It didn’t take Viv much longer to reach the old tree house. It stood on the very edge of the palace grounds, before the forests, as a testament to Victor’s childhood. And to her own. Victor was an only child, and Viv’s brother Terrance was always too cold and calculating to be a very good friend to him. Not to mention he was usually away in other kingdoms with one of his parents. Victor was four years old when she was born. Terrance was nine. Even when she was a baby, Victor liked to spend time with her. They were practically inseparable. They may have been cousins, but they were closer than most siblings. Which was why Victor had no qualms about stealing Viv’s clothing. He may have been king of Underland, but he was still known to act like a child from time to time.
Just because the tree house was the playground of royalty, that didn’t mean it was overly elaborate. Victor’s father, the late King Peter, had offered to hire the finest architects in the kingdom to build it for his son, but his wife, the former Queen Marigold, insisted she and Victor build it themselves. Peter had expected as much. The tree house had been the last thing they had done as a family, before Peter had been lost at sea. It was about as elegant as the standard tree house, made of the same materials. It looked just as worn and sturdy as anyone’s old tree house would look. The ladder creaked as Viv climbed up into the small space.
Sure enough, there was Victor with a dumb grin on his face and her dress in his arms. He broke out into loud laughter upon seeing Viv’s unimpressed expression. He shared his aqua eyes with his daughter, but she hadn’t inherited his golden blond locks. Victor’s eyes streamed tears as Viv crawled towards him and ripped the dress from his hands. He offered up no resistance. A solid punch to the gut silenced his chortles and snorts at last.
“You take my clothes and leave me running through the halls in my underwear again, and I will fucking smother you in your sleep!” exclaimed Viv, glaring at Victor icily. Victor, unfazed and grinning, waved off her benign threat. She always overreacted so explosively when she was angry. She would never actually hurt a fly. “I mean it! Don’t make me cut you, Turkey!”
“Hey, you know I was just teasing,” said Victor, shuffling out of the tree house behind Viv. “I wanted to mess with you one last time before you get exiled forever.”
“Shut up, I am not being exiled. Though I feel like I am,” said Viv. She cast a quick glance around the courtyard, searching for anyone who might see them. She concluded that, as it was nine in the morning on a particularly nippy October morning, nobody was outside save her, Victor, and the stable boys. They were too far away to see her and Victor anyways. She stepped into the dress, knowing that her mother wouldn’t like it if she went to go meet her in her underwear. Once she’d wriggled her arms into the sleeves, she wrapped the sash around her waist. “Turkey, I need you to tie this in a perfect bow, please. Thanks.”
“What makes you think I can tie a perfect bow?” asked Victor, crossing his arms. “And why would I tie your sash? You punched me.”
“You don’t care about that,” said Viv, recalling the dozens of times they’d hit each other for one reason or another. It had never made too much of a negative impact on their friendship. “And I know for a fact that every single morning, you dress Candace yourself and all of her bows are always on point. Even her hair bows. So, quit your yapping and get to tying. You owe me one anyways. Maisy would be dressing me right now if not for you stealing my clothes.”
“How did you know I dress Candace every morning?” asked Victor. He grabbed onto the ends of the thick golden sash, pulling them taut before tying them into a pristine bow. “Lemme guess; Elizabeth told you.”
“Nope. Aunt Marigold, but Elizabeth was a good guess,” said Viv. She turned to Victor and offered him a quick hug. “Sorry I punched you. You know those anger management lessons didn’t help. I guess I just want everything to go over as smoothly as possible today. It’s bad enough that I have to leave home for pretty much the rest of my life.”
“I know. I thought I’d get you one last time, for old time’s sake,” said Victor. He shook his head and put an arm around Viv’s shoulders as they began walking back to the palace. “I just can’t believe you’re really going to be getting married before the year is over. I can’t believe you’re going to be leaving in a few hours. After all these years, we always just assumed you’d stay here forever.”
“Believe me, if I could, I would,” said Viv with a sigh. “I have to marry a man I’ve never met, and meet his family and live in his country and have his children. I mean, I’ve never even met Reginald. What if we have nothing in common? What if we absolutely hate each other?”
“If being married to Reginald makes you miserable beyond your wildest dreams, all you have to do is write to me,” said Victor. “I’ll deal with all the nasty political business that’ll come with the divorce. I care about you more than I hate doing paperwork.”
Viv gave Victor a smile. She’d known that. She and Victor had had a long talk about things when the marriage proposal came to Underland. As King, final say on every political decision fell to him. He wasn’t going to outright say yes, but he wouldn’t simply say no either. He and Viv had sat alone in his study for hours, debating the pros and cons. Underland was having a serious jabberwocky problem. They’d moved away from the Frosterian lands early in the summer and were beginning to build up colonies around Underland. Underland didn’t have a lot of protection from the attacks of the beasts. With the help of Alterra’s forces, they’d be able to keep them at bay. Without that help… it was hard to say what would become of Underland’s outlying towns and villages. Viv knew she had to think of the needs of the many over her own. As much as it pained her, she told Victor to agree to the marriage proposal.
“Whatever happens,” said Victor as they entered the double doors of the palace, “I’ll always be looking out for you. We all will. Good luck with Aunt Luna. If anyone told her about your little panty parade, I know you’re going to need it.”
“Thanks, Victor,” said Viv. She waved as she headed back up the grand staircase. “I’ll see you soon.”
Grand Duchess Luna Heart was vastly different from her sister-in-law and nephew. Where Marigold was light and funny, not caring too much for tradition or ceremony, Luna was more uptight and proper. Not to an extreme degree, but with their conflicting views and Viv’s quick temper, the two often butted heads. Marigold would find Viv’s romp through the halls hilarious, Luna would feel scandalized. It was only fitting how different Luna and Marigold were. They were, after all, only sisters by marriage.
All around Viv, men women and children alike were whispering and giggling as she passed. The fact that she still didn’t have shoes on didn’t help. Viv was already tired of people’s scrutinizing looks and their endless gossip. For the past month, everyone in Underland knew Lady Vivika Aramani Josette Heart was to marry Crown Prince Reginald William Phoenix. It was all the courtiers could talk about. Even Viv’s brother, who was halfway across the world in Frosteria visiting his lady love Countess Jessamine Lovelace, wrote to her teasing her about the union a week or so beforehand. That clued her in to just how quickly word had spread, and to what distances.