadn't been more pleasant than that first time when she had broken Frederic's toy.
"Oh, really? Sorry for forgetting… and if I acted horribly back then," she added, glancing aside.
Artus blinked. "... No, not at all. In any case, I've come to congratulate you on your engagement. I also came to offer my services. Word is that you've been very busy the past year, and if there is anything I can help you with, it would be my pleasure to help my prince's fiancée."
And if he saw that she was still as heinous and insufferable as ever, he would find some way to get the engagement annulled.
But Rita surprised him by asking, "Can you get the engagement annulled? You handle lots of things for the prince, right?"
Even though this was good fortune for Artus, he couldn't help being annoyed. Did she think the prince wasn't good enough for her? "Both your families have already agreed to the engagement, so that's a very serious action. Why do you want that?"
"Because, er, I'm afraid the prince won't like me."
"You haven't met the prince since you were children."
"No, but they call me the Villainess of Reuchateau! Of course he won't like me."
Well, that was probably true. "I have met you, and I don't think of you as a villainess," he lied. "But if you wish to annul the marriage, your family is capable of that." Asking him to annul it was crafty of her—that way, it would be Prince Frederic that lost face and not herself.
"I've asked, but they said no—oof!" Marguerite was interrupted by something ramming into her at chest-height.
It was one of the children on the sofa, a boy no older than ten who now rubbed his snot into Marguerite's skirts. "R-Rita," he whimpered.
Artus was shocked when Marguerite gently held the boy's shoulders.
"Hugo, what's wrong?"
Hugo gulped. "Th-the book..."
They looked back to the sofa, where the other child stared at a ripped page in her hand.
Good grief, even if they were children, how could they be so careless? "My lady, I'll pay for it—"
"Again? If you keep doing that, I won't let you read the next books," Marguerite tutted.
"I didn't do it this time!"
"You're the older sibling, so you're responsible for your sister too," she said matter-of-factly. "Since you two broke it, try to fix it, okay? Then put it back on the shelf, and it'll be our little secret." She gave the boy a playful wink. "But seriously, stop ripping up books and learn to share with each other properly."
Hugo broke into a smile so quickly Artus suspected it was all crocodile tears, and the boy skipped back to his sister.
Artus turned to Marguerite. "That book was hand-illustrated and bound. It's worth an average month's wages."
Marguerite put her hands on her hips and sighed. "It took me forever to find, too."
"You're going to let the children keep coming here, without taking any further action?" Not that he wanted children punished, but he had stopped lending his books to even adults a long time ago. "They won't be able to pay you back."
The Villainess of Reuchateau straightened out her skirts. Her lips tilted upward in a faint, soft smile. "But isn't it great when kids love stories so much? It'd be a shame for anyone to have to stop reading, just because they can't afford it."
Artus stared at her for a moment. "...Yes, that's true." He adjusted his glasses. "Your sign out there says you're looking for romance novels. Any particular reason why?"
"Huh? Oh, um..." Rita blushed. "Well, you're the prince's aide, so I can tell you. I wanted to study up on romance, you see. Since I'm engaged to the prince now."
"You wanted to learn about...what couples do?"
Rita flailed. "No, I wanted to get the prince to like me! I don't have much experience with relationships, and there's the whole villainess thing and all, and so I want to be someone the prince will like, because what if the prince kills me because he hates me or because he doesn't like my hair color?!"
"What? My prince doesn't go around murdering people for such ridiculous reasons."
"But he does murder people?"
"No!" Artus huffed. It was unlike him to get this worked up, on the outside at least. “My lady, it can’t be that the only reason you want the engagement annulled is because you think Prince Frederic will kill you?”
“Hey, don’t look at me like I’m crazy. Royalty have people executed all the time. He might be nice now, but wait until I’m an inconvenience.”
Artus opened his mouth to object but stopped. Nice now, but wait until I'm an inconvenience. And Artus did know how that went, the shame of that lesson still the last thing he remembered every day. "Prince Frederic isn't like that," he said. "But it's true that—" —you wouldn't be presentable as a princess— "you could benefit from some study. How about I help you? I know the prince's likes, and I know what will be expected of you at official functions."
Rita lit up. "Really? You'd do that? To be honest, I thought you'd want to get rid of me instead."
He'd thought so, too. "There's time for that later. First let's try a less extreme fix... is something the matter?"
The woman was still chuckling when she answered. "You're funny, is all. Let's do it, then. Thank you so much, Artus. I'll do my best to capture the prince. I'll be in your care."
Artus self-consciously brushed his shoulder. "... Likewise."