"A battle for the throne and the struggle for survival are the same. It's either you win or you die."
She walked through the corridor of the castle that led to the main hall.
Her gaze wandered around to look at the palace she had not seen in a year. There was still an old painting hanging on the wall, the jade flower pots around each corner and the soldiers standing in front of the large door leading to the main hall.
Though it was as though nothing had changed, she still noticed the small differences that were there. The painting on the wall was the same but the frame was different. The flowers in the vase had obviously been changed. The soldiers that once stood there to protect her and her family were now standing there to protect someone else.
She stood there waiting for her cue to enter. Never in her life had she imagined that this day would come.
"You may enter."
As soon as the permission was granted, she walked through the opened doors and entered the hall which was full of people. The murmurings increased in volume as everyone stared at her with doubtful eyes. She knew that many rumors had been spread and there were many more to come.
The many pairs of eyes following her was not something new, as she was once the princess of this Kingdom.
"Princess Eleanor greets the King and Queen." She bowed her head as she lifted the hem of her dress and curtsied perfectly. Her eyes that never looked down were now staring at the floor.
"You may rise," the King's voice echoed in the hall. There was an uncomfortable silence eating everyone up. The tension was unbearable. They could not understand the King's behavior or his intentions towards his niece.
"We are sorry for your loss." The Queen's voice was laced with sympathy. "I hope you have been well over the year, at the late Queen's home country."
"Yes, Your Majesty. I have been well." Eleanor looked straight at her aunt as she replied graciously with a smile hanging on her face, but her eyes had a different story to tell.
"You should rest, we will talk soon." The King looked at Eleanor with an indifferent expression on his face. It was clear that he did not want her to stay here any longer than was necessary.
Was it because she was the sole survivor of a brutal treason or was it because despite being a lady, she managed to retain the title of the Princess with the help of her maternal family?
'I can never become the queen anyway.' Eleanor knew that in her Kingdom, the throne can only be passed down to the male heir. 'Does he rebel in secret because he has a son?'
Princess Eleanor looked to the side where the now young prince sat. Her little cousin was only ten years old. But he soon will be the most influential person, second only to the King.
"I will take my leave then." Eleanor curtsied again before leaving the hall with measured and elegant steps, keeping her head held high the entire time. Even though she was a lady with only a title, her title was nonetheless valuable. Not everyone could be called a Princess, at least, not if the King had an objection to it.
As she walked towards her old room, many whispers made their way into her ears.
"Is the princess really leaving?"
"Poor thing! She had just arrived, but now she's forced to leave."
"Such youth will be wasted."
Eleanor did not give any indication that she heard the increasing chatter. Once she entered her old room, she felt the relief washing over her.
Eleanor's eyes swept across the room that was once decorated with glitter and sparkles, but now was just as plain as any boring old room. The flowers in the vase had long been thrown away and now, only an empty flower pot sat on the table.
'It's much better than I thought.'
"Nia," Princess Eleanor called out as she looked to her bed which was clean.
A petite lady stepped forward and bowed her head, "Princess."
"What are the rumors that are going around about me?" Princess Eleanor asked in a tone as though she was asking about the weather, while walking towards her bed. After she sat down, her eyes turned sharp. It was completely opposite to the image that she had shown just minutes ago.
"That.." Nia hesitated but spoke in a small voice.
"The Roulux Empire is searching for a candidate for the Crown Princess."
Princess Eleanor caught the two main points. 'Roulux Empire and Crown Princess.'
"It is said that all the royal blood has been called down for the selection process. And it is speculated that…" Nia's voice trembled at the end.
"I will be the one going there as a sacrificial lamb." Princess Eleanor completed the sentence of her lady-in-waiting.
"Princess…" Nia wanted to comfort her Princess but she did not know how she would be able to do that.
"Nia, leave me. I need to be alone for some time." Princess Eleanor said in a small voice. It felt as if she had given up on all hope.
Even though Nia wanted to stay, she also knew that it was not possible now. The princess might be heartbroken. Even if she wanted to be her shoulder for support she could not.
Nia bowed and left the room, closing the door behind her. Her eyes looked at the side. There was a soldier standing there on guard, but Nia knew somewhere in her heart that he was not here to protect Princess Eleanor but to keep an eye on her.
As the room turned quiet, Princess Eleanor got up from her bed and walked towards the window.
Memories flooded her mind. How happy she was, living here initially. The garden that was visible from her window was a place where her whole family would have tea every evening. The laughter and happiness on their faces popped up one after another in her mind. It looked so realistic that Princess Eleanor extended her hand to touch it, but soon the memory vanished into thin air. It was then that Princess Eleanor realized that nothing had changed through her journey back home. The past is still in the past.
"Princess, Young Master Felix wants to meet you." A soldier announced from outside the door.
"Take him to the sitting room and send Nia over as well." Princess Eleanor gave the order as she took some deep breaths. She knew it was time to find out some things and clear some misunderstandings.
Soon, Nia entered the room and rearranged the clothes and hair of Princess Eleanor.
"Nia, don't let anyone enter." Princess Eleanor instructed as she entered the sitting room.
The power struggle was over, and the reign had shifted in power. Now there were only a few people who truly cared for Princess Eleanor and she knew it too.
Princess Eleanor knew that she had regained her Princess status only in name. She still had no power in the court and no right to succession. She was only a good bargaining chip.
"Young Master Felix." Princess Eleanor curtsied before she stood up and looked the man straight in the eyes.
"Let's drop the formalities." Duke Felix said in a small tone. He was about to take a step towards Princess Eleanor when her words stopped his movement.
"Yes, what do I owe the pleasure of this sudden visit?" Princess Eleanor smiled as she indicated to the Duke to sit with a graceful wave of her hand.
"Why didn't you inform me that you would be coming?" Duke Felix compained. His black pupils shook as he ran his hand through his hair in disappointment.
"Didn't Nia inform you?" Princess Eleanor smiled as she looked at her childhood friend.
"She did. But I was expecting it from you." Duke Felix retorted. He looked straight at the Princess as if he had the full right to expect so.
"Expectations are meant to be broken between us." Princess Eleanor leaned forward a little as she rested her head over her clasped hands. "Aren't they?"
Princess Eleanor could see the guilt oozing out of Duke Felix Landon's eyes. But he soon controlled himself as he changed the topic.
"I hear that you will be going to the Roulux Empire?" Duke Felix asked and blinked his eyes. His fingers stiffened.
"The Kingdom is still the same.The person concerned doesn't know anything and yet the whole Kingdom is well aware of it as a fact already." Princess Eleanor laughed mockingly as her eyes turned sharp.
"You don't need to worry about it. I will find you a way out." Duke Felix's voice was filled with determination. It was as if he was telling the Princess to trust him wholeheartedly.
"Please don't, I cannot afford it." Prince Eleanor shook her head as she leaned back. Her head resting on the high backed sofa as she looked up at the intricate carvings on the ceiling.
"Eleanor.." Duke Felix tried to say something, which made the Princess look over at him. Her eyes were just staring blankly at him, not saying a word.
Duke Felix swallowed hard as he tried to explain. "You know I was powerless. I wanted to help you, but I was just the heir back then."
Princess Eleanor understood it very well. It was only just recently that Felix had taken up the title of the Duke.
Duke Landon, Felix's father, was a greedy man. Unlike his son, he was constantly power hungry. Maybe that was why House Landon had supported her uncle to take up the throne.
"I heard Princess Macy will be your bride," Princess Eleanor said with a smile on her face. It was not a friendly one.
"No." Duke Felix said with determination. His gaze told her that he was not lying.
"Wasn't she the reason your father supported the King?" Princess Eleanor asked. Her voice now was not filled with any emotions. She already knew the answer.
Duke Felix was avoiding her gaze which bothered Princess Eleanor. She sighed as she asked, "You are my childhood friend, but I still want to know your intentions regarding Nia."
"I am going to marry her." Duke Felix bit out as he looked at Princess Eleanor. But his gaze moved towards the closed door from time to time. Maybe he knew that Nia was standing behind it.
"Against your family's will?" Princess Eleanor raised her eyebrows as she waited for an answer but it never came.
"Nia will be accompanying me for the time being." Princess Eleanor informed before standing up. "If you break her heart even once, I will personally marry her to someone else."
"Even if she doesn't love him?" Duke Felix crossed his arms as he asked, eyes flashing.
"What has love given her? Apart from uncertainty and pain?" Princess Eleanor barked out in laughter as she took a step towards her childhood friend.
"Then what about you?" Duke Felix asked Princess Eleanor. "Don't you want to marry for love?"
"I did once. But now I don't." Princess Eleanor said in a dull tone.
"Why?" Duke Felix raised his eyebrows as he continued, "Your parents wanted you to marry someone who could make your heart flutter."
"Like how you feel for Nia?" Princess Eleanor's gaze gleamed as she asked Duke Felix.
Princess Eleanor knew that she might not get any answer from Duke Felix as she said in a small tone. "I feel like I am alive for a reason. To be exchanged in a trade. Although he should have sent his daughter there, the King decided to send me instead. Maybe that is the reason I was allowed to keep the title "Princess". I'm a decoration that can be used when required."
"Eleanor.." Duke Felix's tone was rushed as if he was warning the Princess to be careful as she spoke.
"You know it's true. Princess Macy loves you. She should be happy according to her parents. And her happiness lies with you. They will not send their precious daughter there."
"You are a princess as well, are you not?" Duke Felix argued as he smiled at Princess Eleanor.
"I am. And I would have the power to refuse as well, only if my parents were still alive. Now… I am a toy who should smile and move according to their will. What do you think will happen to me if I refuse to go to the Roulux Empire?"
"I will protect you." Duke Felix wanted to say that. But Eleanor knew what he would say and his words were cut off even before they left his mouth.
"Then who will protect Nia?" Princess Eleanor took a step back.
"Over the years, I have suffered because they thought that I was your lover." Princess Eleanor bit her lips as she took a few more steps away from Duke Felix. "I am tired now, Felix."
"Eleanor… do you… blame us?" Duke Felix asked hesitatingly as he took a step towards his childhood friend. But Princess Eleanor stopped him with a raised hand. Her eyes were sharp as if she wanted to keep her distance from him.
Princess Eleanor shook her head. "No, this much is understandable. After all, I was the one who gave Nia the permission to write to you using my name."