I shut my eyes tightly, shaking my head. I took her hands from my neck.
"No," I whispered, opening my eyes finally.
"What?" she asked, looking hurt and confused.
I stepped away from her, blinking away tears. "No. You can't choose me, Princess," I said, trying to keep my voice under control.
"Of course I can," she said. "That's why you're here."
"You're better off with Hugo," I said, regretting ever coming here.
I took her hands in mine and painfully met her eyes. She looked on the verge of tears.
"I've loved all this time I've had with you," I said, my voice shaking. "And I've fallen in love with you. But you don't want me, Princess Angel. I'm just the abused son of a widowed drunk. I'm nothing. I'm not worthy of you."
"You're worthy if I say you are, David," she said but I shut my eyes.
"I-I have to go."
Before she could object, I ran to my room and packed all of my belongings.
"David!" she called but I ignored her, running into the night.
"Angel?" my father asked. "What's the matter?"
I turned from the closed doors and ran to him, tears spilling down my cheeks. He held me as I cried. My mother seemed to understand for she summoned Octavius.
"Did he leave?" I heard her ask.
"Yes, your highness," Octavius said sadly and I cried harder.
"Get her some tea," my father told someone and he led me to the tea room. He pressed a cup into my hand. "Tell us what happened, my dear."
"I told him I wanted him," I said, blowing my nose in my father's handkerchief. "He kept saying he wasn't worthy. He said I'd be happier with Hugo. Then he left!"
I cried more. I couldn't see what my mother and father were doing, but I knew they were communicating in that silent way they always did. My father sent me to my room to rest. I retrieved the portrait David had made just for me and set it on the mantle above my fireplace. I crawled into bed, the feeling of rejection and sadness bringing more tears.
I heard everything and sighed, walking into the throne room where I had been summoned.
"Do you know where he lives?" the king asked. I nodded. "Please go find him."
"I don't know what we can do to change his mind, Your Highness," I admitted. "He told me this afternoon he didn't anticipate being chosen."
The queen's face fell. "And what about you?"
"I would be honored," I bowed. "But I cannot make her love me. Despite what David thinks, I know he and the princess belong together."
"Do what you can," the king sighed. "There's still her birthday celebration in one week. Perhaps we can convince him."
"I'll leave tomorrow after saying goodbye," I promised and walked to my room, deep in thought.
I ran until I got to James' house and shop. By then it was close to midnight. I knocked until he opened and hurried inside, running my hand through my hair.
"David? What are you doing here so late?" he asked.
"She chose me," I said, sitting heavily on the floor.
"Well that's wonderful!" he said.
"No. No it's not. Can I stay here for a few days?" I asked before he could lecture me. "I don't want to go to my father yet." Suddenly, James sighed and knelt down in front of me. "What is it?"
He cleared his throat. "Your father.... When you didn't return like he thought you would, he went into a drunk rage. He-He went to Bryan's house, thinking you went there. You remember Bryan?"
I nodded. "The man who taught me to farm carrots."
"Yes. When Bryan told him you weren't there, your father.... He found a spade and...." He sighed but didn't need to finish. I groaned and covered my eyes, feeling ill. "He tried to cook dinner that night and a fire started. He was too drunk and- David!"
I bolted for the door, leaving the bag of my belongings behind. It couldn't be true. After all of this, it couldn't be true. My home couldn't be gone. My breath was burning my lungs as I flew down the empty streets, the moon my only source of light. When I got to where my house once was, I fell onto my knees in the dirt.
It was nothing but rubble.
I stayed with James and Belle for a few days while I made my plans. I needed something to distract myself from my grief. There hadn't been a burial for my father; they couldn't find his body. So, I started making rough blueprints for a new home to build on top of it. James let me work off the gold it would take for the lumber at his shop. By the fourth day, I had everything I needed. My time at the palace was like a dream and I had just woken up to a nightmare.
"You need to take a break," James said as I pushed the last cart of lumber to the site where I had cleared out what remained. "You'll get sick."
I shook my head. "I have to do this, James. I'll rest when I'm done."
I would start at the very early hours after a quick breakfast. I laid the foundation and, when the sun had risen on the second day. It was a carriage and I stood up, knowing what I would see. As I did, a royal messenger came up to me with a scroll.
I took it without speaking and rolled it open. Sure enough: it was an invitation to the princess' celebration. At the bottom, written in her handwriting, was one word: Please. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. Shaking my head, I tossed the scroll to the side and continued to build.
I didn't take time for anything else as the week passed. Building a home wasn't as easy as I thought it would be. My father had ostracized our friends and, as such, the only person willing to help was James. He would come when he was able to help lift the heavier logs. I had already shed my shirt. Summer had arrived and it was hot by mid-morning.
I was causing more women to turn their heads, though. When I would go to the market place for more nails or food, they would whisper and stare. I had gained quite a bit of muscle and I was tanner than before.
On one trip, I looked up at the palace as I waited in line. I missed her. It was the day of her birthday celebration. I kept waiting to hear news of her engagement to Hugo but word never reached me. I assumed they would announce it this evening.
As I trudged back home, I considered the last week and a half. I never thought I'd gain so much muscle but I supposed that was what happens when you do heavy work 17 hours a day. James kept telling me I'd kill myself but I had to do this. By building this home, I was starting over.
Noontime came and a horse rode up to me. I stretched, resting against my shovel as Hugo jumped from the back of the horse, dressed for a party.
"Hello, friend," he said grimly and I returned the greeting. "I heard about what happened. I'm very sorry."
"Thank you. But I'm rebuilding."
His eyes were sad. "She misses you," he said and I turned away. "Please come back."
"She's better off marrying you, Hugo," I interrupted.
"You didn't hear?" he said suddenly and I looked at him again. "She's decided not to marry. She'll be the first queen to rule without a husband."
I dropped my shovel. "What?" He nodded and I ran a hand through my hair. It was short now. "But I thought she would-"
"Isn't it obvious?" he whispered. "She's in love with you, David."
I sat on a stack of logs and he joined me. "I love her, too."
"Then go tonight," he insisted.
"I'm not fit to be a king," I argued. "I'm not worth anything!"
"You are to her," he said softly. "To her, you're worth everything in the world."
I thought over his words. If she truly thought I was worth it, could it be that I really was?
"I would look like a terrible man if I just showed up tonight," I muttered.
Hugo clapped his hand on my back. "It's your choice, my friend. I have to go. I hope to see you again soon."
"Likewise," I mumbled, watching him ride off.
For nearly an hour, I sat on the logs and thought. I sighed. Finally, I made up my mind.